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AGRONOMY: TRADITION AND FUTURE

Pedro Aguiar Pinto


Instituto Superior de Agronomia, Universidade Técnica de Lisboa, Tapada da Ajuda,
1349-017 Lisboa, Portugal, papinto@isa.utl.pt

Abstract: Agronomy is an integrative science born as a synthesis of knowledge coming


from biological and physico-chemical sciences, agricultural practices as
changed by technological development and higher education schools. The
knowledge obtained was very successfully introduced in agricultural practice.
The success of agriculture and the negative impact of some agricultural
practices as well as the specialization in science brought Agronomy into and
identity crisis. The systems approach is presented as a tool to return to the
future the integrative tradition of Agronomy.

Key words: Agronomy, agriculture, integrative science.

1. AGRICULTURE, AGRONOMY AND ECOLOGY

Agricultural management is engaged with fields of plants and areas of


land, This requires knowledge of plant communities with aerial and soil
environments. These organismal and higher levels of biological organization
are the subject fields of Ecology, but explanation of behavior at these levels
depends upon integration of relevant knowledge spanning lower levels from
molecules and cells to organs [1].
The production of organic materials in the field depends upon the
physiological ability of plants and on the characteristics of the environment
within which they are grown. These production processes are the subject of
ecological analyses based on biological, chemical and physical principles.
The integrated result of these analyses is the core subject of Agronomy.

329
M. Seabra Pereira (ed.), A Portrait of State-of-the-Art Research at the Technical University
of Lisbon, 329–339.
© 2007 Springer. Printed in the Netherlands.
330 P.A. Pinto

The crops that are grown and how they are grown are human decisions
that depend also upon the utility of the products, the costs of production and
the risk involved. The reason why they are grown is mainly the production
of food and fiber and this is the economical activity that we call Agriculture.

1.1 The birth and growth of a scientific discipline

Although Agriculture is as ancient as history, the systematic study of the


processes involved in agricultural production is relatively recent.
While Ecology has a precise birth date and even a father, I could not find
yet one single father for Agronomy nor a precise birth date.
Table 1 presents a sample chronology of apparently unrelated events. Its
main purpose is to set the scenario in which Agronomy was born and gave
its initial steps as an integrative science.

Table 1. Chronology of events in science, technology and education related to Ecology,


Agronomy and Agriculture in the nineteenth century. Information from [2-3].
Year Scientific events Technological Teaching and education
developments milestones
1798 An essay on the Principle
of Population (T. Malthus)
1802 Steam engine thresher Germany: 1st Agronomy
school at Möglin (Thaer)
1813 Elements of Agricultural
Chemistry (Humphry-Davy) Hungary: 2nd Agronomy
1815 school at Georgikon
(Samuel Tessedik)
1818 Germany: Hoenheim
(Schwertz)
1820 Introduction of guano in École Agro-Forrestière de
England Roville (1822)
1823 Systema mycologicum École Agro-Forrestière de
(Elias Fries) de Nancy (1824)
1826 First mechanical mower École Agro-Forrestière de
(England) Grignon (1826)
1831-6 H.M.S. Beagle voyage
1838 Entomology manual (Carl
Burmeister)
1840 Law of the minimum
(Justus van Liebig) Rothamstead Exp. Station
1843 (John Bennet Lawes)
1845 Superphosphate (England)
1850 Use of sulphur for powdery
mildew (France) Instituto Agrícola at
1853 Lisbon
1855 Géograph. Botan. raisonnée
(Alp. de Candolle)
Agronomy: Tradition and Future 331

Table 2. Chronology of events in science, technology and education related to Ecology,


Agronomy and Agriculture in the nineteenth century. Information from [2-3]. (cont.)
Year Scientific events Technological Teaching and education
developments milestones
1859 The origin of species
(Charles Darwin) Chain mechanization in
1860 the Chicago slaughter Land-Grant Universities
1862 house (USA)
1865 Phyloxera in France,
1866 Hybridization experiments Portugal, Spain, Italy
in plants (Gregor Mendel)
Ernst Heckel (oecologia)
1870 Grain-binder (USA) Encicl. Agraria Italiana
1871 (Gaetano Cantoni)
1879 Thomas phosphate
1886 Soil classification (Vassilii
Dokouchaev)
1888 Rhizobium (Martinus
Willem Beijerink)
1890 First herbicides (France)
1911 Instituto Superior de
Agronomia (Lisboa)

