Worldbuilding Magazine: Introduction to Agriculture



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Introduction to Agriculture

By BH Pierce

The human body requires two to three thousand calories of food a day to function along with a combination of protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Since nothing can supply all these needs alone, humans must access a variety of foodstuffs to keep themselves healthy. One strategy used to acquire sufficient nutrition is agriculture, cultivating crops and livestock that will provide the bulk of what a community will eat.  In this article we will focus exclusively on the farming of plants, its origins in the Neolithic period, the types of crops that are grown and eaten, the basics of irrigation and other ways to make growing crops more efficient, as well as the concept of carrying capacity. While your world may contain non-human species, the broad strokes of the information covered will apply to any species that needs to eat in the same or similar ways humans do.

The domestication of plants was a requirement for the development of agriculture. Domesticating a plant means imparting a permanent, genetic change beneficial to humans. The process is a slow one, taking many generations and the earliest instances of plant domestication known to history began in the Middle East with wheat and barley ten to twelve thousand years ago (Sutton and Anderson, 177). The seed pods of these grains were attached to the stalks by a thin stem that would break when fully matured, scattering the seeds. Some stems were tougher and would not break, making them much easier for humans to harvest. These seeds were brought back to settlements, and uneaten ones matured into plants nearby. Over many generations, this eventually lead to the plant changing on a genetic level into a strain that could be farmed thanks to their tougher stems. This process repeated itself independently in other parts of the world. In the Yellow River Valley of China, rice and millet were cultivated. In Mexico, people domesticated squash, beans, and chili peppers. South American agriculture gave rise to the peanut and potato. As you can see, domestication can occur in wildly different climates with a wide variety of plants. All that is required is people encouraging useful changes in their food.

Once the process of domestication was complete, agriculture began to alter human culture. Before cultivation, human populations used the land broadly, utilizing a wide variety of resources from multiple biomes. With agriculture they began to use the land intensively focusing their efforts on a small amount of land capable of supporting their staple crops. This meant populations became sedentary, living in one spot rather than moving from place to place depending on available food. The surpluses of agriculture meant that not everyone was required to gather food. These people could be artisans, making tools or luxury goods. They could be astronomers, or architects, or soldiers. The domestication of plants (and animals) led directly to extensive divisions of labor within a culture. These divisions are the foundations of what we would call an advanced or complex society. As with the dispersed nature of domestication, the rise of complex societies happened independently across the world. Where domestication took hold, complex societies followed.

When agriculture took root within a culture, innovation would begin soon after. People would begin to experiment with different ways to grow more food than they had before. There are two ways to increase the amount of food produced by agriculture. The first is increasing the amount of land that can be productive through irrigation, the act of diverting water from where it is plentiful to where it is needed. The second is the improvement of techniques used on already productive land. In the case of irrigation this can be as simple as digging a trench to divert water from a creek or as complicated as pumping water from aquifers from deep underground. On that same note, improving techniques can range from using a digging stick instead of your hands to using a tractor.

Through most of history, irrigation was the best way to put more land under cultivation. There are two kinds of irrigation, natural and genuine. Natural irrigation depends on weather events like rain and flooding to water crops. Genuine irrigation is the use of human construction and labor to bring water to where it needs to be. (Sutton and Anderson, 273) One manner of achieving this is to dig canals to divert water from its natural path to one more useful for humans. Another is to build dams to create artificial lakes to use as reservoirs. A third is to dig deep wells to find water under the ground and bring it to the surface. All these methods can be enacted on a small scale, but the larger they get the more considerable technical know-how to plan and a large amount of labor to construct is needed. This is an example of the feedback loop between the amount of available food and the complexity of society. Considerable effort must be put in to the task of educating and training the engineers who design large-scale irrigation systems. Similar effort must be put in to feeding the workforce that builds and maintains the canals and wells and dams. This effort requires the food surpluses from agriculture, which in turn creates more food to feed the people now needed to maintain a complex irrigation system.

The other way to increase the amount of food produced by a plot of land is to improve farming techniques. Breeding, an accelerated version of domestication, is one of these ways. Mixing strains of one kind of crop can produce offspring with beneficial traits. A new strain may provide higher yields or resist cold temperatures, allowing for a more stable food supply. Adopting the use of beasts of burden is a way of maintaining yields without having to recruit more labor for a field. A team of horses or oxen can greatly reduce the amount of time and labor needed to produce a certain amount of food, especially over large fields. They can also make the transport of food to market quicker and more efficient. Tools like plows or water-powered mills reduce the effort needed to make food. While these tools and techniques were invented at different times, the nature of agriculture itself did not change until the onset of two inventions. The first was the internal combustion engine. The arrival of tractors and combines slashed the labor required to produce certain crops, as well as cutting their prices. The second great invention, refrigeration, changed the way people eat. Staple crops like wheat or potatoes were so favored because they were easy to store and transport. A bushel of wheat could be stored for years under the right conditions, but an apple won’t last nearly that long once it’s been picked. Refrigeration allowed for a wide variety of crops to be sold at great distances without spoiling, allowing for a wider variety in diet. Other technologies, like fertilizer or chemical pest control made their mark on agriculture, but nothing was as transformative as the combination of the internal combustion engine and refrigeration.

All these subjects leave us with a question, how do we determine just how many people a plot of land can support? This simple question has a complex answer. One aspect of that answer is Liebig’s Law of the Minimum (Sutton and Anderson, 49), which states that population will be limited by the scarcest resource. For example, if there is enough water to support one hundred people, but only enough food to support fifty, the population will naturally be capped at fifty. Another aspect of the answer is the boom and bust cycle. This cycle consists of humans manipulating the environment and briefly pushing the land past its carrying capacity, only to have their efforts fail and famine set in, reducing the population to a number the land can support. To know how many people a piece of land can support, you must know how it is being used. Say a hundred acres of land along a river could support ten hunter gatherers making use of all the game, fish and forage that grows there naturally. That same plot of land could support a hundred people if it were used for agriculture by a complex society. If that complex society underwent an industrial revolution and developed all manner of modern machines, then that piece of land could support a thousand people. Carrying capacity depends less on the land itself and more on how people make use of it.

We’ve seen the slow progress of domestication and the rise of complex societies. We’ve talked about types of irrigation and the use of technology and technique in agriculture. The question now is what does this mean for your world?  Apart from certain kinds of fantasy or sci-fi creatures, everything needs to eat something. You can use the information we have covered in this article to build your world on a much more intimate scale. Knowing the nuts and bolts of food production will tell you what occupies a large part of the population in the case of low-tech or low-magic worlds. Working out what food is available when and it what amounts can tell you what the rich and the poor eat. An in-depth knowledge of the agricultural practices and technology of your world will give you a solid foundation to build off of.

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Sources: Sutton, Mark Q, and E N Anderson. Introduction to Cultural Ecology. 2nd ed., AltaMira Press, 2010.