The Scourge of Agriculture

Richard Manning argues that looking back to what "nature has already imagined" could be the solution for a world ravaged by farming

book cover

Against the Grain
[Click the title
to buy this book] by Richard Manning
North Point Press
232 pages, $24.

The concept of the noble savage has existed in the nomenclature of Western civilization for some time. In popular culture, the phrase may conjure up images of American Indians from movies like Dances with Wolves, or aborigines from The Gods Must Be Crazy. A roughly clad native runs around the bush with a bow and arrow, living a simple life that is best described as "close to nature." But where exactly does our conception of tribal peoples as inherently "noble" come from? And is it accurate?

Richard Manning, who has written extensively about culture, agriculture, and the environment, believes that "noble savage" isn't a particularly satisfying way to describe tribal peoples. "It's more complicated than that," he says. However, in his new book, Against the Grain: How Agriculture Hijacked Civilization, he makes the case that tribes—particularly hunter-gatherer tribes—live in a way that is fundamentally sustainable, whereas the social system that developed with the advent of agriculture has spawned inequality and famine, and has had an immense environmental impact in a period of time (about 10,000 years) that pales in comparison to the history of human life on the planet (about 4 million years). While arguments against agriculture have gained steam in the past few decades, they have centered mostly on the debate over twentieth-century developments like the Green Revolution or genetically modified crops. Manning's scope is much broader than that, and extends to the very origin of agricultural societies. He argues that a major change took place among humans when we discovered agriculture—and began to move toward an ethos of dominance based on the practice of domestication.

"Domestication is a human-driven evolution," Manning writes, "a fundamental shift in which human selection exerts enough pressure on the wild plant that it is visibly and irreversibly changed, its genes altered." Paradoxically, Manning explains, domestication helped create a society that was even more affected by the vagaries of nature than hunter-gatherer societies. This is because the kind of agriculture we came to practice was tied to a catastrophic relationship with the earth: the clearing of large tracts of land to put a single crop under till. That practice began to destroy diversity—the fundamental strength of all natural systems.

In Against the Grain, Manning looks beyond the environmental effects of agriculture and civilization, which have already been well documented, and explores what these inventions have done to the quality of human life on the planet. Agriculture gave us surplus, surplus gave us wealth, and wealth gave us hierarchies that necessarily created an underclass. "If we are to seek ways in which humans differ from all other species, this dichotomy [between rich and poor] would head the list," Manning writes. "Evolution does not equip us to deal with abundance." The industrial agriculture showcased in twentieth-century America—fueled by government subsidy and the "dumping" of surplus grain in foreign markets and characterized by the shift toward processed food—has resulted in the obesity of the developed world and the malnutrition of the developing one. Readers may find Manning's proposed solutions to the problems caused by agriculture to be surprising. While one might expect him to encourage civilization to abandon agriculture in favor of something more "noble," in this interview he suggests that we should embrace it. In fact, the key to combating the problems we've created through agriculture lies in utilizing the very environmental manipulations we've relied on to domesticate our environment—but in different ways.

Manning is the author of Last Stand, A Good House, Grassland, One Round River, and Food's Frontier. He lives in Montana. We spoke by telephone on March 5, 2004.

—Steve Grove

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Richard Manning

I found your subtitle, "How agriculture hijacked civilization," to be a bit confusing, given that you seem to be saying that agriculture and civilization are basically synonymous. Can you explain what you meant?

Actually, I agree with you. However, there's an interesting caveat to that: we always think that agriculture allowed sedentism, which gave people time to create civilization and art. But the evidence that's emerging from the archeological record suggests that sedentism came first, and then agriculture. This occurred near river mouths, where people depended on seafood, especially salmon. These were probably enormously abundant cultures that had an enormous amount of leisure time—they just had to wait for the salmon runs to occur. There are some good records of those communities, and from the skeleton remains we can see that they got up to 95 percent of their nutrients from salmon and ocean-derived sources. Along the way, they developed highly refined art—something we always associate with agriculture.

