Yuval Noah Harari, historian and author of Sapiens, A Brief History of Mankind, describes the first agricultural revolution as “the greatest scam in history.” We do not hide from you that after starting a post on agriculture, stumbling upon this kind of quote can be slightly disheartening. But in fact, after reading — literally — tons of things, we realized we were there:
And suddenly, if only to figure out where the scam is, it would be interesting to dig.
Agriculture has been one of the great turning points in the history of mankind, no doubt about it. It was with her that we went from one nomadic lifestyle to another, a sedentary one. Technical advances have made it possible to dramatically increase the amount of what we produce. But today, it is impossible to exploit the land more than we already do. Humanity is struggling to resolve its structural production problems. And scandals like the recent glyphosate scandals are just a wake-up call: we are at the end of a model. It is time to change our methods of agricultural production.
If Yuval Noah Harari speaks of fraud, it is because he describes a fairly simple disillusion: the transition to agriculture may have made it easier for us to eat, but it has not allowed the disappearance of famines. , diseases, or even allowed a fundamental improvement in our food. On the contrary, to move from nomadic life to a system of mastery of the land, it even forced the men to work from morning until evening rather than bending down to gather food. Moreover, while mastering fire allows us to eat better than our most distant ancestors, it does not mean that our products, which are now ultra-processed and sanitized, are much better than those produced more naturally by our soils. And when you take a closer look, our technological advances may have followed an exponential curve, over time we have had to feed more and more human beings. As a result, people are still starving, the quality of what we eat does not change … and people continue to work the land. So much so that it wears out the Earth it inhabits.
In recent decades, however, we have seen the beginnings of a paradigm shift: that of digital. It is impossible not to hope that thanks to this upheaval, the creation of new models of agriculture will be possible. Some are already thinking about it, developing their products and asking only to grow.
PART ONE: THE POWERS OF THE EARTH
PART TWO: THE LIMITS OF THE EARTH
PART THREE: AGRITECH COMPANIES SPOTLIGHT
PART ONE: THE POWERS OF EARTH
To understand how Agritech companies are rethinking agriculture, let’s first go back to their origins. To those of humanity, more precisely. To grasp the paradigm shift that agriculture represents, it must be viewed through the lens of human evolution.
In fact, we realized that the Earth had three powers: the power to nourish, the power to transform, and the power to be augmented.
THE POWER TO NOURISH
The evolution of the human species is complex and intimately linked to the progress of cultivation of the earth.
Homo Sapiens — a scientific term that designates our current genus — are part of the hominid family. This includes species such as the bonobo, chimpanzees, gorillas, and humans. For scientists, and contrary to the view commonly represented by the famous pattern that makes the monkey grow up to become Human, the latter’s development has followed a bushy evolution. This means that we do not evolve directly from one species to another, by natural selection, but that nature does, in a way, several tests.
Before us, therefore, there was Australopithecus, which appeared on Earth about 4.2 million years ago, then Homo Habilis, born about 2.8 million years ago in Africa. Homo sapiens appeared around 300,000 years ago. And to subsist, our ancestors practice three activities: 1 / Hunting 2 / Fishing 3 / Gathering In other words, they directly took the resources they needed from their environment. At this time, humans are nomadic: they live in small groups of around 150 people, made up of hunter-gatherers, and their survival is dictated by the existence of means of subsistence wherever they pass. It is difficult, in these conditions, to avoid famine and disease. It is estimated that Neanderthals — who lived another 30,000 years ago — had a life expectancy of 30 years.
From the beginning, the Earth has therefore provided humanity with the means for its subsistence and survival.
THE POWER TO TRANSFORM
About 10,000 years ago, humans began to tame their environment. So there appears agriculture, which is in fact the name given to the mastery of nature. Le Larousse also presents it as “all the activities developed by man to obtain plant and animal products that are useful to him, in particular, those intended for his food”.
10,000 years ago, therefore, the first agricultural revolution took place: the Neolithic Revolution. It takes its name from a period of eponymous prehistory, and would have taken place in Mesopotamia, in the Fertile Crescent (= current Near and Middle East). This development has two corollaries: 1 / Men and women become sedentary and form increasingly large groups. 2 / This is the birth of the first cities. One of the oldest of these is Catal Huyuk in the Konya Plain, Turkey.
In short, at the time, our ancestors began to organize life in society and developed the first known cultivation techniques. Among them, we find for example — slash-and-burn agriculture: we burn the existing vegetation so that the ashes fertilize the soil — irrigation
Around the 4th millennium BC, we also see the appearance of agraire traction, in Mesopotamia. This kind of tool helps the peasants to plow the land by pulling a plow drawn by oxen or horses.
Now let’s take a leap forward to the Middle Ages. At this time, the triennial rotation was developed, which consisted of dividing land into 3 parts and rotating crops, to preserve the fertility of the land. This is one of the first techniques for reasoned soil management.
Another leap forward, and we are on the verge of the second agricultural revolution, in the second half of the 18th century. For economist Rostow, this second agricultural upheaval would be a sine qua non of the first industrial revolution. Indeed, he observes that the changes made in the management of food and then industries have followed the following mechanism:
First step: At the beginning of the 18th century, agriculture stimulated the iron and textile industry, thanks to the shoeing of horses and the demand for new tools.
Second step: Thanks to agrarian progress, the increase in yields is pushing agricultural labor into factories.
Step Three: This new workforce accelerates the mechanization of agriculture. For example, the American industrialist McCormick developed the first combine harvester in 1834. It looked like this:
This mechanism is intensifying and leading to the mechanization and modernization of agriculture.
A symbol of this industrial era? Massey Ferguson Company, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of agricultural equipment. It was created in 1847 in Canada. For example, he is responsible for the first four-wheel-drive tractors (1930) and the first modern self-propelled harvester, released in 1938.
Agriculture has therefore accompanied profound changes in humanity. We adopted it by settling down, which has significantly changed our lifestyles. But it also participated in the evolution of other ways of producing, influencing the industrial revolution.
But it was after World War II that agriculture became truly intensive. The era is synonymous with renewal. The Marshall Plan, adopted in 1948 by the Americans to help rebuild Europe, calls for increased production and technical innovation. And everyone tries to maximize their returns.
Then, from the 1960s and until the 1990s, it was the Green Revolution. It is about a “policy of transformation of agriculture based on the intensification and the use of varieties of cereals with high potential of yields”. This revolution combines three elements, which make it a huge technological leap for agriculture: 1 / It selects varieties of plants for their high yields. 2 / It uses inputs on a massive scale. Among these, there are fertilizers, substances providing plants with nutritional supplements, and phytosanitary products that limit and treat diseases of plant organisms. 3 / It is developing new irrigation techniques for plantations.
In fact, it started in the 1940s in Mexico, at a time when Latin American countries were using these new varieties of wheat or rice to reduce the number of recurrent famines. Among the scientists who made this revolution possible, we find the agronomist Norman Borlaug. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work on the cultivation of wheat: he developed new varieties, which allow better yields. This is the start of GMOs.
With these new techniques, yields are exploding: the Earth produces more than it can naturally provide. In addition, we have entered a mechanized system. Add in the effects of globalization, and you have increasingly standardized products and food.
Since the end of World War II, the world has experienced a profound change in its methods of agricultural production. These have intensified thanks to organic innovations and the mechanization of agriculture. In France, for example, wheat yields almost increased fivefold between 1950 and 2014. The problem is that for nearly 10,000 years, men and women repeatedly carried out activities on the soil. And that in two centuries, they have increased the rate of their environmental changes to an unprecedented level. And this was not without consequence.
PART TWO: THE LIMITS OF THE EARTH
Initially, it was therefore with the advent of agriculture that our way of life changed profoundly. But for several decades, it is our lifestyles that have encouraged us to push the limits of our agricultural models.
THE EARTH IS OVER
Since the beginning of our species, an estimated 108 billion humans have lived on Earth. And that’s not a scoop: the world’s population keeps growing. According to the UN forecasts, we will be 9.5 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100. To put it into perspective, the growth of the world population before 1800 was quite low — about 0.4% per year. year. And at the start of the 19th century, 1 billion people lived on Earth. In short, it looks like this:
To successfully feed everyone, we would therefore need to increase global food production by 70% by 2050, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). We also need to improve the quality of what we eat to deal with the problems of malnutrition and under-nutrition. Looking back at the story, it is the feat of strength that agronomist Borlaug tried to achieve after World War II. As a result of his work, for example, India has become self-sufficient in grain production within 15 years. By considerably increasing its yields, thanks to new varieties, this saved it from going through many episodes of famine. It is even said that Borlaug thus “saved 1 billion people” from hunger.
The problem is, however much we can rely on GMOs, almost all the exploitable land is now in use. In fact, from a purely mathematical point of view, only the following geographical areas remain available: — oceans and seas — mountains and glaciers — the Arctic — Antarctica — deserts — forests
At first glance, the only ones that can potentially be used — because they are easily cultivable — are forests. The problem is obviously the ecological catastrophe of deforestation. Take the example of the Amazon rainforest. By itself, it represents half of the tropical forests of the planet, and yet 17% of its surface has already been destroyed. Why? To build roads, allow animal husbandry, or above all build soybean farms to meet global demand. It should be remembered, however, that the Amazon rainforest is considered the “lung of the world” because it has an enormous capacity for absorbing carbon dioxide. Deforestation also has a direct consequence on its biocapacity, i.e. on its ability to continuously produce renewable resources. Continuing to kill trees to cultivate new land is therefore not a sustainable solution.
What does the use of our planet’s surface look like?
To this is added ever-growing urbanization: the UN predicts that 70% of the world population will live in cities by 2050. This movement, associated with that of population growth, announces two things: 1 / A demand for food increasingly centralized in cities2 / An average distance between the place of production and the place of consumption of food which will increase mechanically. Indeed, the more cities expand, the further agricultural land is pushed away from city centers.
More people to feed, who are moving further and further away from where their food is produced: this is the situation we are moving towards.
THE EARTH IS BIG
There too, great scoop. The surface of the Earth is 510 million km2, approximately 800 times France. It’s not much because we’re starting to seriously run out of “room”, you will tell us. But on a person’s scale, it’s still big. And mastering this space is a subject as old as the world: how can we optimize it to meet our needs?
In the days of hunter-gatherers, soils were simply not being managed. People would stop and take advantage of the abundance that nature had to offer them, wherever food was present. With sedentarization, land use planning has become essential.
In fact, with urbanization, the distance between what we produce and what we consume has increased considerably: 1 / The creation of the first cities took the place of production away from the city center, if only because the homes were juxtaposed, but also for a fundamental reason. Because the more distant the land, the less expensive it is2 / The increasing migration of populations to cities has increased this phenomenon3 / The improvement of means of transport, by allowing the development of international trade, has further increased the distances between places of production and place of consumption.
Our entire current food system — production, industrialization, transport, distribution — stems from these three successive movements.
In the United States, it is estimated that food products found in supermarkets have traveled between 2500 and 4000Km. This is 25% more than in 1980. But how do you manage the distance that keeps producers from consumers?
In fact, if we summarize the journey of a food product on a national scale, we see that it goes through the following series of stages:
field> farm> cooperative> factory> wholesaler> supermarket> plate
Except, remember the hunter-gatherers: fresh produce like fruits and vegetables, in theory, we’re supposed to eat them on the spot. They are not made to travel that many kilometers. Result, to be transported, they are picked before their maturity and are treated to withstand the journey. It is estimated that fruits ripened “in the truck” lose more than 70% of the vitamins and nutrients that compose them. We eat products that are more optimized for transport than for taste or nutritional intake.
Another problem is that global demand does not care about the seasons. Take the test yourself: in your supermarket, you can buy strawberries pretty much all year round. However, they should only be available from May to August. In fact, fruits sold out of season are generally grown in glasshouses, which requires heavy use of pesticides. However, in 2013, a study by the French NGO Générations futures revealed that out of 37 pesticides found on French and Spanish strawberries, 8 were endocrine disruptors. As a reminder, these disruptors are chemical agents that act on the endocrine glands (which secrete our hormones) of our body and alter functions such as growth, development of our brain, etc. There would even be a strong correlation between these disruptors and the drop in the average IQ at the global level as Arte underlines in his recent documentary Tomorrow, All Cretins ?.
