Sunday, February 19, 2012

Against the Grain

Agriculture is one of humankind’s most troublesome experiments, and it is now hopelessly in debt.  It has borrowed soil, water, and energy that it can never repay, and never intended to repay — burning up tomorrow to feed today.  We know it, we keep doing it, and we have dark hallucinations about feeding billions more.  Agriculture has become civilization’s tar baby. 
Richard Manning is among my favorite writers.  He slings snappy lines like: “There is no such thing as sustainable agriculture.  It does not exist.”  Or, “The domestication of wheat was humankind’s greatest mistake.”  And he’s the opposite of a raving nutjob.  In his book, Against the Grain, he hoses off the thick crust of mythical balderdash and twaddle, and presents us with a clear-eyed history of agriculture, warts and all (especially the warts).  Everyone everywhere should read it, and more than once.
Roughly 10,000 years ago, agriculture came into existence in several different locations, independently.  These were lands having an abundant supply of wild foods.  The residents had no need to roam for their chow, so they settled down and built permanent homes and villages.  Over time, with the growing number of mouths, the food supply became strained, and this inspired a habit of seed planting.  As usual, nobody foresaw the unintended consequences of a brilliant new trick, and an innocent mistake ended up going viral and ravaging the entire planet.  Whoops!
Grains are potent foods, because they are rich in calories, and they can be stored for extended periods of time.  Herds of domesticated animals and granaries packed with hoarded seeds came to be perceived as private property, which led to the concept of wealth, and its dark shadow, poverty.  Wealth had a habit of snowballing, leading to elites having access to far more resources than the hordes of lowly grunts.
Countless legions of peasants and slaves spent their lives building colossal pyramids, temples, castles, cathedrals, and other monuments to the rich and powerful.  “What we are today — civilized, city-bound, overpopulated, literate, organized, wealthy, poor, diseased, conquered, and conquerors — is all rooted in the domestication of plants and animals.  The advent of farming re-formed humanity.”
Like mold on an orange, agriculture had a tendency to spread all over.  It tended not to “diffuse” from culture to culture, like cell phone technology.  More often it spread by “displacement” — swiping the lands of the indigenous people.  Evidence suggests that Indo-European farming tribes spread across Europe in a 300-year blitzkrieg, eliminating the salmon-eating wild folks.
Paleontologists study old artifacts.  Examining hunter-gatherer skeletons is brutally boring, because these people tended to be remarkably healthy.  The bones of farming people are far more interesting.  Grain eaters commonly suffered from tooth decay, bone deformities, malnutrition, osteomyelitis, periostitis, intestinal parasites, malaria, yaws, syphilis, leprosy, tuberculosis, anemia, rickets in children, osteomalacia in adults, retarded childhood growth, and short stature among adults. 
Hunter-gatherers consumed a wide variety of foods, consequently they were well nourished.  In farming villages, poverty was common, and the common diet majored in grain, the cheapest source of calories.  The poor in England often lived on bread and water, period.  They almost never tasted meat, and milk and cheese were rare luxuries.  The Irish poor lived on oat porridge.  Later, the poor of England and Ireland switched to potatoes, an even cheaper food.
In twentieth century America, government farm policies drove most small subsistence farms into extinction.  Big farmers, with big farms and big machines, got big subsidy checks for growing commodity crops, like corn.  We now produce vast quantities of extremely cheap grain.  Some of the surplus is exported to other nations, some is made into livestock feed, some is converted into processed foods.  The inspiration for writing his book came suddenly, when Manning returned from a trip abroad, and was astonished to observe vast herds of obese Americans.  Oh my God!  Why? 
Through the wonders of food science technology, we are now able to extract the complex carbs in corn, and convert them into simple carbs — sugar.  Sugar is the calorie from hell, because it is rapidly metabolized by the body, like spraying gasoline on a fire.  Mother Nature includes generous amounts of fiber in fruits and berries, and this slows the rate at which sugar is released to the body.  But there is zero fiber in a cheap 40 ounce soda fountain soft drink, and an immense dose of corn sugar.  It seems like most processed foods now contain added sugar.
Michael Pollan’s fabulous books encourage readers to have serious doubts about industrial agriculture and processed foods.  Manning probes deeper.  He leaves us perceiving the entire history of agriculture in a new and vividly unflattering manner.  It’s an extremely important issue, and one that’s long overdue for thorough critical analysis.
At this point in the game, we can’t painlessly abandon agriculture, and return to sustainability, so we’ve placed most of our bets on impossible techno miracles (God forbid!).  This century is going to provide many powerful lessons on the foolishness of living like stylish Madoffs on stolen resources.  As the end of cheap energy deflates the global economy, the shrinking herd will eventually reach a point where we actually can abandon agriculture painlessly.  It would be very satisfying to finally break out of our ancient habit of repeating the same old mistakes over and over.  Will we kick the habit and joyfully celebrate the extinction of tilling?  Hey, this is what big brains are for — learning.
Not surprisingly, at the end of this book, Manning does not provide a cheap, quick, simple solution.  He does not foresee a smooth, managed transition to a sustainable future — it’s going to be a mess.  He recommends shifting toward foods from perennial plants, like fruits, nuts, and berries — and replacing grain-fed meat with grass-fed.  And, of course, nothing close to seven billion people can fit into a happy sustainable future.  The healing process will be a vast undertaking: “Not back to the garden, back to the wild.”
Manning, Richard, Against the Grain — How Agriculture has Hijacked Civilization, North Point Press, New York, 2004.

Richard Manning on agriculture.  This is a 60 minute video of a Manning lecture at the University of Montana in 2008. 

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