AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH. Agricultural research has occurred continuously since humans began shifting food acquisition methods from hunter-gatherer to agrarian. The early goal of agricultural research was simply better methods of producing food. As humans and agriculture progressed, research widened to control of diseases and pests, better cultivars, productive fields or animal rearing facilities, improvement of food crops, and basic biological understanding of plants and animals. The early studies were empirical, that is, trial and error. Nevertheless, these were the forerunners of agricultural research and in many ways the forerunners of many forms of scientific investigation.
Most people place the beginnings of formal agricultural research in the late eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century. This relatively long initial phase was caused by several factors. First, many of the other basic sciences were in an early developmental stage. In fact the early agricultural scientists were trained chemists applying their skills to food production. Secondly, governments were reluctant to provide funding for agricultural research. In the United States both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson advocated formal agricultural research as a fundamental component of the newly developed country. However, Congress did not share either president's feeling and did not support a formal agriculture department until 1862. The U.S. Department of Agriculture did not achieve cabinet status until 1889.
Third, many of the world's great universities had not yet been founded or were also in early stages of development. The first colleges involved in agricultural research in the United States were Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Several of the early endowed chairs in universities were in chemistry, agriculture, or a combination of the two. Fourth, agricultural principles developed were often not applicable to farms or crops in other parts of a country or continent. Thus an initial credibility problem existed with much of the early agricultural research. In the mid-1800s the concept of an experiment station developed in Europe. Some authors credit the Germans with development of the experiment station, while others credit the British. Regardless of the location of the first stations, the concept was to develop agricultural research sites near areas of agricultural production so results would be applicable to the local areas. This concept became common in all areas of agricultural production.
Justus von Liebig is often credited with writing the first book on agricultural research, Organic Chemistry and Its Applications to Agriculture and Physiology, published in both Germany and England in 1840. Liebig was an agricultural chemist in Giessen, Germany, one of the first experiment station sites. Liebig also established courses in agricultural chemistry and provided a site for foreign students to study under his tutelage. Numerous students from across Europe and the United States studied under him. The model Liebig developed for research sites near production areas, student training, and course offerings remained the standard for agricultural research around the world in the early twenty-first century.
Developments in the United States
The U.S. government did not establish a formal agricultural research agency until the middle part of the nineteenth century. Early agricultural research, from 1836 to 1862, was conducted by the U.S. Patent Office, which received, on an irregular basis, funds from Congress for specific purposes. Scientists trained in Europe were hired as faculty members by many of the universities and by other nongovernmental groups, such as the Smithsonian Institution. Thus it seems clear that universities in Europe, particularly in Germany and England, were the first to establish formal agricultural research programs.
As the scientific disciplines of chemistry and biology developed, those principles were increasingly applied to food production. In many cases chemical assays and principles were established in direct response to needs in the food and agriculture industries. In the second half of the nineteenth century agricultural research became a recognized discipline in institutes of higher education. The Hatch Experiment Station Act of 1887 established a formal linkage between the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which would supply funding, and state colleges of agriculture, where the research would be conducted. This collaboration between states and the federal government was an important model in governmental relations.
Through the first sixty to seventy years of the twentieth century, Hatch funds were sufficient to conduct research and to train students at universities. However, late in the century Hatch funding received no increases, and the funds diminished in real terms. In the twenty-first century, university scientists working in agriculture must compete for funds from a variety of funding sources, mostly federal government programs, by writing competitive proposals. Congress in collaboration with the president provides funds for the various federal research programs. Thus at times funding for research topics is influenced by political motivations instead of by the common good. Even with staffs and consultants well versed in current topics, this approach diminishes the dialogue on the most important topics that require research support. This change in research funding has positive and negative attributes. On the positive side, only the best research, on topics that have far-reaching implications and those that will have the largest impact on agriculture and society, is conducted. On the negative side, minor agricultural industries rarely receive any of this funding, and development of new opportunities in agriculture is difficult.
E. John Russell (1966) described five phases of agricultural research in Great Britain. While the years may differ, the concepts and general timing are similar to other parts of the world. Phase one began in the late sixteenth century with Francis Bacon and was characterized by numerous individuals conducting research in ancillary areas to agriculture without communication among themselves. This period lasted until the end of the eighteenth century.
The second phase coincided with the emergence of chemistry and lasted until the mid-nineteenth century. Numerous nongovernmental groups were established during the period to promote agriculture, and several universities established formal programs in agricultural sciences. The third phase lasted until the early twentieth century and included establishment of extension activities in university programs as well as expansion of teaching. The fourth stage was a short but important period because of the expansion of experiment stations, research funding from governments, and recognition of the role of agricultural development as an economic development tool. This phase lasted from 1920 to 1930. The fifth phase has lasted into the twenty-first century. Russell described this phase as the time of governmental laboratories and dissociation from farmers and their needs. While Russell's view is rather cynical, many farmers share his point.
As large, multinational companies became involved in agricultural research, much of the generated research results became proprietary and focused on generation of revenue. However, the range of products developed during the twentieth century was extraordinary, ranging from corn syrup to lecithin and resulting in products that literally changed lives. Breakfast cereals, sliced white bread, hot dog buns, soybean meal, and more changed the way people lived in developed countries and offered the promise of alleviating hunger and malnutrition in the remainder of the world. Agricultural research in universities focused on production of crops, both plant and animal, and on improving efficiency of production. Agricultural engineers led the Industrial Revolution and are rapidly applying space-age technology to tractors. Advanced biological lines of research, including microbiology, biochemistry, molecular biology, and developmental biology, are routine in agricultural research laboratories in the twenty-first century. Practical agricultural research funding, however, is diminishing.
Agricultural research was one of the early areas of formal scientific investigation and remained the foundation for many forms of research in the twenty-first century. Results from this research led to high-quality foods that are moderately priced, significant improvements in health, elimination of various diseases, far-reaching increases in cognitive function, and many other benefits to society.
Harding, T. Swann. Two Blades of Grass: A History of Scientific Development in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1947.
Knoblauch, H. C., E. M. Law, and W. P. Meyer. State Agricultural Experiment Stations: A History of Research Policy and Procedure. Miscellaneous Publication no. 904, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962.
Russell, E. John. A History of Agricultural Science in Great Britain, 1620–1954. London: Allen and Unwin, 1966.
True, Alfred Charles. A History of Agricultural Experimentation and Research in the United States, 1607–1925. Miscellaneous Publication no. 251, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1937.
Paul B. Brown