Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/February 1893/Science as a Factor in Agriculture

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GULLIVER relates that in the course of his travels he found a curious country which was governed entirely by academies, according to the most exact rules of science and reason. These bodies had attempted to reform the whole social organization. For the superannuated principles of the old and good agriculture, especially, they had substituted ingenious inventions based on modern discoveries. This was a hundred and fifty years ago, when, instead of digging the ground by the old-fashioned processes, machines had been introduced by the aid of which one man could do the work of several. The cultivation of the soil was carried on by new methods, and the history of English agriculture in the eighteenth century shows that the author intended in the romance to criticise by his fable the first attempts at chemical cultivation. Fair weather and rain, according to the satire, did not escape the innovators. The flying island of Laputa, held suspended above any particular point, permitted it to be withdrawn or submitted at will to the action of the sun. In short, the people of this ideal country had everywhere suppressed or corrected the action of Nature. The effects of this conduct, says Swift, were not long in making themselves felt. The land was miserably devastated. The people, in rags, lived in ruined huts and were dying of hunger, while they were kept in obedience by terror.

Such is the view under which the writers of the day regarded the first preludes of scientific agriculture; and I do not know that there is any need of going very far to find well-informed persons still infected with similar prejudices. But the general opinion has changed; the benefits derived from science have been such, and they have so transformed society in the nineteenth century, that no enlightened mind would dare to-day to use the ironical language of the author of Gulliver.

In truth, I am not sure that our great-nephews may not succeed some day in finding a way of regulating the seasons; some Americans already profess to be able to produce rain at will by means of dynamite. But their hypotheses, resuscitated from the notions of the Romans concerning the influence of great battles on the atmosphere, do not seem to have as yet been confirmed by experiment. But, on the other hand, the innovations that were criticised so sharply by the English humorist are in our days becoming the bases of field labors.

Scientific agriculture is gradually becoming more fully substituted for the agriculture of tradition, and it is adding in an unanticipated degree to the wealth of nations.

To the progress of this art, which is more manifest every day, our society has never ceased to lend the most active aid, both through the individual labors of its members and by prizes and incentives offered by it to inventors. It has zealously given its assistance to all the great innovations foreseen in the last century by some advanced minds, which the literary critics of the time turned into derision, but which have been especially developed during the past fifty years.

The advance of material science has, in fact, served as the basis of this surprising metamorphosis of agricultural practices which we witness and admire; and the mental and moral advance of the human mind has likewise transformed under our very eyes the education of the peasant, now raised to the dignity of a citizen. Every day he is gaining a closer acquaintance with science; he is learning to take advantage of its teachings for the increase of his production and for the amelioration of the conditions of his formerly so miserable existence. Three sciences in particular have contributed to this evolution of agriculture—mechanics, chemistry, and physiology. The endlessly various agricultural machines permit us to sow, till, and harvest over large surfaces, and with a small expenditure of human manipulation. The productive force of Nature has thereby been wonderfully increased.

But the machines of themselves create nothing; they are only applied to products already elaborated under the operation of natural forces. The processes which preside at this elaboration, the manner in which the plants are fed at the expense of the air, water, and soil, to serve afterward as food for animals, have long been mysteries. It has hardly been a century since they began to be revealed to us by chemistry, which they could not have been earlier, so long as we were not acquainted with the real chemical elements common to plants and animals, and had not discovered the secret of their passage through living organisms. Chemistry exposed this secret when it disclosed the existence of the elements themselves; it has taught us to recognize them and to measure their proportions in plants and animals; it has established, first, the fundamental and unforeseen truth that the combination of the elements under the form of organic compounds takes place only in plants to the exclusion of animals, for which plants are ultimately destined to serve as food. The mysteries of the production of useful plants and of the feeding of domestic animals have been unveiled by it; and these truths, so simple in our view, have been fruitful in applications.

Without enlarging upon a subject that would demand the most ample development, it will suffice to recollect that the constituent elements of plants have been divided into two groups: in one, such substances as oxygen, the carbon of carbonic acid, the hydrogen of water, and in a certain proportion the nitrogen of the air, are borrowed from the atmosphere, which can furnish them in unlimited quantities. Others, like the alkalies, lime, silica, iron, and a part of the nitrogen, are drawn from the soil. Removed with the crops, they should be restored to it, under penalty of a more or less rapid exhaustion. Each plant requires special elements; and it is necessary in its cultivation to be assured that the soil already has them, or to furnish them to it. Hence the long-disputed utility of chemical fertilizers; in them resides the whole secret of the indefinite maintenance of the land and the entire art of intensive cultivation.

But, while mechanics is a useful auxiliary to agriculture, and while the co-operation of chemistry is continually required, there is another science of still higher importance, because it presides over life itself in the animal as well as in the vegetable kingdom. You have named it physiology. You all know to what extent a knowledge of it is indispensable in order to define the conditions of animal and vegetable production, and to assure the normal development of living beings. You all know the importance of hygiene in society for securing the health of men and then of animals, and even of plants. Its function, long misconceived, is conspicuous now in all eyes; and it is one of the triumphs of science that it has been able to prolong the duration of human life, to secure immunity of our domestic animals against epidemics, and to extend its protection against the diseases which are destroying our field products and are threatening the annihilation of agricultural crops.

But the preservation of the products is not all. We need also to learn how to multiply productive beings; and in this field, too, science has, by the application of methods of selection, realized most marvelous progress in agriculture. Not only has intensive cultivation taught us how to draw a larger return than formerly from a particular soil and a given surface, but by the selection of seeds, we have doubled and tripled the formation of sugar in beet roots; by like selections, the production of the potato has been augmented; and we are seeking, with certainty of success, yet more considerable increase in the production of wheat. No less progress is reached in the production of fruits and vegetables, and of cattle, to the daily amelioration of the general condition of the human race.

This advance has been promoted, partly by close acquaintance with the general laws of living Nature, as revealed by disinterested science—laws which are the essential foundation of every application; and equally, and in a way no less worthy of admiration, by the efforts of inventors, those men of practical ingenuity who labor at the same time for the increase of their own fortunes and for the good and profit of mankind.

But,besides discovering important scientific truths and devising profitable applications of them, the inventor needs to have a popular support; and it is, above all, important that the application of his inventions shall be made seriously by educated and intelligent populations, ready to receive and to propagate all useful ideas. To this end the sphere of public instruction has been enlarged; and, besides the elementary knowledge hitherto required, and the moral and civic precepts fitted to make intelligent voters, our educational schemes of the present time include fundamental scientific principles, the knowledge of which is indispensable for hygiene, industry, and agriculture. All civilized peoples have recognized the importance of such teaching, and democracies, more than any other governments, have thus expanded the courses of popular instruction.

The good old times of ignorance raised to a principle have passed away. Science can not be reserved for a narrow oligarchy; all should be associated in it to the greatest possible extent, because knowledge of that kind is necessary for the advancement of the applications, an advancement which is hindered by ignorance. It is so because it is important that all the citizens of a free country shall share in the highest ideal. No ideal is superior to that of agriculture. Country life is the normal type of human life. In it only can manhood be developed in its plenitude. Country life favors at once material health of the body and moral soundness of mind. The robust, industrious, and intelligent countryman has always constituted the strength of nations, and of France in particular; through him we have survived many trials and catastrophes; and through the countryman, active, intelligent, and instructive, we shall maintain the prosperity and greatness of our country.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.

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  1. Presidential address before the National Agricultural Society of France, July 6, 1892.