Spencer Wells reveals in his book “Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization”, that Homo sapiens started to cultivate crops about 10,000 years ago. The archaeological evidence shows that mankind traded in his hunter-gatherer weapons and began to farm wheat, corn and other grains that substituted a meat protein diet during this period and by becoming stationary instead of wandering the land to find the food they needed for survival, they developed stable cultures that grew and thrived. In so doing though life expectancies increased and the need to feed more people in a smaller area posed problems that in some degree still face agricultural efforts today.
The agricultural expansion from this time forward has had a tremendous impact on economies of scale to a point where a culture’s society is dependent on the process by which food is cultivated, harvested, traded, inspected, packaged, stored and transported. The world and its people depend on sufficient supplies of nutritional food items to survive and prosper. He who controls the means to efficiently produce and distribute the necessary food resources a people need becomes a dominant force in the global economy that has evolved. How equitably this is done will determine whether some people survive or not and can create animosities among the haves and the have-nots that often result in regional and global wars.
Broken down however we can see how agriculture touches economies in so many other ways you might not at first think are connected to the growing of food that feeds the world’s population. One serious consequence of agriculture is that diets are now higher in calorie content and as a result, levels of obesity are increasing where people eat more than they should and then fail to burn it off through exercise or daily physical activities. In Japan, for example, the consumption of rice there sees a caloric intake that’s about 75% of their diet but as a culture they are physically active and educated enough to exercise routinely to prevent high rates of obesity. Such is not the case in other developed countries, especially the South and Midwest parts of the U.S.
Obesity is a direct result of agriculture that produces the sugar-rich grains of corn and wheat along with potatoes and beets found in many diets today through a multitude of products that utilize these. Those economies that have populations with high rates of obesity also have economic enterprises to address this serious health problem. Pharmaceuticals and organic supplement manufacturers make billions each year from selling diet pills. Health advocates hawk their diet plans via books, CD’s and TV shows. Doctors and hospitals have seen an increase in treating obese patients that a report from the CDC and the nonprofit institute RTI International says is related to increased obese rates. Add to this mix the investments in exercise equipment, attire and fast food menus offering low cal meals and the potential for increasing economic output becomes huge.
The amount of food available around the world is obviously poorly produced and distributed. According to a report in the VOA News service “There are more than one billion poor and hungry people in the world today. That’s about one in six people of today’s population compared with a marginally better one in seven 10 years ago.”(Global Agricultural Conference Hears Calls for Greater Research and Investment by Joe DeCapua, 3/29/10) What are available to these poorer nations are basic crops that they grow themselves. There is very little diversity of their output and so the opportunity to expand their economy from variations of these farmed products has not been reached yet.
In the developed countries however agricultural products make more money in forms other than their natural state. Take the common tomato for example. The variety of businesses engaged in using and selling this single product as ketchup, salsa and canned condiments like soup for other dishes is phenomenal and its ability to create jobs outside the farm work that supplies us with it have elevated many more families to a relatively secure life with income that the developing countries have yet to experience.
With massive growth and need for abundant food supplies also comes the responsibility to insure that food supplies are not tainted and pose serious health risks. We are familiar with the outbreaks of food related diseases with the California spinach farms and at a Georgia peanut butter processor that sickened at least 600 people and caused at least three deaths. “Food poisoning is excessively common in the US, with as many as 81 million cases each year, according to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, although for the most part only very serious cases are reported.” (US: FDA knew of food contamination for years, by Naomi Spencer, WSWS.org, 4/28/07)
With it comes the need to inspect and qualify our food supplies so that the general public can trust that what they purchase and consume is safe for them and their families. Businesses that are a part of the Agricultural and Environmental Diagnostics market meet this need and each year millions are spent by private and public agencies responsible for food safety to insure that diseased food is not incorporated into the public food supply. Rising concerns over food safety worldwide are expected to increase the need for testing contaminants and as much as $2.4 billion by the year 2015 could be spent in this industry. (Global Agricultural and Environmental Diagnostics Market to Reach US$2.4 Billion by 2015, a Report by Global Industry Analysts, Inc., 9/27/10)
Clearly the effects of agricultural reach across the broad economic spectrum of global markets. What worries many today though is the negative impact that climate change is and will have on providing sustainable quantities of food for the world’s people. As unusually long droughts and 1000 year floods become more routine, the ability to produce food in traditionally consistent ways will offset conventional practices and reduce quantities of basic nutritional products. The challenge then becomes how do we address climate change in ways that reduce this threat and until we do, what economic changes can we make to remain relatively prosperous?
There may be opportunities by creative entrepreneurial minds to devise methods and devices that circumvent water shortages and other threats to crops such as flood and fires that increase with the global warming trends we are seeing. New crop species could replace those that become threatened and are lost. As this threat magnifies itself new industries could arise to protect our planet and its food supply. Failure to do so could result in deprivations through rationing and wars, destroying segments of civilization that have evolved over centuries.
A large part of our survival depends on aiding those economies who are currently struggling to feed their own people. “500 million smallholder farms worldwide are supporting two billion people — one third of the world’s population.” According to Kanqayo Nwanzi of the International Fund for Agricultural Development(IFAD), “with more support, smallholder farmers can increase their productivity to produce a food surplus … … allowing smallholders to become big business”.
By investing our time and a portion of our fortune in this neglected area we can expand markets, allowing us to secure and broaden our economy through agriculture as well as those of developing nations in the coming years as we face climate change and increasing food demands from massive growth in global population..