Skip to main content

More than 3,000 years of progress in agriculture

From the ancient age to the present, humans have always had an important role in breeding plants and animals. Explore how these advancements have helped to expand trade, create more resilient crops and sustain life around the world.

The Birth of Agriculture

In 9000 BCE, people in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, began breeding plants and animals found in nature to make them edible. Over the next thousands of years, farmers worldwide began to domesticate crops by saving seeds and replacing them over seasons. The creation of agriculture enabled previously nomadic cultures to settle in one region, spawning the first urban centers and propelling civilization forward.

Previous Next

9000 BCE

Agriculture is born

Due to its temperate climate and rich soil, hunter-gatherers began to settle in small communities in the "Fertile Crescent," the area between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers. They learned to produce their own food as farmers began to plant harvest grains.

Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia Source: Science Magazine
Previous Next

8700 BCE

Corn is farmed in Central America

The earliest known ancestor of corn is a variety of Mexican wild grass called teosinte. By suppressing the number of branching stalks in the species, farmers were able to grow larger ears with more kernels that more closely resembles corn today.

Source: National Geographic Source: ThoughtCo. Source: EurekAlert!

7000 BCE

Chinese farmers begin to grow rice

Rice farming transformed nomadic cultures. More so than any crop, rice drove societies and economies, and spawned some of the first urban centers, empires and dynasties.

Source: Nature Research
Previous Next

6700-6500 BCE

Sheep are farmed in Mesopotamia

As wild game populations became depleted, sheep, goats and pigs were increasingly raised for food production. Consistent exposure to human settlements caused the animals to grow more tame and become an accessible food source.

Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia
Previous Next

5000 BCE

Farmers harvest potatoes in Central America

Because the tuber of wild potatoes contain poisonous alkaloids, one of the first steps ancient farmers made toward developing the potato we know today was to replant a variety with a lower alkaloid content. Farmers also chose to plant larger specimens due to the naturally small size of wild potatoes.

Source: ThoughtCo.

3500 BCE

Squash and beans domesticated in Central America

Developing a new crop through plant breeding would often take centuries, if not millennia, to complete. However, squash became domesticated quickly, selected based on traits like edibility, seed size and rind thickness. Beans were chosen for grain size and seed coat thickness.

Source: ThoughtCo. Source: ThoughtCo.
Previous Next

300 BCE

Ancient Greeks develop new plant breeding process

The Greeks develop grafting, a plant breeding process that joins parts from two different plants to produce a new plant, and apply the innovation to crops. Grafting made the farming of woody plants, such as apples, pears and plums, possible.

Source: Purdue University
Previous Next

The Early Scientific Age

The Renaissance created the foundation of today's scientific method, the experimentation process researchers still follow today. This helped to reignite experimentation - and innovation - in food production. During this period, cross-breeding, the process of breeding two different varieties of plants or animals to develop an improved variety, took off. Access to better, more reliable food sources helped save billions from hunger and improve food security for many around the world.

Previous Next


Farmers breed sheep for their size and wool

English farmer Robert Bakewell revolutionized sheep and cattle farming by methodically breeding animals, based on the traits he saw in them, for better meat and wool production.

Source: Iowa State University
Previous Next


Charles Darwin publishes On the Origins of Species

He writes, "We can not suppose that all the breeds were suddenly as perfect and as useful as we see them now... Nature gives successive variations; man adds them up in certain directions useful to him. In this sense he may be said to make for himself and useful breeds."

Source: Darwin Online
Previous Next


New discoveries about genetic traits and inheritance

Friar Gregor Mendel proposes his "principles of inheritance", the result of his experiments on pea plants, showing how traits are passed down over generations.

Source: Encyclopædia Britannica
Previous Next


Horticulturists develop stronger, better varieties of crops

Through continued experimentation, scientists are able to advance cross-breeding practices. By 1933, hybrid corn varieties were widely available on the commercial market.

Source: Modern Agriculture
Previous Next


Scientists combat global hunger with dwarf wheat

Norman Borlaug uses cross-breeding to develop dwarf wheat varieties in Mexico, which were high-yielding and disease-resistant. By expanding access to food, his work in Mexico and India saved a billion lives. His research improved food security in these nations and launched the Green Revolution.

Source: The World Food Prize
Previous Next

The DNA Age

Agricultural innovation was transformed as scientists began to better understand genes and DNA. Using this knowledge, they were able to make precise changes to plants and animals’ genetic code, to develop stronger, healthier varieties. These discoveries paved the way for the agricultural innovations of today. By continuing to cultivate a better understanding of nature, scientists can find more sustainable solutions to tomorrow's problems.

Previous Next


Scientists discover DNA's double helix structure

Drawing on Rosalind Franklin's research, Francis Crick and James Watson discover DNA's double helix structure. Their discovery showed how DNA replicates and how hereditary information is coded on it. It also paved the way for ongoing discoveries in the field of molecular biology.

Source: BBC
Previous Next


Advances in genetic understanding of plants and animals

Researchers worldwide further explore the genetic code of plants and animals, making future innovations possible.

Source: Penn State
Previous Next


First plant genome squenced

Scientists sequence the first genome sequencing of a flowering plant, Arabidopsis thaliana, which contains more than 25,000 genes, helping to clarify the specific functions different genes play. By better understanding genomes, plant scientists can more efficiently develop new varieties.

Source: American Society of Agronomy
Previous Next


The billionth acre of genetically modified crops is planted

Scientists developed these crops by making minor changes to their genetic code to make them resistant to diseases, pests and more.

Source: GMO Pundit
Previous Next


CRISPR is discovered, changing the gene editing landscape

Scientists publish a landmark paper describing CRISPR, an enzyme that can edit an organism's DNA, to turn on and off certain genes. The discovery opens the door to exciting innovations in plant and animal breeding.

Source: Vox
Previous Next

Progress continues today in food and agriculture

Gene editing is the latest advancement in evolving plant and animal breeding methods, making the process more efficient and precise than ever before. In many cases, the changes made through gene editing could happen naturally through an evolutionary process but now are possible in a few years instead of decades.

To see how today’s agricultural innovations are bringing you healthier, more resilient and less environmentally intrusive foods, check out this Plate of Super Foods.