The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the twenty-ninth contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Samantha Noll. We apologize for the delay this week, but it was worth the wait!
Ant Philosophies of Farming
Like humans, one of the reasons why ants are successful as a species is that they have the ability to eat a wide variety of things, from plant matter to other insects and even dead animals. Different species of ants prefer different types of food, but the cornucopia of options flows over for these little omnivores. In addition, ants have also learned how to cultivate their favorite foods (Klein, 2017). In fact, ants developed farming techniques millions of years before humans and can be accredited with the discovery of many of the practices that we currently employ. Today as many as 250 distinct species actively cultivate and maintain fungus “farms” for food (Klein, 2017). In tropical areas, grassland, and deserts, colonies grow their crops in underground rooms, where they weed, water, and use chemicals and antibiotics to remove bacterial threats and thus to increase crop-yields (Branstetter et al., 2017). They even employ monocropping techniques and were the first to domesticate a type of fungus for their food usage. In some instances, ants and the fungi developed a co-dependent relationship, each depending on the other for survival. When viewed from this perspective, one could argue that ants were the first agrarians, creating and controlling novel ecosystems to ensure food security & ecological sustainability for ant-kind.
If this is the case, then what can we learn from our fungal farming forebears? A key part of agrarian philosophy is the view that we can glean unique insights concerning sustainability, ecological health, and best practices when a) we view the world from a farmer’s perspective and b) when we consider the ecological and social dimensions of agriculture (Thompson, 2015). While this approach predominantly obtained insights from pastoral or historical farming communities, ants have rarely if ever been placed under this lens or metaphorical magnifying glass (I’m certainly not endorsing ant-icide here). This is a glaring oversight, especially in light of the fact that communities of ants have been farming fungus sustainably for millions of years. If this is the case, then humans may have a great deal to learn from farming ants.
But which species are we talking about here? According to Branstetter et al. (2017), today’s 250 distinct species of farming ants most likely evolved from the same ancestor that lived in South America approximately 60 million years ago (Klein, 2017). However, two lines or kinds diverged around 30 million years later. One kind primarily lives in tropical forests, where they cultivate fungus that is already present in the wider environment, while the other kind developed more complex agricultural systems suited to dry climates. These more advanced ant farmers brought the fungus with them to dry areas, domesticated it, and currently raise it in underground gardens that are meticulously controlled. The placement of the rooms ensures the correct temperature range and humidity is maintained by adding water from morning dew, fruit, and various plants. These ant gardens are climate controlled monocultures that can be sustained for approximately 15 to 20 years, but require constant tending to remove other organisms who have a taste for the fungi being grown (Branstetter et al., 2017; Klein, 2017).
From an agrarian perspective, each of these ant lines can provide useful insights. In fact, they each practice their own unique form of farming philosophy. For example, the less sophisticated farming ants that primarily live in tropical forests cultivate a crop that already plays a role in the surrounding ecosystem. As this crop thrives in the area, the ants do not need to employ the control necessary for growing food in drier contexts. As such, the less advanced farming methods and crops fit in with the larger ecosystem. Thus, arguably, the farming practices of the tropical ants are more integrated into the larger system in which they live. They have a small footprint, so to speak, while at the same time providing a steady source of food for current and future generations of ants. From this perspective, one could argue that they practice what is called “sustainable agriculture” or a type of agriculture that adequately balances the needs of the farming community, ecosystem, and future generations.
In essence, then, these fungal farmers are also practicing sustainable development, as this approach to agriculture is often guided by this framework. While there are several definitions, such strategies often attempt to balance protecting biodiversity, maintaining production, and supporting the long-term sustainability of a society (Raffaelle et al., 2010). It is fascinating that 60 million years ago, ant communities largely met the criterion for sustainable development laid out in the Brundtland Report issued by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in 1987. This report forms the backbone of strategies that humans currently employ to reduce our footprint on the larger world and ensure that we do not run out of limited resources. However, for humans, the road to sustainability has been and continues to be rocky. In contrast, ants have succeeded where humans are struggling: They created communities that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. As such, one could argue that they are both pioneers in sustainable farming practices and in sustainable development, as well.
