When you think of the biggest fraud in human history, you probably don’t think of the Agricultural Revolution, but Yuval Noah Harari does. In his book Sapiens, Harari writes, “the Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.”
The general picture of the Agricultural Revolution was humanity mastering crops and moving from the dangerous lifestyle and near starvation of foraging to bountiful harvests. The reality is that the agricultural revolution was a great disappointment in comparison. The first crops that humans domesticated were barely more productive than wild plants. Controlling land and planting crops was only slightly more effective and efficient than harvesting a lucky cache of wild edible plants. The work was hard and tedious, and a full day focused on a single crop meant that farmers were not out finding edible fruits, nuts, fungi, and animal meat to provide a well rounded and nourishing diet. Farmers ate what they grew, almost exclusively, and nutritional deficiencies were common.
Harari finds it amazing that early humans were able to persevere through the early days of farming given the terrible tradeoff involved. Farming was not a clear bounty for humanity and was not an obvious plus for the species. It was not until substantial investments over time and smarter approaches to farming had been developed and implemented that the Agricultural Revolution began to pay off. Initially, it was a fraud, promising security and full bellies but instead delivering poor quality crops that didn’t meet a human’s nutritional needs while demanding incredible efforts.