First food, then morals.
Food is our number one concern. For over a million years—although we had opposable thumbs, and biggish brains, and walked upright, and made tools, and maybe even talked—we fed ourselves much the same way that most other animals did: we roamed about, seeking food. Then, just a geological eyeblink ago—nine millennia or so—a few of us started to farm. That triggered a wave of new tools, which led to many changes in our lives until nearly all of us farmed. That then remained our life for millennia. Then, just a few centuries ago, another wave of new tools triggered more changes in our lives until today less than half of us farm. We didn’t plan all those changes, but they also didn’t happen entirely by chance. Generally speaking, we and our tools together seem to form a complex network, a swarm, which can rearrange itself just because that’s what certain kinds of complex networks do. As the last ice age ended, our swarm entered a certain kind of feedback loop—it entered ‘autocatalysis.’ Then, as that spread among us, our swarm rearranged itself—it ‘phase changed.’ Those two kinds of ‘swarm-physics’ behaviors have helped shape our lives for millennia, and they seem likely to continue to help shape our lives into the near future.
It’s 11,600 years ago, around lunchtime; a big change is coming, and it begins with lunch, or rather our lack thereof. An ice age is ending, and as the planet warms, global climate is shifting, and thus so are herd migration routes. In the wind-swept hills of today’s northern Iraq, one of our bands is starving—and bickering. Food is hard to find. Who knows why. Maybe there’s a drought on. Or perhaps we haven’t sighted a herd of gazelle, or aurochs, or wild ass in many days. Or possibly we had herded a few goats but disease killed them. We can’t head south, down into the rich river valleys where hunting is easy, perhaps because there’s bad blood between us and our kin clans down there. The point is there’s no lunch. What to do? Keep walking and starve to death? Or make camp and starve to death? That’s why we’re bickering. But as we near a field of golden, long-stemmed grasses—wild wheat and barley—we’re all decided on one thing: We’re so hungry, we’re ready to eat grass.
As our band rushes into the field, we wonder which of the seeds clustered on the waving stalks might be good to eat. Squatting to pull some up, we find that they come off in our hands, as if designed for easy harvest. We gather several lapfuls of seeds, pound them to a pulp, mix with water from a nearby spring, and lather the paste on a flat rock near the fire. That gives us a sort of gritty biscuit, a rough-and-ready version of today’s tortillas, pitas, or chapatis.
That night, as we dance, painted by the warm firelight, our little band forms a tableau, a freeze-frame of our species before the fast-forward changes to come. Perhaps months (years? centuries?) later, we work out how to ferment the same seeds. That gives us beer. We don’t, however, stop hunting and gathering to become bread-eating, beer-swilling hicks. Foraging is what we know. It’s kept our lineage going for untold millennia. So we keep roaming, following our food.
This is hardly the first time that we’ve relied on grass seeds. Around 19,400 years ago, in a brushwood camp now submerged on the southwest shore of the Sea of Galilee in today’s Israel, we had ground grass seeds into paste. Probably we didn’t do that for fun, but we soon stopped doing it. Now though, with the ice receding, for some unknown reason seeds remain vital to us—for descendants of our little Iraqi band keep returning to the field of wild grasses. Then, one day, again for some unknown reason, instead of throwing together our usual brushwood huts then moving on, we build a more sturdy camp with mud and stone. But we still don’t stick around. We do, however, keep returning to that camp seasonally as game dries up elsewhere.
Now it’s about 300 years later. We still haven’t tamed the wild plants near our seasonal camp, nor do we plant them, but we now store their seeds. Thus, in Dhra’, southeast of the Dead Sea in today’s Jordan, one of our bands builds something more than just a camp—we build a settlement. As before, we use mud and stone, but this time we build our huts around a central one with a raised floor to protect against mice and moisture. In it, we store our new treasure—seeds.
It’s now a further 700 years or so into the future. Seeds must still matter to us because harvesting them has already spread as far as the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean. Several of our bands in the area now build with mud and stone. At Dhra’, our numbers have now swelled from our usual clan size of about 25 to around 90. We no longer have a central granary, for each of our huts now comes with the latest luxury—a built-in granary. We still hunt and gather, but our old rover ways are fading away. We’re stepping into a trap, but so slowly that we can’t see it.
In all, it’s now been about a thousand years since our first mud-and-stone huts and for several of our bands in the region the trap swings shut. In northern Iraq, at both Jarmo and near Shanidar Cave, about 150 of us live together. That number may be our first real turning point because it’s around six times more than foraging alone can feed. As a small village, we’re now too many to live by hunting and gathering alone. We’re stuck.
By as early as 9,000 years ago some of us in the region live in small cities, of which the largest is Çatal Höyük in today’s central Turkey. There, perhaps 13,000 of us cram together in a marshy plain surrounded by live volcanoes. With hundreds of mud-brick houses jammed together higgledy-piggledy, we have no streets and no doors—instead we climb into our homes through holes in the roof. We still hunt aurochs, horse, and deer, but we now also herd tamed sheep (and later on, aurochs). In our fields, we still don’t farm but we do gather mutant varieties of wheat, barley, peas, and lentils. We also gather almonds, pistachios, fruit, and tubers. Further, we bury our dead under our floors. At this point, we still aren’t farmers, but we’re no longer rovers. We’re settlers.
That sketch of how a handful of us in one small part of the planet may have slipped from roving to settlement is based on the little that we today are pretty sure about, but it’s still only a sketch, and a made-up one at that. There are question marks scrawled all over it, but the main idea is that once the ice went away around 11,600 years ago, we, for whatever reasons that mattered to us over the next 2,600 or so years, cared enough about certain grass seeds to start storing them. As we settled, we chose the mutant varieties that had their seeds more tightly bound (so they wouldn’t scatter in the wind), that were taller (so they were easier to harvest), and that had bigger seeds (so they were worth eating).
We seem to have done that first in southwestern Asia. But over the next few millennia we tamed other plants elsewhere around the planet, among others: rice, beans, squash, and yams in southern China, northern India, north-central Africa, and central America. All over the planet we slipped from roving to settlement, then to farming.
Today we still live with the genetic changes that we started back then. Take corn. We first tamed it in Mexico’s central highlands around 9,000 years ago, and back then, its wild corn cobs were less than half an inch long. Over the millennia, though, we chose bigger and bigger ones. Today, some are 18 inches long. Without our help, such mutant corn plants would die out, because their kernels couldn’t escape the cob to sprout. In a way, we’re part of how they have sex.
It’s the same for many of today’s egg-laying hens. They lay lots of eggs—but they also don’t sit on them—so normally their eggs wouldn’t hatch. If we died out, so would they. So, too, would today’s cows. If we weren’t here, they would stop being fat and placid—and pregnant every year. Their numbers would crash, and any survivors would both lose their fat and go feral. In time, their descendants would turn back into something like their ancestors—big, swift, wiry aurochs. Watermelons, too, would shrink back into small, bitter berries. Poodle numbers would also crash, and any survivors would grow back into something like their ancestors—gray wolves. So, too, would bulldogs. Without us around to do cesarean sections on them, the heads of eight out of ten of their pups would be too big for them to be born.
All of those things—from corn to bulldogs, from sheep to seedless grapes—need us to reproduce. They’re all genetically engineered mutants. They’re all about as natural as a Twinkie is.
But while we bent all those life-forms to our will, doing so also changed us. For one thing, once we settled, then started farming, slavery became more likely. When we were all mobile we weren’t meek—skeletons from that time show that we could maim and kill just as well then as now—but we likely didn’t enslave each other. What would be the point? As rovers, each new mouth would have meant having to add perhaps 80 acres to our band’s yearly food-gathering range. So capturing someone to darn our socks would have made zero sense. (Not to mention that we had no socks.) However, once we started turning into farmers, new hands became worth more than their new mouths ate. Plus, as farmers, we also had more work to do. Slavers could both feed slaves and force slaves to make more food than they ate. Also, once we were stuck in place, we could invest in more permanent things—including slave pens. Even herders can’t stop slaves from running away as cheaply as farmers can. Then once we had longer-distance trade—with the horse, the camel, the ship, and such—slavery would have made even more sense. Before then, as slaves we could just run away. Our ex-captors could only follow on foot.
