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Until humans learned to remove hulls from the seeds of certain grasses around 9000 BCE, nomadic human populations relied on hunting and gathering for sustenance. Cereal grains yielded large quantities of food from small fields, which meant they could support larger, sedentary populations; their storability and ease of transfer allowed humans to develop more complex societies and governments.
Grains are a human creation because they are simply those grasses (members of the botanical family Gramineae Juss [alternatively, Poaceae Nash]) whose seeds have been selected by humans as staple foodstuffs. The interaction between cereal grains and humans has been fundamental to both in their rise to dominance in their environments. Without cereal grains the human population would likely have remained small—it is estimated to have been less than 4 million in 10,000 BCE—just one species in a widely varied global fauna, instead of becoming the nearly 6.8 billion who in the twenty-first century pervade the environment of the Earth. More than three-quarters of human food today comes from cereal grains, either directly or indirectly as animal feed (one-third of the world’s output of cereal grains is used as animal feed).
Equally, without humans the great cereal grains— wheat, barley, rice, maize—would have remained limited in range and distribution, just grasses among the roughly seven thousand species in the family Gramineae. Perhaps the greatest environmental shift brought about by grains is the shift of the dominant form of vegetation on the planet from trees to grasses.
Grains and Humans
The advantages of grains as foodstuffs have profoundly altered human culture. Grains, although not perfect foods, do contain large amounts of carbohydrates and small but important amounts of proteins (although certain proteins such as lysine are not available in the major grains and must be obtained from other sources). Historically, grains provided large quantities of foodstuffs in a small area—either in the dense wild stands in favorable locations or in the new fields of agriculture—which allowed a much denser human population to be supported in a limited area. This allowed permanent settlements of a size that hunting and gathering had not.
An essential part of the importance of grain is that it can be stored for lengthy periods (rice has been stored over one hundred years), thus providing nutrition throughout the year, compared to the practice of hunting and gathering, which must be carried on continually. Historically, because the labor of agriculture, although intense, was limited to certain seasons of the year, farmers could devote other portions of the year to increasingly sophisticated and specialized pursuits.
The storability of grain also made it a transferable basis of value. As a means of payment, grain made possible the specialization of labor because persons could develop skills and devote their entire time to the production of goods that could be traded to farmers for their surplus grain. In the earliest written records, of both Egypt and Mesopotamia, grain is the prevalent standard of exchange.
The storability and transferability of grain also made possible the beginning of government because grain was a suitable means of taxation, and taxation is the essential feature of the transfer of wealth for common purposes, a defining feature of government. The earliest government processes probably developed as agriculture was carried from the open hills of Palestine, Syria, and the foothills of the Taurus and Zagros mountains down onto the floodplains of Egypt and Mesopotamia. After the few optimal natural sites had been taken, the scale of work to build and maintain irrigation systems would be beyond the ability of the individual or family. Collective organization would be required both to put irrigation in place and to allocate and protect possession of the irrigated fields.
From Grasses to Grains
The wild grains were not a major food of early humans because the seeds, over their desirable starch and protein, have an indigestible hull. Eating any substantial quantity of raw grains would have resulted in acute digestive discomfort (whereas natural grain eaters such as birds have digestive mechanisms to deal with the hull). Not until humans learned the use of tools and fire could they make use of grains. Bruising or grinding could loosen and remove part of the hull, but it was application of heat, in “parching” or roasting, that was most effective in removing the hull and making the nutritious kernel available. After grains were in cultivation, selection toward “naked” seeded varieties made grains more readily usable.
Some archeologists have suggested that the mortars and pestles found in sites of the Natufian culture in the Fertile Crescent (the area from the southeastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea around the Syrian Desert north of the Arabian Peninsula to the Persian Gulf) from about 10,000 BCE are evidence that people there were gathering and using wild grains. However, because mortars and pestles can be used for grinding many other things than grains, it is better to see the first definite evidence of grain use as being about 9000 BCE, the date of the first archeological discoveries of carbonized grain in human-use contexts. Because fire appears to have been the main early tool for de-hulling wild grains, the lack of carbonized grains at earlier sites make earlier use questionable. Grain gathering encouraged permanent settlement rather than nomadism, so the first known villages arose in the prime grain-collecting arc of the Near East.
