Agricultural Industry Essay

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Anatomically   modern    humans    evolved   about 200,000 years ago. During  most of their existence, humans subsisted by hunting and gathering. Between about 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, however, humans in several parts  of the world  developed  agriculture, an achievement  that  led to the  rise of civilization. From its origins, agriculture was the primary economic  activity and remains  so in many parts  of the  globe.  Government, the  class  system,  armies, large-scale trade, writing, and education all depended on  the  secure  food  supply  that  agriculture made possible. Surplus goods allowed people to specialize in other pursuits, though  their numbers cannot have been large. Through antiquity, the food surplus was only some 10 percent, meaning that only 10 percent of the  population could  escape  from  farming.  Yet the cities and their dwellers often exploited the countryside. This is clear in Roman  antiquity, when the emperors subordinated Sicily and Egypt to grain production. Indeed,  beginning  with  Augustus,  the emperors  declared Egypt their private property.

The Origins Of Agriculture

In southwestern Asia, humans  developed  agriculture  about  10,000 years  ago  in  response  to  the drying climate following the retreat  of the glaciers of the last ice age. So momentous was this development that scholars have termed it the Neolithic Revolution. By 5,000   years  ago,  farmers  in  the Near East provided  regular surpluses necessary for civilization. They domesticated wheat, barley, peas and  lentils, chickpeas,  rye, sheep, goats,  pigs, and cattle. Peas, chickpeas,  and lentils are legumes and are rich in protein, an essential  nutrient. Legumes make  a  vegetarian   diet  possible.  Because  sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle formed herds, they were easy to   domesticate.  Nonetheless,  the   first   farmers were  malnourished, leading  one  to  wonder  how beneficial agriculture was in its early centuries.

By 8,000  years ago, farming  had spread not only to the eastern  Mediterranean basin—Turkey, Syria, and  Israel—but  also to the western  Mediterranean and became the source of civilization  on which the Greeks  and  Romans  built.  Even parts  of northern Europe  adopted farming  by 7,000  years ago. Egypt was a relative latecomer  at 6,000  years ago. This is puzzling because Egypt must have had access to the crops  and  livestock  of  the  eastern  Mediterranean from an early date. Once agriculture began, it created stupendous wealth for the Pharaohs, who lived opulent lives and  built  some of the world’s  most  cherished tombs.  The case of Pharaoh Tutankhamun is instructive for the wealth of artifacts in his tomb, and he was a minor  pharaoh. How  much grander  must the tombs of Ramses II and the Tutmoses have been!

In China,  agriculture seems to have sunk  roots first in what would become the north-central provinces.   These   areas   specialized   in  rice  and millet. The rice must  have been dryland  varieties, for the introduction of paddy  rice was a comparatively late development. Soybean too would emerge as an important crop. It is curious  and  important that   nearly   everywhere   humans   began   farming they   domesticated   at   least   one   legume.   By 5000  b.c.e., farmers  in the north  were subsisting on millet. Ancient sites reveal the capacity of China to  store  100  tons  of grain,  pointing  to  a reliable food surplus. South of the Yangtze River, rice dominated. Again, dryland  varieties prevailed until about 100 c.e., when paddy rice became more important. Like the people of western Asia, China also   grew   wheat   and   barley,   possibly   having borrowed these  crops  from  the  western  areas  of the continent. The Chinese  considered  wheat  and barley  to be luxuries,  and  they never rivaled  rice. Soybean was cultivated  as early as 1000  b.c.e.  By the 4th  century  b.c.e., rice and  soybean  were the principal  crops.  Like the  Romans  later  with  peas and lentils, the Chinese were quick to observe the benefits  of  soybeans  in  rotation, suspecting  that the root  nodules  had a role in enriching  soils.

Though  they did not know  it, their insight was based   on   the   fact   that   the   nodules   harbored bacteria that synthesized nitrogen and oxygen or nitrogen  and hydrogen  to form an ion, which roots absorbed  easily.  Legumes   therefore   made   their own  nitrogenous fertilizers,  and  the  amount left over enriched  the soil for future  crops.  Planting  a legume  one  year  enriched  the  soil  for  the  next year’s crop. This phenomenon of nitrogen  fixation would not be discovered until the 19th century, confirming  the wisdom  of China  and Rome.

