Tag Archives: agriculture

Future Farms Will Be Run By Robots

I have a love-hate relationship with farmers. I have a great deal of respect for the enterprise and for those who dedicate their lives to it. But, I also become annoyed at the culture in which modern American farming embeds itself. And, I don’t feel a lot of reticence talking openly about that.

Having done plenty of farming myself, I don’t feel the need that so many others do to be extra nice to farmers out of lack of understanding. I know when the farmers complain about too little or too much rain, they are studiously ignoring the fact that if it is harder to plant or harvest, they make out like bandits with the price of their product. Farmers talk about how hard that life is, and yes, it is indeed very hard, but they seem to not mention that a typical large scale farm these days (as most farms are) is a multi tens of millions of dollars business sitting on enormously valuable land. Whenever things go really wrong with farms in the US, they get help. As it is now, we have some of the most bone-headed agricultural policies ever invented mainly to keep farmers happy, because so many US Congressional districts span vast farmland and little else.

And what does America get back for giving farmers so much help in producing a product that we have no choice but to buy? We get a lot of crap. Red counties are farm counties. Red districts give us a Republican House. Farmers mainly backed trump, even though Trump policies are almost all bad for almost all farmers.

As a brief aside, and to illustrate the disconnect between farmer culture and actual farmer self interest, I can give you this example.

Have you ever heard of Mexican cheese? Or, more to the point, have you ever been to Mexico, and then, while there, had some cheese? That cheese might have been made in Mexico, but they don’t really make cheese in Mexico. Most of the cheese eaten there is imported. From where? From Wisconsin. Nowhere else. Why? Because of Clinton’s trade policies. Clinton made a bunch of sweet deals for American farmers and that was one of them. Rural farmers in Wisconsin voted for Trump, and Trump was the guy who was going to end NAFTA (and still might, who knows?). NAFTA keeps Wisconsin dairy and cheese in business. Get rid of NAFTA, Wisconsin becomes the West Virginia of cheese. Why? Because Mexico would rather buy its cheese from South America because it is cheaper, and the moment the Wisconsin dairy industry is not propped up by NAFTA, the free market takes over and California ends Wisconsin agriculture.

Look around the world. Farmers are taking it in the neck in many other countries, often because of the very climate change so many farmers pretend to believe is a hoax. But not in countries that take care of their farmers. America takes care of its farmers. And at every opportunity, the farmers screw over America.

Therefore, perhaps it will be with great pleasure that Modern Civilization advances to the next level. Robot farmers.

Hands Free Hectare is a project run by Harper Adams University and Precision Decisions Inc. The idea is to develop robots that will plant, tend, and harvest crops.

Now, of course, there will still be farmers, but fewer. So few, perhaps, that most people who are all “oh, I’m a poor farmer, living out in the farmlands, help me help me,” can stop whinging and move to the city. A small number of technologists, mostly the children of former Mexican migrant workers because immigrants or the children of recent immigrants or migrants are the only people in America who still have ambition, will learn the technology and run the farms and, we hope, keep the robots happy and busy.

Anyway, HFHa, as it calls itself, has been at this a while, and the latest iteration involved a major harvest of barley without humans touching anything but buttons and software. HFHa robot expert Martin Abell working for Precision Decisions, noted “This project aimed to prove that there’s no technological reason why a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly now and we’ve done that. We achieved this on an impressively low budget [and] we used machinery that was readily available for farmers to buy; open source technology; and an autopilot from a drone for the navigation system.”

Notably, much of the large equipment used was decades old, with the new technology added to it.

Here is the site for Hands Free Hectare, which is a British enterprise.

I for one welcome our new farmer-robot overlords.

Genetics and Food Security

There is a food crisis sneaking up on us right now. A lot of them, actually. A lot of little one, some big ones. There are always places in the world where food has become scarce for at time, and people starve or move. You’ve heard of the “”Syrian refugee crisis,” and the often extreme reactions to it in Europe and among some in the US. That started out as a food crisis, brought on by human pollution induced global warming in an already arid agricultural zone.