The discovery of agriculture, you write, led to a shift in the way we interacted with our environment, toward an ethos of "dominance." It's hard not to envision agriculture as something that reflects an inherent drive within man to defeat, or at least tame, nature. But you also argue that the development of agriculture was just "opportunism." Does agriculture come from a desire to dominate, or was it just one big coincidence?

We can approach that from about fifty different angles and not come up with a satisfactory answer. But I think it's really illuminating to think in these terms. One view is to say that all the damage we see on the planet is the result of our numbers, and of human nature—and that agriculture is the worst symptom of the human condition, because it has the greatest impact on the planet. In this analysis, we don't blame agriculture—we blame humans.

But I don't think that's the full explanation. This gets a lot richer when you look at co-evolution: it's not just human genes at work here. It's wheat genes and corn genes—and how they have an influence on us. They took advantage of our ability to travel, our inventiveness, our ability to use tools, to live in a broad number of environments, and our huge need for carbohydrates. Because of our brains' ability, we were able to spread not only our genes, but wheat's genes as well. That's why I make the argument that you have to look at this in terms of wheat domesticating us, too. That co-evolutionary process between humans and our primary food crops is what created the agriculture we see today.

The biggest problem with agriculture—and civilization—seems to be the surplus it creates. You make the point in the book that humans have not developed a way of dealing with surplus yet. Do you think we ever will?

Since civilization began, surplus has been with us. A kind of "blind need for excess" has been driving our culture in exactly the wrong direction. It creates stratified societies. The CEO of a corporation makes a thousand times more than one of his workers. That kind of disparity doesn't exist in any other type of species. And that would suggest that we haven't gotten any better at handling surplus—in fact we've gotten worse at it.

Dealing with surplus is a difficult task. The problem begins with the fact that, just like the sex drive, the food drive got ramped up in evolution. If you have a deep, yearning need for food, you're going to get along better than your neighbor, and over the years that gene is going to be passed on. So you get this creature that got fine-tuned to really need food, especially carbohydrates. Which brings us to the more fundamental question: can we ever deal with sugar? By making more concentrated forms of carbohydrates, we're playing into something that's quite addictive and powerful. It's why we're so blasted obese. We have access to all this sugar, and we simply cannot control our need for it—that's genetic.

Now, can we gain the ability to overcome that? I'm not sure. You have to add to this the fact that there's a lot of money to be made by people who know how to concentrate sugar. They have a real interest in seeing that we don't overcome these kinds of addictions. In fact, that's how you control societies—you exploit that basic drive for food. That's how we train dogs—if you want to make a dog behave properly, you deprive him or give him food. Humans aren't that much different. We just like to think we are. So as an element of political control, food and food imagery are enormously important.

What about religious control? If agriculture creates surplus, which creates social hierarchies, then how has religion affected that?

The control of an enormous supply of food was woven heavily into religious observance. In the early going of agriculture, it was the priest who decided when the planting would occur, and all the religious observances were geared to seasonal changes. It's all woven into a very rich story—it's even in our prayers: "Give us this day our daily bread."

But religion also gets into display behavior. Part of that is the self-denial that goes with religious observance. People fast because it's the opposite of what normal people would do, so it's a display of fealty. And though I don't mean to disparage vegetarians, we've all seen that kind of display behavior there, too: the vegetarian who orders very loudly in a restaurant so that everyone knows he is morally superior in some way.

That's interesting. Do you think vegetarianism isn't as socially responsible as it's cracked up to be?

It depends on how it's done. In the U.S., we use highly processed foods as replacements. You know, rice cream and soy burgers and all that stuff. Once you're into that kind of process, then the energy gains from vegetarianism are almost immediately removed. But beyond that, you have to look at the way we do agriculture in the U.S. We wipe out enormous areas of habitat. Iowa has something less than 1 percent of its native habitat left. Well, that habitat supported wild animals. So you have a hard time arguing for vegetarianism as some kind of "kindness to animals" when you're wiping out their entire habitat that way.

If agriculture and civilization have caused so many problems, what about hunter-gatherers? Does their way of life work better?