Farming’s biggest change, though, was what it did to our numbers. First, as today’s female dancers and athletes know, reducing female body fat reduces birth rate. Ovulation slows, or even stops. Thus, hunter-gatherer women are lean and wiry, and have few kids. But as we settled, and our food supply steadied, female body fat grew more uniform throughout the year. Ovulation stabilized. Birth rate rose. It rose for another reason, too. Hunter-gatherer mothers have to carry infants, so they suckle longer, and breastfeeding releases hormones that reduce birth rate. Once we settled, though, we no longer had to carry our babies all the time. Settlement pushed up our birth rate for yet another reason. Once we no longer had to carry our young all the time, we could manage more than one toddler at a time. Plus, farming made an extra pair of hands, enslaved or not, worth more than the extra mouth that goes with them. Thus, as we settled and then started farming, the cost of our kids compared to their future labor value fell. Women, instead of making babies every three or four years, turned into yearly baby machines. We started multiplying like rats in a grain silo.
That kind of self-feeding cycle isn’t unique to us. Chemists might call it an autocatalytic (‘self-helping’) reaction. A catalyst is anything that aids a chemical reaction while itself remaining unchanged. An autocatalytic chemical reaction thus helps itself continue—it makes its own catalyst. The more the cycle goes on, the more catalyst it makes, which helps the cycle go on, which makes more catalyst. It’s a beast whose hunger rises the more it eats.
Something like that started happening to a handful of our bands around nine millennia ago. After a while, our species fell into an unplanned feedback loop: more of us meant more farming, which meant more food, which meant more of us. We’re thus as much a part of our mutant plants’ sex organs as they are of ours. We’ve changed our food, but our food has also changed us.
Autocatalysis might help explain why, after we started settling, farming began to grow, although it doesn’t explain why we settled in the first place. Why, though, did we stick with farming for so many millennia after that? Was it simpler, easier, or better for us than roving?
Perhaps farming is built into our genes? Nope. That’s true for the few other species that farm. For instance, some termite lineages have farmed fungus for millions of years. For them, farming is now inborn, so they can no longer back out of it. But none of our ancestral species, going back billions of years, were farmers. Also, to spread widely among us, our gene variations usually take around 2,000 to 4,000 generations (roughly between 40,000 and 100,000 years). Farming is only a few hundred generations old. So it’s biologically recent, and our digestive, immune, and endocrine systems have yet to adjust fully. Thus, from our genes’ point of view, we picked it up just a few minutes ago. As far as they’re concerned, it’s a mere fad, like the hula hoop or the pet rock. The bulk of our genes mostly haven’t even noticed it yet—and given how fast we’re fleeing the farm today, likely never will. So we didn’t get into farming because we were somehow genetically programmed to farm.
Okay then, maybe we started farming because we somehow suddenly got smarter nine or so millennia ago? Nope again. Anatomically and genetically, we became what we are today perhaps 200,000 years ago, and behaviorally perhaps 150,000 years ago, and almost surely by about 50,000 years ago. By then, while we still clutched stone axes—just 2,000 generations into our past—if not before, we became who we are today. But not what we are today.
So settlement, then farming, seems to be linked in some way not with changing biologically, nor with getting smarter, but with our slowly rising numbers and the end of the last ice age.
Alright, maybe we got into farming because we suddenly thought it was a good idea? After all, as rovers, we sometimes starved. But that was rare. Whenever we stripped all the berries from the bushes, dug up all the tubers in the ground, and netted all the rabbits we could, we had to move until those things grew back. Judging by today’s few remaining rovers, each of us then had to schlep about 20 pounds of food, weapons, tools, and babies. Any adult who couldn’t do that—anyone too weak, sick, injured, lame, or just too old—might have been left to die. However, our lineage had been rovers for thousands of millennia already, so surely all that had happened many times before. Why change?
As rovers we had few diseases—not enough of us lived together for them to survive. And while we didn’t have much, we also didn’t need much. Plus, our dogs, who we might have started taming at least as far back as 27,000 years ago, would guard us and might have helped with the hunt. Then, too—likely—none of us were slaves, and—likely—all of us had a say in what we did next. We only lived in bands of 25 or so, and all of us were related, and—likely—all of us, including children, were armed. We were also hardy from unceasing exercise. Our skeletons from that time show that we were tall and slim and fit.
Once we drifted into farming, though, our lives changed a lot. Skeletons from about 10,400 years ago in Abu Hureyra, on the banks of the Euphrates in today’s northern Syria, speak of females in pain. They had enlarged and often injured toe joints, curved and buttressed femurs, enlarged knees, and damaged, or even crushed, spinal disks. They must have had to kneel when grinding nuts and grain. And with only stone grinders and sweat, grinding enough flour for just one family meal must have taken hours every day. Adolescent skeletons also speak of regular and excessive strain. They must have had to carry heavy loads on their heads routinely. Also, everyone—girls and boys, men and women—had fractured teeth. Likely, that came from eating partially ground grain and bits of stone flaked off during the grinding. Millennia later, some of us in today’s Israel would mourn that “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.”
But if farming meant new kinds of stress, and it wasn’t driven by our genes, and it wasn’t because we suddenly got smarter, then if we didn’t like it once we tried it, why didn’t we just go back to foraging?
Perhaps the reason is this: maybe some of us did go back to our old ways, but after a while many of us couldn’t. We were stuck.
If our numbers grew enough, we would be too many to live by foraging alone. Thus, in Abu Hureyra we had originally sited our village on a gazelle migration path. Fresh meat must have delivered itself to our doors regularly. Life must have been good—for a while. With autocatalysis, our birth rate probably then rose. But as the planet kept warming, the herds declined. Oops. Maybe that’s why caring for mutant grain became so important to us. The forager shtick that had worked for our lineage for so long quit working. To go back to it, we would have had to scatter again—and probably most of us would then die.
So maybe that’s why in Abu Hureyra we started making new tools—quite slowly in today’s terms, but far faster than we had in all the millennia before. For example, by about 9,000 years ago, weaving had already become a speciality among a few women. Fewer fractured teeth overall suggest that we then worked out how to weave sieves fine enough to sift our flour. Then, as the Syrian climate dried further, the gazelles stopped coming all together. But we couldn’t uproot ourselves to follow them. So, we kept hunting, but we also started penning wild sheep and goats—probably more for their milk than their meat—and we stepped up our planting. Over time, we tamed those sheep and goats. Then we figured out how to hand-throw clay pots (the potter’s wheel was still 2,500 years into our future), and pots made for a good way to store grain against rats. We might have then made more pots to soak our grain and cook it into porridge because our fractured teeth then disappeared. We could then survive even with few or no teeth. Before then, we probably just died (or perhaps our children chewed our food for us). However, with our new soft foods, tooth decay, once rare, grew. Also, with no more teeth-breaking, our numbers grew. But our larger numbers helped diseases survive. They could now circulate among us for decades. They could also move back and forth between us and our newly tamed food animals. So we got sicker. Infant deaths then rose.
In our rover past, we had a way to solve almost any new problem—we could just run away. So we probably bothered to devise new tools only when we had to face new demands—the climate shifted, or we found a new food source, or we were forced into a new area. Now, though, we were trapped in one place yet our problems kept changing. While each new tool may have solved a present problem, that may have only led to future problems. Each tool might itself have pushed us into a new space. In effect, even before farming, settlement put us on a treadmill of invention.
