See our collection of agriculture and food technology research paper topics. This page lists 19 topics and provides an overview of agriculture and food technology development.
1. Activated Carbon
Activated carbon is made from any substance with a high carbon content, and activation refers to the development of the property of adsorption. Activated carbon is important in purification processes, in which molecules of various contaminants are concentrated on and adhere to the solid surface of the carbon. Through physical adsorption, activated carbon removes taste and odor-causing organic compounds, volatile organic compounds, and many organic compounds that do not undergo biological degradation from the atmosphere and from water, including potable supplies, process streams, and waste streams. The action can be compared to precipitation. Activated carbon is generally nonpolar, and because of this it adsorbs other nonpolar, mainly organic, substances. Extensive porosity (pore volume) and large available internal surface area of the pores are responsible for adsorption. Activated carbon also found wide application in the pharmaceutical, alcoholic beverage, and electroplating industries; in the removal of pesticides and waste of pesticide manufacture; for treatment of wastewater from petroleum refineries and textile factories; and for remediation of polluted groundwater. Although activated carbons are manufactured for specific uses, it is difficult to characterize them quantitatively. As a result, laboratory trials and pilot plant experiments on a specific waste type normally precede installation of activated carbon facilities.
2. Biological Pest Control
Insect outbreaks have plagued crop production throughout human history, but the growth of commercial agriculture since the middle of the nineteenth century has increased their acuteness and brought forth the need to devise efficient methods of insect control. Methods such as the spraying of insecticides, the application of cultural methods, the breeding of insect-resistant plants, and the use of biological control have increasingly been used in the twentieth century. Traditionally limited to checking the populations of insect pests through the release of predatory or parasitic insects, biological control now refers to the regulation of agricultural or forest pests (especially insects, weeds and mammals) using living organisms. It also includes other methods such as the spraying of microbial insecticides, the release of pathogenic microorganisms (fungi, bacteria or viruses), the release of male insects sterilized by radiation, the combination of control methods in integrated pest management programs, and the insertion of toxic genes into plants through genetic engineering techniques. Biological control is also directed against invasive foreign species that threaten ecological biodiversity and landscape esthetics in nonagricultural environments.
3. Crop Protection and Spraying
Humans have controlled agricultural pests, both plants and insects, that infest crops with a variety of biological and technological methods. Modern humans developed spraying pest management techniques that were based on practical solutions to combat fungi, weeds, and insects. Ancient peoples introduced ants to orchards and fields so they could consume caterpillars preying on plants. Chinese, Sumerian, and other early farmers used chemicals such as sulfur, arsenic, and mercury as rudimentary herbicides and insecticides. These chemicals were usually applied to or dusted over roots, stems, or leaves. Seeds were often treated before being sowed. As early as 200 BC, Cato the Censor promoted application of antipest oil sprays to protect plants in the Roman Republic. The nineteenth century potato famine and other catastrophic destruction of economically significant crops including vineyard grapes emphasized the need to improve crop protection measures. People gradually combined technological advances with biological control methods to initiate modern agricultural spraying in the late nineteenth century. Such crop protection technology was crucial in the twentieth century when large-scale commercial agriculture dominated farming to meet global demands for food. Individual farms consisted of hundreds to thousands of acres cultivated in only one or two crop types. As a result, spraying was considered essential to prevent devastating economic losses from pest damage associated with specific crops or locales.
4. Dairy Farming
Throughout the world, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, milk, cheese, butter, ice cream, and other dairy products, have been central elements of food production. Over the centuries improvements in cattle breeding and nutrition, as well as new dairy techniques, led to the increased production of dairy goods. Hand-operated churns and separators were used to make butter and cream, and those close to a barnyard had access to fresh milk. By the late nineteenth century, new science and technology had begun to transform dairy production, particularly in the U.S. and Europe. Rail transportation and iced and refrigerated boxcars made it easier to transport milk to more distant markets. Successful machinery for separating milk from cream came from the DeLaval Corporation in 1879, and the Babcock butterfat tester appeared in 1890. The first practical automated milking machines and commercial pasteurization machines were in use in the decades before 1900. Louis Pasteur’s contribution to the dairy industry— discovering the sterilization process for milk— was substantial. By heating milk, pasteurization destroys bacteria that may be harmful to humans. The pasteurization process also increases the shelf life of the product by eliminating enzymes and bacteria that cause milk to spoil. Milk is pasteurized via the ‘‘batch’’ method, in which a jacketed vat is surrounded by heated coils. The vat is agitated while heated, which adds qualities to the product that also make it useful for making ice cream. With the ‘‘continuous’’ method of pasteurization, time and energy are conserved by continuously processing milk as a high temperature using a steel-plated heat exchanger, heated by steam or hot water. Ultra-high temperature pasteurization was first used in 1948.
