Technology can be a critical determinant of the place and pace of the expansion of commodity frontiers – defined as the exploitation of natural resources to provision global markets. This is because agricultural technology generally does not travel well and must be adapted to the local agro-ecological, socio-economic and institutional contexts, especially for new crops in new areas. In the discourse on contemporary land-use changes, science and technology are often given a central role in frontier expansion since well-adapted technology can reduce risks to entrepreneurs and raise returns to land thereby making it profitable to expand. However, the historical discourse on commodity frontiers has generally given little attention to the sources of technology and the role of science in extending the frontier.
This paper argues that after 1900, when investments in public research to support agriculture became mainstream, crop science has often played an important and sometimes decisive role in influencing when, where and at what speed commodity expansion takes place. To do this, three hypothesised scenarios have been selected. The first case is one where state and private interests seemed to have fixed on a particular commodity considered strategic (at least to the imperial powers): rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) in Malaya around 1900. The second scenario is one where official policy was to expand the frontier for settlement, or for economic or political aims, but the specific commodities to drive this expansion were not pre-identified: livestock feed in Thailand (maize, Zea mays, and cassava, Manihot esculenta) in the 1950s and 60s and in central-west Brazil (soybeans, Glycine max) from the 1970s. The third case is one where the main impetus for frontier expansion appeared to come from scientific discoveries themselves: the breeding of dryland wheat (Triticum aestivum) in south-eastern Australia around 1900 and the discovery of ‘trace element’ soil deficiencies in South Australia to expand wool and wheat production in the 1930s and 1940s. A subsidiary hypothesis is posited that public investments in science are more likely to serve the public interest and drive a more egalitarian agrarian structure on the commodity frontier. This is because public science makes its discoveries freely available to all, although the political economy may distort research priorities toward certain groups.
In each case, the main drivers of frontier expansion are reviewed, paying special attention to the sources of technology and the role of public science. The original scientific discoveries published in the literature at the time are also examined, to understand the motivations and methods for undertaking the research.