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One of the most important developments in our history as a sentient species was the development of agriculture. When our ancestors decided to grow their food instead of gathering it, it allowed us to put down roots, build cities, create technology and forge modern civilization. But something that helped humanity was being generalist omnivores. What if another species doesn’t have that option?

Now while it is argued that meat eating is something to expect from sentient aliens, there is some proof that intelligence can arise within plant eating animals. The elephant is one of the creatures on planet earth that is self aware and can recognize themselves in the mirror and all they eat is grass. Not to mention manipulator appendages like giraffes tongue or the elephants trunk would be helpful in tool use.

But how would a civilization of plant eaters handle food production for their civilization. Would herbivores need to use the same slash and burn techniques humans used on earth? Would they domesticate animals as beasts of burden? So many possibilities that need to be addressed. Which brings me to my question:

What would agriculture look like for a species of sentient herbivores?

Edit: for the level of society, I was thinking some type of preindustrial civilization, so they have figured out how to feed cities of themselves. As for how rich their food is allowed to be, I would assume they would try to go for the most bang per buck.

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    $\begingroup$ One aspect that immediately comes to.mind: more advanced societies are associated with larger social organisations (village, city, state) which allowed specialisation of labour and the development of non-food productive work. But herbivores here anyway often spend a lot of time obtaining food compared to omnivores and carnivores. Not always but often. Can you update the question to cover 1) the level or tyoe of society these aliens achieve, and 2) how rich in nutrition their agricultural sources are allowed to be. These are crucial to answer the question. $\endgroup$ – Stilez Jan 19 at 7:10
  • $\begingroup$ ... because they directly govern how much work and how much shared resource can exist, individual needs, and the scope for nutrition-obtaining efficiency. and therefore what agriculture could look like. $\endgroup$ – Stilez Jan 19 at 7:12
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I think that developing agriculture for an herbivore would be more difficult.

For an omnivore species like us, domesticated animals played a twofold role:

  • providing additional power for the farming work, which is energy demanding,
  • supplying an additional source of food.

For example it is believed that the ability to drink milk as adults, by keeping the production of the enzyme lactase, has given an important evolutionary advantage to our ancestors, who could not rely, as almost always in our history, on clean and sterile water, and for which milk was an alternative way to supply liquids to their bodies.

Additionally, don't forget that all grazers spend a lot of time digesting their food. To invent new tools and technologies one needs to have spare time and surplus energy. Meat, or more generally animal sourced food, can provide that surplus energy way more easily than a plant only based diet, and that can prove vital in a situation where the difference between famine and survival is as thin as a hair.

A grazing species with domesticated animals would keep the costs of those animals, basically food supply which either goes to the beasts or to the farmers, while losing most of the revenues, namely the additional food source.

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It could progress the same as us. Some Australopithecines were herbivores yet had manual dexterity etc,.

For many hunter gather societies hunting is not the main source of food.

So assuming these herbivores had tools and fire and the brain power. Then there's no reason they couldn't have agriculture. It's developing the brains and tools that's the hard part, after that it's just a flash of genius to agriculture.

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Domestication

First largest in the aliens' agriculture would be the lack and difference of "livestock". While we have bred animals for their meat, milk, egg, wool, strength etc. These aliens will breed them for their strength, power and maybe for their wool and skin. So the animals will be selectively bred accordingly.

I do believe that they would domesticate animals. The reasons that made believe are:

1. Domesticated animals will carry packages, pull carts, plough land, generate mechanical power for the aliens.

2. They are herbivores not vegans. Not eating other animals does not mean they will not exploit their wool, skin etc.

3. They could have domesticated alien dogs cats or any other pet equivalents maybe not for hunting for protection. How? Alien jackals were attacking the tribe alien grug sees jackal being afraid of alien wolf. Alien wolf eats other animals. Alien grug, being intelligent, can kill and give the wolf meat. Fur is keeping the grug warm too. Nice!

BUT! Even though I do believe they would domesticate herd animals to use them as "workhorse" pet feed or wool provider it is much less "natural" than us omnivores domesticating herds and pets. It would happen but it would take longer time to happen.

Agriculture

Since herbivores can digest most plants with ease their farms and gardens will have much more variety. With a human like metabolism and earth like planet these aliens would have much more biodiverse farms and gardens. And their footprint on the planet would be smaller due to the fact that they would not feed as much animals we do and they also do not aim to fatten them. So agriculture would cause less deforestation.

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I believe you would see some differences, some of them depending on the life cycle of your sentient herbivore.

Domestication I actually don't believe you will find any domesticated work animals. Early hunter societies would follow herds around, where the food goes, so do you. From here, people will quickly realize that any other predators will result in less food for you. So these hunters will gain a more symbiotic relationship with the herd. From here domestication of cows, horses etc. will follow.

So in short, herbivores would be unlikely to follow other herds, and therefore never domesticate them.

Agriculture This becomes much more dependent on the life cycle of your herbivore species. Humans in comparison tend to have a high reproduction, and more food available, leads to to fever children dying of malnourishment, and more mouths to feed. From this, comes the human need to continually expand across ever more farmland. From here is also a need to maximize yield of the farmland, depleting the nutrients in the soil. This need for reproduction, is likely heavily depending on predation, so the more likely you are to be eaten by a lion, the more children you end up having to make up for it. Elephants have very few children, even over their considerable lifetime.

If your species, is less likely to have a population explosion, if a stable food source exists. It wouldn't be unlikely for this species to be less dependent on maximizing yield and depleting the soil.

Secondly humans, due to their omnivore digestive system, is actually pretty bad at digesting most plants. Hence why we need to cook a lot of it, or only eat the fruit/berries etc. A herbivore, eating leaves, grass and other much hardier plants would be less likely to use monocultures when farming. leaving a much healthier, long lasting environment.

TLDR It's not impossible to imagine an intelligent herbivore species, to actually end up being less damaging to the environment. So instead of farms, you would see gardens filled with many different plants, that can be harvested/pruned regularly. Think how tea leaves, the bush remains but the leaves are cut of once in a while.

This is a speculative answer, so much/most of this is open to interpretation :)

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In my opinion, The first thing to mention is that if they are not carnivores, , they might not have imagined clothes as we know them, because they might not have found the need to kill animals to eat their meat, and therefore they would not have imagined leather and so. The only thing them might find was wool.

As far as we can imagine, they might have different types of wood and other materials, maybe flexible polymers. The case is that they would have items resembling a plough.

There will probably be animals pulling the ploughs and other items. In stead of farms, you might see gardens. They would definitely have earth gods and gods of nature, and they would be working on the fields.

Of course they are not vegan, only herbivore. They will exploit wool, milk eggs and so, and possibly have livestock, not to kill them and eat them, but to exploit their dairy products( or whatever the ALIEN livestock make).

IN all cases, it is not difficult to imagine. They would use their own techniques and that way they will survive.( unless something happened to them).

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