World History and Agriculture

Written by Zixi Li and Anton Urfels

Agriculture universally constitutes the bedrock for the emergence of civilisations, the first time somewhere ten millennia ago and subsequently across multiple societies all over the world. These histories provide ample opportunities for gazing over time and space to enrich the theoretical discussions of today’s agriculture development sector. However, policy-makers and practitioners can easily forget about engaging agriculture’s interdisciplinary nature in its full dimensions. The busy arenas of computer modelling, breeding laboratories and conference halls of today’s agriculture development world leave little space to inspect the social conditions necessary to adequately describe and understand the different forms of agriculture development.

But how can we make sense of the varieties of historical paths of agricultural transformation around the world? And how can these inform and enrich discussions of agriculture development today? This article strives to engage with these questions and therewith encourage dialogues and teamwork between agricultural development practitioners and the humanities.

The Green Revolution-led development of industrial agricultural may be synthesised as follows: the development of hybrid varieties, synthetic fertilisers, as well as pesticides and herbicides, supported by irrigation and capital intensive machineries led to manifold increases in land productivity. Global food supply quickly rocket and kept food prices low despite the increasing marginal cost of labor. However, the Green Revolution achievements are increasingly tainted by inequality, land rights conflicts, natural resources degradation, loss of biodiversity, unbalanced diets and other costs associated with it. Nevertheless, industrial agriculture continues to be a linear mode of production over the world, despite a growing desire for more diversified and smallholder friendly modes of production, unique for different contexts.

It might have been an evolving Eurocentric tradition when explaining why there is a linear agricultural development narrative and why did many agronomists view non-Western agricultural systems as backwards? Many agronomists view non-Western agricultural systems at a point along the historical process of European agricultural development. However, these adverse effects suggest that a look into historical perspectives elsewhere may reveal fertile breeding grounds to enrich current discussions on the future of the world’s food systems.

Taking traditional China as an example, land productivity was increased through the application of skilled labor and cheap small-scale inputs. This is different from the Western model of large capital investment in draft animals and machines that substitute labor. Labor-intensive peasant farming under feudalistic landholding structures existed in China for centuries. As a political philosopher of the third century BCE puts it: “Where a hundred men farm and one is idle, the state will attain supremacy; where ten men farm and one is idle, the state will be strong; where half farms and half is idle, the state will be in peril.’ This is why those, who govern the country well, wish the people to take to agriculture” [1].

The notion that agriculture is a desirable livelihood pervades other Chinese schools of thoughts such as Confucianism, Daoism or the agriculturalists, and each of these schools promote a different logic as to why this is desirable. On the one hand, the Confucius suggested to keep people in agriculture to instill simple minds that do not interfere with politics so to allow better governance that benefits the people eventually. On the other hand, the Daoists promoted agricultural lives for the health benefits of equanimity and peacefulness that they believe agricultural livelihood provide. This positive view on agriculture being a desirable livelihood remained a basic view of Chinese statesmen through the unification of the empire in 221 BCE right up to the end of the Maoist era [2].

China was the world’s major producer of agricultural goods until the 1800s and its key position in world trade catalysed the rise of the modern West [3] while life expectancy and living standards of rural people in China were more advanced than in Western Europe at that time [4]. This suggests that farming output and agricultural livelihoods could be achieved without additional labor-saving machinery. For instance, intra- & inter-regional as well as international trading networks can provide dietary diversity while promoting local specialisation. This historical development in China resonates with the current global agricultural agenda that emphasises flexibility, small-scale and decentralisation.

Investigating historical debates on the role of agriculture for society can inspire and shed light on current theoretical deadlocks in the agricultural development debate, of course aware of the dangers that applying lessons from the past to similar but not matching situation in the present. Today, in developed countries automatisation is freeing labor from necessary production processes and with the increased stress levels of urban life, a growing amount of labor is attracted to return to rural livelihoods. This time not because they have to, but because they can. This trend is unfortunately not well reflected by policy makers and agricultural development practitioners. Agro-ecological and permaculture practices are all labor intensive, but in a society that supports agricultural livelihoods both culturally and economically can be partially realised by leveraging trends of moving back to the countryside.

It is not controversial to point out that the success of agriculture depends on natural and technical conditions such as climate and machinery, however social organisation and mindset also matter. Looking into cases of agricultural structural transformation globally shows that it is very robust and has deep historical roots. With today’s need to restructure sustainability, diversity and specificity into the food system, world history should be permitted to feed into the understanding and development of agriculture theory and policies. Interdisciplinary niche subjects such as comparative agriculture, agricultural history or world agriculture are handy tools to get started with this journey of agricultural historical investigation.


Zixi currently works on diversification for food security and nutrition; Anton specialises in mixed-methods approaches to address water and food security in South Asia. They both work for international organisations on food and agriculture.

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