Agriculture has gone through seismic changes, driven by everything from science and technology, to population pressures, World Wars, and shifts in the global economy. Wordwide, farming is now worth $2.4 trillion – but how did it get to where it is now? Guest writer, Jez Fredenburgh finds out.
Farming revolutions and wars
Throughout history, big changes in farming have heralded huge shifts in society. By the end of the 19th Century, British farming had gone through its Second Agricultural Revolution, with wealthy lords turfing smaller farmers off public land, causing a huge migration to cities and paving the way for the Industrial Revolution.
Farming became an altogether different beast as land was drained or cleared, and high-yielding arable crops, such as wheat and barley, were introduced with crop rotations and nitrogen-fixing legumes, all boosting yields like never before.
The invention of the internal-combustion engine saw tractors replace horses, and the invention of the Haber-Bosch technique created chemical fertilisers – both huge moments which saw a further intensification of farming.
During the Second World War, countries sought to increase their self-sufficiency, as trading routes were redrawn. In Britain, the government poured cash into food production and farmers could suddenly afford more chemical fertilisers and newly-developed pesticides.
This rapidly increased production and the value of gross agricultural output in Britain rose by an incredible two-thirds between 1939-1942. In Scotland, the area under tillage increased by 639,000 acres in four years, with wheat and barley production more than doubling.
Farmers ramped up production even more in the years to come, when the UK joined the European Economic Community. Under Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy, farmers were paid to concentrate on food production, including ripping up hedges to increase land area. From 1940-80, the UK went from 30% to 80% self-sufficient in crops, while becoming a net exporter of grains.
At the same time, the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ was taking off in big developing countries, with the use of more chemical inputs, irrigation technologies, and mechanisation. Huge leaps forward were made in plant breeding and genetics, largely led by American Norman Borlaug, who helped develop high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat varieties in Mexico.
As a result of all these changes, global cereal production increased by 280% between 1961 and 2014. Today, the world can produce almost three times as much cereal from a given area of land than it did in 1961.