In May 1987 Jared Diamond, then of the UCLA medical school and, later, the world-famous author of the book “Guns, Germs and Steel”, wrote a paper with the bold title of “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”.
Say wha! Wow! Now what could that be? Inventing the nuclear bomb? Kim Kardashian? The cronut? Mullet haircuts? AC/DC?
Nope, Mr Diamond's Worst Mistake was... the invention of agriculture.
You read that right: the invention of agriculture.
Agriculture, Diamond argued, ”was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence”.
Now, before you go and torch your polytunnel, there is something you need to know. For as long as man has tilled the land, man has argued about tilling the land. As our film with John Dolan in this issue of Megabites makes clear, there are many ways to dig – or not dig – a field.
Mr Dolan practices permaculture, which argues for a way of feeding ourselves that involves site-specific responses to a piece of land, based on mimicing natural systems.
But aside from permaculture, agriculture is beset with battles, and always has been. The momentous battle of the twentieth century has been the fight between proponents of natural – organic; bio-dynamic – farming and the proponents of chemicalised farming.
At the same time, guys such as Wes Jackson of The Land Institute in the United States argue that we need a prairie ecosystem based on perennial crops and perennial polycultures, rather than annual monocultures.
And then there is agro-ecology, and a whole host of philosophies that argue that we need to change the way we farm.
The disputes are on-going, but they point to a central truth: the way in which we farm is harming the planet, and the planet doesn't need us to try a little tenderness: it needs us to show an awful lot of tenderness. The way in which we farm hoovers up natural resources, harms the planet, and often produces poor quality food at an extraordinarily high cost.
So, as we bide through the winter and wait for spring, maybe it's time to reflect of how we grow, how we farm, and how we could do it better. A good place to start is with Mr Diamond's provocative essay, and with this lovely look at John Dolan's work!
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