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"Farming" redirects here. For other uses, see Farming (disambiguation).

Agriculture, also called farming or husbandry, is the cultivation of animals, plants, fungi, and other life forms for food, fiber, biofuel, drugs and other products used to sustain and enhance human life.[1] Agriculture was the key development in the rise of sedentary human civilization, whereby farming of domesticated species created food surpluses that nurtured the development of civilization. The study of agriculture is known as agricultural science. The history of agriculture dates back thousands of years, and its development has been driven and defined by greatly different climates, cultures, and technologies. However, all farming generally relies on techniques to expand and maintain the lands that are suitable for raising domesticated species. For plants, this usually requires some form of irrigation, although there are methods of dryland farming. Livestock are raised in a combination of grassland-based and landless systems, in an industry that covers almost one-third of the world's ice- and water-free area. In the developed world, industrial agriculture based on large-scale monoculture has become the dominant system of modern farming, although there is growing support for sustainable agriculture, including permaculture and organic agriculture.

Until the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of the human population labored in agriculture. Pre-industrial agriculture was typically subsistence agriculture/ Self-sufficiency in which farmers raised most of their crops for their own consumption instead of cash crops for trade. A remarkable shift in agricultural practices has occurred over the past century in response to new technologies, and the development of world markets. This also has led to technological improvements in agricultural techniques, such as the Haber-Bosch method for synthesizing ammonium nitrate which made the traditional practice of recycling nutrients with crop rotation and animal manure less important.

Modern agronomy, plant breeding, agrochemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers, and technological improvements have sharply increased yields from cultivation, but at the same time have caused widespread ecological damage and negative human health effects. Selective breeding and modern practices in animal husbandry have similarly increased the output of meat, but have raised concerns about animal welfare and the health effects of the antibiotics, growth hormones, and other chemicals commonly used in industrial meat production. Genetically Modified Organisms are an increasing component of agriculture today, although they are banned in several countries. Agricultural food production and water management are targeted as an increasingly global issue that is fostering debate on a number of issues. Significant degradation of land and water resources, including the depletion of aquifers, has been observed in recent decades, and the effects of global warming on agriculture and of agriculture on global warming are still not fully understood.

The major agricultural products can be broadly grouped into foods, fibers, fuels, and raw materials. Specific foods include cereals (grains), vegetables, fruits, oils, meat and spices. Fibers include cotton, wool, hemp, silk and flax. Raw materials include lumber and bamboo. Other useful materials are produced by plants, such as resins, dyes, drugs, perfume, biofuels and ornamental products such as cut flowers and nursery plants. Over one third of the world's workers are employed in agriculture, second only to the services sector, although the percentages of agricultural workers in developed countries has decreased significantly over the past several centuries.

Etymology and terminology

The word agriculture is a late Middle English adaptation of Latin agricultūra, from ager, "field", and cultūra, "cultivation" or "growing".[2] Agriculture usually refers to human activities, although it is also observed in certain species of ant, termite and ambrosia beetle.[3] To practice agriculture means to use natural resources to "produce commodities which maintain life, including food, fiber, forest products, horticultural crops, and their related services."[4] This definition includes arable farming or agronomy, and horticulture, all terms for the growing of plants, animal husbandry and forestry.[4] A distinction is sometimes made between forestry and agriculture, based on the former's longer management rotations, extensive versus intensive management practices and development mainly by nature, rather than by man. Even then, it is acknowledged that there is a large amount of knowledge transfer and overlap between silviculture (the management of forests) and agriculture.[5] In traditional farming, the two are often combined even on small landholdings, leading to the term agroforestry.[6]


Agricultural practices such as irrigation, crop rotation, fertilizers, pesticides and the domestication of livestock were developed long ago, but have made great progress in the past century. The history of agriculture has played a major role in human history, as agricultural progress has been a crucial factor in worldwide socio-economic change. Division of labour in agricultural societies made commonplace specializations rarely seen in hunter-gatherer cultures, which allowed the growth of towns and cities, and the complex societies we call civilizations. When farmers became capable of producing food beyond the needs of their own families, others in their society were freed to devote themselves to projects other than food acquisition. Historians and anthropologists have long argued that the development of agriculture made civilization possible. The total world population probably never exceeded 15 million inhabitants before the development of agriculture.[7] According to Jared Diamond, the costs of agriculture were: "the average daily number of work hours increased, nutrition deteriorated, infectious disease and body wear increased, and lifespan shortened."[8]

Prehistoric origins

Forest gardening, a plant-based food production system, is thought to be the world's oldest agroecosystem.[9] Forest gardens originated in prehistoric times along jungle-clad river banks and in the wet foothills of monsoon regions. In the gradual process of a family improving their immediate environment, useful tree and vine species were identified, protected and improved whilst undesirable species were eliminated. Eventually superior foreign species were selected and incorporated into the family's garden.[10]


Further information: Neolithic Revolution

The Fertile Crescent of the West Asia first saw the domestication of animals, starting the Neolithic Revolution. Between 10,000 and 13,000 years ago, the ancestors of modern cattle, sheep, goats and pigs were domesticated in this area. The gradual transition from wild harvesting to deliberate cultivation happened independently in several areas around the globe.[11] Agriculture allowed for the support of an increased population, leading to larger societies and eventually the development of cities. It also created the need for greater organization of political power (and the creation of social stratification), as decisions had to be made regarding labor and harvest allocation and access rights to water and land. Agriculture bred immobility, as populations settled down for long periods of time, which led to the accumulation of material goods.[12]

Early Neolithic villages show evidence of the ability to process grain, and the Near East is the ancient home of the ancestors of wheat, barley and peas. There is evidence of the cultivation of figs in the Jordan Valley as long as 11,300 years ago, and cereal (grain) production in Syria approximately 9,000 years ago. During the same period, farmers in China began to farm rice and millet, using man-made floods and fires as part of their cultivation regimen.[11]

