From Texas A&M University - Agricultural Communications
Revolutionary crop yields top list of key agricultural events during last 50 years WASHINGTON, D.C. --- The most important change in agriculture in the past 50 years, say members of North American Agricultural Journalists, was the hybridization and improvement of many crops.
A list of 40 important events and changes in agriculture was prepared for NAAJ by three leading agricultural historians: R. Douglas Hurt of Iowa State University, C. Fred Williams of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and David Vaught of Texas A&M University. NAAJ members then voted on the top 10 developments in agriculture during the past 50 years. The results were released Sunday at the 50th anniversary meeting of NAAJ in Washington, D.C.
Hybridization is the process of inbreeding plants, then crossing their offspring to create stronger, higher yielding varieties. Hybrid corn was developed long before NAAJ was formed in 1953. Plant scientists were experimenting with it at the turn of the 20th century, and hybrid corn began to be sold commercially in the 1920s, noted Dan Looker, Successful Farming magazine writer and project organizer.
"But during the past 50 years, the combination of hybrid crops, cheap farm chemicals derived from fossil fuels, and mechanization has created a technological revolution in agriculture that has helped feed billions of people on the planet," he said.
When NAAJ founded 50 years ago, the average corn yield in the United States was 40.7 bushels per acre. Last year, even after a severe drought in many states, hybrid corn helped U.S. farmers harvest an average of 130 bushels an acre, Looker said.
"Hybridization accounts for about half of that huge increase in yields as well as corn's improved ability to withstand drought," he said.
Here are the events and developments of the past 50 years that agricultural journalists picked, in order of importance:
1. Hybridization and other improvements of crops.
2. Genetically modified crops that have been engineered to kill insect pests and tolerate herbicides. Most U.S. farmers adopted this technology in less than a decade, starting in the 1990s. Some consumer groups, especially in Europe, oppose modifying crops through genetic engineering.
3. The discovery of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the chemical building block of heredity, by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. These researchers discovered the ladder-like double helix structure of DNA, helping to start the biotechnology revolution now underway.
4. Norman Borlaug's "Green Revolution." Plant breeder Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and now teaches at Texas A&M, developed high yielding dwarf wheat varieties that helped turn Third World countries such as India into food exporters. The wheat varieties were introduced into India and Pakistan in 1965. Borlaug's work helped prevent starvation and malnutrition across the globe.
5. The agricultural debt crisis of the 1980s, which started when the Federal Reserve Bank encouraged higher interest rates to slow inflation. This forced many full-time family farms out of business, created rural bank failures and crippled small towns.
6. The 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's book, "Silent Spring." Carson, a nature writer and former marine biologist, documented how the insecticide DDT accumulates in the environment and harms mammals and birds. Her book helped start the environmental movement.
7. The use of antibiotics for livestock and poultry, approved by the Food and Drug Administration nearly 50 years ago. Adding antibiotics to the feed of hogs and chickens not only prevents diseases, it makes the animals grow faster. And it makes it easier to confine them in large buildings with fewer disease outbreaks. Medical research has also identified overuse of antibiotics in livestock production as one reason antibiotics are becoming less effective medicines for humans.
8. Tie. NAAJ members gave equal votes to two developments: the adoption of no-till farming, which avoids plowing and slows soil erosion, and the fact that the farm population dropped below 2 percent of U.S. population for the first time during the 1990s.
9. The adoption of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer, a cheap source of nitrogen fertilizer made by using natural gas. Until anhydrous ammonia was adopted in the 1950s, farmers relied on animal manure and leguminous plants such as clover to provide this key plant food. Without cheap nitrogen, the high yields of hybrid corn and dwarf wheat would not have been possible.
10. Integration of the poultry industry. Most farmers once owned a few chickens to raise for meat and eggs. In the 1960s, once chickens could be confined in large buildings thanks to antibiotics and abundant cheap corn, the ownership of chickens gradually concentrated with a few companies. Those companies pay farmers a fee for each bird they raise for the company. A similar process of vertical integration is taking place today in the hog industry.
NAAJ members identified several other key trends that weren't on the historians' lists. They include the increasing mechanization of agriculture in general. For example, mechanical tomato pickers (which were on the list but didn't make the top 10) became popular in the 1960s. The U.S. grain export boom of the 1970s that followed sales to the former Soviet Union in 1972, was another key event. So was elimination of rail freight subsidies for grain in Canada, which led to more exports of Canadian crops and livestock into the United States.
NAAJ was formed as Newspaper Farm Editors of America. Today the group represents about 100 newspaper, magazine and news service writers who cover agriculture in the United States and Canada.