Agriculture – from revolution to evolution

This is an island of intense emotions. That is why no one was surprised that the social media post by the Commissioner for Animal Welfare on the occasion of World Milk Day, pointing out that the dairy industry relies on artificial processes that interfere with the natural instincts and normal behaviour of animals, triggered such an overpowering mix of feelings.

Even before the reactions started popping up, this post instantly reminded me of a more personal debate that takes place between the two minds inside my head, that of a scientist with a special interest in agriculture and entrepreneurship who actively promotes the benefits of technology even if this often comes at a cost to domesticated plants and animals, and that of the same scientist with a profound passion for evolutionary biology who advocates respect for nature and sentient beings.

I did not choose to work in agriculture. It chose me. Like that time when, after picking analytical chemistry as the study area for my undergraduate dissertation, I was invited to investigate the levels of micronutrient metals in animal feeds, and, one thing leads to another, this is how I was introduced to the milk sector, to the people who work in the industry, and to the gentle dairy cow.

Then there was the time when, fresh and happy out of my B.Sc. final year examinations, I entered the graduate trainee programme with a placement at the Department of Agriculture, then headed by the beloved Franco Serracino Inglott, who, with his vision and composure, offered me a bench at the chemistry laboratories. This is where it began – my fascination with how the soil holds everything in her arms and feeds the world. From then on, it was a matter of what one would call the organic evolution of things.   

Throughout the many years that followed, and as my understanding of evolutionary science deepened, I have had to bring together conflicting insights on the same table. On one hand, there is the knowledge that the agricultural revolution, initiated some 10,000 years ago, is all about the manipulation of a few species of plants and animals for human benefit. When you think about how humans revolutionised the way they lived by deciding to sow seeds, water plants, pluck weeds, and lead sheep to pastures, instead of continuing to hunt wild animals and gather wild plants like their ancestors Homo sapiens and those from Homo erectus and Homo ergaster had done before them, you will be right to intuit that this new way of doing things, farming, comes with its set of tradeoffs.

On one side of the coin, the agricultural revolution is one of our greatest stories of progress and success, made possible thanks to the intelligent human who managed to figure out how to design and control the growth of plants and animals for his comfortable consumption and satisfactory lifestyle. In another version, it is what Yuval Noah Harari calls history’s biggest fraud, because rather than make life easier for farmers, it burdened them with the dangers of disease and starvation linked to the inevitable explosions in populations. Not to mention some of the losses, such as the wisdom of foragers, who knew the secrets of nature and its wild plants; the secret lives of pigs who with their inquisitive brains and matriarchal societies suffer at the hands of domestication; and the best kept secret of all, the story of wheat and how it has domesticated humans; how a wild and insignificant plant, originally confined to a small range in the Middle East, today covers an area almost ten times the size of Britain.

One form of consolation, so to speak, comes from the gene’s eye view because it is through domestication that these plants and animals have implemented a very successful strategy of survival and reproduction. It is then up to us to carry the ethical responsibility to make sure that these animals do not suffer unnecessarily and are as free as possible to express their mental abilities and sociable nature.

In moving forward, even if it is with experimentation, I think we should not try to reverse things. Nature does not work by going backwards. What we can do instead, on top of respecting nature and all its manifestations, perhaps, is to respect history and to respect the people who make it.

Back to the island, an island with a big heart of emotions. Which is why it should not be a problem to accommodate different interests with respect. A respect for nature as the ecological system that supports us; a respect for the animals who willingly share this living home with us; a respect for history, and the way that things evolved, sometimes organically, sometimes by disruption, throwing a revolution in our faces like a mega brand; and respect for the people who with their hard work carry it all forward in time, so that our children may sustain the rapid revolutions and the gradual evolution in the future.

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