Neither we nor our leaders chose that. We couldn’t. First because we couldn’t foresee our future; and second because even if we could, we wouldn’t choose it. What hunter-gatherer would have interrupted the campfire songs 11,600 years ago to say: “Let’s farm! Sure, we’ll die about 15 years younger. We’ll also be about five or six inches shorter. We’ll also lose a lot of teeth. We’ll be sickly, too. Plus, we’ll have to work a lot harder—and all day long. Don’t forget that we’ll get less protein, we’ll eat too much starch, we’ll have less variety in our diet—and, by the way, that’ll expose us to a new thing—the risk of crop failure. Did I mention that we’ll also invent slavery? Also, more women will die making more babies, more of whom will die young. Oh yeah, we’ll also be in great pain for thousands of years. But we’ll just have to bear it so that some of our remote descendants can flee the farm and play video games.”
So farming probably didn’t start, nor did it spread, because we wanted to change. Instead, its spread might have come down to a simple numbers game. About 1,000 farmers can live on the same land that about 25 foragers need. So if the two groups ever fought, those legions of sickly, gap-toothed farmers would likely wipe out the handful of nomads. Even if the few tall rovers won, after a while the hordes of runty farmers that they ruled would swallow them, as a pond swallows a flung pebble, so it would be much the same as if they had lost. We would farm mostly the same foods. We would pump out about as many babies—and about as many of them would die each year. We would feed about as many priests and warriors—although they might serve different gods and have different weapons. Life would go on much as it had before, except that we might have changed some of our leaders, tongues, faiths, customs, gene lines, and so on. So whether the rovers won or lost might not have much affected farming’s spread.
That seems to be what happened to hunter-gatherers in today’s central Europe perhaps about 9,000 years ago when farmers in today’s Turkey swept through from the south. In Europe, the forager way of life then vanished. That’s also what seems to have happened to Amorites west of today’s Iraq in today’s Syria. Over 4,000 years ago we lived up in the hills, tending our flocks. We ate raw meat, didn’t build houses, and didn’t plant grain. But we were good warriors. So when we swooped down on the plains, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth—but not by us. We won the wars, so our lives likely stayed much the same—for a while. In time, though, we turned into farmers, just like the folks we ruled. Same story for the Hyksos who swept in on Egypt around 3,700 years ago. Same for Khoisan hunter-gatherers in Africa about 3,000 years ago, when a wave of Bantu farmers and herders started expanding south and east. Same for the Vikings in Europe 1,200 years ago. The Turks in Persia, the Mughals in India, the Mongols in China—the farm swallowed them all.
Any tool that lets us get lots more food can increase our birthrate. It needn’t be a sickle for grain plants. It could be woven traps for shellfish, or fishing nets for salmon runs, or using torches to stampede bison herds off a cliff. If it also tempts us to settle, then the more our numbers rise, the more must we depend on our new foods. The more dependent we become, the more precarious our lives become since autocatalysis drives our birthrate up so much that in time we have to cultivate even our most marginal foods. So when the next climate shift, or plant blight, or other food catastrophe hits, we’re always caught with our pants dropping and our numbers rising.
In short, become farmers and we must stay farmers—or die. And any non-farmers who warred with us must also become farmers—or flee. Thus, as rovers facing farmers, we either had to kill them all (as the Mongols sometimes did), copy them, join them, or run away. Our only other choice was to become herders and trade with them—and always keep our weapons handy. Whether rovers or herders, though, as non-farmers we needed a lot more land than they did, and every generation brought yet more of them crowding our land. Farming is the roach motel of human life: we could check in, but we couldn’t check out.
As with autocatalysis, that kind of network process isn’t unique to us. Physicists might call it a phase change. Water, for instance, has several phases. In its liquid phase it won’t expand to fill a room, but as a gas it will; similarly, as a liquid it will dissolve sugar, but as a solid it won’t, and so forth. Its properties abruptly change as it boils into steam or freezes into ice. The advent of farming shows that, regardless of what we might each desire, the network that we and our tools form—our swarm—can phase change, too. It’s stable if we’re all in one phase or another—either rovers or settlers, but not both. When we’re a mix, rovers feel network pressure to settle but farmers don’t feel network pressure to rove. It’s irrelevant whether we planned it. It’s immaterial whether we liked it. It’s unimportant if we even noticed it. In time, most of us will phase change into farming—and stay there.
Thus, farming wasn’t ‘better.’ Nor was it ‘worse.’ It just was. We might have chosen to settle, but we didn’t choose farming. It chose us. When we all lived in small roving bands, our food didn’t stay put, so neither could we. Since we could walk only so fast, and since only so many new berries and tubers and rabbits could pop up per acre per year, only about 25 of us could forage together. Then with settlement, then farming, our numbers exploded. But as farmers we weren’t therefore smarter, taller, fitter, longer-lived, more relaxed, less pained, or even better fed. Of course, as farmers we could have things that we couldn’t have as foragers—slaves, for example. But as foragers we also could have things that most farmers couldn’t have—free time, for instance. Farming yields more food per acre of land, but foraging yields more food per hour of labor. However, once we entered the autocatalytic loop, we didn’t have a choice between those two options. Maybe settlement, then farming, first occurred because it was the only choice for a few of our bands during a stressful time. Autocatalysis then took over. But once that happened to enough of our bands in enough places, the spread of farming amplified until we phase changed into grass-eaters all over the planet. We didn’t decide to do that. In some sense, our swarm did.
Eat Your Heart Out
Once we phase changed into farming, peasant diet varied around the planet with the region and the season, but in essence it was, and in our poor countries today still is, everywhere the same: mostly bread plus vegetable soup. In Europe, the staples were cereal grasses: wheat, barley, oats, rye. There, we baked them into bread and boiled them into porridge or pottage. We also fermented them—or various fruits—to make ale or cider. To those we added peas and beans, turnips and cabbages, leeks and onions, and—when we could get it—honey. That’s mostly what we ate because everything else cost too much.
For instance, in England around 1300, an experienced carpenter earned tuppence a day, a laborer took two days to earn thruppence, and a maid took a week to earn a penny. But two dozen eggs cost a penny; two hens, thruppence; two geese, five pence. A sheep cost one shilling and tuppence (that is, 14 pence). A hog cost three shillings and four pence (that is, 40 pence). Two gallons of ale cost a penny, and a gallon of wine cost four pence. Also, prices varied with the weather. In good times, two bushels of wheat cost five pence, but after a big storm, that much wheat could cost four shillings. In a famine, it could cost five shillings, or more. Plus, at least a third of us there were held in bondage. A slave and his family sold for 13 shillings and four pence, or about as much as a cow—or a warhorse.
For most of us in Europe (and elsewhere), meat was a rare treat. Most of our animal protein came from eggs, lard, or bacon drippings. We valued oxen and horses more for plowing and dung. Cows were for milk, butter, and cheese. The forest deer were for our manor lord. Get caught killing a deer, and the lord’s foresters might castrate us, if male, blind us, if female, or hang us—that is, if the forest’s wolves or bears or wild boars didn’t get us first. Instead, as peasants we raised pigs. They can live on kitchen slops, forest beechnuts, and acorns. We built fishponds in the nearest river, and we raised poultry—though not for the meat, but for the eggs. Folks with swords or bibles took the rest. Much of our extra animal protein went to our lords temporal as tax and our lords spiritual as tithe.
A few of us—monks in wealthy monasteries, knights in shiny armor, ladies in funny hats—ate richly, but most of us were too poor for that. Over nine-tenths of us were rural, and roughly a third to two-fifths of us not only had no extra food, we didn’t even have access to enough land to get all the grain we needed to survive. We had to earn the rest with non-farm labor. If we didn’t, we starved.
Whether rich and poor, though, we all built our meals around the staff of life, bread. However, wheaten bread was mostly for our few rich. Most of us more often ate rough bread made from beans, oats, and other cheap grains. And since soft breads wouldn’t keep because of mold, we often baked them into bricks. We didn’t eat them—we gnawed them. The toothless ate porridge.