5. Farming and Agricultural Methods
Agriculture experienced a transformation in the twentieth century that was vital in increasing food and fiber production for a rising global population. This expansion of production was due to mechanization, the application of science and technology, and the expansion of irrigation. Yet these changes also resulted in the decimation of traditional agricultural systems and an increased reliance on capital, chemicals, water, exploitative labor conditions, and the tides of global marketing. A sign of the transformation of agriculture in the twentieth century was the shift from China and India as countries often devastated by famine to societies that became exporters of food toward the end of the century. As the world’s technological leader, the U.S. was at the vanguard of agricultural change, and Americans in the twentieth century experienced the cheapest food in the history of modern civilization, as witnessed by the epidemic of obesity that emerged in the 1990s. Unfortunately, this abundance sometimes led to overproduction, surplus, and economic crisis on the American farm, which one historian has labeled ‘‘the dread of plenty.’’
6. Farming and Growth Promotion
Early in the twentieth century, most farmers fed livestock simple mixtures of grains, perhaps supplemented with various plant or animal byproducts and salt. A smaller group of scientific agriculturalists fed relatively balanced rations that included proteins, carbohydrates, minerals, and fats. Questions remained, however, concerning the ideal ratio of these components, the digestibility of various feeds, the relationship between protein and energy, and more. The discoveries of various vitamins in the early twentieth century offered clear evidence that proteins, carbohydrates, and fats did not supply all the needs of a growing animal. Additional research demonstrated that trace minerals like iron, copper, calcium, zinc, and manganese are essential tools that build hemoglobin, limit disease, and speed animal growth. Industrially produced nonprotein nitrogenous compounds, especially urea, have also become important feed additives. The rapid expansion of soybean production, especially after 1930, brought additional sources of proteins and amino acids within the reach of many farmers. Meanwhile, wartime and postwar food demands, as well as a substantial interest in the finding industrial uses for farm byproducts, led to the use of wide variety of supplements—oyster shells, molasses, fish parts, alfalfa, cod liver oil, ground phosphates, and more.
7. Farming Mechanization
Mechanization of agriculture in the twentieth century helped to dramatically increase global production of food and fiber to feed and clothe a burgeoning world population. Among the significant developments in agricultural mechanization in the twentieth century were the introduction of the tractor, various mechanical harvesters and pickers, and labor-saving technologies associated with internal combustion engines, electric motors, and hydraulics. While mechanization increased output and relieved some of the drudgery and hard work of rural life, it also created unintended consequences for rural societies and the natural environment. By decreasing the need for labor, mechanization helped accelerate the population migration from rural to urban areas. For example, in 1790, 90 percent of Americans worked in agriculture, yet by 2000 only about 3 percent of the American workforce was rural. Blessed with great expanses of land and limited labor, technologically inclined Americans dominated the mechanization of agriculture during the twentieth century. Due to mechanization, irrigation, and science, the average American farmer in 1940 fed an estimated ten people, and by 2000 the number was over 100 people. Yet even as mechanization increased the speed of planting and harvesting, reduced labor costs, and increased profits, mechanization also created widespread technological unemployment in the countryside and resulted in huge losses in the rural population.
As the twentieth century opened, fertilizers were a prominent concern for farmers, industrialists, scientists, and political leaders. In 1898, British scientist William Crookes delivered a powerful and widely reported speech that warned of a looming ‘‘famine’’ of nitrogenous fertilizers. According to Crookes, rising populations, increased demand for soil-depleting grain products, and the looming exhaustion of sodium nitrate beds in Chile threatened Britain and ‘‘all civilized nations’’ with imminent mass starvation and collapse. Yet Crookes also predicted that chemists would manage to discover new artificial fertilizers to replace natural and organic supplies, a prophecy that turned out to encapsulate the actual history of fertilizers in the twentieth century. In addition to obvious links to increased agricultural production, the modern fertilizer industry has been linked with a number of concerns beyond the farm. For example, the short-lived phosphate boom on the Pacific island of Nauru offers a telling case study of the social consequences and environmental devastation than can accompany extractive industries. Further, much of the nitrogen applied to soils does not reach farm plants; nitrates can infiltrate water supplies in ways that directly threaten human health, or indirectly do so by fostering the growth of bacteria that can choke off natural nutrient cycles. To combat such threats, the European Union Common Agricultural Policy includes restrictions on nitrogen applications, and several nations now offer tax incentives to farmers who employ alternative agricultural schemes. Nevertheless, the rapidly growing global population and its demand for inexpensive food means that artificial fertilizer inputs are likely to continue to increase.
9. Fish Farming
Controlled production, management, and harvesting of herbivorous and carnivorous fish has benefited from technology designed specifically for aquaculture. For centuries, humans have cultivated fish for dietary and economic benefits. Captive fish farming initially sustained local populations by supplementing wild fish harvests. Since the 1970s, aquaculture became a significant form of commercialized farming because wild fish populations declined due to overfishing and habitat deterioration. Growing human populations increased demand for reliable, consistent sources of fish suitable for consumption available throughout the year. Fish farming technology can be problematic. If genetically engineered fish escape and mate with wild fish, the offspring might be unable to survive. Cultivated fish live in crowded tanks that sometimes cause suffocation, diseases, and immense amounts of waste and pollutants. Antibiotic use can sometimes result in resistant microorganisms. Coastal fish farms, especially those for shrimp, can be environmentally damaging if adjacent forests are razed.
10. Foods Additives and Substitutes
Advances in food and agricultural technology have improved food safety and availability. Food technology includes techniques to preserve food and develop new products. Substances to preserve and enhance the appeal of foods are called food additives, and colorings fit into this category of additives that are intentionally included in a processed food. All coloring agents must be proven to be safe and their use in terms of permitted quantity, type of food that can have enhanced coloring, and final level is carefully controlled. Fat substitutes on the other hand are technically known as replacers in that they replace the saturated and/or unsaturated fats that would normally be found in processed food as an ingredient or that would be added in formulation of a processed food. Usually the purpose is to improve the perceived health benefit of the particular food substance. Technically speaking, substitutes are not additives but their efficacy and safety must be demonstrated.
11. Food Preparation and Cooking
Twentieth century technological developments for preparing and cooking food consisted of both objects and techniques. Food engineers’ primary objectives were to make kitchens more convenient and to reduce time and labor needed to produce meals. A variety of electric appliances were invented or their designs improved to supplement hand tools such as peelers, egg beaters, and grinders. By the close of the twentieth century, technological advancements transformed kitchens, the nucleus of many homes, into sophisticated centers of microchip-controlled devices. Cooking underwent a transition from being performed mainly for subsistence to often being an enjoyable hobby for many people. Kitchen technology altered people’s lives. The nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution had initiated the mechanization of homes. Cooks began to use precise measurements and temperatures to cook. Many people eagerly added gadgets to their kitchens, ranging from warming plates and toasters to tabletop cookers. Some architects designed kitchens with built-in cabinets, shelves, and convenient outlets to encourage appliance use. Because they usually cooked, women were the most directly affected by mechanical kitchen innovations. Their domestic roles were redefined as cooking required less time and was often accommodated by such amenities as built-in sinks and dishwashers. Ironically, machines often resulted in women receiving more demands to cook for events and activities because people no longer considered cooking to be an overwhelming chore.
12. Food Preservation by Cooling and Freezing
People have long recognized the benefits of cooling and freezing perishable foods to preserve them and prevent spoilage and deterioration. These cold storage techniques, which impede bacterial activity, are popular means to protect food and enhance food safety and hygiene. The food industry has benefited from chilled food technology advancements during the twentieth century based on earlier observations. For several centuries, humans realized that evaporating salt water removed heat from substances. As a result, food was cooled by placing it in brine. Cold storage in ice- or snow-packed spaces such as cellars and ice houses foreshadowed the invention of refrigerators and freezers. Before mechanical refrigeration became consistent, freezing was the preferred food preservation technique because ice inhibited microorganisms. Freezing technology advanced to preserve food more efficiently with several processes. Blast freezing uses high-velocity air to freeze food for several hours in a tunnel. Refrigerated plates press and freeze food for thirty to ninety minutes in plate freezing. Belt freezing quickly freezes food in five minutes with air forced through a mesh belt. Cryogenic freezing involves liquid nitrogen or Freon absorbing food heat during several seconds of immersion.
13. Food Preservation by Freeze Drying, Irradiation, and Vacuum Packing
Humans have used processes associated with freeze-drying for centuries by placing foods at cooler high altitudes with low atmospheric pressure where water content is naturally vaporized. Also called lyophilization, freeze-drying involves moisture being removed from objects through sublimation. Modern freeze-drying techniques dehydrate frozen foods in vacuum chambers, which apply low pressure and cause vaporization. Irradiation is less successful than freeze-drying. Prior to irradiation, millions of people worldwide became ill annually due to contaminated foods with several thousand being hospitalized or dying due to food-borne pathogens. By exposing food to an electron beam, irradiation enhances food safety. Irradiated human and animal feed, especially grain, can be transported over distances and stored for a long duration without spoiling or posing contamination hazards. The radura is the international food packaging symbol for irradiation. Vacuum-packing food technologies involve a process that removes empty spaces around foods being packaged. Vacuum technology uses environments artificially modified to have atmospheric pressures that are lower than natural conditions. Vacuum packing extends the shelf life of food. The U.K. Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Foods warned that anaerobic pathogens such as C. botulinum can grow in vacuum-packed foods. Because vacuum packing often results in rubbery sliced cheese, some manufacturers use the modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) system, which utilizes gases to fill spaces so that cheese can mature to become tastier inside packaging.
