Back home

Reporting: Synthesis

Exercise 35

Read the articles below and, in a paragraph of not more than 200 words, discuss the problems for the earth with regard to food.

Text 1

Farmer Power

For most of the last 7 million years, all humans on Earth fed themselves exclusively by hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants, as the Native Americans still did in the 19th century. It was only within the last 11,000 years that some peoples turned to what is termed food production: that is, domesticating wild animals and plants and eating the resulting livestock and crops. Today, most people on Earth consume food that they produced themselves or that someone else produced for them. At current rates of change, within the next decade the few remaining bands of hunter-gatherers will abandon their ways, disintegrate, or die out, thereby ending our millions of years of commitment to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Different peoples acquired food production at different times in prehistory. Some, such as Aboriginal Australians, never acquired it at all. Of those who did, some (for example, the ancient Chinese) developed it independently by themselves, while others (including ancient Egyptians) acquired it from neighbours. But food production was indirectly a prerequisite for the development of guns, germs, and steel. Hence geographic variation in whether, or when, the peoples of different continents became farmers and herders explains to a large extent their subsequent contrasting fates. This chapter will trace the main connections through which food production led to all the advantages that enabled Europeans to capture most of North and South America.

The first connection is the most direct one: availability of more consumable calories means more people. Among wild plant and animal species, only a small minority are edible to humans or worth hunting or gathering. Most species are useless to us as food, for one or more of the following reasons: they are indigestible (like bark), poisonous (monarch butterflies and death-cap mushrooms), low in nutritional value (jellyfish), tedious to prepare (very small nuts), difficult to gather (larvae of most insects), or dangerous to hunt (rhinoceroses). Most biomass (living biological matter) on land is in the form of wood and leaves, most of which we cannot digest.

By selecting and growing those few species of plants and animals that we can eat, so that they constitute 90 percent rather than 0.1 percent of the biomass on an acre of land, we obtain far more edible calories per acre. As a result, one acre can feed many more herders and farmers - typically, 10 to 100 times more - than hunter-gatherers. That strength of brute numbers was the first of many military advantages that food-producing tribes gained over hunter-gatherer tribes.

In human societies possessing domestic animals, livestock fed more people in four distinct ways: by furnishing meat, milk, and fertilizer and by pulling ploughs. First and most directly, domestic animals became the societies' major source of animal protein, replacing wild game. Today, for instance, Americans tend to get most of their animal protein from cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens, with game such as venison just a rare delicacy. In addition, some big domestic mammals served as sources of milk and of milk products such as butter, cheese, and yogurt. Milked mammals include the cow, sheep, goat, horse, reindeer, water buffalo, yak, and Arabian and Bactrian camels. Those mammals thereby yield several times more calories over their lifetime than if they were just slaughtered and consumed as meat.

Big domestic mammals also interacted with domestic plants in two ways to increase crop production. First, as any modern gardener or farmer still knows by experience, crop yields can be greatly increased by manure applied as fertilizer. Even with the modern availability of synthetic fertilizers produced by chemical factories, the major source of crop fertilizer today in most societies is still animal manure specialty of cows, but also of yaks and sheep. Manure has been valuable, too, as a source of fuel for fires in traditional societies.

In addition, the largest domestic mammals interacted with domestic plants to increase food production by pulling ploughs and thereby making it possible for people to till land that had previously been uneconomical for farming. Those plough animals were the cow, horse, water buffalo, Bali cattle, and yak/cow hybrids. Here is one example of their value: the first prehistoric farmers of central Europe, the so-called Linearbandkeramik culture that arose slightly before 5000 B.C., were initially confined to soils light enough to be tilled by means of hand-held digging sticks. Only over a thousand years later, with the introduction of the ox-drawn plough, were those farmers able to extend cultivation to a much wider range of heavy soils and tough sods. Similarly, Native American farmers of the North American Great Plains grew crops in the river valleys, but farming of the tough sods on the extensive uplands had to await 19th-century Europeans and their animal-drawn ploughs.

