By Richard L. Lobb
Insuring sufficient food supplies is one of the most basic challenges facing any human society. Organized and efficient food production supports population growth and the development of cities and towns, trade, and other essential elements of human progress.
For many thousands of years, people collected their food from the wild or hunted animals large and small. The teamwork required to bring down a mastodon may have been the first type of collective enterprise in which humans engaged. The “hunter-gatherer” mode was sufficient for small groups in favorable environments, but as population grew and people pushed into areas less endowed with easily obtainable food, they sought more reliable sources of nutrition.
Scientists believe that agriculture was established first in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East about ten or eleven thousand years B.C.E. The region was home to a variety of edible and easily cultivated crops: wheat and barley among the cereal crops, and lentils, peas, and chickpeas among the vegetables. Also, the region was endowed with wild goats, sheep, pigs, and cattle, all of which were domesticated and became important source of food. Cattle are also useful work animals, and all these animals produce manure for fertilizer. Thus, a complete agricultural package was available, and it helped give rise to the civilizations in the Middle East. The need for common facilities to thresh and store grain was a major impetus for settlements; the wall of Jericho dates from around 8,000 B.C.E. and was presumably built to protect its food supply.
Agriculture developed independently in the part of Mexico and Central American known as Mesoamerica; in the Andean highlands of Peru; in the American Midwest; in north and south China; and in Africa. But the Fertile Crescent had a long head start and the most favorable combination of plants and animals, and this eventually translated into a significant cultural advantage for Europe.
In the ancient world, the Mediterranean Sea was crisscrossed with ships carrying spices from the Middle East and ultimately India, wine and olive oil from Greece, and grain from Egypt. The city of Rome came to depend on wheat from Egypt and North Africa to supply the grain (and later, bread) that was distributed free of charge to its plebeians. The “annona” (the distribution of free or reduced-price grain or bread) reached impressive dimensions: by 350 B.C.E., an estimated 120,000 people received six half-pound loaves per day provided by 274 public bakeries. It was one of the world’s first examples of mass production of a specific food product.
Roman agriculture was otherwise centered on the “villa rustica,” a type of large estate with diversified production of grain, vegetables, fruits, nuts and livestock. After the Roman Empire collapsed, these estates became the model of the medieval fief, the property held by a lord and worked by serfs who were legally bound to the land. The serfs had to work the lord’s land but also had the right to work strips of their own, plus small kitchen gardens. In the early feudal period, peasant families could gather game in the forests, but eventually these were reserved to the aristocracy and the peasants got by on little more than bread and gruel.
Technology, as simple as it was in the Middle Ages, played a role in increasing food production. The development of a heavy plow capable of breaking the dense, wet soils of northern Europe reached Germany by the eighth century, and opened up a major new grain source for the rest of the continent. Grist mills powered by wind or water popped up all over Europe beginning in the eleventh century, providing large-scale processing of grain into flour.
Medieval European crop farmers had few options for increasing production. The usual practice was to rotate fields between grain and pasture so that they would be refreshed by animal manure between crops, a practice called “fallows.” In the later Middle Ages, the revitalizing power of legumes, which supply nitrogen to the soil, a technique lost since Roman times, was rediscovered. Rotating fields through grain, legumes and fallows boosted productivity by at least a third and added peas, beans, chickpeas, lentils and other vegetables to the European diet.
China, often thought of as a land of rice, also depended heavily on millet, wheat and soybeans. Rice production increased significantly in the eleventh century when new strains were imported from Southeast Asia. Chinese fishermen also gathered fish from the ocean, lakes and rivers, and sold them in vast central markets, which supplied networks of cook shops, restaurants, banqueting halls and other eating places.
The Arab world also had a varied and sophisticated system of food production, with water-powered mills grinding grain full time in North Africa and fishermen packing Mediterranean tuna in salt. The Arabs introduced citrus, rice and sugarcane to Europe and controlled the lucrative spice trade with India. European interest in breaking the Arab hold on the spice trade led to the voyages of discovery of Vasco de Gama and Columbus.
