agriculture, history and principles



agriculture, history and principles defined in 1939 year

agriculture, history and principles - Agriculture, history and principles;
agriculture, history and principles - By Sir JOHN BOYD ORR, Director-General United Nations rood and Agricultural Organization.

This general article surveys the development, social, economic, and administrative, of mankind's most essential industry from primitive times to the age of mechanisation and planned scientific research. For information on methods, see under Dairy Farming; Farming; Poultry Farming; Stock Raising, etc. See also related articles on Crops; Food; Food and Agricultural Organization; Manures; Nutrition, etc.

Agriculture (Latin ager, a field; cultura, tillage) is the basis of civilization. Primitive man depended for his food on natural vegetation and the chase, and hence human society was limited to small tribes moving from place to place in search of food. The development of agriculture led to the permanent settlement of communities in the areas where food was grown and so to the rise of cities with a relatively secure food supply all the year round, making possible conditions favourable to discovery and invention, with resulting growth of civilization. Agriculture continues to be the foundation on which civilization rests. The products of the soil, e.g. food and raw material for clothes and many other commodities, still supply the primary necessities of life and exceed in value the products from all other sources.

Even with the great development of other industries, there are still more people in the world engaged in agriculture than in all other occupations put together. Nor is there any likelihood that the importance of this basic industry will decrease, at least in the immediate future. The carrying-out of the recommendations of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Conference of 1943 was to involve doubling world production of the more expensive agricultural products. This would have far-reaching, social and economic consequences.

Prehistoric Agriculture

The beginnings of cultivation and the domestication of animals occurred some time between 20,000 and 10,000 b.c. It may be assumed that the use of grain as food occurred earlier. Wheat grew wild in Eastern Asia and in the great Mediterranean Valley, now the Mediterranean Sea, and it is most probable that primitive man learned to knead and pound the seeds for food long before he learned to grow it. The origin of cultivation was the discovery that seeds buried in the ground reappeared as living plants bearing seeds of the same kind. This new conception must have had a profound effect on the myth-making mind of primitive man. Rituals became associated with seedtime and harvest. Among the Neolithic peoples, sowing was traditionally associated with the offering of a human sacrifice, usually of the finest youth or maiden in the tribe. For many centuries progress in cultivation was slow. About 5000 b.c. a rapid development began in both Egypt and Mesopotamia. The earliest actual evidence of systematic cultivation consists of wheat grains found in pre-dynastic tombs in Egypt and early Sumerian dwellings in Mesopotamia, dating in both cases from about 3500 b.c. The Sumerian grains are assigned by experts to be the highly developed species of Triticum compactum, thus indicating that even by this time selection of seed for the improvement of the crop had been already well established. It is probable that artificial irrigation was practised as early as this.

Egypt, Greece, Rome

By the time of the Egyptian 5th dynasty (c. 2750 b.c.) and that of Hammurabi in Babylonia (c. 2120 b.c.) agriculture had become a highly developed industry. The stone axe used.as a crude hoe and other primitive tools had been replaced by ploughs, seed drills, and other agricultural implements not unlike those used in the most advanced countries until about the 18th century. In Egypt the main crops were wheat, barley, millet, peas, beans, and edible roots. The principles of manuring were understood and practised. Cattle were selected for breeding. The land was divided into great estates worked by slaves. In Biblical times the Israelites were a great agricultural nation. The land was regarded as being held direct from Jehovah. It was parcelled out among 600,000 occupying owners, and the holdings could not be alienated by debt. The land was well watered by irrigation and enriched with manures. It is described in 2 Kings 18 and 32 as a land of "corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive oil and honey."

An account of agriculture in Greece is given by Theophrastus (3rd century b.c.), the first writer on botany. He describes the mixing of soils, manuring, and other agricultural projects in vogue in his time. In the 5th century b.c. more than half of the Athenian citizens were owner-occupiers. A normal-size farm included about 30 acres of arable land, 4 or 5 acres of vines and olives, and some orchard and pasture. In addition to these farms a large number of agricultural labourers were the holders of small plots.

