Economics: Agriculture

Figure 1.--Civilization first appeared in the great river vallies with the development of agriculture in the great river vallies. Here trendous yields could be achieved with the most basic technology. Agriculturev beyond the river vallies required a greater level of technology. Agriculture until the Industrial Revolution contiunued to be was the primary source of wealth in human society.

All of the early civilizations of the ancient world developed in river valleys where conditiins were most appropriate for settled agriculture. The same pattern occurred in Tigris-Euphrates, Nile, Yellow, and Indus Rivers. It was here that early hunter gatheres first settled down and began to grow and husband crops innsettled communities. Many of these crops have had profond consquences on humnan culture and society. Human agriculture used the native plants in these river valleys and as a result the crops varied from one civilization to another. Gradually plants were imported from distant regions. Agriculture provided both food and raw material for textiles. One food crop, the potato, was imported from the Americas as a result of the Spanish conquests and had a profound impact on European society including making the industrial revolution possivle. Another plant, cotton, played a major role in the industrial revolution.

Ancient Civilizations

All of the early civilizations of the ancient world developed in river valleys where conditiins were most appropriate for settled agriculture. The same pattern occurred in Tigris-Euphrates, Nile, Yellow, and Indus Rivers. It was here that early hunter gatheres first settled down and began to grow and husband crops innsettled communities. Although the ancient world is not the focus of HBC, some information has been collected on clothing in ancient civilizations. It is only basic information as HBC has not yet been able to devote much attention to this topic. We have found some images of recreations or modern drawings. We are very interested un finding actual contemprary images showing boys clothing. Unfortunately such images are relatively rare.

Agricultural Commodities

Many of these crops have had profond consquences on humnan culture and society. Human agriculture used the native plants in these river valleys and as a result the crops varied from one civilization to another. Gradually plants were imported from distant regions. Agriculture provided both food and raw material for textiles. The history of specific agricultural commodities is another interesting topic. The beginning of civilization is associated with the development of productive strains of grain. The most important in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India was wheat. The primary grain in China was rice. Sheep were domesticated and bred to produce wool, Subsequently as a result of the conquest of the America, several new agricultural commodites reached Europe: corn and potatoes. Corn is the vasis for a very sizeable proportion of modern food production. Potatoes made possible a significant increase in the Ruropean population. European colonial empires developed sugar production in tropical colonies. Sugar was produced on plantations with slave labor. In the United States, cotton became a the third rubg of the slave trade and it was American cotton that made the industrial revolution possible. Three beverages (chocolate, tea, and coffee) also reached Europe as a result of the maritime outreach. An important crop in coloniasl America was tobacco, another New World plant.


Famine is defined as an substantial shortage of food that causes widespread hunger leading to mass starvation and and death. It is one of the greatest caminities to befall humans since the emerge of man kind. Famines throughout history are often the result of natural conditions, especially drought. As human society evolved, human activity often exacerbated natural famines or in some cases caused them to bgin with, These actins have included war, overpopulastion, enviromental degradation, and economic and agriculturl mismanagement. Famines from these causes wee often inadvertent. There have been famines created on purpose by governments to weaken or destroy groups for political reasons. Famine not only leads to mass deaths, butcan weaken the social fabric, and undermine political stability. This appears to have occurred in pre-Colombian Meso America. Famine remains one of the worst calamities that can befall human society. Mass starvation has not been elimated, but has been reduced as a major problem because of the American engineered Green Revolution and humanitarian relief efforts. One of the countries most severly affected by famine in our modern world are authoritarian regimes such as Burma and Rhodesia which do not face adverse natural conditions and are primarily concerned about retaining power. The nost egregious case is Communist North Korea. Here there were natural problems, but famine have been brought on by a mix of ideology discouraging production and policies designed to msaintain a failed regime in power.

Mechanization (19th Century)

The Industrial Revolution began in England with the mechanizatio of cotton textile production (18th century) While initially focused on textiles, industrialization soon spred into other areas. And by the mid-19th centuries, mechanization resulted in major improvements in agriculture. Steam power and the development of stean boats and railroads. As with the Industrial Revolution itself, the first steam boats and railroads appeared first in England and now its American transplant. Often historians recount the major innovations and gloss over the fact that so many apoeared first in the Anglo-American counties. Improved transportation meant that it was possible to transport farm harvests to distabt markets to an extent never before possible. In additioin, a variety of machines were developed to mechanize agriculture. Again the early innovation came in Briain and now its trans Atlantic transport--America. A particularly important development was the treashing machines invented by Patrick Bell in Scotland and Cyrus McCormick in America. The introduction of these machines in Europe caused rebellions by workers fearful of being replaced. This was rarely the reaction in America. There were many other improvements, including the traction engine, steel plows (allowing farmersc to plpw deeper and break the tough sod of the Great Plains), seed drill, other harvesting machines, reapers, pivot irrigation, amd much more. The mechanization of farm labor meant that more food could be produced in greater quantities with a smaller work force, freeing up labor for the new industrial work force. It also speed of harvesting, an impoprtant factor for time critical crops.