We are not going to stop the trade in distant foods overnight or deny the intensification of trade globalization. That said, focusing the cultivation of fruits and vegetables on their ability to be transported kills the taste and quality of those foods. In addition, the cultivation of the latter requires the use of products that are sometimes dangerous for our health.
THE EARTH IS ERODING
Increasing the capabilities of the Earth may sound formidable. Scientific advancements have revolutionized the way we produce and use soils, which has brought humanity to unprecedented periods of food production. But a few years after Borlaug’s death, the techniques he developed are still debated. Because our Earth is running out of steam.
First, he encouraged monoculture, that is, growing the same crop on a field from year to year. Remember the crop rotation technique used in the Middle Ages: it involves rotating crops on the same land to maintain soil fertility. Monoculture considerably weakens the soil.
Second, the scientist encouraged the use of chemical fertilizers such as nitrogen. Why nitrogen? Because this component of proteins plays an essential role in the growth of plants. The problem is, these fertilizers are made from fossil fuels like petroleum. Coupled with extensive irrigation, the release of these chemicals to soils has a devastating effect. In Europe, an excess of nitrogen can be observed in all agricultural soils, which modifies their stability and makes them less fertile in the long term.
In fact, if we schematize, our way of producing is an open circuit. Even in controlled environments such as greenhouse cultivation, the products used are rejected into the earth. In the long term, the consequences on the environment are significant because we have no control over their consequences. How do the soil absorb these products? How does this affect their chemical balance? What effect on fertility?
There is also the case of GMOs. We are talking here about modifying the genome of a living organism, a plant, in this case, by transgenesis (= gene implantation). Scientifically it holds. Recent discoveries in genetics have even allowed very promising advances. But on the one hand, the main players in GMO research are also those who manufacture pesticides. On the other hand, it is once again a big leap into the unknown. Because the Earth functions as a system, with subtle balances between the organisms which coexist there. How can we think of predicting all the consequences that GMOs will have on nature?
It’s no stranger to you that global warming is starting to be a real worry. Scientists are ringing alarm bells. At the One Planet Summit, held in France at the end of 2017, Bill Gates pledged $ 315 million to develop new varieties of rice or corn capable of withstanding drought, to offer them to several African countries. A good initiative? Yes. A sufficient initiative? Probably not, because it only heals a wound in a breathless system, without addressing the cause of its injuries.
PART THREE: AGRITECH COMPANIES SPOTLIGHT
All is obviously not bad in our agricultural system. Organic farming has proven that it is possible to produce in an ecological and healthy way. But looking at the long term, the sum of the problems described above will prevent the agricultural system from holding up. At a minimum, it will have to be supplemented by more sustainable methods.
And digital technology, coupled with new production techniques, could allow a shift towards a healthier alternative. This is why Atlas decided to accelerate Evergrow:
Hydroponics & urban agriculture is booming. According to the UN, 800 million people are involved in urban and peri-urban agriculture around the world. This is because our agricultural system and the methods of distributing its products are vulnerable: with the increasing distances between the place of production and the place of consumption, our cities only have a few days of autonomy in the event of disasters. environmental, economic, or financial. While it is difficult to imagine that urban crops will completely replace traditional agriculture — they will produce only perishable fruits and vegetables, no grains or livestock — one can hope to see them supplementing it.
But the technical challenge is far from the only one for Agritech companies. Because innovation is difficult to stimulate in the food industry for many reasons. Perhaps the most important of these is the relationship with the consumer. This has a very special relationship with food because it is one of the vectors of a population’s culture but also of disease. Subconsciously, this makes us cautious about the idea of change, especially when it comes to the means of production, and innovation in this sector is therefore done in long cycles.
The call for short circuits — which bring consumers and producers closer together — is growing louder because they will limit consumer mistrust of food brands.
A future where vacant lots and abandoned parking lots will house containers that almost autonomously produce healthy, quality fruits and vegetables that respect the planet: this new agricultural revolution will perhaps not be such a big scam, this time.
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