Tag Archives: Farmers

If we want to reduce global inequality, we could learn a thing or two from Mario Kart

For Boston University researcher Andrew Reid Bell, the popular Mario Kart is much more than a racing video game. In a new study, Bell argues that the principles of Mario Mark can serve as a useful guide for creating more equitable and favorable social and economic programs for low-income farmers.

Image credit: Flickr / Yamashita Yoel

“Farming is an awful thing to have to do if you don’t want to be a farmer. You have to be an entrepreneur, you have to be an agronomist, put in a bunch of labor…and in so many parts of the world people are farmers because their parents are farmers and those are the assets and options they had,” Bell said in a media statement.

For Bell, agriculture was once a path to prosperity for the world’s poor, but that’s no longer the case. He traveled across several countries in southern Africa and found small-scale farmers currently face many challenges and life is a perpetual uphill battle for them. New mechanisms for the alleviation of poverty are needed. This is where the Mario Kart metaphor enters the stage.

In the game, when players drift to the back of the pack, they get power-ups such as bananas or green shells that can help them get back into the race – making cars at the front slower while boosting those at the back. Those on top of the race can also get power-ups such as stars and mushrooms but they are much less effective. The worse you’re doing in the race, the more likely it is to get a bonus.

“In any room of professionals or decision-makers, anywhere in the world, someone or their kid plays Mario Kart,” Bell told Vice. “That makes it potentially powerful, because the same people who might launch the next social or environmental program are people who can relate to Mario Kart. It shows us this important social feedback mechanism that’s rare in practice.”

Of course, using the concept of rubber banding to help agricultural families and communities who are in need is much more complicated in the real world than in the game. Still, Bell is optimistic about the prospects. Governments could create a program through which a third party would pay farmers to adopt better agricultural practices – a concept known as Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES).

Ecosystems support plant and animal life by maintaining the overall balance in nature. When functioning well, ecosystems also bring multiple benefits to people. These benefits range from the provision of basic commodities, such as food and fuel, to spiritual benefits – for example, the visually pleasing landscapes that we all enjoy. PES can support farmers who take care of those services for everyone to enjoy.

Bell acknowledges that a big challenge would be finding companies willing to pay for ecosystem services and linking them with the farmers who are open to changing their agricultural practices. The good news is that the more people that participate in such programs, the more that will likely join – a concept that Bell calls as “crowding in” in his paper.

He highlighted that the adoption of mobile phones has significantly increased in most of the world’s developing places. This could help governments and organizations find individuals that are searching for a better livelihood through more sustainable agricultural practices. Still, the access to mobile devices is still far from ideal.

“So many of the things we do in practice—think, reinvesting profits in a business, paying for schools with local property taxes—are reinforcing loops that tend to increase gaps between groups, and it’s really helpful to have this shared, relatable gaming experience to build on,” Bell told Vice.

The study was published in the journal Nature Sustainability.


New research paints the history of East Africa’s farmers, and how they evolved to eat dairy

New research is looking into how one of the world’s more diverse areas first took to farming.


Image via Pixabay.

A collaborative effort between archaeologists, geneticists, and museum curators is helping us piece together what life in sub-Saharan Africa was like thousands of years ago. The study reveals how herding and farming first took root in the region and offers new insight into how groups of humans developed lactose persistence — the ability to digest milk.

Got milk?

“The origins of food producers in East Africa have remained elusive because of gaps in the archaeological record,” said co-first author Mary Prendergast, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology and chair of humanities at Saint Louis University’s campus in Madrid, Spain.

“This study uses DNA to answer previously unresolvable questions about how people were moving and interacting.”

The study involved experts in several fields from North American, European, and African institutions. The team analyzed ancient samples of DNA retrieved from 41 human skeletons curated in the National Museums of Kenya and Tanzania and the Livingstone Museum in Zambia. From these bits of DNA, the team wanted to piece together the history of early African food producers.

