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A HISTORY OF AGRICULTURE IN THE DEVELOPED WORLD

agricultural plough james middle

Until the middle of the 18th-c the authorities on agriculture were Roman writers such as Lucius Columella (1st-c) and Rutilius Taurus Aemilianus Palladius (4th-c); the ability of agriculture to support a non-agricultural community remained strictly limited. Innovation began in the Low Countries at the very end of the 17th-c, but new ideas were taken up and developed in Britain where, because of the lower population density, there was greater opportunity for them to produce dramatic increases in productivity.

Agricultural reforms were of three types. The first were innovations in husbandry, such as the selective stock-breeding methods developed by Robert Bakewell (1725–95) in Leicestershire in the middle of the 18th-c, and the four-year rotation of crops devised slightly earlier by Charles, Viscount Townshend– ‘Turnip’ Townshend (1674–1738). Samuel Marsden (1764–1838) pioneered the breeding of Australian sheep for wool, and this work was carried on in the middle of the 19th-c by John MacArthur (1767–1834) and especially by his wife Elizabeth (1766–1850), who introduced the merino sheep to New South Wales. William James Farrer (1895–1906) emigrated to Australia in 1870 and, by his scientific breeding of specialist strains of wheat, was almost single-handedly responsible for the success of the Australian wheat industry.

Except in undeveloped areas, the advances that could be made by improvements in methods were limited. In the middle of the 18th-c, however, advances in technology began to make a great difference to agriculture. One of the first areas of improvement was plough design. The plough with an iron coulter was invented by ancient Egyptians, and had not been much altered until several improved types were brought out in the mid-18th-c. In 1771 James Arbuthnot introduced the use of a mould-board, which was much more efficient. James Anderson (1739–1808) invented the Scotch plough for use on heavy ground and James Smith (1789–1850) designed the subsoil plough for use on land with poor drainage. One of the most influential figures was Robert Ransome (1753–1830), who invented a self-sharpening plough and also designed one that could be dismantled and modified, thus obviating the necessity for small farmers to have several expensive pieces of equipment.

Other inventors produced other pieces of machinery. Jethro (1674–1741) invented the seed drill in 1701, and the horse hoe a few years afterwards. The effect of these two inventions, although not felt until two generations later because of the scepticism with which they were received, revolutionized the way in which cereals were cultivated and greatly improved yield. James Meikle ( c .1690–1717), an East Lothian miller, produced a winnowing machine around 1720 and his son Andrew Meikle, besides inventing the fantail which allowed windmills to turn into the wind automatically and thus to work more efficiently, also invented the first effective threshing drum. His design, which used a revolving drum and longitudinal beater bars, is essentially the same as that used in modern combine harvesters.

At the same time, steam power was coming into use on the farm, following the inventions of Richard Trevithick (1771–1833) . Steam threshing was introduced by the Shropshire ironmaster John Wilkinson (1728–1808) in 1798, and the use of steam power rapidly spread. Steam ploughing came into use during the 1850s in places where the fields were long and flat enough to make it economic, and continued until steam power was superseded by the diesel engine and by the ubiquitous tractors produced by such manufacturers as Harry George Ferguson (1884–1960) and Henry Ford (1863–1947).

Where horse power was still necessary, however, other inventions improved productivity. James Smith’s (1789–1850) experimental reaper of 1811 did not work because the speed of the horses affected the action of the gathering drum, but an effective reaper was designed in 1827 by Patrick Bell (1799–1869). When sent to America, this machine enabled the production of the first commercially successful reaping machines by Obed Hussey (in 1833) and Cyrus Hall McCormick (in 1834). Mechanical reapers caught on very quickly thereafter, and by 1870 a quarter of all the harvest in Britain was being cut mechanically. In the 20th-c the development of diesel and electric power, and machinery in general, came together with the production of ever more complex and efficient pieces of equipment, such as the combine harvester and the electric milking machine. As in other areas, however, these were the products of research teams and commercial companies rather than individual pioneers.

The above advances were largely technological, or the direct result of farming experience, such as the use of liming to reduce the soil acidity that results from sustained crop removal. Agricultural science began with work, was enhanced by lectures and his book on the subject (1813), and emerged fully with books Chemistry and its Applications to Agriculture and Physiology (1840) and The Natural Laws of Husbandry (1862). By the middle of the 19th-c studies by and others had shown the importance of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) in plant nutrition, chemical fertilizers were supplementing the use of manure and Lawes had founded the agricultural research centre at his Rothamsted estate in 1842. By the early 20th-c the long-neglected fundamental work in genetics by was being applied in agricultural botany by and others. S M Babcock (1843–1931) in the USA had developed scientific dairying. Had effectively created the study of agricultural entomology and given a scientific basis for insect pest control.

The Second World War intensified studies on food production, and on animal and human nutrition. Some insecticides had been used since the 1870s; but DDT, introduced by from 1939, was highly effective and widely used, until its injurious effects in food chains was fully appreciated, notably by in the 1960s, and bans on its use in the UK and USA soon followed. In Germany organophosphorus esters were made and tested for use in chemical warfare, and some of these (eg Parathion) found major uses as insecticides after 1945. Rodenticides to reduce food losses were also needed, and after 1939 work by K P Link in Wisconsin led to warfarin which was highly effective: its anticoagulant effect on animal blood also causes it to find important use in medicine.

Another wartime effort was directed to finding chemicals to destroy the enemy’s crops. One result was ‘2,4-D’, which has a valuable selective action in attacking dicotyledons but hardly affects monocotyledons (which include cereals). Although not used in war, it has been much used as an agricultural herbicide as a result. Unselective destruction of all above-ground plant growth without soil toxicity is achieved by paraquat, which was marketed as able to replace the plough and is widely used. Unselective crop destruction, notably by ‘Agent Orange’, was employed during the Vietnam War.

More recently, emphasis in agricultural science has moved from newer pesticides and fungicides towards ‘greener’ methods of biological control, by methods such as the use of one insect species to control another, or the use of insect hormones to achieve deception and facilitate trapping. Modern genetics has opened up a range of techniques with applications in agriculture, and the ‘green revolution’ has led to great interest not only in improved strains of animals and food crops but also in the better understanding and management of ecosystems. The importance of such advances, especially in the less developed countries, was signalled by the award of the Nobel Prize not for science but for peace in 1970 to Norman E Borlaug (1914– ) of the USA, in recognition of his work on the development of a new short-stemmed wheat.

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