March 23, 2020 · 4 min read
Starting with this post, I’m trying an experiment: I’m going to do more of my work in public—“with the garage door up”. That means I’m going to post more frequently (closer to daily than weekly), with most of them being less polished, and to be more explicit about my thinking and research process. I’ll be sharing my open questions, confusions, and tangential thoughts. I already do a lot of this on Twitter, and in private journaling, but now I’ll be bringing it to these posts. It’s actually how I used to write in the earliest days of this site.
My goals are: to bring to the surface more of my half-formed thoughts, by forcing myself to write about them; to create a new type of content for you, my audience; to model good epistemic norms; and to get early pointers, references, feedback—and pushback.
Again, this is an experiment. Risks: lowering signal-to-noise ratio; overwhelming some parts of my audience with too much content. If you don’t want to read a bunch of shorter, more informal posts, feel free to skim/skip them and just read my occasional long-form comprehensive summaries, which I will continue to write every few weeks or so.
And please let me know what you think of this experiment, one way or another!
So. Today I’m diving into a new topic: agriculture. More broadly, the technology and industry of food. It’s the one major research topic of mine that I’ve read almost nothing about (with the exception of synthetic fertilizer, a little about cotton, and I guess a bit of Jared Diamond).
I don’t know much about this topic, but I have many issues in my peripheral vision.
I know that the origins of agriculture go back well into pre-history, about ten thousand years, around the time of the first settled societies and crafts (although it’s not entirely clear which came first, or whether they co-evolved).
I know some topics that are important:
Crops: Grains were early important crops: wheat, rice, corn; each grown in different parts of the world. I’m not sure how this evolved over time, except that after 1492 there were exchanges of crops between Europe and the Americas. In the 20th century, Norman Borlaug bred important new varieties of crops; and today we have GMOs.
Water: Plants need water to grow of course, and if you don’t get good rain you need irrigation or similar techniques. I remember that irrigation projects were undertaken as early as ancient Egypt.
Soil: Soil management is important in ways I don’t fully understand. The plow, and various improvements on it, were important inventions. Plowing/tilling the soil (are those the same thing?) helps clear weeds and also, I think, expose nutrients a bit below the surface? But also rain, even if it’s good for plants, can wash away the soil, and this is another thing to manage.
Fertilizer: Plants need “food”, especially nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK). There’s some in the soil but they quickly eat it up. Farmers used to just let fields lie fallow for a season (or more?) while they restored themselves. At some point crop rotation was discovered: certain crops actually help restore nutrients to the soil, so you can alleviate the nutrient problem by alternating different types of crops on one plot of land. Natural fertilizers were also used, including animal (and, I think, human!) manure; until we finally invented synthetic fertilizer.
Pests and weeds: Unwanted plants can grow on your fields and take space and nutrients away from your crops; animals can eat your crops before you harvest them. So pesticides, herbicides, and related techniques are important. Before the mid-20th century our techniques were crude at best. Now we have sophisticated synthetic chemicals for these purposes, as well as GMOs that I think have some sort of natural repellent characteristics.
Mechanization: Farming is hard work, and for most of history it was done with a ton of manual labor, and in some places some draught animals. Starting in the 1800s I think we invented machines to do a lot of the work for us.
Preservation: Food goes bad—sometimes very quickly. But of course, harvests are seasonal. So a big problem is how to preserve food so we can eat it year-round. Early techniques for this included drying, smoking, seasoning, pickling/brining (are those different?), and making jams/jellies (“preserves”). In the 1700s or 1800s someone invented canning. A huge breakthrough here was refrigeration and freezing, although even with freezing, special techniques had to be developed to preserve flavor and texture.
There are many other topics I could go into: meat and livestock, fishing and aquaculture, food retail, more broadly distribution and the modern global supply chain. But probably the above will be more than enough to occupy me, and should be sufficient to get the big picture.
Basically I want to flesh out all of the points above. As you can see, my starting level of understanding is approximately “9th-grade book report”. I want to understand the subject to the level where I can write a ~3,000-word article summarizing the history of agriculture. So I want to learn the history of major developments in each topic above—the problems and solutions—and figure out which topics I’m missing completely.
It’s been hard to find good books on this topic that meet my standards. There are many books that have a pretty narrow focus on one place or time, or both (actual title: A History of Georgia Agriculture, 1732–1860). There are some that focus on one agricultural product (Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and its Place in Western Civilization, or Chickens: Their Natural and Unnatural Histories) or one area of innovation (A History of Weed Science in the United States). There are a surprising number that focus on society or politics (The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture). Nothing really wrong with any of these—the world needs specialist books, and I’ll probably end up reading some of them—but when I begin a topic, I like to get an overview.
So far the most promising resources seem to be the following, which I might end up skimming or reading only certain chapters of:
So my first step will be to start reading and flesh out my general knowledge on the subject. Once the broad strokes are in place, I expect to have a clearer set of open questions, which I can answer with more targeted research.
Social media link image credit: Wikimedia / Dennis Jarvis
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