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FOOD: How Safe?

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NG Maps; Sources: Bruce D. Smith, Dolores Piperno, Dorothy Pearsall, and International Food Policy Research Institute

Farms Take Humans to the Future

by Tom Cannell

For the vast majority of their two million years on Earth, humans existed as hunter-gatherers—their greatest challenge to find food in the wild. Most were nomads, following their food as the seasons changed to be near available supplies of the plants and animals they ate. These hunter-gatherers developed a vast knowledge of the land on which they depended and inevitably experimented with and manipulated wild plants “as if auditioning them for domestication,” says Bruce D. Smith of the Smithsonian Institution.

It was only 10,000 years ago that humans began to put their knowledge to more intensive use. After the end of the last ice age, what had been experimentation flowered into the birth of true agriculture. First in Asia’s Fertile Crescent and later elsewhere across the Earth (map), humans domesticated animals and plants. In each case, hunter-gatherers began to cultivate wild plants and raise animals in a careful way—planting in furrowed rows, raising wild goats in enclosures—to ensure a more stable food source. As the plants and livestock adapted to their new man-made environments, they slowly evolved into new species—the first agricultural domesticates. Humans also encouraged the most fruitful crops and livestock—for instance replanting with the seeds from the sturdiest wheat—so that the domesticated species increasingly met human needs and desires. The fruits of the wilderness had been tamed, controlled, and brought home. Agriculture, says Smith, “released humans from the constraints of nature.”

No theory completely explains this transition to intensive agriculture. Some anthropologists point to population pressures; others suggest that climatic changes were important. Whatever the reason, a crucial step had been taken in the history of food production.

Humans changed the biology of the plants and animals on which they had always depended, but the dawn of agriculture in turn changed the lives of humans forever. Farming, and the settled lifestyle that tends to accompany it, allowed for larger families and more complex societies. Sprouting from the cradles of agriculture, more populous and complex farming communities replaced hunter-gatherers nearly worldwide, producing an enormous population explosion and, many say, the beginning of civilization.

At the time of the agricultural revolution there may have been close to ten million people alive. Today the Earth is home to 6.1 billion, a number that increases 77 million each year. As food crops and livestock herds crowd onto ever diminishing available land, as we consume ever growing quantities of mass-produced food, and as we forge ahead with new tools of genetic engineering, we find that guaranteeing the size, safety, and integrity of our food supply remains a great challenge, as it was thousands of years ago.

Related Web Links

Origins of Agriculture
The University of Tampa offers a good way to see the range of dates that are sometimes used for the beginnings of agriculture.

Major World Crop Areas and Climatic Profiles
This in-depth government site details the current status of agriculture in countries around the globe.

The Great Transition
This website is devoted to humans’ early approach to food. It is intended for a specific university class but accessible to anyone.

World Food Issues: Past and Present
A website for a tood issues class at Iowa State. It contains information about the current state of hunger and nutrition and also a paper by Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs and Steel), in which he argues that agriculture has been bad for humanity.


Cohen, Mark Nathan. The Food Crisis in Prehistory. Yale University Press, 1977.
A professor from SUNY-Plattsburgh makes the case that population pressure was a main factor in the agricultural revolution.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel. WW Norton and Company, 1999.
Professor Diamond of UCLA explores the question of why agriculture and other innovations occurred in some areas of the globe but not others.

Richerson, Peter J., Robert Boyd, Robert L. Bettinger. “Was Agriculture Impossible During the Pleistocene but Mandatory During the Holocene?” American Antiquity July 1, 2001.
This academic article puts forth a theory of climate stability as a main catalyst for the origins of agriculture.

Rindos, David. The Origins of Agriculture Academic Press: New York, 1984.
Dr. Rindos takes a look at the origins of agriculture in the context of human evolution.

Smith, Bruce D. The Emergence of Agriculture Scientific. American Library,1995.
This is a comprehensive even-handed review of the scholarship addressing the origins of agriculture.

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