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By Bill Keep


“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.”  God banished Adam from Eden – and farming began.

     So says Richard Manning in Against the Grain: How Agriculture Hijacked Civilization (232pp, North Point Press, 2004).  If Eden was the hunter-gatherer world, expulsion to a life of farming “was a curse indeed.”   

    Manning turns the history of agriculture and of human societies on its ear. Throughout our hunter-gatherer millennia (290,000 years) we lived in an eternal Now, without expectation of change. But with agriculture (a mere 10,000 years old) we could create, store and distribute food; thus the few could gain power over the many, and our deepest and most widespread religion, belief in progress, could begin. Among the results, famine – “the mark of a maturing agricultural society,” and poverty, “agriculture’s chief product.” “The goal of agriculture is not feeding people; it is the accumulation of wealth.” 

     Once societies became dependent on nutritionally poor grain and potatoes, several things proliferated – malnutrition, tooth decay, vermin, weeds, crowd-related diseases and (until recently) smaller bodies for humans and domestic animals. Soft foods allowed earlier weaning and more frequent birthing, which created a “huge force of stoop labor” for building pyramids, mounds, ziggurats and temples, and created population explosions which required migration, disease, war and famine to control.

     Ensuing centuries played endless variations on these patterns – famines, regularly repeated up into our own times, forced migrations, imperialism and war (new markets, land for feeding exploding populations), slavery (fueled by sugar), great gaps between the few controlling rich and the many laboring poor.

     When we ran out of new cultivable land, we turned to industrial fertilizers, machines and plant breeding to increase efficiency. By now we had entered an era of permanent surplus of commodities (as opposed to food) – wheat, rice, and corn preeminently, in which prices were kept low and farmers depended on subsidies.  

     “Agriculture feeds the world.” True, says Manning, but very badly. Most of the world’s poor subsist on grains and are therefore constantly malnourished. Yet “tying food to the health and well-being of humans is heresy within . . . all political systems.” The USDA, finding nutrition and the expanding of markets at odds, has consistently promoted markets. And when industrial agriculture  demonized nature, processed food became the barrier between us and savagery. “The food processors were not offering nutrition; they were offering the illusion of wealth, stability, and order, and consumers became willing accomplices . . . .”

      And what of contemporary farmers? “The suicide rate among American farmers and ranchers is three times the national average.” “U.S. grain . . . puts third world farmers out of business.” The number of U.S. farms has shrunk dramatically – our bread basket now a “basket case,” a sea of grain controlled by a handful of processors, who take most of the profit – industrial agriculture with “the countryside as factory.”

     There are positive trends — micro breweries, bakeries, farmers’ markets, organic foods — but sustainable agriculture’s job is not easy – “to observe, to respond, to evolve, to co-opt the co-ops, to morph, to feed on a decaying system.”

     In Manning’s summary, “we need . . .  a system in which a variety of plants grow together permanently, performing . . . fertilization and defense from insects . . . as well as providing food. This . . . requires . . . a reinvention by selection, by breeding, by choice, by patient learning, by re-examining the genetic diversity that remains, by creating feral farming. Not back to the garden, back to the wild.”

1 Comment
  • M. Prabhakar RAo

    I wish to email – for review on your blog – the manuscript of My First Novella, “Mayhem Of The Miserables!”, which is now live @ http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004V52W06 (04042011).

    The sneak-preview, for your advance information:-

    The primary objective of this novella – “Mayhem of the Miserables!” – which also happened to be my first one in this genre – is to entertain you through unraveling the dynamics of the rarely- visited, dusky, back-alleys of the Indian crime, the cunning, the comedy and the cruelty of the miniscule criminals against the meek, the muddled, the mortified & the miserable majority who have been mute masses, which has been the story of India, that has been! But this could well be happening in your own backyard – irrespective of your nationality!

    This is the story of some robbing the many, the story of India that has been, awaiting the advent of another “Mahatmaji” (Great Soul), the title given to ‘Gandhiji’, the ‘Father of Indian Nation’ and inspiration to many a great statesmen, across the globe.

    The Secular Savior!
    There was this Dr. Peria Gunaseelan (roughly translated, it would mean a ‘Great Person of Good Virtues’, at least that would have been the intent of his parents when they named him so), an Ex-NRI, who had returned some decades back – to rescue India from its myriad miseries – via his innumerable ventures? His detractors, who were a dozen a dime – here and there and everywhere, conversely, whisper that he was, in fact, deported from his adapted Middle Eastern Land of decades, after his completion of a prison term, for some demeanor – which hadn’t attracted ‘cutting off of his limbs’ as a punishment – to the chagrin of those adversaries; the veracity of that report, however, I wouldn’t know, yet. And also, I never could ascertain what Degree he had or whether he was a ‘doctor’ with a medical training or a Ph.D. and if so, in which specialization and from which University – India or abroad.
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    He was a pure vegetarian and practices utmost frugality in his food consumption. About that part, nobody had any objection but his insisting the same level of thriftiness on the part of all others, hadn’t gone down well with everyone. Actually he was such a miser, that he, brazenly, saved on his food that he insisted on eating always at the cheapest joints when he was away from home – where cockroaches, fleas, spiders, ants, mosquitoes and other such domesticated insects would show up in Rice, Sambar (South Indian style, vegetable stew), Rasam (spicy tamarind soup), Vegetable Fry, even in the Curd and Chapattis (Indian wheat bread) inlaid with the body parts of them. His everyday cannibalism, then again, out-shadowed his vegetables-only food-preference, for he used to have his employees for breakfast, bankers for lunch, supplier-creditors, previously deceived students, old lenders of small hand-loans & such others, for snacks, in between and debtors (customers) for dinner.

    Thanks & Regards,