Descriptions of Roman agriculture are given by Cato, Varro, and Virgil (2nd and 1st century b.c.). In the early days of the Republic a high proportion of the citizens of Rome were working farmers. A typical Roman farm in the 1st century b.c. was one of about 150 acres worked by the owner with a bailiff and farm hands who were slaves. It was a system of mixed farming with a variety of crops and cattle, sheep, and pigs. The Romans were skilful farmers. They practised fallowing to rest the land and a good rotation with legumes to enrich the soil in nitrogen, though, of course, the means whereby the legumes enriched the soil were unknown. They grew green crops and ploughed them in as manure, irrigated the land, and were careful in the selection of seed for the improvement of crops. As the wealth of Rome increased, however, under the Emperors, supplies of grain were brought from Sicily, Sardinia, and Africa. The small farms were merged into large estates (latifundia) worked by slaves and used mainly for grazing and for the large-scale production of wine and oil.

The Middle Ages

After the fall of Rome agriculture deteriorated, and throughout the Dark Ages in Europe both the science and practice of the industry were at a lower level than that which was attained in the Mediterranean civilization at the beginning of the Christian era. A notable exception was found in Spain, occupied by the Moors. There agriculture reached probably the highest level which had ever been attained by that date, a level not surpassed by any Western European country until the 18th century. An account of the science and art of farming in Spain, including such advanced science as plant diseases, is given by the Moorish writer, Ibn-al-Awam (12th century).

In Western Europe in the first 3 or 4 centuries b.c., apart from the villas of the Romans, agriculture seems to have been based on the common ownership of the land by the people, who lived together in small hamlets of usually 10 to 20 families, though some contained - as many as 100 families.. Families cooperated in cultivation. In medieval Europe a feature that emerged from the Dark Ages following the fall of Rome was the predominance of the great proprietor, the do minus or lord. Under Charlemagne cultivated land was in part reserved for the lord's profit and in part granted to the serf in return for ploughing and reaping services on the lord's reserve. The tenure of land became the basis of military service, and thus the feudal system emerged.

At the outset of the feudal period in England the bulk of the population were peasantry or serfs (villeins), who formed village communities, the unit of land holding and cultivation being the manor.

There was common pasture and there was also village arable land, consisting of unhedged areas many acres in extent, divided into three sections or "fields," one of which was left fallow each year. Land belonging to each villager was divided into numerous small separate strips spread all over the area, perhaps to secure equal productivity. The strips were from one to one-and-a-half acres each, separated by a furrow or ridge (a balk).

This form of strip farming and common cultivation disappeared very gradually and some medieval strips still exist in England today. Soil was improved by the use of marl, by ploughing in the stubble, and by pasturing herds on the arable land after harvest. The chief crops were wheat, rye, oats, barley, peas, beans, and vetches. Two bushels of wheat or rye were sown per acre, and the yield was only about 10 bushels. About 10 bushels of oats or barley were sown, giving a yield of 12-16 bushels. The grazings consisted of natural grasses and weeds. Artificial grasses and clovers were unknown, and there were no root crops. Hay was cut in the meadows for winter feed, but it was of poor quality.

The dead weight of cattle was only about 300 lb. and of sheep about 28 lb. Owing to the lack of winter feed, cattle to be used for beef were killed and salted in the autumn. Swine, which were plentiful, had to subsist mainly on what they could forage in the woods. Hens and geese were plentiful, and the lords kept great flocks of pigeons in dovecotes, both for eating and for manure. The pigeons which lived on the grain were a great source of grievance to the villagers. Wheat and rye were used for bread, rye being the peasants' chief bread. Barley was used for brewing. Oats were grown extensively in the north of England and in Scotland, but less on the tenants' land in the south.

The manors were largely self-contained. There was little surplus for sale. The lord of the manor got such money as he needed mainly from the sale of livestock and their produce. The completion of the harvest was an occasion for general rejoicing and merriment because it meant a food supply for the winter was secured. In years of bad harvest there was often a scarcity approaching famine. In 1315, owing to incessant rain during the summer, the harvest was so poor that it was followed by a dreadful famine accompanied by pestilence. Poor harvests, followed by food shortage and high prices, occurred not infrequently until the 19th century, when home production began to be supplemented by imports. On three occasions as late as the 18th century, failure of the harvest in Scotland was followed by the death of thousands of people through starvation.