Nearly similar levels of climate change related pressure on agricultural systems elsewhere has led to very different outcomes, sometimes more adaptive outcomes that won’t (at least for now) lead to major geopolitical catastrophes as we have now in the Levant and elsewhere in West Asia. What’s the difference? The difference is how agriculture is done.

Are GMOs a solution? Are GMOs safe, and can the produce a small or medium size revolution in crop productivity? What about upgrading traditional agriculture to “industrial agriculture”?

And speaking of GMOs, what is the latest in GMO research? How should GMOs be regulated, by the method they are produced, or by the novel or altered traits they have? How do we communicate about GMO research and GMO crops? What about labeling?

These and many other questions are addressed ad Mike Haubrich, me, and Anastasia Bodnar talk about “Genetics and Food Security” on the latest installment of the Ikonokast Podcast. GO HERE to listen to the podcast. Also, if you go there, you can see a picture of Anastasia holding her latest GMO product, a corn plant that can see and talk!

Also, Iknokast has a Facebook Group. Please click here to go and joint it!

And, if you have not yet listened to our first podcast, with author and science advocate Shawn Otto, click here to catch up!

The Coming Food Crisis And What To Do About It

According to the best available research, we are going to have to double food supplies, globally, by 2050. Think about that for a moment. Children born today will be in their 40s at a time that we need to have already doubled food production, yet during the last 20 years we have seen only a 20 percent increase in food supply. Assuming a steady rate of increase in production (which might be optimistic) we should expect to fall far short of demand over the next few decades. This is a problem. The problem is expected to most severely affect poorer people, people in less developed nations, and poor farmers, but if the entire world is double digit percentage points short of food, almost no one is going to get by unscathed. And, at some point, when nearly everyone is seeing some sort of food shortage or extraordinarily high prices, the totally unscathed are going to start looking pretty tasty to the rest of us.

eat-the-rich_11-26-11Also, agricultural production, whether for food or biofuel, has a fairly large Carbon footprint, both by reducing natural Carbon sinks and by using fossil fuels at a fairly high rate. Doubling production of food would presumably involve increasing these effects, unless alternative approaches are developed. So even if we solve the problem of production, we might exacerbate the problem of human caused climate change. Let us not even speak of sea level rise; Over the coming century we expect sea levels to rise sufficiently to flood, either regularly or permanently, some of the most productive agricultural areas in the world, which would seriously dampen efforts to increase productivity.

And water. This will all require more water, when we are facing increasing shortages of water.

How do we address this problem? Will Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) save the day? Are there other approaches to quickly increase agricultural output? Can we eat different foods that are less difficult or costly to produce?

See: The Hydraulic Hypothesis and the End of Civilization

See: GMOs Are Interesting

Emily_CassidyEmily Cassidy knows some of these answers. Emily is a scientist with with over five years of experience working on land use, agriculture, and the impacts of growing biofuels vis-a-vis developing food crops. She is currently a research analyst with the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Earlier she worked as a scientist with the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, measuring impacts of coastal activities. Her Master’s degree at the University of Minnesota involved detailed modeling of global food availability, which involved developing a new index to quantify the number of people fed per hectare of cropland. This research was widely disseminated in mainstream media.

Recently, Emily produced a report for EWG that looks at the role of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in addressing the world’s food supply. You can get the report here. I had a few questions, so I interviewed Emily about this report as well as the larger issue of humans running out of food during the present lifetime of so many of us.

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Question: The amount of space, energy, and other resources dedicated to the production of meat is enormous. According to your EWG report, producing meat requires three-quarters of the agricultural land in use. For every one calorie of meat we produce we displace about 10 calories of plant based food. You also note that there is a huge amount of waste in the food stream, with about a third (by weight, about one quarter of the calories) lost. The US tosses closer to 40 percent, and of all the forms of food, a disproportionately large percent of meat is wasted. Having recently purchased, twice in a row (apparently you can fool me twice) “fresh” chicken at my local not-very-good grocery store that was rotten the next day, I was wondering where the waste in the food stream, especially for meat, was concentrated, and if we could help solve this problem by distributing meat primarily in frozen form.

