01 / 05
The Turbo-Charged Plants That Could Boost Farm Output

BBC | Agriculture

The Turbo-Charged Plants That Could Boost Farm Output

“Prof Long and his team have used powerful computers to build a digital twin of the photosynthesis process. It can tweak that process in millions of ways. From those millions of options the software can identify those that will make the biggest improvements.

“We then engineered these into crops, and if that results in an improvement in the glasshouse, then we take it to our experimental farm and test it in a real-world environment,” says Prof Long.

That’s already had promising results. Changes to the mechanism of photosynthesis in soybean plants have resulted in yield improvements of more than 20% in controlled environments, with field trials now underway.”

from BBC.

Telegraph | Human Freedom

Britain Is First Country in Europe to Approve Lab-Grown Meat

“British start-up Meatly has received the green light from UK regulators for its lab-grown meat to be used in pet food, with plans to initially focus on dogs. 

The first batches of pet food which include its cultivated chicken are expected to appear on sale towards the end of the year after taste trials have been conducted among dogs. 

It means the UK will be the first European country where lab-grown pet food is available for people to buy.”

From Telegraph.

World Bank | Food Production

Fertilizer Prices Edge Lower amid Lower Input Costs and Improved Production Prospects

“The World Bank’s fertilizer price index remained relatively stable during the second quarter of 2024, following a 20 percent drop in the first quarter. The index is 24 percent lower than it was a year ago, primarily due to a significant decline in phosphate rock prices (-56 percent) and potassium prices (-17 percent). This broad weakness is attributed to improved production prospects driven, for the most part, by lower input costs. In the second quarter of 2024, the fertilizer affordability index (the ratio of fertilizer prices to food prices) reached its 2015-19 average level.”

From World Bank.

Blog Post | Wealth & Poverty

Grim Old Days: Patricia Crone’s Pre-Industrial Societies

The human experience worldwide was once united by pervasive poverty, limited life choices, and forced labor.

Summary: In the pre-industrial age, while cultural uniqueness flourished in some ways due to relative isolation, pervasive poverty and hardship were strikingly uniform worldwide. Patricia Crone’s Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World illustrates how most people were illiterate peasants living in dire conditions, with limited political freedom and agency. Contrasted with the modern era’s material abundance, this illustrates the progress humanity has made.

Some people complain that the modern, globalized world is losing its cultural uniqueness as different countries increasingly adopt similar modes of dress, consume the same entertainment, eat at the same international restaurant chains, and so on. Some imagine life in the distant past as having been far more richly varied. While it is true that relative isolation ensured each locale developed its own idiosyncratic customs, in the pre-industrial age, every corner of the planet also shared marked similarities—chief among them, extreme and near-universal poverty.

The late Danish historian Patricia Crone cataloged these uncanny similarities in her book Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World, which reveals how despite vast cultural differences across the globe, people once eked out existences that were remarkably alike. Crone gives these “striking uniformities,” as she calls them, a name: “the pre-industrial pattern.” The average person in every society was once an illiterate peasant, suffering through much the same unimaginably poor living conditions, lacking in political liberty, and generally having extremely limited agency in directing the course of their own lives.

“Most people, and certainly all members of Western civilization, are . . . born into a world which differs radically from that of their ancestors, with the result that most of human history is a closed book to them,” notes Crone. “We all take the world in which we were born for granted and think of the human condition as ours. This is a mistake. The vast mass of human experience has been made under quite different conditions.” Her book takes a step toward bridging the impossibly large divide between the modern reader and the people of the pre-industrial world.

First and foremost, the human experience worldwide was united by pervasive poverty. The people of the past spent a great deal of their time engaged in work but had little to show for it, for “all pre-industrial societies were dominated by scarcity.”

“To think away modern industry is to think away an enormous amount of wealth . . . a machine tended by twenty workers can produce more pots in a single year than can twenty potters in a lifetime, at a fraction of the cost of maintaining twenty potters from youth to death. . . . By our standards, the products of the pre-industrial world were both few and very expensive.”

“The low output of agriculture meant that the vast majority of people had to be peasants.”

“In some societies, practically everyone was a peasant apart from the ruling elite, typically less than 2 per cent of the population. More commonly, some 10 per cent of the population were able to leave the production of food. But western Europe is believed to have supported no less than 15 per cent of its population in occupations other than agriculture as early as c. 1300, the proportion having risen to about 20 per cent by c. 1500; and it is said to have risen to some 20 per cent in sixteenth-century Japan.”

