Guide A Short History of English Agriculture

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One reason output grew was through new farming systems involving the rotation of turnips and clover, although these were part of the general intensification of agricultural production, with more food being produced from the same area of land. Intensity was also increased by land reclamation, especially the draining of the fenlands of eastern England, from the 17th century onwards, when a low-intensity agricultural system based on fishing and fowling was replaced by a high-intensity system based on arable crops. Other examples include the clearing of woodland and the reclamation of upland pastures.

This extent of this activity is impossible to quantify, but may have affected some 30 per cent of the agricultural area of England, from the midth to the midth centuries. The balance between arable and permanent pasture also changed, so that more productive arable land was replacing permanent pasture. This does not mean that fodder supplies were falling, quite the reverse, for the loss of permanent pasture was made good by new fodder crops, especially turnips and clover, in arable rotations. Not only did these crops result in an increase in fodder yields, but they were also instrumental in the reclamation of many lowland heaths from rough pasture to productive arable farms.

This was because one of the purposes of the fallow was to clear the land of weeds by ploughing, but a crop of turnips sown in rows could be hoed to remove weeds while it was growing. Thus fallow land was about 20 per cent of the arable area in England in , and steadily declined to reach only 4 per cent in One of the earliest pieces of evidence we have, concerning the cultivation of turnips for animal fodder, is the inventory taken for probate purposes, in , of the possessions of a Mr Pope, of Burgh Castle in Suffolk.

But turnips were not common until the midth century, and not widespread as part of the new Norfolk four-course rotation until the 19th century. Cereal yields also increased. Wheat yields increased by about a quarter between and , and then by about a half between and , and the most recent research emphasises the early 19th century as the period of crucial change. The key to increasing cereal yields was nitrogen, which we now know was the 'limiting factor' in determining cereal yields before about Existing stocks were exploited, for example, by ploughing up permanent pasture to grow cereals.

Available nitrogen was conserved by feeding bullocks in stalls, collecting their manure which is rich in nitrogen , and placing it where it was needed. Also, most importantly, new nitrogen was added to the soil using legumes - a class of plants that have bacteria attached to their roots, which convert atmospheric nitrogen into nitrates in the soil that can be used by whatever plants are grown there in the following few years. An essentially organic agriculture was gradually replaced by a farming system that depended on energy-intensive inputs.

Legumes had been sown since the Middle Ages in the form of peas, beans and vetches, but from the midth century farmers began to grow clover, both white and red, for the same purpose, and by the 19th century had dramatically increased the quantity of nitrogen in the soil available for cereal crops. In Norfolk, for example, between and , the doubling of the area of legumes and a switch to clover tripled the rate of symbiotic nitrogen fixation. This new system of farming was remarkable because it was sustainable; the output of food was increased dramatically, without endangering the long-term viability of English agriculture.

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But just as a sustainable agriculture had been achieved, the development of chemical fertilisers and other external inputs undermined this sustainability. An essentially organic agriculture was gradually replaced by a farming system that depended on energy-intensive inputs dependent on the exploitation of fossil fuels. This falling proportion of workers in agriculture enabled the proportion working in industry and services to rise: in other words improved agricultural production made the industrial revolution possible, and many would regard the industrial revolution as the beginning of the modern world.

By only 22 per cent of the British workforce was in agriculture; the smallest proportion for any country in the world. The development of agrarian capitalism in England saw the development of better farm management and more efficiency in using the workforce.

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Exactly how those working on the land were able to produce more food remains something of a mystery. More animal power was available to English farmers than to their counterparts elsewhere, and from the s and 30s a wide variety of machinery was developed, which was particularly important for improving the efficiency of the cutting and threshing of grain. The improvement in labour productivity, however, had begun long before this.

The key probably lies in the way the English workforce was organised and employed. The development of agrarian capitalism in England, with those involved in agriculture divided into landowners, capitalist tenant farmers and labourers, saw the development of better farm management and more efficiency in using the workforce.

Debate about the agricultural revolution in England is still full of controversy. Some historians, particularly those using the techniques of economics to derive indices of output and productivity from prices, completely dismiss the idea of an agricultural revolution after and argue that the major changes happened earlier.

Since no national agricultural statistics were produced until it is understandable that historians search for techniques that purport to give them the information they want: but it is difficult to avoid the overwhelming mass of evidence from a wide variety of sources that points to the period after as witnessing an agricultural revolution. IV, ; vol. V, ; vol. VI, These inequities have been exacerbated by the neo-liberal policies implemented in almost all Latin American countries during the s, and which have opened a much broader road for the export of plundered natural resources that pay for the growing demands of the foreign debt.

Money becomes the logic of farming During this period, the agricultural sector - one of the most promising productive sectors of the region - changed dramatically.