On food waste in the US, especially meat, do you have a breakdown of where the meat is wasted? I wonder if a switch to having almost all meat frozen and sold in frozen form would reduce a lot of waste.

Emily: Meat production takes a massive environmental toll, and when we waste meat, we’re wasting all the resources used to produce it. About half of the meat wasted in the U.S. and Europe is tossed at home. Better meal planning and freezing meat could be a big step to reducing household waste. Although supermarkets have an important role to play in reducing waste, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, only about 15 percent of meat waste in the U.S. occurs at supermarkets.

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Emily’s report pretty much slams GMOs. The report states:

Proponents of GE crops claim that they are essential to “feed the world,” but recent evidence indicates that so far, GE crops have How to feed the world. [GMOs have] not increased crop yields enough to significantly contribute to food security…In recent decades, in fact, the dominant source
of yield improvements has been traditional crossbreeding, and that is likely to continue for the
foreseeable future. Relying on genetic engineering to double food supplies by 2050 would require a huge leap in biotechnology and doubling the recent yield trends of crops.

Question: Are there any examples of GMOs being developed that will help with this that are not just vague promises? In other words, is there any tangible namable project or potential project you know of that would contribute to that “giant leap in biotechnology”?

Emily: “Roundup Ready” corn and soybeans represent over 80 percent of the acreage growing GMOs, so it’s clear that the industry’s focus since the 1970s has been on genetic modification for herbicide tolerance. These crops haven’t improved yields because there are inherent biophysical trade-offs between productivity and pest resistance. This is why I wouldn’t bet the farm on biotechnology generating massive yield improvements. It’s similar to the live-fast die-young principle in evolutionary biology; plants are limited by their resources and can’t be good at everything at once.

Not all forms of genetic modification are created equal. There are some projects which could be promising and aim to modify a plant’s genome to improve the efficiency photosynthesis. But it seems to me that most genetic modifications only see benefits in the short term, until evolution catches up to the new genome. For example, insects have evolved tolerance to Bt crops, and U.S. Farmers have been told to lay off of them.

Where I do see exciting research that could really improve food security is the cross breeding of often ignored “orphan crops.” Just recently a new kind of drought-tolerant bean was bred by combining a modern bean with a variety traditionally grown by communities in the American Southwest. We should focus efforts and funding on improving the yields of nutritious food crops, not crops that mostly go to animal feed and biofuels.

See: The Case for Vegan Hot Dogs

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Question: On a related matter, how much does the the nature of the research itself ruin GMOs as a potential source of a modest or even minor agricultural revolution? It seems to me that helping poor farmers to be less poor will always lose to helping big corporations make more money, and the big corporations seem to be doing or funding most of the research. Is this a general pattern for ag research in general? In the old days big government money went into public universities to develop crops, technology, and methods that were available to all. The current system seems different. Is this a problem?

Emily: Universities are increasingly reliant on private industry for agricultural research funding, and companies are a lot more interested in making money than improving the lives of poor people. Private spending for agricultural research is more than twice the public expenditures. Unless public research funding for agriculture improves, the future of our food system will be heavily influenced by companies seeking to make a profit.

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Question: I think a lot of people assume that technology will solve many of our big problems, such as food shortages and climate change. People are divided mostly into two groups: GMO Frankenplants will rise out of the ground and take us in the dead of night (I exaggerate slightly), or they will fix the future. You are suggesting, it seems, that neither of these scenarios is likely. Bottom line, what does your report tell us about GMOs and the medium term problem of people, the poor farmers first, not having enough food?

Emily: There’s a myth that I often hear in Washington, that GMOs help the world’s poorest. If you really look into the evidence though, there’s no support for it. That’s why I wrote EWG report, to address ways to help small farmers, which is the real key to helping the world’s poorest. I’m not anti-GMO but I think we should be honest about their contribution to global food security and improving the livelihoods of poor people.

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Question: Current research suggests we need to double our food supply by 2050. But we’ve heard that before. In every decade there are predictions about future population growth or future agricultural productivity that suggest catastrophe, and we’ve passed many of those due dates for an expected Malthusian apocalypse. Is this projection different?