Agronomy developed as an integrative science incorporating and


interrelating knowledge from the scientific disciplines that dealt with the
biology of plants and animals of interest to agricultural production, with the
characterization and understanding of the physical environment, while
agricultural production was accelerating and requiring further technological
developments. The need for a superior education in these interrelated areas
fostered the appearance of specialized schools almost everywhere in Europe
and North America. All these events occurred in little more than one
hundred years and their combination gave rise to systematic knowledge that
carries the fingerprints of science, technology and education with the
characteristics of engineering: solving problems raised by a fast-growing
economical activity: Agriculture.

2. THE PERFORMANCE OF AGRICULTURE

During the 20th century, Agriculture showed an astonishing performance.


While the world population grew threefold to 6 x 109 around the year
2000, the food output of Agriculture has been able to meet its food demands,
what seemed impossible in the most widespread forecasts [4].
In fact, agricultural production occupies only 38% of the available land
area (Table 2). The two major food crops (wheat and rice) that occupy only
332 P.A. Pinto

7.5% of the agricultural land produce more than enough energy and protein
for the present world population [1].

Table 3. World land use. Data from [5].


Land use Area (Mha) Agricultural area %
Arable land 1375
Permanent crops 128 4936 38%
Permanent pasture 3433
Forest 4157
Other uses 3955
Sub-total 13048
Inland waters 339
Total 13387

While population goes on growing the fraction of agricultural area has


stabilized worldwide and decreased in the United States, Europe, and
particularly in Portugal (Figure 1).
50%

UE15
USA
Agricultural area / Total area (%)

45%

Portugal

40%

World

35%
1960 1965 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000

Figure 1. Evolution of the fraction of agricultural land in the World, USA, EU15 and
Portugal.

At the same time this performance was obtained with ever less people
directly involved in farming operations (Figure 2). The percentage of the
labor force in Agriculture is decreasing everywhere and apparently tends to
be less than 5 per cent, which is the case both in the United Sates and in
Europe.
Agronomy: Tradition and Future 333

60%

50% World
%active agricultural populatio

40%

Portugal
30%

20%

EU15
10%

US
0%
1960 1965 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000

Figure 2. Evolution of the active agricultural population (%) in the World, USA, EU15
and Portugal.

3. THE PERFORMANCE OF AGRICULTURE

This impressive performance was insured by an increase in cultivated


area that is still noticeable at a global scale, but has already ended in the
Western world. This increase in area was obtained at a considerable cost in
land clearing and is not exempt of environmental consequences.
It seems clear that an increase in area could not, by itself, explain the
tremendous increased capacity of sustaining the world population.
Although in the developing countries, the increase in production still
comes from increases in cultivated area, in the developed countries most of
the increase in production has come from increases in yield per unit area.
Figure 3 shows the historical trends in the yields of wheat and rice in the
United Kingdom and Japan, respectively. They are compared with present
yields in very diverse situations. While low wheat yields in Australia and in
the USA are explainable by the severe environmental conditions in which
this crop is grown, low rice yields in Philipines or Indonesia reflect
inadequate agronomy practice.
This increase in yield per unit area can be attributed to both different and
improved plant crops and to better technology. It is noticeable that the
steepest increase begins with Agronomy, as it was shown in Table 1.
334 P.A. Pinto

8000 United Kingdom, 99

France, 99
7000
Japan, 99
6000

5000
Yield (t/ha)

4000 Taiwan
France
M exico
3000 Sri Lanka Italy

Thailand Indonesia Thailand, 99


USA
2000 India
Phillipines USSR, 99
Canada
1000 Rice, Japan USSR
Pakhistan Australia
Wheat, United Kingdom India
0
800 1000 1200 1400 1600 1800 2000

Figure 3. Historical trends in the grain yield of rice in Japan and of wheat in England
compared with 1968 yields of wheat an rice in several countries. Adapted from [7]. Yields
updated to 1999 from [8].

