AGRICULTURE IS KILLING US

“The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud”, said Yuval Harari in his bestselling book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He went on to illustrate the effects that agriculture had on humanity, challenging human intelligence by illustrating how plant species such as wheat actually domesticated us, rather than visa versa.

“This ape had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago, but then began to invest more and more effort in cultivating wheat. Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of wheat plants.”

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder – The Corn Harvest August

Today, the wheat species covers about than 2.25 million square kilometres of the Earth’s surface – that’s the size of Democratic Republic of Congo, the largest country in Africa. But wheat was not the only species that domesticated us. Consider, as you walk the supermarket aisle, how successful rice, potatoes, maize, cattle, pigs and chickens have been too.

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Mesopotamian tablet – one of the earliest examples of writing recording data of crops and trade

For humans, the supposed upside of agriculture was a sedentary existence in close knit societies that hastened the development of our intelligence. It ushered in the invention of writing, because of the need to record data – such things as crop size, land tenure and trade. The agricultural data recorded today is indicative of a system which is out of control.

The extra food from agriculture resulted in population explosions of humans and farm animals alike. At the beginning of the agricultural revolution the world contained about five million people. We now number over 7.3 billion. Farm animals outnumber us: today Earth is home to about a billion sheep, a billion pigs, more than a billion cattle, and over 25 billion chickens. Like us, they are steadily destroying the planet.

Agricultural land covers more than 38% of the world’s terrestrial surface (protected areas cover just 14%). Most of that land would originally have been forest, wood or savannah supporting a vast number of wild species; now it is used exclusively for single-species plants or animals. The effects on soil from deforestation and overuse is devastating and can ultimately lead to desertification, from which there is very little chance of recovery.

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Paraguay Chaco clearings for cattle grazing

The amount of water needed for agriculture is excessive, the most significant being the volume needed to sustain livestock and produce meat. Before you pick up a 350g steak from the supermarket shelf, consider that it typically takes 5,000 litres of water to produce it. According to a publication by the UK’s Institute of Mechanical Engineers, a kilogram of pork requires almost 6,000 litres and a pack of chicken breasts about 4,000 litres to produce.

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Cattle in Hereford, Texas – photo courtesy of the BBC World Service

The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation calculated that meat production is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions – that’s more than the world’s cars, trains and planes put together… And it’s not primarily from flatulent cows. The FAO said the main sources of emissions are feed production and processing (45% of the total), output of greenhouse gases during digestion by cows (39%), and manure decomposition (10%).

While the FAO recommends steps for the agricultural industry to reduce emissions by improving production methods, there is also something that the public can do. As the world’s most intelligent species, the first step is to recognise the effect our consumptive lifestyle has on the planet – and then change our lifestyle.

At PURE last year we asked PUREists to make one small promise that can Change Worlds, and many pledged to take steps towards reducing climate change – such as going meat-free at least one day a week. These small steps can be significant if taken on a large scale; so, as you’re drafting your New Year resolutions, why not make steps to becoming part of the solution? The world will thank you for it.


Previously a freelance journalist and editor of Africa Geographic, Anton Crone is CEO of Safarious, an online travel portal to the world’s wild places. Anton not only focuses on wildlife, he also finds himself drawn to the people he meets on his travels. He looks at journalism as a way to connect people of differing creeds and cultures, and through his writing and photography he tries to uphold the importance of the communities that live side by side with wildlife.