Agricultural revolution pt 1: The Neolithic

Lately, I’ve worked a lot with agricultural revolutions. I’d like to take a moment to talk about each of them in turn; why they were important and ultimately what their shortcomings were. Starting with the very first agricultural revolution: The Neolithic Revolution!

This happened over a long period, starting in 10.000 to 8.000 BC, and wasn’t characterized by a specific movement or event, but rather by a gradual change that occurred in many different ways all around the world.

It was the transition from a nomadic hunter/gatherer way of life to the agricultural and settled one. It was the dawn of the farmer, made possible and driven by the domestication of animals and plants.

Settlements and crops made for a steady way of life and a constant source of food, that allowed populations to grow, and indeed human culture itself to evolve. The close interaction with plants over generations allowed the people to learn the basics of agriculture, such as selective breeding and how to seed the fields.

Communities grew to greater sizes than ever before and to new intellectual heights. It was in short the foundation that modern cultures and countries were built upon.

But it was not without shortcomings.

The large populations were heavily reliant on the harvest succeeding. If it failed because of drought or pests, famine would claim the lives of large numbers of people. Such as The Great Famine of 1845 which caused a loss of between 20% and 25% of Ireland’s population to starvation and migration over a period of four years.

This way of life would last for about 12.000 years.

agricultural revolution

Agricultural revolution pt 2: The British and Industrialization

The second agricultural revolution, also known as the British Agricultural revolution started in Britain in the mid 17th century. It was caused by a number of improvements such as better plows and crop rotation, that while seemingly small, caused great changes when coupled with an increase in workforce and changes in policies from many small farms to few large farms.

Britain’s food production rose rapidly to be the highest in the world and as a result its population grew greatly from 5.5 million people in England and Wales in the early 18th century to 32 million during the 19th century. This population boom was especially prevalent in the larger cities. The increase of people living in urban areas laid the foundation of The Industrial Revolution.

In turn, The Industrial Revolution provided agriculture with mechanized tools, chemical pesticides and fertilizer. Working in tandem, the two revolutions greatly changed the world: Peace-time famines in the western world became a thing of the past as farmers had new ways to combat pests and droughts. Populations in Europe grew at a steady rate and infant mortality rate dropped as quality of life improved for the industrialized countries.

However, these improvements came at a price, which was mostly paid by nature as pesticides and fertilizers polluted the ecosystem and the groundwater, and hurt biodiversity greatly, also impacting human health. Many of these effects would take long to be recognized and rectified, and substances such as DDT, which was highly carcinogenic and had an adverse effect on wildlife and biodiversity would remain in use for decades.

The revolution had brought with it a number of great improvements for Europe and a number of problems. It would be a while before these were addressed and the improvements made their way to the outside world.

agricultural revolution

Agricultural revolution pt. 3: The Green

The Third Agricultural Revolution, “The Green Revolution” came about in the 1960s. Unlike the previous two revolutions which were gradual processes with no clear “parent”, this one is recognized as having been fathered by the American agronomist Norman Borlaug.

Borlaug’s methods were developed when he worked on overhauling the Mexican food production. Under his guidance, Mexico moved from importing half its wheat in 1943 to exporting 500,000 tons a year in 1964.

The Green Revolution was a “package of practices” including newly bred high-yield crops, management structures, irrigation, agro-chemicals, machines, and pesticides. All of which were adopted instead of traditional methods. It was in short the start of farming as we know it today.

For his work, Borlaug would later receive a Nobel prize and is credited with saving one billion people from starvation.

Despite the stunning successes of The Green Revolution, it is at this time that we must mention that the word “Green” isn’t used to convey ” environmentally sensible” as we associate it with today (it was as opposed to the Red, Communist Revolution), which underlies its shortcomings:

The use of pesticides and the substances used had greatly improved compared to earlier practices, but it has become clear that our agriculture still is unsustainable. It has been reported that in some places as much as 80% of insect biodiversity has disappeared over the last three decades and that 90% of tested women and children have pesticides in their urine.

Where the past revolutions have been great benefits for humans, they haven’t been so for nature. The next revolution will be the one that creates benefits for both.

agricultural revolution

Agricultural revolution pt 4: The Future is Smart

We’ve reached the fourth revolution. There’s no consensus name for it, but let’s call it The Smart Revolution for now. It has its roots in the 1950s, where the concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), was first introduced. It revolves around the key concept of economic threshold: Pests are allowed to live on the crops, so long as they don’t damage them too much. This is based on pest species and how much it would cost to combat them versus how much economic damage they are likely to cause. The benefits of the method are minimal pesticide usage, minimal impact on non-pest species, and minimal risk of resistant pests, all the while considering the economic impact on the farmer.

It’s a great idea, but it is labor-intensive. On large farms, it often simply becomes too costly a task to effectively monitor the plants and differentiate between which patches are to be treated and which are not.

The smart revolution

This is what The Smart Revolution will change. The use of the word “Smart” isn’t (just) a shameless plug, it refers to the rise of smart machines such as Drones that monitor fields and map pests, as well, as smart pesticide delivery systems that differentiate the amount of applied pesticide on a plant to plant basis.

Many of these technologies have already been implemented in the agricultural industry, so why hasn’t the revolution already happened?

The pros must outweigh the cons. Currently, each of the new technologies is not interconnected. Therefore, the analysis of each of the systems individually and in relation to each other simply takes too much effort. There needs to be an intermediate system that collects the data into one source.

This leaves us where we are today. Right on the brink of the next great change in agricultural practices that will provide us with sustainability as we move forward. That’s why we say “the future is smart”.

written by

Oluf Sonne Georg, MSc in Molecular & Cell Biology
former Communication Specialist @ Fauna Smart Technologies

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