Emily: Malthus assumed population growth would continue without limits. We know now that as people have more income, they generally have less children. Another result of people being wealthier us that they demand more meat and dairy. Recent research has shown that population will increase by about 30 percent by 2050, yet demand for crops is estimated to increase by 100 percent. This difference means that demand for meat and dairy is a bigger driver of crop demand than population.. We also have to keep in mind that many countries are starting to adopt biofuels mandates. Tim Searchinger recently estimated that if all countries met their food-based biofuels targets, it would be the equivalent of removing about 30 percent of calories out of the food system. So depending on biofuels mandates, crop production may have to more than double to meet demands.These policies clearly threaten global food security.

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Emily’s report makes a series of specific recommendations that will close some of that huge gap in productivity vs. demand. She doesn’t mention eating the rich, but she does have a few other worthy suggestions. Eliminating food waste, shifting away from biofuels, and changing diets are all on the menu. So far, GMOs are not. I recommend that you read it and get working on this right away.

Check out: The First Earth Day, an epoch journey into politics, explosions, folk music, and old boats floating on stinking rivers.

Climate Change and Agriculture

ClimateChangeAndAgricultureWe are seeing more studies linking climate change to potential or actual changes in agricultural production, and not in a good way.

Midwest Agriculture and Economic Risks of Climate Change

A study in Iowa suggests that increased high temperatures will have a negative effect on crops. From the Des Moines Register:

The report’s grim assessment for the state, designed to look at the business risks from climate change, is similarly gloomy for other Midwest states and their largest cities, including Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Minneapolis.

Agriculture will be particularly hurt by climate change, it said, with corn, soybeans and wheat yields slashed as much as 85 percent by the next century in the leading farm states of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Missouri. Livestock also is expected to experience reduced productivity and other challenges.

Continue reading Climate Change and Agriculture

Did you ever wonder how you are going to die?

I’m thinking it will be the food you eat that gets you. Here’s why.

Humans eat a wide variety of foods; as a species, the diversity of species we eat is greater than any other animal by a very large margin, with the only quirky exception being the animals that we take along with us, the commensals such as rats and cockroaches. Most primates eat a high diversity of foods, but about two million years ago or a bit less, according to the “Cooking Hypothesis” (which a lot of people think is correct) we took an already diverse primate diet and added to it anything we might encounter in the environment that could be made edible with heat and added that to our diet. More recently, beginning about 10,000 years ago, we applied additional technology and the new practice of plant husbandry to convert other foods, some edible some not, into more useful items for our diet. Humans around the world did this independently over several thousand years, in parallel.

Then we got boats that were capable of doing magical things like sailing up wind, and navigation technologies that allowed humans to be less lost when doing so over great distances. Some humans had done this much earlier at a smaller scale, but by the 15th century there were big wooden boats criss crossing the seas, bringing people to places they had never been before, and along with them the foods people ate all over the world.

Have you looked at photographs of traditional people living in traditional, seemingly timeless, ways in places like Africa, the Amazon, or New Guinea? Look again, and focus on the things that form the backdrop for the scenes shown in those photographs. One of the things you’ll see in many pictures is the plantain, or the banana. You might notice the huge elephant ear leaves of taro plants. If you look closely you might notice cassava growing in the fields, or maize.

Maize was domesticated in Mexico, taro, plantains, and bananas in various different locations across south and southeast Asia. Cassava comes from the lowlands of South America, and potatoes come from the Andes. Some Yams come from Africa, some from South America (I oversimplify a bit). You can’t find a modern traditional diet, as it were, that does not include ingredients from continents other than where the traditional diet lives today, except perhaps in Ethiopia. Everybody eats everybody else’s food all the time. The main determinant of where food is grown is not where it was first domesticated, but rather, the limitations of seasons, rainfall, heat and cold. And even there, the limitations are relaxed. Maize only grows in the colder regions because varieties have been developed to do so, and many plants are grown in regions normally too arid for them, by virtue of irrigation.

Adding all this up – the diverse primate diet, the addition of cooked foods otherwise not edible, the artificially selected crops, and the global exchange of horticultural goods and practices – and you get a huge variety of food, the largest variety of food any species has ever managed to include in its diet. (Other than the rats and cockroaches, of course.)