14. Irrigation Systems
Since the onset of human civilization, the manipulation of water through irrigation systems has allowed for the creation of agricultural bounty and the presence of ornamental landscaping, often in the most arid regions of the planet. These systems have undergone a widespread transformation during the twentieth century with the introduction of massive dams, canals, aqueducts, and new water delivery technology. In 1900 there were approximately 480,000 square kilometers of land under irrigation; by 2000 that total had surged to 2,710,000 square kilometers, with India and China as the world leaders in irrigated acreage. Globally, the agriculture industry uses about 69 percent of the available fresh water supplies, producing 40 percent of the world’s food on just about 18 percent of the world’s cropland. (It takes 1000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain.) New technologies to monitor evaporation, plant transpiration, and soil moisture levels have helped increase the efficiency of irrigation systems. The US is the world leader in irrigation technology, exporting upward of $800 million of irrigation equipment to the rest of the world each year, with the sales of drip irrigation equipment increasing 15 to 20 percent per annum in the 1990s. Golf course and landscape irrigation are also an increasing part of the irrigation technology market. Intense competition for water from cities and for environmental restoration projects might mean a reduction in irrigated agriculture in future years. At the same time, salinization of fields, infiltration of aquifers by sea water, and depleted water availability could lead to a reduction in land under irrigation worldwide.
15. Nitrogen Fixation
In 1898, the British scientist William Crookes in his presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science warned of an impending fertilizer crisis. The answer lay in the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen. Around 1900, industrial fixation with calcium carbide to produce cyanamide, the process of the German chemists Nikodemus Caro and Adolf Frank, was introduced. This process relied on inexpensive hydroelectricity, which is why the American Cyanamid Company was set up at Ontario, Canada, in 1907 to exploit the power of Niagara Falls. Electrochemical fixing of nitrogen as its monoxide was first realized in Norway, with the electric arc process of Kristian Birkeland and Samuel Eyde in 1903. The nitrogen monoxide formed nitrogen dioxide, which reacted with water to give nitric acid, which was then converted into the fertilizer calcium nitrate. The yield was low, and as with the Caro–Frank process, the method could be worked commercially only because of the availability of hydroelectricity.
A pesticide is any chemical designed to kill pests and includes the categories of herbicide, insecticide, fungicide, avicide, and rodenticide. Individuals, governments, and private organizations used pesticides in the twentieth century, but chemical control has been especially widespread in agriculture as farmers around the world attempted to reduce crop and livestock losses due to pest infestations, thereby maximizing returns on their investment in seed, fuel, labor, machinery expenses, animals, and land. Until the twentieth century, cultural pest control practices were more popular than chemicals. Cultural methods meant that farmers killed pests by destroying infested plant material in the fields, trapping, practicing crop rotation, cultivating, drying harvested crops, planting different crop varieties, and numerous other techniques. In the twentieth century, new chemical formulations and application equipment were the products of the growth in large-scale agriculture that simultaneously enabled that growth. Large scale and specialized farming provided ideal feeding grounds for harmful insects. Notable early efforts in insect control began in the orchards and vineyards of California. Without annual crop rotations, growers needed additional insect control techniques to prevent build-ups of pest populations. As the scale of fruit and nut production increased in the early decades of the century, so too did the insect problem.
17. Processed and Fast Food
Convenience, uniformity, predictability, affordability, and accessibility characterized twentieth-century processed and fast foods. Technology made mass-produced fast food possible by automating agricultural production and food processing. Globally, fast food provided a service for busy people who lacked time to buy groceries and cook their meals or could not afford the costs and time associated with eating traditional restaurant fare. As early as the nineteenth century, some cafeterias and restaurants, foreshadowing fast-food franchises, offered patrons self-service opportunities to select cooked and raw foods, such as meats and salads, from displays. Many modern cafeterias are affiliated with schools, businesses, and clubs to provide quick, cheap meals, often using processed foods and condiments, for students, employees, and members. Food-processing technology is designed primarily to standardize the food industry and produce food that is more flavorful and palatable for consumers and manageable and inexpensive for restaurant personnel. Food technologists develop better devices to improve the processing of food from slaughter or harvesting to presentation to diners. They are concerned with making food edible while extending the time period it can be consumed. Flavor, texture, and temperature retention of these foods when they are prepared for consumers are also sought in these processes. Microwave and radio frequency ovens process food quickly, consistently, and affordably. Microwaves are used to precook meats before they are frozen for later frying in fast-food restaurants. Nitrogen-based freezing systems have proven useful to process seafood, particularly shrimp. Mechanical and cryogenic systems also are used. The dehydrating and sterilizing of foods remove contaminants and make them easier to package. Heating and thawing eliminate bacteria to meet health codes. These processes are limited by associated expenses and occasional damage to foods. Processing techniques have been adapted to produce a greater variety of products from basic foods and have been automated to make production and packaging, such as mixing and bottling, efficient enough to meet consumer demand.
