Agriculture: The Accident That Changed the World

Microbiologist and Ecologist

I am a microbiologist/ecologist by training, and for 27 years I conducted laboratory-based research on molecular aspects of intracellular parasitism funded by NIH. I also teach courses in the medical school and in our school of public health (e.g., Parasitic Diseases; Medical Ecology; Ecology 101). Many of them deal with parasitism and its effects on large segments of the poor that live in the tropics. Controlling soil-based transmission cycles of helminthes that cause significant health problems throughout the world is of prime importance to me.

I left the lab in favor of working on more globally relevant projects that address some these important problems. Since it is generally agreed agriculture is solely responsible for so much environmental disturbance and serves as the interface for the transmission of geohelminths, one area of focus of mine has been on how to raise food without further encroachment into natural ecosystems.

I have established The Vertical Farm as a theoretical construct to look at the possibility of agricultural sustainability within cities. The idea grew out of a class project to measure the effects of rooftop gardening in New York City on reducing the dome of heat that develops over us each year. From that original idea, I expanded the concept to include urban agriculture and finally to multi-story indoor farming. I have given this project to my students in my course, "Medical Ecology."

  • Transcript


Dickson Despommier: So, It began by accident, of course, maybe 20,000 years ago. Maybe even earlier than that, when hunter-gatherers got tired, I guess, or stumbled upon a crop. And that crop said, you know, you guys don't have to look around for food anymore if you learn how to take care of the crop. And these crops varied, but mostly it was wheat, and mostly it was in the Middle East, but the crop as it's been described since then actually trapped us into taking care of it by domesticating it. So we became, sort of, parasitized by our food. Rather than chasing it and hunting it down, now we can grow it, but in order to grow it we have to water it, and we have to take care of it, right? So that's when we learned how to do this. it took 10,000 years. So fast-forward. How is agriculture doing today? It's the same, only we've invented lots of different ways of doing that. We've got machines that plow our fields, and plant our corn, and weed the fields, and harvest the corn, and take care of the excess that we don't eat, and peel the corn, and shuck the corn. And if you read Michael Pollan's books, you'll realize that corn--we're made out of corn. We're basically C4 plants turned into animals. Once again, we appear to be trapped by a crop--this corn crop and wheat crop and rice crop. As you look at the amount of effort that goes into producing the food that we eat, it;'s heroic in terms of it's really pushing a very large square peg into an ever-narrowing round hole, until finally, that hole is going to shut and then we'll still have the square peg.

Question: What does it mean to mass-produce crops in unnatural locations?

Dickson Despommier: In fact, there are no natural places for crops. We've invented all those places, and that's part of our current dilemma, is that our population continues to grow as the result of a reliable food source in many, many places. Many, many different kinds of food, but nonetheless, you've seen what happens over the last 10,000 years. Our population jumped from several million to several billion.

Recorded on: 6/10/08