Unnatural Foods

I just completed a new section for Chapter 9 of The Genesis Chronicles, covering the side effects of agriculture on our diet and society:


Unnatural Foods

For those who haven’t read much of what I have written, I will let you know that I often take a contrarian viewpoint on historical events and trends. Whereas others may see an innovation as good, I may see it as bad, and vice versa. For instance, most texts call the period of European history from 400 to 1000 A.D., the “Dark Ages,” while I take a more optimistic view, preferring to call it the “Age of Faith.”


This is where the invention of agriculture comes in. Most historians have called it a good thing, because farming and herding produce so much more food than hunting and gathering. Indeed, you cannot feed the large number of people needed to build a civilization on hunting/gathering alone. Alas, I am starting to believe that is the only good thing about agriculture; and go to this essay to see the doubts I have about civilization as well.

In recent years historians, especially “politically correct” ones concerned about the impact of humanity on the environment, have changed their minds about agriculture. Jared Diamond went so far as to write in Guns, Germs and Steel that the invention of agriculture was the worst mistake in history; while Tom Standage wrote in An Edible History of Humanity that agriculture is a “profoundly unnatural activity.” So why do they feel this way? Well, agriculture has some drawbacks. Several of them must have been apparent to early man, if not to us:

1. Life got tougher when agriculture replaced hunting and gathering. There is a reason why everybody did not switch to farming when they learned how to do it. Probably for the same reason why some people go hunting and fishing today–they enjoy it. And with a lucky break, like finding a tree full of ripe fruit, or catching a fish within minutes of dropping a fishing line in the water, they would have the rest of the day free to do something else. In our own time, tribes that lived the hunter-gatherer lifestyle would typically only “work” fourteen hours a week. Compare that with the constant, back-breaking labor required to raise livestock or plow a field. What’s more, the farmer’s crops were vulnerable to disease and drought; unlike the hunter-gatherer, he couldn’t move somewhere else to escape the consequences of a bad harvest. Some historians believe that switching to farming was an act of desperation, suggesting that early man did not adopt the peasant lifestyle until there were too many people to feed on wild game and berries.

2. The caveman’s diet was healthier. Any fan of the “paleo diet” will tell you this. Hunters never knew what they might catch when they went looking for game, and the fruits and vegetables they ate changed with the seasons. Thus, nomads had more variety in their diet than farmers and city-dwellers did. Worse, the crops chosen for staples did not have all the nutrients essential for a healthy life; because farmers and city-dwellers ate the same foods all year round, they became susceptible to deficiency-caused diseases like rickets and scurvy. And because the settled person’s diet was higher in carbs and lower in protein than that of the hunter, he was more likely to become overweight, with all the health problems that caused. Try eating a potato as the main course for every meal, the way many poor Irish had to do from 1600 onward, and see how long your health stays good! Finally, the combination of grains and sweets that went into the diet of settled people started decaying their teeth. To give a modern example, today’s Mongolians did not have much need for dentists until the mid-twentieth century, because their teeth stayed clean and white when they had nothing but meat and dairy products to eat.

3. Herdsmen and farmers were too close to their animals. Sometimes they put their families and livestock under the same roof. Such close contact allowed diseases like measles, smallpox and influenza to spread through a herd and jump from animals to people. And you thought being allergic to your dog or cat was bad. In addition, overcrowding and poor sanitation in the cities encouraged still more diseases, and attracted vermin like rats and cockroaches.

Studies of the bones in prehistoric cemeteries around the world show first an increase, then a decline in the average person’s height and lifespan, once intensive agriculture and animal husbandry become firmly established. For example, prehistoric skeletons from Greece and Turkey show a generous average height–5′ 9″ for men, 5′ 5″ for women. But after they switched from hunting to agriculture, their height dropped to as low as 5′ 3″ for men, and 5′ for women; even today’s Greeks and Turks have not regained the stature of their oldest ancestors. One could argue that primitive hunter/gatherers were better off than many citizens of today’s Third World, or even better off than the “urban poor” of our more advanced nations.