18. Synthetic Foods, Mycoprotein and Hydrogenated Fats
Food technologists developed synthetic foods to meet specific nutritional and cultural demands. Also referred to as artificial foods, synthetic foods are meat-free and are designed to provide essential fiber and nutrients such as proteins found in meats while having low saturated fat and lacking animal fat and cholesterol. These foodstuffs are manufactured completely from organic material. They have been manipulated to be tasty, nutritionally sound with major vitamins and minerals, have appealing textures, and safe for consumption. Synthetic foods offer people healthy dietary choices, variety, and convenience. Mycoprotein is created from Fusarium venenatum (also known as Fusarium graminearum), a small edible fungi related to mushrooms and truffles that was initially found in the soil of a pasture outside Marlow in Buckinghamshire, England. Concerned about possible food shortages such as those experienced in World War II Europe; as global populations swelled postwar, scientists began investigating possible applications for this organism as a widely available, affordable protein source. Scientists at one of Britain’s leading food manufacturers, Rank Hovis McDougall, focused on mycoprotein from 1964. At first, they were unable to cultivate fungus to produce mycoprotein in sufficient quantities for the envisioned scale of food production. Food technologists devoted several years to establishing procedures for growing desired amounts of mycoprotein. They chose a fermentation process involving microorganisms, somewhat like those historically used to create yogurt, wine, and beer. Food technologists create hydrogenated fats by processing vegetable oils, consisting of glycerides and fatty acids, with chemicals to achieve certain degrees of hardening. Partial hydrogenation stiffens oils, while full hydrogenation converts liquid oils into solid fat. The hydrogenation process involves moving hydrogen gas through heated oils in vats containing metals, usually copper, nickel, or zinc. When the metal reacts to the gas, it acts as a catalyst to relocate hydrogen molecules in the oil to create different, stiffer molecular shapes. This chemical reaction creates trans fats. Saturation of fats in these synthetic molecules increases according to the degree of hydrogenation achieved.
19. Transportation of Foodstuffs
Twentieth century foodstuffs were transported by land on vehicles and trains, by air on cargo planes, and by water on ships or barges. Based on innovations used in previous centuries, engineers developed agricultural technology such as refrigerated containers to ship perishable goods to distant markets. Technological advancements enabled food transportation to occur between countries and continents. International agreements outlined acceptable transportation modes and methods for shipping perishables. Such long-distance food transportation allowed people in different regions of the world to gain access to foodstuffs previously unavailable and incorporate new products they liked into their diets. Refrigerated trailers dominate road food transportation methods. This transportation mode minimizes food vulnerability to shipment damage from being harvested to placement on grocery shelves. Refrigerated transport enables fresh produce from milder climates to be shipped out-of-season to colder locations. Refrigeration is achieved by mechanical or cryogenic refrigeration or by packing or covering foods in ice. Ventilation keeps produce cool by absorbing heat created by food respiration and transferred through the walls and floor from the external air beneath and around the shipping trailer. Food technologists design packaging materials for food transportation. Most produce is shipped in corrugated and fiberboard cardboard boxes that are sometimes coated with wax. Wooden and wire-bound crates are also used in addition to bushel hampers and bins. Mesh plastic, burlap, and paper bags hold produce. Meat is often vacuum packed on plastic trays that are placed in wooden lugs. Foods are occasionally wrapped in plastic liners or packed in ice to withstand damage in transit and limit evaporation.
Agriculture and Food Technology
In late-twentieth century Western societies, food was available in abundance. Shops and supermarkets offered a wide choice in products and brands. The fast-food industry had outlets in every neighborhood and village. For those in search of something more exclusive, there were smart restaurants and classy catering services. People chose what they ate and drank with little awareness of the sources or processes involved as long as the food was tasty, nutritious, safe, and sufficient for everyone. These conditions have not always been met over the last century when food shortages caused by economic crises, drought, or armed conflicts and war, occurred in various places. During the second half of the twentieth century, food deficiency was a feature of countries outside the Western world, especially in Africa. The twentieth century also witnessed a different sort of food crisis in the form of a widespread concern over the quality and safety of food that mainly resulted from major changes in production processes, products, composition, or preferences.
Technology plays a key role in both types of crises, as both cause and cure, and it is the character of technological development in food and agriculture that will be discussed. The first section examines the roots of technological developments of modern times. The second is an overview of three patterns of agricultural technology. The final two sections cover developments according to geographical differences.
Before we can assess technological developments in agriculture and food, we must define the terms and concepts. A very broad description of agriculture is the manipulation of plants and animals in a way that is functional to a wide range of societal needs. Manipulation hints at technology in a broad sense; covering knowledge, skills, and tools applied for production and consumption of (parts or extractions of) plants and animals. Societal needs include the basic human need for food. Many agricultural products are food products or end up as such. However, crops such as rubber or flax and animals raised for their skin are only a few examples of agricultural products that do not end up in the food chain. Conversely, not all food stems from agricultural production. Some food is collected directly from natural sources, like fish, and there are borderline cases such as beekeeping. Some food products and many food ingredients are artificially made through complicated biochemical processes. This relates to a narrow segment of technology, namely science-based food technology.
Both broad and narrow descriptions of agriculture are relevant to consider. In sugar production for example, from the cultivation of cane or beets to the extraction of sugar crystals, both traditional and science-based technologies are applied. Moreover, chemical research and development resulted in sugar replacements such as saccharin and aspartame. Consequently, a randomly chosen soft drink might consist of only water, artificial sweeteners, artificial colorings and flavorings, and although no agriculture is needed to produce such products, there is still a relationship to it. One can imagine that a structural replacement of sugar by artificial sweeteners will affect world sugar prices and therewith the income of cane and beet sugar producers. Such global food chains exemplify the complex nature of technological development in food and agriculture.
The Roots of Technological Development
Science-based technologies were exceptional in agriculture until the mid-nineteenth century. Innovations in agriculture were developed and applied by the people cultivating the land, and the innovations related to the interaction between crops, soils, and cattle. Such innovation is exemplified by farmers in Northern Europe who confronted particular difficulties caused by the climate. Low temperatures meant slow decomposition of organic material, and the short growing season meant a limited production of organic material to be decomposed. Both factors resulted in slow recuperation of the soil’s natural fertility after exploitation. The short growing season also meant that farmers had to produce enough for the entire year in less than a year. Farmers therefore developed systems in which cattle and other livestock played a pivotal role as manure producers for fertilizer. Changes in the feed crop could allow an increase in livestock, which produced more manure to be used for fertilizing the arable land, resulting in higher yields. Through the ages, farmers in Northern Europe intensified this cycle. From about the 1820s the purchase of external supplies increased the productivity of farming in the temperate zones. Technological improvements made increases in productivity not only possible but also attractive, as nearby markets grew and distant markets came within reach as a result of the nineteenth century transportation revolution.
An important development at mid-nineteenth century was the growing interest in applying science to agricultural development. The two disciplines with the largest impact were chemistry and biology. The name attached to agricultural chemistry is Justus von Liebig, a German chemist who in the 1840s formulated a theory on the processes underlying soil fertility and plant growth. He propagated his organic chemistry as the key to the application of the right type and amount of fertilizer. Liebig launched his ideas at a time when farmers were organizing themselves based on a common interest in cheap supplies. The synergy of these developments resulted in the creation of many laboratories for experimentation with these products, primarily fertilizers. During the second half of the nineteenth century, agricultural experiment stations were opened all over Europe and North America.
Sometime later, experimental biology became entangled with agriculture. Inspired by the ideas of the British naturalist Charles Darwin, biologists became interested in the reproduction and growth of agricultural crops and animals. Botany and, to a lesser extent, zoology became important disciplines at the experimental stations or provided reasons to create new research laboratories. Research into the reproductive systems of different species, investigating patterns of inheritance and growth of plant and animal species, and experimentation in cross-breeding and selection by farmers and scientists together lay the foundations of genetic modification techniques in the twentieth century.
By the turn of the century, about 600 agricultural experiment stations were spread around the Western world, often operating in conjunction with universities or agricultural schools. Moreover, technologies that were not specifically developed for agriculture and food had a clear impact on the sector. Large ocean-going steamships, telegraphy, railways, and refrigeration, reduced time and increased loads between farms and markets. Key trade routes brought supplies of grain and other products to Europe from North America and the British dominions, resulting in a severe economic crisis in the 1880s for European agriculture. Heat and power from steam engines industrialized food production by taking over farm activities like cheese making or by expanding and intensifying existing industrial production such as sugar extraction. The development of synthetic dyes made crop-based colorants redundant, strongly reducing or even eliminating cultivation of the herb madder or indigo plants. These developments formed the basis of major technological changes in agriculture and food through the twentieth century.
