Forgetting the secrets of ancient cultures could threaten our health

Forgetting the secrets of ancient cultures could threaten our health

What connects the cannabis plant and grain wheat? The answer is that while ancient farmers used both, they would be puzzled by their modern variants. Chinese farmers first started growing hemp to make ropes, clothing, paper, and other materials. But analyzes of this ancient marijuana reveal that it has relatively paltry levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive component for which it is now known.

The exact date when ancient farm workers discovered and enhanced the mind-altering properties of the cannabis plant is unknown to us, but the academic consensus is that it may have occurred in Central Asia at least 2,500 years ago. . Wheat has had a simpler evolution: its use as a source of sustenance predates agriculture. Although we may never know when the first hunter-gatherer baked bread, we do know that they were baking bread at least 14,000 years ago. Since the first loaf, wheat has grown in importance but diminished in stature. The much higher fields depicted in ancient hieroglyphs and by early modern artists such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder are not artistic license: they reflect the reality of the time (although the hieroglyphs may exaggerate somewhat).

Grass and wheat have been refined and developed over time by farmers, a process that has accelerated significantly for both since World War II. During the Third Agricultural Revolution, modern techniques and technology transfers enabled farmers to grow crops that were more reliable, tastier, more resilient and more lucrative. In the world of wheat, the man who takes credit for this transformation more than any other is Norman Borlaug, the American agronomist. The shorter, more disease-resistant crop he helped develop and introduce to Mexico, India and Pakistan is credited with saving more than a billion people worldwide.

A parallel transformation has taken place in the weed world. Just as Borlaug’s agricultural successors seek to emulate him in developing ever tougher, high-yielding crops, his criminal economy counterparts have sought to do the same. As a result, street cannabis is more potent and addictive than it was 50 years ago, and is therefore more likely to cause mental health issues.

The increased potency and danger of modern cannabis is an indictment of the global effort to combat the harms of drug production and use through criminalization. However, it’s also a challenge for states that have decriminalized cannabis, where research suggests higher-potency, higher-risk marijuana is still the norm on the streets.

The resilience and reliability of modern wheat, and the advances it has made against poverty and hunger, are a triumph of globalization. But it also highlights how this very process has made us more vulnerable to “surprise” shocks – new diseases or extreme weather events now have the potential to cause far more widespread damage to global wheat stocks and other crops. other cultures than ever before. A more extreme version of this problem has already caused the extinction of a variety of bananas – indeed, bananas as we know them may well cease to exist by the end of the 21st century.

Part of the answer to both of these problems lies in landraces: cultivated, genetically heterogeneous varieties of flora and fauna that lack many of the advantages of more dominant varieties, but are an essential building block for resilience. The problem is that landraces are one-club golfers: they may be more resistant to a specific disease or better resistant to particular manifestations of climatic crises, but also be more vulnerable to most diseases. And, just as modern cannabis is more addictive, one of the reasons that the most common varieties of specific flora and fauna have become so common is that they taste better.

The good news is that we can build resilience quite easily. We know what works to preserve landraces – subsidies for farmers, funding for seed banks and for botanical researchers. There is, however, greater funding for farmers and laboratories in rich countries – while poorer countries, for obvious reasons, often focus on cheap grain today, not food security tomorrow. But maintaining food security and preserving plant varieties faces a challenge: Like most disaster prevention measures, it requires spending money here and now on a crisis that may never come. Unlike artificial intelligence or nuclear threats, farming isn’t particularly dramatic or politically sexy. Nonetheless, anyone who wants to “save humanity” or build resilience against long-term risk should be as concerned about landraces as they are about the ChatGPT chatbot.

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