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Posts Tagged ‘farming

“The most perfect political community is one in which the middle class is in control, and outnumbers both of the other classes”*…

For some, the prospect of further advances in AI and related tech (robotics, connectivity, et al.) conjures a future of existential risk, a Terminator-like dystopian future in which humans fight with “machines” for primacy. For others (among whom your correspondent numbers himself), AI (better understood as “augmented” than “artificial” intelligence) has real promise– but also dangers of a different (and very human) sort. Those technologies, dependent as they are on capital and specific/rare expertise, could fuel further concentration of wealth and power, could usher in an era of even greater inequality. Noah Smith is here to argue that my fears may be misplaced, that augmentation may narrow the skills gap and help reduce economic polarization…

On the app formerly known as Twitter, I’m known for occasionally going on rants about how it’s good to be normal and average and middle-class. To some degree this is because I believe that the only successful society is an egalitarian one where people don’t have to be exceptional in order to live good and comfortable and fulfilling lives. But some of it is also a reaction against the messages I was inundated with growing up. It seemed like every movie and book and TV show was telling me that nerds like me were special — that because we could do physics or program computers or even just play video games, we were destined to be exceptional. In the late 80s and 90s, it felt like we were on the cusp of a great shift, where the back-slapping jocks who had dominated American society in earlier times were on the verge of losing power and status to the bespectacled freaks and geeks. The Revenge of the Nerds was coming.

It wasn’t just fantasy, either. Over the next thirty years, the nerds really did win the economic competition. The U.S. shifted from manufacturing to knowledge industries like IT, finance, bio, and so on, effectively going from the world’s workshop to the world’s research park. This meant that simply being able to cut deals and manage large workforces were no longer the only important skills you needed to succeed at the highest levels of business. Bespectacled programmers and math nerds became our richest men. From the early 80s to the 2000s, the college earnings premium rose relentlessly, and a degree went from optional to almost mandatory for financial success.

The age of human capital was in full swing, and the general consensus was that “Average Is Over”. And with increased earnings came increased social status and personal confidence; by the time I moved out to San Francisco in 2016, tech people were clearly the masters of the Universe.

The widening gap in the performance of the nerds versus everyone else wasn’t the only cause of the rise in inequality in the U.S. — financialization, globalization, tax changes, the decline of unions, and other factors all probably played a role. But the increasing premium on human capital was impossible to ignore.

That trend lasted so long that most Americans can no longer remember anything else. We’ve become used to the idea that technology brings inequality, by delivering outsized benefits to the 20% of society who are smart and educated enough to take full advantage of it. It’s gotten to the point where we tacitly assume that this is just what technology does, period, so that when a new technology like generative AI comes along, people leap to predict that economic inequality will widen as a result of a new digital divide.

And it’s possible that will happen. I can’t rule it out. But I also have a more optimistic take here — I think it’s possible that the wave of new technologies now arriving in our economy will decrease much of the skills gap that opened up in the decades since 1980…

An optimistic take on technology and inequality: “Is it time for the Revenge of the Normies?” from @Noahpinion. Eminently worth reading in full.

* Aristotle


As we contemplate consequences, we might spare a thought for Joseph Glidden; he died on this date in 1906. An Illinois farmer, he developed and patented the design of the first commercially-feasible barbed wire in 1874 (an earlier, less successful patent preceded his)– a product that would transform the West. Before his innovation, settlers on the treeless plains had no easy way to fence livestock away from cropland, and ranchers had no way to prevent their herds from roaming far and wide. Glidden’s barbed wire opened the plains to large-scale farming, and closed the open range, bringing the era of the cowboy and the round-up to an end. With his partner, Isaac L. Ellwood, Glidden formed the Barb Fence Company of De Kalb, Illinois, and quickly became one of the wealthiest men in the nation.


“The public health, ecological, and social impacts of fish meal—which were a consequence of its cheapness as a feed ingredient—were largely invisible on the other side of the world”*…

Fish-meal manufacturing takes small fish or offcuts and processes them into a protein-dense powder used to raise animals like pigs, chickens, and other fish

… Those deleterious effects were largely missed in the mid-Twentieth Century, when fish meal became important to the rise of industrial-scale farming, and– as Ashley Braun explains– are still, as fish meal use is again growing…

The dirty yellow powder’s underwhelming appearance belies its influence. Fish meal—an unassuming yet protein-dense powder of dried, cooked, and pulverized fish—has fueled South American oligarchs, fostered slums, reshaped ecosystems, and fed Europe’s agricultural industrialization. Fish meal propelled the global production of meat and eggs, all while spurring public health crises, pollution, and unrest. The precipitous rise and fall of this humble commodity in the mid to late 20th century, writes medical and environmental historian Floor Haalboom, offers lessons for today as fish meal’s star rises again…

How cheap protein fueled the Global North’s agricultural expansion and destabilized the Global South: “Boom and Bust, All at Once: The Fraught Modern History of Fish Meal,” from @ashleybraun in @hakaimagazine. Eminently worth reading in full.

