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It is a bizarre prokaryotic flowering plant parasite which has graphene reinforced cell walls and is so distinct from all other organisms to warrant placement in its own domain of life (indeed it only showed up less than a million years ago).

Infects both a variety of sufficiently large flowering plants and vertebrates (granting psychic abilities, which aren't relevant here in the latter case). Spreads throughout plant hosts, penetrating their cells to siphon resources and hijacking their gene expression to help itself reproduce. This entails keeping the plant from growing old or flowering naturally, so it can live indefinitely and use all its energy growing and producing galls to spread the parasite:

  • The first kind of gall has the host grow a bunch of leaves, fruit/seeds, and flower petals in a bizarre randomly generated fractal pattern. The galls' fractal patterns are always unique, but often have similarities to Romanesco broccoli. Regardless of host plant this gall will lack any toxins normally produced to deter herbivores, usually being fully edible. This attracts pollinators/herbivores, who will contact the black fuzz on the gall and end up spreading its spores. Black fuzz has some superficial resemblance to down feathers, but grows in a dendritic fractal pattern. Since these galls frequently contain various flower anatomy they can often serve to propagate the host plant. Of course even when galls can reproduce they are less effective than the plants own natural flowers.

  • The second type of galls produced somewhat resemble a traditional plant gall, but are hollow and their inside covered in black fuzz (to attract and infect small nesting birds). These second galls are much less common and don't use anywhere near as much of the hosts resources.

Notably while the "black fuzz" which covers the edible galls can be eaten, thorough washing is needed to remove the spores which are a potent psychedelic.

How would pre-modern agricultural output (and consequently population) be impacted by this parasite, which can make most flowering plants produce edible galls?

This parasite requires exposure to psychic abilities to produce viable spores so it very rarely spreads on its own. However, deliberately farming the parasite is extremely easy given every community will have psychics

Knowledge of animal/plant breeding is far more advanced for the tech level in this scenario. So assume people have access to all forms of pre-modern traditional agriculture.

Part of series with: Just How Omnipresent Would Cheap Cross Laminated Spider Silk Be?
What Bronze Age Jobs Couldn't be Replaced by Extremely Well Trained Animals? How Big Can An Ancient Bird Powered Glider Get?

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  • $\begingroup$ If I'll make another answer I'll ask for some clarifications first. With "pre-modern" I guess you mean post-modern? The question is meant to focus solely for agricultural means of production? Does an infected plant change any other characteristics, or does nutrient absorption and the like stay the same (for growth rates of fruit etc.)? In addition, do the plants still grow or is it fully focusing on growing the galls? An edit of the question and then adding a tag in the comments is also fine. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Dec 28, 2021 at 7:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane I meant pre-modern in that people still have access to agricultural techniques prior to modern techniques, just nothing like chemical fertilizer GM, etc. $\endgroup$ Dec 28, 2021 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane The plants are different in that they will never stop growing or age, the parasite makes the plant spend its excess resources on growing galls and itself, but prioritizes the long term health of its host since exposure to psychic abilities to produce viable spores is a main bottleneck. The plants don't get any new abilities beyond this, they're just important because they're producing edible galls even when they'd otherwise be poisonous. $\endgroup$ Dec 28, 2021 at 18:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane Yes I would like to limit the question to agricultural output, because im trying to do large scale worldbuilding that I know will be impacted by food production in ways I can't confidently predict and downstream factors like population/population density. $\endgroup$ Dec 28, 2021 at 19:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane The bounty's going to expire in 5 hours, so if you wanted to make another answer you don't have much time and I would very much appreciate it. $\endgroup$ Jan 2 at 22:20

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High potential, high workload, big risks

Architecture can have high benefits, but also bug rusks. Lets look at some advantages first.

Many crops that are harvested on a large scale will be destroyed in the process or die out after the season. Think of the wheat related plants or seasonal raspberry plants. Here you can get great advantages! If you can make the plant survive by putting it in a greenhouse for example you have immediate benefits. Instead of requiring a lot if resources to regrow the plant before it brings fruit, you have the option to leave the plant be and have all used for food. It can still grow further as well, increasing it's nutrient, water and sunlight intake for even more food per timetable. Awesome.

