The Industrial Revolution was preceded by the first steps in a long-term 'agricultural revolution' that began in Britain in the 18th century and continued into the 20th century. Before 1700, British farmers had already begun to cultivate their fields according to the "Norfolk four-step system". The annual rotation of wheat, turnips, barley and clover meant that the soil regenerated better, the harvest was more productive and there was also fodder for livestock: Turnips for winter, clover for summer grazing. Increasing yields not only fed the country's growing population, but also created surpluses that were used to fuel industrialisation.
The road to mechanisation began in 1701 with the invention of the seed drill by the Englishman Jethro Tull. The first biological innovations were the systematic breeding experiments of the Englishman Robert Bakewell around the middle of the century. He cross-bred sheep breeds to increase the yield of meat and wool production and began to breed beef cattle - until then, cattle had been kept mainly for milk production and as draught animals.
In the 19th century, technological development gradually shifted to the United States, where there was a great need for mechanisation due to the vast expanses of land and labour shortages, and where there was also a huge market. In the Old World, however, human labour continued to dominate agriculture for a long time. Although the first reaper was invented by the Scottish priest Patrick Bell, scythes were still used for reaping in Europe, and the reaper patented in 1834 by the American Cyrus McCormick - whose company was for a long time a major manufacturer of agricultural machinery - prevailed. The steel plough was developed in 1837 by John Deere - later to become a major name in agricultural machinery - because the conventional cast steel ploughs had failed in the hard soils of the American West. In 1858, the Briton John Fowler was the first to use a steam engine to pull a plough instead of a team of animals. Towards the end of the 19th century, George Stockton Berry developed the first self-propelled combine harvester in the USA. And in 1889, American inventor John Charter unveiled a petrol-powered tractor - but it was slow to catch on. In Western Europe in particular, farmers continued to use horses as draught animals until the 1950s.
The breakthrough in biological innovation was triggered by German chemist Justus Liebig's theory of matter: As a result, scientific research became increasingly important in agriculture, as it had been in industry. Liebig's discovery, published in 1840, that the minerals nitrogen, potassium salt and phosphorus are essential for plant growth made it possible for the first time to produce precisely tailored artificial fertilisers: The dependence of crop yields on the weather, which had caused so many severe famines, seemed to have come to an end. Almost at the same time, the British researcher John Bennet Lawes applied for a patent for his 'superphosphate', the first artificial fertiliser. The decisive advance in the production of nitrogen fertiliser was the "ammonia synthesis", realised on an industrial scale in 1913 by the chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch. It is still the most important method of fertiliser production today and plays a vital role in feeding the world's rapidly growing population.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's findings on the mechanisms of heredity, published back in 1866, also led to groundbreaking changes. Until then, farmers and agricultural companies had crossed animals or plants with desirable traits according to the principle of "trial and error". For example, they had succeeded in increasing the sugar content of beet so that it replaced sugar cane imported from the colonies. However, breeding could be carried out systematically on a scientific basis: the broiler chicken was born in 1916, and in 1918 the geneticist Donald F. Jones developed hybrid maize at an American agricultural research institute.
The breeding of poultry, pigs and cattle has now been radically optimised for economic exploitation: The "single purpose animal" was simply supposed to produce a lot of meat (or a lot of milk). In addition to targeted breeding, artificial insemination, which had been developed in the Soviet Union and was quickly adopted in other countries, was also used for this purpose. However, highly specialised breeding and increasing factory farming made livestock susceptible to diseases. In addition to other pharmaceuticals, farms have therefore been adding antibiotics to the feed since the 1940s - which also accelerated the animals' weight gain as the amount of feed decreased. It was only in the last decades of the 20th century that the general public realised the health consequences for humans and animals.
Hybrid crops also produced much higher yields, were more resistant to weather and pests, and were standardised so that they could be easily harvested by machine. By the 1950s, the US was producing almost exclusively hybrid corn. New varieties of wheat and rice were also exported on a large scale to countries in the global south. But radical specialisation came at a cost to crops: hybrid crops require more artificial fertiliser to grow, and large-scale monocultures are more susceptible to disease and pests, increasing the need for synthetic inputs. By the 1920s, the herbicide auxin 2,4-D had been introduced: It can be seen as a symbol of the ambivalence of development, as auxin was a product of chemical weapons research. The same goes for DDT: in 1939, the Swiss scientist Paul Hermann Müller discovered that this long-known chemical compound had an insecticidal effect. DDT was then used against both plant pests and the Anopheles mosquito, which transmits malaria, until its highly toxic effect on humans led to widespread bans.
Since the end of the 19th century, structural change in agriculture has meant that farms have needed more and more capital for mechanisation, synthetic inputs and expansion, while the number of workers has fallen inexorably. Countless farmers have given up, unable to cultivate ever larger areas and increase their yields. The process of concentration into a few large, highly automated farms, which began in the USA, had a massive impact on European agriculture after the Second World War. As farmers became more dependent on highly specialised chemical products such as seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, they also became more dependent on a handful of large international companies with strong research capabilities. The environmental and health impacts of industrialised food production were not widely discussed at the time.
Encyclopedia.com: The Industrialization of Agriculture
John Hopkins Center: Industrialization of Agriculture
Farming and Agricultural Industrialisation (Martin Bruegel)
bpb: Strukturwandel und Agrarentwicklung seit 1880
Die Technisierung der Landwirtschaft
Oekosystem Erde: Vom Bauern zur industriellen Landwirtschaft