Most people worked in agriculture; hence the frequency with which “agrarian society” is used as a synonym for “pre-industrial society.” Still, it is worth considering what other jobs were open to the average person. “Scarcity everywhere made for a huge population of vagrants, beggars, robbers and criminals of other types: no less than 10 per cent of the population of seventeenth-century France (estimated at 20 million or less) is believed to have fallen into this category. Of the rest, the majority were servants (who constituted a further 10 per cent of the population of western Europe in the seventeenth century), and unskilled employees of public institutions: soldiers, runners, town criers, diggers, sweepers, door-keepers and so on.”

Today when one imagines an average person, the image that springs to mind is usually a member of the large middle class, not a destitute individual barely scraping by, but the latter was far more typical in pre-industrial times. “Even purveyors of more specialized goods and services were not necessarily better off. Village smiths and potters, rural and urban pedlars, cuppers, healers, mimers, jugglers, story-tellers and popular preachers, all these and many others had to subsist on such tiny sums as agrarian society could afford to spend on what we now call consumer goods, medical services and entertainment. Because the sums in any one place were so small, such people were often itinerant, moving from place to place in search of their meagre income and sometimes trying to improve on it by combining several specialties … It was for the same reason that fairs were periodic.”

Although we might romanticize the work ethic of pre-industrial people, such an attitude would be alien to them. “All those who had to work with their hands were despised, pre-industrial elites all over the world being united in their contempt for the ‘vile and mechanical world of labour.’ … One Thalassius was refused entry to the Senate in fourth-century Constantinople on the grounds that he owned a knife factory and was suspected of having worked in it himself.” Contrast that open contempt with how today’s political leaders on the campaign trail pay lip service to the virtues of “everyday, hard-working people” and modern factory-workers in a bid for their votes, to get a sense of how dramatically rhetoric surrounding work has transformed. Pre-industrial people derived no sense of pride from their unending backbreaking toil, because for all their efforts, workers were objects of disgust, and they knew it.

Forced labor was also common. “Scarcity meant that it was impossible to pay for all the labour required; in so far as work was not to be left undone, people thus had to be coerced into doing it. The carrot being small, the stick had to be large, or in other words, labour was more commonly forced than hired.” Slavery and other forms of forced labor were common in practically every pre-industrial society. “Even when the peasantry was free, however, it was often forced to render labour service (corvée) to the state … Many of the most astounding monuments of the past, such as the pyramids or Angkor Wat, were built by peasants requisitioned by the state … Corvée disappeared from Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from the rest of the world in the nineteenth and twentieth.”

Moreover, even free people often had limited choices as to what kind of work they would pursue. In many cases, one’s career path was set at birth. “Everyone might be allocated his slot in society based on ancestry: in such societies everyone belonged to the social stratum of his father, sometimes very narrowly define (actual occupation was hereditary) and sometimes rather more broadly (one could move up or down within a certain range).” That followed a certain logic. “Most work was unskilled and because such skills as were required changed very slowly: if anyone can do a job as well as anybody else, elaborate procedures for job allocation are superfluous; and if skills do not change from one generation to the next, parents can train their children as well as anyone else.” Of course, assigning occupations by blood rather than merit sometimes resulted in ineptitude. “When even artists came to be recruited by heredity in fifteenth-century Korea, it produced inept painters.”

Most people, again, were subsistence farmers. Even when a good harvest produced enough food to sell, trade was difficult. “The peasants were hampered by the fact that they could not profitably carry their goods for more than 4–5 miles or so because the costs of transport were too high (unless they could send some by sea, or, in some unusual cases, via frozen rivers or snow-packed roads). Hence such trade as they engaged in tended to be extremely local or, as some would term it, cellular; and this enabled it to remain a barter trade. Even in nineteenth-century France there were autarkic villages in which peasants bought only iron and salt and paid for everything else in kind, hoarding their money for the payment of taxes in so far as they handled it at all.” In years producing a poor harvest, there might be no extra food to attempt to trade at all. “Most peasants had too little to spare to profit from market relations.”

