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Agricultural Revolution

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Agricultural Revolution

Before the 17th century, the world's human population was less than half a billion people. By the start of the 20th century, that population surged to over 1.5 billion people. In the course of a few centuries, the world population tripled, but how? What were the reasons and consequences of such a dramatic turning point in history? The answers can be found in the agricultural revolution.

Agricultural Revolution Definition

The agricultural revolution in this article refers to the British Agricultural Revolution, also known as the Second Agricultural Revolution. The first agricultural revolution took place in 10,000 BC when humans first began to cultivate land and plant crops. It would be roughly 11,600 years until the practice of agriculture was truly developed into its next stage.

Agricultural Revolution:

Period of history referring to the technological and societal innovations that created a massive increase in agricultural production from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

Agricultural Revolution Population Graph Study SmarterGraph depicting world population on the y-axis and date on the x-axis. Source: Max Roser, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Agricultural Revolution Timeline

While the agricultural revolution is considered a "revolution" in terms of its sheer impact on human history, it does not refer to a single year or particular moment. The British agricultural revolution extended across multiple centuries, with multiple innovations occurring in one decade, followed by years of relative stagnation. Historians argue over the specific starting and end dates of the revolution. The simple timeline below offers an approximated progression of the agricultural revolution and its related dates.

  • 10,000 BC: First Agricultural Revolution (the beginning of agriculture)

  • 1650 CE: The estimated beginning of the British Agricultural Revolution.

  • 1701 CE: Jethro Tull invents the seed drill.

  • 1730 CE: The four-year crop rotation is implemented.

  • 1773 CE: The Enclosure Act is passed

  • 1837 CE: John Deere invents the steel plow.

  • 1895 CE: Refrigeration is invented; the estimated end of the agricultural revolution.

Agricultural Revolution Characteristics

The agricultural revolution facilitated a massive increase in the human population. New farming methods yielded crops such as wheat and barley in vast quantities. The surplus of food allowed for more reproduction, and more time devoted to technological research. The new efficient methods and technologies in farming also caused societal changes that still mark our world today.

Agricultural Revolution Wheat Study SmarterPicture of a wheat field. Source: Maurice Flesier, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Technological Innovation in the Agricultural Revolution

Technological innovation does not only refer to the design and manufacturing of new tools. Perhaps the most important innovation of the British agricultural revolution was the implementation of the four-year crop rotation in 1730. For centuries, Europeans farmed using three-year crop rotation, growing different crops on two plots of land and leaving the other fallow so that it could replenish its nutrients. This method left about a quarter of the land untended and unused.

Agricultural Revolution Seed Drill Study Smarter1762 schematic for a seed drill, invented by Jethro Tull in 1701. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

With the implementation of the four-crop rotation, British farmers cycled their lands through wheat, oats, clover, and turnips. Crops such as turnips helped to replenish the land with nutrients, making the four-crop rotation system much more effective than past farming methods.

The Agricultural Trap:

In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, author Yuval Harari proposes that the Agricultural Revolution was a trap, rather than an opportunity for mankind. Consider this quote from Professor Harari:

"The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.”

This refers to the First Agricultural Revolution, but in many ways, his idea parallels the Second Agricultural Revolution (the one discussed in this article). How could the Second Agricultural Revolution be considered a trap, a "fraud"?

New machinery and tools helped shape the nature of agricultural production, such as Jethro Tull's 1701 seed drill and John Deere's 1837 steel plow. More efficient farming meant more people could work in factories to produce more equipment to make farming more efficient. Through the British agricultural revolution, the world was changing forever.

Societal Change in the Agricultural Revolution

In May of 1773, the British Parliament passed the Enclosure Act. The law "enclosed" plots owned by landowners, no longer allowing commoners to travel, farm, or graze animals where they pleased. The controversial law was a big step toward property ownership, civil liberties, and migration toward urban areas, all of which have shaped the modern world.

Agricultural Revolution farmers Study SmarterArt depicting Scottish farmers on a wheat field. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The establishment of property rights led to a surge in market trading within Britain, dividing rich landowners from commoners. The British government passed a series of Poor Laws to support a growing lower class population during a period of great technological and societal change.

Relationship Between Agricultural Revolution and Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution depended upon the initial innovations of the Agricultural Revolution (though at some point, they began in part to sustain each other). After agricultural production provided more crops and required fewer hands, workers began migrating to cities. This was the workforce that fueled the Industrial Revolution. Factories began sprouting across England and even in its colonies in America, leading to an influx of manufactured goods, new methods of transportation such as steamboats and railways, and a whole lot of overworked, disgruntled employees.

Importance of the Agricultural Revolution

The Second Agricultural Revolution stands as one of the most important events in world history. Over just a few centuries, the essence of living had changed dramatically over much of the globe. Many farmers exchanged their plows for positions in the nearest factory; food became more plentiful, allowing for increased reproduction rates (rates which have only increased exponentially since the inception of the Agricultural Revolution). In many ways, the Agricultural Revolution was a series of (very innovative) baby steps before the world leaped into its modern era.

Agricultural Revolution - Key takeaways

  • The Agricultural Revolution (the British or Second Agricultural Revolution) took place from the 17th to the 19th centuries. It was a period of great technological and societal change in agricultural production.
  • The innovations of the Agricultural Revolution allowed for massive increases in population, a trend that is continuing to this day.
  • Technologies such as the four-crop rotation, steel plow, and seed drill made agricultural production more efficient than ever before.
  • Societal changes such as the Enclosure Act further facilitated agricultural production while also influencing the shape of modern-day societies and economies.
  • The Agricultural Revolution was an extremely important period in world history, shaping the very makeup of the modern world.

Frequently Asked Questions about Agricultural Revolution

The Agricultural Revolution is a period of history referring to the technological and societal innovations that created a massive increase in agricultural production from the 17th to the 19th centuries.  

Period of history referring to the technological and societal innovations that created a massive increase in agricultural production from the 17th to the 19th centuries.  

The main characteristics of the Agricultural Revolution are technological innovation and societal change, leading to greater agricultural production and an increase in human reproduction. 

The Agricultural Revolution roughly started in the 17th century, though historians dispute what exact year or decade the revolution could be considered to have started in. 

The main characteristics of the Agricultural Revolution are technological innovation and societal change, leading to greater agricultural production and an increase in human reproduction. 

Final Agricultural Revolution Quiz

Question

What time frame did the Agricultural Revolution take place in? 

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Answer

17th to 19th centuries. 

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Question

Why was the human population able to vastly increase during and after the Agricultural Revolution? 

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Answer

The Agricultural Revolution yielded more agricultural production, feeding more families and allowing for increased reproduction. 

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Question

Define the Agricultural Revolution: 

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Answer

Period of history referring to the technological and societal innovations that created a massive increase in agricultural production from the 17th to the 19th centuries. 


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Question

What is NOT another term for the Agricultural Revolution of the 17th to 19th centuries? 

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Answer

The Neolithic Agricultural Revolution 

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Question

What new farming technique yielded vastly more agricultural production, using up the roughly 25% of farmland that had not been used in the three-year crop rotation farming method? 

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Answer

Four-year crop rotation

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Question

What was NOT a prominent crop grown in the British four-year crop rotation? 

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Answer

Basil 

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Question

Name one of the inventors and their associated Agricultural Revolution invention that were mentioned in the article. 

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Answer

John Deere and steel plow OR Jethro Tull and seed drill 

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Question

What was the name of the laws passed by the British Parliament to help alleviate the suffering lower class during the Agricultural Revolution? 

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Answer

The Poor Laws 

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Question

What was the Enclosure Act? 

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Answer

The Enclosure Law "enclosed" plots owned by landowners, no longer allowing commoners to travel, farm, or graze animals where they pleased. 

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Question

Why was a crop rotation necessary in British farming? 

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Answer

Crops such as wheat sucked up nutrients from the earth, nutrients which took years to naturally replenish. 

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