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We should be blaming mono-culture, not agriculture

In The Wild Life of our Bodies, Rob Dunn illustrates some of the negative ways in which agriculture has affected the modern human’s body. He draws on genealogical evidence that “proves” humans could not digest milk properly before the domestication of cattle, asserting that our new reliance on milk could be a contributor to the rise in obesity. I wonder, was Dunn referring to all milk? He did mention that milk served as “baby food,” but he then excludes humans from this category. Maybe I just misunderstood the reading, but to me the notion that human offspring did not used to rely on breast milk  seems preposterous. Dunn perhaps was only referring to milk from livestock, but he did not mention human breast milk whatsoever in this passage, which left me a little confused.

Furthermore, I feel the scientists’ arguments he brings up (though he does not entirely back their findings) seem to put a little too much weight on agriculture as the key culprit, when I personally see mono-culture as the main issue behind obesity, starvation, and an unfortunate monopoly of the food industry. If we had a better variety, instead of almost all of our foods coming from corn, we would create a more stable and sustainable system, as well as returning to a diet better suited for our body’s needs. That being said, I believe the rise of agriculture is inevitable. In the almost Utopian society Dunn describes as that of the hunter-gatherers (where one would find food and then do art all day), the system eventually failed. This failure was inevitable, with human nature being so rooted in the Tragedy of the Commons theory; we will take more than our fair share from the land, and then we run out. Without social hierarchies and a controlled system (like agriculture), of course we ran out of food and the African villages had to move from one area to the other. Unfortunately, business has turned agriculture from a means of survival to a means of maximum profit, but we would have all suffered had agriculture not taken off.

As a bit of a gym rat, and one who has to watch my diet carefully due to hypoglycemia, I wanted to conduct a little research on whether eating as a hunter-gatherer (mainly a variety of fruits and nuts) like Dunn described would serve the same health benefits in the modern human body today, as it supposedly would have the historical humans described in this passage. Here is a summary of my findings:

While we should always strive to steer clear of as many processed foods as possible, diets such as the paleo or caveman diet, that recommends we eat as the hunter-gatherers did, it has not proven beneficial to our health to cut out eggs, dairy, and grains. Furthermore, dietitians view a diet this restrictive as “unrealistic” and “lacks balance.” Furthermore, the article points out that there are several discrepancies within scientific research of what cavemen would have actually eaten on a day to day basis. Overall, the choice to eat leaner, high-protein meat, and trying to avoid processed foods definitely presents benefits, but the paleo diet is too extreme and research does not necessarily support it.

7 comments to We should be blaming mono-culture, not agriculture

  • I think you are on to something by reminding us that the “paleo diet” can’t be a one stop antidote for our contemporary dependence on processed food.
    But setting aside the blame game (agriculture = bad) for a bit, what insights does Dunn offer about how domestication changes the biological makeup and social behavior of humans and cows?
    P.S. I’m sure human breast milk is not part of Dunn’s critique.

    • corim14

      As I think I’ve mentioned before, I know a few people who have used the Paleo diet (for a short term, not as a permanent lifestyle) as a way to lose weight and become healthier and were very successful, with no detrimental effects to their bodies. I actually have a Paleo cookbook at home because I like the creative use of vegetables as a healthier choice of side than, say, french fries. However it’s true that this can’t work for everyone, just as no formulaic diet can be generalized for everyone on the planet. When people choose their diet and lifestyle they need to keep in mind their individual needs and metabolism- as Dunn points out, everybody is a little bit different in how much they are able to process.

      • meganimals17

        I acknowledged in my post that the Paleo diet does pose some benefits because it forces the dieter to choose more whole foods and lean proteins over processed and fatty foods/meats, which can definitely induce significant weight loss. I agree with you in the sense that I do not believe that it would benefit the human population to make a complete 180 back to our primitive eating styles. That species of human died, while we survived, so clearly we have at least some nutritional knowledge that benefits us more than our historical diet. The issue with dieting overall is that most are too extreme to maintain, and we can never be sure exactly what our body needs to find optimal health, so we should aim for balance, not primitive.

    • meganimals17

      Like I mentioned briefly, he discusses how humans evolved the enzyme to digest milk as a result of agriculture, but he also seems to attribute our current obesity epidemic to the rise of monoculture. He states we tend to “stick to the few species that grow best,” leaving us with a massive consumption of dairy, cereal, and sugar, (also booze in his opinion). Furthermore, he describes our relationship with cows as mutualistic, rather than simply us domesticating them- they give us dairy and beef, we ensure them grass. However, Dunn sees that now, do to advances in the food industry, we are moving further and further away from our historical means of food, and he thinks it takes people away from their culture and their sense of identity.

  • kcdrews

    In response to your comments on human breast milk and the evolution of lactose tolerance, milk (of all animals) is indeed baby food. With milk comes a slew of nutrients and antibodies from the mother that both protect and nourish the child. As infants, humans have the enzyme lactase in abundance, to better digest the milk. However, as a child grows and becomes weaned off of breast milk, the activity levels associated with that enzyme drop significantly. Normally this is of no consequence, as a diet before the introduction of domesticated cattle would have no milk to digest post breast-feeding age. The evolutionary adaptation Dunn references deals with the genetic change that causes lactase production to remain high throughout life, letting us digest milk at any age.

    • meganimals17

      So basically we used to only have that enzyme as babies, but now we have evolved to have that enzyme throughout our whole life? If so, that clarifies Dunn’s argument a lot; thank you for the insight.

  • mollyo92

    I really like your thought about the real issue being monoculture. I see the problem the exact same way. The issue with modern agriculture looks to me to be our insistence in growing one crop (say, corn), time after time, destroying the land and soil in an attempt to meet the demand of people. When I traveled Nicaragua last year, we visited a permaculture farm, where the thought is to model agricultural methods on natural growth tendencies. They had a large variety of species that were naturally prone to the area, and as a result had a very successful growing operation. This requires humans to change their preferences and essentially take whatever happens to be growing at the time instead of trying to force nature to change to our desires. Definitely something to consider.

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