Reliance on a secure and concentrated food resource such as grain led the harvesters to try to protect it, driving off animals that were in competition with them for the ripe grain and clearing away plants (the first “weeds”) that might compete with and slow down the growth of the grain. Just when this grain “husbandry” changed to actual agriculture, with farmers selecting and saving seed between seasons, to sow in ground that they had plowed or otherwise loosened, is unknown. However, by about 8000 BCE seeds, altered from the wild strain by selection for tougher rachis, or central stem, (reducing shattering of the ear when gathering) and plumper grains, of emmer wheat (Triticum turgidum ssp. dicoccum), einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum), and barley (Hordeum vulgare) turn up in early Neolithic sites such as Jericho, Tell Aswad, and Cafer Hoyuk. These are considered clear evidence of cultivation and selection away from the wild grain. By 7000 BCE modern bread wheat (Triticum aestivum) is also found.
Middle East and Europe: Wheat and Its Associates
The original food grains (emmer and einkorn wheats and barley) were initially domesticated in their natural wild range habitat—the Near Eastern arc of open hillsides with yearly rainfall of more than 250 millimeters, lying between forest to the north and arid plains to the south. All of the early agricultural settlements arose in this area, but it is relatively limited. As the success of cultivation and population grew, farmers looked to artificially expand the range suitable for grains, thus starting the process of environmental alteration to suit grains that has continued from that time on. Moving north required clearing the forest because grains do not thrive in shade. Moving south required irrigation of the arid lands to provide sufficient moisture.
Mesopotamian population densities grew first in the low-lying delta area to the east, where the flat land allowed the seasonal waters to be distributed by a relatively simple system of canals. The Sumerian cities of Ur and Eridu, close to the coastline of the Persian Gulf, grew up first in the later fourth millennium BCE, then Uruk, Umma, and Larsa slightly farther inland on the delta. However, the heavy irrigation for annual grain crops caused the water table to rise, and evaporation deposited soluble salts in the soil and raised the salinity of the groundwater. These events reduced the fertility of the soil. Between 2350 and 1850 BCE crop yields declined by almost half, and seed requirements more than doubled. This was despite a shift in crop concentration from wheat to barley, which is more salt tolerant. The result was a decline of both population and political power for the delta, with the weight of both shifting westward upstream to the river plain region of Mesopotamia, where cities such as Nippur, Kish, and Babylon rose from about 1800 BCE.
This central part of Mesopotamia had greater gradient, meaning that floods had more energy and that stronger and larger-scale canals were necessary to carry the irrigation water out of the river channels. The height of the canal system was reached during Sasanian times (226–651 CE). However, salinization, although less rapid, continued to be a problem. The large irrigation works were liable to break down in times of natural or human crisis, leaving large areas of land to revert to desert. This happened in the years after the Arab conquest of Mesopotamia in 637 CE, when high floods combined with political change caused the elaborate canal system to collapse by 1000 CE, greatly reducing the cultivated area and population in Mesopotamia.
In Egypt fewer problems arose. The annual flooding of the Nile River flushed the salts from the soil, and the grain crops watered by the flooding flourished, supporting long-term production, which continued robustly enough to allow export of much of the grain that fed the urban population of imperial Rome. Failure of the Nile floods could result in famine and chaos, however. It has been suggested that the break between the Old and New Kingdoms of Egypt was caused by repeated flood failures between 2200 and 2000 BCE.
The Near Eastern system of agriculture based on barley and wheat spread through the Mediterranean, southward to the Ethiopian plateau, and eastward to India, flourishing in the areas where conditions were similar to the original Near Eastern arc or where forest clearance readily made them so.
During late antiquity and the early medieval period the introduction of the heavy moldboard plow allowed plowing and planting of the heavier and wetter northern soils of northern and western Europe. Previously the arable (suitable for cultivation) lands there tended to be confined to the uplands, where the soil was lighter and the forest thinner. Now, with the new plows available, there was a fresh assault on the forests of Britain, Germany, and central Europe as they were cut down to make plowland (such as the “assarts” of England). The net result was a loss of forest cover—England, originally a heavily forested country, gradually changed to open land—and the growth of population and shift of power to northern Europe. However, the more northern location meant greater emphasis on the “coarse” grains (barley, rye, and oats), which have shorter growth periods. Rye (Secale cereale) and oats (Avena sativa) had been of minor importance before but now became staples in the more northern parts of Europe. There were serious side-effects: ergot, a common fungus attacking rye, when eaten in contaminated bread, causes ergotism, called “St. Anthony’s Fire” in medieval times. The afflicted suffer convulsions and hallucinations, and many die. The modern psychoactive drug LSD was developed from one of the alkaloids in ergot.
