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Agricultural Production and Environmental History

Abstract and Keywords

The traditional focus of agricultural history has been the study of rural landscapes, societies, and economies, as well as agricultural production and technologies. In contrast, environmental history has adopted a more interdisciplinary research approach, offering both ecological and political analyses, and addressing the world's current environmental crises from a historical perspective. Drawing on the environmental perspective, this article explores the development of human food production. Subsistence has been an important part of history from the earliest times to the advent of modern, industrial agriculture. The seasonal migrations of gathering and hunting peoples were based on their procurement of food. Although the emergence of farming and herding led to the rise of urban, elite classes specializing in other activities, food production remained the focus of the vast majority of people in agrarian empires. This article investigates the transitions between three basic modes of production: what I. G. Simmons has called the distinct "cultural ecologies" of gatherer-hunter, agrarian, and industrial societies.

Keywords: agricultural history, environmental history, agriculture, food production, farming, subsistence, hunting, herding, cultural ecologies, gathering

History celebrates the battlefields whereon we meet our death, but scorns to speak of the plowed fields whereby we thrive. It knows the names of the kings’ bastards but cannot tell us the origin of wheat. This is the way of human folly.”1 This statement, by nineteenth-century Provençal entomologist Jean Henri Fabre, speaks to a traditional bias by historians against studying food or the natural world more broadly, from both agricultural and environmental perspectives. Agricultural history, often called rural history in Europe, gained institutional legitimacy only in the 1920s, suffered a decline in the 1960s and 1970s, and has recently enjoyed a vigorous rebirth.2 Environmental history emerged later still, in the 1960s, as a means to study the U.S. conservation history, and has grown into a thriving field for historians around the world and examines all time periods.3 Both of these subdisciplines have allowed historians to tackle important questions about the past use of natural resources, farming, and land change over time, but they have had different historical trajectories, agendas, and audiences. Agricultural history has traditionally centered on the study of rural landscapes, societies, economies, and of agricultural production and technologies. Environmental history has taken a broader focus, adopting a more interdisciplinary research approach, offering both ecological and political analyses, and speaking more directly to the world’s current environmental crises from a historical perspective.4

This chapter adopts an environmental approach to survey the development of human food production. Although long ignored by historians, subsistence has been (p. 210) a crucial theme from the earliest times to the rise of modern, industrial agriculture. Gathering and hunting peoples organized their seasonal migrations around the procurement of food. The advent of farming and herding allowed the emergence of urban, elite classes specializing in other activities, but food production remained the focus of the vast majority of the population in agrarian empires. Even today, agriculture accounts for US$1.3 trillion worth of business annually and continues to employ 1.3 billion people around the world, making it the largest industry on Earth. Likewise, about half of the habitable land on the planet is used for agriculture and livestock production, and globally, agricultural land use continues to increase at a rate of approximately 13 million hectares (32.1 million acres) a year, as has occurred annually for the past thirty years.5 To interpret the consequences of this ever-increasing supply of and demand for food, environmental historians have relied on a wide array of multidisclipinary evidence and analysis, borrowing methodologies from anthropologists, archaeologists, paleontologists, geographers, biologists, ecologists, and other scientists.

This brief survey cannot hope to capture the complexity of scholarly debates surrounding the world history of human food production. Instead, it seeks to reconstruct what I. G. Simmons has called the distinct “cultural ecologies” of gatherer-hunter, agrarian, and industrial societies, while giving special attention to the transitions between these three basic modes of production.6 A growing body of scholarship points to the evolutionary development within modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) of new abilities to conceptualize and transform their environment. The domestication of plants and animals arose from the conjuncture between human environmental intervention and social interaction at a decisive moment of climate change some 10,000 years before the present. Social change followed very slowly, but by the start of the Common Era, 2,000 years ago, humans had harnessed available solar power into highly productive complexes of staple crops, irrigated farming, and long-distance trade, thus establishing the foundations for agrarian empires in the Mediterranean basin, in South and East Asia, and in the Americas. Finally, in the early modern era, beginning about 500 years ago, nascent European empires extracted ever greater supplies of energy from new crop rotations, made possible by the Columbian Exchange, and from the forced labor migrations of Atlantic plantation slavery. These changes culminated with the development of technologies for burning fossil fuels and synthesizing nitrogen fertilizers from the atmosphere, thereby yielding a cultural ecology of industry, which remains dominant to the present.

Gatherers, Hunters, and the Environment

Humans and their hominid ancestors have been transforming environments to obtain food more efficiently for millions of years. Although the history of human evolution is far from settled, one prominent theory—the “expensive tissue” (p. 211) hypothesis—maintains that new food sources were critical to the development of humans as a species. The increasing substitution of more easily digestible animal proteins in place of plant foods protected by tough cellulose allowed the evolution of smaller digestive tracts and the shifting of energy to another “expensive tissue,” the brain. “External digestion” through cooking and fermentation also rendered animal and plant foods more digestible. Primatologist Richard Wrangham, in a provocative book called, Catching Fire (2009), has even argued that cooking with fire provided a crucial stimulus to the evolution of Homo erectus, 1.8 million years ago, although more evidence of early cooking sites is needed to establish this claim definitively.7

In any event, modern humans had appeared in the highlands of East Africa some 100,000 years ago, and by about 70,000 years ago, small groups began to move out of Africa and occupy the Middle East, India, southern China, and the islands of Indonesia (and from there Australia), all environments where gathering and hunting of small game yielded sufficient resources to support life. Humans also advanced slowly northward and developed different production strategies in tune with local environments. The Americas were the last place to be occupied in this long history of human movement around the world because of the special adaptations needed for the harsh Siberian climate before groups could cross the Bering Strait to Alaska and beyond.8 Of course it is reasonable to believe that some groups arrived much earlier to the Americas—as many Native American groups maintain—a theory corroborated by a great deal of archaeological evidence that predates the Bering crossings.9

