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From domestication to intensification: a history of agriculture in Scotland

Food production in Scotland (c) James Hutton Institute
“Yields are still high. Agriculture is diverse and diversifying in its margins. But threats to soil and food security will increase and need to be tackled. Technology alone will not solve the problems

Will intensification continue to degrade soils and even start to drive down output? Is our food supply now too vulnerable to external influence – disruption by global terrorism, variation in world cereal harvests, future phosphate wars and volcanic eruption? These, and many other questions, were discussed by James Hutton Institute scientist Dr Geoff Squire at a talk hosted by Dunkeld and Birnam Historical Society and the Dunkeld and Birnam Community Growing Group.

Dr Squire offered a panorama of the history of food production in Scotland from the first crops to the present day, starting from domestication 10,000 years ago, through the arrival of settled agriculture in the late stone age to the technology of the 1900s that eventually removed the threat of famine, and more recently to the subsequent choice between sustainability and exploitation, as well as the challenges of the future.

During his talk, he explained that settled agriculture is a recent experiment in human history, and that domestication of crops from wild plants produced the wheat, barley, maize and rice that we know and eat today.

“Grain crops enabled a settled society. Stability allowed people to learn the skill and enterprise to trade in the new technologies of bronze and iron that came across Europe centuries later. Waves of migration, Celts and Romans included, caused no great change to the basic type of grain and stock-farming of the region.

“A neolithic farmer, teleported here for the day, would recognise our crops and farm animals, except neeps and tatties which weren’t here in their day. Yet time, ignorance and oppression took their toll: centuries of misuse, the principles of soil fertility unappreciated or ignored. Soils exhausted and yields dropping to subsistence levels. Agricultural practices were unable to cope with the run of poor weather in the late 1600s, which caused starvation and famine.”

He also described improvements developed after 1700, like lime, fertiliser, turnips and other tuber crops, levelling of rigs, removal of stones, drainage, new machines for cultivation, sowing and harvest and the global search for guano, and argued that these allowed outputs to rise but not yet to the point where famine was memory.

“It wasn’t until the technological developments of the 1900s – industrially made and mined fertiliser, pesticides and advanced genetic types – that the threat of hunger was finally dispelled from north-west Europe, but these same technologies opened the way for excess and instability.

“They encouraged the breaking of two established links that had held cropped agriculture since it began: crops no longer relied on grazing land or grass crops for manure, and local production became separated from local consumption.”

Finally, he illustrated the changes brought about by increasing wealth and global trade in the 1900s, going on to discuss the challenges of the future, such as intensification, soil degradation and vulnerability of our food supplies.

“Yields are still high. Agriculture is diverse and diversifying in its margins. But threats to soil and food security will increase and need to be tackled. Technology alone will not solve the problems,” he concluded.

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Printed from /news/domestication-intensification-history-agriculture-scotland on 29/02/24 05:05:00 AM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.