This does lead to a monoculture, or at least very few variation. Although the host can't die from age or flowering, it can still die. I'm assuming that programmed not surviving when certain conditions are met like cold are eliminated as well, but that still makes them vulnerable to frost, disease or simply natural processes. Why would you build a greenhouse to protect infected wheat plants in winter? In addition the harvesting might also damage the host, making it harder to survive.

The solution is to turn to stable hosts that can survive a lot. This can be bushes, trees or some plants like grass. But you want also to have a good production. Needle trees can give all year as they're able to survive harsh winters and nearly always stay green, allowing photosynthesis. But they do so at a slower pace than the leafy trees, which generally are bigger with deeper roots. Yet they don't deliver in winter due to hibernation and losing leafs. Depending on where the agriculture takes place there will be a preferred host.

Yet a stable host is not everything. Besides grow times, ability to take up nutrients and the use it to grow/make the infected black fuzzballs it needs to be easily able to be harvested. This is where a time sink cones in. Wheat is relatively easy to produce because we destroy the whole plant. It isn't as easy with say an apple tree. You need much higher labour per kilo harvested. This will hopefully be solved with a type of plant that helps harvesting, but it is still likely that work intensity rises, especially with more harvesting opportunities. In the end you will have more food, but it's more work intensive. This is akin to other agricultural methods. Some make much more (and often more varied) food from smaller area's, while being much more work intensive.

Another downside is the nutrients. Depending on the plants and how they grow they can deplete the ground. It's not as if resources of the ground are infinite. That means you need to fertilise the ground again. Easiest would be to let natural processes to take place, but for that you need uninfected plants and life. Otherwise you need to cultivate much more besides these infected hosts. Something that is recommended anyway. A varied meal is better. If you only eat these plants there's a good chance you'll have a shortage of something.

Infecting animals is out of the question. I'm assuming the parasite creates the same food regardless of the host, with the only variance being the nutrient content this plant gets. Having animals only lowers the amount of energy left for the food, as each extra link of a chain consumes some of the energy. The usefulness of infected animals is also highly controversial. They might live indefinitely, but are in a way also indefinitely pregnant. They use nutrients to grow black fuzz for what could be used for useful tasks. Only infecting humans might help. Their knowledge can still be perserved.

Conclusion

You'll have some boon of this stuff. You can cultivate it for a more stable and increased food production. This does lead to area specific mono cultures, or at least little variety in the chosen plants. The workload per harvest near certainly increases and the resulting food isn't always much higher than current trees and plants. Variety will still be important as you need more than one food source, so normal agriculture is still practiced. If not for the food it'll be done for the fertilisation of crops. Animals are highly unlikely to be infected as their produce is lower while their uses dwindle.

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Decimation of crops

It seems a good idea at first. The parasite will keep the plants alive as much as possible and produce food indefinitely. The problem is that all organisms stop reproducing. This is in many ways similar to the 'forever young but can't reproduce' problem. Over time things will happen that will kill them, making the time of these people finite.

The parasite reproduces itself, but presents organisms (only plants?) from reproducing. That means that each host that is infected will eventually die without further reproduction. If the parasite infects a wheat field it'll keep the field alive and producing. Until winter. Winter comes and kills the whole field, removing both the parasite and the host from the picture. Next year there will be no offspring from that field, reducing the organisms it can infect.

It might infect trees, bushes or plants that regrow from the roots every year. Problem solved? Not by a long shot. Not only would the 'eventually they will die from other circumstances' still be valid, they might die a lot sooner than you might expect. You just upset the eco system.

Death is an important phase of life. It returns nutrients to the world in many ways. If the wheat field dies, little will grow after. The valuable nutrients are suddenly very susceptible to being blown or washed away. Erosion of the soil will start. In normal circumstances this can already be a self strengthening problem, spreading the erosion further and further as each plant nearby might starve or not be able to hold on to enough water. But in your case each death is much worse, as there are less uninfected plants that spread their seeds. Erosion will spread eadily, removing more and more plants from your ecosystem. That means even long enduring plants as trees can die pretty easily.

One of the few plants that can help are spreaders through roots. They hold the soil and water. However, they will be too few to stop the process, probably still succumbing to the erosion processes.

Erosion means that modern farming will be difficult. Farming often depletes the soil, so nutrients need to be put back in. If this all washes away you have a big problem.

There's much more that impacts everything, but don't need too much extra view. For example, most vegetation around the world will turn (partly) black. That means a lot more heat from the sun stays close to the surface, increasing greenhouse effects. Globally another disaster you don't want. I think the world will be in a very difficult place regardless of farming techniques.

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  • $\begingroup$ You're dramatically overestimating the infectiousness of the parasite. If it were as bad as you imagine then since it showed up a million years ago the hominid species of my setting as well as civilization never would have had time to emerge in the first place. $\endgroup$ Dec 21, 2021 at 16:49
  • $\begingroup$ Howdy, Vakus Drake. It sounds like you don't like the answer someone went out of their way to give you. It's possible to answer your own question if you think that you know the answer alreay $\endgroup$
    – Idan
    Dec 27, 2021 at 21:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Idan I don't feel I already know the answer to my question, I just want some answers that actually address my question. I've made sure to clarify any ambiguity that would allow for more of the sort of deliberately contrarian answers that are common. $\endgroup$ Dec 28, 2021 at 3:03
  • $\begingroup$ @VakusDrake It's you who is dramatically underestimating the problem of immortality. Death is necessary part of life. As long as your plant is immortal, it doesn't matter how low the rate of infection is - it's only a matter of time until it infects everything. And immortal organism has all the time in the world. You wanted a free meal, but the conservation of energy rule still applies. To give the energy to farmers, it has to be taken from elsewhere. It's you who created the Devourer of Worlds, Destroyer of All Life. $\endgroup$
    – Agent_L
    Dec 28, 2021 at 8:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Agent_L You're forgetting all the other factors that limit the spread of pathogens besides host lifespan, as any parasite will be in an evolutionary arms race with its host. $\endgroup$ Dec 28, 2021 at 18:59
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this would probably revolutionize agriculture but it could lead to something like the Irish potato famine where a food source is relied on too heavily and something wipes out most of the food source leading to famine,

but on the other side the parasite could decimate the plant population because the parasite (if left unchecked) could infect everything and the plants would die off through natural causes unrelated to age and not have reproduced,

the parasite could mutate being able to infect the sentient life farming them and cause problems,

so in conclusion it matters where you would wanna go but if resilient and bountiful enough, the parasite would revolutionize all of the world's agriculture.

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This is a specialty crop

It's important to note the restriction that 'psychic' measures are needed to propagate the parasite. This means it cannot spread much further than people with the deliberate intention for it to spread desire. To keep things simple I'm going to assume that non-human animals are either not psychic or don't want the plants to form more spores or don't think to tell the plants to make them.

The use of the crop is (a) as a mediocre food source, (b) as a plant that regenerates from unusual kinds of harm, and (c) as a Fountain of Immortality (I think), or at least of psychic powers and psychedelic dope. I would guess it's part (c) that lines up the paying customers; for part (a) I'd rather have flowers and fruits of multiple varieties - wouldn't anyone?

If the producers are smart, they'll convince local governments to prohibit or highly restrict the crop so they can make a lot of money controlling the marketplace. However implausible, this approach has worked before. But my inference from the question is that there's not a lot of scarcity of these products, so these benefits, however profound, are cheaply available. You don't really need a lot of spore production to infect what you wish to, so these will still be fairly small medicinal gardens, depending on other demand.

The wild card is the vivisection of immortalized plants (and animals?). Asparagus stalks would be an example of a permitted crop from the plant. But imagine a tree that you can strip the bark from every day or week - what can you do with that? A cow with the same property would be even more valuable!

The promise of immortality versus its limits will ultimately decide how much of the promise of this parasite is delivered.

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