Despite all this diversity, something has remained more or less the same all along. The “traditional” diet for humans, though much altered with cooking, is relatively low quality. I use the term “low quality” in the way an ecologist uses it. How many usable calories do you get out of a kilo of the food item under consideration? Or, related, how much work do you, using food preparation, chewing, and digestion (including the work done by the friendly microbes living in your gut) to convert that kilo of food into energy?

It is easy to see how our traditional diets are low quality by comparing them to the diets of a handful of primates that live almost entirely off of insects, or tree sap, or nectar. If we look at birds, we see the same thing; many species of birds eat pure sugar of one form or another. A few other animals have very high quality diets. Generally, carnivores have higher quality diets than herbivores. There are no carnivores that use multiple stomachs or habitually regurgitates and re-consume their animal prey in order to digest it. Herbivores that eat grass or leaves spend a lot of time feeding, have massive digestive systems designed by natural selection to digest the hell out of the food, and sometimes they have to “eat” the same food multiple times to get enough energy out of it to survive. Humans are somewhere in between. Some of our digestion is done pre-consumption by cooking and processing, but for the most part our natural, traditional diet takes a fair amount of work to process. We don’t live off of sugar water like hummingbirds and many insects do.

And this is why the leading cause of death in the United States and some other countries has shifted from the usual panoply of causes – infectious disease, accident, homicide, etc. – to our diets. Our diet is the most likely thing to kill us, and lately, the primary mediating factor in this particular cause of death is obesity and/or diabetes.

The “traditional” diet of any group of people, as I’ve already outlined, is relatively recent historically, being the result of 10,000 years of developing plants and a few hundred years of transferring crops and growing methods across the world. That traditional diet was prominent globally through the 19th century and well into the 20th century. The food came from farms, and although many amazing novel technologies were being applied on those farms, such as better plows and various other things that could be drawn behind oxen, a team of ponies or horses, or a small tractor, those technologies did not change the diets too much.

But as technologies developed, farms began to scale up. This is the reason that the New England countryside is graced with young forests criss-crossed with quaint stone walls. Those stone walls were field boundaries in the old days. But as farming scaled up, it became economically inviable to have small fields on small farms. A few other things went wrong on some of these New England farms as well, including some climate glitches and some other economic effects that drove farmers off the land and in some cases into cities where there were jobs working in mills. But some of those farmers took part in the great Westward Migrations, as the country grew, and established a new kind of agriculture in the vast regions of the midwest and plaines.

Add a growing urban market for foods, government help in the form of extension and agricultural colleges, more technology such as combines, railroads to move produce to market, mills to process the produce, add some water (irrigation) as needed and salt to taste. It took decades, but we went from an agrarian economy where the same traditional diet we had been eating was produced on a somewhat larger scale, to an agricultural economy that produces mostly one single thing. This product:
Fresh Cold Cola with ice

OK, I’m exaggerating there. It isn’t really true that the entire US agricultural system has been converted over to the production of sugary drinks. But sometimes it seems that way. Vast expanses of corn are grown in the midwest and plains, and that corn is used to produce vast amounts of ethanol (as fuel), alcoholic beverages, sugary substances including cola, feed for animals, and some of it even makes it to the table as … well, corn. But lets step back to the original comparison of “traditional diet” and the diet many Americans eat today.

When you eat a traditional meal, a good amount of that food is low quality, relatively hard to digest, carbohydrates with a mix of proteins. There will be a little simple sugar here and there and a bit of fat here and there.

The simple sugars go right away to the liver, where they supplement the body’s immediate energy stores. The complex sugars, the carbohydrates that consist of much larger and more involved molecules, take time to digest and break down to eventually use as fuel. So the sugar gives you a small amount of immediate energy and the complex carbohydrates give you energy over the coming hours.

The fats are simply stored up. If you eat fat, the fat molecules are minimally processed, moved to your hips or wherever, and are pasted there for later use. Or, forever, depending.