The first food-producing endeavor that spread through most of Africa was the herding of animals — cattle, sheep, and goats. It continues to be a linchpin of local food production throughout the arid grasslands that cover much of sub-Saharan Africa today, feeding millions of people. Previous research has also shown that the Great Rift Valley of Kenya and Tanzania was a key site in the transition from foraging to herding.

Livestock herders first appeared in northern Kenya around 5000 years ago — where they built monumental cemeteries — later spreading south into the Rift Valley. Who these people were and where they came from, however, remained a mystery.

The present study shows that some of the people who carried this knowledge south draw their roots from northeast Africa. These communities later developed in East Africa by mixing with local foragers there between 4500-3500 years ago. This suggests that previous hypotheses holding that animal domestication spread through trade rather than the movement of people were wrong.

“Today, East Africa is one of the most genetically, linguistically, and culturally diverse places in the world,” explains Elizabeth Sawchuk, Ph.D., a bioarchaeologist at Stony Brook University and co-first author of the study. “Our findings trace the roots of this mosaic back several millennia. Distinct peoples have coexisted in the Rift Valley for a very long time.”

These herders and foragers then evolved into genetically-isolated populations in East Africa, though the team says the two groups continued to live side-by-side. There seem to have been strong social barriers between the two groups which persisted long after they met, the team reports.

The next major genetic shift takes place during the Iron Age, around 1200 years ago. This time saw the movement of other groups of people from northeastern and western Africa into the region. Many East Africans today show a heavy genetic legacy from these new groups, the researchers add. The same period also saw the introduction of two new, and massively-important, practices into the area: farming and iron-working.

One important finding of the study is that it shows how East Africa served as an independent center of evolution for lactase persistence, or people retaining the ability to digest milk into adulthood. This isn’t a feature humanity’s ‘factory settings’ include, rather, it’s a genetic adaptation that several groups of people today have inherited from our livestock-herding ancestors. It is found in high proportions among Kenyan and Tanzanian herders today, the team writes, suggesting that this group acquired lactase persistence independently during their history.

The paper “Ancient DNA reveals a multistep spread of the first herders into sub-Saharan Africa” has been published in the journal Science.

Foragers farmers fossil fuels.

Book Review: ‘Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve’

Foragers farmers fossil fuels.


“Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve”
By Ian Morris
Princeton University Press, 400pp | Buy on Amazon

What we consider as ‘right’ or ‘just’ isn’t set in stone — far from it. In Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels, Stanford University’s Willard Professor of Classics Ian Morris weaves together several strands of science, most notably history, anthropology, archeology, and biology, to show how our values change to meet a single overriding human need: energy.

Do you think your boss should be considered better than you in the eyes of the law? Is it ok to stab someone over an insult? Or for your country’s military to shell some other country back to the stone age just because they’re ‘the enemy’? Do leaders get their mandate from the people, from god, or is power something to be taken by force? Is it ok to own people? Should women tend to home and family only, or can they pick their own way in life?

Your answers and the answers of someone living in the stone age, the dark age, or even somebody from a Mad-Men-esque 1960’s USA wouldn’t look the same. In fact, your answers and the answers of someone else living today in a different place likely won’t be the same.

Values derive from culture

They’ll be different because a lot of disparate factors weigh in on how we think about these issues. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll bundle all of them up under the umbrella-term of ‘culture’, taken to mean “the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society.” I know what you’ll answer in broad lines because I can take a look at Google Analytics and see that most of you come from developed, industrialized countries which (for the most part) are quite secular and have solid education systems. That makes most of you quite WEIRD — western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.

As we’re all so very weird, our cultures tend to differ a bit on the surface (we speak different languages and each have our own national dessert, for example). The really deep stuff, however — the frameworks on which our cultures revolve —  these tend to align pretty well (we see equality as good, violence as being bad, to name a few). In other words, we’re a bit different but we all share a core of identical values. Kind of like Christmass time, when everybody has very similar trees but decorates them differently, WEIRD cultures are variations on the same pattern.

