Agricultural Science since 1950

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Agricultural Science since 1950


Agriculture underwent a dramatic transformation after 1950. Farming became industrialized, and governments and corporations, for the most part, dictated what crops would be grown and where they could be sold. The stereotypical independent farmer, providing food for his family and selling surpluses at local markets for extra cash, began to vanish almost as quickly as fertile rural acreage was appropriated for development near expanding urban areas. While the amount of farmland and labor declined, populations worldwide increased rapidly. Production of adequate, nutritional food supplies was essential. Agricultural scientists and engineers focused on research to provide practical solutions for utilizing available resources efficiently. Several of these answers, however, provoked environmentally aware people to criticize scientific and engineered responses and suggest alternative agricultural methods.


Some historians consider agriculture to have been static until the mid-twentieth century, when an agricultural revolution occurred because farmers embraced scientific techniques. During the Second World War an extreme shortage of farm workers resulted when people departed for military service, and mechanization was considered essential as a form of substitute labor. Such large machinery permitted one vehicle operator to perform a task in a few hours in comparison to many laborers requiring days. Although for several centuries some farmers had adopted tools of varying technological sophistication, few early twentieth-century agriculturists had access to machinery. The war was the catalyst for the transition to agricultural reliance on technology and science to meet production demands.

The foundation for agricultural science enabling such efficiency was initially developed during the Scientific Revolution of the 1600s-1800s. Although earlier agriculturists might have intuitively bred the best plants and animals, practiced crop rotation, or slanted a plow blade, systematic experimentation to understand agricultural processes was not pursued until later. As early as the seventeenth century, scientists, curious about the natural world, wanted to devise techniques to improve agriculture. Gregor Mendel's (1822-1884) nineteenth-century pea investigations inspired agriculturists to conduct similar hereditary experiments with other plants.

Legislation aided the advancement of agricultural science and engineering. The 1862 and 1890 Morrill Acts enabled the establishment of land-grant colleges in the United States and set professional standards for agricultural education and research. The United States Department of Agriculture, created during the Civil War (1861-65), also bettered scientific research, financing investigations, collecting data, and publishing yearbooks. Politicians passed additional legislation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, expanding funding for scientific agriculture. Federally supported agricultural extension services and experiment stations assisted farmers and implemented vocational education programs that incorporated scientific agriculture.

In the early 1900s agriculturists devised high-yielding hybrid seeds. By 1908 hybrid corn was the United States' most valuable crop, adding $1,615,000,000 yearly to the economy. Many farmers, however, were still reluctant to utilize educated experts' advice and considered machinery too luxurious to purchase. Statistics show that by 1920 the United States' urban population exceeded rural residents. This demographic shift necessitated the ultimate industrialization of agriculture worldwide because there were fewer farmers to feed more consumers. The 1930s economic depression and World War II interrupted development of scientific agriculture.


Many agricultural scientists temporarily abandoned their research for World War II service. American scientists returned to laboratories, read-justing their hypotheses based on observations of foreign agriculture and conversations with peers they met in the military. European and Asian agricultural scientists suffered the loss of research facilities and experimental plots due to enemy bombardment. Enhanced American agricultural production was necessary to rebuild Europe and Asia after the war and to reinforce democracies during the Cold War. Also, the Korean War (1950-53) created new demands for military agricultural supplies. At the same time, the global population boomed. In the United States some veterans used benefits from the GI Bill to study agricultural sciences, ranging from agronomy to veterinary medicine. As interstates crossed the country and city limits expanded, arable agricultural land was swallowed by urban development, reinforcing the urgency for scientific agriculture to feed the world.

Scientific and technological applications to agriculture since 1950 have been primarily beneficial. These ideas were developed to speed up agricultural processes or to perform tasks in new ways to produce more food and fiber. Science and technology increased farmers' earning potential and created employment opportunities in agriculturally related industries. Perhaps science and technology's most valuable achievement was saving agriculturists time. In 1945 a farmer spent an average of 19 hours per acre of corn harvested. Fifty years later an agriculturist relying on technology invested 1 hour per acre of corn.