Fertiliizer for eons has been used to increas agricultural oproduction. As more intensice agricultural became possible in the 19th century, American and European farmers becan importing nitrates from Chile. Guamo became an a valuable commodity. Germany at the the turn of the 20th century was the world leader in chemistry. Haver in 1904 began working on one of the most important chemical problem of the age. The lack of fertilizer serious hampered agriculture and limited farm yields. Fertilizer was collected as guano on bird islands, but it could not be manufactured. Amonia was the basis of fertilizer and it was composed of very common elements, hydrogen and nitrogen. Haver astonished the world in 1909 when he designed a furnace which could develop the temperatures needed to produce amonia. This made possible the commercial manufacture of fertilizer. The increase in agricultural production fed millions.

The World Wars (20th Century)

Agriculture has always been a factor in wars because it was agricultural production that generated the wealth needded to wage wars. In the 20th century, economies were more diverse and industrial production became central in building a powerful war machine. Agriculture, however, continued to plkay a key role in the two world wars. The Central Powers conscripted farm workers with little or no thought as to the consequences for agricultural production or the fore site to effectively ration available production. The Royal Navy's vlockade meant that food could not be imported. As a result, by 1918 civilian populations were facing food shortages and even starvation even with their victories un he East. The Allies on the other hand wee in a very difficult position. Not only did France maintain high levels of agricultural production, but naval dominance meant thst food be imported in large quantities fron America, the Empire, and other countries. German efforts to cut Britain off using U-boats, mot only failed, but brouht America into the War, doming the Central Powers. The lure of the vast agricultural lands of the East where Hitler saw Lebrensraum was the primary factor that led NAZI Gwrmany to launch World War II and subsequently the invasion of the Soviet Umion. This time shortages at home were overted by seizing the production of occupied countries. This and Hitler's racial mania made it impossible for the NAZIs to capitalize on the anti-Soviet feeling in the occupied areas. At the same time, the huge agricultural output of America, Canada, and other countries could not only support the Anglo-American war effort on two front, but the needs of alloes and civilian populations as well.

The Cold War

Russia throughout much of European history was a vast bread basket. More specifically the Ukraine dominated by Russia produced vast quantities of grain which were exported to Europe. This was especially the case in the 19th century when Europe indudtrialized and countries like Germany could no longer meet the food needs of the expanding industrial work force. The Russian Revolution changed this dynamic (1917). Lennin New Economic Policy attempted to revive the Soviet economy with a degree of success. Stalin fundamentally changed the economic relationship. To extend his control over this importasnt economic sphere and to finance the ambitious Five Year imndustrial development plans, Stalin collectivized agriculture. When the peasants resisted, he used force--the NKVD behaved apauling. The Ukraine where there was also a nationalist resistance, Stalin generated a famine. In the end, Stalin prevailed and obtained the agricultural production which he used to support industrialization. In the process he deeply weakened Soviet agriculture. Oerall production levels fell precipitously. After World war II, this proved to be a substantial Soviet weakness. Agricultural profuctions levels continued to lag behind those in the West. Thus not only was food not available to export, but there were chronic domestic food shortages. Soviet consumers had to stand in long lines to obtain often meager supplies of meat, fish, eggs, butter, and other products. Thiscnot only affected cthe strengthed of the Soviet domestic economy, but it also affected the Third World where leaders of many newly independent leaders saw the Soviet model as the wave of the future.

The Green Revolution

One of the most important, but least recognized events of the Cold War was the Green Revolution. While the Communisrs (Soviets, Chinese Communits, Ethioppia, Kymer Rouge, and North Koreans) like the Facists before them caused famines, America generated an explosion of farm prodyctivity. Even before World War II, populations in many developing countries began to grow at extremrly fast rates. These high rates were in part the results of historical trends. A major factor was also improvements in health care made possible by health care programs financed by Europe and America. While populations were increasing, farming technokogy in much of the Third Worls had remained uncganged fir centuries. Economists by the 1950s began to talk about a world-wide Malthusian famine because population growth would outrun the food supply. Agromists had been increasing crop yield by using mpre and more nitrogen fertilizer. This was possible because a German Jewish scientist, Fritz Hber, before World War I had figured out a chemical process for fixing nitrogen. This had made possible increased food production by increasing the avilbilirt of fertilizer. By the 1950s, however, farmers had reached limits on the use of nitrogen. They found that seed heads were growing so heavy that stalks would collapse. An American agricultural scientist, Norman Borlaug, began working for the Rockefeller Foundation and began working on a project to help Mexico conquer hunger. Borlaug found a strain of wheat with a stubby stalk that could support a heavy seed head. He then transferred the gene to tropical weat and produced a strain that could support large sead heads. Bourlaug's work resulted in a wheat strain that could produce yields four times per acre than what was previously possible. This was just the first step in what is now known as the Green Revolution that eliminated famine in much of the Third World. The number of lives he saved are virtually impossible to calculate, but musr be in the hundreds of millions, if not billions. About half the world now eats grains descended from Borlaug's work. Bourlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1970), surely one of the indivuals most deserving of the award.

Gentically Altered Foods


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Created: June 28, 2003
Last updated: 5:38 AM 3/7/2016