Circles of Growing and
Eating: The Political Ecology
of Food and Agriculture
After three million years of culling food from the natural life cycles of other species, the human species undertook a vast series of uncontrolled experiments in reshaping the earth. Five to ten thousand years ago, bands of human foragers began to control the reproduction of plants and animals, marking the most profound shift in human relations to the earth, more significant than electricity or nuclear fission (Mintz 1994:106). Tied to their cultivated fields, human beings soon divided into stable groups which I shall call households: hierarchical groups of human beings and dependent species attached to, and deriving sustenance from, specific places in the earth. Our ancestors selected a small number of the 5,000 plant species that have ever fed the human species (and these are only a fraction of 1 percent of the world's flora); over the millennia since domestication, we have reduced the number of plants that feed us or our dependent animals to about 150 (Wilkes 1988: 68). Human beings, the "most adaptable and therefore most widely distributed ... large land animals" (Crosby 1986: 13), began to push back the frontiers of self-organizing life, of evolution.
Domestic plants and animals are our dependents, even our "wards" (Wilkes 1988:67). Human beings have always altered forests, grasslands, and waterways; changed the flows of water and air; yet depended on these cycles to absorb the wastes of monocultural plantations of species, including human beings. The human species must interact with ecological processes, but the question is whether we do so wisely or dangerously. What, then, can the history of agriculture and food tell us about the choices open to the human species in taking responsibility for our power to shape the earth?