Floor Haalboom


As we ponder pulverization, we might recall that it was on this date in 1837 that John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins, a pair of successful Worcester chemists, began manufacturing Worcestershire sauce, a savory flavoring that capitalizes on umami. Their condiment, which was broadly available to the public the following year, faced down scores of imitators to become the dominant brand, which it remains.


“Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers”*…

Lest we wonder if climate change might have fundamental effects…

Why was agriculture invented? The long run advantages are clear: farming produced food surpluses that allowed population densities to rise, labor to specialize, and cities to be constructed. However, we still don’t know what motivated the transition in the short run. After 200,000 years of hunting and gathering, agriculture was invented independently at least seven times, on different continents, within a 7,000 year period. Archeologists agree that independent inventions occurred at least in the Fertile Crescent, Subsaharan Africa, North and South China, the Andes, Mexico, and North America. Moreover, the first farmers were shorter and had more joint diseases, suggesting that they ate less than hunter gatherers and worked more. Why would seven different human populations decide to adopt remarkably similar technologies, around the same time, and in spite of a lower standard of living?

I propose a new theory for the Neolithic Revolution, construct a model capturing its intuition, and test the resulting implications against a panel dataset of climate and adoption. I argue that the invention of agriculture was triggered by a large increase in climatic seasonality, which peaked approximately 12,000 years ago, shortly before the first evidence for agriculture appeared. This increase in seasonality was caused by well documented oscillations in the tilt of Earth’s rotational axis, and other orbital parameters. The harsher winters, and drier summers, made it hard for hunter-gatherers to survive during part of the year. Some of the most affected populations responded by storing foods, which in turn forced them to abandon their nomadic lifestyles, since they had to spend most of the year next to their necessarily stationary granaries, either stocking them, or drawing from them. While these communities were still hunter-gatherers, sedentarism and storage made it easier for them to adopt farming…

During the Neolithic Revolution, seven populations independently invented agriculture; a new paper argues that climate change was the cause: “The Ant and the Grasshopper: Seasonality and the Invention of Agriculture,” from Andrea Matranga (@andreamatranga)

[image above: source]

* Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind


As we reap what we sow, we might spare a thought for Clarence Birdseye; he died on this date in 1956.  An  inventor, entrepreneur, and naturalist, he was the founder of the modern frozen food industry.

On Arctic trips as a field naturalist for the United States government, he noticed that freshly caught fish, when placed onto the Arctic ice and exposed to the icy wind and frigid temperatures, froze solid almost immediately. He learned, too, that the fish, when thawed and eaten, still had all its fresh characteristics. He concluded that quickly freezing certain items kept large crystals from forming, preventing damage to their cellular structure. In 1922, Clarence organized his own company, Birdseye Seafoods, Inc., New York City, where he began processing chilled fish fillets.  He moved on to vegetables and other meats, then to the “fish stick,” along the way co-founding General Foods.  In the end, Birdseye had over 300 patents for creating and handling frozen food.



“Agriculture engenders good sense, and good sense of an excellent kind”*…

In an influential 1943 essay, Polish economist Michał Kalecki staged a contest between capitalism’s pursuit of profit and its pursuit of power. While the benefits of government-sponsored full employment would benefit capitalists economically, Kalecki argued, it would also fundamentally threaten their social position—and the latter mattered more. If wide sections of the country came to believe that the government could replace the private sector as a source of investment and even hiring, capitalists would have to relinquish their role as the ultimate guardians of national economic health, and along with it their immense power over workers. Kalecki thus saw how the desire to maintain political dominance could override purely economic considerations.

