As a participant in GOOD‘s extremely wide-ranging food-blogging week, I wanted to look at a few things over the course of two or three posts today, starting with a quick look at the very idea of agriculture, as explored by natural historian Tim Flannery in his book The Future Eaters.
There, amongst many other things, Flannery explains what it means to be a quote-unquote “hunter-gatherer” vs. a sedentary agricultural society. He writes, for instance, that “the problem of defining just what constitutes agriculture is an acute one when examining the prehistory of New Guinea.”
Traditionally, the major crops of the region have been root crops such as taro, or suckering species such as bananas. In order to propagate these plants one simply needs to grub them up, cut off the tuber or sucker and stick the leafy top back into the ground. This simple act has probably been a part of the human behavioral repertoire for 100,000 years or more. Clearly it does not qualify a person as an agriculturalist. But what is to be said of the person who returns to the newly established plant occasionally and clears competing species (weeds) away from it? And what if they plant 10 taro tops together; does that qualify as a garden? Would it do so if they fenced the patch? Clearly the definition of agriculturalist merges insensibly into the definition of hunter-gatherer and it is impossible to say where one ends and the other begins.
This mobile cultivation of the landscape actually helped to generate, as Flannery goes on to explain, a substantial part of our contemporary, highly globalized fruit diet. Indeed, he writes, “Given the extremely long history of agriculture in New Guinea, it is not surprising that a number of plant foods appear to have originated there. Among these are certain varieties of taro, sago, some kinds of yams, bananas (particularly the cooking or plantain varieties), sugar cane and various nuts. Some of these crops were adopted by people as far afield as Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands many hundreds of years before European colonization of the Pacific. New Guinean agriculture has thus made an important, if largely forgotten, contribution to the food crops of the world.”
This seemingly casual, on-the-go human interaction with the biosphere—simply replanting root stocks now and again, and returning every once in a while to harvest, replant, clear away, and prune—helped to bring into existence what are now highly refined, industrially useful plant species. Bananas, in particular, are an excellent example of a food that has become so thoroughly enmeshed in international economic systems of consumption and export that they bear little formal or nutritional resemblance to their genetic forebears.
[Image: Landscape as if subject to the spatial kerning and leading of an agricultural typography; via Wikipedia].
But what specifically interests me here is how the long-term re-formatting of the planet’s landscape, whereby the surface of the earth has slowly been made habitable almost solely for humans and the species they cultivate, began with something as small-scale—a field operation as micro-tactical and discrete—as pushing roots into the ground and then coming back a few days later to see how it’s all developed. Repeat this action for a hundred-thousand years, scaling it up each time, both mechanically and quantitatively, and what was once a lo-fi interaction with the forest has become an industrialized agriculture for an exponentially humanized earth.
—Spaces of Food #5: Madeira Odorless Fish Market and the Tempelhof Ministry of Food
—Spaces of Food #4: Betel Nut Beauties
—Spaces of Food #3: The Mushroom Tunnel of Mittagong
—Spaces of Food #2: Inflatable Greenhouses on the Moon
—Spaces of Food #1: Agriculture On-The-Go and the Reformatting of the Planet