Beginning about 12,000 years ago, the human population began a trend that completely changed the way we, as a race, evolved. For the first time in history, humans pushed beyond the restraints of traditional hunting and gathering, into domestication and farming. It was a change that would not only take thousands of years to prove worthy, but also may have set us back on the evolutionary path at the time. Along the path to this point, we have been constantly changing and finding new ways to produce and maximize the yield of the crops we sow. Have these changes been successful or detrimental to us? The following will search into answering this question.
Since the beginning, increased crop production has been the ultimate goal of the farmer. The very basic advances toward this included fertilization and rotation of crops. These simple steps alone took thousands of years to come about. Domestication perhaps, was the first process to actually take place. Evidence of this is prevalent throughout many parts of the world, as far back as 11,000 years. Detection of this was done by comparing wild varieties of the product to the preferred and produced varieties. Changes in size are the most common differences, especially among types of grain. However, this domestication came about mostly through the selection process. Since the people naturally selected the larger more hearty vegetable or grain, those larger specimens of the species would go on to produce the next generation. Though this may seem primitive, it has led to the varieties we see and eat today.
The past two centuries have, no doubt, been the most influential and beneficial to the agricultural industry. Fertilization has been around for a long time, but not until recently did we really understand how to maximize the potential. Native Americans have known that burring a fish while planting seeds provides a larger yield. And mixing animal manure into the soil to increase production, has been going on for thousands of years in many cultures. Not until recently, did science discover what was behind these two methods though. Today, instead of the nitrogen rich manure we more commonly use a chemical powder, and instead of the phosphorus rich fish bones, we use a pellet compound that consists of phosphorus.
Along with our discovered technologies, we have come up with chemicals to kill off what has plagued our crops from the beginning. Herbicides and pesticides are commonly used practices all over the world. What better way to bear more fruit, than to kill off the natural predator that feeds upon it? And most recent, has been the engineering of fruit vegetables and grains to resist the predators themselves, without the use of chemicals. Some types of corn are now resistant to a fungus that, 20 years ago, could have wiped out thousands of acres. All made possible by genetic engineering.
Another way to further sustain the needs of human demand, is to make completely arid regions into fertile lands. During the early Egyptian era, once a year the Nile would spill over its banks, turning a dry, sandy region, into rich growing plains for a few months. The Roman era tapped the water resource even further by building aqueducts. This allowed the fields to spread out more distant from the river itself. Today, we utilize both of our ancestors discoveries to the fullest. The Colorado river alone, has turned parts of the Mojave into the greatest agricultural regions in North America. In some places, the closest natural water resource is 150 miles away, yet farms flourish along the aqueduct.
Though we have increased the overall production of crops and quality of products, it has come at a price. The most direct human effect has been through the use of chemicals on crops. Since the chemicals do make their way into the plant, we the consumer, are taking these harmful chemicals in when we eat the product. Perhaps the most well known was the use of DDT in the 60’s and 70’s. Because of it very harmful effects on humans, the United States led the way on an almost global ban of the product.
Another effect of the agricultural technologies, has been the impact they have on the environment. Much of the fertilizers we use, leach into nearby water resources like lakes, ponds and rivers. These fertilizers have helped aquatic plants and algae to grow at an incredible rate, clogging the lakes and displacing animals that live inhabit them. Some scientist even believe that the chemicals make their way into the eggs of fish, frogs, toads and turtles killing or producing mutated species. And, as we have pushed beyond the natural growing regions, we have taken water as we go. The region that does tap the Colorado, uses an estimated 30% of the river’s water. Some branches of the river are used so much, that during the dry season they cease to exist.
We have indeed pushed the limits of agriculture during the past 10,000 years. The increased knowledge and techniques have in fact benefitted us greatly, yet have a downside. As we push even further, perhaps cleaner and less detrimental effects will also follow. Overall however, the advances have greatly outweighed the negative effects and have led us to where we, the human race, stand today.