Asa E. Sapse

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Abstract 1

Jared Diamond takes great pains to discuss the technological and broad historical implications of food and farming, but devotes little attention to the elaboration and interpretation of deeper cultural and religious ramifications. Food and methods of food procurement likely played an integral role in the formation and content of religion; it is central to life and the foundation of many human relations necessary for the synthesis of culture. For some food represents control over nature, while for others it is something that must be pursued at the whims of nature, but for all it is a common factor; it is central to our identity.

I challenge you to find a religion that does not heavily reference or involve food. Jesus is represented in bread, water, and wine and the Jewish people eat Matzo symbolic of redemption, freedom, and sacrifice. Food is central to life and therefore reasonably central to religion; the Inca believed maize to be capable of transferring divinity and revered it as a vital element of their religious calendar. (1) (2)

Creation (or humanification) stories are very often in their essence, the story of food. We revere food because we need it, but at the same time look upon it as a bane, the reason we must spend our lives at work. Eve ate the apple and was forced out of the Garden of Eden; this sort of story is not uncommon and to be found in other societies. It is the story of how man took power not granted too him and the doom (life and food procurement)that the creator condemned him to. The Efik peoples of modern day Nigera for instance believe the creator Abassi to have expelled humans from heaven for agriculture. Abassi had feared man’s ambition and for this reason mandated the first two humans eat every meal with him; however they did not, and the woman began growing food. The founding humans liked the food, soon stopped showing up for meals in heaven, and ended up having children. Abassi found out and in the end humans became human, self-determined and in control, but condemned to forever feed themselves and die. (3)

Our worldview was and is shaped by food and the way we procure it. Christians arrived in North America with utterly agrarian notions of biblical God-given rights and commands to dominate the land. The natives they encountered were not entirely agrarian and culturally dissimilar. Christian settlers in southern New England perceived native men who hunted (seen as a leisure activity) while their wives farmed to be lazy; while the natives conversely looked upon white female homemakers in the same light. (4) Colonists were astonished by the willingness of northern New England hunter-gatherer tribes who went hungry during the winter in the absence of food that arose out of insufficient storage and could not respect the native’s non-possession of the land.

Food and the way we procured it have changed tremendously, yet these things are still relevant to our cultures and identities. “You are what (and how) you eat.”

1. Staller, John E., Robert H. Tykot, and Bruce F. Benz. Histories of Maize: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Prehistory, Linguistics, Biogeography, Domestication, and Evolution of Maize. Amsterdam: Elsevier Academic, 2006, 464-465.

2. Covey, R. Alan. How the Incas Built Their Heartland: State Formation and the Innovation of Imperial Strategies in the Sacred Valley, Peru. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2006, 52.

3. Leeming, David Adams. A Dictionary of Creation Myths. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1994, 80-81.

4. Cronon, William. "Seasons of Want and Plenty." Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983. 34-51.

  • While I don't have anything astounding to add to this, I just wanted to say that the connections you made between food and religion are truly something I myself have never before thought of! Food serving a symbol in various religious practices and backgrounds leads me to question how large of a role (if any) religion played in the slow evolution of hunter-gatherer to agriculturalist. Diamond briefly mentions how religion influenced and/or was used as reasoning for powerful, populated (no doubt agriculturally intensive) societies to conquer less technologically advanced civilizations as time went on, but I wonder how or if it affected the development of agriculture beginning 11,000 years ago.. Agercak 01:31, 12 March 2013 (UTC)
  • The relationship between religion and development of culture/civilization is certainly inescapable. So is that between food and culture/civilization. So it's probably inescapable that food and religion are entangled, too! But the two relationships might be similar in another way. In both, it might be difficult to point to either factor as causal of the other. Did religion shape development of human culture or vice versa? Same for food/ag? Or can we even think of causality that way? Kwoods 20:55, 16 March 2013 (UTC)

Abstract 2

Empires in the Dust begins by claiming independence from the whims of nature to constitute a “cherished notion” of the archeological profession associated with civilization. (1) This seems to be an exaggeration, which I find hard to believe in the presence of ancient and modern records detailing the havoc wreaked by environmental changes on populations. In recent memory is the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which lead to an exodus of 2.5 million out of the Great Plains states and depleted some areas of their population by over 40%. (2) Civilizations do “bow to the whims of nature” and it is quite possible that drought was a major factor in the disintegration of the Akkadian Empire, which at its core was dependent on agricultural revenue. While this may be so, one cannot merely implicate climatic change. New social and economic structures could have very possibly exacerbated and fed into the Akkadian Empire’s agricultural and imperial woes.

Civilizations are neither immune to nature nor self-sufficient and these realities seem to be in continual interaction. Every civilization lacks certain resources that would be enormously beneficial; these resources are often “game changers” and the existence of reliable means of their acquisition (usually trade or colonialism) often leads to explosive expansion and prosperity. After securing reliable access to “game changing” imported resources civilizations probably become dependent. They likely become embedded in their way of life, size, and prosperity. A civilization, which has surged in scale, would probably be significantly less capable of persisting in the absence of new vigor providing resources.

Today fossil fuels represent a fundamental imported resource and copper may have play a similarly vital role in Akkadian Mesopotamia. Copper was likely a key factor in the empire’s rise and may have contributed significantly to the extent and rapidity of its decline. Mesopotamian societies traded grain with peoples in Arabia for copper; it was originally a luxury item, but gradually replaced stone equipment during the 3rd millennium B.C. (3) By the Akkadian period it had become a largely industrial metal and during this time an empire and complex metal regulating bureaucracy was formed. One might assume copper to have played a central role in the agricultural, military, and construction technology which gave rise to great palaces, population, and military control.

If a drought reduced agricultural productivity it would have enormous impacts on trade. A decline in available copper could have aggravated domestic problems and lead to a precipitous decline in power that intensified social disintegration; this situation may have favored the internal revolts and invaders, which are commonly cited causes for the empire’s collapse. (4)

The fall of the Akkadian Empire at the most basic level was probably the result of climate change, however it could be that the empire would have never existed without copper and plausible to assume that an interruption in trade would have enormous consequences for the civilization’s viability. Ecology is not characterized by isolation and local conditions depend on complex interdependent factors on a global scale; the character of civilizations is similarly complex.

1. Wright, Karen. "Empires in the Dust." Discover Magazine. N.p., 1 Mar. 1998. Web. 23 Mar. 2013.

2. Mass Exodus From the Plains." American Experience: TV's Most-watched History Series. PBS, n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2013.

3. Edens, Christopher. "Dynamics of Trade in the Ancient Mesopotamian "World System"" American Anthropologist 94.1 (1992): 118-39.

4. "The Rise of Sumer and the Akkadian Empire." The Rise of Sumer and the Akkadian Empire. CENTCOM Historical /Cultural Advisory Group and Colorado State University, n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2013.

  • So, if assumption of independence of (technological) civilization from the 'whims of nature' is so obviously off-base, how does one read the claim in 'Empires in the Dust' that this has been the conventional wisdom of archeology? Is it a) a journalistic 'straw-man' -- not really true, but a convenient rhetorical tool for grabbing attention? b) archeologists are/were fundamentally missing something because of some deep cultural biases?, or c) situations have changed so much in recent decades that what was plausible/likely notion 25 years ago is now obviously not plausible? Figuring out which of these applies might give some insight into how to think about current 'conventional wisdom'? Kwoods 13:34, 14 April 2013 (UTC)

Abstract 3

We recently read about and discussed the implications of prior land use. Irreversible Impact of Past Land Use on Forest Soils and Biodiversity hypothesizes the impacts of ancient agriculture to have affected the studied land for millennia and claims gradients in soil nutrient availability at the studied Roman agricultural occupation to be the consequence of 200 years of farming. It emphasizes 2000 years as having past since the site’s habitation and suggests significant alterations in ecological function to persist.

The former article describes the effects of soil degeneration by the displacement of nutrients, however additions to an ecosystem can be of equal or greater consequence. Sustainability and Resilience in Prehistoric North Atlantic Britain relates this in respect to anthropogenic soil formation and is fascinating as illustrative of settlement’s profound effects on environment. The additive-based ecological modifications at studied sites were largely the result of middens of which could not have accumulated without sedentism. The same settlement that promotes unsustainable extraction also permits for the accumulation of waste; some of this waste has to potential to increase local productivity, however much of it does not.

Waste today is a bane on society; it is produced more prolifically than ever and in novel forms. The quantity and chemistry of modern waste is undoubtedly altering ecosystems and probably a cause of decline in agricultural productivity. There are currently more people consuming more than ever and the world’s cities alone produce over 2.2 billion tons of solid waste a year. (1) In addition to municipal refuse, civilization-supporting industry, agriculture, and resource extraction also release and generate almost innumerable quantities of waste/byproducts.

