By Magpie Group
The ability to grow safe and abundant food has a direct impact on our survival as humans, as well as on our health and overall quality of life. Throughout history, developments in agriculture resulted in improved food production techniques, food quality, safety and access. Historians have identified periods of radical change that have each been associated with significant agricultural developments.
This is the story of agriculture – how it has evolved to feed the world and allowed the human race to thrive.
The first Agricultural Revolution: A turning point in human history and evolution
The first Agricultural Revolution began 12,000 years ago, coinciding with the end of the last ice age. Some nomadic hunter-gatherers who had hunted, fished or foraged for food became farmers with a more stationary lifestyle and lived in small villages. This evolution forever changed how people lived, ate and interacted.
Researchers believe this might be because as they became better at cultivating food, they produced surplus seeds to plant and crops that required storage. Both of which spurred population growth by making food more consistently available. Tending and storing them for human consumption throughout the year, as well as needing a place to keep seeds to plant in the upcoming season, demanded a more stationary way of life.
This shift from hunting to farming also triggered numerous innovations, including new tools , commerce, architecture and the development of new horticultural practices. Here are some examples:
- People started growing cereal crops, like wheat, barley and corn, and developed intercropping systems – which are crops grown together on the same parcel of land. An example is corn, beans and squash, often referred to as the “Three Sisters.”
- Large animals, such as oxen and horses, were domesticated to help make more labor-intensive activities like fieldwork easier. They were used to pull plows to cultivate fields for crops. Livestock also provided additional nutrition through milk and meat.
- Humans altered their environment by planting crops in grasslands and removing trees to extend farmland, using early forms of irrigation to reroute water from waterways for their fields. This resulted in land that was used only for a specific agricultural purpose, like rice paddies.
This period also ushered in the potential for modern societies – civilizations characterized by large population centres, new technologies and advancements in knowledge, art and trade.
The second Agricultural Revolution: Producing food for profit
In the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a second period of agricultural advancement concentrated in Europe, which accompanied the Industrial Revolution that began in Great Britain. Through a series of cultural and technological changes, farmers significantly increased the amount of food they could grow.
This was the first time farmers were able to raise crops to sell rather than just for their own consumption. This was because:
- Changes to land ownership laws allowed farms to become larger.
- Production increased through innovations like new machinery, better soil drainage and the development of large-scale irrigation. Improvements in plant breeding resulted in new crops and better crop varieties.
Access to larger amounts of food led to better diets, longer lifespans and a rise in population. As the population increased, so did the pool of workers in other industries. Since most of these jobs existed in cities and new factory towns, mass migration to urban areas – urbanization – began to change the cultural landscape and population distributions throughout the world.
The Green Revolution: Advancements in agriculture increase global food production
At the start of the 20th century there was a rapid evolution in agricultural technologies that included the development of:
- Advanced plant and animal breeding techniques to increase disease resistance and boost how much they could produce
- Synthetic fertilizers that provide additional and more specific nutrients to plants to enhance growth
- New and more effective pesticides to control weeds, insects and disease
This period of time – known as the Green Revolution – resulted in improved global food production, dramatically reducing infant mortality and increasing life expectancy. It also prevented an estimated 18 to 27 million hectares from being converted to agricultural land by producing more food on the land that was already available.1
Leading the way was Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist who worked with scientists in Mexico, India and Pakistan to develop new varieties of wheat that would grow in a wider range of environments. In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to reducing world hunger and he is credited with saving a billion people from starvation, earning him the title of “Father of the Green Revolution.”
One notable innovation during the Green Revolution was the Haber-Bosch Process. Named for German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, this technique uses high temperature and pressure, combining hydrogen and nitrogen to produce ammonia, a basic building block of fertilizer. Ammonia releases nitrogen, an essential nutrient for growing plants. The expansion of the world’s population from 1.6 billion people in 1900 to today’s almost 8 billion would not have been possible without ammonia.2
The 21st century and beyond: Innovation and technology take a stronghold
This century has experienced incredible progress in agriculture and food production, as a result of research, technology and the adoption of better farm management practices. Examples include:
- Precision farming – Sensors, GPS or other specialized equipment help farmers target specific areas of fields to minimize inputs (seed, fertilizer and pesticides), while maximizing the amount they can grow
- Conservation tillage – Farmers plant seeds directly into the ground with minimally disturbance to the soil which helps prevent erosion and retain soil moisture
- Improved plant varieties – Plant breeding has helped develop hardier varieties of crops for the Canadian climate using traditional methods and genetic engineering processes
- Applying insecticide directly to seed – Called ‘seed treatments’, this technology uses only a small amount of pesticide, prevents exposure to beneficial insects and reduces the need to spray
Technology and innovation will continue to allow farmers in Canada to do their work in more efficient, environmentally-friendly and sustainable ways. It will also enable us to ensure the availability of safe, healthy food now and in the future.
Every agricultural revolution is built on the one before it. As a result, food production has evolved and changed tremendously over the past 12,000 years – from ancient communities and more primitive equipment to modern farming techniques today. Over that time, farmers and farms have continued to adapt, grow and become capable of producing more food with fewer resources. And, given the vast expansion of agricultural knowledge due to research and development, as well as the need to produce food for an ever-growing population, the next 100 years is likely to be just as revolutionary.
- Podcast: How has the Science of Producing Food Changed?
- What Innovation Can Do
- Podcast: How has Innovation Changed Dairy Farms?
- Growing Better Crops: Carrying on a Tradition of Thousands of Years
- James R. Stevenson et al. (May 21, 2013). “Green Revolution research saved an estimated 18 to 27 million hectares from being brought into agricultural production,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA: 110(21): 8363–8368. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3666715/ ↩︎
- https://mitpress.mit.edu/9780262693134/ ↩︎