It’s not the only pattern out there by any means, but it’s one of the (surprisingly) few that seem to work. Drawing on his own experience of culture shock working as an anthropologist and archaeologist in non-WEIRD countries, Professor Morris mixes in a bird’s eye view of history with biology and helpings from other fields of science to show how the dominant source of energy a society draws on forces them to clump into one of three cultural patterns — hunter-gatherers, farmers (which he names Agraria), and fossil-fuel users (Industria).

Energy dictates culture

In broad lines, Morris looks at culture as a society’s way to adapt to sources of energy capture. The better adapted they become, the bigger the slice of available energy they can extract, and the better equipped they will be to displace other cultures — be them on the same developmental level or not. This process can have ramifications in seemingly unrelated ways we go about our lives.

To get an idea of how Morris attacks the issue, let’s take a very narrow look at Chapter 2, where he talks about prehistoric and current hunter-gatherer cultural patterns. Morris shows how they “share a striking set of egalitarian values,” and overall “take an extremely negative view of political and economic hierarchy, but accept fairly mild forms of gender hierarchy and recognize that there is a time and place for violence.”

This cultural pattern stems from a society which extracts energy from its surroundings without exercising any “deliberate alterations of the gene pool of harvested resources.” Since everything was harvested from the wild and there was no way to store it, there was a general expectation to share food with the group. Certain manufactured goods did have an owner, but because people had to move around to survive, accumulating wealth beyond trinkets or tools to pass on was basically impossible, and organized government was impractical. Finally, gender roles only went as far as biological constraints — men were better tailored to hunt, so they were the ones that hunted, for example. But the work of a male hunter or a female gatherer were equally important to assuring a family’s or group’s caloric needs were met — as such, society had equal expectations and provided almost the same level of freedom and the same rights for everyone, regardless of sex. There was one area, however, where foragers weren’t so egalitarian:

“Abused wives regularly walk away from their husbands without much fuss or criticism [in foraging societies],” Morris writes, something which would be unthinkable in the coming Agraria.

“Forager equalitarianism partially breaks down, though, when it comes to gender hierarchy. Social scientists continue to argue why men normally hold the upper hand in foarger societies. After all, […] biology seems to have dealt women better cards. Sperm are abundant […] and therefore cheap, while eggs are scarce […] and therefore expensive. Women ought to be able to demand all kinds of services from men in return for access to their eggs,” Morris explains in another paragraph. “To some extent, this does happen,” he adds, noting that male foragers participate “substantially more in childrearing than […] our closest genetic neighbours.”

But political or economic authority is something they can almost never demand from the males. This, Morris writes, is because “semen is not the only thing male foragers are selling.”

“Because [males] are also the main providers of violence, women need to bargain for protection; because men are the main hunters, women need to bargain for meat; and because hunting often trains men to cooperate and trust one another, individual women often find themselves negotiating with cartels of men,” he explains.

This is only a sliver of a chapter. You can expect to see this sort of in-depth commentary of how energy capture dictates the shape of societies across the span of time throughout the 400-page book. I don’t want to spoil the rest of it, since it really is an enjoyable read so I’ll give you the immensely-summed-up version:

Farmers / Agraria exercise some genetic modifications in other species (domestication), tolerate huge political, economic, and gender hierarchies, and are somewhat tolerant of violence (but less than foragers). Fossil-fuelers / Industria was made possible by an “energy bonanza,” and are very intolerant of political hierarchies, gender hierarchy, and violence, but are somewhat tolerant of economic hierarchies (less than Agrarians).

These sets of values ‘stuck’ because they maximised societies’ ability to harvest energy at each developmental level. Societies which could draw on more energy could impose themselves on others (through technology, culture, economy, warfare), eventually displacing them or making these other societies adopt the same values in an effort to compete.

Should I read it?

Definitely. Morris’ is a very Darwinian take on culture, and he links this underlying principle with cultural forms in a very pleasant style that hits the delicate balance of staying comprehensive without being boring, accessible without feeling dumbed down.