From that time on, advances in several scientific disciplines where


instrumental in the understanding and improvement of agricultural
production.
The use, at first of natural fertilizers (guano, phosphates) followed by the
synthesis of nitrogen fertilizers fostered the attainable yield of most crops.
The knowledge in the mechanics of Genetics and their application in
Plant Breeding allowed the appearance of new varieties better adjusted to
higher levels of fertilizers.
The losses due to weeds, pests and diseases were better controlled by
either using pesticides or obtaining resistant or more competitive crop
varieties.
At the same time, the mechanization of crop operations reduced the
harshness of farm workers and increased several-fold labor productivity.
In Figure 4 an attempt is made to distribute the increase in yield of corn
by several possible causes as a percentage of the total. The change in
agronomic practices is not always positive, although the balance is a net
improvement.
Agronomy: Tradition and Future 335

Other unidentified negative factors -23

New pests and diseases -8

Increased crop mechanization 5 Physics

Change in crop sequence (intensification) -7

Erosion increase -8
Physiology
Better spatial arrangement of plants 8
Climatology
Better determination of planting date 8

Increased control of pests and diseases 21 Phitopatology


Reduction in organic matter and in manure -28

Increased commercail fertilizer use Chemistry 47

Introduction of improved cultivars Plant breeding and Genetics 58

-40 -30 -20 -10 0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70

Figure 4. Per cent impact of several factors of different origin in the increase in the yield
doubling of corn in Minnesota from 1930 to 1979. Adapted from [9].

The integrated contribution of the several scientific disciplines that was


characteristic of the rise of Agronomy as a science is also illustrated in
Figure 4. Yet, it has been gradually lost due to an increased specialization in
research and teaching.
Liebig’s law of the minimum provides an explaining hypothesis for this
fact.
Most of the scientific progress in the understanding of the limiting factors
of agricultural production was made by identifying the most limiting factor
on a given set of circumstances, isolating it, and investigating the means of
improving its impact on production. These cycles of identification, isolation
and research are often too long and it is foreseeable that ecologists,
physiologists, plant breeders or pathologists might reach to different and
sometimes opposed solutions.
Furthermore, this process of isolating a single factor, leads to the
isolation of the scientific discipline that tries to study it. The enormous
amount of information in each discipline also pushes towards specialization
and isolation. The result is that frequently the scientific disciplines that
contribute into making Agronomy and integrative discipline are themselves
in a centrifugal trajectory.
The success of Agriculture, by providing more than enough food supply
for the world population is one of the explanations of the present identity
336 P.A. Pinto

crisis of Agronomy as a science. Abundant supply, problems that seem


solved, lower the interest in the economic activity as well as in the scientific
challenge.
At the same time, the reverse of the success is an increased public
scrutiny on the negative environmental impacts of Agriculture, already
foreseen in the case depicted in Figure 4.

4. THE SYSTEMS APPROACH

Bertallanfy’s General Systems Theory [10] provides the approach that


can return integration to Agronomy.
The scenery where agriculture takes place is the “agricultural field” that
can be viewed as an ecosystem with two main singularities: most primary
and secondary production is exported; and in order to replace this flux of
mass and energy, the ecosystem must be “subsidized” (Figure 5).
solar
radiation

Aerial environment

Methan
Reflection
Processing Plant
Fuel products
Harvest

Conservation

Crop
Animals

Animal
Pesticides products

Excretions
Irrigation
Senescence, diseases, pests

Soil Export
Fertilization

Energy subsidy

Figure 5. Diagram of the energy flow of an agricultural ecosystem.

In order to be operational, the systems approach must consider four sub-


systems of agriculture [11]:
(a) the biological sub-system – integrating knowledge about crops and
animals and about the effects on them of the physical environment and
of man’s activities.
(b) the work sub-system – integrating knowledge about the physical tasks
in agricultural operations
Agronomy: Tradition and Future 337

(c) the production economics sub-system – integrating knowledge about


prices of products sold and factors of production bought, production
plans and risk and uncertainty
(d) the socio-economic sub-system - integrating knowledge about
markets, legislation, research and education
It can be easily recognisable that each sub-system affects and is affected
by all others (Figure 6).

