The Primacy of Yields and Modern Agriculture

Just as the Neolithic revolution was critical to obtaining higher amounts of food per hectare per year than in hunter-gatherer societies, the scientific and capitalist revolutions of seventeenth-century Europe were key events that shaped a complex series of changes in agriculture and all other human industries. From science and capitalism came both the methods and motives for constructing new methods of wheat production. For wheat breeders, the intertwining of science and capitalism created a context in which yields were the fundamental question of their discipline.

Inquiring into the specific origins of the importance of yields to plant breeders, however, is very much like asking about the origins of modern industrial societies in general. No one person, event, country, scientific idea, or technological innovation can be identified as the "source." No one date can be advanced as "the time" after which higher yields were clearly identified as the major objective of plant breeders. Nor can improvement of yields be identified as the sole product of plant breeders rather than other sorts of agricultural improvers. Instead, the importance of yield has to be seen as a concept that emerged over a long period, at least 200 years, and in a complex array of specific contexts, "caused" by an even more intricate network of interacting factors. Indeed, the fact that physical yields of crops could be increased by plant breeders and others became an integral part of that complex of interacting factors.

Between the Neolithic agricultural revolution and a.d. 1200, farming people probably improved the yields of cereals and other crops by selecting better individuals to save for seed and by improving other farming practices. We can make only approximate estimates, however, on the yields they obtained and the magnitudes of improvements achieved. A variety of estimates suggest that, without manure or fallowing, returns for planting wheat may drop as low as three units harvested for one unit planted. Both fallowing and manuring, however, can yield substantial returns of over fifteen to one. Neolithic yields of wheat may have seldom dropped below 400 kilograms per hectare and more likely were in the area of 800 kilograms per hectare in a climate like England's.39

The first improvements known with more certainty in historic times involve more intensive farming practices. One of the best documented innovations was the switch from the two-field system to the three-field system, a transition that took from the eighth to the twelfth centuries in Western and central Europe. The three-field rotation system allowed an increase in crop production of 50 percent for the same amount of plowing labor invested.40 In addition, two-thirds of the cropland used yielded a crop each year rather than just one-half. Yields of wheat from a.d. 1200 to 1700 in England under the three-field system ranged from about 500 to 1000 kilograms per hectare (446-892 pounds/acre; 7-15 bu/a).41

With a bit of oversimplification, therefore, we can argue that although significant changes in farming occurred between the Neolithic revolution and about 1700, these changes were not of a magnitude to move the mean yields of wheat in England above 1000 kilograms per hectare in good years. Peoples' abilities to get wheat from the land were enhanced by better plows, use of animals for traction, and learning how to use land more frequently (two years out of three instead of one year out of two). Output of wheat and other crops per hour of labor invested undoubtedly went up, especially with the use of animals for traction of tools, but the overwhelming majority of people lived in rural areas and agriculture was the basis of most peoples' lives. England, for example, had over 86 percent of its people living in settlements of fewer than 10,000 people in 1700.42 Agriculture was also the main basis for the economies of all people all over the world. It's not as though nothing happened between the Neolithic revolution starting in about 7000 b.c. and a.d. 1700, but in many ways a person from a.d. 1700 might feel much more at home in 7000 b.c. than she or he would feel in a.d. 1900.

In barest outline, a series of events in agriculture and in other areas of human endeavor occurred between 1600 and 1900, and as a consequence the nature of human life changed fundamentally. Cause-and-effect linkages between the different events are still hotly debated by scholars, but it is easy to list some of the more prominent features of the changes:

• People learned how to get more food from a given piece of land each year. Average yields of wheat in England went from between 500 and 1000 kilograms per hectare per year in 1600 to about 1400 kilograms per hectare in 18004' to somewhat less than 3000 kilograms per hectare per year by I860.44 Particularly high rates of annual increases in yield occurred between 1660 and 174045 and then again between 1820 and I860.46

• Rates of human population increase moved markedly upward in England after 1740.47 The human population had been increasing on a global basis since the

Neolithic, but seldom at a rate to cause doubling of the human population in fewer than seven centuries. In many years, declines occurred, often severe. After 1740, however, England's population grew at a rate that caused doubling in just over a century. Debate surrounds the issue of whether agricultural yields kept pace with this population increase during the period 1740-1800, but in the years after 1800 the agricultural yield increases on a global basis were more than commensurate with population-level increases.

People moved to cities and began a wide range of economically productive activities other than agriculture. In many ways it is a toss-up as to whether this resettlement pattern should be called an "industrial revolution" or an "urbanization revolution," but no doubt attends the notion that the switch from predominantly rural populations to predominantly urban ones was of fundamental importance to how people lived.

England clearly was the paramount pioneer in this urban-industrial venture, but one could not predict this by looking at England's population in 1500 compared with other places in Europe. In that year England had 3.2 percent of its people living in towns of more than 10,000 people, but Europe as a whole had 6.1 percent urban populations. France had fourteen towns with populations over 20,000, while England had only London at that size. In 1500 both Paris and Lyon were larger than London. Nevertheless, the rate of urban growth in England jumped to higher levels after 1500, and by 1800 England was 24 percent urban compared with about 10 percent for Europe as a whole, except England.48 England was also the clear leader in manufacturing and industry.

