I stumbled upon another Lierre Keith video on YouTube today. And again I find that everything this woman has to say does make perfect sense to me. When I ride my bike to work at this time of the year, I pass many freshly ploughed fields. Those fields are dead. They are a mix of clay and sand, pure substrate, without a single bit of organic matter in it. No leaves, no visible roots, no insects and sure as hell no earthworms. Not a single bird bothers to land on it and pick for scraps … for the simple reason that there aren’t any. Everything that will make the wheat or corn or even grass grow there next season has to be brought in in the form of fertilizer.
I remember when I saw a documentary series on arte TV a few years back that I was disgusted to learn that most tomatoes we buy here are grown in Spanish greenhouses on a weird looking substrate, irrigated by an automated dripping system giving them just the right amount of moisture and in some cases even with artificial ultraviolet lights. Okay, those tomatoes never touched the earth, never drank from the rain, never saw real, unfiltered sunlight. How can we expect them to taste anything like tomatoes (which of course they don’t … we have real tomatoes in our garden at the moment, believe me, they taste very different).
So for quite I while I have known that a hell of a lot was wrong with our industrialized food production system, but the notion that the complete concept of agriculture might be wrong from the get go is rather new to me. I kept thinking that, if we only did it right, it should be okay. Now Lierre comes along and says, the whole concept of agriculture is rotten from the core and can never be sustainable. Of course, she is neither the only nor the first person to say this. I remember a conversation I had with an archaeologist specialized in pre-history (meaning digging up stuff form people who did not have developed writing yet … historians per definition only deal with written history, everything else is „pre-history“), who told me that one of the greatest puzzles to pre-historians is, why humans did start to do agriculture in the first place. From the archaeological and anthropological evidence, it did not do them much good. Early farmers where shorter, weaker, and had a much higher risk of dying from disease than their foraging forefathers and -mothers. It is estimated that the average lifespan dropped by almost ten years with the introcution of agriculture, no matter where on earth and at what time it happened. Agriculture also meant a whole lot more physical labor, the development of slavery, the beginning of hierarchical societies etc. All in all not a very smart choice to make, it would seem. So why did humans abandon the hunter gatherer lifestyle in favor of growing food in one place?
Anyway, it happened. Today there are very few people left on this planet who don’t rely on agriculture as their main food source: some Innuit, a few native tribes in the tropical rainforrests of South America and South East Asia, some small Siberian tribes … anyone else? Maybe you could count a few nomadic people as well, like the Saamen in Northern Europe or Mongolians who still live traditionally. But that’s about it. The rest of the world gets most of its calorie input from starch (mostly wheat, corn, rice and in Europe and North America also potatoes) or from grain fed animals. All other alternatives have been marginalized and destroyed.
Currently there are 7 billion people on a planet that has already lost unbelievable amounts of it’s wild habitats, be it forrests, prairies, wetlands or whatnot. Even the oceans have been fished almost empty. So the thought that we go back to hunting and gathering seems a bit far fetched, even if we gave up the cities and tried to spread the population around more evenly. Even an intact biosphere could not carry that many people (meaning in a way that allows all other species a place as well and can be sustained „indefinitely“ … until we are hit by an asteroid or till a supervolcanic eruption or somesuch … nothing goes on forever). What most people don’t seem to get, though, is that just continueing on the pass we are on is even more far fetched. I am pretty sure that business as usual is the fastest way of drastically shrinking the world’s human population short of a nuclear war. We are running out of oil (it takes 10 calories out of fossile fuels to make 1 food calorie in our current system), we are running out of top soil and a changing climate doesn’t make growing things any easier (really, it does not, even with global warming you are not going to get wheat fields in Siberia or Northern Canada … it does not work that way).
So, what do we do? I don’t know. We need to shrink population (preferably not by killing or starving people, but preferably by having less children) and find a way to feed ourselves which is more in tune with what nature likes to do. That will differ drastically from climate zone to climate zone, from coast to mountain and even from village to village. And of course from season to season. Diversity instead of monoculture. And we absolutely don’t want any form of „biofuel“ … that is taking all the disadvantages and destruction of the current food system and not even getting something to eat out of it. What a waste.
I don’t think we will (or can) shun agriculture altogether, at least not for a long time. There is a reason that the word „culture“ is in there. We have done it for roundabout 10000 years. Our bodies might not have adapted to it yet and crave for a different diet, but our minds surely have. Our religion, our legends, our lore is about growing things, about shaping the world around us. It is something we cannot just shake off. We will have to outgrow it, slowly and steadily. It’s a paradigm shift that won’t come overnight. But it is also a race against time, because we are out of continents to exploit in the meanwhile. So we have no time to lose. We need people willing to experiment with new ways of providing food, and we need new stories about old things.