Gatherer-hunter groups consumed an amazing range of foods, revealing a deep knowledge of local resources. In some regions of Africa, for example, early humans relied on over eighty important varieties of edible plants and fifty edible animals, including the mongongo nut, which contains five times the calories and ten times the protein of modern cereal crops. Ethnographic evidence suggests that hunting groups often sought to conserve resources to maintain subsistence over long periods of time by respecting sacred areas where killing animals was forbidden or by practicing rotational hunting to allow game populations to recover. Marine foods were also important in the diets of many gatherer-hunters. Stable isotope studies comparing the balance of carbon and nitrogen in skeletal remains have found that whereas Neanderthals ate a diet comparable to terrestrial carnivores, early humans consumed much more seafood. Some coastal and riverine areas provided such abundant supplies of fish and shellfish that they supported the earliest sedentary societies. Vast mounds of empty shells, dating back tens of thousands of years, provide silent testimony to generations of oyster aficionados. Yet most gatherer-hunter bands remained mobile, following elaborate paths of seasonal migration to take advantage of diverse resources. These foraging strategies helped to shape the organization of early human societies, encouraging multiple groups to gather in particular resource-rich places and times, for example, in river valleys during rainy seasons, only to disperse again during cold and dry seasons. Gatherers created sophisticated food processing technologies, including specialized grinding stones chosen to prepare most efficiently particular seeds. Hunters meanwhile jerked (sun (p. 212) dried) or smoked meat from animals to allow lengthy storage and rendered the fat from bones, which added essential vitamins and fatty acids to their diet.10

The assumption that early groups lived in some kind of harmony with nature and had only minimal impacts on regional ecosystems does not correspond with the archaeological record. Graeme Barker noted: “It would appear that, pretty much from the outset, modern humans were thinking about their environment and their place within it, putting their mark on the landscape, in very different ways from earlier species such as Homo erectus and Neanderthals.”11 Nevertheless, Edenic fantasies have persisted until modern times, as historians Richard White and William Cronon have written: “Depictions of Indians as savages wandering in the wilderness or as innocent children living gratefully off nature’s bounty are cultural artifacts of Europe; they have little to do with the actual lives of Native Americans.”12

Early humans transformed their environment most dramatically through overhunting of species, leading to what is known as the Pleistocene overkill—a theory that suggests that some animal species went extinct due in part to overhunting.13 In North America alone, some two hundred genera of large mammals, including giant armadillos, large rodents, ancient species of deer, antelope, giant bison, and the enormous mastodons and woolly mammoths disappeared. As Simmons posits, already “climatically stressed animal populations were made extinct in the course of a southward expansion of human hunters.”14 In ancient Europe, likewise, climatic changes combined with overhunting led to the extinction of five herbivore mammals that were important food sources: the woolly mammoth and rhinoceros, the giant Irish elk, the musk ox, and the steppe bison. And in Australia, evidence shows that a whopping 86 percent of the original large animals on the continent went extinct over a period of 100,000 years, probably due to overhunting and habitat disturbance by aboriginals, since there were no major climatic changes (glacial advances or ice ages) to affect mammal populations. More recently, human colonization of isolated environments has led to the extinction from overhunting of birds in the Hawaiian Islands, of flightless birds like the kiwi and weka in New Zealand, and the pygmy hippopotamus in Madagascar.15

Gatherer groups left their own environmental impacts, especially with the use of fire. Early humans learned to use controlled burning to alter habitats and favor some annual plants over others. Ethnographic evidence from Africa shows how people cleared forested areas to encourage the growth of such food plants as yams and bananas. Native people on the Great Plains of North America used controlled fires to hinder the growth of trees, woody brush, and forbs that could interfere with the grassland ranges of bison and thus hinder the hunt. In California, native groups often used fire to manage forests, especially as some tree species depend on fire for cracking open nuts and pinecones to disseminate the seeds. Australian aboriginal groups actively used fire-sticks to clear land for hunting; in the early nineteenth century, they started an estimated 5,000 bush fires per year. The landscape change afforded by burns led to increased habitat for a variety of marsupial species that were then hunted and eaten. And in ancient England, humans learned that fire could be used to enlarge clearings and to rid areas of mature oak forests (p. 213) with high canopies. The new scrub landscape with lower leaves made browsing easier for deer—an important protein source—and thus increasing their populations.16 As historian Joachim Radkau explains, “Virtually everywhere in the world, fire stands at the beginning of the drama of the relationship of humans to their environment.” Nor did early humans set fires at random; “burning had its orderliness and technical culture.”17 Thus, fire was an important tool to help humans go from simple adaptation and subsistence to active management of environments.

According to Simmons, the “cultural ecology of gatherer-hunters” emerged from the global migrations of humans during periods of climatic change, like long dry periods and ice ages that signified a “world in transition” when “almost every feature of an ecosystem was changing.” As the climate shifted from the last of Pleistocene ice age and the warmer, modern climate of the Holocene, around 12,000 years before the present, humans had “successfully adapted to rapid changes in climate and sea-level,” by developing a wide variety of processes of food collection, or foraging. Simmons argues that these subsistence methods depended on energy relationships and had energy costs. Inputs such as solar energy for the production of seeds, nuts, fruit, and animal tissue, and how more energy was spent during migrations, were learned sets of knowledge folded into traditional wisdom about survival. Migration especially increased energy costs, and thus groups learned that fewer material possessions and fewer babies or children readily facilitated a move from one place to another, adjusting their lifeways accordingly.18