The deforestation push continued eastward as German colonists moved into Prussia and eastern Europe during the tenth through the thirteenth centuries, converting the primitive forest to wheatland and enriching the Hanseatic League of northern European merchant towns, which prospered by selling the grain produced. Then, as the European powers expanded during the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, wheat conquered the world as an important part of the mechanism of colonial dominance in North and South America, southern Africa, and Australia.
Eastern Asia: Rice
Rice (Oryza sativa) is the most important of the world’s grains, being the staple food of almost half of the world’s population. Although rice can grow in a variety of environments, “paddy” or “wet” rice (grown in artificially flooded fields) accounts for about 75 percent of production. “Dryland” or “upland” rice accounts for 10 percent, and “deepwater” rice (grown in water depths of more than 50 centimeters) accounts for the remaining 15 percent. Wet rice cultivation has had the most visible environmental effect, with its leveled terraces and surrounding dikes rising far up the mountainsides, reshaping the landscapes of China and Indonesia.
Domesticated rice originated in the uplands region running through Assam, northern Burma (Myanmar), northern Thailand, southwestern China, and northern Vietnam. However, the earliest archeological finds of cultivated rice, dated to about 5000 BCE, are from Hemudu in the lower Yangzi region of central China. By 3000 BCE the range of rice cultivation had spread through southern China and the northern part of Southeast Asia. Rice cultivation reached India by about 1500 BCE and Japan by about 300 BCE.
The extension of rice into the equatorial zone did not take place until the discovery of photo-insensitive (day-length neutral) strains whose development did not depend on seasonal triggers. The spread to the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian Archipelago was therefore rather later, probably not until the middle of the first millennium CE. There the shift from swidden (slash-and-burn) cultivation of dryland crops such as millet to sawah (wet rice) cultivation led to greater population densities (a field of 1 hectare could support a family). This allowed surpluses necessary for urban development and trade and therefore the appearance of powerful states such as Srivijaya (southeastern Sumatra, seventh to tenth centuries) and Majapahit and its precursors (Java, eighth to fifteenth centuries).
Rice was not the first agricultural crop in its realm—proso (Panicum miliaceum) and foxtail (Setaria italica) millets preceded it in China; Job’s tears (Coix lachryma-jobi), tubers, and fruits preceded it in southeastern Asia and Indonesia. However, over time rice became the preferred grain, replacing the other crops. Intensive rice cultivation, with an increase in population density and effects on social and political structures, started in China in the third century BCE, and rice as a dominant crop spread outward. As a food it was so much preferred that huge quantities were traded or transferred to nonrice-growing areas. The Grand Canal system of China, over 1,000 kilometers long, was built in the early seventh century primarily to carry tax rice from the producing areas of the south to the Sui dynasty capital in Daxingcheng in northwestern China. In 1011 the Chinese Emperor Zhenzong ordered the distribution of a new kind of rice seed imported from Champa (in modern Vietnam). It had the advantages of maturing quickly, allowing double-cropping in some areas, and also was drought resistant and thus could be planted in higher and more northerly areas.
The spread of both rice cultivation and rice consumption has continued to the present. During the colonial era cheap bulk shipping opened vast commercial markets and caused ever-increasing conversion of land to rice production. For example, between 1855 and 1905 rice area and production in the Burmese delta multiplied roughly tenfold, exporting 1.8 million metric tons annually by 1905. In the past two decades rice has overtaken wheat as the most-produced food grain.
The Americas: Maize
Maize (Zea mays) is commonly known in North America as “corn” but is more fittingly referred to as “maize” because “corn” means any cereal grain in Britain and much of the rest of the world. The great cereal staple originating in the Americas, maize is high in carbohydrates and fats but low in certain proteins and vitamins. It made a successful staple when complemented in the diet with beans and squash, as it was and is in the Americas. During the post- Columbian era, maize was introduced to the Old World and adopted as a staple foodstuff—but without those complementary foods—and diseases such as pellagra (deficiency of vitamin C and nicotinic acid) and kwashiorkor (a protein deficiency) have been the result of heavy dependency on maize alone.
Maize is a heavy feeder, quickly depleting the soil of nutrients. Its cultivation in the Americas and later in the Old World has encouraged the type of agriculture known as “shifting cultivation” (slash and burn), where an area of forest is cleared, maize is grown for a few seasons until the fertility of the soil is exhausted, then the field is abandoned, and the farmer moves on to clear new fields.