By the 1950s farmers were more willing to adopt technology because of familiarity with mechanical vehicles such as automobiles. After World War II steel was no longer rationed for wartime use, and more tractors were produced. Newly tapped oil fields assured ample, inexpensive supplies of tractor fuel. Engineers refined machinery design for specific duties and crops such as cotton pickers. Commercial farms began to dominate agriculture, relying on science to meet domestic and international market demand. Scientists developed agricultural technology such as freeze-drying and refrigerated containers to ship goods to distant markets. Engineers designed agricultural buildings to protect livestock and crops from pests and predators, sometimes incorporating solar panels to collect renewable energy. Automatic devices dispensed food, water, and insect repellents to large quantities of livestock at what are referred to as factory farms because of their size and high productivity. Agricultural scientists sought ways to reduce livestock odors, especially important as urban and rural areas merged. They improved soil conservation methods to protect topsoil from wind and precipitation. Scientists also developed non-agricultural applications of crops, including ethanol made from corn as fuel and newspaper ink and motor oil from soybeans.

Scientists created polymers to lubricate plows to reduce friction, saving 1,500 million gallons of gasoline annually. Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) monitored agricultural fields, and computer models permitted engineers to test agricultural machinery designs without risking crops. Automatic controls, computerized sensors, and electronically based guidance systems enabled unmanned machinery to perform mundane tasks. Soil dynamics, the scientific study of relationships between machinery and soil, was first defined in the 1920s by Mark L. Nichols (1888-1971) in cooperation with the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station. Federally funded by New Deal programs in the 1930s, soil dynamics emerged as a significant agricultural science in the 1950s, guiding implement manufacturers to create improved machinery with better traction, thus conserving fuel and enhancing yields. Within decades, soil dynamics knowledge aided the application of artificial intelligence and robotics to sophisticated agricultural machinery.

Bioengineering also dominated agricultural science after 1950. Scientists manipulated organisms' genes regarding such factors as growth and biochemical activity, in an attempt to create perfect specimens through identification of genes for certain qualities and excision of those for negative traits. During recombination, specific genes were isolated from one DNA strand and spliced into another. Some bioengineered plants were genetically altered to repel and kill harmful insects and to manufacture fertilizer, saving expensive losses from damaged crops and application of chemical sprays. These plants were programmed to withstand environmental stresses. Bioengineered livestock were genetically altered to be immune to contagious diseases, reducing the need for vaccinations. A bovine growth hormone increased the size of beef cattle so that they required less feed and produced more meat.

Major corporations invested millions of dollars in bioengineering, hastening the transformation of agriculture from subsistence to commercial production. Researchers discovered that they could move genes between species, creating animals such as the geep, a goat-sheep hybrid. Biotechnology was also used to manufacture agriculturally based pharmaceuticals as new means to combat human diseases. Consumer goods such as blue jeans and fast food also incorporated genetically altered agricultural resources. In 1998 an estimated 69.5 million acres globally were cultivated with bioengineered crops.

The Green Revolution introduced bioengineering methods to the Third World in an attempt to ease hunger. Norman E. Borlaug (1914- ), a plant pathologist, created a strain of high-yield dwarf spring wheat that had sufficient protein and calories to alleviate malnourishment. Beginning in the 1960s Borlaug distributed his seeds in Asia and educated farmers about their use. In addition to the seeds providing needed nutrients, Borlaug argued that his seeds would prevent habitats from being slashed and burned to clear more farmland. Within one year yields increased 70%, and Pakistan became agriculturally self-sufficient by 1968. India produced surplus wheat that was exported for profit. Borlaug was credited with saving millions of people from dying of starvation. He won a Nobel Prize, an honor that was also awarded in the late twentieth century to other notable agricultural scientists including Barbara McClintock (1902-1992).