Even without famine, most of us went hungry twice a year—in the spring, after winter stocks were gone, then in July, the month before autumn harvest. If a harvest failed, it didn’t always mean famine, but it always at least meant widespread hunger. First we foraged for beechnuts, berries, and nettles. Then we ate our older farm animals. Then we ate our future by eating all the rest. When those were gone, we phase-changed back into foragers—roaming the land, hunting for food. We then risked death to poach eels from the lord’s millponds, or squirrels, rabbits, and birds from the lord’s forest.
So in normal times we salted what meat we could. But salt was so dear that we sometimes used it as money. (Pepper and sugar were even dearer.) We also had fresh fruit and vegetables, but only in summer. The same goes for dairy produce, except for a little hard cheese and perhaps some salted butter. Plus, not all our farm animals could survive winter because we couldn’t feed all of them when no grass grew. We, too, needed food to survive winter. So at year’s end, we killed most of our livestock and smoked or salted the meat.
Thus each year we had to solve hard math problems. A cow, for instance, was hugely important. First, it was a milk source. It was also a lot of meat on the hoof. Its flops were also a fuel source, and a building material. In a pinch, it could also pull the plow if the oxen died. Then, too, it was a source of dung for the fallow fields—and thus future hay, and so future cows. So we had to balance our yearly cow-killing against the amount of fodder that we could gather and store before the autumn rains spoiled the hay. Kill too many, and we might starve next year. But kill too few, and again we might starve next year.
As with our cows, our kids also presented hard math problems. After six or so winters, we could put them to work in the fields. However, they needed food for all that time. Each year we had to guess at how many kids we could afford five or six years on. Thus, each year we walked a tightrope, and sometimes we fell off, as happened to Europe in 1314.
That year, Europe fell into a Great Famine lasting seven years. That summer, crops, pelted by rain, rotted in the fields. Harvests were poor, and food prices rose. Spring brought months of storms and heavy rains. Dikes collapsed in England. Fields washed away in France. Rising rivers drowned villages in Germany. Crops failed from Ireland to Poland, from Scandinavia to Italy. In England, the price of wheat rose eightfold. Both fodder and grain, covered in fungus, rotted in the damp hay barns and storage sheds. In heavy-clay regions, waterlogged fields rotted the standing crops even when the sun managed to shine. Continual rain leached nitrates from the soil, leaving it poor even when milder weather returned. Disease then killed the cold, wet, and hungry livestock. Fewer oxen meant less plowed land, which meant less manure for the fields. It also meant less transport, so even if one village did well, its grain couldn’t reach nearby villages.
Another bitter winter followed. The Baltic Sea iced over and ships froze in place. That spring, torrential rains returned, turning roads to mires and waterways to rivers, thus further blocking food transport. In Hungary, the Danube river—Europe’s principal transport corridor—flooded, washing away fields and villages. A sporadic war between France and Flanders, ongoing since 1297, worsened the problem as armies stole draft animals and added banditry to their list of job skills. Northern Europe began to fall apart.
As peasants, we ate diseased cattle, pets, rats, insects. We ate edible weeds—like mugwort, hyssop, mallows, bittercress. We ate the leaves off trees. We ate grass. Then we staggered across the countryside, begging for food. In the towns, unable to forage, we suffered even more—or so say the chroniclers, but then most of them lived in the few towns.
As among our cattle, disease then spread among us, killing rich and poor alike. Robbery and murder rose. So did food riots. In war-torn regions like Ireland and the Scottish border, we mined graveyards for fresh corpses. We cut the hanged down from their gibbets and ate them. Jailed convicts ceased to be fed and allegedly ate new prisoners alive. Families were said to eat their dead. Many chronicles even speak of parents killing their children for food. A poem from 1321 says it all: “A mannes herte mihte blede for to here the crie / Off pore men that gradden [wail], ‘Allas, for hungger I die.”
But such mass death was unusual only in scale. Widespread famine had come to Europe before (in 1257-1259), and would come again (in 1346-1347). In the 50 years before 1314, England alone had suffered famine roughly every 11 years. That cycle had held for at least the previous thousand years. Nor was our famine cycle special to Europe. In Africa, India, China—famine, disease, and war were familiar scourges—everywhere.
That had been our life for millennia, ever since we phase changed into farming. But starting just a few centuries ago, everything began to change. By 2006, only 45 percent of us were still farmers.
Relatively suddenly, instead of constantly asking ‘When next can we eat?,’ more and more of us started asking today’s big three imponderables: Why are we here? Where are we headed? Do these clothes make me look fat?
How did that happen? Well, one popular story, partly misattributed to Balzac, goes this way: “The secret of great wealth is a forgotten crime.” It’s a good story. Our rich can indeed steal. Our poor can indeed be stolen from. About 2,400 years ago, those of us in Athens sent an armada to the island of Melos to slaughter all men of military age, enslave all women and children, and steal their island. Similarly, in the late 1800s, a few of us in Belgium caused the deaths of at least eight million of us in the Congo, and stole tons of ivory and rubber (literally). The only thing that changed in all that time is the scale. Our rich have good housebreaking tools—inside information, numbered Swiss bank accounts, tanks. And even the most heinous crime has a half life, because we all die. So in our amnesiac world, even the grapes of wrath, if stolen long enough ago, will ferment into the wine of unquestioned wealth.
But that can’t be why so many of us are so rich nowadays. No amount of theft can explain the difference in so many of our lives between 1300 and today. All theft can do is rearrange who has what stuff. It can’t make more stuff. We made more stuff with new technology.
‘Technology’ needn’t only mean something blinky and shiny that we can buy in a store. It’s any tool. Willow bark can be a tool, once we find out that we can chew it to cure headache. Cows are tools, too. So is corn, butter, dirt roads, shoes, and chopsticks. So are toilets, swords, nuclear weapons, sewer pipes, thread, mail-order catalogs, and chewing gum. Even in the wilderness we use tools. Using a stick to reach high fruit is using a tool. Sharpening a stick to kill something is using a tool. Stacking stones into a cairn to cover a dead body is using a tool. So is dropping a tree over a river to cross it. So is kindling a fire.
But it’s not just what we make, but also what we make ourselves into. Much of how we organize ourselves are also tools. An installment plan is a tool. So is a bond market. So is a stock exchange. So, too, is a city. Our tools don’t even have to be physical; they can be ideas alone. We can make a bucket brigade to put out a fire, and although we can touch the buckets and the people, we can’t touch the bucket brigade. It’s a network; it’s a tool we shape ourselves into to do something.
We use all those things to serve our needs, and in many cases, they wouldn’t exist, or wouldn’t exist in the form they do, without us. We eat technology. We sleep on technology. We live in technology. Technology is what we do.
In our last 6,000 or so years, all sorts of things happened: dynasties came and went, nations came and went, empires came and went, tongues came and went, faiths came and went, but our food supply changed slowly, if at all. It mostly changed only when we came up with new tools. By discovering or inventing new tools, or by trading those tools, or what those tools helped us make, we made more stuff. So the secret of most great wealth isn’t a forgotten crime; more often it’s a forgotten tool or a forgotten deal.
Even something as seemingly simple as our invention of pots changed our food supply. With pots, we could store more food, so our overall food store grew. Whenever we made a useful new tool—the sickle, the pot, the plow, the tin can, the train, the shipping container—we could make or store or move or trade more food. That also works for banks, credit markets, pension plans. Many of our new tools pushed down our food-to-tool exchange rate.
Further, the periods during which that exchange rate stayed fixed—once millennia, then centuries, then decades, and perhaps someday, years or maybe even less—are shortening. That seems to be happening partly because beyond a certain point we fell into a new autocatalytic cycle—an industrial one—which led to a phase change just as big as the one that dragged us into farming in the first place.
Once we had a critical mass of industrial tools, the more food we could make, or store, or trade. With more food, the more of us there could be. And the more of us there were, the faster our mass of industrial tools could grow. In some parts of the globe today, our tool supply is now growing faster than our numbers need to. And some of us now worry about being too fat rather than being too thin. We started fleeing the farm’s roach-motel life.