The manorial system began to decline in the 13th century, when, by the Statute of Merton (1235), the lords were allowed to enclose land provided they left sufficient common land unenclosed to meet the needs of the commoners. The lords began to commute services for payment in money or in kind with which they hired labour for work on their own land. Villeins thus became tenants. This led to an increase in productivity, because the tenant, in addition to providing for his own needs, had to provide a surplus for rent. Part of the surplus was sold by the lord, thus increasing the trade in corn.

The breakdown of the manorial system was accelerated by the Black Death which raged in 1348-49, carrying off nearly half of the population. This caused a great shortage of labour. Wages rose, and serfs found it easy to escape from their masters and get employment on other estates as free men. The Statute of Labourers in 1349 fixed wages at the 1346 level. The resulting discontent led to the Peasants' Revolt in 1381. The labour problem was partly solved by abandoning the wasteful manorial system. The separate strips belonging to individual holders were collected into one unit and enclosed with a hedge. This economised labour. A further saving of labour was made by converting cultivated land to grazings for sheep, which were highly profitable owing to the great and constant demand for wool for export to Flanders.

The enclosure movement, which began in a small way in the 14th century, continued and reached its peak between 1700 and 1845. The enclosures caused serious discontent among the villagers deprived of their land. In some districts they revolted. A serious revolt occurred in East Anglia in 1547. When the enclosure was carried out by holders who collected the strips into one unit by agreement, the development was beneficial and there was no discontent. Indeed, the change from the wasteful open-land cultivation in strips to enclosed fields was essential to the development of modern efficient agriculture. But the enclosure of common lands and the eviction of peasants with inadequate or no compensation for the sake of the profits to be made from sheep has been condemned by most writers. Hundreds of Acts of Parliament dealing with enclosures were passed, most of them promoted by landlords to legalise their action. In 1845 an Act was passed which was designed to safeguard the interests of peasant-holders, but by that time it was almost too late, for practically all the agricultural land in the country had already been enclosed.

Enclosed fields under the continuous control of one individual made possible the carrying-out of experiments with improved methods. Early in the 18th century a number of landlords began experimenting with new crops and new methods of cultivation, and in the 18th and 19th centuries agriculture, which up to the end of the 17th century had changed little since the Dark Ages, underwent a revolution almost as drastic as the Industrial Revolution.

New Men and Methods

The first great pioneer was Jethro Tull. He showed that the yield of crops could be increased by proper cultivation to eradicate weeds. He is also credited with inventing the seed drill to replace the wasteful method of broadcast sowing. A primitive form of seed drill, however, was in use long before his time. More important innovations were introduced by-Lord Townshend, who left politics in 1727 to devote himself to the improvement of his estate in Norfolk. He introduced artificial grasses and clovers and the turnip crop and showed that a rotation of crops, e.g. wheat, turnips, barley, and clover, kept the land in better condition than the old wasteful method of leaving land fallow for a year.

The improvement in pastures and the use of turnips for winter feed was followed by a remarkable increase in the weight of cattle and sheep. The average weight of cattle rose from about 350 lb. at the beginning of the 18th century to 800 lb. at the end of it, and, of sheep, from 28 lb. to about 70 lb. In Roxburghshire the increase in the size of the cattle fed on the new pastures in summer and on roots and straw in winter was so great that some people regarded them as unnatural "monsters" and were afraid to eat the beef from them.

The improvement in feeding was accompanied by an improvement by selective breeding. Robert Bakewell produced the famous Leicester breed of sheep and Robert Colling the famous Durham cattle. A demonstration of how these new ideas worked out in practice was given by several landowners, the most noteworthy of whom was Thomas Coke, whose estate in Norfolk became famous and attracted many visitors. These improvements, which occurred in localised areas, took a long time to spread over the whole country. Arthur Young, though a failure as a practical farmer, grasped the significance of the new ideas and had a gift for exposition. He travelled widely throughout England and the Continent. In 1784 he began to publish the Annals of Agriculture, and in 1793 became the first secretary to the Board of Agriculture. His lectures and writings disseminated the new knowledge. Towards the end of the 18th century agricultural societies began to be formed. These promoted improvements by holding agricultural shows and demonstrations and arranging for lectures and publications. By the middle of the 19th century modern methods had replaced medieval methods on most farms.

Science and mechanisation

The latest development has been the application of modern science to increased agricultural efficiency. Early in the 19th century Liebig, on the Continent, analysed plants to find out what substances were needed to promote their growth. The Board of Agriculture employed Sir Humphry Davy to give lectures on agricultural chemistry. Lawes started experimental work at Rothamsted in 1835 to show the effect of artificial fertilisers. The results were so striking that phosphates, potash, guano, and other nitrogenous substances gradually came into general use.

Agricultural research on a big scale, however, did not begin until the 20th century. In 1911 the Development Commission, which had been set up to promote rural industries, set aside part of their funds to promote the establishment of agricultural research institutes in different branches of agricultural science. About a dozen of these have since been established. As a result of the work of these and other institutions, in both Great Britain and other countries, there has been a marked improvement in agricultural production in the last few decades. Thus, for example, new strains of plants, giving higher yields and, in many cases, with a higher resistance to disease, have been bred and rapidly brought into general use. Better types of grasses and clovers have been introduced, with resulting improvement of pastures and increased fertility of the soil. In animal husbandry the new science of nutrition has been applied to the elimination of diseases due to the deficiency of vitamins and minerals, and to improved methods of feeding, leading to increased yield and greater resistance to disease. Great advances have been made in the treatment and control of some diseases of both animals and plants, though disease of one kind and another is still the cause of enormous losses.

The result of all this application of science has been to increase potential food production. It is estimated that the full application of the best agricultural methods could lead to the production of as much as is at present being produced in the world on half the area under cultivation, and that we have now the knowledge to produce sufficient food to feed three times the present population of the world.

An almost equally important contribution which science has made to agriculture is mechanisation. In 1799 a mechanical reaper was invented. Later there appeared a reaper and binder, and then, finally, the combine harvester which cuts and threshes the grain in one operation. The tractor is now rapidly replacing horses. Milking machines, electric incubators, and new and improved implements for practically all kinds of farm operations have been introduced in the last two or three decades. It has been estimated that in wheat production one day's labour by the most modern methods is equivalent to about a month's labour by the 18th century methods. The rise in wages of farm workers has accelerated the adoption of every possible labour-saving device.

Other Countries

The foregoing account of the development of agriculture in the last two or three hundred years is based mainly on what took place in England. In all countries, developments, so far as they have taken place, have followed roughly the same general course. In Scotland, until towards the end of the 18th century, improvements lagged far behind those in England, but when the change-over to modern methods did. begin they moved much more rapidly, and towards the end of the 19th century agriculture in Scotland was on the whole more efficient than in England and both beef and dairy cattle excelled in quality. Denmark, during the 19th century, developed a highly efficient agriculture, especially in dairying, pigs, and poultry, from the products of which they had a large export trade, mainly to England. Agricultural developments in Holland preceded those in England. Indeed, many of the improvements introduced by English agricultural pioneers were imported from Holland, which still excels, especially in dairying and in market gardening. In France the small size of the holdings has delayed the introduction of mechanisation. In Eastern European countries agriculture is not so well developed as in England. North America led the world in mechanisation, but the yield per acre of grain crops is less than in England, where more intensive methods, with a more liberal use of fertilisers, are practised.

In the U.S.S.R.

In Asiatic countries, where the great bulk of the population is still engaged in agriculture, some of the methods are more primitive than those in use in Rome and Greece in classical times. In Soviet Russia a revolution in agriculture has taken place since about 1925. Very large communal farms have been established and rapidly mechanised. In agricultural research, especially in soil science and plant breeding, Soviet Russia is, in some respects, in advance of all countries. Artificial insemination as a means of rapidly improving the breed of cattle, etc., which was introduced in Russia in pre-war days, has been so successful that it has since been introduced in England. There are thus in the world today all gradations of efficiency in agriculture, from the most modern farms with high yields and high output per man hour to the most primitive methods which have not changed for 2,000 years.

The problem of how to produce food in abundance has been solved, but there remains the difficult economic and political problem of adjusting agriculture to modern world conditions. In subsistence agriculture, where most of the food produced is consumed locally, prices are of less importance than the fluctuation in yield due to climatic factors, but as the trade in foodstuffs grew, prices became of paramount importance, and they have always fluctuated, often violently. This is especially true of wheat. Thus, for example, in 1709 wheat in England was 81s. a quarter; in 1732 it had fallen to 24s. In the 19th century it fluctuated between 126s. and 22s. l0d. When the price of food goes up, the poverty of the poor, who spend the greater part of their total income on food, increases. On the other hand, a sudden fall in prices brings ruin to the farmer who has difficulty in reducing his cost of production. This rapid fluctuation in prices, with resulting social and economic evils, runs through the history of agriculture, since medieval times, and is still unsolved. Several attempts were made by Parliament to stabilise the price of grain at a level profitable to the farmer by measures such as import duties, tariffs, subsidies for export, or price-fixing. Until the outbreak of the Second Great War governments were groping after a solution of this difficulty. It had been realized that the fall in prices affected more than the farmer. The decrease in his purchasing power led to a decrease in the prosperity of industry and trade. The difficulty is always increased by the incidence of war, when there is a rise in prices followed by a post-war slump.

Controlling the Market

Prices rose during the First Great War, but from 1920 onwards prices fell and some foodstuffs became almost unsaleable. Some countries imposed tariffs to prevent the importation of cheap food, and the internal price was sometimes double the world price. In Great Britain and the U.S.A. measures were taken to control production. In Great Britain agricultural marketing boards were set up under two Acts of Parliament (1931 and 1933), giving producers power to control the amount marketed and to fix the price. Wheat-exporting countries tried to make arrangements for each to reduce production according to an agreed ratio. These measures, designed to 'adjust production to economic demand, tended to stabilise the industry.

The position was complicated, however, by the new science of nutrition which showed that even in the relatively wealthy countries, like Great Britain and the U.S.A., a third of the population did not have sufficient of the right kind of food for health and that the main reason for this was poverty. Thus two contradictory policies were urged, one for reducing production and raising prices in the interest of farmers, the other for increasing production and lowering prices in the interest of public health.

In Great Britain the milk-in-schools scheme (1934) served to absorb a considerable amount of the surplus liquid milk. In the U.S. the Food Stamp plan (1939) enabled low-wage earners and un-employed to purchase certain foods at half-price. This achieved the desired object of putting the so-called glut of food into empty bellies. Various measures of this kind were adopted as temporary expedients to reconcile the interests of producers and consumers. In 1935 the assembly of the League of Nations discussed the world food position in relation to the interests of agriculture, public health, and trade, and considerable progress was made in evolving a new policy designed to bring about what has been called " the marriage of health and agriculture."

The Second Great War

When the Second Great War broke out, Britain adjusted its agriculture to the food requirements of the people. Home production plus imports were planned to provide, as far as possible, the food needed to maintain the health of the whole population. To increase home production, farmers were offered a guaranteed market at a guaranteed price much above the pre-war level. By rationing, subsidising food to the extent of over £200 million p.a., and making provision for the special needs of mothers and children, and of heavy workers, distribution was based on the nutritional needs of different classes of the population. This war policy of production for consumption and distribution according to nutritional needs brought prosperity to farmers and a marked rise in the standard of living of farm workers. In spite of the scarcity of some foods, the equitable distribution, with retail prices within the reach of every family, resulted in a definite improvement in the state of nutrition of the poorest third of the population.

The present trend of thought is that the principles of the war food policy, with modifications to suit peace-time needs when food is more abundant, should be the permanent food and agricultural policy, as the one most likely to benefit public health and to bring permanent prosperity and stability to agriculture.

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