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An Essay on Technology, Food and Humans

Discuss how technology has changed the relationship between people and the land, with a particular focus on advances in crop yields, and in food transportation

 

The connection between technology and our relationship with the land is most commonly expressed in a set of revolutions, where revolution is defined as a turning point, intensification, or a complete change in direction.

 

At the beginning of the Holocene, there was an almost “simultaneous” change from foraging to farming and agricultural processes. (Bocquet-Appel, 2015) From this point, there have been numerous other changes in farming. The importance of eating a required 2,000-calories a day has remained constant on an individual level, but the demand for food overall has skyrocketed with the booming population (Carrington, 2014).

 

Additionally, the advances made in transport have led to a dramatically more globalised world. From the first rise in globalisation in the late nineteenth century, agricultural transportation has been on an upward trajectory. (Bruinsma, 2003) One example of this is the decrease in the price of wheat as transport costs in London fell. (Henderson, Handy, and Neff, 1997) It is clear, that transportation, and crop yields are both affected by technological innovation, whilst also representing human relationship with the land.

 

As alluded to previously, the crop yield of the planet as a whole has increased dramatically, in response to rising populations. Technologies have facilitated this dramatic increase.

 

One of the first technological innovations in farming was the plough. Although initially human powered, when harnesses were added for animals, efficiency increased dramatically. (UK Agriculture, 2010) The dependency and need for increased crop yield is seen even in just examining this one technology. Ploughing has continued to evolve, even in the last 30 years. (Jones, 2012) Other technological innovations have also played a role. The seed drill originated in China, and is believed by some to have allowed creation of an efficient agricultural system that supported the population for millennia. (Temple and Needham, 2007)

 

It is important to also note that farming has evolved as a sociological trial and error process. A lot of the early advances were not driven by technology, but by sharing of knowledge. An example of this is the use of minerals and other substances on the soil to increase crop yield, which has been seen for thousands of years. (Scherer et al., 2009) While technology has changed so that fertilizer has now become largely inorganic, the principle still remains. A similar story is true of selective breeding. Used by the Romans (Buffman, 2008) it is still used today to allow farmers to create plants such as dwarf wheat for a more useable crop yield. (Evolutionary Biology – Wallace College, 2013)  In a similar fashion to fertilization, the principle of selective breeding is now being utilized in genetic modification, something that is likely to define the future of agriculture, and increase crop yield further. (Kartha, Nehra, and Chibbar, 1994)

 

In summary, there is considerable impact of technology on crop yields, and thus on our relationship with the land. Whilst the dependency on, and necessity of, food will never decrease, technology has allowed an increase in crop yields proportional to that of the population, keeping constant our relationship with the land, and escaping the Malthusian Trap. (Malthus, 1798)

 

Farming originated as a localised phenomenon, sometimes even to the point that one could be almost self-sufficient in food production. However, since the 1900s, technological improvements in the area of transportation have formed a globalised food market. (Johns Hopkins Center, 2010) This continues to grow, with almost everyone in developed countries eating food that has been transported from other countries, typically 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to plate, as much as 25 percent farther than in 1980. (Halweil and Worldwatch Institute, 2002)

The technology that has facilitated this can be broken down into two areas; preservation and transportation. Almost all farmed food is perishable, hence the original localization, and can only be transported if it is “kept alive and breathing”. (Freidberg, 2010) Examples of doing this can be seen in refrigerated rail carriages and lorries (which are the most common methods of fresh food transportation) and these can also be fitted with radiation shelters to reflect the heat produced by the sun. (Agriculture and Consumer Protection and FAO, no date) Food is also transported by a variety of methods, including airplanes, railway and shipping. (Rosenthal, 2008)

 

With regard to how this increase in food transport, which would have been unimaginable for hundreds of years previously, has impacted our relationship with the land, a number of considerations must be made. Firstly, this globalized agricultural market allows cities to survive, as they would not be able to sustain themselves with food produced in their locality. (Johns Hopkins Center, 2010) It also creates thousands of jobs, allows farmers in less developed countries to sell to developed nations and gives more variety of food to many. (Dean, 2007) However, the industry is rife with exploitation of the farmers in less developed countries, (Fairtrade, no date) and food transportation contributes massively to global warming (accounts for 25% of all UK heavy goods miles) (DEFRA et al., 2005) Some have therefore suggested that the globalized agricultural trading market is a step backwards, and that we should return to more localized systems of production and consumption. (Thomas et al., 2010)

 

In conclusion, it is undeniable that technology has provided an increase in crop yields, and the distances over which food can be transported. However, the idea technology has altered the relationship between humans and the land is a more dubious proposition. Humans are just as dependent on the land now as ever, since entirely factory-based production has not yet taken off. A more accurate expression of the relationship would therefore be that technology enhances the principles that underpin human relationships with the land, seen in examples of fertilisation and GM crops examined above. However, technology has shaped the role of food in a business context. Advances in technology have been key for agribusinesses the world over, allowing them to reach new markets, and expand profit margins. Businesses are based on the idea of limited resources (Gatenby, 2015) but technology allows them to fight against this and, in food just as much as any other area, it drives innovation.

 

 

Bibliography

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