At no time did we have any idea what we were really doing nor where we were really going. But we weren’t merely bumping around at random, either. In some sense, it’s our swarm—all of us and our tools together, not any one of us, nor even any one group of us—that’s been driving us to do the large-scale things that we do. We seem to be something like termites building a nest, except that ours now spans a planet.
But if that’s a reasonable way to think of ourselves, how come most of us don’t seem to see ourselves that way? And how come the Balzac story is still so popular? Well, until recently, big increases in our food supply used to be rare. Most of the time, our food supply really was mostly fixed. Thus, the only way for me to get more food was to kill you—or steal from you. Hence the Athenian sack of Melos, the Belgian sack of the Congo, and so many other ravages down the long millennia. Further, until recently, we always responded to any food increase by increasing our numbers, which evened out our average amount of food. So if you were rich and I were poor, often it meant that you or your ancestors had stolen—if not from me, then at least from someone. That then led to the belief that we have a carrying capacity, as gazelles do. More of us—often a code phrase for more of us who are poor—just makes for a bigger drain on our resources. Sooner or later we must starve back to our carrying capacity.
Is that true? Well, in the short run, yes. But in the long run, no, because we aren’t gazelles. We make tools, and that changes our food supply. We’ve also already partly broken the link between food and numbers. Further, the difference in consumption between rich and poor is now so vast that our overall resource demand is far less about how many of us are alive than it is about how much our rich consume.
So, in the long run, there’s no fixed limit to our food. However, many of us today, especially in rich lands, apparently still believe that there is, just as we believed it in Europe in 1300. But back then, it at least made some sense. At the time, our tool supply grew slowly compared to today, and nearly all of us lived in a hungry world. Our most important labor-saving devices were oxen, children, and slaves—and they all needed food. Also, our transport tools were so slow and costly that trade was low, so our manors had to be largely self-sufficient. So when hard times came we had nothing to do but starve—or try to make someone else starve. Today, many of us, especially in our rich nations, have seemingly forgotten that past, but we still preach personal, familial, corporate, or national self-reliance, just as Europe’s manor lords once did. It’s a wonderfully bracing fiction—the frontier life, rugged loners, everyone for themselves—but in practice, and with rare Robinson Crusoe exceptions, we’ve never been self-reliant. We’ve always banded together. So while killing and stealing might be all kinds of fun, and might make for exciting movies, they haven’t brought us to where we are today. It’s our awareness of, empathy for, and network linkage to each other that distinguishes us from the beasts that perish. We live by each other’s grace.
Although over half of us have already fled the farm, nearly all of us still live on farmed food. Most of that food is still either grass, or is based on grass. The most important of those grasses are cereals—like rice, wheat, and corn—and cereals alone still give us half our protein and over half our food energy. As we’ve grown more industrial over the last few centuries many of us have changed our farming tools a lot. But we’ll likely keep changing them, because in many ways we’re still fetching our food from the earth much as we did millennia ago. In particular, we still lose an awful lot of energy.
That energy loss begins with our crops. Consider a carrot plant. For it to make a carrot, it needs water, nutrients, carbon dioxide, and energy. It fetches water (and nutrients) by getting its sap to flow upwards, against gravity, and it does that by opening pores in its leaves. Water then evaporates from its leaves, which pulls water at its roots, which sucks up more water (and nutrients) from the soil. Opening its pores also lets in air, which includes carbon dioxide, which it breaks apart and combines with water to make oxygen—which it releases—and carbohydrates, which it needs to grow. To do all that, it needs energy, which it gets from the sun’s light. But the sun also heats it; and the hotter it gets, the less it can do. So it has to open more pores to transpire more water to cool itself down. But that depends on how humid the day is. Unless the day is windy or rainy, the hotter or drier the plant gets, the more water it would lose if it keeps its pores open too long. So it has to close its pores, or else it will lose too much water, and thus wilt. Wilting would mean a loss of leaf area, which it needs to capture light. Yet it also has to keep its pores open when it’s capturing light, or else it won’t get enough of the carbon dioxide that it needs that light for in the first place. So even when it’s bathed in solar energy, it can only use a little to make carbohydrates. It spends most of its time doing everything else it has to do just to survive. So its problem isn’t how to gain more energy, but how to lose more energy. It thus throws away over 98 percent of the energy that the sun gives it.
When we cultivate that carrot plant we lose even more energy. Even with pesticides, we lose at least 30 to 40 percent of all our crops to weeds, pests, and disease. Thus we lose between a quarter and a third of all our soybean, wheat, and cotton before harvest. We lose even more of our corn, rice, and potatoes. Even after harvest, on average we throw away around 93 percent of our food plants’ bodies as inedible. (That’s partly because we mostly don’t eat roots, stems, branches, and leaves. But even of what’s left, we still lose a lot. For example, we lose around 40 percent of all our cereals after harvest because of spoilage.) Then, of the remaining seven percent, we only eat about 13 percent. We even lose a lot of that. For instance, in 1995 in the United States we threw away 27 percent (96 billion pounds) of our edible food. In 2007 in Britain we threw away almost 15 billion pounds of our edible food. Of the remaining tiny fraction, we use much of it to seed, nourish, protect, harvest, transport, prepare, package, and sell those edibles. In all, between our plants’ problems and our problems, when we eat a plant we’re losing at least 98.99 percent of the energy that the sun gives us.
Nor is that the end of the energy loss. Meat is energy-rich, but making it costs far more energy than we get out of eating it. For example, in the United States in 2005 we each ate about 200 pounds of meat. To grow that meat, we fed our food animals over half of all the grain we grew. But when we feed a carrot to a rabbit, then eat some rabbit stew, we’re losing a lot of energy since, just to exist, the rabbit must burn a lot of the energy that the carrot captured. Similarly, when a chicken pecks grain, then we eat a chicken sandwich, we’re eating something whose grain equivalent could have fed perhaps ten of us. When we eat seafood, often we’re losing even more energy. Fish, like tuna and salmon, eat as much as 20 times their weight in smaller fish, like herring and anchovies. Thus, tuna eat herring, which eat zooplankton (tiny sea animals), which eat phytoplankton (tiny sea plants). Roughly speaking, every stomach in any food chain means a tenfold loss of energy. So when we eat some tuna salad, we’re forfeiting lots of energy. Thus, when we eat any animal, we give up at least 98.999 percent of all the energy that our planet gets from the sun.
To compensate for all that lost solar energy, we add yet more energy by digging some up out of the ground. For example, in 2001 on the Canadian prairies, an acre of wheat needed about 80 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer. Making that fertilizer costs energy—which usually comes from natural gas. We thus inject into the Canadian soil about 1.6 million kilocalories of energy per acre per year. That’s not counting the energy cost of making phosphorus, sulfur, and potassium fertilizers. Nor does it count the diesel fuel we burn for tillage and transport. Nor does it count the energy cost of irrigation. Processing our food burns yet more energy. For instance, in Florida in 1992 it cost three times as much energy to put a can of applesauce on a grocery shelf as it did to put the same amount of apples in the produce department. And it took almost 15 times as much energy to make a bag of potato chips as it did to make an equal amount of potatoes.
We might do more with less, but we would first have to change how we think about plants. We get most of our nutrition directly from them, but not because they’re here to feed us. They’re here to make more of themselves.
A plant is a self-building factory. It absorbs energy and sucks in raw materials to then extrude parts. It builds a tubelike shell (its stem), and, at least for vascular plants, inside that it builds pipes, filters, and hydraulic pumps. It might also build storage bins (its roots), and solar cells and gas exchangers (its leaves). Plus it builds factory embryos (its seeds, tubers, and such) to make yet more self-building factories.