Let's consider what happened in America. When European settlers came here, it became a very active policy of the government to try to make Indians start farming. Thomas Jefferson was explicit in that, and he wasn't alone. But the Indians simply fled—and not only did they leave white agriculture, but they left their own agriculture. Once they had horses, they had the option to hunt a lot more effectively. They put down their hoes, got on their horses, went into the western plains, and became nomadic in places that hadn't seen anyone for years. They became hunters. Did they "figure something out," or did they cut a deal with nature that was somehow sustainable? No, it's more complicated than that, because as soon as market hunting came into the area and allowed them to sell bison robes to the whites, they actually participated in the extinction of the bison—even before white hunters were on the scene.

But even that practice was a result of their contact with civilization.

And ability. So once given the technology, the market, and the ability to exploit that resource in a different way, they simply took advantage of it.

So is there something that civilization can learn from the tribal way of life?

Yes, I think there is something really important that hunter-gatherer cultures learned that we could benefit from. It's the fundamental idea of insecurity. We trade an enormous amount of freedom in our society for security. That's always the trade-off. It is our inability to deal with our lack of control over how and when we die that is fundamentally responsible for all of this. So we give up a lot of freedom for the false assurances that we won't die in this way or that way. I think we can learn from the hunter-gatherers that that's really an illusion. That kind of security is not obtainable in a natural system—and we are in a natural system and always will be. Therefore, we need to accept a good deal of that instability and threat and danger in our lives.

Seems like a tough sell.

Yes, it is. It's absolutely a tough sell. I mean, you look at how people sell cars today, it's, "This car won't kill you"—they don't care about anything else. Forget the gas mileage. And look what we're willing to give up in this country in terms of civil liberties, for instance, just because of the threat of terrorism. You cannot change the reality that the world is a dangerous place. So it is an illusion to think that we can be secure. We would be much better off if we'd simply give up that illusion and say, "I am going to die, I could die at any moment—now I'm going to get on with enjoying life."

I wonder what it might take to return to that worldview? In nature, when a species adopts an unsustainable practice, nature eventually bites back with a catastrophe, like a population crash. Is that what it will take for humans to change the way we produce food?

People always say, "Well, if there's some terrible catastrophe, then we'll learn." But the catastrophe is already here. Africa is a catastrophe. Asia, Latin America… The poorest places in the world are constantly experiencing these very things that we envision as being disastrous.

But not in America.

No, not in America. So far, we're comfortably able to keep it out of sight. That's why we don't read international news in this country, that's why it doesn't show up on our TV sets—because we are able to maintain some sort of denial about the fact that one third of humanity lives on less than a dollar a day. We've separated ourselves. It's all around us—we just simply ignore it.

In what ways will the First World "feel the rub" of the problems that stem from industrial agriculture?

I think the effects of global warming are going to ramp up in the next fifteen to twenty years. There's going to be widespread crop failure because of global warming, that's pretty clear. And there are going to be huge weather changes and increased wildfires.

Some might claim that free-market capitalism is the best way to create more egalitarian civilizations. It's tempting to view the free-market as the closest societal reflection of nature's "survival of the fittest." What do you think?

Capitalism is a very linear process—we build factories with it. It doesn't think in terms of complexity, and it certainly doesn't accept insecurity. This gets us back to the fundamentals of agriculture. It's a factory system, a linear system. We think of inputs, outputs, and a single crop.

Nature doesn't work that way. The promise of nature is something called "over-yielding," the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. That's why I value natural systems so greatly. They work in combination with a lot of different things, and when those things are together and finely tuned, they tend to produce more than whatever we could replace them with. For example, prairies provide their own fertilizer.

Co-evolution comes up with solutions to problems that are much better than what we could come up with. So in that way it's unlike how we've conceived of capitalism.

You write that solutions to industrial agriculture's problems aren't going to come from the government, since the very idea of government sprouted from agricultural civilizations. Are there ways we can apply our understanding of nature to current society?

Well, there are some hopeful things out there. We're already beginning to accommodate our understanding of nature into information technology. When we start playing around with things like artificial intelligence, for instance, we know that we have to deal with complexity and that we have to design these organic systems that look like nature.

But the big steps come from understanding the genome. That gives us an incredible appreciation of nature, and also the ability to harness the productivity of nature in unique ways.

Like how?

