Agriculture is the process of producing food, feed, fiber and other desired products by the cultivation of certain plants and the raising of domesticated animals (livestock). The practice of agriculture is also known as "farming," while scientists, inventors and others devoted to improving farming methods and implements are also said to be engaged in agriculture.
Agriculture can refer to subsistence agriculture, the production of enough food to meet just the needs of the farmer/agriculturalist and his/her family. It may also refer to industrial agriculture, (often referred to as factory farming) long prevalent in "developed" nations and increasingly so elsewhere, which consists of obtaining financial income from the cultivation of land to yield produce, the commercial raising of animals (animal husbandry), or both.
Agriculture is also short for the study of the practice of agriculture—more formally known as agricultural science. Agricultural students are known (sometimes derisively) as "Aggies".
Increasingly, in addition to food for humans and animal feeds, agriculture produces goods such as cut flowers, ornamental and nursery plants, timber or lumber, fertilizers, animal hides, leather, industrial chemicals (starch, sugar, ethanol, alcohols and plastics), fibers (cotton, wool, hemp, and flax), fuels (methane from biomass, biodiesel) and both legal and illegal drugs (biopharmaceuticals, tobacco, marijuana, opium, cocaine). Genetically engineered plants and animals produce specialty drugs.
In the Western world, the use of gene manipulation, better management of soil nutrients, and improved weed control have greatly increased yields per unit area. At the same time, the use of mechanization has decreased labour requirements. The developing world generally produces lower yields, having less of the latest science, capital, and technology base.
Modern agriculture depends heavily on engineering and technology and on the biological and physical sciences. Irrigation, drainage, conservation and sanitary engineering, each of which is important in successful farming, are some of the fields requiring the specialized knowledge of agricultural engineers.
Agricultural chemistry deals with other vital farming concerns, such as the application of fertilizer, insecticides (see Pest control), and fungicides, soil makeup, analysis of agricultural products, and nutritional needs of farm animals.
Plant breeding and genetics contribute immeasurably to farm productivity. Genetics has also made a science of livestock breeding. Hydroponics, a method of soilless gardening in which plants are grown in chemical nutrient solutions, may help meet the need for greater food production as the world's population increases.
The packing, processing, and marketing of agricultural products are closely related activities also influenced by science. Methods of quick-freezing and dehydration have increased the markets for farm products (see Food preservation; Meat packing industry).
Mechanization, the outstanding characteristic of late 19th and 20th century agriculture, has eased much of the backbreaking toil of the farmer. More significantly, mechanization has enormously increased farm efficiency and productivity (see Agricultural machinery). Animals, including horses, mules, oxen, camels, llamas, alpacas, and dogs; however, are still used to cultivate fields, harvest crops and transport farm products to markets in many parts of the world.
Airplanes, helicopters, trucks and tractors are used in agriculture for seeding, spraying operations for insect and disease control, Aerial topdressing, transporting perishable products, and fighting forest fires. Radio and television disseminate vital weather reports and other information such as market reports that concern farmers. Computers have become an essential tool for farm management.
According to the National Academy of Engineering in the US, agricultural mechanization is one of the 20 greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century. Early in the century, it took one American farmer to produce food for 2.5 people, where today, due to engineering technology (also, plant breeding and agrichemicals), a single farmer can feed over 130 people . This comes at a cost, however, of large amounts of energy input, from unsustainable, mostly fossil fuel, sources.
Animal husbandry means breeding and raising animals for meat or to harvest animal products (like milk, eggs, or wool) on a continual basis.
In recent years some aspects of industrial intensive agriculture have been the subject of increasing discussion. The widening sphere of influence held by large seed and chemical companies, meat packers and food processors has been a source of concern both within the farming community and for the general public. There has been increased activity of some people against some farming practices, raising chickens for food being one example. Another issue is the type of feedgiven to some animals that can cause Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy in cattle. There has also been concern because of the disastrous effect that intensive agriculture has on the environment. In the US, for example, fertilizer has been running off into the Mississippi for years and has caused a dead spot in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Mississippi empties. Intensive agriculture also depletes the fertility of the land over time and the end effect is that which happened in the Middle East, were some of the most fertile farmland in the world was turned into a desert by intensive agriculture.
The patent protection given to companies that develop new types of seed using genetic engineering has allowed seed to be licensed to farmers in much the same way that computer software is licensed to users. This has changed the balance of power in favor of the seed companies, allowing them to dictate terms and conditions previously unheard of. Some argue these companies are guilty of biopiracy.
Soil conservation and nutrient management have been important concerns since the 1950s, with the best farmers taking a stewardship role with the land they operate. However, increasing contamination of waterways and wetlands by nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus are of concern in many countries.
Increasing consumer awareness of agricultural issues has led to the rise of community-supported agriculture, local food movement, slow food, and commercial organic farming, though these yet remain fledgling industries.
Archaeobotanists have traced the selection and cultivation of specific food plant characteristics, such as a semi-tough rachis and larger seeds, to just after the Younger Dryas (about 9,500 BC) in the early Holocene in the Levant region of the Fertile Crescent. Limited anthropological and archaeological evidence both indicate a grain-grinding culture farming along the Nile in the 10th millennium BC using the world's earliest known type of sickle blades. There is even earlier evidence for conscious cultivation and seasonal harvest: grains of rye with domestic traits have been recovered from Epi-Palaeolithic (10,000+ BC) contexts at Abu Hureyra in Syria, but this appears to be a localised phenomenon resulting from cultivation of stands of wild rye, rather than a definitive step towards domestication. It is not until ca. 8,500 BC, in middle-Eastern cultures referred to as Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB), where there is the first definite evidence for the emergence of a widespread subsistence economy that was dependent on domesticated plants and animals. In these contexts lie the origins of the eight so-called founder crops of agriculture: firstly emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, then hulled barley, pea, lentil, bitter vetch, chick pea and flax. These eight crops occur more or less simultaneously on PPNB sites in this region, although the consensus is that wheat was the first to be sown and harvested on a significant scale. There are many sites that date to between ca. 8,500 BC and 7,500 BC where the systematic farming of these crops contributed the major part of the inhabitants' diet. From the Fertile Crescent agriculture spread eastwards to Central Asia and westwards into Cyprus, Anatolia and, by 7,000 BC, Greece. Farming, principally of emmer and einkorn, reached northwestern Europe via southeastern and central Europe by ca. 4,800 BC (see, among others, Price, D. [ed.] 2000. Europe's First Farmers. Cambridge University Press; Harris, D. [ed.] 1996 The Origins and Spread of Agriculture in Eurasia. UCL Press).
The reasons for the earliest introduction of farming may have included climate change, but possibly there were also social reasons (e.g. accumulation of food surplus for competitive gift-giving). Most certainly there was a gradual transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural economies after a lengthy period when some crops were deliberately planted and other foods were gathered from the wild. Although localised climate change is the favoured explanation for the origins of agriculture in the Levant, the fact that farming was 'invented' at least three times, possibly more, suggests that social reasons may have been instrumental. In addition to emergence of farming in the Fertile Crescent, agriculture appeared by at least 6,800 BC in East Asia (rice) and, later, in Central and South America (maize, squash). Small scale agriculture also likely arose independently in early Neolithic contexts in India (rice) and Southeast Asia (taro).
Full dependency on domestic crops and animals (i.e. when wild resources contributed a nutritionally insignificant component to the diet) was not until the Bronze Age. If the operative definition of agriculture includes large scale intensive cultivation of land, mono-cropping, organised irrigation, and use of a specialized labour force, the title "inventors of agriculture" would fall to the Sumerians, starting ca. 5,500 BC. Intensive farming allows a much greater density of population than can be supported by hunting and gathering and allows for the accumulation of excess product to keep for winter use or to sell for profit. The ability of farmers to feed large numbers of people whose activities have nothing to do with material production was the crucial factor in the rise of standing armies. The agriculturalism of the Sumerians allowed them to embark on an unprecedented territorial expansion, making them the first empire builders. Not long after, the Egyptians, powered by effective farming of the Nile valley, achieved a population density from which enough warriors could be drawn for a territorial expansion more than tripling the Sumerian empire in area.
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, while certain wheat strains quickly took to western hemisphere soils and became a dietary staple even for native North, Central and South Americans.
By the early 1800s 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, especially in the largely virgin lands of North and South America. With the rapid rise of mechanization in the 20th century, especially in the form of the tractor, the demanding tasks of sowing, harvesting and threshing could be performed with a speed and on a scale barely imaginable before. These advances have led to efficiencies enabling certain modern farms in the United States, Argentina, Israel, Germany and a few other nations to output volumes of high quality produce per land unit at what may be the practical limit.