The question then arises, why abandon this way of life that served humans so well? Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has pointed out that gatherer-hunters could generally support themselves working only a few hours daily, thus constituting a truly “affluent society,” rich in leisure if not in material goods.19 Studies of skeletal remains have shown gatherer-hunters to be healthier, on average, than agrarian populations, in large part because of their more diverse diets. Moreover, for thousands of years after the domestication of plants and animals, large numbers of humans did not settle into a sedentary existence but rather practiced mixed farming and foraging strategies. Each year they planted and harvested crops as part of seasonal migrations that also involved hunting and gathering. These patterns refute Victorian notions of history as a “ladder of progress” rising inexorably from nomadic barbarism to agrarian civilizations and then industrial modernity. Farmers did eventually displace gatherers and hunters, but not because of superior intelligence or vigor; instead, it was their greater ability to reproduce, an outcome that surely would have dismayed the Victorians.20

From Domestication to Agrarian Empires

“The transfer from dependence upon food collection to food production, from the usufruct of the wild to the reproduction of the tamed,” I. G. Simmons explains, (p. 214) created a solar-based “cultural ecology of agriculture,” subjecting different environments to forms of land management and manipulation. Founded on the domestication of a handful of species of plants and animals, this new ecology supported an exponential growth in population. Whereas in 10,000 b.c.e., the Earth supported perhaps 4 million humans, by 1750 c.e., on the eve of industrialization, that number had increased to 720 million. How this transition took place, and its environmental consequences, form the subject of this section.21

Scholars generally agree that the origins of agriculture lay in the climatic oscillations that occurred during the transition from the last ice age, the Pleistocene, to the modern climatic era, the Holocene, between 13,000 and 11,000 years ago. But the idea of a “Neolithic Revolution”—the invention and subsequent diffusion of agriculture out of a few favored “hearths of domestication”—has become increasingly untenable in light of archaeological evidence of diverse paths to agriculture by humans around the world. The Fertile Crescent along the Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia still presents the earliest evidence for domesticated grains, emmer and einkorn wheat and barley, from around 9500 b.c.e. Rice cultivation probably developed independently, based on separate forms of wild rice, in the Ganges Valley of India and in the Yangzi Valley of China, where domesticated rice predominated over wild versions by around 7500 b.c.e. At about the same time, farther north, in the Huang He Valley of China, foragers had transformed wild grasses into foxtail and broomcorn millets. In the Americas, during the early Holocene, humans responded to the encroachment of forest on grassland in the Amazon and Caribbean basins by propagating wild tubers, the forerunners of cassava and sweet potatoes. These methods of propagation and selection were later used in the Andes Mountains to domesticate potatoes from local tubers that had lower yields or that were poisonous due to alkaloid content. Meanwhile, in Mesoamerica, maize was domesticated beginning around 7000 b.c.e. through the adaptation of a mutated version of the tropical grass teosinte.22

Yet for each of these “hearths,” numerous other examples exist of parallel developments. Foragers in different parts of Africa independently domesticated versions of millet and rice as well as sorghum and teff. And in the New Guinea highlands, humans developed “forest management” systems utilizing bananas, sugar cane, sago, and taro. Based on his recent review of the archaeological literature on domestication, Barker noted “widespread evidence for modern humans in the Pleistocene, in every kind of environment, demonstrating examples of surprisingly ‘interventionist’ relationships to the landscapes they inhabited that in one form or another presaged the later relationships that we recognize as agriculture.”23

Exactly how people learned to plant crops is probably unknowable for certain and no doubt different in every case. Much of it may have been a result of serendipity—observing that some specific plants, perhaps even those that had been tossed into garbage heaps—grew larger and had larger seed heads (the grains themselves) and then preserving those seeds, planting them, and raising them in an early form of selective breeding. Botanists meanwhile observe that wild relatives of crop plants grew best in disturbed areas (as weeds continue to do today), so that they (p. 215) started to take over a region—becoming “pioneer species” that colonize and compete against other plants. These heartier species thrived enough for people to harvest their seeds en masse.24 Moreover, archaeologists suggest that domestication of plants began not with the intention of creating new ways of life but rather through more conservative attempts to preserve favored species that were threatened by climate change.25 Jared Diamond insists that worldwide agricultural developments be considered not as a discovery, nor an invention, nor even a conscious choice, but rather how food (and fiber) production simply evolved “as a by-product of decisions made without awareness of their consequences” at the time.26 Such an attitude is sound and goes far in understanding why agriculture developed differently across time and locations, and why perhaps it never evolved at all in some places.

Animal domestication also resulted from the human tendency toward environmental manipulation. Pleistocene examples of proto-herding can be found in Europe, where groups of hunters sought to avoid the problems of overhunting and skittish animals by managing herds of reindeer and red deer, adapting to the animals’ own migration patterns, and culling them to produce a steady source of food of high-quality protein for their communities.27 Archaeological and genetic evidence indicates that dogs were the first animal to be domesticated, for food, in East Asia some 15,000 years ago. The first true livestock were sheep and goats in the Fertile Crescent area of Mesopotamia, and pigs in China, both around 8000 b.c.e. Cattle were taken under human management in Mesopotamia, India, and probably North Africa as well, about the same time as chickens in southern China or Southeast Asia, around 6000 b.c.e. Other species, horses, donkeys, and water buffalo, were domesticated a couple of thousand of years later, llamas and alpacas (in the Andes of South America) around 3500 b.c.e. and camels (both in Arabia and Central Asia) around 2500 b.c.e.28 Most animals were domesticated for meat; archaeologists now believe that milking cows, perhaps as part of a religious ceremony, began in Southwest Asia and spread slowly, in part because of adult lactose intolerance.29

