For most of human history, we were hunter-gatherers. And then, about 10,000 years ago, we began to domesticate plants and animals as a way to make our food supply more accessible and predictable. In many ways, the birth of agriculture can be defined as the moment we stopped chasing our food and started raising it.
As humans have advanced agriculture, agriculture has reshaped human civilization. For the most part, these changes have been good ones. But as we enter a new era of human history, agriculture faces new challenges and new responsibilities.
The origins of agriculture
Without a time machine, it’s impossible to know the exact date on which the first human held a seed in his or her hand and thought: “If I plant this in the ground, I’ll know exactly where to find food in a few months.”
What we do know is that sometime around 8,500 BC, humans in the Fertile Crescent (an area that stretches through modern-day Egypt, Israel, Turkey and Iraq) slowly started to plant grains, instead of gathering them in the wild.
By 7,000 BC, they also began to domesticate animals such as sheep, pigs and goats. A thousand years later, they domesticated cattle.
Before the advent of agriculture, humans were nomadic, traveling constantly in search of wild animals and grain. With the rise of agriculture as a predictable, centralised source of food, they suddenly had an incentive to stay put. Cities began to form.
In this way, agriculture began to change not only the human diet, but human civilisation as well.
Over the next 8,500 years, agriculture evolved relatively slowly. Through trial and error, farmers around the world began to breed better plants.
They naturally noticed that not all plants within a species were the same. Some grew larger, tasted better or were easier to grind into meal. They simply began to save seeds from the best plants and sow them for the next year’s harvest.
Over hundreds of generations, this led to the transformation of wild plants into the larger, tastier grains and vegetables we know today.
During the Bronze and Iron Ages, stone and wooden tools were replaced by stronger, more efficient metal tools. However, farming remained a time- and labor-intensive pursuit that involved nearly 80% of the world’s population.
The agricultural revolution
From 800 to 1400 A.D., the tools of farming remained essentially unchanged. The early colonists in North America used plows that were no different or better than the plows used during the Roman Empire.
Then suddenly, during the 18th and 19th centuries, agricultural innovation exploded. Plow design was improved and an Englishman named Jethro Tull invented the world’s first seed drill, a device that allowed seeds to be planted quickly in neat, straight rows. Horse-drawn, mechanized harvesting equipment—like Cyrus McCormick’s reaper—quickly followed.
Farmers could now plant and harvest in a fraction of the time is used to take them. Agricultural productivity soared.
During the 20th century, gasoline-powered machines began to replace traditional, horse-drawn equipment. This, combined with advancements in fertiliser and pesticide technology after World War II, allowed agricultural productivity to take another leap forward.
The new technological efficiencies meant farmers could manage more land. Over time, this led to fewer, larger farms. For developed countries, it also led to a shift in the labour force. In the United States, for example, the percentage of the workforce engaged in farming dropped from 40% (in 1900), to just 2% (in 2000).
Because fewer of us lived on farms, it became easier to forget how crops were grown, processed and shipped. In the more developed countries, at least, food became an abundant, affordable commodity that came from “somewhere else.”
Between 1900 and 2012, the world’s population grew from 1.6 billion to more than 7 billion. In 1700, only 7% of the earth’s surface was used for agriculture. Today it is more than 40%. And only a portion of the land that is left is currently suitable for growing crops.
Clearly, agriculture is at a crossroads. The world needs to produce more food than ever before, while conserving the limited resources we have available. Where we go from here will require the ingenuity and cooperation of farmers, companies, governments, universities and citizens alike.