The Five Keys to Progress (Part 2): Highly efficient food production and distribution system

This the fourth post in a series of posts about the Five Keys to Progress. . If this is the first post that you have ever read on my blog, I would recommend starting with An Introduction to Progress: Mankind’s Greatest Accomplishment. Then I would recommend reading the first post of this series.

Cities, as we will see, are one of Five Keys to Progress. But cities would not have been possible without a highly efficient food production and distribution system. For all practical purposes, this means agriculture. And not just any agriculture. It has to be very productive agriculture. Because I will go into greater detail about food production in my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going, I will only make a few key points here.

Food is the critical historical constraint on innovation and progress. I know that this fact is very hard for modern readers to relate to, but it is true. Today when we are hungry, we go to the refrigerator or pantry. When we the refrigerator or pantry is empty, we go to the grocery store. Easy, right?

Well, no. Not for our ancestors. While getting enough food to survive is easy in modern societies, it was an epic task for our ancestors. For the overwhelming majority of our ancestors, the quest to acquire enough food to survive took up the majority of our working hours. It was an obsession, and all of society was organized around the most effective means to do so.

Before one can innovate, one must first survive. In order to survive, on must eat large amounts of food. If one has to spend the vast majority of one’s time focused on acquiring food, one cannot devote much time to innovating non-agricultural skills, technologies and organizations. Our ancestors effectively traded time for food.

The vast majority of mankind has devoted the bulk of their waking hours towards the quest to produce enough food to eat. Very gradually over time, they innovated new technologies, skills and processes that enabled more effective means of producing and distributing food. This quest for food production was so all-encompassing that we can categorize entire societies by how they do so.

This quest for food greatly affected where we lived. Until the last few centuries, humans had to disperse geographically in order to acquire food because the subsistence technology of the day was not productive enough for one family to grow enough of a food surplus to support urban specialists. The endless drudgery of acquiring food has stifled the human potential for innovation and progress for millennia.

There is only so much food that can be acquired from any one acre of land with simple technology. With technological innovation, we have been able to radically increase this amount, but for any given natural environment and suite of technologies, there is a fixed amount of food that can be produced per acre.

So humanity dispersed to survive. They had no choice. Survival comes first. But this largely undid all the benefits of humans living in dense populations that we learned about in the last section. Dispersal made it harder to copy technologies, skills and organizations that other people innovated. With far fewer models to copy, innovation and diffusion were far slower than they could have been.

Worse, the type of food that can be produced in any specific highly constrained. In some regions, fishing or hunting marine mammals is possible, but not in most areas. In some regions, hunting big game is possible, but not in most areas. In some areas, cultivating rice is possible, but not wheat or corn. In other areas, wheat is possible, but not in others.

Since food production and distribution is not something that one individual can do, the entire society has to be sculpted around the type of food that could be produced. Technologies, skills, organizations and values of a society were all greatly affected by what type of food could be produced in their geographical environment.

What is more, each one of these food types had very different amounts of energy and nutrients relative to the human work effort. This meant that some societies had huge advantages over others simply because they lived in regions with most cost-effective food sources.

Some geographical regions simply could not support much food production, so they doomed their residents to be trapped in poverty. A very lucky few were blessed with geography that enabled far more food production per unit of work. This left open the possibility of progress evolving within their borders.

These geographical differences account for a significant proportion in the equality between societies that exist to this day.

For thousands of years after the invention of agriculture, our food production systems were very unproductive by modern standards. Farmers struggled to support their own families. They also need to storage seed for the next harvest, pay taxes to the state and rents to their landlord. They also had to leave up to half of their land over to fallow each year.

Worse, traditional farmers lived in a highly uncertain environment where one bad harvest could lead to deaths in the family. They were also under threat from droughts, floods, marauding armies, epidemics and famine. They could do everything right, and then one bad thing happens, and their family is in great peril.

Living in such a situation makes innovation very difficult. The downside of one bad harvest far outweighs the potential benefits of a slight better harvest. Given their circumstances, farmers are very reluctant to experiment unless they have to do so. As David Grigg has pointed out in “The Agricultural Systems of the World” (summary here). virtually all agricultural systems have been relatively unchanged for millennia.

Fortunately, there was one important exception to this rule: Northwest Europe and the regions settled by Northwest Europeans. While other agricultural systems hardly changed for thousands of years, these regions have undergo many transformations. Each of these transformations resulted in significantly increase food surplus per family of farmers.

Mazoyer and Roudart sketch out these transformations in exhaustive detail in their book “A History of World Agriculture” (summary here). Ancient farmers of Europe and the Mediterranean used a relatively unproductive two-year rotation system and scratch plows pulled by oxen. Medieval farmers gradually evolved a much more productive three-field system and heavy plows pulled by horses. This likely doubled farm productivity, to a large extent because it reduce fallowed land from 50% to 33%.

The critical breakthrough occurred when farmers in Flanders (what is now Belgium) and Netherlands and probably Northern Italy, figured out how to change their crops so fallowed land was no longer needed. This critical discovery created the food surplus that Commercial cities needed to survive and prosper. Later English farmers copied these innovations, and made the system even more productive. In later centuries American farmers learned how to mechanize and motorize cultivation. This pushed agricultural productivity into the stratosphere.

This increased productivity and proximity to rapidly growing cities gave farmers a strong incentive to specialize and export their produce to the cities. In the Medieval system, relatively few crops were exported. Wine and wool were the major exceptions. Now in Flanders a dense web of economic connections knit together cities and the surrounding countryside for many miles around.

