During the Middle Ages, farmers in North Africa, the Near East, and Europe began making use of agricultural technologies including irrigations systems based on hydraulic and hydrostatic principles, machines such as norias, water-raising machines, dams, and reservoirs. This combined with the invention of a three-field system of crop rotation and the moldboard plow greatly improved agricultural efficiency. In the European medieval period, agriculture was considered part of the set of seven mechanical arts.
After 1492, a global exchange of previously local crops and livestock breeds occurred. Key crops involved in this exchange included the tomato, maize, potato, manioc, cocoa bean and tobacco going from the New World to the Old, and several varieties of wheat, spices, coffee, and sugar cane going from the Old World to the New. Animals were also in transition. The most important animal exportation from the Old World to the New was those of the horse and dog (dogs were already present in the pre-Columbian Americas but not in the numbers and breeds suited to farm work). Although not usually food animals, the horse (including donkeys and ponies) and dog quickly filled essential production roles on western-hemisphere farms.
The potato became an important staple crop in northern Europe. Since being introduced by Portuguese in the 16th century, maize and manioc have replaced traditional African crops as the continent’s most important staple food crops.
By early 19th century, agricultural techniques, implements, seed stocks and cultivar had so improved that yield per land unit was many times that seen in the Middle Ages. Although there is a vast and interesting history of crop cultivation before the dawn of the 20th century, there is little question that the work of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel created the scientific foundation for plant breeding that led to its explosive impact over the past 150 years.
With the rapid rise of mechanization in the late 19th century and the 20th century, particularly in the form of the tractor, farming tasks could be done with a speed and on a scale previously impossible. These advances have led to efficiencies enabling certain modern farms in the United States, Argentina, Israel, Germany, and a few other nations to output volumes of high quality produce per land unit at what may be the practical limit.
The Haber-Bosch method for synthesizing ammonium nitrate represented a major breakthrough and allowed crop yields to overcome previous constraints. In the past century agriculture has been characterized by enhanced productivity, the substitution of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for labor, water pollution and farm subsidies. In recent years, there has been a backlash against the external environmental effects of conventional agriculture, resulting in the organic movement.
The cereals, rice, corn and wheat provide 60% of human food supply. Between 1700 and 1980, “the total area of cultivated land worldwide increased 466%” and yields increased dramatically, particularly because of selectively bred high yielding varieties, fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and machinery. For example, irrigation increased corn yields in eastern Colorado by 400 to 500% from 1940 to 1997.
However, concerns have been raised over the sustainability of intensive agriculture. Intensive agriculture has become associated with decreased soil quality in India and Asia, and there has been increased concern over the effects of fertilizers and pesticides on the environment, particularly as population increases and food demand expands. The monocultures typically used in intensive agriculture increase the number of pests, which are controlled through pesticides. Integrated pest management (IPM), which has been promoted for decades and has notable success has not significantly affected the use of pesticides because policies encourage the use of pesticides and IPM is knowledge-intensive.
Although the Green Revolution significantly increased rice yields in Asia, yield increases have not occurred in the past 15-20 years. The genetic “yield potential” has increased for wheat, but the yield potential for rice has not increased since 1966, and the yield potential for maize has barely increased in 35 years. It takes a decade or two for the herbicide-resistant weeds to emerge, and insects become resistant to insecticides within about a decade. Crop rotation helps to prevent resistances.
Agricultural exploration expeditions, since the late 19th century, have been mounted to find new species and new agricultural practices in different areas of the world. Two early examples of expeditions include Frank N. Meyer’s fruit-and nut-collecting trip to China and Japan from 1916-1918 and the Dorsett-Morse Oriental Agricultural Exploration to China, Japan, and Korea from 1929-1931 to collect soybean germ plasma to support the rise in soybean agriculture in the United States.
In 2009, the agricultural output of China was the largest in the world, followed by the European Union, India and the United States, according to the International Monetary Fund. Economists measure the total factor productivity of agriculture and by this measure agriculture in the United States is roughly 2.6 times more productive than it was in 1948.
Six countries – the US, Canada, France, Australia, Argentina and Thailand- supply almost 90% of grain exports. Water deficits, which are already spurring heavy grain imports in numerous middle-sized countries, including Algeria, Iran, Egypt, and Mexico, may soon do the same in larger countries, such as China or India.