- Creating Abundance: Biological Innovation and American Agricultural Development
The authors of this impressive book challenge “the misconceptions that, before the advent of hybrid corn, American farmers single-mindedly invested in labor saving mechanical technologies and that biological technologies were static” (iii). To use only the labor time saved by introducing mechanical-harvesting equipment and other farm machinery to measure increases in agricultural productivity ignores, they suggest, the numerous biological innovations that contributed to agricultural output. Their definition of biological innovations is sweeping, including the importation of seeds, livestock, and methods; the adaptation and substitution of crops to regions, subregions, and soils; the modification of specific plant varieties by selection and hybridization, selective breeding, and substitution of animal breeds; and the measures required to fight off insects, microorganisms, and animal diseases.
After an introduction in which the authors explain the shortcomings of prior analyses of American agricultural productivity, they consider the histories of the major field and horticultural crops and livestock, focusing on the biological elements involved. Chapter 2 deals with the wheat crop, emphasizing the role of the hard red varieties. Next follows a chapter on corn. Cotton, however, obtains three chapters—one on the establishment of the cotton-growing regions, one on cotton’s enemies, and one on the twentieth-century revival of the industry. Tobacco, the “stincking weede,” merits a chapter that emphasizes the importance of soil types in producing quality products. California’s horticultural and tree fruits inspire a chapter, “Creating a Cornucopia,” giving special attention to raisins, oranges, and figs. Four chapters deal with livestock feeds in the farm economy, the changing breeds and types of livestock, the dairy industry, and animal draft power. A final chapter, “Tying it Together,” sums up the authors’ case and includes a section qualifying contentions that nitrogen fertilizer was the major cause of the productivity take-off in the 1930s. Advances in crop and animal breeds also played a significant role. Over all, the chapters focus on pre-1970s evidence. An extensive listing of references and a helpful index conclude the work.
In their chapters, Olmstead and Rhode provide much information about the importers and growers of specific crops and, from 1850, the government scientists who led in the search for new or improved crop [End Page 458] varieties, in the battle against pests and microorganisms, and in the development of agricultural chemistry. They acknowledge the role of government in providing standards and requirements that sometimes had important effects; the bovine tuberculosis test, for example, saved innumerable human lives. They adeptly trace the sometimes complicated effects of changes in agricultural practice. Readers at large need not shun this book. Notwithstanding a couple of competing “models,” in the form of hypotheses, in the introduction and the occasional regression coefficient elsewhere, the book is not a mathematical treatise. Numerous simple tables and figures support an interesting story. The authors evaluate the developments sketched by comparison and skillful estimation. In this respect, the book can provide helpful guidance to researchers in other history fields and disciplines.
This splendid book will compel a great deal of revision in agricultural history and the broader field of economic history. It will be a standard reference for many years.