egyptian art of depicting early agriculture

Agriculture: The Worst Mistake Humans Ever Made?

All of our lives, food has pretty much just been available to us. Open the fridge or the cupboard, and pull out what you want. Don’t have the ingredients you need? Go to the store and buy them. All of this is thanks to agriculture. Some argue, however, that the agricultural revolution was the worst mistake that the human race ever made. 

Agriculture: Humans Greatest Gift Or Greatest Error?

There is no doubt that agriculture has certainly made our lives easier in certain ways. We no longer have to chase down a bison if we want meat or rummage through the forest for berries and other plants. The domestication of animals and plants meant that food was much more readily available and didn’t require as much daily effort to retrieve. In today’s society, very few of us do much more than go to the grocery store to get our food. Seems better than before, right?

Pulitzer Prize winning anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond seemed to think otherwise. In 1987, he published an article in Discover Magazine titled The Worst Mistake of the Human Race. In that article, he accused agriculture of being that mistake. According to Diamond, we would have been better off had we stayed hunter-gatherers. (1)

Read: Farmer Who Refuses To Sell Land Grows Crops Between New Apt Buildings

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The History of Agriculture

Hunter-gatherers began making the switch from foraging and hunting to cultivating crops and domesticating animals between 12,000 and 5,000 years ago. While 7,000 years may seem like a long time, in the grand scheme of history it is actually quite narrow – especially considering there was no form of global communication to tell everyone to make the switch. Different groups of people began farming at different points throughout history during that time frame. Historians aren’t sure why people made the switch, but it does appear that drastic changes to the climate due to the planet’s last ice age might have something to do with it. (2)

This revolution led to the invention of all of the world’s major crops today. It increased the number of people the planet could support. It also completely changed the environment and the landscape, not to mention the diets of the people. Initially, those who remained hunter-gatherers were healthier than the early farmers. This is because the farmers’ diets were much more narrow, whereas hunter-gatherers had more variety.

In many places, in the beginning, nutrition was worse and people’s capacity to absorb nutrients was damped. Mother and infant mortality also increased. Interestingly, however, fertility increased, as well. This meant a boom in population. The population of the globe went from 8 million as hunter-gatherers to 100 million in 7,000 years. Today, our population is almost 8 billion according to world meter.

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Agriculture Changed How We Lived Our Lives

How people lived changed, too. Hunter-gatherer groups were much smaller, maybe between 50 to 60 people. As people began farming more and more, settlements grew to include tens of thousands of people. Close surroundings, more human waste, animal handling, and new pests, however, also led to an increase in disease and illness. Our genes changed, the structure of our jaws and skulls changed, and our bodies changed. The way we lived our lives also changed. We went from sharing everything with our communities to living much more private lives.

All of this meant that we became more obsessed with material things and the possession of wealth. What you had was yours and showed status. Certain items became symbols of power and showed prestige and wealth. Therefore, they became more expensive and difficult to obtain. All of this breaded social and economic inequality, as well as an increase in war. (3)

Read: Why the Government Controls the Color of Our Food

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Was Agriculture Worth It?

Often people think of hunter-gatherers as having much more difficult lives where they worked all day just to have food. This, however, isn’t actually true. In fact, they worked far less than farmers do in a day. They still had plenty of leisure time in their day. Though agriculture allowed humans to capitalize on surplus food and expand the population, for the individual, it actually wasn’t so great.

Hunter-gatherer societies were quite horizontal. They shared everything, so no one was either rich or poor. Their diets were very healthy with plenty of variety. Most of their food came from gathering, which typically didn’t take very long, and the rest from hunting. If food in one area became scarce, they moved on to a new location. Agriculture brought inequality and the need to work all day to earn a living – whether that meant harvesting food, as it did 5,000 years ago, or spending 9-5 in an office, like it often means today. 

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The agricultural revolution brought us to where we are today with entertainment, travel, television, art, and more. It may have also robbed us, however, of more leisurely days, fewer health problems, more stress due to money and wealth, more wars and power struggles, and less time spent actually connecting with one another and with nature. So, was it a good thing? We’ll let you decide for yourself.

Keep Reading: Billionaire-funded eco group taking farmland out of production in rural America

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Sources

  1. Gettysburg
  2. Was agriculture the greatest blunder in human history?The Conversation. October 18, 2017.
  3. If you hate your job, blame the Agricultural Revolution.” Big Think. April 2, 2021.
Julie Hambleton
Freelance Writer
Julie Hambleton has a BSc in Food and Nutrition from the Western University, Canada, is a former certified personal trainer and a competitive runner. Julie loves food, culture, and health, and enjoys sharing her knowledge to help others make positive changes and live healthier lives.
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