Tag Archives: farming

And then I threw it on the ground: first signs of farming come from the middle east, some 23,000 years ago

The history of farming is what you might call a bit muddy.

Pun definitely intended.

A new study published in PLOS ONE and led by Prof. Ehud Weiss of Bar-Ilan University in collaboration with Prof. Marcelo Sternberg of the Department of Molecular Biology and Ecology of Plants at TAU’s Faculty of Life Sciences and Prof. Ofer Bar-Yosef of Harvard University, among other colleagues, claims to have found the oldest evidence of agricultural practices in human history. The study focuses on the discovery of the first weed species at the site of a sedentary human camp on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Who were the first farmers?

Until now, it was generally agreed upon by the scientific community that agricultural practices were most likely independently developed somewhere around 15,000 to 12,000 years ago, by different peoples living in different areas.

Identifying an exact origin of agriculture remains problematic because the transition from hunter-gatherer societies began thousands of years before the invention of writing.

It isn’t until after 9,500 BC that evidence of the eight so-called “founder crops” of agriculture appeared: first emmer and einkorn wheat, then hulled barley, peas, lentils, bitter vetch, chick peas and flax. These eight crops occur more or less simultaneously on sites in the Levant, also known as the “Cradle of Civilization”, although the consensus is that wheat was the first to be sown and harvested on a significant scale.

I eat, you eat, we all eat that yellow wheat!
Image via field-crops

By 7000 BC, sowing and harvesting reached Mesopotamia and there, in the fertile soil just north of the Persian Gulf, Sumerians systematized it and scaled it up. By 6000 BC farming was entrenched on the banks of the Nile River.

In Europe, there is evidence of emmer and einkorn wheat, barley, sheep, goats and pigs that suggest a food producing economy in Turkey, Greece and the Aegean by 7000 BCE. Archaeological evidence from various sites on the Iberian peninsula suggest the domestication of plants and animals between 6000 and 4500 BCE. Céide Fields in Ireland, consisting of extensive tracts of land enclosed by stone walls, date to 5500 BCE and are the oldest known field systems in the world.

And agriculture at this time wasn’t the primitive “hit dirt with stick, throw seed, seed grow, eat seed” method you’d expect either: by this time farmers knew how to use fertilizers, how to make cheese, and had knowledge of animal husbandry.

Farming changed our society from the ground up. It meant more food for, arguably, less effort, and less danger. It freed us up so we could think more, and go on to cook up wonderful new ways to torture our kids (I mean math).

However, that leaves the question, when was agriculture in that primitive state? Who, where and when “invented” farming?

The Ohalo site holds the answer

“While full-scale agriculture did not develop until much later, our study shows that trial cultivation began far earlier than previously believed, and gives us reason to rethink our ancestors’ capabilities,” said Prof. Sternberg. “Those early ancestors were more clever and more skilled than we knew.”

Although weeds are considered a nuisance by farmers, as they take nutrients and sunlight from the crops, their presence at the site of the Ohalo II people’s camp revealed the earliest signs of trial plant cultivation — some 11 millennia earlier than conventional ideas about the onset of agriculture.

The Ohalo II people were fishers hunter-gatherers who established a sedentary camp that is unusually well preserved. Having been charred, covered by lake sediment, and sealed in low-oxygen conditions it provided ideal conditions for the preservation of plant material. Researchers examined the weed species for morphological signs of domestic-type cereals and harvesting tools, although their very presence is evidence itself of early farming.

“Because weeds thrive in cultivated fields and disturbed soils, a significant presence of weeds in archaeobotanical assemblages retrieved from Neolithic sites and settlements of later age is widely considered an indicator of systematic cultivation,” according to the study.

“This uniquely preserved site is one of the best archaeological examples worldwide of the hunter-gatherers’ way of life,” said Prof. Sternberg. “It was possible to recover an extensive amount of information on the site and its inhabitants.”

The site includes the remains of six shelters, and a very rich assemblage of plants. After retrieving and analyzing nearly 150,000 plant specimens, it’s been determined that the inhabitants had gathered over 140 species of plants, including 13 known weeds mixed with edible cereals such as wild emmer, wild barley, and wild oats.

The researchers found a grinding slab — a stone tool with which cereal starch granules were extracted — as well as a distribution of seeds around this tool, reflecting that the cereal grains were processed for consumption. The large number of cereals showing specific kinds of scars on their seeds indicate the likelihood of those cereals growing in fields, and the presence of sickle blades indicates that these humans deliberately planned the harvest of cereal.

“We call it Coffee, ’cause it grinds so fine.” – Ohalo II, presumably.
Image via wikipedia

The new study offers evidence that early humans clearly functioned with a basic knowledge of agriculture and, perhaps more importantly, exhibited foresight and extensive agricultural planning far earlier than previously believed.

