An 700 Year-old Example of Technological Innovation in Agriculture

Planting rice


Around 1300 c.e. the Yao and Zhuang people of Guangdong Province in Southern China faced a serious problem.  In the Longsheng area there was a growing population, but their mountainous surroundings gave them very little land that could be used for farming.  They needed more food and so they turned to technology for the solution.  What they did was to terrace their mountainsides even up to slopes of 45%. I’m sure that the method was perfected over the 400 years of building.  What they were able to do is still an impressive example of civil engineering, even today.  Using stones and mud they built terrace walls that stand firm even with the torrential downpours that are common in the area.  They used bamboo piping to distribute water to each paddy – some so narrow that they only have room for two rows of rice.  This production system has remained productive for centuries when many other contemporary farming societies around the world simply depleted one area and moved on to the next.  These terraces are called Longji, or the “Dragon’s Spine” and they now extend over 66 square kilometers.  They are both beautiful and inspiring.

The Dragon's Spine

The Modern Food Supply Challenge

The entire population of the earth faces a challenge today much like the one that faced the people of Longsheng hundreds of years ago. We will still have a rapidly growing population for the next 40 or so years, and yet we really don’t have much more land that is suitable for conversion to farms (and it would be better for climate change if we could get by with less farmed land, not more).  We too need to innovate and find the technological solutions to our challenge.  It won’t be the same solution as was employed on those Chinese mountainsides, and it will differ around the globe, but it will be a technological remedy.  

Technology for Both Large and Small Farms

In my next couple of posts I’ll talk about a vision for an extremely productive and environmentally-friendly form of agriculture that is now possible in the developed world for use on hundreds of millions of acres of farms.  Technology is also what is needed for the small-holder farms that are still critical to feeding much of the world’s population.  For instance, cell phones have been a tremendous advance for small scale farmers in developing countries.  Instead of having to transport their crops with no certainty of finding a place to sell it for a decent price, the farmer can pre-arrange the sale and the whole market can operate more efficiently.  Small, foot powered pumps can allow a farmer to grow a much better crop than with dependence on rainfall or a classical well.  Crops that are genetically engineered to resist pests like insects or viruses are an excellent, scale-neutral technology that can be given to farmers in the third world. Whether it is for small-holder farming or for large scale, we, like the people of Longsheng in 1300, need to employ our best creative skills to develop appropriate technologies to feed the world.

The Opponents of Technology for Agricuture

Some people are actively against the idea of technology for agriculture.  For some it comes from a romantic (and frankly mythical) image of what farming “should be.”  For some it comes from a deep distrust of anything corporate – a suspicion that might be softened if they actually met the real people involved in developing agricultural technologies.  For some it is the paralyzing philosophy of the “Precautionary Principle.”  In any case, what these attitudes fail to represent is a healthy survival instinct or an actionable concern for the poor of the world.

 Technology in any sphere is not automatically good or bad.  It depends on how well people think-through potential, unintended consequences, and on the ethics of whomever applies the technology.  The same cell phones that help the African small farmer lead to deaths on our highways and trigger IEDs in Afghanistan.  That does not mean that cell phone technology is bad, but simply that it like any technology can be used for good or bad.  The flooded rice culture used on the Dragon’s Spine leads to the release of methane – a potent greenhouse gas.  There are now alternative ways to grow rice, but that does not diminish the beauty or creativity of what these people accomplished with the best technology available to them at the time.  We must be just as creative.

You are welcome to comment on this post or email me at [email protected]  

All images photographed by B.T. Savage


Looking down a series of terraces

  1. John

    GMO seeds are a danger to humanity and will come back to bite us all in the back side in due time. This is not technology we need. GMO seeds are less nutricious, less productive and contaminate the gene pool of other seeds. The unintended and unknown consequences of this technology is far too dangerous to proceed with.
    The only thing this technology is good for is putting the power and control of our food supply in the hands of a few corporations and letting so few companies and actually individuals control our food supply is something we should never do.

  2. Bobby B.

    700 years of methane producing Longji have surely dealt a blow to the planet from which it can never recover. The perpetrators must be punished. Let’s call on Henry Waxman to expand his cap-and-trade climate bill to include warrantless searches not only of homes in the United States, but of homes throughout the world. Everyone – even the poorest of the poor – must be willing to cough up the cash to line the pockets of the ruling elite for the cause of saving the planet. It is the only way.

    Calm down. I am just having some fun. I actually admire ancient technologies and believe that modern technologies offer the only solutions to problems perceived and real. Thanks to Steve Savage for being a voice of reason in a polarizing debate.