Squash was grown in Mexico nearly 10,000 years ago, while maize-like plants, derived from the wild teosinte, began to be seen at around 9,000 years ago. The derivation of teosinte into modern corn was slow, however, and it took until 5,500[11] to 6,000 years ago to turn into what we know today as maize. It then gradually spread across North America and was the major crop of Native Americans at the time of European exploration.[13] Beans were domesticated around the same time, and together these three plants formed the Three Sisters nutritional foundation of many native populations in North and Central America. Combined with peppers, these crops provided a balanced diet for much of the continent.[14] Grapes were first grown for wine approximately 8,000 years ago, in the Southern Caucasus, and by 3000 BC had spread to the Fertile Crescent, the Jordan Valley and Egypt.[15]

Agriculture advanced to Europe slightly later, reaching the northeast of the continent from the east around 4000 BC. The idea that agriculture spread to Europe, rather than independently developing there, has led to two main hypotheses. The first is a "wave of advance", which holds that agriculture traveled slowly and steadily across the continent, while the second, "population pulse" theory, holds that it moved in jumps.[16] Also around 6000 years ago, horses first began to be domesticated in the Eurasian steppes. Initially used for food, it was quickly discovered that they were useful for field work and carrying goods and people.[17] Around 5,000 years ago, sunflowers were first cultivated in North America, while South America's Andes region was developing the potato.[11] A minor center of domestication, the indigenous people of the eastern US appear to have domesticated numerous crops, including tobacco.[18]

Bronze and Iron Ages

Between 2500 and 2000 BC, the simplest form of the plough, called the ard, spread throughout Europe, replacing the hoe. This change in equipment significantly increased cultivation ability, and affected the demand for land, as well as ideas about property, inheritance and family rights.[19] Before this period, simple digging sticks or hoes were used. These tools would have also been easier to transport, which was a benefit as people only stayed until the soil's nutrients were depleted. However, as the continuous cultivating of smaller pieces of land became a sustaining practice throughout the world, ards were much more efficient than digging sticks.[20] As humanity became more stationary, empires, such as the New Kingdom of Egypt and the Ancient Romans, arose, dependent upon agriculture to feed their growing populations, and slavery, which was used to provide the labor needed for continually intensifying agricultural processes.

Agricultural technology continued to improve, allowing the expansion of available crop varieties, including a wide range of fruits, vegetables, oil crops, spices and other products.[21][22] China was also an important center for agricultural technology development during this period. During the Zhou dynasty (1666–221 BC), the first canals were built, and irrigation was used extensively. The later Three Kingdoms and Northern and Southern dynasties (221–581 AD) brought the first biological pest control, extensive writings on agricultural topics and technological innovations such as steel and the wheelbarrow.[23]

In the ancient world, fresh products, such as meats, dairy products and fresh fruits and vegetables, were likely consumed relatively close to where they were produced. Less perishable products, such as grains, preserved foods, olive oil and wine, were often traded over an extensive network of land and sea routes. The ancient trade in agricultural goods was well established, with wine traded in the Mediterranean region in the 6th century BC and Rome receiving extensive shipments of grain as tax payments by the 2nd century BC. Huge amounts of grain were transported, mainly by sea, and it was during this period that the subsidization of grain farming began, for the prevention of famine. Ancient Rome was a major center for agricultural trade. Trade routes stretched from Britain and Scandinavia in the west to India and China in the east, and included major crops, such as grain, wine and olive oil (also a fuel for oil lamps), as well as additional products, including spices, fabrics and drugs.[24]

In Ancient Greece and Rome, many scholars documented farming techniques, including the use of fertilizers.[25] Much of what was believed about farming and plant nutrition at this time was later found to be incorrect, but their theories provided the scientific foundation for the development of agricultural theories through the Middle Ages. Ideas about soil fertility and fertilization remained much the same from the time of Greco-Roman scholars until the 19th century, with correspondingly low crop yields.[25] By the time of Alexander the Great's conquests (330–323 BC), the role of horses had developed, and they played a huge role in warfare and agriculture. Innovations continued to be developed which allowed them to work longer, harder and more efficiently. By medieval times they became the primary source of power for agriculture, transport and warfare, a position they held until the development of the steam and internal combustion engines.[17] The Mayan culture developed several innovations in agriculture during its peak, which ranged from 400 BC to 900 AD and was heavily dependent upon agriculture to support its population. The Mayans used extensive canal and raised field systems to farm the large portions of swampland on the Yucatán Peninsula.[26][27]

Middle Ages

European agriculture underwent a number of significant changes during the Middle Ages. Tools including the scythe and plow were improved from classical versions, a three field system of crop rotation was invented, and the moldboard plow and wheeled plow were increasingly used. Draft horses were bred and increasingly used as a working animal in many parts of Europe, while oxen continued to be used for this purpose. Metal horseshoes were widely adopted. Much of Europe had low population densities during this period, to which extensive farming was well-suited. In parts of Southern Europe, more intensive farming combined techniques continued from classical Roman agriculture and those transferred from Islamic regions. In the late Middle Ages, the use of manure as fertilizer increased, which in turn decreased the necessity of regular fallowing of fields.

Columbian exchange

The history of agriculture in the Age of Discovery and Early modern era was closely tied to the processes of European exploration and colonization. After 1492 the world's agricultural patterns were shuffled in the widespread exchange of plants and animals known as the Columbian Exchange. Crops and animals that were previously only known in the Old World were now transplanted to the New and vice versa. Perhaps most notably, the tomato became a favorite in European cuisine, and maize and potatoes were widely adopted. Other transplanted crops include pineapple, cocoa, and tobacco. In the other direction, several wheat strains quickly took to western hemisphere soils and became a dietary staple even for native North, Central and South Americans. Agriculture was a key element in the Atlantic slave trade, triangular trade, and the expansion by European powers into the Americas. In the expanding plantation economy, large plantations producing crops including sugar, cotton, and indigo, were heavily dependent upon slave labor.

Modern era

Use of primitive agricultural techniques was the historical standard. The vast majority of the world population engaged in subsistence agriculture and yields remained low. Between the 16th century and the mid-19th century, Great Britain saw a massive increase in agricultural productivity and net output, changes that subsequently affected agriculture around the world. New agricultural practices like enclosure, mechanization, four-field crop rotation and selective breeding enabled an unprecedented population growth, freeing up a significant percentage of the workforce, and thereby helped drive the Industrial Revolution.[28] By the early 19th century, agricultural practices, particularly careful selection of hardy strains and cultivars, had so improved that yield per land unit was many times that seen in the Middle Ages and before. It is estimated that the productivity of wheat went up from about 19 bushels per acre in 1720 to 21–22 bushels by the middle of the century and finally stabilised at around 30 bushels by 1840.[29]

The Agricultural Revolution was a major turning point in history. The population of England in 1750 reached the level of 5.7 million, just as it had done in the past in around 1350 and again in 1650. This time, instead of a Malthusian catastrophe occurring from plague or famine, the population growth remained sustained.

One of the keys to the British Agricultural Revolution was the development of ways of keeping and improving the arable land in Great Britain to counteract the loss of the soil's plant nutrients in cropping a given area. Higher yielding land was added to higher yielding crops with more yield/acre. Farm workers using more productive tools and machinery produced more crops with fewer workers. The Agricultural Revolution picked up speed as the Industrial Revolution and the advances in chemistry produced the scientific knowledge, wealth and technology for a more systematic development of commercial fertilizers and new and more productive agricultural machinery.

Advice on more productive techniques for farming began to appear in England in the mid-17th century, from writers such as Samuel Hartlib, Walter Blith and others.[30] The main problem in sustaining agriculture in one place for a long time was the depletion of nutrients, most importantly nitrogen levels, in the soil. To allow the soil to regenerate, productive land was often let fallow and in some places crop rotation was used. A four-field rotation was popularised by the British agriculturist Charles Townshend in the 18th century. The system (wheat, turnips, barley and clover), opened up a fodder crop and grazing crop allowing livestock to be bred year-round. The use of turnip was especially important as the legume roots were an important source of nutrients for the soil.

Another catalyst for improvement came from the Enclosure movement. Prior to the 18th century, agriculture across Europe used the feudal open field system with subsistence farmers cropping strips of land in fields held in common and splitting up the produce; this was very inefficient and reduced incentive to improve the productivity. Many farms began to be enclosed by Yeomen who improved the use of their land. This process accelerated in the 15th and 16th centuries with special acts of Parliament to expedite the legal process. This culminated in the General Enclosure Act of 1801, which sanctioned large-scale land reform.

The mechanisation and rationalisation of agriculture was another important factor. Robert Bakewell and Thomas Coke introduced selective breeding, and initiated a process of inbreeding to maximise desirable traits from the mid 18th century, such as the New Leicester sheep.

Machines were invented to improve the efficiency of various agricultural operation, such as Jethro Tull's seed drill of 1701 that mechanised seeding at the correct depth and spacing and Andrew Meikle's threshing machine of 1784. Ploughs were steadily improved, from Joseph Foljambe's Rotherham iron plough in 1730[31] to James Small's improved "Scots Plough" metal in 1763. In 1789 Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies was producing 86 plough models for different soils.[32] Traction machines also began to replace horsepower on the farms in the 19th century.

The scientific investigation of fertilization began at the Rothamsted Experimental Station in 1843 by John Bennet Lawes. He investigated the impact of inorganic and organic fertilizers on crop yield and founded one of the first artificial fertilizer manufacturing factories in 1842. Fertilizer, in the shape of sodium nitrate deposits in Chile, was imported to Britain by John Thomas North as well as guano (birds droppings). The first commercial process for fertilizer production was the obtaining of phosphate from the dissolution of coprolites in sulphuric acid.[33]

The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 that removed tariffs on food imports, and the development of steamships and railways, which revolutionised the transportation of food, allowed a truly global market for food to emerge. This reduced volatility in food prices as scarcity in one area could be offset by cheap imports from another area.

The work of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel created the scientific foundation for plant breeding that led to its explosive impact over the past 150 years.[34] Firms, such as Gartons Agricultural Plant Breeders began to market hybrid crops in the 1890s.

20th century

Dan Albone constructed the first commercially successful gasoline-powered general purpose tractor in 1901, and the 1923 International Harvester Farmall tractor marked a major point in the replacement of draft animals (particularly horses) with machines. Since that time, self-propelled mechanical harvesters (combines), planters, transplanters and other equipment have been developed, further revolutionizing agriculture.[35] These inventions allowed farming tasks to be done with a speed and on a scale previously impossible, leading modern farms to output much greater volumes of high-quality produce per land unit.[36]

The Haber-Bosch method for synthesizing ammonium nitrate represented a major breakthrough and allowed crop yields to overcome previous constraints. It was first patented by German chemist Fritz Haber. In 1910 Carl Bosch, while working for German chemical company BASF, successfully commercialized the process and secured further patents. In the years after World War II, the use of synthetic fertilizer increased rapidly, in sync with the increasing world population. Norman Borlaug and other scientists began developing crops for increased yields in the 1940s in Mexico. Their work lead to the Green Revolution, which applied western advances in fertilizer and pesticide use to farms worldwide, with varying success.[37]

In the past century agriculture has been characterized by increased productivity, the substitution of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for labor, water pollution, and farm subsidies. In recent years there has been a backlash against the external environmental effects of conventional agriculture, resulting in the organic movement.[38] Famines continued to sweep the globe through the 20th century. Through the effects of climactic events, government policy, war and crop failure, millions of people died in each of at least ten famines between the 1920s and the 1990s.[39]

Other applications of scientific research since 1950 in agriculture include gene manipulation, Hydroponics, and the development of economically viable biofuels such as Ethanol.

Contemporary agriculture

In the past century agriculture has been characterized by enhanced productivity, the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, selective breeding, mechanization, water contamination, and farm subsidies. Proponents of organic farming such as Sir Albert Howard argued in the early 20th century that the overuse of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers damages the long-term fertility of the soil. While this feeling lay dormant for decades, as environmental awareness has increased in the 21st century there has been a movement towards sustainable agriculture by some farmers, consumers, and policymakers.

Since the 1990s, there has been a backlash against perceived external environmental effects of mainstream agriculture, particularly regarding water pollution,[40] resulting in the organic movement. One of the major forces behind this movement has been the European Union, which first certified organic food in 1991 and began reform of its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in 2005 to phase out commodity-linked farm subsidies,[41] also known as decoupling. The growth of organic farming has renewed research in alternative technologies such as integrated pest management and selective breeding. Recent mainstream technological developments include genetically modified food.

In late 2007, several factors pushed up the price of grains consumed by humans as well as used to feed poultry and dairy cows and other cattle, causing higher prices of wheat (up 58%), soybean (up 32%), and maize (up 11%) over the year. Contributing factors included increased demand for grain-fed animal products from the growing middle classes of countries such as China and India and the diversion of food grain to biofuel production.[42][43] Food riots took place in several countries across the world.[44][45][46] The International Fund for Agricultural Development posits that an increase in smallholder agriculture may be part of the solution to concerns about food prices and overall food security. They in part base this on the experience of Vietnam, which went from a food importer to large food exporter and saw a significant drop in poverty, due mainly to the development of smallholder agriculture in the country.[47]

An epidemic of stem rust on wheat caused by race Ug99 is currently spreading across Africa and into Asia and is causing major concern.[48][49][50] Approximately 40% of the world's agricultural land is seriously degraded.[51] In Africa, if current trends of soil degradation continue, the continent might be able to feed just 25% of its population by 2025, according to UNU's Ghana-based Institute for Natural Resources in Africa.[52]

In 2009, the agricultural output of China was the largest in the world, followed by the European Union, India and the United States, according to the International Monetary Fund (see below). Economists measure the total factor productivity of agriculture and by this measure agriculture in the United States is roughly 1.7 times more productive than it was in 1948.[53] Six countries – the US, Canada, France, Australia, Argentina and Thailand – supply 90% of grain exports.[54] Water deficits, which are already spurring heavy grain imports in numerous middle-sized countries, including Algeria, Iran, Egypt, and Mexico,[55] may soon do the same in larger countries, such as China or India.[56]


As of 2011, the International Labour Organization states that approximately one billion people, or over 1/3 of the available work force, are employed in the global agricultural sector. Agriculture constitutes approximately 70 percent of the global employment of children, and in many countries employs the largest percentage of women of any industry.[57] The service sector only overtook the agricultural sector as the largest global employer in 2007. Between 1997 and 2007, the percentage of people employed in agriculture fell by over four percentage points, a trend that is expected to continue.[58] The number of people employed in agriculture varies widely on a per-country basis, ranging from less than 2 percent in countries like the US and Canada to over 80 percent in many African nations.[59] In developed countries, these figures are significantly lower than in previous centuries. During the 16th century in Europe, for example, between 55 and 75 percent of the population was engaged in agriculture, depending on the country. By the 19th century in Europe, this had dropped to between 35 and 65 percent.[60] In the same countries today, the figure is less than 10 percent.[59]


Agriculture remains a hazardous industry, and farmers worldwide remain at high risk of work-related injuries, lung disease, noise-induced hearing loss, skin diseases, as well as certain cancers related to chemical use and prolonged sun exposure. On industrialized farms, injuries frequently involve the use of agricultural machinery, and a common cause of fatal agricultural injuries in developed countries is tractor rollovers.[61] Pesticides and other chemicals used in farming can also be hazardous to worker health, and workers exposed to pesticides may experience illnesses or birth defects.[62] As an industry in which families commonly share in work and live on the farm itself, entire families can be at risk for injuries, illness, and death.[63] Common causes of fatal injuries among young farm workers include drowning, machinery and motor vehicle-related accidents.[63]

The International Labour Organization considers agriculture "one of the most hazardous of all economic sectors."[57] It estimates that the annual work-related death toll among agricultural employees is at least 170,000, twice the average rate of other jobs. In addition, incidences of death, injury and illness related to agricultural activities often go unreported.[64] The organization has developed the Safety and Health in Agriculture Convention, 2001, which covers the range of risks in the agriculture occupation, the prevention of these risks and the role that individuals and organizations engaged in agriculture should play.[57]

Agricultural production systems

Crop cultivation systems

Cropping systems vary among farms depending on the available resources and constraints; geography and climate of the farm; government policy; economic, social and political pressures; and the philosophy and culture of the farmer.[65][66]

Shifting cultivation (or slash and burn) is a system in which forests are burnt, releasing nutrients to support cultivation of annual and then perennial crops for a period of several years.[67] Then the plot is left fallow to regrow forest, and the farmer moves to a new plot, returning after many more years (10–20). This fallow period is shortened if population density grows, requiring the input of nutrients (fertilizer or manure) and some manual pest control. Annual cultivation is the next phase of intensity in which there is no fallow period. This requires even greater nutrient and pest control inputs.

Further industrialization lead to the use of monocultures, when one cultivar is planted on a large acreage. Because of the low biodiversity, nutrient use is uniform and pests tend to build up, necessitating the greater use of pesticides and fertilizers.[66] Multiple cropping, in which several crops are grown sequentially in one year, and intercropping, when several crops are grown at the same time are other kinds of annual cropping systems known as polycultures.[67]

In subtropical and arid environments, the timing and extent of agriculture may be limited by rainfall, either not allowing multiple annual crops in a year, or requiring irrigation. In all of these environments perennial crops are grown (coffee, chocolate) and systems are practiced such as agroforestry. In temperate environments, where ecosystems were predominantly grassland or prairie, highly productive annual cropping is the dominant farming system.[67]

Crop statistics

Important categories of crops include cereals and pseudocereals, pulses (legumes), forage, and fruits and vegetables. Specific crops are cultivated in distinct growing regions throughout the world. In millions of metric tons, based on FAO estimate.

