This world is inhabited by carnivorous humans, how they came to be remains a mystery. The geography is typical of a post-glacial world (fjords, lots of lakes, valley steppes, all that good stuff) and the climate is consistently barely above freezing year round, but precipitation is very limited throughout the year. Very tundra-like, minus the snow.

I wanted to make a society that depended fully on animal husbandry in a way evolved from the Chukchi people, with rotational grazing reindeer inland, and instead of hunting sea mammals, they have domesticated creatures akin to the Steller Sea Cow, which they graze on kelp in the many lakes and fjords of the world. Living mostly off the milk and meat of these animals, plus eggs from a cold resistant ostrich-like bird.

But I found out that it is more efficient to grow crops to feed the livestock ala Industrial Farming instead of letting it graze, something that would defeat the purpose of this whole thing. At first I thought that the lack of rain would make agriculture impossible, but then realized that the abundance of lakes makes irrigation possible, and eventually humans can develop salt-water tolerant crops, and the same goes for cold resistant crops.

So, I come here with one question:

How can I preserve this amphibious pastoralist society and permanently keep it from growing crops?

There is a couple of things that cannot be altered, though:

  1. There can not be any snow, for the temperature is stable year round, barely above freezing.
  2. The glacial lakes are a mainstay of the plot so they can not disappear. Maybe making them endorheic would discourage long term irrigation?
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    $\begingroup$ (a) Animal husbandry isn't agriculture. What you're asking for is that there be no agriculture at all and that only ranching keeps people alive. (b) Bad things happen with a protein-only diet, so your critters must be rich in what's normally acquired through plants, which would make this simpler (almost defeats the purpose of asking the question). (c) You didn't mention the technology level of your society. Hunter/gatherer, this is pretty easy. Circa 2023 tech? Really hard. What's that tech? $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Mar 18 at 3:56
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    $\begingroup$ "permanently" is a heck of a long time. Wouldn't it suffice for your story / setting , if they have "not yet for a few hunderd years" found a way to grow crops? $\endgroup$
    – datacube
    Commented Mar 18 at 8:00
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    $\begingroup$ there are real world societies like that what is wrong with those? $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Mar 18 at 19:46
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    $\begingroup$ "How to make animal husbandry the only agriculture possible" [ponders] that's simply not possible, if there are plants you can grow them, that's what agriculture is, animals can't exist without plants in the food chain to support a base of herbivores for any omnivores so there must be plants, and you will almost certainly end up cultivating them for your foodstock animals even if not for yourself > ergo it is not possible to make agriculture "impossible" .. rethink your title perhaps? because it seems nonsensical to me, but that's maybe just me [shrugs] ;) $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Mar 19 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ In terms of physics, if you have near freezing temperature at sea level and you have fjords, (and the planet turns) then there will be precipitation at higher altitudes and there will be snow. $\endgroup$
    – Wyck
    Commented Mar 20 at 12:46

15 Answers 15


There is just no "farmable" plantlife on the planet. Imagine that all the "plants" on land and all the "seaweed" in the water are just various species of lichen and fungi. Not only are these inedible to humans, but they have extremely complex reproduction system that cannot be streamlined into "farming" of any sort.

Imagine that the continents are covered in thousand-mile wide mycelium mats that support hundreds of seemingly different species of fungi and lichen, all of which exist in inseparable symbiosis. They not only depend on each other to survive, but also to reproduce (for example, spores of edible fungi A can only root into mycelium rich soil where Fungi B, and lichen C already exist, and all of those need completely separate access to deep-soil monocellular yeast that cannot be unearthed without killing it).

Mycelium mats extend into the ocean, where fungi "coral" grows on the bottom and lichen "seaweed" extends up to capture sunlight. No actual plants exist on the planet, they have been all either consumed by the fungi mats or evolved into lichen-like symbiotes that merge fungal and plant structures.

There is no way to artificially farm these fungal growths. The farmers would have to excavate tons of mycelium, digging several meters deep into the soil, and then move the entire mass to "plant" it somewhere else, and hope it survives. Basically impossible to do without modern cranes, backhoes, and trucks, and even then it wold fail more often than not.

It is also pointless. The fungal mats already spread to every corner of the planet where life is even remotely possible, from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the highest mountain.

This means that the herds can just graze everywhere: you just need to be aware which animals can graze safely on which fungi/lichen (ie: coastal goats should not eat steppe fungi or they get sick, and the reverse is true for steppe cows on coastal lichen diet.) This basically means that people who specialize in herding some type of animal keep to one specific fungal mat (which could easily be the size of Texas, so NBD), or s they move, trade herds for one more fit for the new mat (ie: exchange 100 coastal goats to 100 steppe cows, and then the steppe cows for fungi-swamp pigs etc).

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you very much! Do you know if lichen can grow roughly as tall as grass? $\endgroup$
    – Rhomaioi
    Commented Mar 18 at 21:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Rhomaioi not exactly what you're asking, but check out this extinct fungus that grew as tall as trees! en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prototaxites $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 18 at 23:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Rhomaioi Lichen grow way too slowly. The fastest is a rate that is still 1/3 that of continental drift. If you want a non-renewable resource that is alive, lichen would be it. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Mar 19 at 1:17
  • $\begingroup$ Now that's one tasty-crunchy alien landscape. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 19 at 6:43

Humans can't eat any plants
All plant life on the planet is completely inedible by human beings. Perhaps because the humans come from another planet, or similar hand-wavey logic. There is something in all plants which, when consumed by humans, kills them or otherwise makes them drastically ill. However, some animals (perhaps bioengineered by ancient tech-savvy human colonists) can break down whatever this thing is and are perfectly safe for humans to consume.

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    $\begingroup$ The humans would still cultivate the plants to feed them to their herd.... like we do. We have acres upon acres where we grow animal food that while not "unediable for humans" would be really to anyones taste except for animals $\endgroup$
    – datacube
    Commented Mar 18 at 8:03
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    $\begingroup$ OP already got this far: "But I found out that it is more efficient to grow crops to feed the livestock ala Industrial Farming instead of letting it graze, something that would defeat the purpose of this whole thing." $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 18 at 12:22
  • $\begingroup$ @datacube ANd we got the idea to do that, from agriculture... It is plausible with carniverous humanoids that the idea of growing crops would not occur to them. $\endgroup$
    – Questor
    Commented Mar 18 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ @datacube I'm not convinced that humans who hadn't already developed agriculture to feed themselves would develop it in order to feed animals. Without the obvious intermediate benefits of collecting food, would the gap between wild and domesticated plants be bridgeable? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 20 at 11:54
  • $\begingroup$ @JackAidley Surely at some point humans would run up against problems finding enough pasture land for animals to graze on, and would then look toward finding ways to stockpile food for the animals long-term. $\endgroup$
    – NCTokyo
    Commented Mar 21 at 2:54

Attack of the Indestructible Killer Slugs$^1$ from Outer Space$^2$

1: not necessarily slugs

2: not necessarily outer space

Humans, like everything else, are pursued constantly by un-killable horror movie monsters capable of moving no faster than a menacing slow walk, but so strong (and stupid) that they just climb or smash down any barrier that's wider than they are.

If one shambles slowly up on you and your herd, you can just pack your bags and walk away, but it has a nasty tendency to knock down any buildings you build - especially if there are animals inside, living or dead - and they really are very dangerous up close if there's nowhere to run.

The gods hate farms.

The gods choose where seeds will fall and where plants will grow, where stones will settle and where rivers will flood. Puny mortal, in hubris daring to shape thy environment to thy will, as if thou wert a god! Smite! Smite smite smite!

The self-maintaining autonomous death ray space satellites deployed during World War XIV hate structures of any kind.

...And will laser them out of existence 24 hours after transmitting a full-system text message warning anyone in those structures of their impending laser doom. They do not care that the last cell phone towers were lasered out of existence 400 years ago, when the war ended civilization forever.

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    $\begingroup$ No need for a monster to hunt the humans. Humans are perfectly capable of hunting other humans. As a historical example, the eastern border of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) was a dangerous place due to bordering the Caliphate. There were yearly raids from there which meant that people in the region relied more on herding goats and other animals. They would flee to the mountains with their animals and wait out the raids. This lifestyle made farming not a reliable source of food for people there. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Commented Mar 18 at 9:22
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    $\begingroup$ Right, this is phrased in sort of a silly way but I think it adds a lot of value to the setting; you can adapt the threat to fit your plot and the amount of tension you're going for. Maybe it's roving dangerous animals. Maybe it's some kind of pestilence that accumulates quickly in the soil (like root rot on steroids). Maybe predictable but deadly tornados. Anything to prevent staying in the same place for three months. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 18 at 15:50

No viable plant candidates exist for domestication as a staple crop.

Even in the real world, only a handful of staple crops have been successfully domesticated. If you remove those, agriculture basically collapses.

You can't just domesticate any plant. You can't just pick a plant that happens to be hardy to cold and domesticate it. There are a bunch of other traits that are required to be viable for domestication. Being on the tundra is easily enough for one or more of these traits to be missing. Do ANY societies in the real world farm on the tundra or have domesticated crops that originated in the tundra? As far as I can tell, the number is zero on both counts.

You should take a skim through the chapter "How To Make An Almond: from the book "Guns, Germs, and Steel". It talks about the traits required for a staple crop.

The traits listed were:

  1. Edible.
  2. Nutritious.
  3. Grows quickly. It's pointless to farm apple trees if you need to grow them from a seed.
  4. Easily grown. This still matters a lot today with a global economy, transportation, and mechanized farming, but matters even more at the advent of agriculture when the risk of starving to death is very real and you're not even sure if it's viable.
  5. Easily Stored. A huge benefit to farming is that you produce excess which can then be stored for times of need. If you can't do this there is almost no point to farming.
  6. Lack of seed dispersal. If a plant scatters its seeds it is difficult to farm because it is difficult to gather those seeds to eat and to produce the next crop. Plants with mutations that prevent this tend to die out in the wild but these are the plants humans need to find to domesticate.
  7. Seeds need to sprout more or less at the same time in the year. If plants do this in the wild, they risk all their progeny being wiped out due to a single weather event. But humans need mutants that do this for farming to be able to effectively harvest them.
  8. Does not require cross-pollination You need this to be able to preserve the the mutations that are beneficial for agriculture but detrimental to survival in the wild. Therefore, you otherwise need the plants to be self-fertilizing, hermaphroditic, or otherwise cultivatable from cuttings, graftings, roots, or tubers.

Read the chapter. It goes into far more detail of the mechanisms and you can pick them out and remove them from your world. Incidentally, the book also has chapters on the required traits for domesticating animals so you can increase these in your world.

The traits are:

  1. Fast growth rate
  2. Breedable in captivity
  3. Amicable disposition
  4. Not prone to panicking
  5. Has a social structure (lets humans take over the hierarchy)

Again, see the chapter "Zebras, Unhappy Marriages, and the Anna Karenina Principle" for much more detail.


There is already abundance of rain

Humans do not need to provide irrigation to would-be fields, as there is enough water available for grass, the excess flows in rivers down into the sea. So the limit on how do the grasses grow is not the water but the sun. And humans cannot alter the solar output. GM-ing better crops could not be done as the nature has already provided genes for crops that are providing the best ever photosynthesis mechanism both for underwater (kelp) or ground-based (grass) vegetation. Not that the pastoral society would ever consider GM-ing as a thing, they could well be at Chukcha level of technology, barely above sustaining fire.

Local cows feed on underbrush

There might be ecosystems that can only survive as symbiosis or equilibrium within a forest, that is, there should be big trees, underbrush, grass, fungi, whatever, but the open areas would not provide enough support for say forest grasses to grow in the open. Therefore, the most food produced would be what grows in the forest, mostly grass and underbrush. This in turn forces your humans to herd their cows in forests, maintaining their health to their best knowledge, but forests abhor plowing and things that are modern agriculture, so those humans won't just have enough thoughts to convert forests to plains, as they would likely lose food base for their herds.

Open-land grass is inedible for cows

Imagine that most of the open areas, that are not yet turned into forests or have been recently flooded or ravaged by fires, get overgrown by a plant similar to Sosnovsky's hogweed by toxicity or other kind of short-term danger to animals. However, the global ecosystem is capable of undermining fields of hogweed by either trees or fungi, or both, thus those fields eventually turn into new forests with hogweed vegetation transitioning to "normal forest" as trees start to inhibit the hogweed somehow. This combo would make open-land grass inedible or plain dangerous to herbivores, so humans would have to resort shifting back under the trees where there's some food for their cows.

Your humans are actually swamp-based lizards

Hello Master of Magic or Leylines, the amphibious society in question relies on swamps boarding actual coast, up to the point of their forests being completely flooded with seawater, yet trees being able to root and reach surface to have unimpeded access to sunlight. Their domesticated animals can traverse swamps thanks to wide paws, graze on swamp and forest vegetation, yet require swamps for proliferation or other needs. Therefore, their best terrain preference is all swamps, which isn't compatible with any agriculture.


The plants that humanity grows for agriculture are not natural.

The corn that we have now looks very different from how corn used to look. enter image description here

All of the crops that make industrial farming so much more efficient then pastoral husbandry came about thru thousands of years of bio-engineering performed by humanity.