All those are direct ways in which plant and animal domestication led to denser human populations by yielding more food than did the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. A more indirect way involved the consequences of the sedentary lifestyle enforced by food production. People of many hunter-gatherer societies move frequently in search of wild foods, but farmers must remain near their fields and orchards. The resulting fixed abode contributes to denser human populations by permitting a shortened birth interval. A hunter-gatherer mother who is shifting camp can carry only one child, along with her few possessions. She cannot afford to bear her next child until the previous toddler can walk fast enough to keep up with the tribe and not hold it back. In practice, nomadic hunter-gatherers space their children about four years apart by means of lactational amenorrhea, sexual abstinence, infanticide, and abortion. By contrast, sedentary people, unconstrained by problems of carrying young children on treks, can bear and raise as many children as they can feed. The birth interval for many farm peoples is around two years, half that of hunter-gatherers. That higher birth-rate of food producers, together with their ability to feed more people per acre, lets them achieve much higher population densities than hunter-gatherers.

A separate consequence of a settled existence is that it permits one to store food surpluses, since storage would be pointless if one didn't remain nearby to guard the stored food. While some nomadic hunter-gatherers may occasionally bag more food than they can consume in a few days, such a bonanza is of little use to them because they cannot protect it. But stored food is essential for feeding non-food-producing specialists, and certainly for supporting whole towns of them. Hence nomadic hunter-gatherer societies have few or no such full-time specialists, who instead first appear in sedentary societies.

Two types of such specialists are kings and bureaucrats. Hunter-gatherer societies tend to be relatively egalitarian, to lack full-time bureaucrats and hereditary chiefs, and to have small-scale political organization at the level of the band or tribe. That's because all able-bodied hunter-gatherers are obliged to devote much of their time to acquiring food. In contrast, once food can be stockpiled, a political elite can gain control of food produced by others, assert the right of taxation, escape the need to feed itself, and engage full-time in political activities. Hence moderate-sized agricultural societies are often organized in chiefdoms, and kingdoms are confined to large agricultural societies. Those complex political units are much better able to mount a sustained war of conquest than is an egalitarian band of hunters. Some hunter-gatherers in especially rich environments, such as the Pacific Northwest coast of North America and the coast of Ecuador, also developed sedentary societies, food storage, and nascent chiefdoms, but they did not go farther on the road to kingdoms.

A stored food surplus built up by taxation can support other full-time specialists besides kings and bureaucrats. Of most direct relevance to wars of conquest, it can be used to feed professional soldiers. That was the decisive factor in the British Empire's eventual defeat of New Zealand's well-armed indigenous Maori population. While the Maori achieved some stunning temporary victories, they could not maintain an army constantly in the field and were in the end worn down by 18,000 full-time British troops. Stored food can also feed priests, who provide religious justification for wars of conquest; artisans such as metalworkers, who develop swords, guns, and other technologies; and scribes, who preserve far more information than can be remembered accurately.

So far, I've emphasized direct and indirect values of crops and livestock as food. However, they have other uses, such as keeping us warm and providing us with valuable materials. Crops and livestock yield natural fibres for making clothing, blankets, nets, and rope. Most of the major centres of plant domestication evolved not only food crops but also fibre crops-notably cotton, flax (the source of linen), and hemp. Several domestic animals yielded animal fibres - especially wool from sheep, goats, llamas, and alpacas, and silk from silkworms. Bones of domestic animals were important raw materials for artefacts of Neolithic peoples before the development of metallurgy. Cow hides were used to make leather. One of the earliest cultivated plants in many parts of the Americas was grown for non-food purposes: the bottle gourd, used as a container.

Big domestic mammals further revolutionized human society by becoming our main means of land transport until the development of railroads in the 19th century. Before animal domestication, the sole means of transporting goods and people by land was on the backs of humans. Large mammals changed that: for the first time in human history, it became possible to move heavy goods in large quantities, as well as people, rapidly overland for long distances. The domestic animals that were ridden were the horse, donkey, yak, reindeer, and Arabian and Bactrian camels. Animals of those same five species, as well as the llama, were used to bear packs. Cows and horses were hitched to wagons, while reindeer and dogs pulled sleds in the Arctic. The horse became the chief means of long-distance transport over most of Eurasia. The three domestic camel species (Arabian camel, Bactrian camel, and llama) played a similar role in areas of North Africa and Arabia, Central Asia, and the Andes, respectively.

