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Against the Grain
How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization
By Richard Manning
North Point Press
HC, 232 pg. US$24/C$36
ISBN: 0-8654-7622-5

Growing problems

By Steven Martinovich
web posted March 22, 2004

Against the Grain:  How Agriculture Has Hijacked CivilizationAs some experts what the most important invention in human history was and they will say, contrary to popular opinion, that it was the plow and not the wheel. The plow, when mated with early man's growing knowledge of agriculture, sowed the seeds of civilization. The harsh and unpredictable life of the hunter-gatherer gave way to the relatively more predictable life of the farmer.

Then there are those like Richard Manning, who look at agriculture as a blight on humanity. Ancient man gave up his comfortable existence for the tyranny of the plow. Agriculture not only produced food for a growing population, it also spread disease, famine, slavery, colonialism, imperialism, inequality and wealth. Early diets were healthier, varied and seasonal while agriculture forced on man a limited diet. While agriculture has its positive benefits, it has diminished us as a whole.

Manning's Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization argues that agriculture, particularly its modern incarnation, has dehumanized us. For about 290 000 years we lived as hunter-gatherers -- intimately connected to nature thanks to a sensual understanding of the world around us. A hunter-gatherer needs this connection because without it they would perish. Every sense needs to be in tune with his surroundings so they can meet that most basic of need: food. About 10 000 to 15 000 years ago, however, agriculture severed that connection.

By far the strongest section of Against the Grain is its first section investigating the roots of agriculture. Drawing on archeology and cultural anthropology, he explains what the evidence tells us about how we made the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to sedentary farmers and how that transition changed us. Manning chronicles the beginnings of agriculture in what we know today as Iraq where the ancient relatives of our modern crops grew easily near rivers and coastal areas. Early man formed settlements in these areas to take advantage of fishing and eventually began experimenting with growing crops.

Agriculture then began to spread relatively quickly across Europe, Africa and Asia. Aided by a rapidly expanding population thanks to a more stable food supply, farmers spread agriculture in just a few thousand years and displacing or converting -- either by example or force of arms -- their hunter-gatherer brethern. Farming created eventually trade, larger communities, infrastructure and in time modern civilization. The price we paid, argues Manning, is that as we become more of an agriculture species we increasingly moved away from nature. Farming, in essence, tamed man.

Unfortunately Against the Grain loses steam when Manning concentrates his efforts on modern agriculture. Farming today, he charges, is less about growing food then it is about creating commodities. The chief villain in his saga are companies like Archer Daniels Midland, a company that bills itself as the supermarket to the world yet sells no natural food product to consumers. ADM, and companies like it, have created a system of industrial agriculture that further removes us from our sensual connection to food. As an example, ADM is one of the largest corn growers in the United States yet most of its crop is converted into sugar for products like soft drinks.

Along with that sin, industrial agriculture is a corrosive influence on the political process, drives family farms out of business and is responsible for pollution. Not merely content with destroying traditional agriculture in the United States, Manning argues that industrial agriculture also destroys the livelihoods of third world farmers thanks to grain dumping and subsidies. Finally, by concentrating on only four major crops, industrial agriculture effectively sweeps away the rich variety of crops that we used to enjoy. And although we live in a world of plenty, famine continues to haunt the world.

It's a compelling argument until you realize that the number of starving people as a percentage of the population dropped almost every single year during the 20th century. They are eating better -- thanks to the Green Revolution -- and living longer as a result. Despite the fact that the population of the world has doubled since 1961, the average person living in a developing country has experienced a dramatic 38 per cent increase in caloric intake, according to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization in 2001.

It's harder to argue, however, Manning's other point that agriculture in the United States has become less about food then it has about creating commodities and gaming the system for federal money. Harder still is his outrage over the pollution -- mostly from pesticides that are washed off farmland and into lakes, rivers and coastal areas. Unfortunately his solutions aren't particularly inspiring. Admitting that modern agriculture is here to stay, Manning proposes that we fight back with organic and urban farming, farmers markets to reconnect with the people who grow our food and hunting for our own meat. Given the bleak picture that he's painted over the past few hundred pages, his answers don't seem to equal the problems he claims exist.

Despite that, Against the Grain is an interesting rebuttal to the proponents of the Green Revolution and industrial agriculture. Although some of his arguments are far less convincing than others, and his case is unlikely to sway a society that is dependent on the present system, Manning does build a credible case that we are too far removed from our food. We as humans spent hundreds of thousands of years learning to respond to the color, smell and texture of food and it's impossible to believe that what we buy today in our local supermarkets could have that same sensual effect.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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