Industrialization and the New Science of Variations

Industrial revolution, first in England and then elsewhere, is generally depicted as a complex set of changes in technology, economics, and politics. Without doubt, political economic changes during this period were stupendous and unprecedented. What should not be overlooked, however, is that industrial revolution also resulted in a fundamental shift in human ecology. Prior to industrialization, most people lived in small rural villages or on isolated farmsteads. Virtually all members of the laboring part of the population worked directly in food production. Only a tiny minority worked outside of agriculture or lived in cities. After industrialization, an increasing portion of the population lived in cities and worked at tasks other than agricultural production.

Chapter 2 has traced some of the shifts in population to cities as industrial and commercial activities increased. It was not until the nineteenth century, however, that the political consequences of the shifts became clear. In many ways the most important symbol of change was repeal in 1846 of the British Corn Laws, a substantial tariff barrier to the free import of wheat and other grains from 1815 to 1846.4 These Corn Laws protected English wheat growers, who could not produce grain as cheaply as it could be grown in other parts of Europe and, increasingly, in North America. For the landed interests of England, the Corn Laws were a route to preserving their traditional bastions of power and privilege in a political economy that saw urban commercial and industrial interests steadily eclipsing the old feudal power systems based on landownership in the countryside.5

Owners of factories and pillars of the commercial community saw the Corn Laws simply as a way to keep bread expensive to benefit landlords and farmers. They, however, wanted cheap bread in order to keep wages to their workers low. After years of bitter division, their representatives formed the Anti-Corn Law League in 1839 in Manchester. Duties came down in 1842 and, under the conditions of famine in Ireland, were phased out starting in 1846.6

Repeal of the Corn Laws resulted in a short-term decrease in wheat prices in England, but other factors intervened to stave off for about twenty years a permanent decline. Transport technologies were not entirely adequate to bring in large quantities of grain on a regular basis. In addition, outbreak of war in America and the Crimea served to preserve a steady domestic market for English wheat growers. In fact, repeal of the Corn Laws was followed by investment by British landowners and farmers in such practices as field drainage systems, new buildings, and fertilizers. Their grain production remained profitable, and for the period of about 1850 to 1870 England enjoyed a "golden age" of agriculture.7

Prosperity unraveled after 1870 as railroad and shipping technologies made it ever cheaper to import grains from abroad, especially from North America. Bad weather and livestock diseases exacerbated the situation in the late 1870s.8 England moved from importing one-fifth of her wheat in 1841 to three-fourths by the early 1900s.9 At the same time, rising incomes and changing tastes led to a pronounced shift in preference for bread wheats rather than barley, oats, rye, and other crops as the staple of British diets.10 High yields of wheat in England were still possible on physical and biological grounds, but no English bread wheats could compete freely with foreign bread wheats. England became a land of grazing and dairying, not of cereal production, and labor left agriculture in ever larger numbers.11

Not only did repeal of the Corn Laws alter the rural landscape and economy of England; their absence also created another situation that was symbolically of highest importance to the shape and content of future farming economies and their need for particular types of scientific expertise. When wheat, the foundation of the English food supply, became simply one more commodity to be traded freely in a world market, attachment to the notion of food self-sufficiency from the nearby region was undermined. Capitalist markets would now be the arbiters for how much wheat would be produced, where, and for what price it would be sold. A farmer who wanted to survive in this market had to produce wheat for less money than the market would pay for it. Differences between production costs and selling prices became the supreme arbiter of a farmer's skill and fortune.

Repeal of the Corn Laws thus symbolized a major junction in the long transition from farming as a means of local self-sufficiency to farming as simply another commercial enterprise. Producers of basic commodities, first in England and eventually everywhere, increasingly had to come to grips with production for profit in a highly competitive global market. Yield of the right type of crop was the primary means to achieving low production costs in relation to market prices, and growers slowly came to learn of their dependence upon plant breeders and other agricultural scientists to get the best differentials possible. Higher yields at lower costs were key to economic survival.