The origin of the cultivated species of maize has been debated among scientists for over a hundred years because modern maize is so highly developed, with tight-fitting husks completely covering the grain on the ear, that maize is no longer capable of dispersing its seeds without human assistance. Botanists did not find wild maize clearly ancestral to the cultivated plant; therefore, they speculated that maize was descended through chance mutation or human selection from other related plants that do grow wild, particularly one known as “teosinte.” However, the recent discovery in Mexico City of maize pollen over eighty thousand years old, dating long before human occupation of the continent, has swung the argument to the side of an original wild maize, rather than mutation or selection from teosinte.
The earliest evidence of human use of maize, either gathered from the wild or in the early stages of domestication, dates to about 5000 BCE in northern Mexico. By the third millennium BCE maize was definitely cultivated in northeastern Mexico and the southeastern United States. By about 1500 BCE the nixamalization process (soaking and cooking the grain with lime or wood ashes, which makes the grain easier to grind and enhances its protein value) had been discovered, increasing maize’s desirability as a foodstuff. Whether maize was transferred to the Andean region from Central America or separately domesticated there is uncertain, but from these two areas the cultivation of maize spread through most of the Americas, being the basis of agriculture and increased population wherever it spread.
Columbus discovered maize on his first voyage to America, and the seeds taken back were soon spread through the Old World. Maize became a major crop in Italy, the Balkans, the Near East, and as far as China. In Africa, in particular, it became the staple crop of much of the continent.
Africa is different from the other continents in having not a single dominant grain, but rather a range of localized grains, most of which are categorized as millets. Millet is not a single grain species, but rather includes many small-grained species, from several genera, tolerant of high temperatures and low moisture. Millets are cultivated widely across Eurasia, especially in India and China, but are most prominent in sub-Saharan Africa, where the “imperial” grains are less dominant.
Domestication of grain crops appears to have occurred independently in various areas of Africa and rather later than on the other continents. Extensive gathering of wild grass seeds continued until about a hundred years ago.
The main crop of the Sahel (semidesert southern fringe of the Sahara Desert) and dry savanna is pearl millet (Pennisetum typhoides), which is most drought resistant of all millets. In the tall grass savanna, sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) is the most important food crop. Both pearl millet and sorghum were domesticated by 2000 BCE, and both were spread to India at an early date. The east African highlands have their own preferred grains: finger millet (Eleusine coracana) and teff (Eragrostis tef), the smallest seeded of all millets, which is the most popular food grain in Ethiopia but almost unknown outside that country.
Western Africa also has African rice (Oryza glaberrima), descended from wild rices that grew in water holes that dried up in the dry season. African rice is now largely replaced in cultivation by oriental rice. After 1492 maize also became an important food crop, especially in the southern half of Africa.
Three grains—wheat, maize, and rice—have most suited the conditions created by the European expansion of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries and the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Urban growth in the industrializing nations was facilitated by the new global transportation networks. A major impetus for the growth of European colonial empires was the need for cheap foodstuffs for the factory workers of the European countries that no longer grew enough for their own needs. Also, in these colonies the emphasis shifted from subsistence farming to commercial cash-crop agriculture producing for export. This encouraged monoculture, with farmers in each region concentrating on the single crop that would yield them the highest monetary return. However, monoculture, in addition to creating “best conditions” for production of high yields, establishes “best conditions” for diseases and pests that live on the grains.
North American Wheat “Imperialism”
The case of the North America prairies may be taken as typical of the environmental results of the vast expansion and intensification of grain growing in the modern era. Similar results may be seen in other cases, such as Russia’s Virgin Lands development projects of the 1950s and 1960s, China’s agricultural and industrial Great Leap Forward of 1958–1961, and the jungle clearing still going on in Brazil.
From the start of European settlement in North America, there was concentration on wheat growing in New England and the central U.S. colonies. After the American Revolution, agricultural settlement, accompanied by massive deforestation, expanded across the Appalachian Mountains into the interior east of the Mississippi River. After the U.S. Civil War and after Confederation in Canada in 1867, the North American frontier moved westward onto the open Great Plains, ideal for grain monoculture. However, the northern areas, especially on the Canadian prairies, were restricted by climate to mixed farming because successful harvests of the most desired grain, wheat, were unreliable. However, new strains of wheat—such as Marquis wheat introduced in 1911, which ripened eight days faster than the previously standard Red Fife strain—allowed monoculture of wheat even in the North.
