Welcome to our first post in our ongoing series highlighting our Aquaponics Curriculum!
Over the coming weeks, we will be posting a series of articles covering the basics of each Curriculum Topic. Today, we are covering Topic 1, Lesson 1, What is Agriculture. Each of these blog posts is aimed to give an overview of the subject and provide one or more critical thinking questions. Enjoy!
What is Agriculture
According to Merriam-Webster, agriculture is "the science, art, or practice of cultivating the soil, producing crops, and raising livestock and in varying degrees the preparation and marketing of the resulting products."
Before agriculture, humans generally hunted animals and gathered parts of wild plants. Agricultural development dates back more than 12,000 years where agriculture traditionally used technology to cultivate land for raising livestock and growing crops. Technology includes tools, methods, techniques and processes used for production of agricultural products. Agricultural technology started with the use of fire to control plants; Native Americans knew that berry plants grew quickly after wildfires. Tools made of bone, stone, iron and bronze were later developed by humans to help till or break up and prepare the soil for planting.
In 5500 BC, the Mesopotamians developed aqueducts or irrigation systems that eventually spread to Egypt and South Asia in the farming of grains and rice. In addition to integrating wild crops into daily life, wild animals were also domesticated for food and clothing as well as for hunting, traveling, and farming. The use of agriculture generated surplus food in which people started to develop preservation techniques. This allowed people to store the extra food when crops failed or when it was needed for war.
Farmers crossbred varieties of grains and rice to improve harvest times and techniques. For grains, non-shattering genes were bred out of the genome so that seeds would not disperse as easily upon harvest. The Romans brought agricultural methods to Europe from the African and Asian societies they conquered. These techniques were transcribed in Roman manuals.
In the medieval times, Europeans used early rotation techniques to preserve soil nutrients and increase crop production. Farmers would plant one field in spring, one field in fall and one field would be fallow or unplanted. During the Islamic Golden age, North Africans and Middle Easterners optimized crop rotation by growing different crops each season to preserve and replenish nutrients in the soil.
In the early 1700s, Jethro Tull invented the horse-drawn seed drill which dramatically improved Europe’s food production. Since then, farming machinery helped drive the industrial era. In the United States, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1794 which separated seeds from the cotton fiber at a much faster pace and reduced the amount of manual labor. In the 1830, Cyrus McCormick presented the mechanical reaper used to cut stacks of grain quickly. Shortly after, John and Hiram Pitts introduced the horse-plowed thresher that decreased the time to separate the stacks into grains and straw. In 1837, John Deere invented the steel plow that helped farmers till tough soil with less horsepower. The new plow did not break as easily as the wooden plows and also reduced the adherence of clay to it. However, many of these technological advances were not used by farmers in Asia, Africa, South America and Australia.
By the 1950s, developed countries used gasoline and electricity to power most of the agricultural machines. Animal and steam powered machines were replaced by tractors and machines were prevalent in most stages of farming.
Because of increased crop productivity, pests and diseases were also on the rise. To control insects, the Sumerians used sulfur compounds while the ancient Egyptians and Chinese used herbs and oils. In 1101 AD, the Chinese discovered the use of soap as a pesticide. In the 1600s arsenic was a major ingredient in pesticides. In the early 1900s, arsenic and copper sulfate (Paris Green) were combined to control the Colorado potato beetle. Up until the 1930s, pesticides were ineffective, hazardous, expensive and sometimes phytotoxic. Synthetic pesticides were produced in 1939 and DDT became popular as an insecticide and as a chemical weapon in WWII.
With the invention of synthetic pesticides, the world was ready to combat world hunger through the Green Revolution. However, in 1962, Rachel Carson published the book “Silent Spring” prompting the attention of public and environmental safety. Issues surrounding DDT surfaced including public health concerns and environmental pollution. Additionally, super weeds and insects that had survived synthetic pesticides were even harder to manage.
Through the 1970s and 1980s research on insect pest management (IPM) was the beginning of regulated and integrative approaches of both natural and synthetic pesticides. With this turn of events, a new era of plants was born, genetic engineering. New genetically engineered plants (Bt corn and potatoes) inserted a bacterial gene from Bacillus thuringiensis to ward off specific pests. These new crops included plants more resistant to viruses, fungi and bacteria. One of the newer genetically modified organism is the recently FDA approved non-browning Arctic Apples.
Additionally, by the mid 1920s, a new generation of hydroponic agriculture was reintroduced. Hydroponics is the science of growing soil-less plants (soil was replaced by water, rocks, sand and other materials) with a direct supply of nutrients to the roots. Hoagland and Arnon created one of the most popular and widely heralded hydroponics nutrient solutions in 1938 and was later revised in 1950. In the 1990s, hydroponics started to gain momentum because of environmental concerns of groundwater pollution. Meanwhile, Aquaponics was also gaining traction in the late 1990s. Aquaponics is the combination of using fish waste to supply nutrients to hydroponics in hydroponic systems. Another technique used in hydroponics is aeroponics which allows for the plant roots to grow in the air with a continual or timed misting schedule of nutrient solution and water.
Check out the video below for another look at how our ancestors transitioned from Hunter-Gatherers to Agriculturalists, and then check out the Critical thinking question at the end.
Critical Thinking Question:
Did technology shape agriculture or did agriculture shape technology? How?