The Problem With Grain Agriculture

While I was still living in Denver, I started to act on my dream of becoming a farmer. My aunt lived nearby and had a large corner lot. I convinced her to let me put in a garden along with raising a few backyard chickens. There was a simple joy in planting a seed, adding water, and seeing it grow. Of course, there were all types of problems with the garden. I learned first-hand how many different insects love to eat brassicas, that a rabbit or squirrel can undo months of work in an evening. And that there is nothing you can do when a big hail flattens and strips a garden in 5 minutes.

I started to feel like I was battling nature to grow food. I set traps to kill mice, I was killing cutworms as quickly as I could, plus I tilled and killed parts of the lawn to make space for the plants I wanted to cultivate. There was a certain Puritan fatalism creeping into my mindset as I worked a tiny plot of soil and was rewarded only with pain. It was this pain that I was feeling about my garden that I could not understand. Growing my own food was supposed to give me feelings of accomplishment and inner peace, not a fatalistic pain.

My frustration with trying to grow even a few vegetables is nothing new. The history of agriculture is one based on battling nature to eke out a meager existence from the uncooperative soil. Anthropologists have suggested that humans turned to agriculture because as a species, we had hunted most of the earth’s megafauna, our preferred food source, to extinction. The cultivation of grains and tubers was a last-ditch effort by humans to avoid extinction. Looking back at my first attempts to garden as a guide, I have a problem with this theory as it fails to explain why only a small fraction of humans turned to farming, while the majority adapted to the lack of mega-fauna and remained hunter-gathers.

Agriculture is hard and fraught with a constant risk of famine if a crop fails. The first known city, Çatalhöyük, in modern Turkey, had periods of settlement followed by times of total abandonment. It is unlikely that every person in Çatalhöyük died, and then others settled the city later, which means that the residents had the ability to leave (or were captured) and survived outside the city. I speculate that those trying to grow grain got fed up with the constant frustration of grain agriculture. The life of the hunter-gather is a vacation by the standards of a grain farmer. Only around 20 hours per week are dedicated to food gathering by known hunter-gather tribes. Compare that to the constant work of a grain farmer through most of history; 70 to 100 hours during the year was dedicated to rice farming before mechanization. Even today, farmers either work constantly on the farm or must take other jobs to support the farm because of the low return on the crops grown.

There is another twist to the comparison of farmers to hunter-gathers that I never see mentioned in the anthropological literature; hunting and gathering is fun. We humans seem to be well suited for tribal life. The rush of excitement during a hunt or the joy of coming across a patch of edible mushrooms feels natural, even primal, to humans. Michael Pollen records tapping into these deep hunting and gathering instincts in his Book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollen, a desk-bound modern man easily slips into a state of flow during his hunting and gathering trips in the mountains and hills of California. All thoughts of modern stresses slip away when one is looking for prey, or hunting for mushrooms. And the return to modern living after such an excursion is often a painful experience.

So why would some humans at the dawn of history decide that the natural thrills of our instincts should be traded for the suffering of agriculture? To me, the answer lies in power.

For the economist turned anthropologist James C. Scott, it is not possible to separate the power of the State from grain agriculture. Grain allowed for extreme inequality to form for the first time in human existence. Kings and their soldiers could take grain as a form of payment from those that were cultivating the land in return for protection from rival kingdoms. Grain was unique at the time because it could be stored for long periods of time compared to most other foods. This ability to store grain was good for saving food for the lean years, but more importantly, it allowed rulers to "tax" citizens on a store of value for the first time. Grain became the first currency of the state, and with that currency, came all the burdens a state places on the people growing the grain.

As humans tinkered with grain agriculture as both a storable food source and as a store of value, it is not surprising that Çatalhöyük was repeatedly abandoned as the reality and abuse of power in a grain state became obvious. As Scott chronicles repeatedly, for many people within the state’s control, leaving and joining surrounding tribes of hunter-gathers was always an option in early history. This option to leave frustrated rulers even as late as colonialism in the United States. Many of the founding fathers of the United States commented on the problem of men living on the frontier who, when captured or enslaved by native Americans, chose to stay with the natives when given the chance to return in prisoner exchanges. Sometimes, the captives would return to civilized life, and finding it oppressive compared to the hunter-gather lifestyle of native Americans, would return to the tribes and become members of that group.

Simply, grain-based agriculture is full of hardship and risk. Where the hunter-gather lifestyle is full of thrilling-danger and leisure. We are instinctually attracted to the later condition.

Why Grain Agriculture?

So, if humans so disdained early agriculture, why did it become the dominant form of human subsistence and why did humans repeatedly abandon agriculture in places like Çatalhöyük to only return to it later? I speculate that we humans crave a steady paycheck. Grain agriculture provided a steady food supply despite the toil (at least it gave the illusion of steadiness). At the beginning of grain-based farming, people mixed the growing of grains with traditional forms of hunting and gathering. These provided a much steadier stream of food compared to just hunting and gathering. As the state grew, it became more sophisticated and learned how to subtly control the population to keep them from running to the hills to avoid excessive taxation. In addition, civilizations learned how to battle or buy-off the pesky "barbarians" that roamed on the margins of agricultural civilization.