It is worth inquiring at this juncture whether repeal of the Corn Laws was the only important factor in making yields primary. The short answer to this question is no, for reasons that emerged at several points in Chapter 2 and will continue to appear as the narrative moves on to the remarkable transformation of wheat yields between 1940 and 1980. Other factors also affected whether or not an individual grower was under pressure to maximize yields, including expansion of wheat production into new lands, expansion of the human population, and mechanization of agriculture. In fact, the political squabble in Britain over whether wheat should be freely imported from abroad was a battle that could be fought only because new wheat lands were being farmed abroad, generally by an expanded population of people of European ancestry, who used new laborsaving technology. It was this complex of factors that created the conditions for the ascendancy of yield as one of the best ways for a farmer to ensure that selling prices of wheat were greater than production costs.

Expansion of population and of the area planted in wheat were closely linked processes in the nineteenth century. From 1800 to 1900, the European population increased from about 180 million people to about 390 million, a rate of increase far in advance of any other group of people on earth.12 This "population explosion" went hand in hand with another change: expansion of the wheat-growing lands by millions of hectares within a short period of time in North America, South America, and Australasia.

Expansion of population and of wheat area interacted to produce a complex signal to individual wheat growers about their need to maximize yields. Expansion of population meant that more people needed to eat and that more people were available to farm new lands. Extra people eating expanded the market demand for wheat, which, in turn, could be met by the production on new wheat lands. So long as the new lands were of the right size to provide for the new people, little change in wheat-growing practices or in wheat markets would occur. For two major reasons, however, the ways in which both the cultivated area and population expanded were such that severe competition fell on all wheat growers in both old and new lands.

First, only some growers were actually in a position to cultivate larger amounts of land in wheat. One or more of four conditions had to be met for an individual farmer to expand area: (1) the land was on the farm already, just not used (e.g., it might have been wooded), (2) the land was on the farm already and used for another crop that could be eliminated, (3) the farmer was on a "frontier" adjacent to land that could be appropriated easily, or (4) the farmer was willing to pick up and move a substantial distance to a new frontier. Farmers who could not meet one of these four conditions and who wanted to grow more wheat were left only with improvement of yields per hectare as a way to increase production. Even farmers who could expand, however, were not immune to pressures to increase yields.

Second, it was the European population that exploded in the 1800s, and it was the European expatriates who were most responsible for expanding the land area given to wheat during that century. Over 50 million people, the largest migration ever in human existence, left Europe to settle in what historian Alfred W. Crosby called the Neo-Europes: the temperate regions of the Americas, Australasia, and Eurasia.13 This exodus began in a small way in the sixteenth century, but it was not until the nineteenth that it reached its peak. As a result, the North American prairies, the Argen tine pampas, Australia, and, for a short period, British India became immense granaries that supplied ever-increasing amounts of wheat to a burgeoning population of Europeans and Neo-Europeans.

As a result of unequal access to new lands, some wheat producers were "left behind" on the old, settled wheat lands of Europe while others took up business on the new lands. Economic and cultural links between the Neo-Europes and Europe, however, were such that producers in the new wheat lands needed to trade with Europe. For most of the nineteenth century, and even beyond, however, the only products in abundance in the Neo-Europes were wheat and other agricultural commodities. Once transport links were cheap enough, the Neo-Europeans naturally worked to sell their goods in Europe.

If land had not been plentiful in the Neo-Europes, if transport had not been cheap enough, or if the Neo-European populations had been large enough to consume the grain they raised, then no massive amounts of wheat would ever have been sent back to Europe to compete with European farmers. Unfortunately for European farmers, these conditional assumptions were not true. As a result, the grain harvests in the Neo-Europes were sufficiently large and cheap that farmers everywhere, both in Europe and elsewhere, entered a phase of intense competition on a world grain market of limited demand compared with supplies after about 1870.

In order to better understand this competition, we now explore two of its major features: the excess of land given to wheat and the advent of laborsaving machinery. These two factors were the foundations upon which was built a receptivity for knowledge about how to increase yields per hectare. Increasing yields was a critical weapon for farmers in Europe and was the cornerstone for receptivity to the Darwin-Mendelian theory of variation and its use in an applied science of plant breeding.

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