Those factory embryos are rich in the building materials that future factories will need to start building themselves. A few of them—grains, legumes, nuts, tubers, and such—are relatively big, relatively easy to harvest, and relatively resistant to damage. That makes them storable, and worth our while to eat—just as we eat hen eggs, but don’t bother with rooster sperm. Sometimes, though, we instead eat the factory’s solar cells, as in spinach and lettuce. Sometimes, as in celery and asparagus, we eat its shell and hydraulic system. We might also eat its storage system, as in carrots and radishes, or its casing (sassafras and cinnamon), its hydraulic fluid (maple), its capsule casing (dandelion, nasturtium, pansy), or the whole thing (sprouts and mushrooms). (Although, a mushroom is a fungus, not a plant; but it, too, is a self-building factory.) A salad is thus really just a mess of factory parts.
Seeing plants as factories helps us re-see farming. It’s really a branch of engineering. We already engineer our little green factories in many ways. We aerate their soil. We raise their nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium supplies. We raise and control their water supply. We separate them in the soil so that they don’t have to compete for such supplies, and so on. When farming, what we’re really doing is manually injecting our cleverness into a plant’s life cycle to get it to do what we want. One day, though, we might pack many of those smarts into the plant’s seed itself.
For example, plants need nitrogen to make their genes and proteins. (We animals need it for the same reason.) Nitrogen makes up 78 percent of the atmosphere, so it might seem like plants wouldn’t have a problem getting it. However, most plants are such saps that they never devised ways to capture it from the air. For them, nitrogen needs to be in the form of ammonia or nitrates in the soil. But those get made only rarely (fire, lightning, rock weathering). Plus, once made, they dissolve easily. So it’s lucky for plants that we animals concentrate nitrogen compounds in our bodies. Thus, to a plant, an animal is just a walking bag of nitrogen (and carbon dioxide). That’s why corpses, urine, and dung can make such good fertilizer. So when we fertilize a plant, we’re mainly giving it more nitrogen.
But we might not need to do that forever. Legumes—like peas, beans, and clover—long ago solved their nitrogen problem. They don’t suck it in from the air; their roots make a home for nitrogen-fixing microbes, which gets them lots of protein. That’s also where we today get most of our protein. All around the planet we make meals by pairing proteins with carbohydrates. If it’s not soy and rice, it’s bean and corn. If it’s not lentil and potato, it’s bangers and mash—or burger and fries. So one day we might remake our cereals to extract nitrogen as legumes do. If so, they would no longer need us to get their daily nitrogen fix.
The multicellular photosynthetic autotrophs that we call plants colonized land 425 million years ago, but they didn’t spend all that time just sunbathing. Like every other life-form, they have predators, and since they can’t run away, they try to defend themselves from being eaten by lacing their bodies with all sorts of poisons: antibiotics, fungicides, insecticides, herbicides. They’re chemical warfare combat veterans, armed with bioweapons in far larger amounts than the little we add when we spray them with pesticides. Thus, when we eat a chili pepper, what burns our mouth is capsaicin. It’s a neurotoxin. Plants developed it in their bioweapons labs to deter diners. But they didn’t merely adapt to pests. They also adapted to the small amount of carbon dioxide in the air, and to variations in soil, rainfall, cloud cover, temperature, and humidity. Our single-purpose farming has weeded out much of that variation, but it hasn’t gone away. It’s still there in our plants’ wild cousins. As we learn more about their genetic heritage, we might make hybrids with many of those smarts built in. Such smart crops may well be hardy over wider variations in soil and climate. We might even be able to cover deserts with such crops.
Such smart seeds would likely change us, just as mutant grass seeds began changing us millennia ago. The ground is already shifting underfoot. In 1995, smart seeds almost didn’t exist. By 2005, new genetic editions of soybean, corn, cotton, canola, squash, and papaya, plus several others, already covered 141 million acres worldwide. By 2011, over 170 million acres were under cultivation in the United States alone, and the world acreage covered by smart seeds grew to one acre in every ten. As smart seeds feed ever more of us, ever fewer of us will need to be farmers. Our use of fertilizers and pesticides and such may also drop. But as farming becomes more like computer programming, such new seeds may also cost more as they take more effort to ‘debug’ in a whole new sense. Seed piracy may also grow, since the biggest cost might then become that of designing the seeds in the first place. Real estate prices may also change as smart seeds change the meaning of the word ‘arable.’ We will probably also make many mistakes—we might even accidentally cover the planet in a new superweed, like today’s kudzu. Engineered plants are just as shameless as any other plant. They’re all hussies and will blithely mate with their wilder cousins out in the bush, creating all sorts of hybrids. However, assuming all that doesn’t destroy us, more of the planet’s biomass might turn itself into our food—at lower energy cost to us.
No matter how smart our seeds become, our farms remain hugely destructive food factories. For one thing, they are, by far, our biggest water drinkers—and our biggest water losers. Of all the fresh water we use, about ten percent goes to our homes and around 20 percent to our industries. Our farms gulp 70 percent. Also, our homes and industries both return up to 90 percent of their water. Our farms return just 30 percent. Most of the rest evaporates, then finds its way to the oceans. That won’t change as long as we irrigate our crops by simply splashing water on the ground.
Our farms drink all that fresh water because our foods are full of water. An apple is about 84 percent water. A mushroom is about 90 percent water. Lettuce is about 96 percent water. An apple pie, a hamburger, a pizza—they’re each about half water. Much of our food averages about 65 to 75 percent water by weight. So when we grow food, what we’re mostly doing is making tasty water.
Further, while we ourselves are about two-thirds water, and each of us drinks about a gallon of water a day, the food we eat that same day would have needed far more water to grow. For example, a pound of wheat might need 120 gallons of water to grow—and a pound of rice, 144 gallons. Growing the ingredients for a single loaf of bread may have needed more than two tons of water. Plus, eating meat means using even more water. For instance, raising a lamb for six months might cost over 22,000 tons of water. So when water-rich New Zealand exports a lamb cutlet to water-poor Egypt, what it’s mostly exporting isn’t meat, but water.
Like all animals, we’re mostly just mobile bags of water—walking globules of the oceans as they existed about half a billion years ago. So we, and our foods, need lots of water. Over the millennia, as our numbers rose, so did our food demand, and thus our water demand. But more recently not only are we getting more numerous, we’re also getting richer, and the richer we get the more meat we demand, which means yet more water out of all proportion to our numbers. For instance, during the 1900s our water use rose sixfold, but that was almost twice as fast as our numbers grew. In 1995, in India and China, irrigation alone claimed over 80 percent of all water used. As of 2010, and in parts of the United States, China, India, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Iran, Pakistan, Spain, and Yemen, we were using groundwater faster than it replenished itself. So when we buy a farm today, often we aren’t buying land; we’re buying water rights with some land attached.
But water is only part of our food problem, for our farms are also, by far, the biggest modifier of the planet. In 2000, we gave at least 3.7 billion acres to our crops and at least 8.4 billion acres to our livestock. In total, that was about a third of all available land on the planet. At the time, we were also losing about 15 million acres of primary forest a year, and about 4.7 tons of topsoil per acre per year. Our food gathering, on both land and sea, also destroys millions of species. For instance, fishing is, or rather, was, like hunting; but, since the 1950s, it has become more like dredging, or strip-mining. Since then, nine-tenths of all big predatory fish—including tuna, cod, and halibut—have vanished from the continental shelves.
Thanks to the way we fetch our food, the earth is having a fire sale, where, apparently, everything must go. Except us. Maybe. Merely making our seeds smarter won’t change much of that. We need something else. But such a huge change, if one comes, would have to wait until we better understand the protein networks that make our food.
All known life-forms are mostly made of the same stuff as a carrot plant. A sperm whale, a bowl of petunias (minus the bowl), Diana Ross and the Supremes—we’re all bags of just a few elements. The big four are: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. We’re also made of a little phosphorus, sulfur, potassium, and calcium. (That’s why those eight are the chief bits in fertilizers.) Plus dribs and drabs of a few other elements. But to feed ourselves we can’t just down a bucket of carbon and inhale a cubic foot of hydrogen. We need the stuff in particular arrangements.