Patterns of Technology Development
The twentieth century brought an enormous amount of technology developed for and applied to agriculture. These developments may be examined by highlighting the patterns of technology in three areas—infrastructure, public sector, and commercial factory—as if they were seen in cross section. The patterns are based on combined material and institutional forces that shaped technology.
A major development related to infrastructure concerns mechanization and transport. The combustion engine had a significant effect on agriculture and food. Not only did tractors replace animal and manual labor, but trucks and buses also connected farmers, traders, and markets. The development of cooling technology increased storage life and the distribution range for fresh products. Developments in packaging in general were very important. It was said that World War I would have been impossible without canned food. Storage and packaging is closely related to hygiene. Knowledge about sources and causes of decay and contamination initiated new methods of safe handling of food, affecting products and trade as well as initiating other innovations. In the dairy sector, for example, expanding markets led to the growth and mergers of dairy factories. That changed the logistics of milk collection, resulting in the development of on-farm storage tanks. These were mostly introduced together with compression and tube systems for machine milking, which increased milking capacity and improved hygiene conditions. A different area of infrastructure development is related to water management. Over the twentieth century, technologies for irrigation and drainage had implications for improved ‘‘carrying capacity’’ of the land, allowing the use of heavy machinery. Improved drainage also meant greater water discharge, which in turn required wider ditches and canals. Water control also had implications for shipping and for supplies of drinking water that required contractual arrangements between farmers, governing bodies, and other agencies.
During the twentieth century, most governments supported their agricultural and food sectors. The overall interest in food security and food safety moved governments to invest in technologies that increased productivity and maintained or improved quality. Public education and extension services informed farmers about the latest methods and techniques. Governments also became directly involved in technological development, most notably crop improvement. Seed is a difficult product to exploit commercially. Farmers can easily put aside part of the harvest as seed for the next season. Public institutes for plant breeding were set up to improve food crops—primarily wheat, rice, and maize—and governments looked for ways to attract private investment in this area. Regulatory and control mechanisms were introduced to protect commercial seed production, multiplication, and trade. Private companies in turn looked for methods to make seed reproduction less attractive to farmers, and they were successful in the case of so-called hybrid maize. The genetic make-up of hybrid maize is such that seeds give very high yields in the first year but much less in the following years. To maintain productivity levels, farmers have to purchase new seed every season. Developments in genetic engineering increased the options for companies to commercially exploit seed production.
Most private companies that became involved in genetic engineering and plant breeding over the last three decades of the twentieth century started as chemical companies. Genetic engineering allowed for commercially attractive combinations of crops and chemicals. A classic example is the herbicide Roundup, developed by the chemical company Monsanto. Several crops, most prominently soy, are made resistant to the powerful chemical. Buying the resistant seed in combination with the chemical makes weed control an easy job for farmers. This type of commercial development of chemical technologies and products dominated the agricultural and food sector over the twentieth century. Artificially made nitrogen fertilizers are one such development that had a worldwide impact. In 1908, Fritz Haber, chemist at the Technische Hochschule in Karlsruhe, fixed nitrogen to hydrogen under high pressure in a laboratory setting. To exploit the process, Haber needed equipment and knowledge to deal with high pressures in a factory setting, and he approached the chemical company BASF. Haber and BASF engineer Carl Bosch built a crude version of a reactor, further developed by a range of specialists BASF assigned to the project. The result was a range of nitrogen fertilizer products made in a capital and knowledge-intensive factory environment. This type of development was also applied to creating chemicals such as DDT for control of various pests (dichloro-diphenyltrichloroethane), developed in 1939 by Geigy researcher Paul Mu¨ ller and his team. DDT may exemplify the reverse side of the generally positive large-scale application of chemicals in agricultural production—the unpredictable and detrimental effects on the environment and human health.
The commercial factory setting for technology development was omnipresent in the food sector. The combination of knowledge of chemical processes and mechanical engineering determined the introduction of entirely new products: artificial flavorings, products, and brands of products based on particular food combinations, or new processes such as drying and freezing, and storing and packaging methods.
Patterns of Technology Development in the Western World
Technological developments in agriculture and food differ with regard to geography and diverging social and economic factors. In regions with large stretches of relatively flat lands, where soil conditions are rather similar and population is low, a rise in productivity is best realized by technologies that work on the economies of scale. The introduction of mechanical technologies was most intensive in regions with these characteristics. Beginning early in the twentieth century, widespread mechanization was a common feature of Western agriculture, but it took different forms. In the Netherlands, for example, average farm size was relatively small and labor was not particularly scarce. Consequently, the use of tractors was limited for the first half of the twentieth century as emphasis was placed on improved cultivation methods. Tractors became widely used only after the 1950s when equipment became lighter and more cost-effective and labor costs rose sharply. The result was an overall increase of farm size in these regions as well. The Dutch government changed the countryside with a land policy of connecting and merging individual parcels as much as possible. This huge operation created favorable conditions for expansion; but where the land was already under cultivation, the only way to expand was to buy up neighboring farms. The effect was a considerable reduction in the number of farm units. An exception to this process was the Dutch greenhouse sector, in which improvements in construction, climate regulation, and introduction of hydroponic cultivation, increased production without considerable growth of land per farm unit.
