Agricultural Revolutions

No other invention has changed the course of humanity like agriculture. Thousands of years ago, humans first started growing crops, freeing us from depending on wild plants and animals for food. Since then, agriculture has undergone a series of revolutions, each bringing about exciting new techniques and advances to provide more sustenance for the world. Let us explore more about what agricultural revolutions are and their impacts on the planet.

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    Agricultural Revolution Definition

    When we talk about 'revolutions,' we mean an event that suddenly and dramatically changed life in some way. In politics, revolutions bring about significant changes in who has power. Regarding agriculture, revolutions are a series of inventions or discoveries that dramatically shift how we cultivate plants and raise animals.

    Agricultural Revolution: The name for a series of shifts in human culture and practices that allowed for the invention and improvement of farming, including crop cultivation and animal husbandry.

    The agricultural revolutions humans have gone through never happened very suddenly—there was never a "storming of the Bastille" moment like there was in the French Revolution. Instead, a series of inventions and techniques slowly spread over decades or centuries that collectively revolutionised agriculture. Several historical events are referred to as agricultural revolutions, and today we'll review the three most recognised and significant of them.

    First Agricultural Revolution

    Tens of thousands of years ago, humans lived off the land in what's known as hunter-gather societies, taking what they could find and moving around in search of new food sources. Humans relied entirely on wild plants and animals, limiting how much the population could grow and where humans could live. The First Agricultural Revolution, also known as the Neolithic Revolution, led humans out of this cycle of nomadism and dependence on the wild. Beginning about 10,000 years BC, humans started growing crops and settling down in one place, no longer needing to be in a constant quest for new food supplies.

    No singular reason exists for what spurred the First Agricultural Revolution, but the most accepted explanation is that the end of the last ice age and subsequent change in climate meant more plants could be cultivated. Researchers know that agriculture first started in an area of West Asia known as the fertile crescent. Eventually, humans figured out they could replicate the natural growth process of plants and domesticate wild animals.

    Agricultural revolution Ancient Egyptian plough StudySmarterFig. 1 - Ancient Egyptian artwork of cows pulling a plough, circa 1200 BC

    With these inventions came the very first cities, as societies concentrated around where farms existed. The critical result of the First Agricultural Revolution was an abundance of food. This abundance meant people could take up new trades outside of simply looking for food and farming. It's no surprise that other inventions like writing also happened around this time.

    Second Agricultural Revolution

    The thousands of years after agriculture was first invented brought about steady improvements in how humans farmed, like the plough, and changes to how farmland was owned and managed. The next major revolution started in the mid-1600s, now known as the Second Agricultural Revolution or British Agricultural Revolution. Driven by new inventions and ideas by British thinkers like Jethro Tull and Arthur Young, the amount of food grown reached unprecedented levels.

    The British Agricultural Revolution is considered the foundational moment of modern agriculture—most inventions and techniques adopted then are still widely used today. By the end of the British Agricultural Revolution in the 19th century, the population of England, Scotland, and Wales had more than tripled owing to the abundance of food.

    Agricultural revolution Steel plough StudySmarterFig. 2 - Improvements to farm equipment like the plough were a key part of the Second Agricultural Revolution

    The event also coincided with the Industrial Revolution, with both having a symbiotic relationship. New industrial technologies increased agricultural yields, and a more significant, non-farm labour force enabled industrialisation. With farms becoming more productive owing to new technology and farming techniques, fewer people were required to work in agriculture. This led to more people moving to cities searching for work, a process called urbanisation.

    Third Agricultural Revolution

    Most recently, the Third Agricultural Revolution, also known as the Green Revolution, brought about significant changes to agriculture. Of all the revolutions, this one happened over the shortest amount of time, spanning from the 1940s to the 1980s, but some changes from the Green Revolution are still making their way to developing countries today. The key innovations spurring the Third Agricultural Revolution were the cross-breeding of crops and the development of more effective agrochemicals. This revolution began with experiments undertaken in Mexico to create a higher-yielding variety of wheat and soon spread to different crops around the world. Overall, the result of this revolution was a huge boost in the amount of food available worldwide, which reduced hunger and poverty.

    However, the benefits of the Third Agricultural Revolution haven't been equally felt. Some less-developed countries still don't have equal access to agrochemicals and newer farming equipment, so they don't have as high yields as they could. The boom in industrial farming stemming from the revolution has also led to smaller family farmers being unable to compete and struggling as a result.

    Causes and Effects of Agricultural Revolutions

    Next, let's overview the causes and effects of the three different agricultural revolutions.

    RevolutionCauseEffect
    First (Neolithic) Agricultural RevolutionA shift in climate enabling the cultivation of a variety of crops. Discovery of animal domestication.Birth of agriculture, surplus in food. Humans began staying in one place resulting in the first cities. Humans started undertaking different tasks and jobs besides simply searching for and growing food.
    Second (British) Agricultural RevolutionSeries of inventions, reforms, and new farming techniques in Britain in the 17th to 19th centuries.Massive boost in farming productivity resulting in a population boom. Increased urbanisation and industrialisation.
    Third Agricultural Revolution (Green Revolution)Development of higher-yield crop varieties, more effective fertilisers and pesticides.Widespread adoption of agrochemical use and even greater crop yields. Reduction in poverty and hunger worldwide. Concerns about industrialised farming and less access to agricultural technology in LDCs.

