agriculture

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

agriculture

agriculture, science and practice of producing crops and livestock from the natural resources of the earth. The primary aim of agriculture is to cause the land to produce more abundantly and at the same time to protect it from deterioration and misuse. The diverse branches of modern agriculture include agronomy, horticulture, economic entomology, animal husbandry, dairying, agricultural engineering, soil chemistry, and agricultural economics.

Early Agriculture

Early people depended for their survival on hunting, fishing, and food gathering. To this day, some groups still pursue this simple way of life, and others have continued as roving herders (see nomad). However, as various groups of people undertook deliberate cultivation of wild plants and domestication of wild animals, agriculture came into being. Cultivation of crops—notably grains such as wheat, rice, corn, rye, barley, and millet—encouraged settlement of stable farm communities, some of which grew to be towns and city-states in various parts of the world. Early agricultural implements—the digging stick, the hoe, the scythe, and the plow—developed slowly over the centuries, each innovation (e.g., the introduction of iron) causing profound changes in human life. From early times, too, people created ingenious systems of irrigation to control water supply, especially in semiarid areas and regions of periodic rainfall, e.g., the Middle East, the American Southwest and Mexico, the Nile Valley, and S Asia.

Farming was often intimately associated with landholding (see tenure) and therefore with political organization. Growth of large estates involved the use of slaves (see slavery) and bound or semifree labor. In the Western Middle Ages the manorial system was the typical organization of more or less isolated units and determined the nature of the agricultural village. In Asia large holdings by the nobles, partly arising from feudalism (especially in China and Japan), produced a similar pattern.

The Rise of Commercial Agriculture

As the Middle Ages waned, increasing communications, the commercial revolution, and the rise of cities in Western Europe tended to turn agriculture away from subsistence farming toward the growing of crops for sale outside the community (commercial agriculture). In Britain the practice of inclosure allowed landlords to set aside plots of land, formerly subject to common rights, for intensive cropping or fenced pasturage, leading to efficient production of single crops.

In the 16th and 17th cent. horticulture was greatly developed and contributed to the so-called agricultural revolution. Exploration and intercontinental trade, as well as scientific investigation, led to the development of horticultural knowledge of various crops and the exchange of farming methods and products, such as the potato, which was introduced from America along with beans and corn (maize) and became almost as common in N Europe as rice is in SE Asia.

The appearance of mechanical devices such as the sugar mill and Eli Whitney's cotton gin helped to support the system of large plantations based on a single crop. The Industrial Revolution after the late 18th cent. swelled the population of towns and cities and increasingly forced agriculture into greater integration with general economic and financial patterns. In the American colonies the independent, more or less self-sufficient family farm became the norm in the North, while the plantation, using slave labor, was dominant (although not universal) in the South. The free farm pushed westward with the frontier.

Modern Agriculture

In the N and W United States the era of mechanized agriculture began with the invention of such farm machines as the reaper, the cultivator, the thresher, and the combine. Other revolutionary innovations, e.g., the tractor, continued to appear over the years, leading to a new type of large-scale agriculture. Modern science has also revolutionized food processing; refrigeration, for example, has made possible the large meatpacking plants and shipment and packaging of perishable foods. Urbanization has fostered the specialties of market gardening and truck farming. Harvesting operations (see harvester) have been mechanized for almost every plant product grown. Breeding programs have developed highly specialized animal, plant, and poultry varieties, thus increasing production efficiency. The development of genetic engineering has given rise to genetically modified transgenic crops and, to a lesser degree, livestock that possess a gene from an unrelated species that confers a desired quality. Such modification allows livestock to be used as "factories" for the production of growth hormone and other substances (see pharming). In the United States and other leading food-producing nations agricultural colleges and government agencies attempt to increase output by disseminating knowledge of improved agricultural practices, by the release of new plant and animal types, and by continuous intensive research into basic and applied scientific principles relating to agricultural production and economics.

These changes have, of course, given new aspects to agricultural policies. In the United States and other developed nations, the family farm is disappearing, as industrialized farms, which are organized according to industrial management techniques, can more efficiently and economically adapt to new and ever-improving technology, specialization of crops, and the volatility of farm prices in a global economy. Niche farming, in which specialized crops are raised for a specialized market, e.g., heirloom tomatoes or exotic herbs sold to gourmet food shops and restaurants, revived or encouraged some smaller farms in the latter 20th and early 21st cents., but did little to stop the overall decrease in family farms. In Third World countries, where small farms, using rudimentary techniques, still predominate, the international market has had less effect on the internal economy and the supply of food.

Most of the governments of the world face their own type of farm problem, and the attempted solutions vary as much as does agriculture itself. The modern world includes areas where specialization and conservation have been highly refined, such as Denmark, as well as areas such as N Brazil and parts of Africa, where forest peoples employ "slash-and-burn" agriculture—cutting down and burning trees, exhausting the ash-enriched soil, and then moving to a new area. In other regions, notably SE Asia, dense population and very small holdings necessitate intensive cultivation, using people and animals but few machines; here the yield is low in relation to energy expenditure. In many countries extensive government programs control the planning, financing, and regulation of agriculture. Agriculture is still the occupation of almost 50% of the world's population, but the numbers vary from less than 3% in industrialized countries to over 60% in Third World countries.

See also agricultural subsidies; dry farming; Granger movement; Green Revolution; ranch; range.

See R. Jager, The Fate of Family Farming (2004).

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