Agriculture And Food Production Essay

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Agriculture   and  food  production  systems  have been, from  early human  history,  essential  factors in the survival of society and the development of market   systems.  Food   shortages   and   surpluses shaped   market   exchanges   and   sales  and   built bridges of socialization and commerce between different  regions and  groups.  Markets grew food surpluses,  while farmers  learned  how to adapt  to market   conditions.  Food   production  has   also been indelibly tied to the changing needs and preferences  of a growing  public  and  its shifting preferences.

Food  production and  market  mechanisms  not only varied between cultures and regions but also changed  over  time.  As societies  grew,  the  complexity  of the agricultural technologies  and  food markets   also   evolved.   In   general,   agriculture tends  to  be studied  along  three  types  of societal models: hunter-gatherer, agrarian, and industrial. The traditional focus of the history  of agriculture and food production has been on agricultural production  and  technology, rural  environments and  societies,  as well as their  culture  and  economy. Today most scholars incorporate a multidisciplinary approach that explores agriculture’s relations  to  class,  gender,  politics,  and migrations.


Agriculture   affects  everyone  because  all  human beings must eat to live. The history of human  societies is inextricably linked to the history of agriculture,  as societies waxed  and  waned  largely based on their food production and supply systems. The development of societies was also affected  by the crops they were able to grow and the natural, technical,  and  economic  constraints on their  production. Ancient societies depended on fishing, hunting,  and food gathering. To date, some groups still depend  on  these  systems  to  survive,  such  as rain forest dwellers, roving herders, nomad  groups, and  others.  In time, however,  most  groups  developed  plant  cultivation   and  the  domestication of animals. The first crops cultivated, according to scholars, were wheat, rice, millet, barley, and corn. Agriculture  forced  people  to  settle  in established farm communities, some of which in time became villages, towns,  and  some of the major  city-states of the world.

Early societies relied on simple tools for agriculture.  Most  agriculture and  food-processing tools were made from wood, bone, and stone. The introduction of metals and forging in early societies improved  tool crafting, leading to great changes in agricultural practices. Many early societies around the world  developed  sophisticated water  and  erosion control  systems.

Farming came to be associated with owning property.  To   acquire,   hold,   and   inherit   land, societies   needed   political   organization  and   a system of law. Developing  large estates led to the development of slavery, coerced labor, and oligarchies.  The  European feudal  system,  among others,  established  a  coerced  system  of  labor  in which  rural  serfs  were  bound   to  the  land  and obligated  to provide  free labor  to the landholders for  specific periods  of time. This  system  framed the development of agriculture in Europe  and  in many   of   the   lands   eventually   colonized   by European powers. Asian societies developed  similar systems.

The rise of towns and cities, and the creation  of vast  landholdings, brought about  food  surpluses. This led to the development of commercial  agriculture, as farmers  sold their surplus  food. In Britain, many  lands  held  in  common   by  peasants   were taken  by large  landholders to  use as pasture  for cattle  and  for the development of single crops.  In this  manner,   landholders chose  a  crop  that  was easy  to  sell and  produced it  in  large  quantities. They  also  encouraged sharecroppers and  smaller landholders to do the same, so that  they came to produce  single crops  for sale, rather  than  just sell the  surplus  of  their  subsistence   crops.  Products such   as  beans,   corn,   potatoes,  and   tomatoes, among  others,  were  introduced from  the  newly discovered  American  lands,  along  with  rice from Asia, and developed as single-crop products in Europe.  Parallel  to  the  exploration and  development  of single-crop  agriculture in Europe  and the colonized lands, agricultural technology also developed  rapidly,   helping  to  drive  and  support  the system of large plantations—for example, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, invented in 1793. Other inventions  that  helped develop an incipient industrial agriculture were the  reaper  (1826),  the combine   harvester   (1834),   the   tractor  engine (1859), and the tractor (1901).

In the  Americas,  slavery  was  used  to  support the large plantation system. Such was the case in the  southern United  States,  as  well  as  in  Latin America and the Caribbean. The system of slavery served to support large plantations and to marginalize  small farms  held by poor  whites  and some free blacks.  By the late 18th  and early 19th centuries,  agriculture was  an  important part  of national economic systems and international finance. In the United States, although the system of slave plantations as well as sharecropping and subsistence  farming  for poor  whites became common  in  the  south,  in  the  northern states,  small, family-run  farms  were  the  norm.  People  looking for  land  to  farm  began  moving  westward, thus expanding the U.S. frontier.

Agriculture And Food Production  Today

Mechanized  agriculture began in the 19th  century. Among the earliest agricultural machines  invented was the thresher.  The first were operated by horse power,  but  by  the  20th  century,  most  threshers were powered  by tractor engines or steam engines. In the 20th century, most of these were supplanted by  combines.   The  impact   of  mechanization  on food  productivity cannot  be stressed  enough.  For example,  in the 1930s  a farmer  relying on manual work  could harvest  approximately 100 bushels of corn in a day. Contemporary combines can harvest 900 bushels of corn per hour.