Thus, glucose is made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen—it’s a carbohydrate. Swallow some, and breathe in some oxygen, and our body can turn the two into water, carbon dioxide, and energy, thus reversing what a carrot plant, or any plant, does. (So, in a way, plants are just solar energy batteries that we animals can eat.) Take in some glucose, and the right system can turn it into aspirin. But another system could turn it into testosterone—or cholesterol, vinegar, ethanol, or vanillin; those are all carbohydrates, all much the same set of atoms, just differently arranged.
Add a pinch of this, subtract a dash of that, et voilà, some new fragrant dish emerges. So when we eat glucose our body might combine it with other foods, then convert that into other structures composed of the same elements. Arrange those one way and we get albumin—the chief protein in egg whites. Arrange them another way and we get urea—the main part of urine. It isn’t the parts but their arrangement that matters. From this point of view, all of us animals are just complex chemical factories that can convert sugar into eggs—or eggs into urine.
Today, all such conversions happen inside our cells. There, thousands of proteins react together in vast networks to build everything that a life-form needs, and about half our body’s dry weight is protein. (That’s why nitrogen, which makes up a big part of all proteins, is so important.) Those proteins are cellular machines, and, if we knew what we were doing, one day we might alter the genes that describe them to describe new proteins. We might then tell a microbe how to eat plastics, thereby making our plastics self-disposing. Or we might make a microbe that eats oil spills. Or one that clears clogged arteries. Or one that makes steaks.
Making a chunk of steak isn’t hard—for a cow. But we haven’t yet worked out how to do it without a cow. It’s hard to tease apart the effects of thousands of proteins working together inside a cell. That’s a bit like crashing a big party and identifying circles of friends by seeing who jabbers at whom, then watching each circle to see who gossips most, and what the topics are. (Well, it’s not really that simple. For example, topics can change depending on nearby topics. That’s the basic idea, though.) But computers simplify all that cross-checking. The next problem is that of making a life-support system for synthetic genes to copy themselves in. Once we solve that, we might start making foods in factories.
We’ve tiptoed in that direction by redesigning several microbes. We’ve already remade some to build wholly synthetic proteins. We’ve built viruses from scratch. We’ve changed cells to build simple digital circuits inside themselves. We’ve made cells that eat sugar and squirt diesel oil. We’ve even made synthetic cells that carry corporate logos in their genes. Someday we might fool cow cells into making a hunk of cow—without a cow. In essence, a cow is just a walking fermentation vat that turns grass and air into muscle and milk. Do we need the rest of the cow?
“Don’t look now, Elsie, but have you noticed anything
odd about Bessie since she got back from the vet?”
We don’t make our food. We watch it being made by small green immobile factories, or large mobile factories, inside a very large, automated factory that we call the earth. We fiddle with its knobs and dials, but mostly it does the job for us. So we haven’t yet industrialized our farms; all we’ve really done is mechanize them. So, despite what we might say, we don’t care about farming. What we care about is food. If we could easily and cheaply make our food, we would.
Only now do we know enough about genes to begin to think about making our own food. But that can’t happen overnight. Plus, if we ever do make food machines, our first ones will surely be too costly, awkward, or unsafe for most homes. So at first they would likely only shift a little food production from farms to factories. But if we do succeed in building some, we’ll likely build more, if only because today’s farming is so destructive. Over time we might slowly shift from growing potatoes to extruding potatoes. Of course, just as plastics at first faced strong pressure to look like the things they replaced, such potato products will likely be under pressure to look like, and taste like, the lumpy potatoes that come out of the earth. One day, though, we might well get used to potatoes that come from a factory. New potato styles—new colors, textures, shapes, sizes, tastes, smells—won’t scare us anymore. The same sorts of things might happen to meat and milk and eggs and all sorts of other future food-factory products. And if we ever get there, perhaps we won’t need to expend quite so much energy, water, and land—and destroy quite so many species—as we do now. Perhaps.
Given how swarm forces have helped shape our food supply in the past, what might our near future food supply be?
In 2006, about 17,000 of our kids under five starved to death each day, and over 920 million of us went hungry, living lives not much different from those that most of us lived in 1300. By 2013, that number had dropped, but it was still about 805 million of us, and even in our rich countries, where there was more than enough for all of us there to eat, if we were really poor we could still sometimes go hungry without enough money—or a gun. Food machines might change some of that, and they might lead to huge changes in our effect on the planet, but how likely is that future? Just because we could do something doesn’t mean that we will do it, or even try to do it, anytime soon.
From the point of view of physics, food is just the fuel that our body uses to convert solar energy into chemical energy. And our body’s energy needs aren’t even all that large. In 2001, our average body’s food energy consumption was only around 2,700 kilocalories a day. That’s the same amount of energy that we would get by burning about a pound of coal. In 2008, that much coal cost roughly five cents U.S., and just about all of us, everywhere on the planet, could afford that. So were physics all that mattered, feeding ourselves would be easy and cheap and none of us would starve. Since that’s not so, the laws of physics must not be the only things that matter. So what else does?
First off, the engineering difficulties of building a food machine are significant, for we don’t eat merely to gain energy. We also need spare parts and roughage, which means water, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, plus bulk. Shaping a cheap food substitute wouldn’t be easy. However, any step in that direction might save many lives.
There would be other technical challenges, too, for food machines, as partly programmable devices, could crash. None of us will want a new kind of famine caused by that kind of bug. Plus, even though such machines might not live in fields and gardens but factories and kitchens, as food sources they would still have pests. Mice and roaches and microbes and such like would still be hungry. Also, as computerized devices, someone, somewhere, would surely hack one. It might then be used to make homemade cocaine, mescaline, heroin—or gunpowder, gelignite, nerve gas. A food machine needn’t only make food; it would really be a disguised organic-matter converter. Even were we to find ways to force it only to make food, for a select few that food might be—who knows?—human flesh. Presumably, clientele for long pork would be quite exclusive. Were any of that to happen, it would scare lots of us, and we would respond in our usual ways. So legal, perhaps even military, worries, not just engineering ones, may matter a lot.
Further, food machines would likely bring wrenching change, and many of us wouldn’t like that. For example, our present food producers will almost surely fight such a possible future, just as foragers fought farmers in the long ago. Businesses devoted to food serving, handling, processing, and transport may also fight such a change—because they would either have to change, or go away entirely—so, perhaps they might even take to the streets to ward off the new frankenfoods horror. To nobody will it matter that we’ve been eating frankenfoods for thousands of years already—we’re so used to them that we don’t see them that way. Also, food consumers, which is all of us, would probably be rigid with fear. Many of us would probably oppose any change in something as vital as food. So politics, not physics, might well decide whether food machines ever come to be.
Yet further, food snobs would likely want to continue to pay large sums for hand-grown food. Elites would likely wish to continue to eat salted fish eggs laid only in special rivers. Connoisseurs would likely desire to continue to quaff hand-made fermented grape juice grown only in specially blessed earth. If we’re rich and something is machine-made but costly, we might well want it; but once it gets to be cheap, we likely won’t. Few of our rich will want our costly foods tainted with anything cheap any more than cheap color copiers made paper currency free. The whole point of being rich is to get things that others can’t. So competition, not need, will surely matter a great deal.
Even further, international discord might even rise, not subside, for food machines would almost surely lead to new foods, and thus new fears. For example, since 2001 smart seeds alone have already led to bans in Europe on imported seeds, which has led to constraints on countries in Africa that wanted to export food to Europe. Thus, in 2002 in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe we were facing famine, but we still refused food aid from the United States because some of that food was engineered. We feared that Europe would say that such smart seeds might have contaminated our native food crops, and so ban them. So limits on the use of food machines both locally and globally might well follow their introduction.
Also, in countries with good transport networks, economies of scale may well work against home food machines, just as they do today for things like water and power. Few of us have our own wells or generators; it’s usually cheaper to centralize. So economics, not technology, might well decide whether food machines become more like power stations or more like fridges.