Top agricultural products, by crop types
(million tonnes) 2004 data
Cereals 2,263
Vegetables and melons 866
Roots and Tubers 715
Milk 619
Fruit 503
Meat 259
Oilcrops 133
Fish (2001 estimate) 130
Eggs 63
Pulses 60
Vegetable Fiber 30
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
Top agricultural products, by individual crops
(million tonnes) 2011 data
Sugar cane 1794
Maize 883
Rice 722
Wheat 704
Potatoes 374
Sugar beet 271
Soybeans 260
Cassava 252
Tomatoes 159
Barley 134
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Livestock production systems

Main article: Livestock

Animals, including horses, mules, oxen, water buffalo, camels, llamas, alpacas, donkeys, and dogs, are often used to help cultivate fields, harvest crops, wrangle other animals, and transport farm products to buyers. Animal husbandry not only refers to the breeding and raising of animals for meat or to harvest animal products (like milk, eggs, or wool) on a continual basis, but also to the breeding and care of species for work and companionship. Livestock production systems can be defined based on feed source, as grassland-based, mixed, and landless.[69] As of 2010, 30 percent of Earth's ice- and water-free area was used for producing livestock, with the sector employing approximately 1.3 billion people. Between the 1960s and the 2000s, there was a significant increase in livestock production, both by numbers and by carcass weight, especially among beef, pigs and chickens, the latter of which had production increased by almost a factor of 10. Non-meat animals, such as milk cows and egg-producing chickens, also showed significant production increases. Global cattle, sheep and goat populations are expected to continue to increase sharply through 2050.[70] Aquaculture or fish farming, the production of fish for human consumption in confined operations, is one of the fastest growing sectors of food production, growing at an average of 9 percent a year between 1975 and 2007.[71]

During the second half of the 20th century, producers using selective breeding focused on creating livestock breeds and crossbreeds that increased production, while mostly disregarding the need to preserve genetic diversity. This trend has led to a significant decrease in genetic diversity and resources among livestock breeds, leading to a corresponding decrease in disease resistance and local adaptations previously found among traditional breeds.[72]

Grassland based livestock production relies upon plant material such as shrubland, rangeland, and pastures for feeding ruminant animals. Outside nutrient inputs may be used, however manure is returned directly to the grassland as a major nutrient source. This system is particularly important in areas where crop production is not feasible because of climate or soil, representing 30–40 million pastoralists.[67] Mixed production systems use grassland, fodder crops and grain feed crops as feed for ruminant and monogastic (one stomach; mainly chickens and pigs) livestock. Manure is typically recycled in mixed systems as a fertilizer for crops.[69]

Landless systems rely upon feed from outside the farm, representing the de-linking of crop and livestock production found more prevalently in OECD member countries. Synthetic fertilizers are more heavily relied upon for crop production and manure utilization becomes a challenge as well as a source for pollution.[69] Industrialized countries use these operations to produce much of the global supplies of poultry and pork. Scientists estimate that 75 percent of the growth in livestock production between 2003 and 2030 will be in confined animal feeding operations, sometimes called factory farming. Much of this growth is happening in developing countries in Asia, with much smaller amounts of growth in Africa.[70] Some of the practices used in commercial livestock production, including the usage of growth hormones, are controversial.[73]

Production practices

Tillage is the practice of plowing soil to prepare for planting or for nutrient incorporation or for pest control. Tillage varies in intensity from conventional to no-till. It may improve productivity by warming the soil, incorporating fertilizer and controlling weeds, but also renders soil more prone to erosion, triggers the decomposition of organic matter releasing CO2, and reduces the abundance and diversity of soil organisms.[74][75]

Pest control includes the management of weeds, insects/mites, and diseases. Chemical (pesticides), biological (biocontrol), mechanical (tillage), and cultural practices are used. Cultural practices include crop rotation, culling, cover crops, intercropping, composting, avoidance, and resistance. Integrated pest management attempts to use all of these methods to keep pest populations below the number which would cause economic loss, and recommends pesticides as a last resort.[76]

Nutrient management includes both the source of nutrient inputs for crop and livestock production, and the method of utilization of manure produced by livestock. Nutrient inputs can be chemical inorganic fertilizers, manure, green manure, compost and mined minerals.[77] Crop nutrient use may also be managed using cultural techniques such as crop rotation or a fallow period.[78][79] Manure is used either by holding livestock where the feed crop is growing, such as in managed intensive rotational grazing, or by spreading either dry or liquid formulations of manure on cropland or pastures.

Water management is needed where rainfall is insufficient or variable, which occurs to some degree in most regions of the world.[67] Some farmers use irrigation to supplement rainfall. In other areas such as the Great Plains in the U.S. and Canada, farmers use a fallow year to conserve soil moisture to use for growing a crop in the following year.[80] Agriculture represents 70% of freshwater use worldwide.[81]

Crop alteration and biotechnology

Main article: Plant breeding

Crop alteration has been practiced by humankind for thousands of years, since the beginning of civilization. Altering crops through breeding practices changes the genetic make-up of a plant to develop crops with more beneficial characteristics for humans, for example, larger fruits or seeds, drought-tolerance, or resistance to pests. Significant advances in plant breeding ensued after the work of geneticist Gregor Mendel. His work on dominant and recessive alleles, although initially largely ignored for almost 50 years, gave plant breeders a better understanding of genetics and breeding techniques. Crop breeding includes techniques such as plant selection with desirable traits, self-pollination and cross-pollination, and molecular techniques that genetically modify the organism.[82]

Domestication of plants has, over the centuries increased yield, improved disease resistance and drought tolerance, eased harvest and improved the taste and nutritional value of crop plants. Careful selection and breeding have had enormous effects on the characteristics of crop plants. Plant selection and breeding in the 1920s and 1930s improved pasture (grasses and clover) in New Zealand. Extensive X-ray and ultraviolet induced mutagenesis efforts (i.e. primitive genetic engineering) during the 1950s produced the modern commercial varieties of grains such as wheat, corn (maize) and barley.[83][84]

The Green Revolution popularized the use of conventional hybridization to increase yield many folds by creating "high-yielding varieties". For example, average yields of corn (maize) in the USA have increased from around 2.5 tons per hectare (t/ha) (40 bushels per acre) in 1900 to about 9.4 t/ha (150 bushels per acre) in 2001. Similarly, worldwide average wheat yields have increased from less than 1 t/ha in 1900 to more than 2.5 t/ha in 1990. South American average wheat yields are around 2 t/ha, African under 1 t/ha, Egypt and Arabia up to 3.5 to 4 t/ha with irrigation. In contrast, the average wheat yield in countries such as France is over 8 t/ha. Variations in yields are due mainly to variation in climate, genetics, and the level of intensive farming techniques (use of fertilizers, chemical pest control, growth control to avoid lodging).[85][86][87]

