How Agricultural Science Struggled to Defuse the Population Bomb

Another talk! So many talks recently… But this time I was back with the welcoming home crowd at the University of Leeds, finally presenting on my PhD thesis! I began this seminar by recounting an extraordinary speech at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany’s (NIAB’s) 1972 Seed Analyst Conference. Presented by the then vice-president of the National Farmer’s Union (NFU) D.H Darbishire, the keynote address was littered with poignant phrases. The “undernourished of all mankind” were suffering as the “Doom debate” raged in industrialised nations, which were in turn a facilitator of the dichotomy between the “affluent minority and disinherited majority” of the global population.


Edward S. Deevey, Jr. “The Human Population,” in Paul R. Ehrlich, John P. Holdren & Richard D. Holm, Man and the Ecosphere (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1971), p. 49. Original printing in Scientific American, 1960.

Why was Darbishire using a Seed Analysts Conference organised by a Cambridge-based agricultural institute to espouse these views with such urgency? Well, in the same year that Darbishire spoke out, the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth published a computer simulation of human society and the environment, declaring that the growing world population was living beyond its means. This was only the latest in a series of “neo-Malthusian” themed texts, all of which declared that the globe was fast approaching its human carrying capacity.

Such a claim was by no means new in the post-war era. In 1948 ecologist William Vogt’s Road to Survival predicted that world population would crash under the weight of its own numbers, subsequently wiping out three-quarters of humanity. This claim was given new urgency by the 1968 publication of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. Here, the claim was made that in agricultural terms, “the stork had passed the plough.” In 1966 world population had increased by seventy million, with no compensatory increase in food production.


Ecology teaching slides from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives, Robert McCabe Papers, 1971.

Agricultural science could clearly respond to this (perceived) crisis by endeavoring to increase global crop yields. Steps had been made in the right direction with the “Green Revolution,” high-yielding hybrid crops being passed onto developing nations – albeit with the associated package of chemicals, intensive irrigation and management. However, tracts like The Limits to Growth predicted these gains would soon be overrun by an exponentially growing human population. Higher yielding varieties had to become better, while regulatory institutions like NIAB had to test and promote them faster.

However, intensive monocultures of high-yielding crop varieties had vulnerabilities. Ehrlich had classed these setups as prone to ecological collapse, an opinion shared by many ecologists. Industrialised agriculture was certainly susceptible to common plant diseases like rusts and mildew. Darbishire blamed the practices of plant breeders, who sought to overcome pathogens by focusing on single, major genes. Instead, it might be better to concentrate on “a number of more humble genes.” A genetics arms race with disease strains would bring few benefits.

Clearly, the world faced problems in agriculture, genetics and the environment. How could one institution like NIAB go about responding to these problems? The Institute’s journal certainly carried multiple articles applauding increases in domestic food production across the 1970s. But actions speak louder than words. While NIAB was able to recommend crop varieties with high yields or disease resistance, its work was hindered by the increasing need for disease testing and changing regulatory standards via Britain’s 1973 entry into the European Economic Community (EEC).

At NIAB, cereal yields were portrayed as falling from their peak in the 1950s, due to a mysterious “soil microbiological interaction.” presumably the 1970s equivalent of vital forces or phlogiston theory. Later in the decade, yields were considered to be rising, but at a slow pace. On the disease front, more progress was made, with genetic solutions stepping in for pesticide use (which had taken a battering since the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring). Genetic diversity was urged in fields by NIAB officers in a 1979 newsletter, the same year seeing the publication of geneticist Norman Simmond’s textbook Principles of Crop Improvement, which also called for genetic diversity and conservation.


NIAB at work today! The 2014 Cereals Event, Cambridgeshire. Shoddy photography courtesy of the blogger.

In the event, an imminent Malthusian catastrophe turned out to be a false alarm. Although, such concerns continue to crop up (pardon the pun) in modern fears over food security – after all, the global community is still no stranger to famine. From the perspective of an environmentalist, the trend towards crop diversity and genetic conservation as the 1980s approached certainly sounds promising. However, against the background of all this, recombinant DNA  technology was making great strides. On June 16th 1980, in the case of Diamond vs. Chakrabarty, the US Supreme Court ruled five to four that manmade microorganisms were patentable inventions. Later that year, the prototype biotech company Genentech went public, experiencing a huge demand for its stock on Wall Street. A new chapter on food and environmental controversy was just opening…

Further Reading:

Ainsworth, G.C., Introduction to the History of Plant Pathology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

Ehrlich, Paul R., The Population Bomb (New York: Buccaneer Books, 1968).

Meadows, Donella H. Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens, The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind (London, Pan Books Ltd, 1972).

Schoijet, Mauricio, “Limits to Growth and the Rise of Catastrophism,” Environmental History 4 (1999): 515-530.