This analysis finds a striking illustration in historian Ariel Ron’s award-winning new book Grassroots Leviathan, which advances a major reinterpretation of the contours of U.S. political economy and the origins of the U.S. developmental state—the government institutions that have played an active role in shaping economic and technological growth. In Ron’s revisionist account, the groundwork for the rapid economic development in the second half of the nineteenth century was less industrial and elite than agricultural and popular. “Despite the abiding myth that the Civil War pitted an industrial North against an agrarian South,” he writes, “the truth is that agriculture continued to dominate the economic, social, and cultural lives of the majority of Americans well into the late nineteenth century.” This central fact—at odds with familiar portraits of a dwindling rural population in the face of sweeping urban industrialization—carried with it shifting attitudes toward the state and the economy, dramatically altering the course of U.S. politics. Far from intrinsically opposed to government, a consequential strain of agrarianism welcomed state intervention and helped developed new ideas about the common good…

How a grassroots movement of American farmers laid the foundation for state intervention in the economy, embracing government investment and challenging the slaveholding South in the run-up to the Civil War: “In the Common Interest.”

Joseph Joubert


As we hone our history, we might recall that it was on this date in 1952 that Mylar was registered as a DuPont trademark. A very strong polyester film that has gradually replaced cellophane, Mylar is is put to many purposes, but main among them– given it’s strength, flexibility, and properties as an aroma barrier, it’s widely used in food packaging.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 10, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Who is to say plutonium is more powerful than, say, rice?”*…

Wild rice

Rice is the most valuable agricultural commodity on the planet. Hundreds of millions of metric tons of it are produced every year, an amount valued at more than $300 billion every year. Billions of people around the world rely on it as a staple of their diets, and have done so for millennia all over East, Southeast, and South Asia, and beyond.

But the rice that’s so popular today has a distinct beginning as a cultivated crop, a beginning that arrived somewhere along the Yangzi River more than 10,000 years ago. (The rice traditionally grown in West Africa, and which was brought across the Atlantic by enslaved people and merchants in the early modern period, stems from a separate domestication event. It’s not as productive as its Asian cousin, and so is less widely cultivated now.)

Ten millennia in the past, rice grew a bit beyond its current range thanks to slightly warmer and wetter climatic conditions at the dawn of the Holocene. The people living around the Yangzi River, and slightly to the north of there, were quite happy to use the stands of wild rice growing in their homeland. Grasses might not seem like the most natural food source for people to exploit, because it requires a great deal of processing (grinding, cooking, etc.) to make it edible. As part of a forager’s diet, however, it offered advantages: It was plentiful, it was reliable when other food sources like wild game came up short, and if properly stored, it could last for years.

Around the Yellow River, northern China’s key waterway, rice didn’t grow. Millet, however, grew in abundant quantities. As their counterparts had done further to the south with rice, the inhabitants of northern China learned to process it. A couple of thousand years of experimentation led from simply collecting wild grasses wherever they were found to planting wild varieties in gardens and fields, then intentionally and unintentionally selecting for traits to make those grasses more productive and less likely to fall off the stalk. Farmers created their crops, the ancestors of the foods we eat today, and the increasing viability of the crops created farming as a way of life.

For a variety of reasons, successful farmers tend to have large numbers of children, who expand outward from their core areas, taking their way of life with them. This process of demic diffusion defines most centers of early agricultural innovation around the world. Farming begets more farmers, who tend to spread out. For this reason, Neolithic China – an environment home to not one but two distinct agricultural traditions – produced a stunning diversity of early farming cultures. Starting around 7000 years ago, after 5000 BC, these farming cultures exploded in numbers, scale, and complexity. They filled up new territories and built more and larger villages. Towns followed, and leaders in the form of chieftains and kings. Social hierarchies and inequality defined these new Neolithic societies, distinctions of rank that could be inherited across generations.

These were the foundations on which organized states, writing, and what we might eventually call “Chinese civilization” built, many thousands of years down the road…

Jared Diamond has argued that the advent of agriculture was “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race“; in any event, it was a watershed moment. Patrick Wyman explores the dawn of agriculture and of the social complexity it spawned: “Neolithic China.”

* “Who is to say plutonium is more powerful than, say, rice? One takes away a million lives, the other saves a hundred times as many.” – N.K. Jemisin, How Long ’til Black Future Month?


As we contemplate cultivation, we might recall that it was on this date in 2017 that the U.N. General Assembly adopted 2019-2028 as the Decade of Family Farming. This program aims to serve as a framework for developing and promoting better public policies on family farming– an opportunity to contribute to an end to hunger and poverty as well as to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Here’s something that each of us can do to help the neediest.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 20, 2020 at 1:01 am

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