    Finally, we'll discuss significant inventions stemming from the various agricultural revolutions.

    Agricultural Revolutions Inventions

    Invention and innovations were the driving force behind the three agricultural revolutions; without them, humans would still be hunting and gathering.

    Domestication of Animals

    Domesticated animals are a vital food source worldwide, either through their meat or products like milk. Among the first domesticated animals were dogs, which were essential companions for hunting and later for managing herds of other animals like sheep. Goats, sheep, and pigs were other early-domesticated animals, providing sources of food and clothing for humans. Later on, domesticating cattle and horses meant new farming implements like ploughs could be more easily pulled, creating greater efficiency in farming. Other domestic animals like cats play a role in keeping pests such as mice away from crops and animal pens.

    Crop Rotation

    If a singular plant is used on the same area of land over and over, soil eventually loses nutrients and its ability to grow crops wanes. The solution is crop rotation, meaning planting different crops over time. An important version of this developed during the British Agricultural Revolution called Norfolk Four Field Crop Rotation. By planting a different crop each year and in different growing seasons, farmers avoided having a fallow season, a period in which nothing could be grown. The system also allowed for a piece of farmland to be used as pasture for some time, helping relieve the stress of needing to feed livestock. Worldwide, variations of crop rotation exist to preserve soil nutrition and create the most productive agricultural land possible.

    Plant Breeding

    Another critical invention stemming from the various agricultural revolutions is plant breeding. In its most basic form, farmers pick seeds from plants that have the most desirable characteristics and choose to plant those ones. This practice goes back to the First Agricultural Revolution but has improved with time.

    Imagine you're a farmer trying to collect seeds from wild wheat to grow some yourself. In front of you are a series of wheat plants; some look dry and have produced little seeds, while others look fine even though it hasn't rained for quite some time. You choose the seeds from the healthier plants to grow your crops. Over the years, you repeat this with your own crops so that they are as resistant to drought as possible.

    Today through the advent of genetic modification, scientists have, in effect, accelerated this process and can create plants with specific traits like being resistant to disease or growing as quickly as possible.

    Agrochemicals

    Every plant requires a set of nutrients to grow. The key ones are nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, all of which are present in nature. By artificially producing these nutrients in the form of fertilisers, farmers have accelerated the growing process and allowed more plants to be grown in a year than otherwise would be possible. Another essential type of agrochemical is pesticides. Plants face various natural threats from animals, insects, germs, and even other plants.

    Agricultural revolution Crop sprayer StudySmarterFig. 3 - A modern crop-spraying vehicle spraying agrochemicals onto a field

    Pesticides aim to cover the plant in a substance that doesn't harm the crop itself but prevents other pests from attacking it. While agrochemicals have been vital in allowing so much food to grow today, there are concerns about environmental and human health stemming from their usage too.

    Agricultural Revolutions - Key takeaways

    • Throughout history, three significant changes in how we farm changed the world dramatically and are known as agricultural revolutions.
    • The First Agricultural Revolution created farming as we know it over 12000 years ago and essentially ended the era of hunting and gathering.
    • The Second Agricultural Revolution (British Agricultural Revolution) dramatically increased crop yields and allowed a population boom in Britain and elsewhere.
    • The Third Agricultural Revolution (Green Revolution) is the most recent agricultural revolution and brought about the widespread adoption of agrochemicals and cross-breeding of plants.

    References

    1. Fig. 2: Steel plough (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Steel_plough,_Emly.jpg) by Sheila1988 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Sheila1988) is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    2. Fig. 3: Crop sprayer (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lite-Trac_Crop_Sprayer.jpg) by Lite-Trac (https://lite-trac.com/) is licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Agricultural Revolutions

    When was the Agricultural Revolution?

    The First Agricultural Revolution, also known as the Neolithic Revolution, happened about 12,000 years ago when humans began cultivating plants and raising domesticated animals in large numbers.

    What was the Second Agricultural Revolution?

    Sometimes known as the British Agricultural Revolution, the Second Agricultural Revolution was a series of inventions and reforms between the 17th and 19th centuries which significantly improved the productivity of farming.

    When was the Second Agricultural Revolution?

    While there are no specific dates, it was roughly between the mid-1600s to late 1800s.

    What was the Third Agricultural Revolution?

    Beginning in the 1940s, the Third Agricultural Revolution, also known as Green Revolution, were an array of improvements in plant breeds and agrochemicals resulting in a huge boom in crop yields and a reduction of hunger worldwide.

    Why is the development of agriculture called a revolution?

    Changes in agriculture have had radical changes on human society throughout history. They resulted in the invention of the first cities, allowed for industrialization, and caused the human population to grow massively. Owing to these astounding changes, periods of agricultural development are sometimes called revolutions.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which technological advances were crucial for the Third Agricultural Revolution (Green Revolution)?

    In which part of the world did agriculture first originate?

    Which of the following describes the Neolithic or First Agricultural Revolution?

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