Genetic engineering

Main article: Genetic engineering

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) are organisms whose genetic material has been altered by genetic engineering techniques generally known as recombinant DNA technology. Genetic engineering has expanded the genes available to breeders to utilize in creating desired germlines for new crops. Increased durability, nutritional content, insect and virus resistance and herbicide tolerance are a few of the attributes bred into crops through genetic engineering.[88] For some, GMO crops cause food safety and food labeling concerns. Numerous countries have placed restrictions on the production, import and/or use of GMO foods and crops, which have been put in place due to concerns over potential health issues, declining agricultural diversity and contamination of non-GMO crops.[89] Currently a global treaty, the Biosafety Protocol, regulates the trade of GMOs. There is ongoing discussion regarding the labeling of foods made from GMOs, and while the EU currently requires all GMO foods to be labeled, the US does not.[90]

Herbicide-resistant seed has a gene implanted into its genome that allows the plants to tolerate exposure to herbicides, including glyphosates. These seeds allow the farmer to grow a crop that can be sprayed with herbicides to control weeds without harming the resistant crop. Herbicide-tolerant crops are used by farmers worldwide.[91] With the increasing use of herbicide-tolerant crops, comes an increase in the use of glyphosate-based herbicide sprays. In some areas glyphosate resistant weeds have developed, causing farmers to switch to other herbicides.[92][93] Some studies also link widespread glyphosate usage to iron deficiencies in some crops, which is both a crop production and a nutritional quality concern, with potential economic and health implications.[94]

Other GMO crops used by growers include insect-resistant crops, which have a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which produces a toxin specific to insects. These crops protect plants from damage by insects.[95] Some believe that similar or better pest-resistance traits can be acquired through traditional breeding practices, and resistance to various pests can be gained through hybridization or cross-pollination with wild species. In some cases, wild species are the primary source of resistance traits; some tomato cultivars that have gained resistance to at least 19 diseases did so through crossing with wild populations of tomatoes.[96]

Environmental impact

Main article: Environmental issues with agriculture

Agriculture imposes external costs upon society through pesticides, nutrient runoff, excessive water usage, loss of natural environment and assorted other problems. A 2000 assessment of agriculture in the UK determined total external costs for 1996 of £2,343 million, or £208 per hectare.[97] A 2005 analysis of these costs in the USA concluded that cropland imposes approximately $5 to 16 billion ($30 to $96 per hectare), while livestock production imposes $714 million.[98] Both studies, which focused solely on the fiscal impacts, concluded that more should be done to internalize external costs. Neither included subsidies in their analysis, but they noted that subsidies also influence the cost of agriculture to society.[97][98] In 2010, the International Resource Panel of the United Nations Environment Programme published a report assessing the environmental impacts of consumption and production. The study found that agriculture and food consumption are two of the most important drivers of environmental pressures, particularly habitat change, climate change, water use and toxic emissions.[99]

Livestock issues

A senior UN official and co-author of a UN report detailing this problem, Henning Steinfeld, said "Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today's most serious environmental problems".[100] Livestock production occupies 70% of all land used for agriculture, or 30% of the land surface of the planet. It is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases, responsible for 18% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalents. By comparison, all transportation emits 13.5% of the CO2. It produces 65% of human-related nitrous oxide (which has 296 times the global warming potential of CO2,) and 37% of all human-induced methane (which is 23 times as warming as CO2.) It also generates 64% of the ammonia emission. Livestock expansion is cited as a key factor driving deforestation, in the Amazon basin 70% of previously forested area is now occupied by pastures and the remainder used for feedcrops.[101] Through deforestation and land degradation, livestock is also driving reductions in biodiversity.

Land and water issues

Land transformation, the use of land to yield goods and services, is the most substantial way humans alter the Earth's ecosystems, and is considered the driving force in the loss of biodiversity. Estimates of the amount of land transformed by humans vary from 39–50%.[102] Land degradation, the long-term decline in ecosystem function and productivity, is estimated to be occurring on 24% of land worldwide, with cropland overrepresented.[103] The UN-FAO report cites land management as the driving factor behind degradation and reports that 1.5 billion people rely upon the degrading land. Degradation can be deforestation, desertification, soil erosion, mineral depletion, or chemical degradation (acidification and salinization).[67]

Eutrophication, excessive nutrients in aquatic ecosystems resulting in algal blooms and anoxia, leads to fish kills, loss of biodiversity, and renders water unfit for drinking and other industrial uses. Excessive fertilization and manure application to cropland, as well as high livestock stocking densities cause nutrient (mainly nitrogen and phosphorus) runoff and leaching from agricultural land. These nutrients are major nonpoint pollutants contributing to eutrophication of aquatic ecosystems.[104]

Agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of withdrawals of freshwater resources.[105] Agriculture is a major draw on water from aquifers, and currently draws from these underground water sources at an unsustainable rate. It is long known that aquifers in areas as diverse as northern China, the Upper Ganges and the western US are being depleted, and new research extends these problems to aquifers in Iran, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.[106] Increasing pressure is being placed on water resources by industry and urban areas, meaning that water scarcity is increasing and agriculture is facing the challenge of producing more food for the world's growing population with fewer water resources.[107] Agricultural water usage can also cause major environmental problems, including the destruction of natural wetlands, the spread of water-borne diseases, and land degradation through salinization and waterlogging, when irrigation is performed incorrectly.[108]


Pesticide use has increased since 1950 to 2.5 million tons annually worldwide, yet crop loss from pests has remained relatively constant.[109] The World Health Organization estimated in 1992 that 3 million pesticide poisonings occur annually, causing 220,000 deaths.[110] Pesticides select for pesticide resistance in the pest population, leading to a condition termed the 'pesticide treadmill' in which pest resistance warrants the development of a new pesticide.[111]

An alternative argument is that the way to 'save the environment' and prevent famine is by using pesticides and intensive high yield farming, a view exemplified by a quote heading the Center for Global Food Issues website: 'Growing more per acre leaves more land for nature'.[112][113] However, critics argue that a trade-off between the environment and a need for food is not inevitable,[114] and that pesticides simply replace good agronomic practices such as crop rotation.[111]