World production of major crops in 2004
By crop types
- Cereals 2,264
- Vegetables and melons 866
- Roots and Tubers 715
- Milk 619
- Fruit 503
- Meat 259
- Oilcrops 133
- Fish 130 (2001 estimate)
- Eggs 63
- Pulses 60
- Vegetable Fiber 30
By individual crops
- Sugar Cane 1,324
- Maize 721
- Wheat 627
- Rice 605
- Potatoes 328
- Sugar Beet 249
- Soybean 204
- Oil Palm Fruit 162
- Barley 154
- Tomato 120
- See main article on Plant breeding
Domestication of plants is done in order to increase yield, improve disease resistance and drought tolerance, ease harvest and to improve the taste and nutritional value and many other characteristics. Centuries of careful selection and breeding have had enormous effects on the characteristics of crop plants. Plant breeders use greenhouses and other techniques to get as many as three generations of plants per year so that they can make improvements all the more quickly.
Plant selection and breeding in the 1920s and '30s improved pasture (grasses and clover) in New Zealand. Extensive radiation mutagenesis efforts (i.e. primitive genetic engineering) during the 1950s produced the modern commercial varieties of grains such as wheat, corn and barley.
For example, average yields of corn (maize) in the USA have increased from around 2.5 tons per hectare (40 bushels per acre) in 1900 to about 9.4 t/ha (150 bushels per acre) in 2001, primarily due to improvements in genetics. 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. Higher yields are due to improvements in genetics, as well as use of intensive farming techniques (use of fertilizers, chemical pest control, growth control to avoid lodging).
[Conversion note: 1 bushel of wheat = 60 pounds (lb) ≈ 27.215 kg. 1 bushel of corn = 56 pounds ≈ 25.401 kg]
Very recently, genetic engineering has begun to be employed in some parts of the world to speed up the selection and breeding process. The most widely used modification is a herbicide resistance gene that allows plants to tolerate exposure to glyphosate, which is used to control weeds in the crop. A less frequently used but more controversial modification causes the plant to produce a toxin to reduce damage from insects (c.f. Starlink).
There are specialty producers who raise less common types of livestock or plants.
Agriculture may often cause environmental problems because it changes natural environments and produces harmful by-products. Some of the negatives effects are:
- Nitrogen and phosphorus surplus in rivers and lakes.
- Detrimental effects of herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, and other biocides.
- Conversion of natural ecosystems of all types into arable land.
- Consolidation of diverse biomass into a few species.
- Particulate matter, including ammonia and ammonium off-gasing from animal waste contributing to air pollution
- Weeds - feral plants and animals
- Odor from agricultural waste
- Soil salination in dry areas.
Agricultural policy focuses on the goals and methods of agricultural production. At the policy level, common goals of agriculture include:
- Food safety: Ensuring that the food supply is free of contamination.
- Food security: Ensuring that the food supply meets the population's needs.
- Food quality: Ensuring that the food supply is of a consistent and known quality.
- Environmental impact
- Economic stability
There are various methods of agricultural production:
- aerial topdressing
- agricultural machinery
- animal husbandry
- crop rotation
- Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO, factory farming)
- dairy farming
- hybrid seed
- Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
- market gardening
- no-till farming
- organic farming
- plant breeding
- pollination management
- precision farming
- season extension
- seed saving
- subsistence farming
- succession planting
- sustainable agriculture
- vegetable farming
- weed control
- Wells, Spencer: The Journey of Man : A Genetic Odyssey. Princeton University Press, 2003. ISBN: 069111532X
- Crosby, Alfred W.: The Columbian Exchange : Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Praeger Publishers, 2003 (30th Anniversary Edition). ISBN: 0275980731
- Collinson, M. (editor): A History of Farming Systems Research. CABI Publishing, 2000. ISBN: 0851994059
- Agricultural and Food Research Council, UK
- Agricultural education
- Agricultural science
- Agricultural sciences basic topics
- Arid-zone agriculture
- Community-supported agriculture
- International agricultural research
- Family farm hog pen
- Farm equipment
- List of domesticated animals
- List of subsistence techniques
- List of sustainable agriculture topics
- Timeline of agriculture and food technology.
- USA agriculture
- www.fao.org — Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations World Agricultural Information Centre
- www.fao.org — The UN Statistical Databases
- Agriculture: Demon Engine of Civilization by John Zerzan
- History of farming in Nebraska, USA
- www.agr.gc.ca — Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada
- www.nationalpak.com — Agriculture of Pakistan
- www.nationalacademies.org — Agriculture at the United States National Academies
- www.usda.gov — United States Department of Agriculture
- Current World Production, Market and Trade Reports from the Foreign Agricultural Service
- USDA's main source of economic information and research from the Economic Research Service
- In-house Research Arm from the Agricultural Research Service
- National Agricultural Library
- Agriculture Directory
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