Scientific Agriculture (History Explained)

By the 16th century, population was increasing in Europe, and agricultural production was again expanding. The nature of agriculture there and in other regions was to change considerably in succeeding centuries. Several reasons can be identified for this trend. Europe was cut off from Asia and the Middle East by an extension of Ottoman power. New economic theories were put into practice, directly affecting agriculture. Continued wars between England and France, within each of these countries, and in Germany consumed capital and human resources.

A new period of global exploration and colonization was undertaken to circumvent the Ottoman Empire’s control of the spice trade, to provide homes for religious refugees, and to provide new resources for European nations convinced that only precious metals constituted wealth. Colonial agriculture was intended not only to feed the colonists but also to produce cash crops and to supply food for the home country. This meant cultivation of such crops as sugar, cotton, tobacco, and tea, and production of animal products such as wool and hides.

From the 15th to the 19th century the slave trade provided laborers needed to fill the large workforce required by colonial plantations. Many early slaves replaced indigenous peoples who died from diseases carried by the colonists or were killed by hard agricultural labor to which they were unaccustomed. Slaves from Africa worked, for example, on sugar plantations in the Caribbean region and on indigo and cotton plantations in what would become the southern United States. Native Americans were virtually enslaved in Mexico. Indentured slaves from Europe, especially from the prisons of Great Britain, provided both skilled and unskilled labor to many colonies. Both slavery and serfdom were substantially wiped out in the 19th century. See Peonage; Plantation; Slavery.

When encountered by the Spanish conquistadors, the more advanced Native Americans in the New World—the Aztec , Inca, and Maya—already had intensive agricultural economies, but no draft or riding animals and no wheeled vehicles. Squash, beans, peas, and corn had long since been domesticated. Land was owned by clans and other kinship groups or by ruling tribes that had formed sophisticated governments, but not by individuals or individual families. Several civilizations had risen and fallen in Central and South America by the 16th century.

The scientific revolution resulting from the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment in Europe encouraged experimentation in agriculture as well as in other fields. Trial-and-error efforts in plant breeding produced improved crops, and a few new strains of cattle and sheep were developed. Notable was the Guernsey cattle breed, which is still a heavy milk producer. Land enclosure was increasingly practiced in the 18th century, enabling individual landowners to determine the disposition of cultivated land and pasture that previously had been subject to common use. Crop rotation, involving alternation of legumes with grain, was more readily practiced outside the village strip system inherited from the manorial period. In England, where scientific farming was most efficient, enclosure brought about a fundamental reorganization of land ownership.

From 1660 large landowners had begun to add to their properties, frequently at the expense of small independent farmers. By the mid-19th century the agricultural pattern was based on the relationship between the
landowner, dependent on rents; the farmer, producer of crops; and the landless laborer, the hired hand of American farming lore. Drainage brought more land into cultivation, and, with the Industrial Revolution, farm machinery was introduced. It is not possible to fix a clear decade or series of events as the start of the agricultural revolution through technology.

Among the important advances were the purposeful selective breeding of livestock, begun in the early 1700s, and the spreading of limestone on farm soils in the late 1700s. Mechanical improvements in the traditional wooden plow began in the mid-1600s with small iron points fastened onto the wood with strips of leather. In 1797, Charles New-bold, a blacksmith in Burlington, New Jersey, re conceived of the cast-iron moldboard plow (first used in China nearly 2,000 years earlier). John Deere, another American blacksmith, further improved the plow in the 1830s and manufactured it in steel. Other notable inventions included the seed drill of English farmer Jethro Tull, developed in the early 1700s and progressively improved for more than a century; the reaper of American Cyrus McCormick in 1831; and numerous new horse-drawn threshers, cultivators, grain and grass cutters, rakes, and corn shellers. By the late 1800s, steam power was frequently used to replace animal power in drawing plows and in operating threshing machinery.

The demand for food for urban workers and raw materials for industrial plants produced a realignment of world trade. Science and technology developed for industrial purposes were adapted for agriculture, eventually resulting in the agribusinesses of the mid-20th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries the first systematic attempts were made to study and control pests. Before this time, handpicking and spraying were the usual methods of pest control. In the 19th century, poisons of various types were developed for use in sprays, and biological controls such as predatory insects were also used. Resistant plant varieties were cultivated; this was particularly successful with the European grapevine, in which the grape-bearing stems were grafted onto resistant American rootstocks to defeat the Phylloxera aphid.

Improvements in transportation affected agriculture. Roads, canals, and rail lines enabled farmers to obtain needed supplies from remote suppliers and market their produce over a wider area. Food could be protected during transport more economically than before as the result of rail, ship, and refrigeration developments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Efficient use of these developments led to increasing specialization and eventual changes in the location of agricultural suppliers. In the last quarter of the 19th century, for example, Australian and North American suppliers displaced European suppliers of grain in the European market. When grain production proved unprofitable for European farmers, or an area became more urbanized, specialization in dairying, cheese making, and other products was emphasized.

The impetus toward increased food production following World War II (1939-1945) was a result of a new population explosion. A so-called green revolution, involving selective breeding of traditional crops for high yields, new hybrids, and intensive cultivation methods adapted to the climates and cultural conditions of densely populated countries such as India, temporarily stemmed the pressure for more food. A worldwide shortage of petroleum in the mid-1970s, however, reduced the supplies of nitrogen fertilizer essential for the success of the new varieties. Simultaneously, erratic weather and natural disasters such as drought and floods reduced crop levels throughout the world. Famine became common in many parts of Africa south of the Sahara. Economic conditions, particularly uncontrolled inflation, threatened the food supplier and the consumer alike. These problems became the determinants of agricultural change and development.

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