Book Summary: “A History of World Agriculture” by Mazoyer and Roudart


Title: A History of World Agriculture: from the Neolithic age to the current crisis
Author: Marcel Mazoyer and Laurence Roudart
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

The authors systematically overview the history of agriculture with particular emphasis on the Fertile Crescent, Nile River valley, Europe, the Incas and the United States.

My Comments

If you can ignore the eco-gloom-and-doom that permeates the beginning and ending of the book, this is one of the best histories of agriculture ever written. I know most people don’t consider agriculture to be very important technology, but there is a strong case for agricultural technology as the foundation for all other technology.

The summary below does not do justice to the book, as the authors go into exhaustive detail on how each off agricultural system works. I encourage everyone interested in technology, history and progress to read this book.

Key Points Made in Book

Mazoyer and Roudart believe that agriculture systems are one of the driving forces in the evolution of human societies. They divide agricultural societies in four main systems, each with their own geographically unique sub-divisions.

Each of the systems is based upon a specific natural environment and level of technology. When new technology is created and the processes associated with them have been implemented, a new agricultural system comes into being. Because more food can be created with the same amount of work, it gradually spreads until it reaches the environment limits of that system.  The population then expands until it reaches it limits, creating pressures for new technologies to be innovated.

Because each agricultural system has certain environmental requirements, some geographical regions are trapped in a less productive agriculture.

The Agricultural Systems are:

  1. Manual cultivation:
    • Slash-and-burn (the first form of agriculture, which gradually being left behind in all climate types, except tropical forests).
    • Hydraulic systems on large rivers in arid climates (Nile, Tigris/Euphrates, Indus).
    • Tropical highlands systems (Andes and Meso-America).
    • Wet rice-growing systems with one annual harvest (in monsoon regions of China, India and Southeast Asia).
  2. Animal-drawn cultivation:
    • Fallowing and ard (in Ancient Europe, Mediterranean and Near East).
    • Wet rice-growing systems with:
      • One annual harvest and animal traction (starting 300BC).
      • Two annual harvests and animal traction (in Southwest China).
    • Fallowing and animal-drawn plow (in Medieval Northwest and Central Europe)
    • Animal-drawn Plow and no fallowing (14th-17th C Flanders/Netherlands and 18th C England/Rhine river valley, then 19th C Northwest Europe)
  3. Mechanized animal-drawn cultivation (19th and early 20th C North America and Northwest Europe)
  4. Motorized cultivation:
    • Attaching 10-30 horsepower engines to preexisting animal-drawn mechanical equipment (in West 1930s – early 50s).
    • 30-50 horse power tractors capable of carrying tools instead of pulling them (in West mid 50s-60s).
    • 50-70 horse power tractors capable of carrying three-furrow plows and pulling implements 5 to 6 meters long (in West late 60s-70s).
    • 80-120 horse power tractors capable of carrying four-furrow plows and several machines at once (in West 70s-80s).
    • 120+ horse power tractors capable of carrying out all tasks in one run (90s-present).

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