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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.
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.
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