Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization
by Richard Manning (North Point Press, 2004 ISBN: 0865476225)
The human race may not survive the agricultural revolution. “This book is not just about agriculture,” Manning writes, “but about the fundamental dehumanization that occurred with agriculture.” Just as agriculture drove out diversity in plants and animals, humans, too have narrowed to a few varieties of homo sapiens. Agriculture created poverty, social inequality, and slavery. In the process, it stunted the human race, dulling our senses and our intelligence.
“What we are today – civilized, city-bound, overpopulated, literate, organized, wealthy, poor, diseased, conquered and conquerors – is all rooted in the domestication of plants and animals. … The fundamental question was properly phrased by Colin Trudge of the London School of Economics: The real problem, then, is not to explain why some people were slow to adopt agriculture, but why anyone took it up at all, when it is so obviously beastly.”
Against the Grain opens sensuously, describing the synesthesia expressed by hunters. Manning wonders at his own apparent “sixth sense” when fly fishing at night. Later, setting up his thesis, he cites Stephen Jay Gould in calling the advantages of agriculture a “just so story.” According to the apologists for agriculture, surplus food allowed the leisure and specialization that made civilization. Contrasted with chancy hunting and gathering, the secure harvest bounty sfreed us from the Hobbesian state of nature (nasty, mean, brutish and short).
Not so, says Manning. In truth, agriculture was born of abundance and led to poverty. Hunters, living along the banks of rivers and the shores of lakes, planted excess seeds. When they returned, they enjoyed a bounty. How this led to farms and cities is not perfectly clear, but it did. And we paid the price.
Agriculture created famine. England suffered 90 famines in 1000 years from 500 to 1500 AD. China endures repeated starvations: 2000 famines in 3000 years, about one a year somewhere in east Asia. If we suffer en masse, as individuals we are not better off for it. “… paleopathologists who have studied the skeletal remains of hunter gatherers in central California found them so healthy that it is somewhat discouraging to work on them.” Prodded by a party of French aristocrats who maintained that Europeans were superior to Americans, Thomas Jefferson replied, “And yet we are the tallest people in the room.” Communicable diseases, epidemics, and plagues are the true bounty of agriculture.
Warfare being natural, perhaps, agricultural societies invented genocide. Not a single hunting society has willfully joined an agricultural community. Hunters were wiped out, first by the diseases of the farmers – smallpox, malaria, and tuberculosis, among others-- and then by the soldiers.
The essence of agricultural is “stoop labor”—not only for the fields, but also to build the monuments of Egypt, Babylon, Mexico, and Ohio. We die fat, living on sugars and fried starches, calorie dense, and nutritionally poor. Tea time and coffee breaks let laborers fill up on stimulants and sugars so they can be re-energized without leaving their machines. It is no accident that a fastfood worker earns about the same as a migrant farm laborer – and that their work is about equally interesting.
Easy to say that famine is the result of bad government – but what is the source of bad government? It is a fact that all agricultural societies are hierarchical. “Despite its stated reason for being – to diversify agriculture and to keep farmers on the farm – the Department of Agriculture has, since its founding in the nineteenth century, produced two unbroken curves in the opposite direction.” More and more subsidies resulted in fewer and fewer farmers, killing off the family farm and creating agindustries, the leader of them ADM” Arthur Daniels Midland calls itself“supermarket to the world” when it underwrites “non commercial” and “public interest” broadcasting on radio and television.
ADM President Dwayne Andreas said, “The free market is a myth. Everybody knows that. Just very few people say it. If you’re in the position like I am do business all over the world, and I’m not smart enough to know there’s no free market, I ought to be fired.”
The fact is that 2% of the farmers – who themselves are only 1.6% of the population – get 35% of all agricultural subsidies. No matter what ADM pays for products, the government (you) makes up the difference between that and the so-called “market price.” Every dollar of profit ADM makes on ethanol costs you $11 in taxes.
Yet, there is hope. Manning tells of Fred Kirschenmann who follows the Jeffersonian pattern, selling exotic grains to microbreweries and farming in otherwise individualistic and therefore sensible modes. Some Mexican farmers still raise 40 varieties of corn and who have ritual menus specific to each of them. Your town may have “farmers markets,” where you can find local organic foods in rich arrays. Here, food is not commoditized but is an opportunity for socializing. People come together to talk over and about food. When it comes to agriculture, Manning recommends eating “anything without a corporate logo.” One corporate logo he does tout is Chez Panisse. To create the restaurant, entrepreneur Alice Waters created and nurtured her own network of suppliers, getting people to grow the foods she wanted to prepare.
The book opens and closes with hunting. Manning writes of his life in Montana:
“I insist on sensuality. I guard my smoked pheasant, old guitars, and quiet as jealously as any miser guards gold. … Those who would resist dehumanization do so by daily staking claim to it [their humanity] by consciously practicing an aestheticism that our hunter-gatherer forebears practiced by simply living.”