For example, when you go to your local health-food store, you see two kinds of beets—golden and striped. This happened because some people were looking at some wild relatives and natural mutations in beets, and they found that there were two genes that created the red color in beets, and if they switched one off (not using genetic engineering, but a simple "knock-out"), it became striped. It turns out that this variation codes for a chemical called betalin, which is a cancer-fighting agent. So by understanding the manipulation of this gene, and by putting more betalin in the beet, they ramped up that cancer-fighting ability. If we look more into "forgotten" crops, and also wild relatives of crops, there are all these pigments that are coded for in genes. And these genes have many disease-fighting capabilities that we have bred out of our plants. We can bring those back into our crops quite easily and rapidly with the technology we have.

At the same cost to the consumer?

Yes, absolutely the same. The breeder I know who did this in Wisconsin says it's so easy that he doesn't have to deal with seed companies. In the "old world" you had to work with seed companies, and the seed company had to recover its investment—therefore things were expensive. But he can do it very quickly, release it to organic farmers, and then go on growing the thing—and it's a free seed.

That's interesting. I think my first reaction whenever I hear about manipulations of nature is a negative one. In your book, though, you point out that even something as basic as using fire—something tribal societies did and still do—is a manipulation of nature. And here you seem to be lobbying for more manipulation.

They're just wiser manipulations. One of the fundamental principles here is that these manipulations are not guided so much by our imaginations as by what existed before—that collective wisdom of nature. So we're going back and looking at the broader, more complex genes that we ignored before and saying, "What's in here that we didn't know?" The principle here is humility. We are not able to imagine the ultimate solutions—we have to see what nature has already imagined and mimic that.

The solutions you speak of seem to have an awful lot to do with organic and alternative farming. That's fine for the hipster in Manhattan who can afford the whole foods store, or the farmer in Minnesota who can grow organic corn in fertile soil, but what about those who live in poverty? In your book, you chronicle the oppression of the poor by agricultural civilizations. What hope is there for them now?

I know of a project in India which is an interesting case because India, like most other poor countries, is so heavily dependent on rice. But in India, it turns out that the poorest of the poor are dependent on dry-land rice. Ît's kind of a weird concept; it's not irrigated. Something like 40 percent of the land area given over to rice in the world is dry-land rice. The poor depend on it for a reason: they can't afford the best land, they can't afford irrigation, so they get by on the very marginal stuff, and have for thousands of years.

Of course, science for the last thirty or forty years has been looking intensively at irrigated rice, because such rice offers the most bang for the buck. But there are a couple of researchers in Bangalore, India, who've been collecting the local varieties of dry-land rice that people grow in those poor communities. They then compared them against the very best "improved" varieties from the very best of science, and they found out that the local varieties were better. They always yielded—no matter how bad the conditions were—and they had certain nutritional values that the other varieties didn't have.

So they're cataloguing the genomes of all these wild varieties, and breeding those varieties with the best characteristics into a variety of rice that, while very close to their local ones, also has some of the disease-resistant and insect-resistant capabilities of the improved varieties. In other words, they're making a "super local" variety. And then they're turning it back over to these poor people for free. It's an interesting case where people are thinking of ways to use technology to intervene for the poor.

But isn't improving yield just creating more food, which in turn creates more people?

That's a fascinating question—if you look at population growth in the world, it occurs not only in the most agricultural places on the globe, but also in the poorest places. Population growth is going crazy in places like India, Africa, and Southeast Asia. You have to find ways to ramp up the income of the poorest just slightly, because the record is very clear that if we can improve their income, their birthrate goes down dramatically. I've seen it. I was in a village in Mexico where one farmer was making something like 15 percent more than his neighbor, and he had two kids while his neighbor had thirteen. That's a very common thing in the developing world. Birth rate is most closely related to the income of the family—and that's true worldwide. The better your income, the fewer kids you tend to have. Education is also important, especially amongst women. If you can educate women, then birth control comes into play a lot more easily, and they have options to exercise. Good agriculture is hugely important in getting this to happen—but not industrial agriculture, which just makes it worse. If we're able to intervene, we have to understand that if we do agriculture well, we'll make lives better. But if we do it badly, we're going to make them worse.