One of the great transformations in global environmental history has been the plowing up of the world’s grasslands to grow grain. The process began at the western end of the Eurasian steppes, in present-day southern Russia and Ukraine, in the second half of the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the great plow-up spread to vast areas of the prairies and Great Plains of North America, the Pampas of South America, the veldt of southern Africa, lands in Australasia, northern India, and north Africa, and the plains of Hungary and Romania.

This process was driven by the transport revolution aided by the construction of railroads, cargo ships, ports, and grain elevators. Facilitated by domestic and international markets, the grain was consumed by the globe’s burgeoning urban population.

The conversion of large parts of the world’s grasslands to arable fields was achieved with great social and environmental cost. Indigenous populations were forcibly driven of the land and their ways of life, which were based on herding or hunting livestock, was destroyed. The Indian Wars of the late nineteenth century and wars on the Eurasian steppes, over many centuries, between states based on farming and pastoralism opened the way to the plow.

The plowing of the fertile soil to grow grain, was also followed by ecological disasters, of which the Dust Bowl on the southern plains of the USA in the 1930’s is probably the most famous.

The plowing up of the steppes is a story that is directly related to the rise of oil, nitrogen fixation as well as the transport revolution and is part of the environmental legacy of the 19th and 20th century.

  1. Jan Oosthoek, Environmental History Resources, Accessed: 09 Dec. 2015
  2. Jan Oosthoek, Environmental History Resources, Accessed: 09 Dec. 2015


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