When you eat a modern diet, it will have two major difference from the traditional diet. The foods at the two ends of that spectrum of availability will be in greater proportion. Instead of having a bunch of low quality food in the middle, with a little fat (for later) on one end of the spectrum, and a little simple sugar (for immediate use) on the other end of the spectrum, the modern diet will have piles of fat and piles of simple sugar and not much in between.

So, what happens? The fat goes where fat goes, as stated already, but there is more of it. The sugar overloads the liver, which detecting an overabundance of energy, converts the sugar to some form of storage, and some of that is fat that joins up with the other fat. There is also a kind of molecule the liver converts some of that sugar into, stored in your liver, for in case you get hungry between meals. That molecule reduces the chance your body will use any of that stored up fat as energy.

Two thousand traditional calories provides you with energy for now, energy for the next several hours, and a bit of energy for much later. Two thousand modern calories provides you with way more energy than you need for now, and a huge amount of fat that you’ll never use because you are never going to let much time go between meals. Because there is a fast food joint just down the street. And your refrigerator and cabinets are full of junk food.

And that’s not all. Our system of agriculture has all sorts of other negatives as well. The following is from the Food and Agriculture page of the Union of Concerned Scientists:

Food and Agriculture: Toward Healthy Food and Farms
Our agricultural system has lost its way.

Millions of acres of corn, soybeans, and other commodity crops, grown with the help of heavy government subsidies, dominate our rural landscapes.

To grow these crops, industrial farms use massive amounts of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, which deplete our soil and pollute our air and water.

Much of this harvest will end up as biofuels and other industrial products—and most of the rest will be used in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) or in heavily processed junk foods, which seem cheap only because their hidden costs don’t show up at the cash register.

Industrial agriculture is unhealthy — for our environment, our climate, our bodies, and our rural economies.

A Better Way: Sustainable Agriculture

There’s a better way to grow our food. Working with nature instead of against it, sustainable agriculture uses 21st-century techniques and technologies to implement time-tested ideas such as crop rotation, integrated plant/animal systems, and organic soil amendments.

Sustainable agriculture is less damaging to the environment than industrial agriculture, and produces a richer, more diverse mix of foods. It’s productive enough to feed the world, and efficient enough to succeed in the marketplace—but current U.S. agricultural policy stacks the deck in favor of industrial food production.

… and there is much much more than that, visit the page.

Yesterday, I went to a symposium hosted at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota and organized by the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. A description of the symposium is here and the entire thing was “taped” and will be available. I’m not going to tell you anything major about the symposium now; I’ll wait until the video is available, then I’ll provide you with my thoughts on it. For now I’ll just say it was quite good, eye-opening, and that you’ll definitely want to watch it. In fact, you should feel a little bad that you weren’t there.

Stay Tuned.

Sugar: A Bittersweet History by Elizabeth Abbott (Review)

Somebody tipped over a bag full of a white powdery substance. Most of what fell out splayed across the dirty wooden table, but about a cup poured onto the dirt floor of the open-air Baraza at our research site in a remote part of the Congo’s Ituri Forest. Embarrassed about tipping onto the ground more of this valuable substance than most people living within 50 kilometers would ever see in one day, the tipper started to push loose dirt onto the powder to cover it up. But the spill had been noticed by two children lounging nearby; in what seemed like a fraction of a second, the boys were face down on the ground licking up the spilled material, taking with it mouthfuls of dirt and who knows what parasites and other kooties. It was a sudden and short lived fiasco and a scene etched hard into my mind. To this day, decades later, when I think of this I breathe a sigh of relief that it was not me who tipped over the bag of white sugar.

These kids and everyone else in the Baraza that day were very familiar with sugarcane. Everyone grew at least a little. Sugarcane was to the Ituri Forest villagers what Hastas is to urban gardeners in the US. Everyone grew at least a little where it would fit and not get trampled or take up extra gardening space for real food.

The sugarcane was eaten raw. You would use a machete to cut a off a long section of the giant grass plant, and carry it around. With your teeth or with the help of a knife you would slice open a section of the cane and chew on it, sucking out the sweet water inside. When the sugarcane was ripe, the pathways and, really, any open surface would be littered with spent wadges. But still, not much sugarcane is grown in the Congo compared to other crops then or now. Sugarcane, originally from the Pacific and India, was, however, grown for centuries in large quantities where it was transplanted in the New World. You probably know of it as one of the vertices of the Triangle Trade (sugarcane = rum). But there is still a connection to these kids, the two who scarfed up the dirt and sand and sugar spilled on the baraza floor.

