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The History of Food Production

The world’s food production has shifted rapidly over the course of many centuries. While the food that society consumes now may seem regular, and may seem like the way things have always been, this is far from the truth. In actuality, food production has shifted over time according to developments in technology, changes in population, and even changes in climate. Food production itself is dependent upon so many individual factors that it becomes necessarily difficult to predict and project over time. In addition, it is perhaps, as much as almost any other innovation, the thing that society has most learned to alter in order to serve the needs of the population. Human beings have proven themselves to be both resilient and capable of dramatic change in order to survive in the changing world. From the earliest days, when people depended upon hunting and gathering in order to satiate their food needs, to the first days of agricultural production, to the industrial advances that made it easier to preserve food, humankind has found many different ways to feed itself. This paper will assess some of the developments in the history of food production, starting with the earliest human beings and running up until around 1960, when the earth’s population boomed with the so-called “baby boomers” after the close of World War II.

While it may be easy to think of the world’s history in terms of agricultural production, this is not the proper frame through which one should conduct her analysis. This is because, despite the recency bias that ingrains itself into the human mind, humankind has only been practicing agriculture for a short time. Human beings are estimated to have been on the earth for somewhere in the neighborhood of 150,000 years. Agriculture has only been practiced for somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 years, meaning that agriculture has, at best, been around for only a small percentage of humanity’s existence. People were still finding ways to feed themselves before they figured out how to produce their own food, however.

The earliest societies were known as hunter-gatherers. In fact, scientists believe that hunting for game and gathering various types of fruits and berries accounted for the bulk of human food production for tens of thousands of years. During the early periods of human history, nomadic groups traveled from place to place in search of food. Because of the need to stay on the move in order to hunt and gather, these groups were largely unable to establish the kinds of societies and home bases that we know and understand today. The reasons behind this tendency toward nomadic behavior is somewhat easy to understand. Animals often moved from place to place according to changes in weather and climate. The buffalo that roamed the plains of America were a good example. Many nomadic peoples moved to follow these and other beasts, and they were unable or unwilling to put down solid roots because they knew that they were chained to the movements and whims of animals. In addition to that, changes in weather could alter the growth patterns of various forms of sustenance. Fruits and berries grow at different times in different places, forcing people to be on their toes if they wanted to be able to eat without trouble.

There is some evidence that though the people of the early ages lacked modern medicine, they were able to stay alive for much longer because they took in diets high in fruit content, fiber content, and lean meat content. They were quite obviously not eating processed food, and the lack of preservative technology meant that these people had to eat their kill or their collection relatively quickly. This shaped the diet that many nomadic people took in, giving them surprisingly good health despite the relatively meager state of their understanding of medicine or primary care.

It is critical to understand the scientists, even while having some data on the development of civilizations, still do not have all data in order to make judgments on the behavior of individuals. They cannot pinpoint when, where, and why societies made the changes that they did. What they do estimate, though, is that the development from hunting and gathering into agriculture is something that was gradual. Societies of people did not simply slam into farming mode, but rather, they eased into it, learning some skills and perhaps combining the hunter-gatherer approach with the farming approach for a period of a few thousand years. Many scientists estimate that between the years of 11,000 BCE and 6,000 BCE civilizations in what is now the Middle East began to pop up using just this strategy. While they still relied heavily on killing game and finding their own food from conventional sources, they began to experiment with certain forms of food growing. This was helped along, of course, by the nature of the land that they occupied.

Much of the Middle East is in what is now called the “Fertile Crescent.” This was the area in Mesopotamia, in what is now called Iraq. The area was so named because of the rivers that run through it. These rivers create a distinct crop growing ability in the land, giving people the ability to live off of these areas because of the ability to grow a number of different sustainable crops. This area became known as the “Cradle of Civilization” because of its ability to host societies that would stay in one place rather than moving around. As mentioned previously, for most of human history, no societies were possible because people simply did not stay in one place for long enough to make that happen. This changed when people were finally able to grow their own food. No longer did they need to chase the wooly mammoth across the world in order to hunt for food. When they were able to grow things, they could begin to form cities, to put together leadership structures, and to experiment with some of the forms of governance that would continue through the region for hundreds of years to come.