The domestication of livestock was closely connected to improvements in technology, particularly the ability to make enclosures and clear pastures. Some scholars used to think that hunters morphed into herders and pastoralists out of necessity for a steady supply of meat, yet as famed geographer Carl Sauer and others have found, hunters were never domesticators and never had the know-how or the tools to develop fenced-in enclosures that herding requires. Another theory suggested that humans could raise infant animals orphaned from their mothers or captured in the wild as pets, and later expanded on that ability to herd large numbers of animals. But cattle and pigs have never really been good pet animals and herding takes different sets of skills and technologies than pet-raising.30 Fence building and clearing fields of brush and trees for pastures required the use of sharp stone axes, especially double-headed ones, without which domestication would have failed. Clearing sparked ecological changes, with different plants thriving in the disturbed environment and with more rainfall leaching into the cleared fields changing the soil to be more acid, in which crops like wheat cannot survive. (p. 216) However, plants that do thrive on acid soil were wild oats and rye, which herders learned made excellent feed for livestock. Later, more tools and forest resources for wood were needed to create early barns for storing wild grass (hay) and oats for winter feeding and to build stables to facilitate the handling of large animals, especially in winter. Thus, domesticating and herding livestock became a way of domesticating the environment. And as historian Lori Carlson has written, “It was through manipulating the natural world that they were able to maintain their control over cattle.”31

In a similar fashion, cultural and intellectual adaptations spurred the expansion of farming. Cultivators developed specialized tools such as hoes to disturb the soil enough so seeds could sprout and extend their roots, and later to guard against weeds that could choke out the crops. They also developed reaping knives and sickles to aid in harvests. And with so much grain available, people needed to store supplies of it in large baskets or clay vessels, requiring other cultural and social skills to accommodate this requirement. Likewise, over time, farmers observed when to plant for optimal yields, and which specific plants produced the best grains in different soils. They then saved the seeds from those plants for future sowing, beginning the process of selective breeding. Some groups learned that various crops could exhaust the soil after two or three seasons, and thus either looked for new croplands to break, or learned that fields that had lain fallow could be productive later.32 Cultivators, particularly in tropical areas, used swidden or slash-and-burn, clearing forests with stone axes and fire. In those fields, cereal crops initially did well due to the ash-enriched soil left from the burning, but many fields became exhausted with repeated use and insufficient manure and had to be abandoned, resulting in a secondary succession of bushes, brambles, and shrubs, and eventually second-growth forest, representing a significant ecological change in the region.33 In temperate climes with sturdier soils, permanent fields in flood plains may have been more common in early agriculture.

The development of agricultural technology also included the choice of particular combinations of crops. Farmers practicing swidden agriculture in Mesoamerica had to keep clearing swaths of tropical forests, creating a patchwork of thousands of milpas (small corn fields) to produce enough maize to feed their growing villages and cities. But the Indians maximized the output of milpas by intercropping maize with beans and squashes. Beans, as legumes, served as a nitrogen fixer in the soils (slowing the process of soil exhaustion) and their vines took advantage of corn stalks on which to climb. In the same furrows or mounds, Indians planted various varieties of squashes whose leaves provided shade against the harsh sun to the young bean plants and whose natural enzymes served as an organic repellent against insects that could damage individual plants or ruin crops. This triad agroecological system, also known as the “three sisters,” was remarkably efficient for food production, dietary diversity and nutrition, and soil replenishment. It was adopted by Indians throughout Mesoamerica and North America all the way into present-day New England and Canada, and continues to be used today by many Native farmers, especially in Mexico. (p. 217)

As Neolithic villages around the world grew over millennia into towns and agrarian empires, ever more advanced technologies were employed. Societies learned to replenish exhausted soils with marl (lime), composted manure from humans and domestic livestock, and guano (petrified bird and bat droppings rich in phosphates and nitrates). Starting in Mesopotamia, humans learned to manipulate rivers to provide an even supply of water for their fields instead of relying on sporadic rainfall. Terracing fields to limit erosion allowed the clearing of hilly terrain, colonizing new territory for farming populations. Such massive projects for moving water and earth went far in advancing city-states and became the basis of power in many societies. The social theorist and Asianist historian Karl Wittfogel studied the impact of irrigation on China to conclude that the control of water created a “hydraulic society” in the ancient world. The term, from his landmark book Oriental Despotism (1957), referred to the power bases and bureaucracies that developed in societies dependent on water projects and irrigation, suggesting that diverting rivers and engineering large-scale diversions to irrigate croplands necessitated a strong centralized state that could marshal the labor and finances to construct irrigation projects. A result was the development of hierarchical, authoritarian governments.34

Food processing technologies were just as important as farming skills for supporting civilizations. Fermented alcoholic beverages have been vital to societies for thousands of years both nutritionally and as a means of celebration. The transformation of raw animal milk into more digestible cheese and yogurt provided valuable sources of protein. The development of cuisines based on complementary cereals-legume complexes also increased the nutritional value of foods. Beans, chickpeas, lentils, and other legumes, in addition to adding nitrogen to the soil, provided valuable sources of vegetable proteins. Although legumes did not provide a complete chain of amino acids needed for human nutrition, when eaten together with staple grains such as rice and maize, they balanced the missing nutrients. Thus, the domestication of both soybeans in China and common beans in the Americas at the end of the second millennium b.c.e. spurred population growth and the emergence of complex societies. By the beginning of the Common Era, the first water powered mills had been developed in the Mediterranean for wheat and in China for rice.

