In Depth

52 ideas that changed the world - 10. Agriculture

How seeds and selective breeding paved the way for civilisation

In this series, The Week looks at the ideas and innovations that permanently changed the way we see the world. This week, the focus is on agriculture:

Agriculture in 60 seconds

Agriculture refers to the cultivation and exploitation of animals, plants and other forms of organic life for human use, covering everything from food and fibre to medicines and fuel.

In many respects, the history of agriculture is the history of humankind, with early humans’ ability to form fully-fledged societies almost entirely facilitated by the harnessing of crops. During the first so-called agricultural revolution, around 12,000 years ago, developing a mastery of agriculture allowed communities to support themselves on a scale and level of efficiency never seen before.

Where humans previously had followed a nomadic lifestyle of hunting and gatherering, new knowledge and skill in cultivating land and growing plants “advanced the development of human society, allowing clans and tribes to stay in one location generation after generation”, with these settled communities gradually evolving into villages, towns and cities, the New World Encyclopedia says.

Agriculture also enabled trade relations between different regions and groups of people, paving the way for the advancement of societies, sharing of ideas and resources, and an explosion in the global population.

Today, despite technological advancements that have mechanised many agricultural processes - while also having a mixed impact on the environment - farming and related industries support many millions of workers across the globe, and will continue to shape how the future of humanity unfolds.

How did it develop?

 “Agriculture is believed to have been developed at multiple times in multiple areas, the earliest of which seems to have been in Southwest Asia,” says the New World Encyclopedia.

It is widely agreed that agriculture first developed during the Neolithic Era, the final division of the Stone Age. The earliest evidence of farming has been dated to around 10,000 years ago in the Indus Valley, a fertile region covering parts of modern-day Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. Evidence of potentially separate agricultural development from the same era has also been found on the Yangtze River in China.

The first crops to be deliberately cultivated by humans include emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, peas, lentils, bitter vetch, barley, chickpeas and flax.

Agriculture evolved “relatively slowly” over the following 8,500 years, as farmers got to grips with selective breeding to identify the plants that best suited their needs, according to the website of now-bought out agrochemical firm Monsanto.

“Some grew larger, tasted better or were easier to grind into meal,” the site says. “They simply began to save seeds from the best plants and sow them for the next year’s harvest.”

By 7,000BC, farmers had also begun to domesticate animals such as sheep, pigs and goats. About a thousand years later, they domesticated cattle.

From here, other technological innovations followed. “Irrigation (circa 6,000BC) and the plough (circa 3,000BC) brought enormous gains in productivity”, and civilisations all over the world acquired advanced metalworking techniques that further improved yield, says the Center for a Livable Future at the Maryland-based Johns Hopkins University.

Between the 17th century and 19th century, the UK and other developed countries experienced a dramatic increase in agricultural output dubbed the Second Agricultural Revolution, during which workers introduced new crops to their farms, developed new methods of harvesting and extended the types of land that could be used. 

By the 20th century, agricultural technology was developing more rapidly than ever before. Although “the most important developments during the first half of the century took place in the industrial countries”, the picture “changed somewhat after the 1950s” as “former colonies in Africa and Asia initiated large-scale efforts to improve their agriculture” by adapting Western methods to their differing soil types and climates, says Encyclopedia Britannica.

How did it change the world?

The agricultural revolution in the Neolithic period saw humans transition from a nomadic life of hunting and gathering to farming in a fixed location - a launching point from which to build settled communities and, later, civilisations.

The second revolution, during the early modern era, is considered to be one of the main causes of the Industrial Revolution that took hold in the mid-1800s, as improved agricultural productivity freed up workers for employment in other sectors of the economy. The two movements also effectively fed into each other, with agricultural advances allowing more workers to take jobs in cities, while industrial advances further increased farming yields and productivity.

During the latter half of the 20th century, agriculture became hugely successful in meeting a growing demand for food by the world’s endlessly increasing population. reports that “yields of primary crops such as rice and wheat increased dramatically, the price of food declined, the rate of increase in crop yields generally kept pace with population growth, and the number of people who consistently go hungry was slightly reduced”.

However, the environmental effects of agriculture might also threaten the future of humanity. In 1700, only 7% of Earth’s surface was used for agriculture: today that figure exceeds 40%.

Although more recent technological changes including GMO crops and other developments in hardware and software will “boost farmers’ profits” and lower prices in the short term, how can the world be fed in the long-term “without putting irreparable strain on the Earth’s soils and oceans”, asks The Economist

On a positive note, the magazine argues that the “large-scale genetic engineering of the sort needed to create C4 rice, or nitrogen-fixing wheat, or enhanced photosynthetic pathways” is being developed. 

And while such innovations “will certainly cause qualms”, it means that “the people of 2050, whether they live in Los Angeles, Lucknow or Lusaka, will at least be able to face whatever other problems befall them on a full stomach”, the magazine concludes.


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