 

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Biggest indoor farm is 100 times more productive than conventional agriculture

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Following the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that plunged the whole country of Japan in turmoil, a local food shortage ensued.  An inspired entrepreneur, Shigeharu Shimamura, took an old semiconductor factory that was abandoned following the disaster and turned it into the largest indoor farm in the world. Using state of the art growing technology, his company manages to make some 10,000 heads of lettuce per day out of the 25,000 square feet facility. This makes it 100 times more productive per square foot than traditional agriculture, all with 40% less power, 80% less food waste and 99% less water usage than outdoor fields.

biggest indoor farm

The massive productivity is mainly achieved by manipulating the plants’ day and night cycles. Using custom developed LEDs from General Electric, scientists have shortened the day/night cycle for the lettuce, to such an extent that they grow two and a half times faster. Besides lightning, systems are in place that fine-tune other important factors like humidity and temperature. Stacking growth mediums atop each other further boosts productivity per square foot.

Productivity is not only increased by producing more, but by wasting less. In a conventional agriculture setting more than 30% of the lettuce grown ends up in the trash heap, while just 3% of Shimamura’s special “coreless” indoor lettuce gets wasted.

biggest indoor farm

Currently, the process is “only half automated. Machines do some work, but the picking part is done manually. In the future, though, I expect an emergence of harvesting robots. For example, a robot that can transplant seedlings, or for cutting and harvesting, or transporting harvested produce to be packaged,” according to a report issued by the Japanese company. Once the process becomes fully automated, productivity is expected to rise even further.

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“I believe that, at least technically, we can produce almost any kind of plant in a factory. But what makes most economic sense is to produce fast-growing vegetables that can be sent to the market quickly. That means leaf vegetables for us now. In the future, though, we would like to expand to a wider variety of produce. It’s not just vegetables we are thinking about, though. The factory can also produce medicinal plants. I believe that there is a very good possibility we will be involved in a variety of products soon,” says Shimamura.

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What makes the prospect so appealing is that this is a self-contained design that can be implemented anywhere. Once you have the technology and science well in place, you can transfer operations to anywhere on the globe, and true enough  the same technologies has been announced and is now under construction in Hong Kong, with Mongolia, Russia and mainland China. Like Shimamura stated earlier, however, this approach only works in some limited cases, most notably crowded cities with expensive real-estate. One can imagine such micro-facilities made by small producers right in the heart of cities, thus stocking a daily, fresh supplies of farm goods. As the costs of installing large scale or small scale indoor farming go down, expect to hear more of such endeavors. Who knows, maybe soon there’ll be one in your very own city.

All images courtesy of Shimamura JAPAN.

Headless chicken solution

Headless chicken solution envisions Matrix-style farming

Headless chicken solution

Each year, billions of chickens are raised all over the world with the sole purpose of providing meat at the end of their couple of weeks-long lives. The animals are  forced to live in precarious conditions, thousands lined up next to each other, and are stuffed with nutrients designed to make them grow a lot faster than they can handle, often leading their hearts or lungs to fail before they even get to meet the hatchet. A lot of ethical debate has been circulating around animal farming for decades now, activists arguing that it’s inhumane to treat any being to such suffering. Still, man’s gotta eat, right?

Architecture student André Ford has a solution which he believes will spare animals, doomed to be nothing more than living stacks of meat, of all their suffering – severing their frontal cortexes and, thus, effectively rendering them brain-dead. Still alive, yet unconscious, the chickens would be raised in vertical racks, leading to an increase in productivity from 1 chicken per 10 cubic feet to nearly 4 chickens in the same area.

Headless chicken solution

Completely immobile, suspended and with their feet cut-off, the chickens would be plugged to a tube directly connected to the esophagus, which feeds nutrients and water, while another carries the waste away. It all begins to resemble the Matrix scenario, all of a sudden, however instead of a alternate reality, the chickens are left to a pitch black consciousness. There isn’t any red or blue pill. There isn’t any choice, not that they had any in the first place. You see, Ford’s concept raises a myriad of ethical issues at hand, but how can you contest it without being a hypocrite?

Ford argues that his solution is no more shocking than existing food production techniques. “The realities of the existing systems of production are just as shocking,” he told Wired.co.uk, “but they are hidden behind the sentimental guise of traditional farming scenes that we as consumers hold in our minds and see on our food packaging.”

Headless chicken solution

While lobotomizing the chickens will certainly spare them of great suffering, the act itself is cruel. The concept is terribly disturbing, and if applied, it would surely be passed along to other livestock currently raised for meat, like pigs and cattle. This prospect alone is enough, for me at least, to ban such idea from fruition. It might actually spread to a real-life Matrix scenario in which humans, clones most certainly, are raised for body parts, organs and stem cells. There’s no such thing as a “small-compromise” – it always leads to another, and the lesser evil isn’t necessary the best solution.

It’s worth noting that the idea is still a concept, nothing of the sorts has been implemented and it’s likely it will never be. No actual chickens were harmed for this project or photo illustrations. Your thoughts are much appreciated on the issue and your invited to share them in comments section below this post, however, I beg you to be as objective as possible.

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