While all such problems might smooth out in time, they all depend on the existence of food machines in the first place. But what might drive us to try to create the first one? Today, food is a big cost in our poor countries, but a small one in our rich countries. For instance, in 2003 in the United States, average food cost was around ten percent of income. In Eritrea, it was as much as 71 percent. If eating costs us ten cents on the dollar, and food prices double, we grumble. But if eating costs us 71 cents on the dollar, and food prices double, we die. So, in 2007-2008, global food prices rose. In Britain, we had to pay, on average, about ten percent more—around £2 a day—for our food. Many of us complained, but nothing more. In India, though, the same change meant that 40 million more of us fell into poverty. Food riots in West Bengal followed. Around the planet, that single food price hike meant that 75 million more of us went hungry.
In short, those of us who might most need food machines can’t afford to make them, and those of us who might most afford them, don’t care.
But wait, we all care about starving babies, don’t we? Well, we sure say we do. But caring is relative; a paper cut here hurts more than a heart attack there. Considering how we actually spend our money, in our rich countries we care far more about being too fat. Nor is that surprising. In 2007, all our rich countries were bloating. In the United States, around two-thirds of us were too fat. In Britain, about six in every ten of us were too fat. In Canada and Germany, at least half of us were too fat. Meanwhile, around the world, of every ten of us who died each year, six died of hunger-related causes.
In our rich nations today we’re too fat not because our genes have suddenly changed, or because we don’t exercise enough, but mostly because we have cheap food—and we have cheap food mostly because we have large and reliable food supplies. Over the last few centuries we’ve built a huge toolbox to ensure that. It consists of many things, among them: costly machines, trained farmers, and extensive credit markets. Those support huge equipment purchase and training, and vast storage facilities and transport networks. Add to that many farming schools and research institutes. Also add fast, long-range data exchange, and a rich and stable—and literate—home market. Don’t forget large and powerful standing armies in case we need to go fetch cheap resources from other countries.
Meanwhile, in our poor countries we have little of that toolbox. We also have far less reason to try to increase our food supply. There’s no point. We couldn’t sell more of it abroad anyway—rich countries won’t let us. Trade barriers shut out much foreign food.
For example, in 2006 our rich countries gave $372 billion U.S. in subsidies to our farmers there. That was over a billion dollars a day. As a result, the United States exported cotton and corn far below cost. The European Union exported sugar far below cost. Japan marked up foreign rice so much that it cost between four and ten times more than local rice. Meanwhile, tens of millions of us in Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Togo starved. There, given our climate, and our toolboxes, we could only grow cotton, sugar, and rice. We worked for some of the lowest wages in the world, yet still we couldn’t compete.
In effect, in rich countries we pay nearby farmers to starve far away farmers. We still live in a me-first world.
However, while all those forces might work against food machines, we might still produce them, if only by accident. After all, exactly that has happened many times before. The industrial phase change that went on to give us tractors had nothing to do with farming. As much as anything else, it started with an ironmonger in Cornwall trying to pump water out of tin mines. Similarly, our first fridge had nothing to do with preserving food. It started with a doctor in Florida trying to prevent malaria. Or again, our first tin can wasn’t made of tin—it was a champagne bottle. We got it when a cook in Paris was looking for a new way to preserve fruits for his candy business. Our first synthetic fertilizers, too, were accidental. They fell out by mistake when a chemist in France tried to make cheap diamonds, an inventor in Canada tried to make cheap aluminum, and two dyers in Germany tried to extract gold more cheaply. None of them had planned to make fertilizer.
In brief, our food problems are neither simple nor intended, nor are their solutions obvious—although our ideas about who did what to whom, and why, almost always are. Instead, our food problems might be side-effects of our global network’s current structure, which is a result of our current toolbox. So maybe we aren’t yet trying to build food machines simply because our poor nations can’t build them and our rich countries don’t need them. So millions of our babies starve to death, yet rather than trying to invent a milk machine, we’re spending billions to force them to continue to starve to death, then millions more to pretend that we don’t. If that’s so, then we’re indeed likely to one day build food machines—but they’ll make mountains of expensive, empty food—fat-free, sugar-free, calorie-free—long before they make cheap, nutritious food.
Likely, then, the laws of physics don’t control whether we’ll get cheap food machines anytime soon—or at all. The laws of ‘swarm physics’ may matter more. Yet we know far more about one set of laws than we do the other (if there are any, that is).
Today, figuring out more about that kind of ‘physics’ might be getting a bit more urgent because our global network seems to be in the midst of another phase change based on food. That change started a few centuries ago as we began to develop new industrial tools, but it’s far from over. Over half of us have already left the farm, but more change is ahead because we’re now leaving our agrarian age and entering our urban age. In 2010, and for the first time ever, over half of us were urban. By 2030, perhaps over eight billion of us will be alive and likely six in every ten of us will be urban. By 2050, we may hit over nine billion, and over two-thirds of us will likely be urban. Our numbers are rising and so are our incomes, and thus so are our food demands.
Thus, once again network forces seem to be driving us to change, maybe even phase change. As our food demands—and thus energy, water, and land demands—rise, we seem likely to be under ever more pressure to change our tools, and thus our ways of life. Large, long-term trends seem to be converging on a point somewhere not too far into our future. We seem to be nearing a tense time, perhaps even a crisis point.
Maybe we’ll keep inventing ourselves out of the way of what may be onrushing calamity, for, despite our many catastrophes, self-inflicted or otherwise, we’ve already changed our food supply a lot. In 1998, Eritrea was one of our poorest countries, with three in four of us there underfed—the highest figure in the world at the time. Yet per person we got more calories there than we did in France in 1705. In India in 1998, we ate more calories per person than we did in Britain in 1850. From 1970 to 1997, our proportion of poor dropped, our average income doubled, our infant deaths halved. In 2008 in our poor countries, over four in five of us had at least adequate diets. In all, in our poor countries from 1961 to 1992, our numbers doubled, yet our daily calorie intake still rose by a third. In 2013, about one in nine of us were starving; but in 1970 about one in four of us were.
Once upon a time we invented pots, perhaps to protect our grain from rats, then we found that we could also use them to make porridge. (Or maybe it happened the other way around.) Once we did, our teeth-breaking ended and our food stores grew. So our numbers rose—and farming spread. We didn’t plan that, but it also wasn’t sheer chance; network forces drove us in one direction rather than another. What are those forces? (If any exist, that is.) Figuring that out seems wise because, likely, the same sort of forces will be at work on us in future. Today we might be beginning to think of extruding potatoes instead of growing potatoes. One day we might have fridges that make milk and eggs, rather than merely keep them cold. Such food machines might even go into our spacecraft. In time, dirt farmers may become throwbacks to some increasingly weird past era. Perhaps the few left will grow only the bulk plant-products we need for fibers, fabrics, timber, paper, rubber, spices, and livestock feed. If that’s our future, much of today’s farming industry might well go away. Perhaps the poorest of us would then finally be free to do something other than farm all day or starve to death.
In sum, how we each might want to behave can differ from how our groups behave, or how our species as a whole behaves. Just because we together comprise a thing needn’t mean that we can control or can even predict that thing. At least when it comes to food, we seem to be subject to large, long-term network forces that act on us, sometimes (often?) contrary to our will. From the moment that one of us thought that certain grass seeds weren’t half bad when pounded and baked, we entered into a covenant with the soil. It hasn’t ended. But that covenant cuts both ways. Ever since our first ragged flint sickle tore through a sheaf of wild grass we’ve shaped our plants and they’ve shaped us. Through all that time we knew neither what we were doing, nor where we were going. We today can’t control our future any more than a few of us in northern Iraq could millennia ago. We’re always stumbling into the future, and mostly we’re looking at our sore feet, not the distant horizon. Unaware of ‘swarm physics,’ that has been our way for millennia. Trying to learn more about network physics might not change that, but ignoring it probably won’t affect whether 17,000 more of our babies continue to die of hunger-related causes today—and tomorrow—and the next day—so that in the minute it takes to read this paragraph, 12 more of our babies will probably be dead.