Products that were previously only possible to consume on the farm could now be exported to the cities. An entire secondary market for agricultural goods came into being. Some of these good were raw foods for human consumption – beef, pork, mutton, lamb, chicken, milk, eggs, nuts, honey, fruits and vegetables. Other agricultural goods were processed before human consumption – oil, cheese, butter, cream, yoghurt, beer, wine, whiskey, gin and rum. Some were non-food products processed from plants – flowers, woad, rope, wool, flax, linen. Others were non-food products processed from animals – hemp, leather, manure, bone, sinew, marrow, feathers and fur.

Some of the goods were processed on the farms, while others were transported to the cities for further processing and sale. Previously, this type of commercialized agricultural exports was limited to wine and wool. Now it had spread to a suite of other agricultural products.

As farmers increased their exports to neighboring cities, some found it more profitable to specialize in one agricultural good. Because it was now far easily to produce food necessary for survival on the market, it was no longer necessary to grow every necessary foodstuff on your own farm. Farmers were now free to focus their time on one product, giving them an incentive to increase their skills and adopt new technologies and techniques.

The increased specialization of crops enabled the Italian, Flemish, Dutch and English farmers to do what would previously have been unthinkable, shift away from growing grain. Because grain was one of the few crops that could be stored and transported long distances, Flanders found it more profitable to import large amounts of grain from the Baltic. This grain trade proved highly profitable for Flemish and Dutch merchants as well. And having the option to buy cheap imported grain gave Flemish farmers even greater incentives to shift their production to more profitable secondary agricultural products.

Secondary agricultural products created enormous benefits to the cities as well. With a flood of products that started out as domesticated plants and animals and then can be processed into profitable goods, a radical diversification of urban economies could take place. Entire new professions, skills and industries sprouted up. And this not only created a wide range of producers, it also created a large growth in the number of consumers. Each specialized worker in the city had no choice but to buy what they needed on the market. Whereas previously, they were forced to produce all their own goods, now they were modern consumers who purchased those items on the market.

This created a positive feedback loop that stimulated the expansion of markets. The more city dwellers found it necessary to purchase goods on the market, the more farmers could specialize in the most profitable products. The more farmers focused their skills and energy in these products, the more the price dropped. This stimulated more urban demand which continued the feedback loop.

The proximity to growing cities also made it more realistic to seek seasonal employment in the cities during times of low labor needs. Since farmers were no longer hovering on the edge of survival, they could afford to seek out the most highly paid non-agricultural jobs. Some of these temporary migrants decided to stay in cities permanently. This constant flow of migrants keep cities growing in population.

The greater variety of foods also enabled both farmers and urbanites to eat healthier and more balanced diet. The Medieval diet was largely restricted to bread and beer. Now meat, eggs, dairy products, potatoes, fruits and vegetables could all be consumed in much greater quantities. While it was hardly a diet that modern nutritionists would recommend, their diet was far superior to the diet of Ancient or Medieval farmers.

While the new no-fallow system gave enormous advantages to farmers and urbanites, the system was very slow to spread. Only regions with a large number of cities and widespread peasant ownership of land could realize its benefits. Resistance to change from both peasants, nobles and kings was substantial until the 19th Century.

Only Flanders, Netherlands, southeast England, southern Scandinavia and scattered parts of western and northern Germany and northern France saw a widespread transition to the agricultural new system. As late as 1840, the vast majority of European farmers were still using the same version of farming system as was used in 1300. Most of the adoption of the no-fallow system coincided with the Industrial Revolution in the middle and late 19th Century.

So agriculture was not some sideshow to progress. It was and still is one of the key foundations that progress is built upon. Today, we get caught up in flashy innovations on the leading edge of innovation, and we should. Those innovations are very important. But always remember that all of this innovations rests on the toils of the lowly farmer.

Shifting back to modern times, none of this means that a growing economy cannot import food from overseas. Many, in fact, do so. It does mean that virtually all societies that have transitioned from poverty to progress have increased the productivity of the agriculture before hand. Doing so does not create progress. It merely makes progress possible. The actual progress occurs in the cities, but city-dwellers are dependent upon food imports from the countryside. Without these imports, they would starve.

City dwellers still need to eat and the more there are, the fewer farmers there are. City dwellers in poor regions do not have the money to import expensive imported food. They need locally-produced food, and, more importantly, they need cheap locally produced food. This is why a region cannot get rich without big increases in productivity in the agricultural sector.

A few societies have been able to survive and prosper from food imports before they industrialize. Hong Kong and Singapore are two clear examples. Both are city/states that had no other choice due to a lack of land.

Some nations supplement their agriculture with fishing. The Netherlands and England are two examples. This is a little like importing, but I still consider it domestic food production. Very few imported substantial amounts of food before they experience progress.

And notice the wording on the first key. I deliberately added “and distribution system” to cover the exceptions. To import food, one needs an excellent distribution system usually in the form of shipping. Even societies that rely on domestic food production must have a good food distribution system to store and transport the product. Most typically this will be in the forms of wagons or carts.

In addition, many societies that transition from poverty to progress import sizable amounts of food after they make the transition. With the increased wealth, their citizens naturally want a greater variety of food to enjoy, and they have an incentive to free up labor from farms. But this is rarely the case before the transition.

In my next post in this series, I will cover Cities.

If you would like to learn more about this and other related topics, read my book From Poverty to Progress.


Michael Magoon is the author of the “From Poverty to Progress” series of books. The first book in the series is already published with many more to follow.

The writings above are under the same copyright as the main book “From Poverty to Progress”
Copyright © 2021 Michael Magoon

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