Discovery of the New World touched off the greatest and most rapid spread of new crops the world had seen. The Americas contributed maize (corn), potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers to Europe, while the Europeans brought wheat and other staple crops, and sugarcane, which was very successful in Brazil and later the Caribbean region. Sugarcane cultivation created a demand for labor that was met by the African slave trade. The “Columbian Exchange” thus laid the basis for much of the subsequent economic and political history of the New World.
In the Old World, the decline of feudalism and the rise of cities and towns helped move agriculture from subsistence to a market orientation. Land that had been held in common and used mainly for grazing was consolidated under the control of individual landowners, which greatly increased production of both crops and animals. The draining of marshy land, especially in England and the Low Countries, was accelerated. All these trends supported the more intensive cultivation of the available land and the production of more and cheaper food for growing and more urban populations. By 1700, European agriculture could provide approximately two and a half times the yield per input of seed that had been normal in the Middle Ages (Roberts).
Science and technology played an increasingly important role in food production in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The development of mineral and then chemical fertilizers freed farmers from reliance on manure and fallows as ways of renewing the soil. New equipment, such the mechanical seed drill, made for more efficient planting. The mechanization of agriculture advanced rapidly in the nineteenth century with mechanical reapers, the tractor, and electric milking machines, among other innovations. Scientists also developed a better understanding of the nutritional components of food, which led to an emphasis on a balanced diet and by the twentieth century resulted in the improvement of food with the addition of vitamins and minerals to products such as bread and breakfast food.
Preserving food for later consumption has always been a challenge, especially in countries with long winters when little fresh food was available. Grain kept well if kept dry, but meat and fish had to be salted, and a monotonous diet of bread, dried peas, and salted fish sustained many Europeans through the winter until the early modern period. The preservation of food by heating it and sealing it in jars or cans began in the early nineteenth century, followed by pasteurization of wine and later milk to kill spoilage organisms. (The great chemist Louis Pasteur developed the process that bears his name to save the French wine industry, not its dairy farmers.) Canning and pasteurization made a wider variety of foods available to urban populations.
With the development of steamships and refrigeration in the nineteenth century, the international food trade was transformed. Beef could be shipped from Argentina to England and bananas from Central America to New York. Worldwide food exports went from four million tons in the 1850s to 18 million tons thirty years later and 40 million tons by 1914 (Ponting) Chicago became the center of the U.S. meatpacking industry when refrigerated rail cars allowed packers to ship butchered meat virtually nationwide.
Agriculture, fisheries, and livestock and poultry production are now so efficient in Europe, North America, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Japan and other advanced countries that production can easily overwhelm demand, resulting in low prices and financial losses for producers. Governments all over the world subsidize their farmers and attempt to protect them from foreign competition, which keeps farmers in business but raises the cost of food to consumers. In the United States, for example, sugar costs twice what it does on the world market due to protection of domestic producers.
Some of the benefits of Western agriculture and food production have been modified and transferred to the developing world. The use of high-yield wheat and rice, along with large doses of fertilizer – the so-called “Green Revolution” — has transformed the food picture in many countries. Wheat production in India nearly tripled from 1965 to 1980 while rice production increased 60 percent with the new strains and new methods. During the 1970s alone, rice production rose 37 percent in Indonesia and 40 percent in the Philippines.
Food today is often highly processed before being sold to consumers. Conversely, “pure,” “organic,” “all-natural” foods are becoming more popular. While dwarfed by the mainstream food industry, organic production can be profitable and viable. Governments seek to encourage this type of production, with strict regulations (effective 2003) on what can be labeled “organic” in the United States and programs such as “Label Rouge” (“red label”), which recognizes organic-style production, in France.
With rapid advances in biotechnology, genetic manipulation of crops accelerated in the 1990s and is expected to have a significant impact on food production. Maize, for example, is bioengineered to resist insect pests and soybeans are modified to shrug off a common herbicide that keeps the fields free of weeds. These traits are advantageous to producers but not directly beneficial to consumers. The next level of genetic modification will be to insert traits actually beneficial to humans into food plants, such as rice fortified with extra vitamins that ward off blindness. Genetic modification of food plants is controversial and closely regulated by government but is felt by many to be the next frontier in food production.
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Richard L. Lobb