The theory is not without its shortcomings, and the book even has four chapters devoted to very smart people (University of Exter professor emeritus of classics and ancient history Richard Seaford, former Sterling Professor of History at Yale University Jonathan D. Spence, Harvard University Professor of Philosophy Christine Korsgaard, and The Handmaiden’s Tale’s own Margaret Atwood) slicing the theory and bashing it about for all its flaws. Which I very much do appreciate, as in Morris’ own words, debates “raise all kinds of questions that I would not have thought of by myself.” Questions which the author does not leave unanswered.

All in all, it’s a book I couldn’t more warmly recommend. I’ve been putting off this review for weeks now, simply because I liked it so much, I wanted to make sure I do it some tiny bit of justice. It’s the product of a lifetime’s personal experience, mixed with a vast body of research, then distilled through the hand of a gifted wordsmith. It’s a book that will help you understand how values — and with them, the world we know today — came to be, and how they evolved through time. It’ll give you a new pair of (not always rose-tinted) glasses through which to view human cultures, whether you’re in your home neighborhood or vacationing halfway across the world.

But most of all, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels will show you that apart from a few biologically “hardwired” ones it’s the daily churn of society, not some ultimate authority or moral compass, that dictates our values — that’s a very liberating realization. It means we’re free to decide for ourselves which are important, which are not, and what we should strive for to change our society for the better. Especially now that new sources of energy are knocking at our door.

Lower bovine jaw.

Neolithic cattle farmers were much more specialized than you’d think

Ancient farmers 5,400 years ago had much a much more refined understanding of animal rearing than you’d suspect, research from the University of Basel reveals.

Lower bovine jaw.

A lower bovine jaw found in the settlement.
Image credits University of Basel.

The study was performed by researchers from Switzerland, Germany, and the UK, led by Prof. Jörg Schibler from the University of Base. It focused on the ancient settlement of Arbon Bleiche 3, which once hugged the southern bank of Lake Constance, Switzerland.

Arbon Bleiche 3 is considered to be one of the most important Neolithic sites in the country of banks and chocolate. This is largely thanks to Lake Constance, whose silt deposits helped preserve the bits of organic material (such as houses’ timber elements) in their original form. Using dendrochronological (tree-ring dating) methods, the researchers were able to date the wood’s age down to the year. As such, they were able to determine that the settlement saw occupation for only 15 years in the 34th century BC.


Now that they had a “when”, the team also wanted to know “what was going on” during the time this settlement saw use — in particular, they were curious to see the socio-economic system the inhabitants were using 5,400 years ago. And the fastest way to get a glimpse into that system was to look at livestock and land use patterns in the community.

Toothy questions

Teeth and bones from some 25 heads of cattle were also unearthed at the site, which the team used to get their answers. Using strontium and carbon isotope analysis, the team was able to determine that the farmers in Arbon Bleiche 3 used three different livestock rearing strategies in parallel.

The herd was divided into three groups. One was kept close to the village around the year, a second one was kept on pastures far from the settlement. The third group alternated between these pastures, being sent on more distant pastures for a few months every year. Analysis of enamel and plant traces in the teeth suggests that some of the cattle were taken to higher pastures during the warmer seasons, potentially signaling the birth of modern Alpine pastoral farming.

Seeing such a specialized distribution of grazing lands hint to a more elevated society and more complex social systems than previously believed. Using a wider grazing land allows more animals to be reared while avoiding overgrazing, but requires social systems robust enough to dictate who gets to graze where, and then to ensure that these social contracts are observed.

The team further reports that different cattle herds moved about in different ways. Beyond the 27 houses and the farmer families that lived there, other groups specializing in different kinds of cattle farming also resided in Arbon Bleiche 3. All of which further point to refined social systems governing the settlement, as well as a keen understanding of the wants and needs of different species of livestock.

The paper “High-resolution isotopic evidence of specialised cattle herding in the European Neolithic” has been published in the journal PLOS One.