Agriculture – a Double-Edged Sword

Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that the development of agriculture was a really good event. We settled down, grew our own food and raised our own animals. No longer did humans face an uncertain future not knowing if the next meal would be today, tomorrow or sometime later.image

We had food to spare and could afford to support people who were not directly employed catching or finding food. Civilisation was born. Maths, astronomy, building; permanence.

Yet archeology from the time shows that agriculture spread at a very slow pace*. From the North African, Fertile Crescent, it crept along at the rate of about half a mile a year. This was not an idea that had wings and flew! Agriculture got to Greece about 8,000 years ago and didn’t make it to Britain until about 2,500 years later.

Why wasn’t agriculture adopted rapidly and enthusiastically? For a start hunter gatherer societies have a lot more leisure time than farmers. Modern hunter gatherers devote around twelve to nineteen hours per week to finding food. That is an enviable work-life balance. Why plant food when nature plants so many foods for you?

Another factor which made large group living and farming unattractive was the development of disease. Close proximity with animals and poor hygiene allowed diseases to cross to humans, weakening or destroying settlements. Farmers rely on their crops in order to survive so a famine has catastrophic consequences while hunter gatherers select from a wide mix of plants and animals so are rarely affected by food shortages.

Finally, farmers rely on growing high carbohydrate crops like rice, wheat and potatoes with less protein than hunter gatherers. This lead to a decline in stature and physique along with problems like tooth decay which continue to afflict us today.


Diamond, J. (1991). Agriculture’s Two-Edged Sword. In: The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee. London: Radius. p163-172.


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