4. Farming ruined existing human relations. While people were left malnourished and disease-ridden, farming also produced enough food to be stockpiled. This allowed settled communities to survive in times of famine, but it also meant that some people could spend their time doing something besides producing food. These people used their spare time to invent deadlier weapons, soldiers, warfare, and class divisions between those who had stored food and those who did not. In the typical hunter-gatherer tribe, everyone is more or less equal; one person’s possessions are much the same as everyone else’s, and only the chief and medicine man/shaman will have a higher rank than the others. By contrast, as civilizations advance, there is a tendency for social structures to grow more complicated and rigid, and for both wealth and power to be concentrated in the hands of a few individuals, until there are kings at the top of the pecking order, and slaves at the bottom.

5. Farming restricted where most people could live (to hot, irrigated places). In the ages before the mechanized agriculture of today, irrigation in a hot climate was the most productive way to farm the land. It was only in the countries where this was practiced that population density could exceed one hundred persons per square mile. Temperate rain-watered agriculture supported densities in the tens, and herding supported densities in single-digit figures. Pure hunting/gathering is about 100 times less efficient than herding; it only feeds an average of one person per ten square miles. These statistics are important because they explain why mankind is unevenly distributed around the world; what’s more, civilization is most likely to appear where people are concentrated.

One of the ongoing themes in history is the struggle between settled, agricultural communities, and nomads who live either by herding or by hunting/gathering. Examples include Central Asians vs. Europeans, Persians and Chinese; Nilotic herdsmen vs. Bantu farmers in East Africa; Native Americans vs. the European settlers of the western hemisphere. We see this conflict from the time the first civilizations learned to write, and it only ended in the late 1800s, when the last uncivilized peoples in the world were conquered by civilization. Let the record show that if the Cain-Abel quarrel was the first conflict between farmers and herdsmen, more than 5,000 years of trouble started right here.

6. As time goes on, food production has gotten less natural, and more artificial. Gary Larson, the creator of “The Far Side” comic strip, once drew a cartoon of a hunchback going into a store with a sign advertising “Unnatural Foods” (see below). Today only a small fraction of the food in a typical supermarket isn’t heavily processed or full of chemical additives, so I would put most of their wares in the “unnatural food” category. And it now appears that the journey from a natural to an unnatural diet began when herding/farming replaced hunting/gathering as the way to provide what’s for dinner.

Unnatural food store.

Over the ages, attempts have been made to increase agricultural yields, because bigger harvests meant more profit for the farmers, and more people could be fed. Early innovations included irrigation, water wheels, windmills, and selective breeding of plants and animals. But except for what irrigation did, the gains made were small and incremental. Then after 1800 A.D., labor-saving machines were put to work on farms, from reapers to tractors. The machines by themselves weren’t bad, but look what came next.

When the industrial revolution’s concept of mass production was applied to agriculture, it led to today’s factory farms. These produce vastly more food than your conventional, family-run farm, but they force animals to spend their lives in stalls and cages, and can generate almost as much pollution as a regular factory. And increasing the food supply isn’t the only way we have manipulated it. In the name of preserving food, improving the taste and appearance, adding vitamins and minerals, etc., we have put in all manner of chemicals, stuff that isn’t always good for our bodies. For those who don’t have the time or skill to cook meals right, we now have “fast food,” but there is general agreement that a fast food diet is less healthy than your mother’s home-cooked meals. As part of the “green revolution,” we have created genetically engineered crops that arguably do more harm than good to our bodies; e.g., read what William Davis, the author of Wheat Belly, said about the modern wheat that has replaced ancient varieties like kamut, emmer, einkorn, and durum.

Now as I write this, scientists are experimenting with hamburgers made from beef stem cells grown in a lab. This is a case of science fiction becoming reality; sci-fi writers have predicted for decades that someday we will feed humanity with meat grown in a vat instead of on a farm (H. Beam Piper called it carniculture). While this promises to eliminate the suffering of animals raised for meat, will it also open a Pandora’s box of new problems for us?

All things considered, the drop in human life expectancy after the Flood (see the next chapter) does not look like a mystery. Maybe instead, we should be surprised that with the way humanity has changed its diet over the ages, it did not happen sooner.

One response to “Unnatural Foods

  1. Pingback: The Green Man » Unnatural Foods

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