Regardless, the main reason agriculture succeeded was the feeling of a contestant and measurable form of food production. A steady, weekly paycheck is an addictive thing and I have gone much of my life with the desire to earn that "regular" paycheck. The question we rarely ask ourselves is, "at what price am I gaining consistency?"

The cost of consistency in modern agriculture is staggering, and it is all born out of a primal desire for steadiness of food. In the end, the exciting and superior, though dangerous, life of the hunter-gather was traded for a domesticated and (supposedly) predictable life of civilization; a civilization that was built on grain cultivation.
The problem with grain agriculture is that it is not consistent over the long-haul and it engages us, humans, in a war against nature, a war that in the end, we cannot possibly win. Over the years I have learned that it is better to work with nature than to try and blindly fight it when it comes to growing food.
Nature is Not a Zero-Sum Game

A zero-sum game is a game in which the success of one player, must come at the expense of the opposing player. In football, a touchdown is only gained at the expense of the other team’s failure to stop the offense and vice versa. But outside of the world of games, nature is not zero-sum.

Over the years I have observed that when we graze our cattle in a manner that mimics that of herds of bison that used to roam this region in thousands, overall biodiversity flourishes. Our fields are full of grasses, shrubs, trees, rabbits, mice, birds, turkeys, dear, elk, antelope fox, coyotes, squirrels, insects, earthworms, and many other species of life. Cattle, when managed properly, work themselves into the rhythms of nature. Compare the rotational grazing of our cattle using electric fences that mimics bison herds to the efforts of my first farming efforts growing a garden in Denver. Worse, when I attended College in rural Illinois, I watched as fields were tilled and left bare every winter, from horizon to horizon. Compared to the degradation of industrial agriculture, our cattle are part of nature, and managing them properly increases all types of life that live in a grass-based ecosystem (I will get into what "properly managed" later).

When I plant a garden and try to promote one type of crop at the expense of the rest of the surrounding ecosystem, I get engaged in a zero-sum game with nature. Even this past growing season, we had to trap and kill dozens of mice, rats, ground squires, and find ways to kill flea beetles, grasshoppers and keep out the deer, plus rabbits. Our garden is often at war with nature, locked in a zero-sum game; our livestock is not.

Nature, despite the naive recitations of "survival of the fittest," is not zero-sum. This was proven by James Lovelock and Andrew Watson who demonstrated in a 1983 paper and computer simulation that self-interested organisms can collectively produce a stable and sustainable planet. Daisyworld is a hypothetical world orbiting a star whose radiant energy is slowly increasing over time. The planet is only populated with two lifeforms: black and white daisies. White petaled daisies reflect light, while black petaled daisies absorb light. The simulation tracks the two daisy populations and the surface temperature of Daisyworld as the sun's rays grow more powerful. The surface temperature of Daisyworld remains almost constant over a broad range of solar outputs as the daises compete and find a balance that keeps the planet’s temperature consistent. The two types of daisies are engaged in a survival of the fittest, but in their struggle, they manage to create an ecosystem that is more sustainable than could be achieved if only a white or black daisy existed. The cooling and heating effect of each daisy finds a stable temperature that both can survive, even though the sun is constantly increasing in temperature. Even though both types of daises are technically competing, through their competition, they have reached a symbiotic relationship that ensures they both survive.

Daisyworld is simplistic, and our earth is vastly more complex, but the simple rule applies to all species that are fighting for survival. Take our cattle and the grass they eat. A naive observer would say that the cattle are causing the grass to go extinct because the cattle eat the grasses. But grass and large ruminants have created a symbiotic relationship. Grass grows blades-of-grass that are tasty to ruminants such as cattle. The cattle graze an area like a lawnmower over a yard, trimming the grass, composting it, and spreading the new fertilizer across the field. The hooves of the cattle also stir the ground, working in grass seeds for future sprouts, and trampling annuals, saplings, and bushes that would compete with the grass. The stress from grazing causes the grass to kill off some of its lower roots and use stored energy to send out runners to create new, connected grass plants. In short, large herds of ruminants and grasslands have created an ecosystem together.
Over time, the soils of these grasslands have become some of the most biologically active on earth. The deep soil of the American Midwest was created by the process of large herds grazing grass. This relationship created additional ecosystems of birds, predators, and aquatic life that evolved along with the symbiotic relationship grass had with ruminants.
Of course, I am simplifying here. The point is that natural processes often use competition between species to create a better ecosystem for all the species involved. While this idea of homeostasis is well understood by ecologists, one phenomenon is often left out of the discussion: Anti-fragility.

But that will have to wait until Part 2 of this Chapter.
-Joe Hedberg