While most people think of the agricultural revolution as being entirely about the ability to grow crops for human consumption, this was only a small part of what allowed these societies to grow and flourish over time. Another major part of the equation was the ability to grow crops in order to feed and domesticate farm animals. By 6,000 BCE, cows were domesticated in many parts of the world, along with goats and other common farm animals that one might see in many parts of the world today. Because people could feed their farm animals, they could begin to breed those animals and use those animals as food sources. They learned to milk cows and to collect the meat from their newly domesticated animals. This opened up an entirely new set of possibilities for society when it came to putting together its total food supply. With this new innovation in hand, it was not long until human beings all over the world were practicing agriculture in some form. In fact, historians suspect that by 5,000 BCE, all inhabited continents except for Australia housed some kind of farming.

Some suspect that the rise of farming was due to a number of different factors. Human beings began to develop new tools during this time, and those tools may have made it much easier for the farmers to collect and cultivate their crops. Others suspect that it might have been both a supply and demand situation. As more people began to congregate in certain parts of the world, there was a desire to develop new ways of feeding those populations. In addition, certain problems with climate change may have served to decimate many of the animal populations that helped to feed humankind. For instance, the cooling of the planet may have initiated an ice age that killed off much of the big game that people needed in order to survive. This caused people to seek out ways of growing food that were both more ample and more stable. They did not want to have to depend upon the whims of the world any longer, but rather, they wanted the unique ability to seek their own growing solutions.

One of the chief effects of this new agricultural ability was a growth in population over time. The population of the world ballooned from around four million in 10,000 BCE to around fifty million in 1,000 BCE. The population jumped again to around two-hundred million by the beginning of the Common Era. This was possible because people were able to feed themselves more effectively and to establish safer societies where there was less infant mortality and less death overall. The ability to stay in one place proved critical for the development of the human population. This, of course, had its own impact on the food supply and food production in general. Because food production soared and increased population, demand for food went up, as well. This meant that people and societies had to continue to hone their ability to produce foods that were high in nutritious content. Some suggest that the food grown by agricultural societies had a distinct edge over the food that could be gathered and hunted. While the hunted and gathered food may have looked good from a health standpoint, the farmed food had a higher calorie content per unit. This was important for societies that were trying to fill their people with food that would give them energy to do the things they needed to do.

The development of food production helped to bring about some of the class structures that have persisted into the modern era. As societies began to produce more food than they needed in some cases, people had some freedom to pursue interests other than just producing food to feed themselves and their families. This signaled a major shift in the way that society operated. Previously, these individuals had been almost entirely interested in feeding themselves. As the food production capabilities grew, they could develop social systems and political arrangements. They could engage in free thought on the way that society should be run. In short, the modern political state began to develop as people in societies were given the admittedly limited freedom to operate outside of the realm of necessity. In fact, this gave rise to a political elite that would control the supply of food. They could decide who got food and who did not. As a result of this unique power, these individuals were able to exert influence and control over others around them. These sorts of inequities would shape-shift over time, but they would remain important for thousands of years to come.

The developing societies were not completely protected from ruin just because they could grow crops. Certain technological innovations, including irrigation around 6,000 BCE and the plow around 3,000 BCE, had given societies the ability to work the land hard and fast. As one might suspect, many cities and societies went through boom and bust periods because they would deplete their land. They would experience significant soil erosion. It might be fair to say in this regard that the technology developed more quickly than the actual knowledge on how to farm. This left many people in a difficult situation that they did not have the ability to free themselves of. Nowhere was this more true than in Ancient Rome, where for hundreds of years, the soil that might have allowed the Romans to grow their own food was depleted in such a way that they had to rely on shipments from the outside. The Romans relied, at least in part, on shipments of wheat that came from a thousand miles away in Africa. This changed the way that societies interacted with one another, it altered notions of security, and it even led to cultural exchange between nations that might not have otherwise met one another.

The time after the fall of the Roman Empire brought about a cyclical period, especially in Europe. Good weather and climate brought about a boom for much of Europe around the early Middle Ages. All of a sudden, they were able to grow many crops that they had not been able to grow before. However, poor conditions, poor weather, and the like threatened this European prosperity through the Middle Ages. This once again prompted the people of those times to develop new ways of producing food in order to meet their needs. Leading up to the 17th century, the Europeans experienced significant favor again, as they began to experiment with using animal manure in order to more effectively grow their crops. This change in methodology gave the soil better retention, allowing for the growth of crops that had not previously been seen before. The animal manure was easy to acquire and helped them solve a couple of different problems. Previously, these people had tried to grow crops because they did not have the ability to purchase other items. This made finding a cheap solution extremely important. Animal manure filled that need because, in a society with many domesticated animals, it was a resource that cost them almost nothing.

