In the days of early man, every person foraged and hunted enough to feed themselves. Although we worked together and shared, it took 10 humans to feed 10 humans.
Around 12,000 years ago, man first began cultivating crops – selecting specific plants and areas to grow our own food. With this increase in efficiency, it only took 9 humans to feed 10 humans. One human was now free to work on science, war, engineering, art or politics, spurring the start of modern civilisation. This was the first agricultural revolution.
In the 1700’s, we needed to increase agricultural productivity to keep pace with population growth. Again efficiency increased, through the use of improved practices such as crop rotation, improved technology with the introduction of the swing plough, establishment of new crops like the potato, and invention of commercial tools such as national markets and transport links. Productivity per worker increased 2.7 fold in 150 years, and again far fewer people were needed to feed the growing population. Again, civilisation surged forward, and this was the second agricultural revolution.
Through the 1950’s and 60’s, we once again needed to embrace change in primary production to ensure food supply met the needs of the burgeoning population. In this period, modern technology and management techniques were deployed to farming worldwide. These focussed on either cultivation (modern irrigation, pesticides and fertilisers), or breeding (such as hybrids and high yielding crops). These techniques came alongside the introduction of mechanical equipment, and supply chain efficiency made these techniques ever more available in developing countries as well as the 1st world. Cereal production has since doubled, the global population has ballooned, and civilisation has surged forward again. This was the 3rd agricultural revolution.
As a result of these advances, the UK today has around 70% of its land used for agriculture, with around 1% of the workforce needed for primary food production. Although we rarely stop to think about it, this really is quite staggering – fewer and fewer people are making more food than ever before in human history. This allows the other 99% of us to use our time in a myriad of other ways, building civilisation, shaping the future, and reading intriguing blog posts about Agritech.
Once again we find ourselves on the doorstep of an agricultural revolution. Some aspects of this are very similar to the previous ones, starting with the need for increased efficiency and production through revolutionary technologies to feed a growing population. However, there are also some significant differences this time, and many questions left to answer.
How do we balance the short term need for food security with the mid- and long-term environmental pressures of high intensity production?
How do we best manage the breakneck pace of convergent and disruptive technologies on-farm to make sure we keep up without being swept up?
How does the current industry, already under great strain in many areas, manage the transition to new techniques, technologies and structures?
In the next two blog posts, we will look at:
1) What is the fourth agricultural revolution?
2) Where technology and data might be driving the future of agriculture?
Whilst we might not answer all of those questions, we can share some ideas on the shape of things to come, and how Outfield is working with growers to ensure their success in this rapidly changing ecosystem.