For an illustration of the value of culinary processing in the rise of civilization, consider maize. The American staple contained a crucial nutritional flaw in the shortage of usable vitamin B3 (niacin), needed to prevent pellagra, a disease characterized by skin rash, intestinal problems, insanity, and death. Maize-based civilizations flourished only when cooks discovered alkali treatment, using limestone or wood ash, to free the chemically bound vitamin. In Mexico, at Teotihuacán (c. 250 b.c.e. to 750 c.e.), alkali-treated maize was eaten in griddlecakes called tortillas, while the independent invention of hominy in North America, near Cahokia around 800 c.e., allowed Mississippian culture to expand throughout the eastern woodlands.35

The rise of agrarian empires, with their artificial environments of single- species crops, left significant impacts on the natural world. Forest ecosystems (p. 218) suffered greatly from slash-and-burn deforestation, and habitat for wildlife and native plants often disappeared. The practice not only destroyed native plants that were part of the ground and forest cover, but exposed the soil to wind and rain that caused high rates of erosion and interfered with the land’s natural nutrient restoration processes. Irrigation projects disrupted natural systems even more, often causing soil to be waterlogged, and thus ruined. They also changed the soil’s mineral content due to salinization—a process that occurs in especially hot and dry climates (like Mesopotamia) when irrigated water in fields evaporates quickly leaving a residue of salt that kills crops. The growth of cities put exponentially more pressure, not just on local environments, but on ever broader foodsheds, as imperial capitals such as Rome, Hangzhou (near Shanghai), and Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) requisitioned food from subject peoples. There is evidence of city-states and empires around the world overextending the land’s carrying capacity, leading to deforestation, ruined fields, and social collapse.36

Indeed, the costs of intensive agriculture may help to explain those regions where it never developed. Stuart Banner’s wide-ranging comparative study, Possessing the Pacific: Land, Settlers, and Indigenous People from Australia to Alaska, examines cultural differences and the agricultural practices (or lack thereof) among Native groups around the Pacific Rim. Australian aboriginals and most Native Californians did not develop farming at all, and the Alaskan Natives and First Nations of British Columbia did so only in limited form. In contrast, Native peoples of the other six areas in his study, and especially the Maori of New Zealand and the Polynesians of Fiji and Tonga, practiced highly developed forms of agriculture. These varying lifeways shaped people’s perceptions of and relationships with the natural world. The Maori, for example, maintained a spiritual relationship with the land, and believed that they belonging to it, rather than owning it.37

The development of agriculture gave humans increased power over nature, especially with the use of tools. Surplus food supplies led not only to a sedentary life and “advanced” cities and nation-states, but also to massive warfare between groups, increased social classes (between those who farmed and those who did not), dramatic increases in population (and at times, overpopulation beyond a region’s carrying capacity), and the conversion of forests and meadows into fields and pastures across the world. Yet however profound the changes wrought by agrarian empires, they paled in comparison to the transformations of the industrial era.

Tropical Plantations and Industrial Farming

By 1492, the solar-based ecology of agrarian empires was approaching its natural limits, but in the succeeding centuries, global empires based in Europe discovered (p. 219) new ways of extracting energy from the landscape. Columbus’s voyages to the Americas led to the integration of two highly efficient and in many ways complementary systems of agriculture, increasing food production around the world. Tropical plantations built on colonial lands and forced labor satisfied European demand for commodities that could not be raised at home. The resulting supply chains, and the multinational corporations that arose to manage them, allowed ever greater accumulation of capital. Finally, the development of steam engines allowed humans to burn fossil fuels, extracting ever greater supplies of energy. The creation of industrial diets, based on easily digestible sugars and fats, began to replace the cereal-legume complexes that had supported agrarian societies. During the twentieth century, the human population entered an even steeper period of growth, rising from 1.5 billion to more than 7 billion, even as the average weight of humans increased dramatically.

Environmental historian Alfred Crosby coined the phrase the “Columbian Exchange” to refer to the impact of Afro-Eurasian crops, livestock, and diseases on the Americas, and the return voyages of New World foods, especially maize, potatoes, and manioc, to the Old World. Crosby noted that the demographic collapse of American populations caused by unfamiliar diseases and colonial exploitation opened up vast regions for the cultivation of wheat and livestock. By contrast, the spread of productive American crops caused Old World populations to expand massively in the centuries after the encounter. Historians have since expanded on this thesis, providing more detailed analysis of the mechanisms through which Europeans carried out their “ecological imperialism,” another term of Crosby’s. For example, Elinor Melville showed the effects of European livestock on the Mexican ecology. Within a few decades after the conquest, sheep and cattle overran native fields, reproducing at a fantastic pace, and quickly exceeding the carrying capacity of the land. The formerly fertile land was denuded of vegetation, exposed to erosion, and rendered unfit for farming or herding. Another recent study, by James McCann, examined the spread of maize through Africa, at first entering particular cultural ecologies, and later, through colonialism, becoming the staple crop for much of the continent.38

The Columbian exchange had its most significant impact through the creation of tropical plantations, which presaged industrial capital accumulation and labor mobilization as well as the highly caloric modern diet. Anthropologist Eric Wolf has usefully defined a plantation as being “a capital-using unit employing a large labor force under close managerial supervision to produce a crop for sale.” This labor regime is usually grouped in “gangs that carry out repetitive and physically demanding tasks under the watchful eye of foremen who enforce the required sequence and synchronization of tasks” similar to “the order and drill of an army”—a system that can be referred to as “military agriculture.”39 During the early modern period, these plantations relied overwhelmingly on enslaved Africans, more than ten million of whom were transported to the Americas from 1550 to 1850.40 After the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, indentured servants from Asia and other labor migrants increasingly replaced African workers.41 (p. 220) European powers advanced this system, first with logwood, cochineal, and indigo dyes from Brazil and Central America, and later with more large-scale production of sugar, tobacco, coffee, and rubber.

