What should human agriculture copy from insect agriculture, if anything?

That was the topic of an interesting meeting in 2019 at the Konrad Lorenz Institute near Vienna. The resulting book, “The Convergent Evolution of Agriculture in Humans in Insects” is now available, open access:


In my book, Darwinian Agriculture, I argued that even though fungus-growing ants rely on an extreme version of monoculture, use toxins to kill “weeds”, and eat high on the food chain, that doesn’t necessarily mean that humans should follow those same practices. Although they’ve shown that those practices can be sustainable — at least for 50 million years! — there might be alternatives that are equally sustainable long-term but more stable or productive over shorter time periods.

My chapter in the ant-agriculture book casts doubt on the claim that ants (or, by analogy, crop roots) can effectively impose selection for more-beneficial “microbial consortia.” Legume-imposed selection among root nodules can favor rhizobia strains that provide more nitrogen, so long as most nodules are dominated by a single strain of rhizobia. But each small volume of soil or ant garden will contain so many different genotypes of each potentially-beneficial species (including “free-rider” mutants that save the cost of providing beneficial functions) that among-volume selection for mutualism is likely to be overwhelmed by within-volume selection for free riding. I hope I’m wrong, of course.

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