The most direct contribution of plant and animal domestication to wars of conquest was from Eurasia's horses, whose military role made them the trucks and tanks of ancient warfare on that continent. They enabled Cortes and Pizarro, from Europe, leading only small bands of adventurers, to overthrow the Aztec and Inca Empires of Central and South America. Even much earlier (around 4000 B.C.), at a time when horses were still ridden bareback, they may have been the essential military ingredient behind the westward expansion of speakers of Indo-European languages from the Ukraine. Those languages eventually replaced all earlier western European languages except Basque. When horses later were yoked to wagons and other vehicles, horse-drawn battle chariots (invented around 1800 B.C.) proceeded to revolutionize warfare in the Near East, the Mediterranean region, and China. For example, in 1674 B.C., horses even enabled a foreign people, the Hyksos, to conquer then horseless Egypt and to establish themselves temporarily as pharaohs.

Still later, after the invention of saddles and stirrups, horses allowed the Huns and successive waves of other peoples from the Asian steppes to terrorize the Roman Empire and its successor states, culminating in the Mongol conquests of much of Asia and Russia in the 13th and 14th centuries A.D. Only with the introduction of trucks and tanks in World War I did horses finally become supplanted as the main assault vehicle and means of fast transport in war. Arabian and Bactrian camels played a similar military role within their geographic range. In all these examples, peoples with domestic horses (or camels), or with improved means of using them, enjoyed an enormous military advantage over those without them.

Of equal importance in wars of conquest were the germs that evolved in human societies with domestic animals. Infectious diseases like smallpox, measles, and flu arose as specialized germs of humans, derived by mutations of very similar ancestral germs that had infected animals. The humans who domesticated animals were the first to fall victim to the newly evolved germs, but those humans then evolved substantial resistance to the new diseases. When such partly immune people came into contact with others who had had no previous exposure to the germs, epidemics resulted in which up to 99 percent of the previously unexposed population was killed. Germs thus acquired ultimately from domestic animals played decisive roles in the European conquests of Native Americans, Australians, South Africans, and Pacific islanders.

In short, plant and animal domestication meant much more food and hence much denser human populations. The resulting food surpluses, and (in some areas) the animal-based means of transporting those surpluses, were a prerequisite for the development of settled, politically centralized, socially stratified, economically complex, technologically innovative societies. Hence the availability of domestic plants and animals ultimately explains why empires, literacy, and steel weapons developed earliest in Eurasia and later, or not at all, on other continents. The military uses of horses and camels, and the killing power of animal-derived germs, complete the list of major links between food production and conquest.

(From pages 86 - 92 of a book by Jared Diamond, with the title: Guns, germs and steel. Written in 1998 and published in New York by Vintage.)

Text 2

Food production

800 million people – one sixth of the developing world's population – suffer from hunger and the fear of starvation. In a world where the richest fifth eat 45 per cent of all meat and fish, while the poorest fifth consume just five per cent, and where four out of five malnourished children live in countries with food surpluses, there are clear problems in distribution. This means that any effort to improve agricultural productivity must go hand-in-hand with measures that address inequality. The challenge of delivering and sustaining food security for all is all about how we go about managing this fragile balance.

When we speak of eliminating hunger, of increasing agricultural productivity, and of balancing the equity of how people access food, we cannot forget that it is farmers who feed the world. The success or failure of small scale farmers in developing countries in managing the natural and biological resources available to us will determine the diversity of foods we eat, support our nutritional needs, produce many of the goods we live by, and, crucially, determine whether ecosystems are maintained and whether biodiversity is protected and conserved.

In the light of increasing evidence of the impacts of environmental change, the role of farmers can help shift the balance back toward a revitalisation of the ecosystem: rebuilding eroded soils, reducing runoff and the threat of floods, protecting habitats and reducing the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

(From a leaflet called Practical answers to poverty. It was written by James Gordon and published in London in 2004 by the organization ITDG. This extract is from page 1.)

Text 3

The animal kingdom: Food for man

Many of the ruminants belong to the cattle family (Bovidae), including oxen, bison, buffaloes, antelopes, sheep and goats. They all have horns that grow from a bony core on the skull. Sheep were among the first animals to be domesticated; their wild ancestors were probably the mouflons of Asia, Sardinia and Corsica. Different types of sheep have been bred for their meat, wool and milk; in the Middle Ages they provided much of England's wealth through an extensive trade in wool and cloth. More recently sheep were introduced into the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. Goats are hardy animals of wild mountainous regions. Domesticated goats are kept in less fertile lands for their milk, meat and skin, but they have often reduced the land to a near-desert state by their constant grazing.