In a world where humans only eat meat, this bio-engineering never happened. So there are no magical crops like feed corn, and wheat that allow for industrial husbandry.

  • $\begingroup$ How would pastoralists not notice that their animals graze better on certain plants and try to encourage those? $\endgroup$
    – arp
    Commented Mar 18 at 22:30
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    $\begingroup$ @arp It takes a lot of manpower to raise livestock AND grow their food. Remember, you get a huge amount of loss in trophic levels. Ironically, you don't have the surplus resources to go out of your way to do this kind of agriculture because you don't have agriculture. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Mar 19 at 1:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Questor And that means that in the beginning, any crop that is too difficult to domesticate just doesn't get domesticated because you risk starving to death ever year by allocating your time and effort in something that doesn't provide food for that year. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Mar 19 at 1:11
  • $\begingroup$ @arp they notice. But look at the pastoralists on earth. Did the mongolians plant/grow fodder? What about the Beduans... Or the Tuareg, The Fulani, the Peuls, or the Maures... Have any of them invented agriculture and started growing fodder? They haven't. It is much easier to move your flocks to new lands then to grow fodder.... The only reason we started industrial feedlots is because of barbed wire and farmers. Get ird of barbed wire and farmers, and industrial feedlots wouldn't list despite us being so good at agriculture. $\endgroup$
    – Questor
    Commented Mar 19 at 16:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Questor just FYI the Mongolians did plant fodder crops, fodder crops are ancient technology anywhere dry seasons or winters exist. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Mar 19 at 20:38

Efficiency is a relative term

When it comes to agriculture, there are 2 kinds of efficiency you need to worry about: your efficiency of landmass and your efficiency of labor.

Raising farm fed animals is way more labor intensive. First you have to go through all the effort of irrigating, planting, raising, cutting, drying, and bailing crops. And then having to distribute your stored food to your herd at a rate that makes sure you won't run out before the next harvest. And then because you are keeping them in such a small place, you need a system of sanitation to make sure they are not just living in thier own dung. All of these things take labor and resources to manage.

In contrast, traditional animal husbandry has a herd that can just move on when resources run low, and there is no need for special sanitation because they leave thier dung behind. Yes, you need more land for this, but it is way less work leaving a lot more time for other endeavors.

Since yours humans live in such an inhospitable climate, it's very likely that the freezing temperatures and overall hostile environment have made death by hypothermia and crop failures too common for large populations anyway. So, instead you are left with just herdsmen because it is easier than farming as long as there are not too many other humans around to compete with.


The easiest way to achieve this would be to leave your society to live in its own homeland - which is already inhospitable to plant cultivation but allows exactly the sort of animal husbandry that you are looking for. Growing plants for feed elsewhere would not do them any more good than it does for real-world Chukchis. Reindeer has evolved to eat local plants and can't be fed just anything, and the plants that the reindeer eat also evolved to live in the harsh climate and can't grow just anywhere either. In any case feeding the reindeer with imported feed would be uneconomical due to the cost of transport, especially if your society does not then export reindeer meat (in which case it may not have anything to trade for the reindeer feed). So in short, there is no reason to worry about your herders sneakily developing agriculture while nobody is looking; it may be efficient in other contexts, but it is not efficient in this society and environment.


The local grass makes agriculture difficult

Your planet being this "warm" is a relatively recent development and it used to be much much colder. So all the plants on land are still adapted to long periods of bitter cold with sporadic cold growing periods. How many cold weather plants adapt to the cold is by having deep roots and your planet is no exception. The grass puts roots down so deep underground that just tilling the surface isn't good enough. You need to dig a meter down and clear all the roots or you're going to fight a losing battle against the grass choking out your crops. Even if you go through the effort to cleanse the soil of this weed you would need to put down a deep barrier to prevent the roots from re-intruding on the crop land.

All this means is that while gardens for spices/herbs/flavourful ingredients may exist, unless you are willing to commit to large earthworks projects or wide scale use of invasive herbicides you're never going to clear enough land to do large scale agriculture without it being choked out by the native grasses. However you do have wide fields of drought/frost/pest resistant grass that is perfect for large herds of grazing animals.

To go even further the grass and most other native plants might be poisonous to humans as they produce an anti freeze like chemical to help them keep operating well even though the temperature is just above freezing. And it just so happens that ruminants (most animals that eat grass) aren't affected since they ferment the grass in their stomachs and that breaks down the harmful chemicals


I spent a bit of time with Masai people. The land in this particular place was semi arid. Enough water for the occasional bit of dried grass and short tree but harvesting any meaningful amount of crops was a challenge. There was little supply of water, they were not near lakes or rivers, but it was noteworthy that one rich and powerful person seemed to have taken a lot of the water that was available for his own use. The grass was enough to feed catle, but of course not digestible or the right nutrition for humans. Even then once the grass was exhausted in one location they might move to the next. The cattle also gave them other resources too, such as milk, hides and dung used for building. Often other nutrients tended to come from outside. While it is a different temperature, tundra is likewise semi arid with much of the growth being from mosses, grasses etc not suited for human consumption. As others have alluded to as well, there may be social/ cultural reasons for a certain diet and agriculture, e.g. religion, tradition, contempt for a certain group and their customs etc.


There is no land to grow crops on, or very little. The melting of the glaciers left most of the former land area under at least a metre of water ─ shallow enough to walk around in, but deep enough that you don't want to. The places where it's not too deep, you can build structures to live in.

The only plant-life grows underwater. Some of it might be edible, but it's not efficient to farm for human consumption; working underwater is hard. On the other hand, fish can easily swim down to eat the vegetation, and swim up to be caught.


High seasonality enforcing nomdaic lifestyles Having weather patterns that enforce nomadism would perfectly fulfill your demands.

If you want some sort of fixed settlements, these could be permanent "winter camps" that are simply unsustainable in the long run (due to overhunting/overfishing).

Alternatively for fully settled cultures: Poor soil & crop quality.

Because what's the advantage of animal husbandry over agriculture? You don't need to harvest all the area that the cattle grazes. You trade the inefficiency of a middleman for their work in gathering the calories from the ground.

A very poor soil (meaning very few potential calories per acre) could force people to rely on animals because manually harvesting any sort of crop from the area would not yield the calories necessary to sustain that harvesting (nevermind a society)


A similar arrangement is modeled in the Steerswoman books:

  • "Black grass" grows naturally but is inedible by all animals so it's destroyed by fire

  • "Red grass" is an intermediate plant capable of growing using the nutrients deposited by burning the black grass; this grass can be digested by hardy goats that frontierspeople herd

  • The goat excrement gradually fertilizes the land until conventional green grass (and other plants) can grow

  • Settled agricultural peoples push the nomadic peoples off the viable land further into the "black grass" areas

This works perfectly fine for your society. If you want to avoid other societies, tweak it as much as you want: perhaps there's no "green grass" to take over the red, and goat-processed food is all the people can hope for. Perhaps the nutrients from burning the grass, or from the goat fertilizer, are fleeting and not viable for a consistent diet of edible vegetables.



Early Age

Before humans, a mass extinction killed 99.9% of all carnivours. This change in the ecosystem caused an explosion in the herbivore population, which early humans took advantage of.

Over generations, a high meat diet caused humans' stomachs to be more efficient at processing meat and less at processing plant material. This change is sufficient for us to reclassify them as carnivores instead of omnivores like us.

Modern Age

Traditions and/or eco-friendly (for them) policies have earmarked all non-urban land as nature preserves. Ranchers use the wilderness to raise their herds but no one dares to replace wilderness with land dedicated to raising feed.

Future Age

Toxic soil or sun burns out. No more sunlight reaches the surface or all soil has become so toxic, making it pointless to try to grow crops. Technology level has advanced enough that humans can still survive but agriculture is now impossible.

No need, animals are walking greenhouses

The ability to steal and incorporate chloroplasts from algae like the sea slug Elysia timida convergently evolved in multiple species. These creatures were hunted for the same nutrition that plants give us.

How do you want to grow plants in low light

With low levels of light (Atmospheric conditions, the planet's distance to its star) most life on this planet doesn't get their energy from the sun but rather from seafloor hydrothermal vents or similar alternatives above sea level (maybe from magma). These vents are very hazardous and humans have learned to sustain themselves off of animals which can go into these areas to feed but live in more habitable locations.

The only plant that can grow in your world is grass. Humans cannot digest grass. Many animals that humans keep can digest grass. Examples include cows, sheep, goats, rabbits and deer.

Maybe the reason only grass will grow is that the soil is very thin. There are high altitude areas of Wales where the soil is so thin that little other than grass will grow. This land is often used by farmers for grazing sheep.

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    $\begingroup$ We have trouble digesting the stalks, but every grain (wheat, rice, oats, etc.) are a kind of grass seed, and every single kind of grass seed is an editable grain. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Mar 18 at 19:21

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