As Sidney Mintz has argued, sugar became the world’s first manifestation of industrial agriculture. Botanically, sugar cane is a perennial grass whose stems are filled with watery and fibrous tissues filled with sugar. First domesticated in northern India around 300 b.c.e., it was carried to the Mediterranean by Arabic traders, and then to the New World by the Spanish and Portuguese. The production of sugar was a notoriously labor-intensive activity, particularly for field slaves, who worked in gangs under the tropical sun, armed with axe and hoe, planting, weeding, manuring, and eventually harvesting the cane. Yet plantations also required enormous investments of capital and technology in mills, which by the seventeenth century operated water-power rollers to crush the cane. Industrial scheduling was also needed to extract the greatest quantity of sugar juice from freshly cut cane. Soaring European demand for processed white sugar funded the growth of this industry. What had been an aristocratic item of conspicuous consumption in the Renaissance, with elaborate sugar sculptures prepared for banquets, worked its way down the social ladder to middle-class jams and candies, and by the nineteenth century sugar had reached the daily tea of English workers.42

The environmental consequences of tropical plantations were tremendous. Great amounts of land needed to be cleared of its natural vegetation for sugar plantations—forever altering the local ecology of Caribbean sugar islands and northeast Brazil by destroying millions of hectares of flora and habitat for fauna. Likewise, sugarcane production often causes severe soil degradation, making plantation owners constantly seeking to break more land into plantations. All of these considerations added many drastic environmental changes to plantation areas, especially in changing natural landscapes with their own degrees of biodiversity to ones of monocrop agriculture. Similar patterns of environmental change took place in other regions and crops. Coffee spread through Brazil in the nineteenth century, after sugar production had moved to lower-cost sites elsewhere, completing the destruction of an Atlantic rainforest that had once rivaled the Amazon in size and biodiversity. High incidences of agricultural pathogens and diseases occur when those commodities are grown not in dispersed and intercropped farms but in monoculture plantation environments, for example, banana plantations in Central America.43 Eric Wolf has concluded forcefully: “the plantation is an invader, and its successful expansion is the fruit of successful invasions.”44

Meanwhile, transnational commodity chains have formed increasingly complex webs that link labor, land, and markets around the world.45 These systems depend not only on the production of valuable products like coffee or bananas, but also on new systems for transporting them from plantation to port and then on to distant markets. For example, in the late nineteenth-century refrigerated technology led to a global trade in chilled beef from the plains of North and South America, South Africa, and Australia to markets in Europe. More recently, air travel and container ships have facilitated the export of tropical fruits and out-of-season vegetables from (p. 221) countries in the Global South to affluent consumers in the Global North. In turn, these transport systems have been embedded in legal regimes and market economies that also serve to generate value for particular nations. Classical economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo argued that trading economies generated comparative advantage since the poorer nations would not need to invest large amounts of capital, which they did not have and would have to borrow at high interest, by continuing to trade in what they did have, minerals and agricultural products. Yet others have explained this scenario in different ways; sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein’s World-Systems theory argued that industrial and colonial powers maintained a monopoly on capital to prevent resource-exporting colonies and dependent nations on the periphery from threatening their global power.46

Wheat, one of the first grains to be domesticated, illustrates the global links of modern agricultural production. One of the most significant environmental changes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has been the conversion of grasslands to wheat fields throughout large parts of Australia, North and South America, and Russia. This transformation was made possible by new machinery, including steam- and gasoline-powered tractors that could bust tough prairie sod and grasslands and plow them into wheat fields. Even earlier, in 1831, Cyrus McCormick’s mechanical reaper had revolutionized the harvest, ending the back-breaking work of using of sickle and scythe. The addition of a binder, in the 1870s, mechanized the work of tying grain stalks into sheaves to dry before threshing. This created a sudden demand for twine to bind the international wheat harvest, launching the industrialization of fiber crops in the Philippines, East Africa, the Caribbean, and Brazil. For a time, around the turn of the twentieth century, Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula experienced an export boom because the native agave plants henequen and sisal produced exactly the right kind of twine fiber. The creation of henequen plantations transformed the landscape of Yucatán from an ecologically diverse deciduous scrub forest to a zone of commercial agriculture with rectilinear rows of agave plants, all for the growing demand of wheat elsewhere in the world. By 1950, however, combine harvesters (that both harvested and threshed wheat without the need to tie sheaves) displaced binders and ended the demand for twine fiber, leaving the Yucatán with a devastated landscape.47

Another vital contribution to industrial farming came from new sources of fertilizers, which were discovered in remote areas of South America in the nineteenth century and then synthesized chemically in the twentieth century. Guano was found in abundance on coastal Peru and Chile, where the driest climate on earth preserved vast quantities of shorebird dung for centuries. European fields fertilized with guano meant that fallowing was unnecessary, (for awhile, at least). Although surface deposits of guano were quickly depleted, nitrate mines were discovered nearby that allowed continued growth of European agriculture, while incurring other environmental calamities from mining in sensitive coastal regions.48 Then, in the early twentieth century, German scientists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed industrial methods to synthesize ammonia from the atmosphere and convert it into nitrate fertilizers.49 (p. 222)

The environmental ramifications due to the production of food have increased even more in the last two hundred years. Some of the most dramatic conversion of natural ecosystems into croplands occurred during the last half of the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth. Historian John Richards has shown that from 1860 to 1920 farmers across the world developed 432 million hectares (or over one billion acres) of new cropland. The largest conversions occurred in North America with 164 million hectares, followed by 88 million in the former Soviet Union, 84 million in Asia, and 96 million hectares combined in Africa, Latin America, and Australia. Another 419 million hectares were added to that total in the next sixty years. Digesting these facts, Donald Worster lamented that much of the “one billion hectares of forests and grasslands that had been teeming with biological complexity… was lost in the simplifications of commercial agriculture.”50

An Uncertain Future

William Cronon has observed that in writing environmental history we impose human morality on nature.51 The above arguments fit into what he has called a declensionist narrative suggesting that throughout world history there has only been environmental decline and destruction. By contrast, a triumphalist narrative could celebrate the progressive accomplishments of gatherer-hunters, agrarian empires, and industrial farmers in subduing nature to human dominion. The latter analysis of course has its merits: People have to eat, and in developing the technology to obtain their daily bread, they have reshaped the earth. Moreover, with a global population that reached 7 billion by the year 2011 c.e., they have seemingly refuted doomsayers like Thomas Malthus, who in late eighteenth-century England warned that the world could never support such an expanding population.