Silvey, Valerie and P.S. Wellington, Crop and Seed Improvement: A History of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany 1919 to 1996 (Cambridge: National Institute of Agricultural Botany, 1997).

Simmonds, Norman W. Principles of Crop Improvement (New York: Longman, 1979).


Seed Steeps & Poisoned Partridges, 1843-1848

DISCLAIMER: If you are a “cat person,” certain passages regarding the effects of poisonous seed steeps on animals are best avoided. The Victorian poetry at the end of this post is also awful.

I decided to write the following in light of the upcoming “Environment(s) in Public?” workshop at the University of East Anglia on November 3rd (, where I will be diving headlong into the extent and complexities of chemical use on nineteenth-century farms. At the 2014 BSHS postgraduate conference I discussed a particular angle of chemically-based pest controls, namely their impact on game birds such as partridges from 1843-1848. This historical controversy highlighted not only the relationship between humankind and the natural world in the nineteenth century, but the relations between various social classes and occupations. Using attitudes to nature as a mirror in which to observe human societies is an old trick (crossing numerous disciplines), but has perhaps persisted thus far because of its functionality.


Partridge from Morris’s British Game Birds and Wildfowl (1855). Morris repeated concerns surrounding the use of poisonous seed steeps and the consumption of those same seeds by birds.

In 1843 the Northern Whig newspaper noted that the partridge population in Ireland had suffered a steep decline. An article on the subject attributed this to the use of blue vitriol (copper sulphate), a toxic chemical used to prevent smut (a fungal disease) in wheat. Similar concerns were soon raised in England. The sporting guide of Peter Hawker (1844) also linked a decline in the number of partridges to farmer’s use of copper sulphate.

Widespread awareness of the problem kicked off in 1848, following the publication of an article in The Lancet which declared that partridges poisoned by seed steeps could constitute a public health hazard, if such birds ever entered the food supply through nefarious means. The author was Doctor Henry William Fuller of St George’s Hospital, who had been presented with ten dead partridges killed by mysterious means. In true Victorian fashion, Fuller tested his initial poison-based hypothesis by feeding one of the birds to his cat. Although the unfortunate pet survived, judging by Fuller’s description of vomiting and convulsions, it may well have wished it hadn’t. Later, chemical testing revealed that both the cat and birds have suffered from arsenic poisoning, arsenic-based solutions being another popular seed steep in the agricultural sector.


Skylarks from J. Lewis Bonhote’s Birds of Britain (London, 1907): 168. These birds became a gourmet food in the London market at the same time that arsenic was being used to deter them from eating grain. See Ian G. Simmons, An Environmental History of Great Britain: From 10,000 Years Ago to the Present (Edinburgh, 2001): 155.

I will be going into the full details in my talk (a summary of which will be posted here), but suffice to say that Fuller’s revelations created a Victorian media storm in the winter of 1848. However, concern, outrage and newspaper columns ultimately did little to alter the situation. Seed steeps were too valuable a tool in the ongoing battle to maintain agricultural yields against a barrage of pests and disease. The first paper submitted to the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England came from landowner and editor Philip Pusey (1840), describing the poor state of agricultural science in England and the need to control crop losses from disease. The use of arsenic was not only confined to the the agricultural sector, but also appeared in domestic gardens to combat birds.

It was out of this usage that arsenic-laced wheat would claim another victim in 1863. In a letter to the Essex Standard, a correspondent described the sorry state of affairs surrounding the demise of a Colchester cat. Inhabitants of the town were recorded as being in the habit of laying out poisoned wheat in their gardens to kill small birds – quite the reverse of how many gardeners act today. A local cat, described as the “gayest and merriest of her species” ate the deceased birds and died after three days of “intense suffering.” The letter concluded with a heartfelt (if excruciatingly bad) poem:

With kind and sorrowing hand I dug her grave;
And when I placed her in it, sighing said
I knew at least one Puss that had a friend.

Further Reading

“Causes of the Scarcity of Partridges in Ireland.” Northern Whig (Belfast, Ireland) Saturday, October 28, 1843, in William Thompson, The Natural History of Ireland, Vol. 2. (London, 1849).

Fuller, Henry W., “On the Use of the Arsenic in Agriculture-Poisoning by Arsenic, and Symptoms of Cholera-The Possible Effect of the Game Laws” The Lancet 2 (1848): 648-649.

Hawker, Peter, Instructions to Young Sportsmen in All that Relates to Guns and Shooting, 9th ed. (London, 1844).

Morris, Beverley R., British Game Birds and Wildfowl (London, 1855).

Shrubb, Michael, Birds, Scythes and Combines: A History of Birds and Agricultural Change (Cambridge, 2003).

Thompson, William, The Natural History of Ireland, Vol. 2. (London: 1849).