Land use and land control underwent a dramatic shift from predominantly arable fields with common woods and meadows for livestock and firewood to enclosed fields for raising sheep or cereals and other crops. Significant enclosures were made before 1600, but virtually all England came under enclosure in the century beginning in 1750. Common lands essential to the subsistence living of peasants became part of estates run with technologies and practices that could produce higher yields of wheat, other crops, and livestock.

New farm practices won acceptance over a wide area of England after 1600, and by 1800 almost all farms had moved to the methods that increased yields. Probably the most well known of these innovations involved the use of turnips to provide fodder for livestock, clover to supply nitrogen to cereal crops, and a four-field rotation system that integrated the production of livestock with turnips, clover, and cereals. The three-field system relied on fallowing for a year to restore soil fertility. Four-field systems eliminated fallowing and permitted production on all fields every year. Fertility was maintained by the clover and the manure from livestock. In addition, new machines such as seed drills and cultivators gave better seeding and weeding with less labor. In sum, the set of new technologies increased yields of wheat and other crops both per hectare and per person-hour of labor involved. That they were known in theory and practice long before they became commonly used in England demonstrates that mere knowledge of the new practices was not sufficient to promote their adoption.

Climatic changes led to increasingly warm weather after 1700, a factor that was conducive to higher and perhaps more reliable yields in agriculture. As the "Little Ice Age" of 1550-1700 receded, wheat yields may have received a boost from the warmer temperatures.49 Higher and more reliable yields may have created an atmosphere of trust in nature, or a sense that nature did what people wanted. Higher yields from the same amount of human labor could have supported more people, some of whom did not farm but lived in towns and cities. • Not only were people changing their residence and ways of making a living; a small cadre of thinkers were also changing the mental constructs with which people saw the world and economic activity. Shifts in worldviews were not the exclusive preserve of philosophers from England, but the following list suggests something of the magnitude of what was involved:50

— Francis Bacon of England celebrated science and experimentation as the way to control nature for human interests.

— René Descartes from France outlined a theory of a mechanical universe and a mechanical man.

— Thomas Hobbes of England deduced from Cartesian mechanical philosophy the need for a powerful, hierarchical central government that would keep people from killing each other.

— John Locke of England softened the dictatorial harshness of Hobbes and argued for a democracy of property holders who owned and traded land for money.

— Isaac Newton of England created a model of a mechanical universe whose laws could be expressed mathematically.

— Adam Smith of Scotland outlined a theory of Newtonian-like natural laws about how economic markets work and why feudal and mercantile policies should be abandoned.

What we can now see that was created by these philosophers was an integrated ideology of capitalism and modem science. It is not that capitalism was consciously created as a part of science or vice versa, but thinking about markets and science rested upon a number of common concepts:

Natural laws govern both markets and the natural world; philosophers learn to control nature by articulating natural laws, and capitalists use these laws to forge an economy.

The material world is dead and without sacred or vital spirit; for the natural philosopher there is only atomistic matter in motion, while the capitalist sees commodities for trading.

Science is the handmaiden for controlling nature for the benefit of people and for the prosperity of industry.

The concepts of individual rights and self-interest make it laudable that the philosopher thinks and the capitalist pursues profit.

Ever-expanding knowledge allows the philosopher to predict and control an ever-expanding realm in the natural world, and the capitalist uses knowledge to bring an ever-expanding sphere of human activity into a form of commodities fit for trading and profit.

Production of agricultural goods for market created incentives for increasing production levels per hectare per year. New technologies from the industrial revolution, particularly for the making of metal tools, created possibilities for increasing agricultural yields, both per hectare and per hour of human labor invested. Markets that helped engineer the exchange of land, labor, commodities, and capital spurred on an entrepreneurial and technical spirit that could lead to greater production efficiencies in English agriculture. Higher production efficiencies, in turn, could feed into an ever-growing economy by either "freeing up" or "pushing out" labor from agriculture into the new factory system, thus creating further incentives for producing more agricultural produce from less land and less human labor.

Populations could grow, and more people would find their livelihood in the cities. More people freed from agriculture also gave the wherewithal for expansion of European systems in other parts of the world. The growing global capitalist economy provided the incentive for seizing control of land anywhere it could be found and conquered. The nation-state that built social relationships on markets, highly productive agriculture, and industrial capitalism was in a powerful position to dictate its will to people everywhere.

It was in England where all these factors interacted in a way to consolidate a system in which increased agricultural productivities could serve the needs and interests of those at the top of a new market capitalist society. And it was in England where the advantages of new modes of agricultural production shaped the objectives of a new agricultural science.

In contrast to the farming peasantry of continental Europe, India, and the Americas, English farmers were the first to face and exploit a situation that encouraged and possibly demanded a search for higher efficiencies. These efficiencies were for both increased yields per hectare per year and increased yields per hour of human labor invested. The demands for efficiency affected all crops, but the demands for cereal crops such as wheat provide a useful focus for tracing how the demands were met.

Growing Soilless

Growing Soilless

This is an easy-to-follow, step-by-step guide to growing organic, healthy vegetable, herbs and house plants without soil. Clearly illustrated with black and white line drawings, the book covers every aspect of home hydroponic gardening.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment