Friday, July 1, 2011

Agriculture - Curse or Cure?

Jared Diamond has described agriculture as "the worst mistake in the history of the human race." (Diamond, 1987) "Recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence." 

Inequality and despotism have been, and still are, undeniably present in this world. But we should always remember that association does not prove causation. Might there be other forces leading to these conditions?  Could there be forms of "agriculture" that would not produce them?

The term agriculture includes the production of animal products from managed grasslands, not just the production of "cash crops." As I discussed in a previous post, human manipulation of the environment to favor food production (in other words, agriculture) was a long-standing practice in pre-Columbian America. 

“When Lewis and Clark headed west … they were exploring not a wilderness but a vast pasture managed by and for Native Americans.” (Lott, 2002) 

Converting cellulose into fat and protein
Today we face an epidemic of chronic diseases in the United States, and throughout the world. Kelly Brownell would have us believe that obesity and other metabolic diseses are the result of a “toxic food environment.” (Brownell, 2002) Too much cheap food (including fast food) causes us to eat too much. It’s easy to entertain such flawed theories when people are well-fed on less than 10% of their disposable income (USDA ERS, 2002). But as Gary Taubes has documented in Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat, there are numerous examples of obesity and malnutrition existing in the same impoverished populations at the same time. Their condition was NOT the result of too much food, or a life that didn’t include sufficient exercise. 

The conversation about diet, health and human nutrition has been dominated by those who believe that obesity is the result of over-eating and sedentary behavior, that eating animal products causes various chronic diseases, and that animal agriculture is bad for the environment. Various “experts” who hold these world views have allowed their innately human “belief engine” to form incorrect conclusions from the associations they’ve perceived in dubious observational studies (Park, 2002). These fallacies have so thoroughly contaminated the “conventional wisdom” that they’ve influenced the “new conventional wisdom” held by members of the paleo / primal / low carb communities. Our message ought to be that replacing carbohydrates with fat from animal products, regardless of how they’re produced, will improve the health of most people. Instead it can be heard to mean that unless you buy more expensive organic or grass-fed vegetables and animal products, you shouldn’t bother. Our message becomes one for the relatively well-off, instead of a message for everyone.
Spring grazing in western Oregon

The evidence strongly suggests that the epidemic of obesity and related metabolic diseases should be laid at the feet of the high-carbohydrate-low-fat experts and not at agriculture's. Many desire to “return to a simpler time.” Something in the paleo message may tap into that desire. But how “paleo” can one be when one isn’t actually doing the hunting and/or gathering? How are we going to deal with today's problems, not the least of which is a massive and growing world population? The solution to today’s problem cannot be found in going back, we must go forward. The good old days weren't necessarily all that good. In order to go forward we need to consider the language we’re using.

What do the phrases “eat real food” or “all things in moderation” actually mean? Just how does one convert such feel-good messages into actual practice? “Sustainability” is in danger of becoming such a meaningless term, if it hasn’t already. Too often the bounds on the system are defined to the advantage of the one promoting their own approach. As I researched the material for my post on hormones, nitrites, and antibiotics, I ran across statements to the effect that the use of improved genetics, high concentrate finishing, subtherapeutic antibiotics, and hormone implants in beef cattle resulted in greater meat production from fewer animals and that, since this represented an environmental benefit, it was more “sustainable.” On the other hand there are the piously environmental, those for whom “being green means eating organic veggies and recycling the wine bottles.” (Rosen, 2010) They are green “so long as it doesn’t affect their home heating, TV viewing, or car driving.” (Rosen, 2010) 

Thanks to folks like Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades, Gary Taubes, Tom Naughton, Dr. Richard Bernstein, Dr. Jay Wortman, Jimmy Moore, and organizations like the Metabolism Society I now understand the fallacy of the thinking exemplified by Brownell and others. I’ve come to understand how our misinformed environmental understanding has influenced policy, debate and awareness in our society. And I’m developing a greater awareness of just how greatly the vegetarian ethic has influenced the thinking of the experts and the consumers. The irony is the likelihood that our easy access to so many high quality animal products at such low cost is, in fact, agriculture’s great blessing and offers the likely solution to today’s epidemic of chronic diseases.

“A liberal meat supply has always been associated with a happy and virile people and invariably has been the main food available to settlers of new and undeveloped territories. Statistics show that per capita meat consumption decreases with density of population.” (Romans and Ziegler, 1974)


Brownell, K. D., 2002. The Environment and Obesity. In Eating Disorders and Obesity, Second Edition: A Comprehensive Handbook. C. G. Fairburn and K. D. Brownell. The Guilford Press. New York, NY.

Diamond, J. 1987. The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race. In Discover Magazine. Accessed at

Lott, D.F. 2002. American Bison: A Natural History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Park, Robert. 2000. Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud. Oxford University Press, inc. New York, NY.

Pearson, A.M., and T.A. Gillett. 1996. Processed Meats. Chapman & Hall. New York, NY

Romans, J.R., and P.T. Ziegler. 1974. The Meat We Eat. Interstate Printers & Publishers, Inc. Danville, IL

Rosen, N. 2010. “Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America.” Penguin Books. New York, NY.

United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. 2008. Briefing Rooms: Food CPI and Expenditures: Table 7. Washington, DC. Accessed at, June 18, 2011.


  1. Are you aware of the work of Allan Savory?

    The Savory Foundation is at

    while Savory's lecture in Dublin is one of the best I have ever seen on the reversal of desertification and the rebirth of pastoral agriculture—and how the two are intimately connected:
    It's on Vimeo at

  2. Thanks for that, Grow Up. I've became aware of Allan Savory when I came to Oregon State University. This is a great video. Thanks for mentioning it.

  3. I wouldn't be quite so quick to defend agriculture -- or to claim it. It's clear we can jump to hunter-gatherer status, with 7 billion of us on the planet, so to get back to sustainability, pastured meat animals are a necessity.

    and: for good starts on further discussion.

  4. Glad you are keeping up the great blog posts.

    Regarding agriculture, pastoralism, inequality and despotism, there is more than just a correlation. See Boehm “Hierarchy in the Forest” for a good explanation. Basically, all primates seek to dominate and when they can’t they form coalitions which lead to egalitarian societies. “Egalitarian” in this context doesn’t mean people sharing property; it means that people have autonomy over their own actions. The keys to maintaining the egalitarian state are nomadism and immediate consumption. Once societies have stored wealth that can be stolen and needs to be protected, the rules of the game change.

    Herds are concentrations of property and they lead to taxes, armies, and all the other things that come with wealth. In pre-agricultural times there were far fewer humans, they were successful immediate-consumption hunger gathers with no range boundaries, and people in that situation are hard to boss around. Coalitions’ form to prevent the strong from dominating the weak, and eventually a community reaches an egalitarian balance.

    Of course, the prehistoric conditions are gone and we have to find a way to live in the world of today. We’ve lost Boehm’s keys to an egalitarian society, but that doesn’t mean can’t find another way in.

    On the grain-finished beef topic, I have heard that the feedlot experience changes the omega 3/ omega 6 ratio substantially. Maybe you can dig into that a little in a future post. I’d like to hear your thoughts about “Putting Dairy Cows Out to Pasture” in the May/June 2011 issue of Agricultural Research.


  5. thanks for this video and thanks to tell about allen savory institute of Agricultures