• plants • produce price


• animals • factors price
• physical • production plan
environment • uncertainty and risk
• crop practices

• farm operations • agricultural markets


• work • land market
• machinery • politics and laws
• energy • research and education

Figure 6. Relationships among Raeburn’s four sub-systems of agriculture.

The use of the systems approach hopefully will allow, has it has
successfully done in Ecology, a framework in which it will be possible to
foresee the impact of a single measure in all components of the system as
well as in the system as a whole, stimulating the co-operative effort of
several scientific disciplines into approaching the problem.

5. APPLICATIONS

In our Department at the Instituto Superior de Agronomia the need for a


systems approach was clearly felt. The possibilities opened by the
information technologies are enormous and an example of their promises is
the use of relational data bases.
AGRIBASE is a data model incorporating crop simulation models,
relational databases and geographical information systems allowing an
338 P.A. Pinto

integrated environmental characterization and matching it with crop


characteristics (Figures 7 and 8).

Crop
Cro
Climate Soils Prices ......
technology

Agri Base
Figure 7. Schematic representation of the AGRIBASE data model.

SOL Classes textura MAQ VT


CTextura Tractor
Maquina
CTextura
VT

CUL Culturas TEC Maquinas MAQ Operacoes TRA Tractores TRA Preços
Cultura Tractor Tractor Tractor
CUL Sistemas Tecnologia Maquina Vutil Regiao
Sistema Fase Operacao Ano
Duracao Oper h_ha Preco
CUL Culturas definicao Tractor Custo h

Sistema Maquina
MAQ Tipos MAQ maquinas MAQ Preços
Cultura h_ha
Tipo Maquina Maquina
Tecnologia Tipo Regiao
Pond VUtil Ano
Ordem TP Preco
VD Custo h
TV Custo ha
LT Fonte

Ger Meses TEC Tecnologias TEC Fases TEC Operacoes TEC Factores FCT Factores FCT Preços
Mes Cultura Cultura Cultura Cultura Factor Observacoes
N Tecnologia Tecnologia Tecnologia Tecnologia Tipo Factor GER Regioes
Rega ini Fase Fase Fase Unidade Regiao Regiao
Rega fim Inicio Operacao Oper Ano
Ger Meses_1
Estrut Pond Descricao Factor Preco
Mes
Tecno Desc Per Quant Fonte
N
Inov Num
Intens
Area min TEC Subsidios TEC Produtos TEC Mao de obra MO Mao de obra MO Precos
Acess Cultura Cultura Cultura Mao de obra Mao de obra

Ecological niche
Declive Tecnologia Tecnologia Tecnologia Regiao
Pedreg Fase Fase Fase Ano
Observacoes Ano Produto Oper Preco
Freguesia Quant Mao de obra Fonte
Subsidio Quant fase Quant Observacoes
Observacoes

COM Produtos COM Precos COM Mercados


Produto Produto Regiao
Unidade Regiao Mercado
Mercado

ANI Produtos Ano


Mes
ANI Factores Unidade INF Precos
Preco
ANI Mao de obra Cofinanciada
Observacoes
ANI Maquinas

Crops Technology Phases OperationsCost components Cost definition

Figure 8. Relationships diagram of the agricultural activities data model

The matching of crop characteristics, including not only their ecological


requirements but also the different range of possible technologies employed
with the environmental restraints of a given field, farm or region has been
Agronomy: Tradition and Future 339

successfully used in agricultural planning. It is analogous to the process of


filling with the adequate species a given ecological niche.

6. CONCLUSIONS

The once intuitive and easy integration of different disciplines into


Agronomy that has been menaced by the centrifugal trajectory of the
contributing areas of science, might be restored, recurring to the use of some
tools made available by the developments in information technologies,
namely, simulation models, data base management and environmental
monitoring.

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