Transportation was so slow that “most people lived in very local worlds.” Today we are accustomed to sending messages instantaneously across the world, video-chatting with people in different time zones, receiving deliveries with overnight or same-day shipping, and exploring other countries if we so desire, with the annual number of tourists on international flights growing. According to a 2023 Pew Research Center survey, 76 percent of people in the United States have visited at least one other country, and in many advanced economies, the equivalent figure is even higher. A modern passenger plane can circumnavigate the Earth, traversing over 24,900 miles in about 42 hours. The very wealthy can even travel to outer space as tourists if they want. Such abilities would seem miraculous to our ancestors.

“People, goods and news alike travelled slowly. They could not travel faster than the fastest animal unless they went by sea, but even wind-driven ships moved slowly by modern standards (60–90 miles per day in medieval Europe), and more slowly still when they had to be propelled by oars.”

Travel times varied in the pre-industrial age from place to place, but everywhere they were slow: “In the seventeenth century it took thirty days for a courier to travel the 500 miles from Istanbul to Belgrade (an army taking twice as long), and two weeks for a letter from Madrid to reach Milan; but it only took six to seven weeks for a courier to traverse the whole of inner China (i.e. ethnic China without its non-Chinese appendages). In medieval Japan, mounted messengers could cover the roughly 600 miles between Kamakura and Kyoto in five days at a pinch, and the relay runners of Inca Peru could cover the 420 miles between Lima and Cuzco in as little as three.”

“Primitive means of transportation, inadequate roads and deficient marketing systems meant that even local crop failures could be fatal, one locality suffering shortages while neighbouring ones had plenty.”

Slow transportation wasn’t the only issue. If highwaymen didn’t kill you, the local wildlife might: “Wolves were still a menace in several parts of western Europe in the early nineteenth century.”

“All pre-industrial societies had to tolerate a much higher level of violence than we do today.” And then there were the tax collectors, sometimes just as violent as the highwaymen: In practically every pre-industrial society, “tax-gathering tended to be a violent affair” and “tax-collectors were usually accompanied by troops.”

“The problem of taxation generated a wide variety of solutions, but arbitrariness, oppression and corruption proved to be constant companions of all. . . . Though we still complain of the tax burden, [the government] does not normally have to call upon the army to make us pay, nor do we normally engage in prolonged haggling with tax collectors, weeping, crying, tearing our clothes or grovelling in the dust to convince them that we have not got a penny left. . . . Such procedures were however commonplace in most pre-industrial societies. For the peasants, tax collectors were like swarms of locusts descending to strip them of everything they possessed.”

Crone notes that all peasants and many others agreed that pre-industrial governments were best avoided. “‘The two worst places to stand in are behind a horse and in front of an official’, as an Indian saying has it; ‘happy is he who never has dealings with us’, as a pious caliph is supposed to have said.”

That held not only for taxation but also for criminal justice. While most crimes went unpunished, the criminals who were caught often faced disproportionate punishments. “The authorities reacted to disorder by meting out the most dreadful punishments to such culprits as they caught. People were quartered, bisected, sliced, boiled, skinned, disembowelled and so on, occasionally just hanged, crucified or decapitated, preferably in public; their remains would certainly be publicly displayed as a gruesome warning to passers-by of what lay in store for those who refused to obey. It was the very impotence of the [rule of law] which made [authorities] set such store by exemplary punishment as a deterrent, but of course the subjects had the same brutal attitude to life. ‘Thieves are trampled to Death; and though this be a dreadful punishment, yet the Coresians are much addicted to stealing’, as a seventeenth-century Dutchman shipwrecked in Korea observed.” Thus most people of the pre-industrial age simultaneously contended with both tragically high crime rates and oppressive penal systems replete with torture and all manner of cruel and unusual punishment.

CNN | Food Production

Researchers Find Way to Enhance Taste of Lab-Grown Meat

“To mimic the taste of conventional meat, Lee and her colleagues recreated the flavors generated during the Maillard reaction — a chemical reaction that occurs between an amino acid and a reducing sugar when heat is added, giving a burger that delicious, charred taste.

They do this by introducing a switchable flavor compound into a gelatin-based hydrogel, to form something called a functional scaffold, which Lee described as the ‘basic composition of the cultured meat.’

The flavor compound, which consists of a flavor group and two binding groups, stays in the scaffold until heated. It ‘switches on’ when it is cooked for five minutes at a temperature of 150 degrees Celsius (302 degrees Fahrenheit), releasing meaty flavors in a replication of the Maillard reaction, Lee said.”

From CNN.