We do not and cannot keep track of much of what we discard, expend, and emit and often know little of what our waste contains. Only a small percentage of the 85,000 industrial chemicals in use today (2) have been tested and even less is known on how they combine. The effects of anthropogenic inputs are tremendous and some have already manifested in the short-term. One can reasonably assume that the effects of waste will increase with the human population and it is conceivable to imagine that some systems will experience fundamental alterations of long-term functions; such alterations could plausibly bring about profound enduring changes in ecosystem character.

Ecological modification is inherent to agriculture and one can reasonably expect even traditional activities to affect the land after abandonment. The above articles provide evidence to this reality, yet distinctions should be made; fertilizers today are primarily synthetic containing no organic matter and waste in the present is not entirely comparable to the midden of the past. Both scenarios described in the papers occurred over centuries involving only locally available preindustrial components; modern land use conversely involves foreign inputs and can reasonably be assumed to operate with greater rapidity. It would be plausible to hypothesize some agricultural lands as having already experienced alterations of long-term function and would further be reasonable to expect transformations in underlying character of heavily impacted sites. If abandoned some intensely cultivated areas might experience succession contrary to traditional expectations and never attain the historically “stable” state.

Much of the world’s farmland is of a semi-artificial character; some might even be considered almost “dead ” and in extreme instances soils are actually intentionally “killed” with fumigants like methyl bromide, which effectively sterilize it. (3) Many agricultural chemicals are regulated, however agencies usually do so using potentially skewed risk-benefit analyses. Agricultural products under review are evaluated for safety and environmental impact, yet some detrimental substances are still permitted. A failure to assess the compounds that may be generated by combination and or degradation/transformation is in part responsible; (4) these compounds may be of greater toxicity than their parent(s) and can bind with organic matter in the soil.(5) Long-term additions can result in residual wastes/byproducts, which can and do have profound effects on biological communities both near and far; they can degrade soil biology, structure, and chemistry and ultimately affect potential biological diversity. (6)

Fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide use can be expected to increase with population growth and the industrialization of developing nations; nitrogen fertilizer consumption is forecasted to double by 2050 and can be expected to have extensive ecological effects. (7) Nitrogen fertilizer in excess can cause soil acidification and kill essential organisms leading to mineralization and declines in organic matter regeneration. (8) Fertilizer does not remain in one place for long and can be expected to significantly affect ecosystems near and far; usable nitrogen concentrations very rarely reach levels made possible by fertilizer in nature and most ecosystems are adapted to relatively nutrient poor conditions. Some studies examining nitrogen strain suggest that stress tolerant species of plants (e.g. better adapted to acidification, changes in mycorrhizal community, infection) initially outcompete more sensitive ones; however other studies predict growth rate to be of greater initial significance to the continuance of species within affected communities. (9) The stress of plant species impacted by new competitive dynamics resulting from excessive anthropogenic nitrogen deposition is compounded by increased herbivory hypothesized to result from increased nitrogen assimilation and decreased concentrations of carbon-based defensive compounds.

The examination of nitrogen alone reveals the incredible extent of impacts on habitability resulting from human induced chemical interaction. The addition, subtraction, and interaction of anthropogenic substances can bring about the alteration of species preference in communities and changes may persist for considerable duration; they have the potential to affect interacting ecological factors and over time could plausibly transform an ecosystems.

1. "A Rubbish Map." The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 7 June 2012. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.

2. Urbina, Ian. "Think Those Chemicals Have Been Tested?" The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Apr. 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.

3. Methyl Bromide Questions & Answers | Ozone Layer Protection - Regulatory Programs | US EPA." EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2013.

4.Sinclair, Chris J., and Alistair B. A. Boxall. "Assessing the Ecotoxicity of Pesticide Transformation Products." Environmental Science & Technology 37.20 (2003): 4617-625.

5. Bollag, Jean-Marc, Carla J. Myers, and Robert D. Minard. "Biological and Chemical Interactions of Pesticides with Soil Organic Matter." Science of The Total Environment 123-124 (1992): 205-17.

6. Fields, Scott. "Global Nitrogen: Cycling out of Control." Environmental Health Perspect 112 (2004): 556-63.

7. Pearce, Fred. "The Nitrogen Fix: Breaking a Costly Addiction." Yale Environment 360. N.p., 5 Nov. 2009. Web. 16 Apr. 2013.

8. Matson, Pamela, Kathleen A. Lohse, and Sharon J. Hall. "The Globalization of Nitrogen Deposition: Consequences for Terrestrial Ecosystems." AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment 31.2 (2002)

9. Same as above

  • So, yes, the question seems to become, 'just how much can we extrapolate from past example for insight into current situation?' yes, we've been altering environment for millennia -- but that doesn't mean the alterations we're carrying out now don't have new and unique consequence -- we should not be encouraged to relax! On the other hand, might it go both ways? There are situations that have, in the past, led to deterioration and collapse, but perhaps that doesn't necessarily mean there'd be similar sequence today (e.g., we might find that we know how to 'fix' some things that weren't fixable -- or even visible -- to greeks or polynesians...)? Kwoods 01:28, 6 May 2013 (UTC)

Abstract 4 --- 4.29.13

Nobody should have to endure the pain and disadvantages of hunger and one should be careful to unjustly vilify or denigrate individuals dedicated to the mitigation of such suffering. While so, one should also not place faith in anything without careful consideration and criticism. It is possible that Norman Borlaug’s good intentions have brought about some bad results.

Some estimate that the Green Revolution has saved nearly one billion lives; (1) yet it has almost certainly not been without detriment and is not without alternatives. The Green Revolution has lead to monopolistic corporate control of food and agriculture; it has made farmers into dependents, diminished self-sufficiency, and likely eroded much of the occupation’s dignity. Intensive or “industrial” agriculture is a business founded on requisite complements, requiring often-intense investment, with little or no room for substitutes. It more than anything leads to monoculture and can be implicated in the decline of traditional modes of production and self-determination. This shift towards a greater emphasis on capitalism has been hailed by many as essential to "development" and the alleviation of poverty, but must also be questioned on the grounds of cause and effect.

Innovations have lead to the undeniable monopolization of agribusiness and ushered in a new era of patentable life. Monsanto now controls 95 percent of India’s cottonseeds and has caused Indian cotton farmers to become utterly addicted to necessary companion products. (2) Farmers are in many cases unfortunately finding this business model unprofitable and in India there has been an epidemic of suicide and rural debt. (3) In India 75 percent of rural debt is estimated to be related to the purchase of agricultural inputs, (4) however such misfortune occur even in first world nations. Many farmers seeking greater yields are swindled into buying increasingly expensive inputs/technology that can actually produce a net loss of income and even debt; many farmers all over the world have arguably been deceived, reduced to a new form of slavery.

Normal Borlaug contributed significantly to the impersonalization of food. Many believe ignorance resulting from this reality to promote the decline of food quality and one can reasonably argue environmental injury by intensive practices. Intensive agriculture is often inefficient; it has been estimated to take up to ten calories of energy to produce one calorie of food in the United States. (5) Normal Borlaug’s agriculture is also often the cause of soil degradation, pollution, and unreplenishable water consumption.

“Nonindustrial” agricultural innovations receive too little attention. Advances, new and millennia old make “alternative” agriculture seem quite viable and potentially sustainable, however most are unfortunately tied into industrial systems. The potential of other agricultural methods will likely only be realized out of necessity as occurred in Cuba. Cuba faced great food insecurity after the fall of the Soviet Union when imports of oil and grain declined by around 53 and 50 percent respectively; caloric and protein intake is estimated to have declined by 30 percent and many farmers could no longer work. (6) Cuba, which was reliant on intensive agriculture similar to that of California, was forced to adapt after a drop of approximately 70 percent in fertilizers and pesticides. The Cuban government responded to the crisis by turning state owned farms (formerly 80 percent) into worker owned cooperative operations reliant on organic/semi organic practices. (7) The government took innovative measures to overcome Cuba’s former petroleum dependence; it created large-scale vermiculture composting centers and encouraged urban agriculture with free land. An estimated 350,000 jobs were created as a result of agricultural reform and today Havana alone has more than 8000 officially recognized gardens. (8)

Daily caloric intake in Cuba was estimated to have returned to around 2,600 calories in 2002; (9) this seems to be a fantastic recovery illustrating the viability of organic/semi organic agriculture, but might be suspect on the grounds of Cuba-Venezuela relations. Cuba began importing large quantities of low priced Venezuelan oil in 2000. (10)

“Alternative” methods of agriculture seem viable, sustainable, and good for human health, but might require greater land use. One must wonder if Normal Borlaug was right in hypothesizing that the Green Revolution prevented devastating agricultural land expansion. (11) This question may seem obvious to some and many would likely concur and could be right; however, one might also consider the extent of human influenced land that is not under production. For example, the Cubans intelligently made use of urban spaces to grow food locally.