The pig was China’s chief livestock, though chickens were also important. Southeast  Asia, including  the islands of the Philippines,  Indonesia, Taiwan,  and others in the south and central Pacific Ocean, was a latecomer  to agriculture. About 3500 b.c.e., paddy   rice  came  to  the  region,  and  the people of Taiwan  were subsisting on rice and millet by this  date.  From  Taiwan,  agriculture spread  to the Philippines  and Indonesia.  New Guinea provided   an   interesting   contrast,  domesticating taro  and yams as early as 5000  b.c.e.

Farmers  along the Indus River in what  is today India  began  farming   about   7000   b.c.e.   Wheat, barley,  sheep,  goats,  and  cattle  were  important from  the  outset.  Rice, millet,  and  sorghum  were later additions.

Africa  has  two  chief regions:  North Africa  and sub-Saharan Africa. North Africa, being part  of the Mediterranean, developed  in step with  the rise and development    of     Mediterranean    agriculture. Sub-Saharan Africa developed  a different  trajectory, domesticating cattle about  3000 b.c.e. About 1,000 years later, rice became an important crop, though  it is important to note that this was not an Asian transplant.  African  rice was a different  subspecies  from the  rice  grown  in Asia. There  was  no  borrowing from China or Southeast Asia. In the Sahel, sorghum and millet were important crops. Teff was the staple in  Ethiopia.   Elsewhere,   oil  palm   and   cowpeas, another legume, were important. The spread of agriculture throughout sub-Saharan Africa was gradual.

The  rise  of agriculture in  the  Americas  represents an independent development. American crops were   different   from   Old   World   domesticates.

Farming arose in the Americas around 3000  b.c.e. Corn  was the staple from Canada to the southern tip  of  South  America.  In  its  ability  to  tolerate  a range  of climates  and  geographical areas,  corn  is among humanity’s  most durable  crops. Corn originated in southern Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula.  By 2000  b.c.e., Mexicans   had  developed  a large number  of varieties  of corn,  a grain that is today a world staple. In the United States, it is fed to  livestock,  but  in many  other  places it is human  food. Another world staple, the potato, was domesticated in  the  Andes  Mountains of  South America.  Though  the  mountains lie at  a tropical latitude,  the  elevation  of the  mountains creates  a cool microclimate, and so the potato is a staple in temperate climates.  Other  contributions to  world cuisine are beans and peanuts  (both legumes), peppers, tomatoes, and  squash.  One  should  note  that the Old World had a few species of beans, but American  beans were and are far more numerous. One who buys a can of beans at the grocery store is almost  certainly  buying  an American  indigene. Native   Americans   referred   to  corn,  beans,  and squash  as the “three  sisters”  because  they understood that  these three crops could provide  a nourishing  diet. The Americas  were less endowed with livestock, though the people of the Andes domesticated the llama, alpaca,  and guinea pig.

Antiquity

The great agricultural writers  of Rome—Cato the Elder,   Columella,  and   Varro—all   claimed   that slaves worked  the large estates. This view has come under  criticism  in recent  years, leaving it difficult to determine  how  widespread agricultural slavery was in antiquity. American  scholars  have been particularly reluctant to retract  the slave argument, their views colored  by the extent  of slavery in the antebellum south.  For the moment,  no consensus seems to exist.

Greece  planted  winter  wheat  in  autumn, harvesting it in spring. The crop was a good choice in a  climate  where  winters  were  mild.  Greece  may have pioneered  the use of the crop  fallow system, in which  a piece of land  was  planted  only  every other year. This system, by effectively halving farmland, must  have  hampered production. The Greeks  also  planted   barley,  peas,  lentils,  apples, pears, figs, pomegranates, and the ubiquitous olive. They  raised   cattle,   sheep,  goats,   and   chickens.

This  system  was  remarkably diverse. The  Greeks had a primitive plow that was more than adequate for their  thin  soils; a heavy plow  would  not  have worked. Farmers were the chief recruits of the military, which must have been detrimental to their farms. The elites owned  large estates. Athens used hired labor, but Sparta favored the use of prisoners of war to labor  on large estates in conditions that approximated  slavery.  The  Spartans   considered their farmworkers to be somewhere  between slaves and  free men.  One  Greek  orator declared,  “God has  set all men  free; nature  has  made  no  man  a slave.”  Europeans would  not  extend  this  view to Africans.  To  be fair,  the  Greek  philosopher Plato acknowledged the existence  of slavery, though  he did not explicitly tie it to agriculture. Plato’s pupil Aristotle had no qualms about  slavery, envisioning slaves as the ideal form of labor.

Rome was proud  of its agrarian roots. The best people were farm owners. The wealthy Piso family (Julius  Caesar’s  wife  was  a  Piso)  took  its  name from  the  pea, as testimony  to  the  claim  that  the Pisos  descended  from  proud  pea  farmers. According   to  the  Roman   historian  Livy,  when Rome  faced  a  crisis  and  needed  a  general,  the people called Cincinnatus from his field, which he had been plowing. Farmers grew grains, peas, lentils, olives for oil, and grapes for wine. They raised cattle,  sheep,  goats,  and  pigs.  Cato,  Columella, and  Varro  all  noted  the  importance of  growing legumes  in  rotation,  just  as  the   Chinese   had. Again, the debate  over slavery in Roman  agriculture has not been settled.

During   the  Republic,   the  peasant   army  conquered Italy and Sicily, North Africa, Egypt, Greece, the  Levant,  Turkey,  Spain,  and  France,  spreading the  plow  wherever   they  went.  Sicily and  Egypt emerged as Rome’s granary, making  it possible for the city to swell to 1 million inhabitants by the time of Jesus. Rome was doubtless  the largest city in the West and  a rival to any of China’s  great  cities. In Rome arose the practice  of grazing livestock at an elevation  in summer and in the lowlands  in winter. Serfdom   may   have   originated  during   the   late empire, when Emperors Diocletian and Constantine tied people and their  descendants to their  occupation. A family of farm laborers  would always farm. After Constantine legalized Christianity, the Church began   to   acquire   land   and,   according   to   one scholar,  used  slaves  to  farm  it.  During  the  late empire,   Rome   depended   increasingly   on  North Africa  in  addition to  Egypt  and  Sicily for  grain. Egypt  also  produced large  quantities of wine.  By the 5th century c.e., the Church  had bought  extensive landholdings in Egypt, so that  Egyptian  agriculture became less wedded to Rome, which was in decline. Yet small farmers  remained  in many areas in Late Antiquity.  Many  people  did not  own  land but worked  as tenants  or sharecroppers.

As in Greece  and  Rome,  China  experienced  a period   in  which  land   was  concentrated  in  the hands  of a few, making  the  majority  laborers  on large estates. The stress on farmers was extreme. Between  200   b.c.e.   and  1911,   China   recorded 1,800  famines, often from drought or insects. The central  government saw its role as a promoter of agriculture and  directed  the building  of irrigation canals and dikes. Like Rome, China  took  pride in its agrarian roots,  believing that  farmers  were the best and  most  virtuous  of all people,  a sentiment that U.S. presidents Thomas  Jefferson and Andrew Jackson  would  echo  centuries  later.  China considered  trade  far inferior  to farming  and counseled its peasants  not  to leave the countryside for life in  a  city  or  town.  During  the  Han  dynasty (206–20  c.e.), the population shifted south, coinciding  with  the  growing  importance of  rice. The Chinese pioneered  the use of plows with iron shares and may have been the first to use oxen to pull  the  plow.  The  north  was  sparsely  populated and  would  be  akin  to  the  west  in  U.S. history. People who wanted a new life went to the northern frontier  to  farm  without interference  from  large landlords. The Han,  having  arisen  from  the peasantry,  held agriculture in special  regard.  In many ways, ancient China represented a conflict between the farmworker and the rapacious landlord.

The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages witnessed  a decline in cities and towns, particularly in northern Europe. Nearly everyone farmed. During the Middle Ages, serfdom reached  its apogee. A warming  trend  in the early Middle Ages heightened  farm productivity. During this period,  it was possible to grow grapes even in England.   China   was  able  to  grow  citrus  fruits farther  north. The  Byzantine  Empire  encouraged farming  in Egypt, the Levant, Turkey,  and Greece, where grain, olives, and livestock remained important. The  Orthodox Church   and  the  state held half the arable  land.

Small-scale  production  characterized medieval agriculture. Nearly gone were the specialty markets for olive oil and wine, though  one must not forget that  many  monasteries were  renowned for  their wine. During the Middle Ages arose a partial  transition  from  grain  to  livestock.  The  Middle  Ages were not as static as some people suppose. Farmers developed the moldboard plow. The horse replaced the ox to pull the plow. The three-field  system put more  land  in production. In this  system,  farmers planted  a winter  crop  one  year,  planted  a spring crop the next, and fallowed  land the third year.

As the  Arabs  conquered Egypt,  North Africa, and  Spain,  they  brought Asian  crops  with  them. The Arabs introduced sugarcane,  sorghum,  durum wheat, rice, oranges, lemons, bananas, the plantain, coconut, eggplant, artichoke, spinach, and watermelon  to   the   Mediterranean  Basin.  The Arabs departed from the long-standing tradition of fallowing land. Instead, all land was cropped, a practice  that  boosted   aggregate  production. The Chinese  perfected  the process  of double  and  even triple cropping  of rice in the same year.