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Large-scale, export-oriented production requiring the intensive use of chemical inputs started to dominate the agricultural landscape. This Green Revolution-style approach to farming started to suffocate the diversified local and self-sufficient farming practices of small and medium-sized farmers. Traditional campesino culture had demonstrated a high degree of sustainability within its own historical and ecological contexts, and fulfilled the vital needs of the population even under adverse environmental conditions. Farming practices were built on sophisticated social, geographical and cultural frameworks, appropriate processing technologies, and a precise knowledge of resources, consumption and labour habits, all adjusted to the conditions of each locale.

These diverse farming systems fed millions of Americans five hundred years ago. In at least seven countries Brazil, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Paraguay , campesinos are primarily responsible for their own food security. Nevertheless, their farming methods - so successful from a social and environmental point of view - have not received the support or the official backing of the governments.

Green Revolution agriculture has taken humankind's conflict with Nature to unprecedented levels. It promotes a farming model based exclusively on economic logic - maximising profits, increasing yields, and homogenising and concentrating production in ever fewer crops and varieties.

The model is highly inefficient in ecological and social terms, and is only productive within an economic framework imposed by global capitalism that forces large areas of the world to transform great tracts of land for the non-diversified production of crops to feed livestock in the most developed countries.

The Green Revolution, which has gripped most of the Latin American continent for thirty years, has certainly left its mark. Most of the important impacts have been negative, affecting habitats, landscape and biodiversity, food sovereignty and food security, and the lives of millions of people. In the s, the continent was confronted with a new twist to the Green Revolution model, with the introduction of genetically modified GM crops.

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The GM Revolution extends the logic of the Green Revolution from controlling the inputs seeds and chemicals to controlling the whole chain of agroindustrial activities from seed to supermarket packaging. Not only are farmers and campesinos everywhere affected by this ever more dominant force, but so are the consuming public, which is rapidly losing its freedom to choose what it eats.

New technology, regulatory measures, patents and commercial agreements were the keys to introducing GM products in Latin America, and success has been varied.

CONABIA's explicit objectives in relation to GMOs include the "minimisation" of potential risks to human health, the natural environment and agricultural productivity; "favouring" technological development; assessing the safety and quality of the new products; informing public opinion; and following the international markets. Most of them have been more involved in matters regarding the promotion of the new technologies than with their regulation, largely ignoring integrated social-environmental impact studies see Table 1.

There have been no instances of broad-based public participation, nor are the decisions of the agencies submitted to review by independent researchers. These agencies' personnel and consulting structures include researchers from biotechnology research centres, industry representatives and other actors from the public sector and the trade associations, but there is very scarce representation and very little real participation by representatives from NGOs or government agencies charged with protecting the natural environment or the consumer.

The existence of these risk evaluation committees is largely symbolic, and they tend to focus on establishing legal formalities and acting as guarantors against possible legal actions from the public. These agencies also now usually have a public relations section whose mission is to explain "the scientific basis for these processes" presuming that only the science is in question , but without opening a forum for public participation.

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On the other hand, the Ministries of Agriculture in each of these countries are very actively involved with the bodies that certify and promote seeds. These entities were set up to adapt and implement the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants UPOV in order to expand the commercial seed industry and oversee the payments of patents and royalties.

These bodies and mechanisms are well established in Argentina and Brazil, and there is rapid development elsewhere. The strongest proponents of promoting and spreading the new transgenic seeds are the trade associations which defend and represent the interests of the seed sector in each of our nations. These organisations have the resources to carry out constant lobbying and operate with the support of huge transnational corporations, and heavily influence the decisions of the government agencies in charge of overseeing and certifying commercial seed.

Legal frameworks that are strong enough for the effective regulation of GM technologies and the powerful corporations behind them are sorely lacking. Just one nation, Ecuador, has included strict biosafety norms based on the precautionary principle for handling GMOs in the national constitution. Brazil also has specific legislation on biosafety that regulates the use of GMOs, but the other countries only have decrees and norms promulgated by their Ministries of Agriculture, Environment and others.

The case of Argentina is especially noteworthy because despite the amount of land already planted to GM crops, the country has no regulatory standards, nor has there been an open debate in Congress regarding legislation that would contain and oversee the introduction of GM crops. Similarly, few countries have taken concrete steps on consumers' rights. Ecuador has passed a Consumer Protection Law which states the obligation to inform the public of GM ingredients in food products.

Consolidation gathers steam The transnational agro-industrial corporations have created large conglomerates through buying out or negotiating collaboration agreements with companies in the agricultural and chemical sectors. In addition to buying up national companies, the transnationals are purchasing outright or partially investing in state-owned enterprises, often disguising the presence of the corporations in both areas.

This is how the major economic groups in the seed and chemical sectors arrived in the region several decades ago, and have now expanded throughout Latin America. Monsanto now holds a strong position in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, and is experiencing dramatic growth elsewhere.


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The circle is closed with the involvement of the world's major grain traders such as Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Toepfer and Dreyfus, which operate and are expanding rapidly in the north as well as the south of the region. The same is true all over the continent, showing how thick a slice of the world's exportable foodstuffs are in the hands of these companies, which have tremendous negotiating power. To deal with public dissent over GMOs, the interested sectors have created their own media to promote the technology.