Scientists developed irradiation in the 1990s to combat toxins and bacteria such as E. coli in meat, vegetables, and fruits. Thousands of people die annually from contaminated foodstuffs, and millions more become sick. Irradiation is a process in which foods are exposed to gamma rays or an electron beam. Promoted as a measure for food safety, irradiation also keeps meat from spoiling and prevents pest infestation. Many consumers are reluctant to eat irradiated foods, which advocates compare to the initial reaction people expressed toward milk pasteurization. Activists boycott irradiated goods and demand that agricultural process facilities be sanitized to remove the toxic threats that irradiation counters.

A backlash protesting the potentially harmful effects of agricultural science techniques to human consumers and the environment emerged in the 1960s, spurred by Rachel Carson's (1907-1964) writings. The organic farming movement and sustainable agriculture have gradually gained strength. Organic farmers strive to farm naturally without chemical substances. Sustainable agriculture encourages farmers to adopt agricultural methods that will assure plentiful food supplies for present and future generations while maintaining environmental stability and earning sufficient profits Each farmer encounters differing conditions and is encouraged to act as an amateur scientists to experiment with varying crops and ground cover to replenish soil, prevent erosion, and maintain a symbiotic balance between humans, earth, and organisms. Both organic and sustainable agriculturists feel a responsibility to protect nature. Organic agriculture comprises almost 10% of crops in some European countries. Organic farming is a thriving agribusiness catering to agriculturists nostalgic for less-scientific times; the Seed Savers Exchange at Decorah, Iowa, sells heirloom seeds descended from stock originally grown centuries ago, and living history farms reenact pioneer agricultural methods.

Green activists decry the loss of employment for blue-collar agricultural laborers, such as migrant workers, replaced by machinery. They also rail against the rise of government and corporate interference such as the 1980 grain embargo against the Soviet Union, and socioeconomic conditions that led to the decline of family farms during the 1980s. Protestors call bioengineered produce "Frankenfood"—after Mary Shelley's famous monster, Frankenstein—and seek to ban all genetically modified foods. They also criticize agricultural science for damaging the environment, citing such problems as pesticides polluting groundwater. Protestors warn that agricultural chemicals pose health hazards and are potentially carcinogenic. In reaction, some agriculturists have sued protestors for slander, including television personality Oprah Winfrey, who expressed her concerns about the safety of meat.

Both agricultural science proponents and protestors use computers and the Internet to express their opinions and share information. Computers serve as tools to record farm accounts and analyze yields. They provide isolated farmers access to the Internet and on-line marketplaces. E-mail, listservs, and electronic bulletin boards connect agriculturists and provide access to experts. Many agricultural colleges post news about ongoing research on Web pages (see Further Reading section below). As the twenty-first century dawned, it was clear that the benefits and potential drawbacks of the post-1950 revolution in the agricultural sciences were still being debated.


Further Reading


Berardi, Gigi M., and Charles C. Geisler, eds. The Social Consequences and Challenges of New Agricultural Technologies. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1984.

Crabb, Richard A. The Hybrid-Corn Makers: Prophets of Plenty. Revised ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Doyle, Jake. Altered Harvest: Agriculture, Genetics, and the Fate of the World's Food Supply. New York: Viking, 1985.

Fabry, Judith. "Agricultural Science and Technology in the West." In The Rural West since World War II, ed. by R. Douglas Hurt. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998, 169-189.

Fite, Gilbert C. American Farmers: The New Minority. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.

Hurt, R. Douglas. Agricultural Technology in the Twentieth Century. Manhattan, KS: Sunflower University Press, 1991.

Hurt, R. Douglas, and Mary Ellen Hurt. The History of Agricultural Science and Technology: An International Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.

Internet Sites

Council for Agricultural Science and Technology.

Food and Drug Administration.

Iowa State University's College of Agriculture.

United States Department of Agriculture.

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Agricultural Science since 1950

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Agricultural Science since 1950