All over the world various species of cattle have been either hunted or domesticated by man. This has led to some species being almost or entirely exterminated while others, such as domestic cattle, are bred in many countries for their meat and milk. The American bison, wrongly called the buffalo, and the European bison have suffered badly. The European bison is now extinct in the wild; today the few survivors are carefully protected in zoos and parks. Even more tragic was the fate of the American bison. In 1800 there were more than 60,000,000 roaming the prairies but after a century of reckless slaughter for their meat and hides only about 500 survived. They have been saved from extinction and there are now several thousand in parks and reserves. The aurochs of European forests were probably the ancestors of modern domestic breeds of cattle but they have now completely died out. Wild Asian buffaloes, often called water buffaloes, live near rivers and like wallowing in mud; they are bred in southern Asia for their milk and used like oxen for pulling carts and ploughs. The African buffalo is much less common now than it was a hundred years ago. It was hunted for game but is now mostly confined to reserves. In Tibet the yak is used for riding, as a beast of burden and for its milk and meat. Today there are probably about 800,000,000 domestic cattle throughout the world. Of these, some 180,000,000 are in India, but since the cow is sacred to the Hindus, it is not a source of meat and is used only for ploughing and for milk.

(From: The Penguin Book of the Natural World by Elizabeth Martin. 1976 London: Penguin. Page 19.)

Text 4

Food Production

How much food is produced in the world at present? Is there enough for everyone? The answer, which may surprise you, is that, yes, there is enough. Food production has more than kept up with population growth. On the average, food supplies are about 25 percent higher per person than they were in the early 1960s and the real price of the food (taking inflation into account) is about 40 percent lower. Impressive gains were made in the less-developed nations where from about 1960 to 1995 the number of daily food calories per person rose from about 1,900 to 2,600. In the developed countries the daily calorie supply increased from about 3,000 to 3,200 during the same period.

In the past 30 years the world’s output of major food crops increased significantly - the most dramatic increase came in the production of cereals - as improved seeds, irrigation, fertilizers, and pesticides were used to increase production and new land was cultivated. (Most of this growth in production came from an increase in yield per acre rather than from an increase in the amount of cropland.) This impressive performance was counterbalanced, however, by the rapid growth of population that was also taking place in the world at this time. But food production increased rapidly enough in the 30 years so that, except for Africa and the former Soviet Union, the output of food in the world kept up with population growth. The best performance was in the centrally planned economies of Asia where production stayed well ahead of population growth. There was a decline in the per capita food output only in the former Soviet Union after the collapse of that country in 1991 and in Africa since the mid-1970s because of poor performance in agriculture (which was caused in part by droughts, civil wars, and non-supportive government policies) and because of very rapid population growth.

trends in food production
A disturbing development is that the rate of growth in world food production has started to slow. If this slowdown should persist, world food production may not increase as much as is needed to keep up with the expected increase in population. Figure 3.1 shows trends in per capita food production for the world and for key regions from 1961 to 1996. Figure 3.2 shows that yields of important cereals are up but that their growth is slowing. (Yield is the food produced per acre of land.)

global changes in food production

(From a very useful book called Global issues. The extract is from pages 71-73. The book was written by John L. Seitz and was published in 2002 by Blackwell in London.)

Text 5

Populations living entirely, or almost so, by hunting animals and gathering food; also called foragers or band societies, as they are typically organized in bands. In all cases, the men hunt and women forage. In 10,000 BC the entire world population were hunters and gatherers; today they are less than 0.001%, including the Pygmies, Khoisan, and Hadza in Africa, Australian Aborigines, and scattered groups in Malaysia, India, and the Philippines. Some pastoral and agricultural groups also engage in part-time hunting and gathering.

(The Cambridge Encyclopaedia. Published in Cambridge by Cambridge University Press in 1990. p. 588.)

Text 6

Energy and Factors of Production

The basic characteristics of preindustrial energy-flow patterns can be set forth by means of a simple equation relating crucial aspects of food production to energy output: food energy (E), or the number of calories that a system produces annually, equals the number of food-producers (m) times the hours of work per food producer (t) times the calories expended per food producer per hour (r) times the average number of calories of food produced for each calorie expended in food production (e).

E=m x t x r x e

The last term in the equation, e, must have a value greater than one in order for the energy produced to be greater than the energy expended in producing it. This factor reflects both the technological inventory of food production and the application of that technology by the food-producers to the tasks of food production in a specific environment. The larger the value of e, the greater the labour productivity or techno-environmental efficiency enjoyed by the food-producers in their attempt to derive food energy from the environment. That is, the larger the value of e, the larger the number of calories produced for each calorie expended on food production. (pp. 233-4)

Efficiency in Agro-Industrial Food-Energy Systems

It is difficult to estimate the labour efficiency of industrial agriculture because the amount of indirect labour put into food production exceeds the amount of direct labour. An Iowa corn farmer puts in 9 hours of work per acre, which yield 81 bushels of corn with an energy equivalent of 8,164,800 calories. This gives a nominal productivity factor of 6,000 calories for every calorie of input! But this is a very misleading figure. First of all, three-quarters of all the crop lands in the United States are devoted to the production of animal feeds with a consequent 90 percent reduction in caloric output. The livestock population of the United States consumes enough food calories to feed 1.3 billion people. Second, enormous amounts of human labour are embodied in the tractors, trucks, combines, oil and gas, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers used by the Iowa corn farmer. Fifteen tons of machinery, 22 gallons of gasoline, 203 pounds of fertilizer, and 2 pounds of chemical insecticides and pesticides are invested per acre per year. This represents a cost of 2,890,000 calories of non-food energy per acre per year. It is not known how much human labour input is expended in the process of making this amount of machinery, fuels, and chemicals available to the farmer.

Perhaps a comparison of the labour efficiency in pre-industrial and post-industrial systems can be gained by asking the question: How many hours do people have to work in order to obtain their calorie ration for one year? In 1970 the average blue collar worker in the United States earned $3.42 an hour, and the average per capita food bill was about $600. Therefore United States workers had to work about 180 hours per year to obtain their annual food supply. Luts'un farmers "earned" on the average 7,500 calories per hour (r x e) (150 x 50 = 7500). If they consumed 2,500 calories per day, they would earn their annual food ration in only 122 hours. Of course industrial workers consume more animal fat and protein and about 500 more calories per day. Nonetheless it cannot be said that industrial workers work less than pre-industrial farmers in order to obtain their food supply.

Another deceptive aspect of industrial food production is the apparent reduction in the percentage of farm workers in the work force. Thus it is said that less than 3 percent of the United States labour force is employed in agriculture and that one farmer can now feed fifty people. But there is another way to view this ratio. If farmers are dependent on the labour input of workers who manufacture, mine, and transport fuels, chemicals, and machines employed in food production, then these workers must also be considered food-producers. In other words, industrial agriculture does not so much reduce the agricultural work force as disperse it away from the farm. The individuals who remain on the land to operate the high-powered agro-industrial machinery resemble workers in an automobile factory more than they do peasant farmers. Farmers in the United States consume more than 12 percent of the total industrial energy flow. For each person who actually works on the farm, at least two farm-support workers are needed off the farm. In a broader sense almost all industrial and service workers make some contribution to the support of agro-industrial production. Like everyone else, farmers now get their own food at the supermarket check-out counter. If all this be granted, then it is more accurate to say that it takes fifty people to feed one agro-industrial worker than to say that one modern farmer feeds fifty people.

Potentially a sizeable increment in food-energy productivity could be achieved by applying modern technology to the task of maximizing the return per human calorie input. But thus far industrial technology has been applied primarily toward increasing total output per acre and toward decreasing the portion of farm labour that is expended on the farm. The flow of energy in the average industrial system has increased by several orders of magnitude. But the efficiency of the system, in human energy terms, may have scarcely advanced at all. (pp. 250-252)

(From Professor Marvin Harris’s book: Culture, people, nature. Published in New York by Harper.1975, pages 233-252)

Write your answer here.

Then press this button to check your answer: