10 Innovations that Revolutionized Agriculture
From the earliest times, mankind strove to solve the problem of basic day-to-day survival by establishing a steady supply of food.
The whole history of agriculture is a long chain of one revolutionary innovation after another. From the earliest times, mankind strove to solve the problem of basic day-to-day survival by establishing a steady supply of food, making it possible to move beyond an existence in which virtually all thought and energy were focused on figuring out where the next meal was going to come from.
Along the way, through careful study of the surrounding world, thoughtful experimentation, and an enormous amount of hard work, that goal was realized – and then some. Challenges remain today, as an ever-increasing world population makes the need for maximum productivity, efficiency, and sustainability in the area of food production more important than ever. But we can be encouraged to rise to the occasion and meet the needs of the future by reflecting on the remarkable discoveries and revolutionary techniques which have allowed us to progress this far, confident that further breakthroughs lie just over the horizon – or are even in the works right now. Here is our list of the ten most revolutionary innovations which have transformed agriculture.
Mankind learned early to manipulate his environment to his advantage. While the scientific principles of genetics were not systematized until the 19th century (by Gregor Mendel) and the molecular structure of the genes themselves was not revealed until the 20th, our observant ancestors learned quite early on that both plants and animals pass on particular characteristics to their descendants in largely predictable ways. They learned that by carefully selecting which seeds to plant and which animals were allowed to mate they could, over time, create breeds in which certain desirable traits were enhanced while certain undesirable traits were suppressed. This led to the establishment of a food supply which was both quantitatively and qualitatively superior (i.e. higher yielding and more nutritious) and also less susceptible to disease.
Another early discovery made by our ancestors was that most plants’ seeds (especially those more desirable for food) sprout and grow best on certain kinds of ground. Deep soil was preferable to rocky ground with only a thin layer of soil on top. Furthermore, soil which was loosened and stirred up by some sort of recent activity was more receptive to sprouting seeds than undisturbed soil which had developed a hard surface due to intermittent wetting by the rain and baking by the sun. The earliest farmers took to scratching the soil with a sharp stick or some other handy implement before planting or scattering seed upon it. This practice led to the development of hand tools specifically designed for the purpose – of shovels, rakes, hoes, and such.
These were also used to perform another important aspect of cultivation: keeping the ground free of weeds, most ideally by uprooting unwanted plant species from the surrounding soil before they had the opportunity to grow large enough to compete with the desired crops for soil nutrients, water, and sunlight. In time, larger implements drawn over the ground by teams of men or animals – plows, harrows, disks, etc. – were developed, permitting the more efficient cultivation of larger and larger areas of ground.
Agricultural activity has always been conducted at the mercy of the elements. The ability to control the weather to any meaningful degree continues to elude mankind’s grasp. But this overall inability has inspired some innovative techniques for mitigating the lack of meteorological control.
One of the oldest and most important is the practice of irrigation, which artificially supplies water from sources (some relatively nearby and others quite far away) to crops—where naturally-occurring rainfall is either insufficient or too unpredictable, making otherwise unfarmable land fruitful. For example, ancient farmers throughout the arid Middle East used large-scale networks of dikes and canals to channel runoff from rivers and lakes onto cultivated land.
Bringing the water near-at-hand made it practical for it to be applied directly to the crops, whether by hand labor, by the assistance of other ingenious water-delivery systems and machinery (such as a water wheel or Archimedes’ screw), or, as was very common, some combination of the two. The circular patterns of today’s cropland, a familiar site to airplane travelers, resulted from the proliferation of center pivot irrigation technology during the past several decades.
All plants grow by storing energy from the sun while also drawing precious nutrients from the soil. In general, this means that the nutrient value of the soil on a given piece of land will be depleted over time as successive crops are grown on and harvested from it. It didn’t take too long for early farmers to realize that growing the same crop on the same land season after season resulted in fewer healthy plants and steadily-diminishing crop yields. One method for combating this problem is fertilization (more on that later). But another important method lay in the discovery that some kinds of plants take more nutrients from the soil than others, while some return more nutrient value to the soil than they use up.
During the Middle Ages, European manors commonly adopted the three-field system where the land was divided up into three plots, one used for growing grain, another used for growing various sorts of beans, and another allowed to lie fallow (unused) on a seasonal, rotating basis. Similarly, today’s farmers often alternate planting a given field in corn (which consumes a lot of nitrogen from the soil) and then in soybeans (which replenish the soil with nitrogen). Cover crops, which are grown specifically to replenish the nutrient value of the soil rather than harvested as a cash crop, can also be thrown into the rotational mix. And crop rotation also has other benefits: for instance, the life cycle of certain pests is interrupted by the switching of crops, which cuts down on disease.
The Industrial Revolution affected agriculture as much as it did anything and everything else. In past, agriculture was incredibly labor intensive, demanding the dedicated full-time labor of the vast majority of the population’s members simply to keep that society sufficiently nourished.
Beginning around the turn of the 18th century and continuing down to the present day, technological innovations have made it possible for an ever-decreasing number of people to produce an ever-increasing amount of food from the soil. The advent of mechanized farming has been a key component of this process. In the beginning, machines were introduced which enhanced the old methods by increasing the efficiency of labor executed by hand or with the assistance of animals. These included:
- The seed drill, invented by Englishman Jethro Tull in 1701
- The threshing machine, usually credited to Scotsman Andrew Meikle in 1786
- The cotton gin, invented by New Englander Eli Whitney in 1793
- The mechanical reaper, invented by Virginian Cyrus McCormick in 1831
- The self-polishing steel plow, invented by John Deere in 1837
Later inventions were even more revolutionary, completely eliminating the need for animal power and drastically transforming and minimizing the need for human labor in almost all cases. Steam traction engines, the earliest tractors, appeared in the late 1800s. Within a few decades, these were supplanted by machinery powered by the internal combustion engine. Other notable developments include milking machines for cows, which were transforming the dairy industry by the middle of the 20th century.
High-Volume Storage and Rapid Distribution
The Eerie Canal, a grand engineering feat that connected the Great Lakes with the Hudson River and the Atlantic port of New York City, opened for traffic in 1821. This greatly accelerated the settlement of the interior of the North American continent, and it wasn’t long before large quantities of grain from prosperous farms in the region were being shipped back to markets in the east.
In 1842, twenty-one years after the opening of the Canal, a large building was erected next to the waterway in Buffalo, New York. The structure, designed and built by Joseph Dart and Robert Dunbar, sported some interesting equipment, most notably a long, movable assembly that consisted of bucket-like scoops attached to a large leather belt that rotated (via steam power) continuously over a rigid frame. The lower end of this “leg” could be positioned down inside the hold of barges and ships full of grain that docked next to the building, and the machinery would empty the cargo in a fraction of the time it took dock workers to do so by hand, conveying it to a structure at the top of the building where it was then weighed and emptied into one of several large internal storage bins. When sold, a similar conveyor belt process would scoop grain out of the storage bins, weigh it, and dispense it to a waiting ship, barge, railroad car, or animal-drawn cart. This was the world’s first grain elevator and was an instant success. Other versions soon began springing up wherever grain was bought and sold in large quantities, a process further assisted by parallel developments in the transportation industry (shipping, railroads, and trucking).
The Green and Gene Revolutions
Back in the 1940s, U.S. ag researcher Norman Borlaug began experimentation on some plots of wheat in Mexico to push the centuries-old knowledge of selective breeding to new heights by producing plants that were both high-yielding and resistant to common diseases and pests. Within 20 years, by combining Borlaug’s improved plant varieties with mechanized agricultural techniques, Mexico went from being a nation that imported almost half of its wheat to a net exporter of wheat. Implementing this “Green Revolution” technology spread across the globe in the 1950s and 60s, bringing bounty to many areas otherwise threatened by famine. Beginning in the 1970s, lab researchers developed techniques that allowed them to manipulate the genetic structure of living things directly, custom-creating new strains of plants that did not exist in nature. These genetically modified organisms (GMOs) further enhanced yield potential and disease resistance for crop varieties. The Green and Gene Revolutions of the 20th century have not been without their critics in the 21st century: among a series of much-contested concerns has been the increased reliance of modern seed varieties on artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation. But there can be no doubt that these developments have spared untold millions from starvation over the past 70 years.
By the time the 20th century rolled around, it became clear that all aspects of agricultural production would have to be radically transformed to feed the burgeoning world population. This included methods for boosting soil nutrient value, which had traditionally been achieved via fertilization with organic material ranging from animal manure, vegetable compost, and even dead fish. (And these same methods are still employed to varying degrees by some farmers and gardeners today.) Synthetic fertilizers using nitrates and ammonia began to be employed in the 19th century, but methods for producing these at the time were woefully inefficient. In the first decade of the 20th century, two German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed an artificial nitrogen fixation process that made the large-scale production of ammonia possible, along with derivative fertilizers. The aforementioned Green and Gene Revolutions of the mid and late twentieth century would not have been possible without the dramatic boost in soil nutrient value made possible by this Haber-Bosch process, as it came to be known. Of course, the dangers and downsides, including explosive volatility and harm to marine life caused by excessive runoff, are well-known and demand careful control. But these challenges beg to be addressed from a standpoint of gratitude and appreciation for the bounty made possible by such advances.
We have been trained to recoil at the mention of the word “chemical,” but have you ever stopped considering that water itself is a chemical compound (also known as dihydrogen oxide, or H2O)? Plant diseases and pests have been a problem since the beginning of agriculture, and the practice of applying various substances to crops to manage them is very old. Over 4,000 years ago, farmers in Mesopotamia discovered that dusting their crops with sulfur acted as a repellent for certain harmful mites and insects. As it turns out, sulfur is mostly beneficial and poses little risk to humans, which can’t be said for other substances – including mercury, arsenic, and lead – which have also been used as pesticides down through the intervening ages. Synthetic fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides began to be developed in the 1920s in response to the need for more specialized control of various adverse diseases, weeds, and critters, and new ones are continually being developed today. Since the advent of genetic engineering, the effectiveness of synthetic pesticides has been enhanced even further by the development of crop varieties with built-in resistance to particular chemical compounds. Of course, this has been accompanied by questions and controversy along the way. Ultimately, the downsides of some pesticides (DDT, for example) have been deemed to outweigh their benefits in an ongoing evaluation process. But the fact remains that the level of agricultural output necessary to sustain the world’s growing population will by and large continue to depend upon chemical pesticides for the foreseeable future.
Return to No-Till & Organic Methods
In recent decades, there have been a growing number of movements advocating for agricultural methods which seek to avoid various practices embraced by large-scale modern agriculture in favor of smaller-scale operations which emphasize production and consumption with more local scope and which are (it is supposed) more “natural,” and minimizing of any potential downsides posed by “big ag” to humans and the environment. Some practices which initially went against the accepted status quo have since found widespread adoption and have become virtually mainstream. No-till or low-till cultivation practices, which seek to cut down on erosion and maintain soil health by disturbing it as little as possible throughout the growing process, are the best examples. Others range across a spectrum where the upside versus downside is subject to ongoing evaluation and debate.
Many questions are raised in the process. For starters, as seems to be a root assumption for many, is it the case that modern agricultural practices (considered on the whole or individually) have done more harm than good for the human race? Moreover, while locally-grown, organically-produced agricultural products might be preferable for those who have the luxury of being able to afford the necessarily higher prices, can the benefits genuinely justify the greater expenses of labor and resources and decreased efficiency that are typically involved? And is it possible that such methods could be relied upon to nourish the world’s growing population as a whole adequately? Furthermore, if, as has been observed above, chemicals are inescapable and even naturally-occurring substances can prove to be quite harmful to humans, where is one justified in drawing the line between “natural” or “organic” fertilizers and pesticides and those which are produced synthetically?
While the answers to each of these questions are not equally clear, one thing would seem to be: if a healthy dialogue can be maintained between the competing interests, where both sides can acknowledge the legitimacy of the other’s concerns without giving over to disparagement or dismissiveness, further innovation will no doubt be the result — and that will surely lead to an agricultural future with increased benefits for us all!