Population growth was perhaps the distinguishing factor that defined the period between the 17th century and the start of the 20th century. In fact, the population during that time went from around 550 million to roughly 1.6 billion. This near tripling of the population made for difficulty, as the food production could not keep up with demand. Simply put, many people starved during this time, with the Irish Potato Famine perhaps being the most famous example of a society that struggled to feed its own people. In addition to the struggles in Ireland, other parts of mainland Europe struggled to produce enough food to meet the needs of a growing population. A number of things helped to bring the world out of these problems. Many historians suggest that it was the development of American agriculture that saved the world in some regard. American-based crops, including corn and sweet potatoes, spread around the world during the late 1700s and early 1800s. This made sense, of course, because of the ability of the US to produce these things for cheap with the help of enslaved labor. The cheap crops may have been lacking in cost, but they were heavy in nutritional value. Many have described these crops as being “prolific” for their ability to save people from the hunger that had befallen them. Many of these crops helped to sustain the world’s population until countries could begin growing their own prolific foods. The reasons for the efficacy of this food are somewhat easy to understand. As starches, these foods were utterly packed with calorie content, along with a number of other nutrients, as well. This, of course, had a negative impact on the overall health of the people consuming the food. It did, however, provide them with valuable sustenance that could help them get through their days with heightened productivity over time. The efficacy of these foods influenced other societies to try and develop their own foods with high calorie content. This is a major part of the reason why more root-based foods were developed.

Later, certain technological advances helped to change the way that society produced and consumed food, and it helped to shape the future of the world. The early 1900s, with its industrialization, brought about much better shipping processes. All of a sudden, the railroads were much more efficient. The automobile was put into place. There were better ships that could move faster and be counted on to get food from Point A to Point B. More than that, though, was the advance in the area of refrigeration. Early refrigerators were developed during this time for the specific purpose of preserving a large variety of foods. Prior to the release of the refrigerator, many people had learned to preserve and cure their meat by hanging that meet in a certain way. With the refrigerator, though, it was easier to preserve all kinds of foods, with meat being included in that prospectus. The refrigerator was only the beginning in the movement to help and preserve food for longer. With more efficiency in electronics, it all of a sudden became possible to utilize freezers in order to better preserve meats. This made it much easier over time for people to preserve the meat that they did kill. Part of the problem for hunters is that there are seasons in which they can hunt certain animals. Animals are more active in the fall and spring, for instance. This means that there is not uniformity to the meat killing over the course of a year. The ability to freeze meat gave these people much better options for keeping meat when they have had a particularly good killing season.

In the US, more and more farmers began to use manmade fertilizer in the early part of the 1900s. This helped to increase the food supply significantly, allowing farmers to grow not only more crops, but also bigger crops. There were certainly some side effects to this, but the farmers were largely able to get these crops out into the market, helping to provide more for a world that was expanding rapidly. Around World War II, another important change happened in the US. Rather than continuing to rely on farms that tried to do it all, there was a movement toward specialized farming. All of a sudden, a farm would focus on growing only corn or only soybeans. A farm would focus on livestock or angus beef. The idea behind this change was that if a farmer could focus on one crop, or a small number of crops, then he could more efficiently grow that crop, giving the world more food in a shorter period of time. This was a part of a larger pre-War movement in the US to standardize and industrialize the food industry. More streamlining was done that allowed farmers to get their food from the field to the market in a shorter period of time.

The 1950s brought about the last big change following World War II and before 1970. This was the rise of the factory farm in the US. After the War, with America experiencing some prosperity, the desire to farm became less present in American citizens. All of a sudden, rather than having many small farmers, there were a few large farms. Production at these farms increased, with costs going down as a result of the scaling of the farms. This was a positive thing for food prices, though it has been met with criticism because of the chilling effect that mass farming has on animal rights and on food quality, as well. Still, this helps to explain why so much more food was available to flood into the average food market rather than having people starve in the streets of Europe, as was the case a few hundred years prior.

Overall, the development of food production has been a truly human story. Human beings have long been able to adapt to their conditions. They have long been able to utilize their resources in order to do the best that they can. Human beings went from largely being hunters and gatherers to being people who grew their own crops in addition to seeking food in other ways. Over time, as farming became easier, commercial farms popped up, relieving people of their duty to grow their own food. This has developed, too, as commercial farms have been replaced by the large factory farms, which produce large quantities of a certain good using whatever methods are allowed by law. This development largely continued, right up until 1970.



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