Would “nonindustrial” agriculture require an unjustifiable amount of land? Would it require expansion that is more detrimental than current practices? Could we expand without rampant assaults on virgin land? While one cannot be certain of these questions, it is probable to assume that current agricultural practices could result in equal or even greater devastation. We can only mine the soil for so long and yields will likely not increase forever.

1. Gregg Easterbrook. “Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity.” The Atlantic. January 1, 1997. Online.

2. Vandana Shiva. “The Seeds of Suicide: How Monsanto Destroys Farming.” Global Research: Centre for Research of Globalization. April 5, 2013. Online.

3. Ibid

4. Ibid

5. Martin Heller and Gregory Keoleian. “Life Cycle-Based Sustainability Indicators for Assessment of the U.S. Food System.” University of Michigan: Center for Sustainable

6. Mavis Alvarez, Martin Bourque, Fernando Funes, Lucy Martin, Armando Nova, and Peter Rosset. “Surviving Crisis in Cuba: The Second Agrarian Reform and Sustainable Agriculture.”

7. United Nations Environment Programme. “Success Stories: Organic Agriculture in Cuba.”

8. Ibid

9. Ed Ewing. "Cuba's Organic Revolution." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, April 3, 2008. Web. April 28, 2013.

10. "Venezuela Will Sell Cuba Low-Priced Oil." New York Times, October 31, 2000. Web. April 28, 2013

11. “Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity.” The Atlantic.

Abstract 5.14.13

David Tilman conveys the necessity of closing the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles to increase nutrient efficiency and I could not agree more. The amount of organic matter, nutrients, and food energy that we waste is deplorable; we should all consider the proverbial starving kid in Africa and waste not what is on our plate.

The question of how we can better close nutrient cycles is essential to sustainability and in addressing this society must understand the fundamental reality in which wasting organic matter is wrong. It is a “sin” that must be perceived as wasting food used to be. In striving to consume efficiently and conserve one is faced with many options. Technological solutions may seem obvious and there are likely many; we could probably more efficiently apply nutrients by more direct means and probably even create plants in greater concentration that more readily utilize a greater proportion of applied provisions, however one of the most straightforward and reasonable, yet taboo conservation solutions already exists, the application our own waste.

Tilman suggests this option, but speaks little of it. The truth is that close to 50 percent of our waste already touches agriculture, however this reality is far from ideal. Sources contributing to publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) are by no means limited to households; they are virtually innumerable and can include commercial establishments, medical facilities, street runoff, and industry. The Clean Water Act in regulating the release of effluents into rivers and other bodies of water ironically lead to a reliance on municipal infrastructure for wastewater disposal and has lead to significant industrial contamination of human waste fertilizer, which have been branded as biosolids.

One of the main problems regarding biosolids seems to be policy/regulation; this seems true of many issues facing agriculture and may require that we question the nature by which government is run and environmental regulations are promulgated. It might prove profitable to examine the privatization of utilities and other public industries. In the case of biosolids, privatization seems to have lead to great impropriety. Regulations have arguably been written negligently for profit and contracts have almost undoubtedly been procured without consideration of candidate merit by corrupt means. Much of the industry is dominated by former EPA and contracts can often be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. For profit sustainability, as conveyed by Aldo Leopold very often is not sustainable; however, it seems as if people act on little else so profit is what we will have to work with. Society may also need to reconsider sustainability. Is sustainability a fallacy? If it is real, might it be too offensive to too many people? Even if unreal, we can and should still focus of conservation. This might include breeding crops that can thrive on marginal land or improving the efficiency by which meat is grown, but can a should also include changes in policy. One could argue the price of meat in America to be artificially low. By reducing certain agricultural subsidies and including CAFOs in Clean Water Act regulation, we could reduce meat consumption and the quantity of resources necessary to feed the nation. Such policy decisions would evoke much opposition, but could also free up billions of dollars for other forms of economic stimulation that might make such seemingly oppressive policy less distasteful.

Any policy directly aimed at reducing consumption would almost certainly be repugnant to most, yet one can definitely reduce consumption while not actually reducing consumption. This is because of intense waste of our current systems. For example, much preconsumer food waste finds its way into landfills; we should all cringe at trash compactors and save food waste. We must be innovative; there is no reason why pigs could not be fed preconsumer waste on a mass scale. Such innovations in waste reduction and recycling will be necessary. Policy would best make industry’s motto “waste not, want not.”