Tangalle Paddy Field by Roby Saltori
This is an article written for the last Montage magazine, about the global good crisis
Agriculture is a mixed blessing. It has enabled a boom in human population, leisure time, central government and civilization as we know it. Paradoxically, however, it lowered human life expectancy below Paleolithic levels (pre 10,000 BC) and made us more prone to famines and shortages. Cavemen ate a more varied and diverse diet than we do and until the 20th century they had a longer and healthier life (33 years compared to 20-30 in Medieval Britain). Even today we have to make an effort to avoid grains and eat a more hunter-gatherer diet (fruits, vegetables, nuts, meats) to remain healthy. On a more macro-scale, centralized agriculture has made us more prone to famine, disease and knock-out punches like the food shortages sweeping the globe today. This is not to say that agriculture isnâ€™t a blessing, but just that it is mixed (more good than bad) with the seeds of the troubles we see today.
Cavemen literally ate better than we did for years. In the Paleolithic – which comprises almost 99% of human history – they ate a varied diet of animal flesh, fruits, and vegetables, depending on what nature offered. If nature didnâ€™t offer, they moved around. As humans began farming in the Neolithic, food quality actually dropped and the dependence on a small number of crops meant that any failure could be catastrophic. People also began living in closer quarters with domestic animals, leading to filth and disease. Only with the advent of sanitation and modern medicine did life expectancy tip upwards and leave the cavemen firmly in the past.
The Legacy Of Centralization
Despite the advances of the 20th century, however, the historical danger of homogenous food has not disappeared. In that century an estimated 70 million people died of famine, including almost 30 million in China from 1958-61. Of course, there is no way that a hunter gather society could sustain such numbers in the first place, but our dependence on agriculture has made such large-scale catastrophes possible. We are better able to control for the downside of centralized agriculture, but dependence on a few crops to feed millions is still â€˜putting your eggs in one basketâ€™. A few fluctuations can spell big trouble.
The World Food Price Crisis
This year we had more than a few fluctuations. There have been bad harvests globally, notably the drought in Australia and disease in Vietnam. In Australia alone the rice crop has reduced by 98% over six years. Most rice (almost 90%) is consumed where itâ€™s grown, but countries that do import were hit early, and bad. The crisis began with riots in importing countries like Senegal and Haiti, and soon spread to producers like Bangladesh and Brazil. This crunch was coupled with greater demand for â€˜better livingâ€™ from the newly reach in China, including that other product of civilization â€“ meat. Far from being an alternative to grains, 36% of all grain production is fed to domesticated animals, putting even more strain on limited resources.
And that leads us to today. Sri Lanka hasnâ€™t seen the rioting of Egypt of Bangladesh, but as a country deeply dependent on rice, we will see the crunch. And a 200% increase, while not much to many reader of this magazine, can literally double the expenses of people living on very little. In a historical scale this is nothing new. We cultivate grains, grow fabulously and then suffer tremendously when nature inevitably shuffles the cards. Throughout history humans have responded by doubling their bets, with agricultural and green revolutions to increase production, but the root cause remains. We have fueled the enormous growth of the last 1% of our history at the cost of the stability of the other 99%. We seem to be getting better at handling the inevitable famine and disease, but for some reason we continue to be surprised.