Between 1860 and 1913 the Great Plains turned to grain, largely wheat. The Great Plains became the great “bread basket,” supplying the hungry cities of Europe and providing capital for North American development. However, the cheap wheat from North America (and similar plantings in Argentina, Australia, and Russia) impoverished farmers in Europe and tended to drive the other traditional grains out of production in those countries.
The environmental effects of the wheat monoculture were both varied and significant. The Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus) was one of the two major herbivores on the Great Plains in the 1870s (the other was the bison). By 1900 both were gone, unable to survive in the changed conditions. Not that farmers could rejoice, though, because other species of locusts and grasshoppers, previously insignificant, replaced them with equal voracity. Locusts and grasshoppers today cause losses of more than $100 million on the Canadian prairies alone and require hundreds of thousands of liters of insecticides for control.
The near-continuous planting of wheat, from northern Mexico through the prairie provinces of Canada, created ideal conditions for the rust fungus, which has established a yearly “migration” pattern of over 4,000 kilometers. Infection starts out each year in northern Mexico. Spores are blown northward through repeated generations. Rust cannot overwinter at the northern end of the wheat belt but arrives each year from the south; it cannot oversummer in the southern end, so spores must be blown southward in the fall to infect winter wheat there to start the next year’s cycle. Efforts have been made to defeat this cycle by breeding new “rust-resistant” cultivars (organisms originating and persisting under cultivation) of wheat, but each new version has only a limited usefulness until the rust evolves new strains that are not protected against.
The loss of the native grass cover (the prairie sod), destroyed by the annual plowing and harrowing, meant that when drought came, especially in those drier areas marginal for agriculture, the soil had nothing to hold it and blew in millions of tons. Desertification resulted from efforts to extend grain farming into ever more marginal areas. The first bout of droughts hit the U.S. central plains in the 1870s and 1880s, resulting in a short-term exodus of population. The area was resettled after a series of wetter years. Then came the drought years of the later 1920s and 1930s, resulting in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and surrounding states and the exodus from the parched region. Similar conditions prevailed in the Palliser triangle of southern Saskatchewan and Alberta, Canada, where grain yields dropped by over 75 percent.
In more recent years efforts to alleviate drought risks by irrigation have led to groundwater supplies rapidly being used up because wells need to be drilled deeper and deeper.
From the late nineteenth century onward scientific breeding, based on genetic principles, superseded older methods of new grain selection. This produced dramatic results such as Marquis wheat, which, with its shortened ripening time, allowed wheat monoculture on the Canadian prairies. In the 1930s the first “artificial” grain was created—triticale, a cross of wheat and rye—which was heralded as a new wonder grain because it contains more protein than either parent, but it has not lived up to the promises.
Since the 1940s selections of HYV (high-yield varieties) maize, rice, and dwarf wheat have driven what is known as the “Green Revolution,” aimed at tropical and subtropical areas of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The Green Revolution led to great increases in production but required heavy use of machinery, fertilizer, and pesticides (leading to increased concentration of production in the hands of larger-scale and higher-capitalized farmers and to loss of strain diversity). Also, many of the new hybrids either had built-in sterility or did not breed true, so seed could not be saved but rather had to be bought.
Most recently, genetic modification (GM) techniques have allowed plant biotechnologists to create desired characteristics not available by conventional breeding by altering genes or introducing genes from other plant species. This has produced such plants as maize with built-in tolerance for herbicides, valuable for large-scale mechanized agriculture. But problems have arisen with the drift of these genes to other strains of maize and other unexpected results—maize strains with built-in defenses against harmful insects are also toxic to butterflies.
The commercialization of plant breeding has also led to issues over “ownership” of plant genetics and strains and limitations on genetic diversity as commercial operations, especially in the United States, have tried to pressure farmers around the world to use patented seed.
Although pollution from traditional agricultural activities has long existed, artificial fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, and herbicides brought into use during the twentieth century changed both the nature and the scale of the problem. Because grains are the largest agricultural crops, grains have also accounted for the largest use of these chemicals. Soils themselves may be subject to damaging buildups of these chemicals or their derivatives, but larger effects come from runoff and leaching into the water system. This is particularly the case with rice because its culture requires regular flooding and draining of the rice paddies. The “miracle rices” of the 1960s onward, which give best results only with heavy fertilization and pest control, have worsened the problem.
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