There was a time when nobody farmed, humans were merely hunter gatherers to survive. However at that time, the population of the world was somewhat smaller – approximately four million people. About 11,000 years ago though this all changed, when our ancestors discovered that they could actually grow their food. The birth of crop production happened all across the planet at about the same time, when people learnt how to grow cereals such as corn, wheat, rice and barley.
Which crops were grown depended largely on location, obviously different species were suited to different environments. In Central America early farmers grew squash, maize and beans, whereas South America pioneered the potato. In China, rice and millet were grown and the sorghum was the first widespread crop across Africa. Farmers were slowly concentrating on grasses however.
There are over 10, 000 species of grass on the planet, however seven of them effectively feed six billion humans across the world. If you try and imagine the land that is covered in Wheat for instance you’d need something twice the area of Alaska – that’s 600 million acres of wheat. It is an essential crop grown to support subsistence families in Africa and by huge corporate farms across Australia and North America.
In the mountains of Ethiopia, farmers have limited choice of what they can grow with little fertile soil available. In fact you’ll find many farmers perched alongside the cliff precipices where some narrow fertile ground exists. This sounds hard enough but the farmers also have to fight off troops of baboons who attempt to steal the fruits of their labour.
Farmers have always had to fight against a variety of pests to protect their crops. In Botswana the foe is the red-billed quelea which is the most populous wild bird on the planet. There are literally millions of these birds in Africa and a large flock can destroy a field of crops in minutes. In fact Botswana has had to create bomb squads to target these flocks and follow them back to the roost where they destroy the nests.
Despite all these and many more problems over history, humans have become highly successful farmers. We have had to be, because the enormous population growth of our species would never have happened without the development of our crop production skills.
This article was inspired by some of the farming history pieces on the BBC documentary site. You can access this site for free and with the help of a proxy or VPN server you can even watch all the wonderful programmes on the site and within the BBC iPlayer application.
Using a Proxy to access the BBC – http://iplayerusa.org/index.php/proxy-to-access-bbc-iplayer-abroad/