No sense sugar-coating it. The story of sugar is the story of slavery. The Congo was probably not the biggest source of slaves for the Caribbean and South America. The eastern Congo, especially, was on the Indian Ocean slave route. But generally speaking, West and Central Africa supplied millions of people, captured, owned and sold, to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. Over the centuries since its introduction to West Asia and Europe, and by extension, the New World, sugar grew in importance from a rarity to a common element in the diet, often carrying with it symbolic importance as an indicator of class or by its use in food art. Sugar is distilled and concentrated solar energy that preserves well and is easily transported. The production and distribution of sugar is one of a handful, maybe the most important of engines for the rise of Immanuel Wallerstein’s global system (that I almost did my PhD on by the way).

You’ve got to love it when a molecule changes history. Primates (and a few other groups of animals) lost their ability to synthesize and use ascorbic acid because fruit producing plants had evolved to have their seeds dispersed in exchange for Vitamin C rich pulp. Therefore, the British Mercantile System. Similarly, C12H22O11, one of a class of molecules used by plants to store energy (and sometimes entice monkeys or ants to do their bidding) drove the most momentous of historical changes and its production, in one form or another, makes up an inordinate percentage of the effort expended to feed our species.

Nobody really questions the importance of sugar, but how aware is the average person of the details of its sweet success? More so than before for those who have read Elizabeth Abbott’s “Sugar: A Bittersweet History.” Before you go check and yell at me for not restricting my writing to things that happened during the last five minutes, I’ll admit that the book came out in 2010 and I’ve only just now noticed it. I was focusing on other things, I promise. But I am pretty sure that no major revisions of history of the last thousand years or so have been made that would make this engaging book out of date or less relevant.

We all like to consume knowledge, but if you also like knowledge of what you consume you should read this book. It will make you feel bad, and likely awed, but also, a lot smarter, hopefully enough to offset the shame.

One of the most important things that ever happened in history is really a category of things and took a few centuries. This was the transplantation of crops and to a lesser extent horticultural technologies across the globe beginning with the Portuguese and extending at a quickened pace with all the major colonial ventures. This is probably more pervasive than you think. The lifeways and culture of the Yanomamö were greatly transformed, in my opinion, buy the introduction of south and southeast Asian (and possibly African) crops, mainly the plantain. The earliest records suggest that the Yanomamö were foragers, but all the later ethnography shows them as horticulturalists. The difference between “typical” equatorial foragers and the Yanomamö may well be the inclusion in their economy and society of a key crop that is also a highly vulnerable resource. Vulnerability of one’s resource base can shape one’s attitude at the socio-cultural level. What crops are mainly grown in swidden fields in Africa? South American ones. There would have been no Irish potato famine had there been no potatoes. They come from the Andes. And as mentioned sugar/rum was one of the vertices of the Triangular Trade and along with a few other crops (like Cotton) formed the agricultural structure of the slave-based economy that made up the largest single capital component of the rise of the United State’s economy. If the modern US economy is the fat bank account, slavery was the first big deposit in that account and New World Slavery happened because of this small number of transported crops.

By the twentieth century, sugarcane had circled the globe, traveling north and west from New Guinea then back again to the Pacific, and its legacies mark its global passage even where it is no longer grown… In the Caribbean, where King Sugar is now expiring as a major industry … and where most former colonies have become independent, political and commercial unions remain skewed along historical lines. Sugar culture is at the root of why Afro- and Indo-Trinidadians and Guyanese are mired in political enmity, why Hawaii and Fiji endure perpetual conflict between their Native and their Asian populations and why the official currency fo Mauritius, off the coast of Africa, is the rupee and its population is primarily Indian…

It is a good book. Overlook Publishers, available for the Kindle. I am probably going to work this into this week’s lecture in Intro to Archaeology.