The  history  of contemporary food  production took  off after  World  War  II. Developing  nations gained independence from their colonial rulers and took  control  of their own agricultural production. Developed countries experienced an explosion of births,  known  as “the  baby boom,” during the following  20  years. Improvements in science, access to health  care, and  living conditions led to birthrate increases in developing nations as well. Moreover, developing  nations  achieved  a notable increase in food produced by modern  agricultural practices  such as incorporating pesticides  and  fertilizers  and  concentrating on  cereal  crops.  In the early 1940s,  for example,  Mexico  imported about half  of  its  wheat.   By  the  mid-1960s,  however, Mexico  was  an  important exporter of wheat,  an achievement  reached by adopting disease-resistant, high-yield  varieties.  Another  benefit  of high-yield crops  is that  the  same  farmland can  yield higher production, preventing,  or at least postponing, agricultural  development on  virgin  land.  Similar achievements  took place around the world, leading to this phenomenon being called the Green Revolution. Critics,  however,  point  out  that  not everybody benefited from the Green Revolution. Many  farmers  in developing  countries  could  not afford  the  equipment and  materials  necessary  to develop   modern   crops.   Some  farmers   became mired in debt. Others  were marginalized from the markets   because   they   were   not   able   to   compete with  those  producing higher  yields and  take advantage of economies  of scale. Sometimes  new chemicals  were harmful  for the soil and  produce. The economic benefits, thus, did not reach all.

In  the  latter   half  of  the  20th   century,   new electronic  power  and hydraulic  systems continued to increase productivity. By the mid-1990s, global navigation satellite  systems helped  develop  precision-controlled agricultural methods.  Besides global  navigation satellite  systems,  farmers  today use a wide variety of technologies, such as biotechnology, drip irrigation, hydroponics, precision agriculture, remote sensing, computerization,  the  Global   Positioning   System  (GPS),  and many others. In precision agriculture, for example, farmers  use the Global  Positioning  System by way of satellites to position  workers  and crops in very precise  locations. This  helps  farmers  accomplish myriad  chores, such as knowing  when  and  where to sow, water,  and apply fertilizers.

Agricultural  innovation has produced new seeds developed from genetics and modern biotechnology. Modern agricultural biotechnology includes a wide range  of  plant-breeding and  -manipulating methods. Since antiquity, farmers  have tried  to improve their  crops  by elementary  biotechnology methods, such as grafting  and  crossbreeding. Contemporary biotechnology, however, uses more specific and targeted  approaches, the most common  of which is genetic  modification.  Genetically   modified   seeds tend  to produce  high-quality  and  high-yield  products that  are also resistant  to disease. Genetic engineering is used to develop desired characteristics in farm   crops   and   animals.   Genetically   enhancing seeds helps manage  disease, reducing  the need for chemical pesticides. Agricultural biotechnology, however, has many critics, and ethical issues related to its use are hotly debated  today  among  scientists, farmers, legislators, and the general public.

One of the latest trends  in farming  is exploring nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is the science of creating  new  products by  way  of  working   with minute   particles,   1  to  100   nanometers  in  size. Experts believe that nanotechnology holds the potential of increasing the efficiency of food production and  the  nutritional content   of  food, among  other  benefits. Advocates  of nanotechnology claim that  this could  not  only improve  living standards worldwide  but  also influence  positively the economies  of the countries  that  implement  it. Although  still in its exploratory stages, it is one of the top priorities  in food production research.

Today’s technology allows farmers to better manage  seed traits  and agricultural practices,  produce  higher  yield crops,  and  lower  the  costs  and the effects of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, erosion, land use, and tilling. It also promises, according  to many, higher and better-quality yields that  are  affordable to  many  more  people  worldwide. To achieve the level of productivity needed to meet   the   worldwide   demand   for   food   in  the coming decades, the agricultural industry  will have to overcome significant  challenges, such as limited resources, limited amounts of farmable land, unskilled   labor,   rapidly   expanding  populations, and many others.

Organic  Agriculture

Contemporary farmers  adopt   a  wide  variety  of specific agricultural systems,  such  as niche  farming, organic agriculture, sustainable agriculture, integrated pest  management, and  others.  Because of growing  public  concern  about  food  safety and the  environment, there  is  a  growing  interest  in developing  agricultural systems  that  decrease  the use of chemical  pesticides  and  fertilizers. Organic agriculture, which  began  in smaller  landholdings, has  grown  in  popularity and  is now  used  by  a growing  number  of large farms. According  to the International Federation   of  Organic  Agriculture, 37 million  hectares  of agricultural land  today  are dedicated  to organic farming. The top 10 countries with  the most  organic  agricultural land  today  are Australia,   Argentina,   the   United   States,   Brazil, Spain, China, Italy, Germany, Uruguay, and France. Other  countries  that  show  a growing  increase  in organic  farmland include  Poland,  Spain,  Bolivia, and Turkey.  The main crops produced organically worldwide  are cereals, fodder,  coffee, and  protein crops, as well as cocoa, vegetables, fruits, oilseeds, and nuts.

