Top 10 Facts About The Rise Of Modern Agriculture

Top 10 Facts About The Rise Of Modern Agriculture

The story of agriculture is the story of man.  When, thousands of years ago farmers in the Middle East first started to grow wheat rather than gather it from the wild, the people of China started to plant rice or the Incas to grow corn they set us on a path that led, inexorably from hard toil under the hot sun to the moon landings of the 1960s.

The advancements of civilization, both good and bad, became possible only because of a surplus of food.  In Neolithic times early humans spent almost all their time searching for food, whether in the form of wild meat or wild grains.  As both crops and animals were domesticated farmers started to create a surplus of food which they could sell at a profit and which craftsmen could purchase with their specialist goods and which rulers could demand in return for protection.

Even with early developments in agriculture it was believed, by many people such as Thomas Malthus, that population growth would eventually outstrip supply leading to famine and misery.  Time and again, however, human ingenuity has managed to increase the productivity of crops and the land used to grow them.

Here are 10 things you may not have known (but really should) about the rise of modern agriculture.

10. People started experimenting with agriculture about 11,500 years ago

Ag started in Mesopotamia 11,500 years ago.
Ag started in Mesopotamia 11,500 years ago.

People first started planting crops for their own use over 11,000 years ago.  The very first evidence we have for the use of agriculture was in Mesopotamia about 11,500 years ago where archaeologists found seeds taken from their normal habitat and planted in a different area.  The Bible also references the use of plant and animal agriculture in the same area.

Although the varieties grown were very different to those we are used to today the Mesopotamians grew barley, wheat, peas, olives, grapes, lentils and other vegetables as well as domesticating sheep, pigs and cows.  The earliest crops that we know of are two wheat varietals, Einkorn and Emmer Wheat which were wild grasses with large, easy to collect seed heads.  At around the same time agriculture based on rice was developing in China and, some thousands of years later there is evidence of the development of agriculture in the Americas, New Guinea and in Africa.  In fact, we know that agriculture was ‘invented’ or discovered independently at least five different times.  Agriculture appears to have been developed in a remarkably similar way in each location with farmers noticing which plants were both edible and grew prolifically and then planting it on their own land.  After plants were domesticated farmers started to keep herds of wild animals and gradually build their own self reproducing herds.

9. In the middle ages people farmed large fields made up of individual strips of land

Row crops and strip farming, the kernels of modern Ag
Row crops and strip farming, the kernels of modern Ag

While farmers in Asia were dependent on an agricultural system that relied in rice as the staple crop in the south and wheat in the north farmers in Europe had access to a much wider range of crops.  Originally farmers used a two crop system which cultivated only 50% of the land in one year, allowing the other land to regenerate its nutrients and be used for planting the following year.  While this was suited to the Mediterranean climate of the Roman Empire it was not the best system for Northern Europe.

Farmers discovered that they could move to a three field system allowing them to cultivate 2/3 of the land available using one field for a summer crop, one for a winter crop and leaving one to regenerate.  As an added benefit the summer crop was often beans or peas which are ‘nitrogen fixers’ i.e. they return nitrogen into the soil.

Farming land in the village was divided up into large fields of strips.  Farming was typically done by serfs, people who practically belonged to the lord of the village.  They would each have their own strips within the field and would work that strip on their own, from this they would be required to produce the food they paid to their overlord and the church by way of tithe and the food that would feed their own family.  Serfs would have had no autonomy about what to plant – they were required to grow whatever the rotation system called for that year.  The system had some advantages, everyone got some summer and some winter crops and everyone had an equal distribution of the good and bad land.

As the Middle Ages progressed some developments served to make life easier for the serfs.  A new, more efficient plow was created that plowed deeper and was easier to handle.  Horse collars were developed that made it possible for horses to pull plows.  Heavier horses were also bred that were able to plow much faster than the oxen that were originally used (oxen continued to be used by the less well off with the very poorest having to pull the plows themselves).  Because the horses moved faster than oxen villages were able to cultivate more land at greater distance from the village giving them more food security and sometimes even a surplus that they could sell at a profit.

8. The agricultural revolution increased the variety of crops available

The Ag revolution created a cornucopia of Crops
The Ag revolution created a cornucopia of Crops

Although the initial discovery of agriculture thousands of years ago is often termed the first agricultural revolution there was a step change in the agricultural techniques used in Europe in the 17 and 1800s that made the production of food much more efficient and had a significant impact on society as a whole.  These techniques spread to all parts of the world that produced European style crops or were under European influence at the time.

The first steps were taken in Britain when the Enclosure Acts forced the old three field, strip system to come to an end.  The fields were bought by large scale farmers who were able to rely on economies of scale, poorer people who were pushed off the land either worked for the wealthy farmers as laborers or went to the cities to work in the factories that were starting to drive the Industrial Revolution.

At around the same time the seed drill which planted seeds far more efficiently and neatly than the old ‘scatter’ method.  Allied with this the larger farms moved from a three field system to a four field system, this prevented fields needing to be kept fallow for one year but instead allowed them to be used to plant nitrogen fixers such as turnips and clover that could also be used to feed livestock through the winter.  This meant that not only was more land under cultivation but farmers were able to support larger herds of livestock which not only provided fertilizer for the fields but allowed  people to add more meat to their diet.

In addition to these innovations a wider range of crop plants were available, the potato was introduced to England as a crop plant and broccoli was grown for the first time.  Although fewer people than ever were working the land to produce the food needed to feed the population diets were healthier and more balanced than ever with more people being able to eat meat and vegetables instead of subsisting on grain.

7. In 1793 the cotton gin made large cotton plantations economically viable

Invention of Cotton Gin has unforgettable historical significance.
Invention of Cotton Gin has unforgettable historical significance.

Agriculture is not just the practice of growing crops for consumption or of animal husbandry.  There has always been an interest in growing ‘cash crops’, items that are not needed for consumption but which are grown solely to be sold at a profit. Clothing is, along with food, a basic human need.  Cheap clothing was typically made from linen or wool with more expensive items being made from silks and furs.

Although cotton was an easy crop to grow and made a comfortable, versatile cloth, it was difficult to process because it was hard to separate the cotton seeds from the fibers.  The cotton gin (engine) invented by Eli Witney in 1793 allowed the cotton fibers to be pulled through a mesh by hooks while the seeds were trapped.  The cotton gin made cotton a cheap, reliable material from which to weave cotton cloth in the new textile mills of the industrial revolution and it became the major American export of its day, sadly the cotton gin also contributed to the growth of huge cotton plantations in the Southern US and the increase in slave culture in those states.

6. People began to experiment with machines to help reap the harvest from around 1800

The Seed Drill improved farming dramatically.
The Seed Drill improved farming dramatically.

Jethro Tull’s seed drill (see above) invented in 1701 was arguably, after the plow, the first ever agricultural machine. The drill paved the way for the increasing mechanism of agriculture by showing farmers how machines could help reduce the amount labor needed while simultaneously increasing yields.

The success of the drill encouraged people to start to experiment with other agricultural machines that would decrease the intensity of labor required to farm land.  By 1799 the first ever patent for a reaping machine was filed in England.  It was not successful but further attempts were made (often stymied by laborers concerned about losing their employment).  The first successful reaper was made in 1826 when Patrick Bell developed a horse pulled reaping machine in Scotland.  This invention spurred on several American inventors who were researching the same problem.  Cyrus McCormick developed a machine which could be bought in installments and was backed up with a reliable supply of spare parts.

The machine was further refined by an attachment which bound the sheaves as they were harvested.  This reaper-binder was the direct ancestor of today’s combine harvesters.

5. In Europe the industrial and agricultural revolutions spurred each other on

Britain was Ag Leader.
Britain was Ag Leader.

Had the agricultural revolution (see above) not happened then it is arguable that the industrial revolution would not have happened either, or at least not in the same way.

At the time of the revolutions Britain led the western world both in terms of agricultural science and in terms of industrial development.  The enclosure acts created the situation that led, inexorably towards the industrial revolution.

When the fields were enclosed a large portion of people remained on the new, larger, farms to work as laborers but many, out of work and unable to grow their own food as a result of the new system, had to re-locate to the towns.  This mass movement of people created a growing population that were available to work in the new factories including the textile mills which were made possible by the development of the cotton gin (see above).

At the same time as the enclosures threw people off the land the increased efficiency of the new agricultural techniques created enough surplus foods to feed a growing urban population.  As the rest of the world saw the benefits both revolutions wrought in Britain they too followed suit.

4. Developments in the automobile industry helped farmers immeasurably

Steam Engine spurred Ag tech.
Steam Engine spurred Ag tech.

Even with the development of agricultural machines such as the seed drill and the thresher/binder agriculture was, for many years dependent on the physical labor of humans or animals.  By 1850 developments in steam power had allowed people to develop a moving steam engine which could help with both threshing and plowing.  While these engines were more efficient than horses they were also more expensive and prone to blowing up.

By the advent of the 20th Century, however, the gas powered car was a reality.  It did not take long before a gasoline, as opposed to steam powered farming machine was postulated and by 1902 the first ever gas tractor was on the road in in the fields and by 1917 Ford in the US were retailing a tractor for under $400 making mechanization affordable for more and more farmers.  Similar developments took place in other countries around the world.  Suddenly farming was much easier, much less labor intensive than it had ever been as the tractor could be attached to any number of farming machines.  Further developments included the introduction of rubber tires and diesel powered tractors in the 1930s.

3. From the moment farmers started to experiment with agriculture they have altered the crops they farm to make them more efficient

Einkorn wheat growing on the land.
Einkorn wheat growing on the land.

Ever since humans first gave up their nomadic lifestyle and settled in one place to farm crops in about 12,000 BC they have modified the crops and animals that they have farmed to make them more productive.  Farmers looked for animals and plants that demonstrated admirable qualities such as  high rates of milk production or bigger heads of grain on the grass and bred from those individuals to ensure that these traits were perpetuated and passed on to the next generation.   The first domesticated crops, emmer and einkorn wheat were chosen by the early farmers because they had larger heads of seed compared with other local variants and because the seed stayed on the plant longer than average.  Over the centuries these grasses were bred for desirable traits until the wheat today is very different with larger seed ears and smaller stalks when compared with the original plant.  Carrots, which originally come from Afghanistan, were originally purple but were bred, over the years, to become the orange vegetables we are so familiar with.   Similarly domestic cattle were originally much smaller with a lower milk yield.

2. Scientists are now able to modify crops at the genetic level

Genetically Modified Organisms are safe and part of everyday life. Go Ag!
Genetically Modified Organisms are safe and part of everyday life. Go Ag!

The agricultural changes made through selective engineering happened over many centuries.  At first they were made almost by accident but gradually farmers and scientists started to understand the principals of genetics.  The process was long winded taking up to 15 years to change a crop.  It was only in the 1860s that there were some movements in understanding the principals of genetic heredity with Gregor Mendel’s experiments on sweet peas.  His work was not truly understood or appreciated in his lifetime.  In 1953 Watson and Crick had their breakthrough with the discovery of DNA and it was not long before people were experimenting with potential applications of this knowledge.

By 1973 the first ever experiment in genetic modification had taken place and it was being used commercially by 1976.  In 1983 a new strain of tobacco was the first genetically modified crop and in 1992, after successful field trials some GMOs were being grown commercially. While the old methods of selective engineering typically restricted farmers to manipulating the genes of a single species (or in the case of plants interbreeding between two closely related species) scientists are now able to add beneficial material from other species (transgenic engineering).  The majority of genetic alterations are made to increase crop resistance to pests or to add desirable traits.  Golden Rice, for example, is genetically modified to prevent Vitamin A deficiency in children in the developing world.

1. After an increase in chemical use organic farming became more popular in the 20th Century

Modern Farmers are backbone of America's Food Security.
Modern Farmers are backbone of America’s Food Security.

In 1910 the Haber-Bosch process to create a synthetic ammonium nitrate fertilizer allowed farmers to increase the fertility of their soils and for crop yields to increase.  As the world population increased and more land was put to more intensive agricultural use the application of pesticides such as DDT to protect the crops became more prevalent.  The safety of pesticides was first challenged by a number of people in the 1960s with the most well-known of the challengers being Rachel Carson with her seminal work Silent Spring which claimed that pesticide use harmed not only the pests that were targeted but also birds, fish, insects and potentially the environment at large.

The book was deeply flawed using anecdotal evidence and was poorly researched but it launched the environmental movement.  Many people were taken in by the hyperbole of Silent Spring and other similar publications and started to worry that the food that they were eating was unsafe, contaminated by pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals.  This concern tied in with the embryonic concept of organic farming which proposed the application of scientific knowledge to traditional and natural methods of farming without recourse to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Today some people seek to reverse those inventions and advances.  Many people are convinced that organic foods are safer for human consumption than more intensively farmed alternatives and that they are better for the planet.  Organic food is certainly better for the pockets of those involved in the industry with organic products market worldwide being worth $63billion in 2012 from items produced from just 0.9% of all farmed land (the worldwide market was worth just $1,660 Billion in 2011).

 

For most of human history, even with early developments in agriculture, the labor intensive nature of the work meant that most people had to struggle to produce enough food to feed us.   It was believed, by many people such as Thomas Malthus, that population growth would eventually outstrip supply leading to famine and misery.  Time and again, however, human ingenuity has managed to increase the productivity of crops and the land used to grow them.  Even during some of the worst famines in human history, for example the Irish Famine or the Soviet famines caused by collectivization came about as a result of human responses to a crisis.  Ireland, at all times, produced enough food to feed her people but it was required to be exported to England, collectivization was an ideological war on the peasants of the Soviet Union which resulted in a famine that destroyed many of their own population.  As a result of technological advances our world has always been able feed itself.  The problem is in distribution and not supply.

The organic lobby relies on the (mistaken but tempting) belief that the more organic a diet is, the closer it is to the simple foods our ancestors ate and therefore better for us.  These claims are not true.  Whether or not we eat an organic diet people around the world are healthier and live longer today than at any time in the past thanks to all the advances that separate modern agriculture from those first tentative steps towards wheat cultivation 11,500 years ago.