The Early Modern Era

The  early  modern   era  witnessed  the  decline  of serfdom in western Europe, while slavery recrudesced  in the Americas. The Little Ice Age of early   modernity  hindered   agricultural  development.  The  16th   century   was  a  period   of  crop failures  due  to  the  cold.  The  weather   doomed the   orange   groves   in  Jiangxi   Province   in  the 17th   century.   Cold   weather   caused   famine   in Russia between  1601  and 1604.  During  the Little Ice  Age,  European  farmers   grew  oats   and   rye because  they tolerated cold, though  wheat  is also cold  tolerant. By the  late  18th  century,  serfdom had declined in China. In Japan, the family was the unit of production. Japan expected each farm family to be self-sufficient. Japanese families traditionally divided land among their children, making smallholdings the rule. In the 18th century, Russian agriculture degenerated into serfdom.

The Columbian Exchange And The Rise  Of The  Plantation System

Among the momentous developments in history was the Italian Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus’s   discovery  of  the  Americas  in  1492, though  Columbus was never quite sure that he had discovered  a new  world.  The  Europeans and Africans  who  followed   Columbus introduced a large number of crops and livestock in the Americas, among  them  wheat,  barley, oats, rye, peas, lentils, chickpeas,   sugarcane,   coffee,  tea,   citrus   fruits, grapes, cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats, transforming American  agriculture. The Americas likewise gave the  Old  World  corn,  potatoes, tomatoes, beans, peanuts,  peppers,  cacao, and rubber.  Although  the exchange   may   appear   to   be  uneven,   one   can scarcely overstate  the importance of corn and potatoes to the Old World. Corn quickly became a staple in Europe, Asia, and Africa. The potato was the  staple  of northern Europe.  The  Irish  came  to subsist on it as their chief source of calories.

At the same time, a labor  shortage  arose in the Americas. Diseases nearly extirpated the Amerindians, and the whites were not eager to toil on someone  else’s land. In 1493,  Columbus introduced sugarcane  to the Caribbean, which became,  along  with  coffee,  the  plantation crop. Somehow,  Europeans had  to find people  to work these estates. African slaves filled the void, with horrendous consequences. Underfed and overworked, many succumbed  to early death. This form of slavery had a new and ugly feature: racism. Thanks  to the plantation complex,  whites  viewed blacks as inferior  in every way. The legacy of this thinking  is beyond  the  scope  of  this  entry;  it  is enough to say that racism harms blacks even today.

Portugal, Spain, Britain, France, and the Netherlands all profited  from  the slave trade.  The plantation economy took various guises, with sugarcane  and coffee in the Caribbean and tropical America,  spreading  as far north  as Louisiana  and, later, south  Florida.  By far, Brazil was the center of agricultural slavery. By 1580, Brazil supported more than  100  sugar  estates.  By the  mid-17th century, Britain  and  France  established  agricultural slavery in the Caribbean. So intensive was this system that the  blacks  far  outnumbered the  whites.  By 1780, Saint Domingue (now Haiti) had nearly 500,000 slaves. Cotton sank  roots  in the deep south.  Rice, almost  surely of African origin, took  hold in South Carolina and tobacco  in Maryland and Virginia.

The 19th  Century

By the 19th  century,  poverty  threatened to devour the  peasantry. While  the  German  economist  Karl Marx and the British economist Friedrich Engels concentrated on the plight of factory  workers,  the peasants   could  scarcely  keep  a  roof  over  their heads. Later, the communists Vladimir Lenin in Russia, Mao  Zedong  in China,  and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam  severely critiqued  the poverty  of small farmers. Governments made tepid gestures to farmers. Russia freed the serfs in 1861.  Four years later,  at the conclusion  of a civil war  fought  over slavery, the United States abolished  slavery, though one must remember  that the southern whites continued to oppress  black farmers.

At the same time that  governments struggled  to better the lives of the agricultural underclass, mechanization took hold, particularly in the United States. In the 1840s, the inventor Cyrus McCormick patented  a  horse-drawn  reaper.   By  the   1890s, horse-drawn  threshers   were  busy  on  the  Great Plains. In the early 20th century, the tractor revolutionized agriculture. With mechanization came  science. In the  1840s,  the  German  chemist Justus  von  Liebig  emphasized  the  importance of nitrogenous fertilizers.  In  Britain,  Germany,   and the  United  States,  governments spent  money  on agricultural science. The land grant complex was a great achievement in the United States, where Congress  founded  the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the land grant colleges, and the agricultural experiment stations.