Climate change

Climate change has the potential to affect agriculture through changes in temperature, rainfall (timing and quantity), CO2, solar radiation and the interaction of these elements.[67] Extreme events, such as droughts and floods, are forecast to increase as climate change takes hold.[115] Agriculture is among sectors most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change; water supply for example, will be critical to sustain agricultural production and provide the increase in food output required to sustain the world's growing population. Fluctuations in the flow of rivers are likely to increase in the twenty first century. Based on the experience of countries in the Nile river basin (Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan) and other developing countries, depletion of water resources during seasons crucial for agriculture can lead to a decline in yield by up to 50 percent.[116] Transformational approaches will be needed to manage natural resources in the future.[117] For example, policies, practices and tools promoting climate-smart agriculture will be important, as will better use of scientific information on climate for assessing risks and vulnerability. Planners and policy-makers will need to help create suitable policies that encourage funding for such agricultural transformation.[118]

Agriculture can both mitigate or worsen global warming. Some of the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere comes from the decomposition of organic matter in the soil, and much of the methane emitted into the atmosphere is caused by the decomposition of organic matter in wet soils such as rice paddies,[119] as well as the normal digestive activities of farm animals. Further, wet or anaerobic soils also lose nitrogen through denitrification, releasing the greenhouse gases nitric oxide and nitrous oxide.[120] Changes in management can reduce the release of these greenhouse gases, and soil can further be used to sequester some of the CO2 in the atmosphere.[119]


Some major organisations are hailing farming within agroecosystems as the way forward for mainstream agriculture. Current farming methods have resulted in over-stretched water resources, high levels of erosion and reduced soil fertility. According to a report by the International Water Management Institute and UNEP,[121] there is not enough water to continue farming using current practices; therefore how critical water, land, and ecosystem resources are used to boost crop yields must be reconsidered. The report suggested assigning value to ecosystems, recognizing environmental and livelihood tradeoffs, and balancing the rights of a variety of users and interests. Inequities that result when such measures are adopted would need to be addressed, such as the reallocation of water from poor to rich, the clearing of land to make way for more productive farmland, or the preservation of a wetland system that limits fishing rights.[122]

Technological advancements help provide farmers with tools and resources to make farming more sustainable.[123] New technologies have given rise to innovations like conservation tillage, a farming process which helps prevent land loss to erosion, water pollution and enhances carbon sequestration.[124]

Agricultural economics

Agricultural economics refers to economics as it relates to the "production, distribution and consumption of [agricultural] goods and services".[125] Combining agricultural production with general theories of marketing and business as a discipline of study began in the late 1800s, and grew significantly through the 20th century.[126] Although the study of agriculture is relatively recent, major trends in agriculture have significantly affected national and international economies, ranging from tenant farmers and sharecropping in the post-American Civil War Southern United States[127] to the European feudal system of manorialism.[128] In the United States, and elsewhere, food costs attributed to food processing, distribution, and agricultural marketing have risen while the costs attributed to farming have declined. This is related to the greater efficiency of farming, combined with the increased level of value addition (e.g. more highly processed products) provided by the supply chain. Market concentration has increased in the sector as well, and although the total effect of the increased market concentration is likely increased efficiency, the changes redistribute economic surplus from producers (farmers) and consumers, and may have negative implications for rural communities.[129]

National government policies can significantly change the economic marketplace for agricultural products, in the form of taxation, subsidies, tariffs and other measures.[130] Since at least the 1960s, a combination of import/export restrictions, exchange rate policies and subsidies have affected farmers in both the developing and developed world. In the 1980s, it was clear that non-subsidized farmers in developing countries were experiencing adverse affects from national policies that created artificially low global prices for farm products. Between the mid-1980s and the early 2000s, several international agreements were put into place that limited agricultural tariffs, subsidies and other trade restrictions.[131]

However, as of 2009, there was still a significant amount of policy-driven distortion in global agricultural product prices. The three agricultural products with the greatest amount of trade distortion were sugar, milk and rice, mainly due to taxation. Among the oilseeds, sesame had the greatest amount of taxation, but overall, feed grains and oilseeds had much lower levels of taxation than livestock products. Since the 1980s, policy-driven distortions have seen a greater decrease among livestock products than crops during the worldwide reforms in agricultural policy.[132] Despite this progress, certain crops, such as cotton, still see subsidies in developed countries artificially deflating global prices, causing hardship in developing countries with non-subsidized farmers.[133] Unprocessed commodities (i.e. corn, soybeans, cows) are generally graded to indicate quality. The quality affects the price the producer receives. Commodities are generally reported by production quantities, such as volume, number or weight.[134]

List of countries by agricultural output

Energy and agriculture

Since the 1940s, agricultural productivity has increased dramatically, due largely to the increased use of energy-intensive mechanization, fertilizers and pesticides. The vast majority of this energy input comes from fossil fuel sources.[135] Between the 1960–65 measuring cycle and the cycle from 1986 to 1990, the Green Revolution transformed agriculture around the globe, with world grain production increasing significantly (between 70% and 390% for wheat and 60% to 150% for rice, depending on geographic area)[136] as world population doubled. Modern agriculture's heavy reliance on petrochemicals and mechanization has raised concerns that oil shortages could increase costs and reduce agricultural output, causing food shortages.[137]

Agriculture and food system share (%) of total energy
consumption by three industrialized nations
Country Year Agriculture
(direct & indirect)
United Kingdom[138] 2005 1.9 11
United States[139] 1996 2.1 10
United States[140] 2002 2.0 14
Sweden[141] 2000 2.5 13

Modern or industrialized agriculture is dependent on fossil fuels in two fundamental ways: 1) direct consumption on the farm and 2) indirect consumption to manufacture inputs used on the farm. Direct consumption includes the use of lubricants and fuels to operate farm vehicles and machinery; and use of gasoline, liquid propane, and electricity to power dryers, pumps, lights, heaters, and coolers. American farms directly consumed about 1.2 exajoules (1.1 quadrillion BTU) in 2002, or just over 1 percent of the nation's total energy.[137]