  3. Steve Savage

    You make several unsupported negative assertions about GMO that are not accurate. As someone who observed the years of careful consideration that went on before GMO was commercialized I have not been surprised that this technology has been used for 13 years on billions of acres with no real problems. There should be a statue of limitations on saying that the sky is falling.

    Bobby B,
    Thanks for the encouragement

  4. russ

    Excellent article Steve! Thanks!

    John voices the uneducated opinion of the unwashed masses that just happen to include about 95% of the green movement – not to mention most of Europe.

    Having knowledge or even thinking about something, say GMO, is totally unnecessary for that bunch. They have opinions provided by others – kind of a package deal.

    All they have to do is the same as a parrot – repeat and they are rewarded by their peers with congratulations and high fives.

  5. rockymtnway

    Why is it that we’re always turning to scientific technology for the answer to our looming food and energy crisis? Social technologies offer a much more practical and realistic solution to both problems. Two hundred years ago and up until the middle of the 20th century immigrants clammored to America’s doorsteps because of the opportunity to own productive land, even if it was just a small urban or suburban home. Gardens were commonplace on every street, not because they were pretty, but because they helped reduce the family food bill.

    If we re-embraced this vision of ourselves, as producers rather than consumers, we could curb demand for food from foreign sources of food with the high energy costs that come along with them, improve the quality of the food in our own homes, and increase total global food production. If every suburban home converted just 10% of their trees to fruit bearing and 10% of their lawn to vegitable production imagine the difference it would make. That’s a technology we can live with.

  6. Steve Savage


    I think it would be fantastic if everyone who has any space to do it would garden. I grew up helping my Grandfather with his large garden that supplied vegetables to all his neighbors. Also, if more people gardened they would understand that there are things called pests. The limitations are; however, significant. In most areas you can only harvest for a few months of the year. Also, a huge proportion of the population in cities just doesn’t have enough space to grow any significant proportion of what is needed for a healthy diet. It doesn’t mean they can’t still have pots on the balcony. Still, you are not going to supply your own need for wheat or rice or soybeans even if you have a big back yard. I do a lot of gardening, but I know that is only a very small part of what it takes to feed the world

  7. Michael Bukowski DVM

    Thanks to Steve for yet another interesting article.

    Surely technology will have a place in feeding a growing population. But shouldn’t we also be making a better go at limiting population growth? I’m not talking about any sort of eugenics program, just peaceful, non-violent methods like:
    – realistic attitudes about birth control
    – education especially of girls and women
    – dropping the crazy dogmas that counter the above.
    Heck, when it comes to problems such as climate change, immigration, resource wars, disease control and even healthcare isn’t the over-population the 800lb gorrilla we are ignoring?
    Time to start handing out condoms with those GMO seeds : ).

    I’ll get off my soap box now.   

  8. rockymtnway

    I’d never suggest that private gardening could compete with agri-business for overall production. We have developed an amazingly efficient system for producing grains for the world, but with the changes in California’s San Joaquin water allocation US fruit and vegitable production is at serious risk. That just happens to be the types of foods that home gardeners can grow the easiest.

    It’s not hard to develop a garden that produces six months out of the year. Square foot gardening makes high output, low input gardening easy, while using plants that control pests within your garden can reduce dependence on chemical pesticides.

    People are moving in that direction anyway. Look at how many cities across the nation re-examined local laws regarding chickens because of the economy. There’s a revolution at the end of a spade.

  9. Steve Savage

    I think it would be great if those things happened and global population stabilized much sooner. Economic development and education of women is exactly what it takes to get birth rates in line. Unfortunately there are some big barriers (poverty, cultures, religion) to that in the places that are projected to have the most population growth (Africa in particular). Its not a good thing, but I’m not sure what anybody can do about it.

  10. Steve Savage


    I’m totally supportive of the “revolution” that you describe and I commend you for promoting it. The bigger it gets to be the better from my perspective. I just don’t think that is it an issue of competing with “argribusiness.” Both have their place in meeting our food challenges, but the way that we do agribusiness is probably more important from an environmental perspective. I wouldn’t mind having a few chickens if my city would let me.

  11. russ

    I don’t want any chickens! My wife would make pets out of them and they would die of old age. Meantime I would have to feed them and clean the chicken house!

    Backyard gardens will always be a very small part of the overall food supply. It amazes me that some people think the total production of those gardens amounts to more than a fraction of a percent of the total food requirement.

    Chemical use on those gardens (when people get tired of playing with the bugs) is a significant danger as well. Even more so outside of the US where people can still get their hands on the toxic stuff.

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