Agricultural sciences in transition from 1800 to 2020: Exploring knowledge and creating impact

J.H.J. Spiertz

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13 Citations (Scopus)


Transitions in agricultural sciences are brought about by incorporating new findings and insights emerg-ing from biological, chemical and biophysical sciences, by more advanced ways of experimentation andlast but not least by quantitative methods and models for data analyses and processing. Major break-throughs occurred from 1800 onwards when new insights on photosynthesis and mineral nutrition wereincorporated in the theory on the growth of crops. It took almost half a century before the humus theorywas replaced by a more sound theory on mineral nutrition. The publication by Darwin on domestica-tion in 1868 and the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws in 1900 gave a boost to genetics underlying classicalplant and animal breeding, which was mainly based on crossing and selection. A major accomplishmentof the evolutionary synthesis was the compatibility of Mendelian inheritance with Darwinian naturalselection. The discovery of the DNA-structure in the mid-fifties of the 20th century on modern plantbreeding showed already impact within some decades. To assess the wide diversity of plant traits forthe performance of plants in yield and quality of the produce advanced phenotyping method under con-trolled conditions has become popular. Genome-wide selection for environments with multiple stresses,however, does require phenotyping in situ. Since 1800 the transition from observations on the plant, fieldand farm towards dedicated experimentation took place. During the 19th and 20th century the methodsfor experimentation and data analyses were strongly improved. It took until the mid-20th century beforethe importance of experiments under controlled conditions was recognized. Studies of plant processesunder controlled conditions provided the building blocks for mechanistic modelling of crop growth andproduction. A systems approach combining knowledge at different scales and incorporating cutting-edgefindings from the basic sciences into applied sciences will become important for making a great leap for-ward in developing agricultural science with impact. Transitions in agricultural research will continueto depend on progress made in the related basic sciences and the capacity for agricultural research andinnovation. Therefore, an adequate public funding is required to maintain or even accelerate progress insciences. This requires the support of the public at large. Public–private partnerships will be needed tobridge the gap between science and innovation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)96-106
JournalEuropean Journal of Agronomy
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • nitrogen-use efficiency
  • food security
  • water-use
  • ecological intensification
  • crop photosynthesis
  • cereal production
  • green-revolution
  • abiotic stress
  • harvest index
  • leaf nitrogen


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