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Alice Roberts: ‘We cannot separate ourselves from the rest of nature’

7 Jun 2022

Prof Alice Roberts spoke at Future Human on the significant role climate change likely played in the origins of farming, and the questions that need to be asked on the future of agriculture.

“From our expanding knowledge of genetics I think one thing is very clear: we need to protect wild species, not just for their sake but for ours as well,” Prof Alice Roberts told the audience at Future Human last month.

Roberts is a biological anthropologist, author and broadcaster. Speaking at Future Human about the future of the planet, she looked to the past and discussed the early days of humanity’s relationship with plants and animals.

“The domestication of plants and animals would pave the way for the modern world in many ways. It allowed the human population to boom and civilisations to grow up,” Roberts said.

Roberts said that some of the earliest evidence of “very early farming communities” is in the Middle East roughly 11,000 years ago. The idea of farming, along with domesticated species such as wheat, barley, sheep and cattle spread west and eventually reached England and Ireland around 6,000 years ago.

“I don’t think those early farmers could ever have imagined how farming would burgeon and how the human population would boom,” Roberts said.

Farming born from challenges

Roberts said it is coincidental that multiple societies across the world began depending more on wild grasses and cultivating them during the same time period.

In Asia there is evidence of rice farming occurring around 10,000 years ago, while maize was being farmed at roughly the same time in South America, she explained. She believes it is “most likely climate change” that links these societies together.

Roberts explained that prior to the emergence of these farming communities, the earth had faced a thousand-year period of “dramatic climatic downturn” known as the Younger Dryas. This would have created tundra environments in regions such as Europe, along with periods of drought and frost in areas such as the Middle East.

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“Food resources would have been hard hit and it may have been this down-turning climate which then pushed people to control their food supply,” Roberts said. “They’re already, we know, using wild cereals more. Perhaps this is the point at which they start to really depend on what had previously been fall-back foods.”

Roberts said after this period, the wild cereals would likely have proliferated in these regions due to their increased use, which would have “locked” humans in a relationship with this food supply.

She added that this narrative shows humanity’s agricultural achievement as one that stemmed from challenges and accidents, which is “perhaps not quite the heroic story of the beginnings of farming that we’ve heard before”.

The future of agriculture

Roberts said it is important to remember these facts of the past when we look at the challenges that face us today and consider our future handling of agriculture.

For example, she said the level of meat consumption from richer countries would be unsustainable if it was happening in similar levels around the globe.

Roberts raised other agriculture questions to the audience, such as the use of genetic modification in crops, which some argue would help reduce the amount of synthetic chemicals we spray onto land.

Towards the end of her discussion, Roberts said it is clear that the success of domesticated plant species such as wheat and barley depends on humanity, but this is also true for wild, undomesticated plants and animals.

On the importance of protecting wild species, Roberts referenced a plaque in a park in Bristol that reads: “You need us more than we need you.” She also said there is a “deeper moral imperative” to reduce our impact on all species, “not just those that we find useful”.

“We cannot plough on with the idea that we can separate ourselves from the rest of nature. We need to learn how to live with it,” Roberts said. “It feels like the challenge of the century is learning how to accept those interrelationships. Not to fight with the wildness, but to thrive with it.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic