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European civilisation developed via Greece because as the Greek civilisation declined the centre of civilisation moved to Italy and after the dark ages, a new civilisation developed in Northwest Europe [Carter, Dale, 1974].

In Western European little land was seriously exploited during Roman times and civilisation in this area is only relatively young. In 1050 A.D. less than twenty percent of England was being farmed and during the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries the amount of cultivated land doubled, tripled and quadrupled. During the fourteenth century a substantial part of the tillable land in Western Europe was being farmed [Carter, Dale, 1974]. This was in part due to the revolution of ] horse power which was brought about, by the invention of the horse collar, traces and other ancillaries. In addition horses could be hitched together to form a team, allowing one person to cultivate more ground at a quicker rate. The Greeks and Romans never learnt to use the horse as a draft animal as they used oxen which were much slower.

Feudalistic agriculture incorporated a two-field system of crop and fallow that had been developed by the Greeks two thousand years previously. In many ways the systems were inefficient with lime and wood ash used as a fertiliser when available, and manure only came from grazing animals. This system accelerated soil erosion and as serfs were seldom assigned the same piece of land for more than two years they had no incentive to care for or improve the land [Carter, Dale, 1974].

The climate in Western Europe is conducive to soil conservation and soil building methods such as crop rotation, manuring and liming which only became common after feudalism disappeared [Carter, Dale, 1974]. The use of modern crop rotation was likely to have originated in the Low Countries of Western Europe, by the sixteenth century Dutch and Flemish farmers who were using a system of rotation and alternating crops to protect and build their soils [Simms, 1970]. The Dutch and Flemish farmers were the first in Western Europe to rid themselves of Feudalism as the improved system allowed more farmers to own the land they worked. As towns and cities grew rapidly hedges and fences were used to separate the farms. The prosperity of these farmers led to a wide use and further development of scientific agriculture, which spread through the rest of Europe [Carter, Dale, 1974].

As previously mentioned, Carter and Dale [1974] attribute the development of contour farming and contour strip-cropping to German farmers, who also deserve the credit for starting sustainable forestry management. They were also among the leaders in developing the use of commercial fertilisers and practising scientific agriculture. Kohnke and Bertrand [1959] note that strip cropping was practiced by Pennsylvanian Germans early in America's colonisation.

Modern 'Scientific' Farming

Historically agriculturists produced food for themselves and their family group[s] and even today many poor nations still practise subsistence agriculture. The advent of scientific agriculture [Russell, 1966] and the use of modern technology has been responsible for large increases in productivity and the production of surplus food, which is necessary to support urban civilisations. Scientific agriculture has been accepted by the vast majority of Western farmers and has allowed farmers to enjoy economic sustainability.

Although the origins of modern farming systems can be traced back ten, perhaps twelve thousand years, it is only during the last half of this century that significant technical and economic changes have occurred. Prior to A.D. 1600, agricultural productivity was apparently very similar in India, China and Europe. After this period significant increases in crop yields occurred, due in part to the elimination of medieval institutions, the reduction of fallow and the introduction of grasses and root crops [Grigg, 1976]. In the nineteenth century a significant break through occurred with the introduction of the industrial revolution and labour saving machinery. Furthermore the access to new inputs such as steam and later electricity, the petrol driven tractor and inorganic fertilisers caused the agricultural revolution of Western agriculture. Since the nineteen forties scientific knowledge in parallel with technology has caused the rapid increase in more intensive agriculture with greater volumes of inputs and outputs occurring [Tivy, 1990]. Modern agricultural science has allowed commercial crops to be grown on a large scale and over a diversity of landscapes. It has also facilitated specialist farming and industrialised agriculture, also commercial venues involving the use of new technologies, to the point of 'factory' farms where artificial support systems are in place, such as the system with battery hens. Although these intensive technocentric systems use more resources than ecocentric systems there is sufficient profit margin to justify their existence. Modern agricultural science has to a large extent become dominated by chemical science with major advancements being traced back to a significant event such as the manufacture and patent of superphosphate by Laws in 1843 [Russell, 1966]. A further milestone was the use of first generation strong poisons such as copper, mercury, sulphur etc.. This was followed by a second generation of man made synthesised chemicals which were highly toxic in small amounts, such as chlorinated hydrocarbons [Koepf, Pettersson, Schaumann, 1979].

Science has aided the increased production of agricultural systems. However, it has limitations especially in complex situations such as agriculture. Modern agricultural science has been too preoccupied with analysis and has neglected the need for synthesis and 'interconnectedness' [Roberts, 1995; Reeve, 1990]. Scientific methods have a limited ability to cope with complexity and as a subject becomes richer and more dynamic some form of a system approach may therefore be more appropriate [Checkland, 1988]. Science has made enormous contributions to the total sum of human knowledge and yet when it is applied to biology - the study of living organisms, it largely has failed [Pfeiffer, 1983]. Reeve [1990] believes that there is an inherent weakness in reductionist scientific methods that arbitrarily divide nature into subjects and disciplines which in effect sever the study of the interconnections between parts. Confident prediction about the behaviour of the whole system, cannot be made from the isolated understanding of the behaviour of the small components of a system [Reeve, 1990].

Despite science's apparent limitations, it has for decades dominated Western culture and has enjoyed great social prestige. This relatively unquestioned dominance has given science some authenticity. However, a questioning of science is inhibited by the general acceptance that science can be taken for granted and very often only philosophy reflects on its findings [Trigg, 1994]. Many philosophers and scientists are only too willing to take science at face value and yet the work of Trigg [1994] suggests that "a pre-occupation with a scientific method can result in rejection of any notion of rationality which cannot be fully translated into physical terms" [Trigg, 1994, p.8]. The development of communications, agri-chemicals, genetic engineering and veterinary medicine etc.: all testify to the marvels of science [Savory, 1988]. On the other hand, it is very apparent that there are increasing problems and a lack of understanding in the 'non-mechanical' - management - strategic management world, that involves complex relationships and what Savory [1988] regards as wholes with diffused boundaries i.e. economics, human relationships, ecology and especially agriculture [Roberts, 1995]. This author agrees with Carter and Dale [1974] that science will do its best to save our civilisation and our planet and it is the one edge that we have on all previous cultures. In reality, however, science does not have all the answers but with ongoing research it is answering more questions.

Changes in agricultural research

Agricultural research is moving away from the old single-disciplined approach and is taking a more integrated approach [Savory, 1988; Roberts, 1995]. There has been an evolution in thinking, for example in the nineteen fifties and sixties emphasis was often placed on single issues, such as soil conservation, often at the farm level [Kohnke, Bertrand, 1959]. As a better understanding of agricultural problems emerged in regard to land capacity, that is tree decline and salinity, a new trend emerged that treated the farmer's property as a whole. In Australia in the nineteen eighties this culminated in the subject of Whole Farm Planning, which conceptually considered the farm as a system that also affected adjoining neighbours. This was followed by the progression of the development of Landcare in the nineteen nineties, involving the wider community and issues relating to even broader issues such as water quality and regional salinity which crossed property, regional and even state man-made boundaries. Currently the advent of a new holistic approach is [Holistic] Resource Management which is starting to impact in Australia [Roberts, 1995]. Whole Farm Planning, Land Care and [Holistic] Resource Management are all approaches that have high merit, but do not change the fact that biological activity and plant growth either directly or indirectly give farmers the ability to feed growing populations and to make a profit before these holistic approaches can be financed [Campbell, 1994]. Although agricultural research can benefit from a holistic approach this author asks the question - is current research taking for granted the fact that modern Western agricultural systems use high inputs of agrochemicals? This author suggests that it does and challenges this assumption as it would appear that it is possible to produce commercial plants without large quantities of agrochemicals. But are these 'alternative' agricultural production systems sustainable? This author is placing an emphasis on these other approaches to answer the question, 'are current production systems sustainable?' These 'alternative' agricultural production systems are considered in the proceeding section, but first it would be appropriate to define what this author means by an 'agricultural production system'.

The information contained in this publication has been formulated in good faith, the contents do not take into account all the factors which need to be considered before putting that information into practice. Accordingly, no person should rely on anything contained herein as a substitute for specific professional advice.
S.O.S. Rev 9.2 All rights reserved. Contact: www.healthyag.com © Gwyn Jones 2001

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