Yet the triumphalist perspective cannot rest easy with the uncertainty of future climate change. Already in the twentieth century, the expansion of agriculture into the Great Plains of North America led to the Dust Bowl conditions of the mid- 1930s—one of the greatest ecological disasters in the continent’s history. By 1935, the wind, drought, and dust storms were so severe that over 13 million hectares (33 million acres), or about one-third of the Dust Bowl region, was denuded of plant life, and mountains of dust replaced what had been farm fields.52 Most environmental historians agree that the Dust Bowl was caused by the great plow-up of the 1910s and 1920s. Famed ecologist Aldo Leopold’s reference to the disaster as “wheating the land to death” was indicative of what Worster has called the “exploitative relationship with the earth” by investors, farmers, and millers.53 Similar agro-ecological disasters in the second half of the twentieth century, including the tropical deforestation of the Global South and the crash of commercial fisheries, make us question the growing reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers and genetically modified crops.54 In the twenty-first century there have been increasing calls for (p. 223) a more fair worldwide distribution of food, for a refocusing away from industrial agriculture that has particularly characterized world farming in the last forty years to giving more attention to small, sustainable farms, community farmer markets and even to redefining what food really is.55

Environmental historians have asked important questions and have added to the conversation about how we view the historical past, and what the role and place of nature has been in that understanding. Thus, it is not enough just to know the origin of wheat, as J. H. Fabre challenged us so long ago, but to understand the broader dimensions of food production on human societies and on the natural world over time.


Banner, Stuart. Possessing the Pacific: Land, Settlers, and Indigenous People from Australia to Alaska. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

    Crosby, Alfred W., Jr. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.Find this resource:

      Evans, Sterling. Bound in Twine: The History and Ecology of the Henequen-Wheat Complex for Mexico and the American and Canadian Plains, 1880–1950. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

        Funes Monzote, Reinaldo. From Rainforest to Cane Field: An Environmental History since 1492. Translated by Alex Martin. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.Find this resource:

          Melville, Elinor G. K. A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

            Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.Find this resource:

              Radkau, Joachim. Nature and Power: A Global History of the Environment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

                Simmons, I. G. Global Environmental History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.Find this resource:

                  Solbrig, Otto T., and Dorothy J. Solbrig. So Shall You Reap: Farming and Crops in Human Affairs. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1994.Find this resource:


                    (1.) The author wishes to thank Handbook editor Jeff Pilcher not only for his close attention to editing details here, but also for his wise suggestions on additional sources to consult, and for some very informed and useful ideas on focus and interpretation in this chapter. J. H. Fabre as quoted in John T. Schlebecker, Whereby We Thrive: A History of American Farming, 1607–1972 (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1975), 1.

                    (2.) The Agriculture History Society in the United States was founded in 1919, and its journal Agricultural History has been publishing articles since 1927. In Europe, rural history continues to enjoy widespread popularity, especially via the British Agricultural History Society (established in 1952) and its journal Agricultural History Review.

                    (3.) For summary and analysis on the origin and development of the field, see Richard White, “American Environmental History: The Development of a New Historical Field,” Pacific Historical Review 54, no. 3 (August 1985): 297–335; Donald Worster, “Doing Environmental History,” in The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History, ed. Donald Worster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press): 289–307; J. Donald Hughes, “Global Dimensions of Environmental History,” Pacific Historical Review 70, no. 1 (Feb. 2001): 91–101; Richard White, “Environmental History: Watching a Historical Field Mature,” Pacific Historical Review 70, no. 1 (February 2001): 103–111; and J. R. McNeill, “Observations on the Nature and Culture of Environmental History,” Environment and History 42, no. 4 (December 2003): 5–43.

                    (4.) These were the conclusions of an important roundtable panel, “Working Fertile Ground: Environmental and Agricultural History in the New Millennium,” at the Western History Association annual conference in St. Louis, Missouri, on October 12, 2006. Panelists included Claire Strom, Donald Worster, Donald Pisani, Deborah Fitzgerald, Mark Fiege, and Douglas Helms.

                    (5.) Jason Clay, World Agriculture and Environment: A Commodity-by-Commodity Guide to Impacts and Practices (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2004), 2, 3, 13.

                    (6.) I. G. Simmons, Global Environmental History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

                    (7.) Leslie C. Aiello and Peter Wheeler, “The Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis: The Brain and the Digestive System in Human and Primate Evolution,” Current Anthropology 36, no. 2 (April 1995): 199–221; Martin Jones, Feast: Why Humans Share Food (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 79–87; Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (New York: Basic Books, 2009).

                    (8.) For a summary, see Patrick Manning, Migration in World History (New York: Routledge, 2005).

                    (9.) For a good discussion, see Vine Deloria, Jr.’s essay “Low Bridge—Everybody Cross,” in Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact (New York: Scribner, 1995), 67–92.

                    (10.) Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 19–23; Alan K. Outram, “Hunter-Gatherers and the First Farmers: The Evolution of Taste in Prehistory,” in Food: The History of Taste, ed. Paul Freedman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 35–61.

                    (11.) Graeme Barker, The Agriculture Revolution in Prehistory: Why Did Foragers Become Farmers? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 396.

                    (12.) Richard White and William Cronon, “Ecological Change and Indian-White Relations,” in Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 4, History of Indian-White Relations, ed. William C. Sturtevant (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1988), 417.

