The History of Farming & Today’s Soil Quality
From Chapter 2 of "Healthy Garden Healthy You" by Milo Shammas
Archeologists believe the earliest forms of agriculture date from around 10,000 B.C. Evidence of early agriculture was found in an area of the Near East known as Mesopotamia, a crescent-shaped region encompassing what is now Lebanon and Israel, curving up and around Iraq and Jordan, ending in southern Iran. (The name Mesopotamia, Greek in origin, means "the land between the rivers." The Tigris and Euphrates rivers that split this region also contain mountains and flatlands.) About 12,000 years ago, nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers settled in this area because of the abundant wild barley and wheat they found growing there. Although it is more arid now, ancient Mesopotamia had an unlimited water supply. These favorable conditions enabled many plants to thrive.
As people learned to plant, cultivate and harvest food, their thought processes, interactions, even their biology, changed. No longer needing to wander over large areas to find food, humans settled down to produce their food themselves, soon developing villages with a surplus of crops growing nearby. Now they could use their time, and physical and mental energy, on other activities and needs. As they farmed and developed not only a surplus of food but specialized labor, they also learned to trade, first among themselves and eventually with other developing societies. Human populations multiplied exponentially and brought many new challenges. These changes required new ways of thinking.
As farming spread and people adopted agriculture worldwide, they faced unforeseen consequences. Problems such as lack of sanitation, the spread of disease and pollution required regulation and more structured, uniform practices. Early farmers also created laws to govern human activity so that people could live close together in large numbers.
Soon, human tribes and settlements began to alter the balance of nature. They weeded out undesirable plants that robbed nutrients from the soil and threatened the harvests. They separated domesticated animals and crops. Early irrigation methods diverted waterways. They also learned to clear trees from the land for space and additional sunlight. As agriculture spread, it became the major source of food for most people. Now well fed, people multiplied, which further increased the demand for food.
Until well into the 20th Century, wherever capitalism allowed individuals to own private property, such as the U.S., most food came from small farms run by individual families. Once Industrialization and labor saving machinery became common, family farms could not compete with large corporate farms run as big businesses in search of big profits. Production large enough to meet demand became the goal and the new standard. Because agro-businesses could deliver larger crops, faster and at lower prices, over a short time more than four million privately owned farms were lost due to competitive pressures. Since World War II, the percentage of the U.S. population living and working on farms has shrunk dramatically. In 1960, for example, one American farmer fed 25 people. Fifty years later, one farmer feeds 129 people. (Source: National Cattlemen's Beef Association.)
Part of the profit picture had to do with replacing farm workers, who manually tended and harvested the crops, with machinery. New technologies were developed to increase yields, including using chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and recently, genetically modified seeds and crops. The health and vital quality of commercially produced crops has suffered. As each decade passes, such crops contain decreasing concentrations of essential vitamins, minerals and micronutrients. Moreover, as soils became depleted, the plants need extra help in the form of fertilizers. What was once a largely natural process of growing food has become more and more unnatural.
One lesson we gain from the history of farming from ancient times to the present: Organic methods are the best. They are simple and pure and leave the soil rich and capable of supporting crops year after year. All farmers practiced organic methods until about 60 years ago, when food production became dominated by large-scale corporate farms run as "food factories." Now, slowly but progressively, we are returning to what mankind began doing about 12,000 years ago. Growing our own food in our own backyards takes us back in time and gives us ultimate control over our food, our health and our quality of life.
Milo Lou Shammas
Founder and Formulator