Indirect consumption is mainly oil and natural gas used to manufacture fertilizers and pesticides, which accounted for 0.6 exajoules (0.6 quadrillion BTU) in 2002.[137] The natural gas and coal consumed by the production of nitrogen fertilizer can account for over half of the agricultural energy usage. China utilizes mostly coal in the production of nitrogen fertilizer, while most of Europe uses large amounts of natural gas and small amounts of coal. According to a 2010 report published by The Royal Society, agriculture is increasingly dependent on the direct and indirect input of fossil fuels. Overall, the fuels used in agriculture vary based on several factors, including crop, production system and location.[142] The energy used to manufacture farm machinery is also a form of indirect agricultural energy consumption. Together, direct and indirect consumption by US farms accounts for about 2 percent of the nation's energy use. Direct and indirect energy consumption by U.S. farms peaked in 1979, and has gradually declined over the past 30 years.[137] Food systems encompass not just agricultural production, but also off-farm processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consumption, and disposal of food and food-related items. Agriculture accounts for less than one-fifth of food system energy use in the US.[139][140]

In 2007, higher incentives for farmers to grow non-food biofuel crops[143] combined with other factors, such as overdevelopment of former farm lands, rising transportation costs, climate change, growing consumer demand in China and India, and population growth,[144] caused food shortages in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Mexico, as well as rising food prices around the globe.[145][146] As of December 2007, 37 countries faced food crises, and 20 had imposed some sort of food-price controls. Some of these shortages resulted in food riots and even deadly stampedes.[44][45][46]

Mitigation of effects of petroleum shortages

In the event of a petroleum shortage (see peak oil for global concerns), organic agriculture can be more attractive than conventional practices that use petroleum-based pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. Some studies using modern organic-farming methods have reported yields as high as those available from conventional farming.[148] In the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, with shortages of conventional petroleum-based inputs, Cuba made use of mostly organic practices, including biopesticides, plant-based pesticides and sustainable cropping practices, to feed its populace.[149] However, organic farming may be more labor-intensive and would require a shift of the workforce from urban to rural areas.[150] The reconditioning of soil to restore nutrients lost during the use of monoculture agriculture techniques also takes time.[148]

It has been suggested that rural communities might obtain fuel from the biochar and synfuel process, which uses agricultural waste to provide charcoal fertilizer, some fuel and food, instead of the normal food vs fuel debate. As the synfuel would be used on-site, the process would be more efficient and might just provide enough fuel for a new organic-agriculture fusion.[151][152]

It has been suggested that some transgenic plants may some day be developed which would allow for maintaining or increasing yields while requiring fewer fossil-fuel-derived inputs than conventional crops.[153] The possibility of success of these programs is questioned by ecologists and economists concerned with unsustainable GMO practices such as terminator seeds.[154][155] While there has been some research on sustainability using GMO crops, at least one prominent multi-year attempt by Monsanto Company has been unsuccessful, though during the same period traditional breeding techniques yielded a more sustainable variety of the same crop.[156]


Main article: Agricultural policy

Agricultural policy is the set of government decisions and actions relating to domestic agriculture and imports of foreign agricultural products. Governments usually implement agricultural policies with the goal of achieving a specific outcome in the domestic agricultural product markets. Some overarching themes include risk management and adjustment (including policies related to climate change, food safety and natural disasters), economic stability (including policies related to taxes), natural resources and environmental sustainability (especially water policy), research and development, and market access for domestic commodities (including relations with global organizations and agreements with other countries).[157] Agricultural policy can also touch on food quality, ensuring that the food supply is of a consistent and known quality, food security, ensuring that the food supply meets the population's needs, and conservation. Policy programs can range from financial programs, such as subsidies, to encouraging producers to enroll in voluntary quality assurance programs.[158]

There are many influences on the creation of agricultural policy, including consumers, agribusiness, trade lobbies and other groups. Agribusiness interests hold a large amount of influence over policy making, in the form of lobbying and campaign contributions. Political action groups, including those interested in environmental issues and labor unions, also provide influence, as do lobbying organizations representing individual agricultural commodities.[159] The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) leads international efforts to defeat hunger and provides a forum for the negotiation of global agricultural regulations and agreements. Dr. Samuel Jutzi, director of FAO's animal production and health division, states that lobbying by large corporations has stopped reforms that would improve human health and the environment. For example, proposals in 2010 for a voluntary code of conduct for the livestock industry that would have provided incentives for improving standards for health, and environmental regulations, such as the number of animals an area of land can support without long-term damage, were successfully defeated due to large food company pressure.[160]

See also


Further reading

  • Alvarez, Robert A. (2007). "The March of Empire: Mangos, Avocados, and the Politics of Transfer". Gastronomica, Vol. 7, No. 3, 28–33. Retrieved on 12 November 2008.
  • Bolens, L. (1997). "Agriculture" in Selin, Helaine (ed.), Encyclopedia of the history of Science, technology, and Medicine in Non Western Cultures. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht/Boston/London, pp. 20–22.
  • Collinson, M. (ed.) A History of Farming Systems Research. CABI Publishing, 2000. ISBN 978-0-85199-405-5
  • Jared Diamond, Guns, germs and steel. A short history of everybody for the last 13'000 years, 1997.
  • Mazoyer, Marcel; Roudart, Laurence (2006). A history of world agriculture : from the Neolithic Age to the current crisis. Monthly Review Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-58367-121-4
  • Watson, A.M. (1983). Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World, Cambridge University Press.

External links

  • Agriculture from UCB Libraries GovPubs
  • World Bank
  • The World Bank on Agricultural water management
  • Gender in agriculture and rural development (FAO)
  • Index to the Manuscript Collections Special Collections, National Agricultural Library
  • The American Society of Agronomy (ASA)
  • International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP)
  • NIOSH Agriculture Page – safety laws, tips, and guidelines
  • National Ag Safety Database
  • North American Guidelines for Children's Agricultural Tasks
  • – Advance the education of the public in all aspects of agriculture, the countryside and the rural economy
  • Collection of Agriculture Dictionaries
  • Peace Palace Library – Research Guide
  • Farmer Power: The Continuing Confrontation between Subsistence Farmers and Development Bureaucrats by Tony Waters at

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