                    (13.) The controversial theory was first advanced by Paul S. Martin, “Prehistoric Overkill,” in Pleistocene Extinctions: The Search for a Cause, ed. P.S. Martin and E.H. Wright, Jr. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 75–120. See also Donald K. Grayson and David J. Meltzer, “A Requiem for North American Overkill,” Journal of Archaeological Science 30 (2003): 585–93. On Native beliefs toward the environment, see Raymond Pierotti and Daniel R. Wildcat, “Being Native to This Place,” in American Indians in American History, 1870–2001: A Companion Reader, ed. Sterling Evans (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002): 3–16.

                    (14.) Simmons, Environmental History, 4.

                    (15.) Ponting, Green History of the World, 33.

                    (16.) Simmons, Environmental History, 5; Stephen J. Pyne, World Fire: The Culture of Fire on Earth (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995), 11–12.

                    (17.) Joachim Radkau, Nature and Power: A Global History of the Environment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 42.

                    (18.) Simmons, Global Environmental History, 26, 27.

                    (19.) Marshall Sahlins, “The Original Affluent Society,” in Stone Age Economics (New York: Aldine, 1972), 1–39.

                    (20.) Richard H. Steckel and Jerome C. Rose, ed., The Backbone of History: Health and Nutrition in the Western Hemisphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Jones, Feast, 170–75; Barker, The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory, 4–9.

                    (21.) Simmons, Global Environmental History, 53–54.

                    (22.) Dolores R. Piperno and Deborah M. Pearsall, The Origins of Agriculture in the Lowland Neotropics (San Diego: Academic Press, 1998); Barker, The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory, 104–48, 182–230.

                    (23.) Barker, The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory, 221–22, 320–23, quote from 412.

                    (24.) Otto T. Solbrig and Dorothy J. Solbrig, So Shall You Reap: Farming and Crops in Human Affairs (Washington: Island Press, 1994), 17–18.

                    (25.) Jones, Feast, 142–49.

                    (26.) Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: Norton, 1999), 105–106.

                    (27.) Ponting, A Green History of the World, 26–35.

                    (28.) Frederick E. Zeuner, A History of Domesticated Animals (New York: Harper and Row, 1963); Carl O. Sauer, Agricultural Origins and Dispersals: The Domestication of Animals and Foodstuffs (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1969); Laurie Winn Carlson, Cattle: A Social History (Chicago: Ivan Dee, 2001), 18–46; Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Conneè Ornelas, eds., The Cambridge World History of Food, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

                    (29.) Carlson, Cattle, 18–20; Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, 167.

                    (30.) Sauer, Agricultural Origins and Dispersals, 86; Carlson, Cattle, 19–20.

                    (31.) Zeuner, A History of Domesticated Animals, 35; Carlson, Cattle, 21.

                    (32.) Solbrig and Solbrig, So Shall You Reap, 14–15, 19, 28.

                    (33.) Radkau, Nature and Power, 41–45.

                    (34.) Karl Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957). American environmental historian Donald Worster has applied the concept of “hydraulic societies” in, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

                    (35.) S. H. Katz, M. L. Hediger, and L. A. Valleroy, “Traditional Maize Processing Techniques in the New World,” Science 184 (1974): 765–73.

                    (36.) Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World, 68–87, 160–93; Simmons, Global Environmental History, 90–97; Radkau, Nature and Power, 71–77.

                    (37.) Stuart Banner, Possessing the Pacific: Land, Settlers, and Indigenous People from Australia to Alaska (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 55.

                    (38.) Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., The Columbian Exchange: Biological Consequences of 1492 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972); idem, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Elinor G. K. Melville, A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994); James C. McCann, Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500–2000 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

                    (39.) Eric Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 310–46, quotes from 315; Solbrig and Solbrig, So Shall You Reap, 143–161.

                    (40.) Philip D. Curtain, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

                    (41.) Wolf, Europe and the People, 315.

                    (42.) Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Viking, 1985).

                    (43.) Richard Tucker, Insatiable Appetites: The United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000); Reinaldo Funes Monzote, From Rainforest to Cane Field: An Environmental History since 1492, trans. Alex Martin (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); John Soluri: Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005).

                    (44.) Wolf, Europe and the People, 315.

                    (45.) Terence K. Hopkins and Immanuel Wallerstein, “Commodity Chains in the World Economy Prior to 1800,” Review 10, no. 1 (1986): 151–70; Steven Topik and Allen Wells, eds., The Second Conquest of Latin America: Coffee, Henequen, and Oil during the Export Boom, 1850–1930 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998).

                    (46.) Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System, vol. 1, Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World Economy in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Academic Press, 1974).

                    (47.) Sterling Evans, Bound in Twine: The History and Ecology of the Henequen-Wheat Complex for Mexico and the American and Canadian Plains, 1880–1950 (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2007).

                    (48.) Rory Miller and Robert Greenhill, “The Fertilizer Commodity Chains: Guano and Nitrate, 1840–1930,” in From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500–2000, ed. Steven Topik, Carlos Marichal, and Zephyr Frank (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 228–270.

                    (49.) Vaclav Smil, Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).

                    (50.) John Richards, “Global Patterns of Land Conversion,” Environment 26, no. (November 1984), 6–13, 34–38; Worster, The Ends of the Earth, 15.

                    (51.) William Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” The Journal of American History 78, no. 4 (March 1992): 1347–76.

                    (52.) Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 94.

                    (53.) Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949; repr., New York: Ballantine, 1990), 15; Worster, Dust Bowl, 93. For an alternate view, see Geoff Cunfer, On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2005).

                    (54.) See, for example, Norman Wirzba, ed., The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Failure of Culture, Community, and the Land (Washington, DC: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2003).

                    (55.) See for example Andrew Kimbrell, ed., The Fatal Harvest Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2002); Eric Schlosser Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).