The Faustian Bargain of Agriculture

April 29, 2021

Farming isn’t simply planting and harvesting crops or herding domesticated animals, it is the construction by the farmer of entire alternative ecosystems. Agriculture, invented by humans around 12,000 years ago, has obvious advantages over hunting and gathering, but there are also costs: increased mutual reliance between the farmer and a very small number of domesticated species is one such snag, another is increased vulnerability to invasion of the farmed ecosystem by unwelcome guests, still another is the loss of the non-farmed landscape, and yet one more is the unsustainability of farming if soil nutrients are not replaced.

It is a Faustian bargain; the more efficient farming gets, the more people there are to feed and the more serious these problems become.

Astonishingly, humans were not the first farmers. Starting about 50 million years ago, leaf-cutting ants developed agricultural systems that rival those of humans in their success. How do they do it? The methods that these insects use to solve the inevitable problems of agriculture provide important lessons for human farmers.

This a recording of a live online talk by Stuart Reynolds, Emeritus Professor of Biology at the University of Bath and a past President of the Royal Entomological Society.

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