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Agricultural Scientists


In 1840, a German chemist named Justius von Liebig published Organic Chemistry in Its Applications to Agriculture and Physiology and launched the systematic development of the agricultural sciences. A formal system of agricultural education soon followed in both Europe and the United States. Prior to the publication of this work, agricultural developments relied on the collective experience of farmers handed down over generations. Agricultural science has techniques in common with many other disciplines including biology, botany, genetics, nutrition, breeding, and engineering. Discoveries and improvements in these fields contributed to advances in agriculture. Some milestones include the discovery of the practice of crop rotation and the application of manure as fertilizer, which greatly increased farm yields in the 1700s. Farm mechanization was greatly advanced by the invention of the mechanical reaper in 1831 and the gasoline tractor in 1892. Chemical fertilizers were first used in the 19th century; pesticides and herbicides soon followed. In 1900, the research of an Austrian monk, Gregor Johann Mendel, was rediscovered. His theories of plant characteristics, based on studies using generations of garden peas, formed the foundation for the science of genetics.

In the 20th century, scientists and engineers were at the forefront of farm, crop, and food processing improvements. Conservationist Gifford Pinchot developed some of the first methods to prevent soil erosion in 1910, and Clarence Birdseye, an American inventor and entrepreneur, perfected a method of freezing food in the 1920s. Birdseye's discoveries allowed for new crops of produce previously too perishable for the marketplace. Engineers in the 1930s developed more powerful farm machinery and scientists developed hybrid corn. By the 1960s, high-powered machinery and better quality feed and pesticides were in common use.

Today, advances in genetic engineering and biotechnology are leading to more efficient, economical methods of farming and new markets for crops. Agricultural scientists are working to develop disease-resistant crops; researching plant sources for effective biofuels; and are even looking at ways to use nanotechnology to benefit agriculture and commerce. It is estimated that biological applications are now being used on plants that are grown on more than one billion hectares worldwide, with more than 66.8 million hectares of biotech seed crops planted in the United States, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications. A fast-growing area of biotechnology is the use of nanotechnology in agricultural applications. Nanotechnology is a molecular manufacturing technology that is being used to test food and agricultural products to see if they are spoiled or contaminated.

Agricultural scientists are also playing an important role in the development of biofuels from renewable resources such as grasses, cow dung, leftover material from crops, and corn. In the past several years, researchers have found that growing corn as a biofuel can actually be harmful to the environment. Carol Werner, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, says that the most environmentally friendly biofuels should be made from agricultural waste products (non-edible food products) and from biomass grown on non-agricultural lands.

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