However, with this being said, some ant practices (especially those of the advanced farmers) are also employed in current industrial farming systems and thus are open to critique. In particular, monocropping and the use of antibiotics and chemicals to address pest issues have come to distinguish industrial agriculture from more sustainable forms of food production (Noll, 2015; Thompson, 2015). As such, in addition to sustainable agriculture, ants also practice a form of industrial agriculture. But what does this tell us about industrial practices, especially in light of the fact that sustainable and industrial agriculture are often treated as in opposition to one another? Indeed, the local farming movement can largely be understood as a social critique of industrial production methods and the perceived negative environmental, social, and economic impacts associated with this farming paradigm (Noll and Werkheiser, 2018).
These advanced farmers illustrate how industrial methods could be employed in such a way as to ensure the health of ant communities and the sustainability of the species and surrounding ecosystems (Klein, 2017). Monocropping and the use of antibiotics and various herbicides and/or pesticides does not necessarily mean that industrial farming is harmful to those eating the food and to the wider environment, as the health and longevity of advanced ant communities attest. If this is the case, then it adds further credence to the view that the problem with industrial agriculture may not be the farming methods themselves, but rather how these methods are employed on the ground and what inputs are utilized. The advanced ants did not need “antibiotic free,” “organic,” or “chemical free” food production to ensure ant wellbeing. Perhaps, we need to revisit how we employ such methods and what it means to be a sustainable & an industrial farmer, in light of this “ant” alternative model. Indeed, perhaps ants can help break down this dualism, as if it were fungus ready to harvest.
Finally, both lines of ants could help us to develop strategies for growing food in a changing climate. Over the last 60 million years, different species of ants have employed vastly different farming techniques, based on their location (Klein, 2017). In addition, they actively adapted their farming practices to changing environments, strategically utilizing practices and technologies to ensure that food production continued. We could potentially learn important lessons concerning how to shift our own farming practices, in light of climate induced weather changes. Perhaps, we may one day find ourselves growing the majority of our food in climate controlled greenhouses, as the weather patterns shift above.
Adopting an ant farmer perspective, as we consider this and other ecological and social dimensions of agriculture, could help us to address pressing problems in food production, such as climate change mitigation, the employment of industrial practices, and achieving ecological and social sustainability. Humans were not the first farmers on this planet. Perhaps we have something to learn from our ant-agrarian forbearers, as we continue to cultivate our own gardens in an attempt to ensure food security & ecological sustainability for human and ant kind.
Branstetter, et al. (2017). Dry Habitats were Crucibles of Domestication in the Evolution of Agriculture in Ants. The Royal Society, 284(1852): 1-10. Retrieved from The Royal Society.
Klein, J. (2017). How Ants Figured Out Farming Millions of Years Before Humans. Retrieved from New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/11/science/ant-fungus-farmers-evolution.html
Noll, S. and I. Werkheiser. (2018). “Local Food Movements: Differing Conceptions of Food, People, and Change.” In Ann Barnhill, Tyler Doggett, and Mark Budolfson (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Forthcoming.
Noll, S. (2015). “Agricultural Science.” In Mark Largent and Georgina Montgomery (Eds.), A Companion to the History of American Science. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.
Raffaelle, R., Robinson, W., and E. Selinger. (2010). Sustainability Ethics: 5 Questions ed. United States: Automatic Press.
Thompson, P. (2015). From Field to Fork. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dr. Samantha Noll is an Assistant Professor in The School of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs (PPPA) at Washington State University and is affiliated with the Functional Genomics Initiative. Her research made contributions to the fields of bioethics, environmental philosophy, and philosophy of science. In particular, she’s published widely on topics such as how values impact food systems, food justice and food sovereignty movements, and the application of biotechnology. As she’s an avid gardener, she is no stranger to the wider ant-world around us. Read more on Noll’s academic site, here!