The Dutch greenhouse sector is also an exemplary case of technological support in decision making and farm management. In Western countries a vast service sector emerged around agriculture and food. This process in fact started early in the twentieth century with the rise of extension services, set up as government agencies or private companies. Experimental methods based on multivariate statistics, developed by the British mathematician Karl Fisher, are the major tool in turning results of field experiments into general advisories. In keeping with the development of modern computers, digital models of crop growth and farming systems became more effective. Computer programs help farmers perform certain actions and monitor other equipment and machinery; yet even in the most technologically advanced greenhouses, the skilled eye of the farmer is a factor that makes a considerable difference in the quality and quantity of the final product.
The means by which agriculture in the West raised productivity have been questioned. Doubts about the safety of food products and worries over the restoration of nature’s capacity became recurrent issues in public debate. Moreover, technological advances in tandem with subsidies resulted in overproduction, confronting national and international governing bodies with problems in trade and distribution, and a public resistance against intensive agriculture, sometimes called agribusiness. Technology is neither good nor bad; much of the knowledge underlying technologies with a detrimental effect also helps detect polluting factors and health hazards. Although a substantial part of research and technological efforts are aimed at replacing and avoiding harmful factors, many such ‘‘clean’’ technologies are commercially less interesting to farmers and companies. Subsidies and other financial arrangements are again being used to steer technology development, this time in the direction of environmentally friendly and safe forms of production.
Patterns of Technology Development in Less Developed Countries
From the beginning of the twentieth century, scientific and technological developments in the agricultural and food sector were introduced to less developed countries either by Western colonizing powers or by other forms of global interaction. The search for improved farming methods and new technology were mostly institutionalized at existing botanical gardens and established in previous centuries. Plant transfer and economic botany were a major modality of twentieth century technological improvement in less developed countries.
The early decades of the century featured an emphasis on technological improvement for plantation agriculture. Plantation owners invested in scientific research for agriculture, often supported by colonial administrations. The gradual abolition of slavery during the nineteenth century, increasing labor costs, was a reason to invest in technology. Other factors were more specific to particular sectors; for example, the rise of European beet sugar production encouraging cane sugar manufacturers to invest in technological improvement. Another example was the emergence of the automobile industry, which initiated a boom in rubber production.
Most colonial administrations launched programs, based on the combination of botanical and chemical research, to improve food crop production in the first decades of the twentieth century. It was recognized that dispersion of new technologies to a small number of plantation owners was different from initiating change among a vast group of local food crop producers. The major differences concerned the ecology of farming (crop patterns and soil conditions) and the socioeconomic conditions (organization of labor or available capital). Agronomists had to be familiar with local farming systems, occasionally resulting in pleas for a technology transfer that would better meet the complexity of local production. The overall approach, however, was an emphasis on improvement of fertilization and crop varieties. Transfer of the Western model gained momentum in the decades after World War II. Food shortages in the immediate postwar years encouraged European colonial powers to open up large tropical areas for mechanized farming. Unfortunately, the result was largely either a short-lived disaster, as in the case of the British-run groundnut scheme in Tanzania, or a more enduring problem, as in case of the Dutch-run mechanized rice-farming schemes in Surinam. The 1940s also saw the beginnings of a movement that came to be known as the ‘‘green revolution.’’ Driven by the idea that hunger is a breeding ground for communism, American agencies initiated a research program for crop improvement, primarily by breeding fertilizer-responsive varieties of wheat and rice. Agencies were put together in a Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Technological progress was realized by bringing together experts and plant material from various parts of the world. Modified breeding techniques and a wide availability of parent material resulted in high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice. Encouraged by lucrative credit facilities, farmers, especially in Asia, quickly adopted the new varieties and the required chemicals for fertilization and pest control. Research on the adoption process of these varieties made clear that many farmers modified the seed technology based on specific conditions of the farming systems. In areas where such modifications could not be achieved—primarily rice growing regions in Africa—green revolution varieties were not very successful. Based on these findings, CGIAR researchers began to readdress issues of variation in ecology and farming systems. This type of research is very similar to that done by colonial experts several decades earlier. However, because of decolonization and antiimperialist sentiments among Western nations, much of this earlier expertise has been neglected. This is just one of the opportunities for further research in the domain of agriculture and food technology.
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