In the Midwest, corn and soybean, a latecomer of the  Columbian exchange,  transformed agriculture, making  this  region  the  source  of feed. Cincinnati and, later, Chicago  emerged as the slaughterhouses of America.  To  the  west, the  Great  Plains  became one of the world’s leading producers of wheat. Although  bread  wheat  was  important, Minnesota and North Dakota began experimenting with durum wheat, a variety suitable for making pasta. California specialized  in  fruits  and  vegetables,  and  its  wines were  the  best  in  the  United  States.  The  amateur botanist Luther  Burbank  developed  more than  800 new plant varieties, the most celebrated being the Russet  Burbank  potato. He  became  so  renowned that the inventor Thomas Edison and the automaker Henry Ford made a pilgrimage to his estate.

Belgium established  rubber  plantations in the Congo,     brutally     abusing     the    farmworkers. The  Belgians  sometimes   raped   the  women   and killed  the  men. The  Polish  British  novelist  Joseph Conrad captured these horrors in his book Heart of Darkness.  Communism arose in Russia and Asia to uplift  poor  farmers,  though  the results  were inhumane.  Peanuts  and  cacao  were  widely  planted  in Africa, as was corn. Germany forced Tanzanian farmers to grow cotton. The British ensconced palm oil in the Congo and the Solomon Islands. The Netherlands forced  Indonesia  to  grow  sugarcane, indigo, and coffee. The extent  to which coffee was grown  on  the  Indonesian island  of Java  made  its name a byword  for coffee. Growing poppy in India, Britain hooked the Chinese on opium. In Latin America, bananas became an important cash crop.

The 20th  And 21st Centuries

Since the  1940s,  the  United  States  has  been  the world’s  leading  agricultural exporter. The  Green Revolution  from  about   1940   to  2000   made  it possible to avert a Malthusian crisis, if only in the short  term. Led by the U.S. agronomist and  plant pathologist Norman Borlaug, the Green Revolution boosted  yields in Asia and Latin America. Gains in Africa accrued  only after 1980.  India and Mexico were the foci of the Green Revolution in its early years.  Borlaug  and  his  colleagues,  learning  from the Japanese  experience, bred semi-dwarf  varieties of rice and  wheat  that  produced high  yields and whose short stalks did not lodge. These crops, however, rely heavily on fertilizers, making one wonder  how sustainable this system is.

Perhaps  nothing  so much as biotechnology has shaped the present and will shape the future of agriculture. The multinational firm Monsanto has pioneered  research in biotechnology, with the goal of  developing   crops  that   resist  insects,  diseases, and weeds. An early success was Bt corn. A bacterium  inserted  into  corn  cells created  a plant  that European corn borers, a serious pest, cannot  damage.  Monsanto’s recent  work  has  focused  on  its herbicide  Roundup. Because Roundup kills plants indiscriminately, it can be used on crops only with caution.  Monsanto surmounted this  problem  by bioengineering  crops that do not die when sprayed with Roundup. Farmers can grow Roundupresistant   corn,   soybean,   and   sugar   beets.   Yet Roundup has  hastened  the  evolution  of resistant weeds, so that  farmers  again face the old problem of weed competition.

Bibliography:

  1. Cumo, “Agriculture.” In The Encyclopedia of Africa and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History,  vol. 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2008.
  2. Cumo, “Advances  in Agriculture:  Cotton.” In Era 8: Crisis and Achievement, 1900–1945. Vol. 18 in World  History  Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011.
  3. Cumo, “Advances  in Agriculture:  Staple Crops.” In Era 8: Crisis and Achievement, 1900–1945. Vol. 18 in World  History  Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011.
  4. Cumo, Christopher. “Advances in Agriculture:  ” In Era 8: Crisis and Achievement, 1900–1945. Vol. 18 in World  History  Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011.
  5. Cumo, “Agriculture and Science.” In Era 7: The Age of Revolutions, 1750–1914. Vol. 15 in World History  Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011.
  6. Cumo, “Changes in Agricultural Technology.” In Era 7: The Age of Revolutions, 1750–1914. Vol. 15 in World  History  Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011.
  7. Cumo, “Agriculture, Small-Scale.” In Berkshire  Encyclopedia of Sustainability, vol. 7. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing, 2012.
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  9. Tauger, Mark  Agriculture  in World  History.  London: Routledge, 2011.

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