In the  United  States,  before  a product can  be labeled “organic,” it must be approved after a government  inspection  of the farm to ensure  that  the crops are produced following the rules for organic standards established  by the  U.S. Department of Agriculture  (USDA). Even companies  that  process the  produce  for  the  food  market  must  be USDA certified for the organic food industry. Because not all countries  report  their  numbers  of organic  producers, exact figures are hard to come by. However, it is calculated  that  approximately 75  percent  of organic   producers  are   located   in   developing nations,  such as India, Uganda,  and  Mexico.  One third   of  organic   agricultural  land  is  located   in Latin America, followed by Asia and Africa. According   to  many   experts,   in  the  developing world,  small  farms  using  more  elementary techniques  predominate, as opposed  to industrialized countries.  Although  developing  countries  are significantly more reliant on agriculture than developed  nations,   the  international market   has had less effect on agricultural practices in less advanced   regions.  Therefore,   it  may  have  been less onerous to incorporate organic methods  in less advanced nations than in the larger, mechanized megafarms  of industrialized nations.

Agriculture In The United States

There have been tremendous changes in U.S. agriculture  during   the  past  100  years.  Farmers have become extremely efficient and have taken advantage of new  technologies.  As a result,  they are   growing   a   greater   variety   of   crops   and producing them more efficiently. Many technological developments, still based on draft  animals, changed American  agriculture in the 19th  century. These became increasingly mechanized in time, relying on steam and other forms of power. During the first decades of the 20th century, tractors began to  replace  draft  animals.  Mechanized   labor  also made it possible to integrate several agriculture processes  into  one  machine.   The  combine   harvester,   for   example,   combined   some   of  these different   functions   and  implements,   making   for more efficient production.

In  the  mid-1930s   in  the  United  States,  there were  about  7  million  farms,  and  a  typical  farm yielded  enough  to  feed  20  people.  By the  early 2000s,  the  number  of farms  was  down  to  more than   2  million,   but   the   average   farm   yielded enough   to  feed  130   people.  The  country   also exports   large  bumper   crops  to  the  rest  of  the world,  sometimes  actually  depressing  food  prices for  farmers  in  other  regions  such  as Africa  and Latin America. The agriculture industry  has grown from  an  enterprise   meant  to  feed  a  family  and trade some surplus crops to producing food in sufficient  abundance to  supply  both  domestic  and international markets. Today,  agricultural exports account   for   a   significant   percentage   of   farm income, totaling  about  $60 billion a year.

Agriculture  in the United States remains  mostly a  family  enterprise.   Most  U.S.  farms  today   are owned by individuals,  family partnerships, or family corporations. Those numbers  are rapidly changing  as  agriculture becomes  more  corporate and industrialized. Moreover, the decrease in the number of Americans trained  for and attracted to farm labor  has  impelled  a majority  of farms  today  to rely  on  immigrant labor,  much  of  which  is provided  by undocumented migrants.  This has given way to ethically problematic issues of exploitation and  political  conflict  among  many  sectors  of U.S. society.

There are myriad government agencies that monitor  and  support  agriculture in  the  United States, including  the USDA and various  other  federal  and  state  departments related  to  agriculture. They control  for issues that  range from the use of pesticides  and  biotechnology  to  quality   control. Some of the most important agencies are the U.S. Environmental  Protection  Agency  and   the  U.S. Food  and  Drug  Administration. The  government today  also comprises  some of the most important organizations conducting food research  as well as generating  oversight  for  agriculture and  the  food production industry.


  1. Ackerman-Leist, Philip. Rebuilding the Food Shed: How to Create Local, Sustainable and Secure Food Systems. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013.
  2. Brown, Lester. Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012.
  3. Hauter, Wenonah. Foodopoly: The Battle Over  the Future of Food Farming in America. Novato, CA: New World,
  4. Kaufmann, Frederick. Bet the Farm: How  Food Stopped Being Food. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2012.
  5. Segers, Yves and Leen Van Molle, eds. The Rural Economy and Society in North-Western Europe, 500– 2000: The Agro-Food Market—Production, Distribution, and Consumption. Turnhoult, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2013.
  6. Sinclair, Thomas and Cynthia  Sinclair. Bread, Beer and the Seeds of Change: Agriculture’s Impact  on World History.  Wallingford, UK: CABI, 2010.
  7. Willer, Helga. “Organic Agriculture Worldwide: Current Statistics.”  International Federation of Organic Agriculture  Movements (February  15, 2012). http:// yearbook/2012/fibl-ifoam-2012-statistics-2012-02-15_.pdf (Accessed September  2014).

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