The word agriculture is the English adaptation of Latin agricultura, from ager, "a field" and cultura, "cultivation" in the strict sense of "tillage of the soil". Thus, a literal reading of the word yields "tillage of a field / of fields".
Agriculture refers to the production of food and fiber and other goods through farming and forestry. Agriculture was a key development that led to the rise in civilization raising of domesticated animals. The study of agriculture is known as agricultural science. The related practice of gardening is studied in horticulture.
Agriculture encompasses a wide variety of specialties. Cultivation of crops on arable land and the pastoral herding of livestock on rangeland remain at the foundation of agriculture. In the past century a distinction has been made between sustainable agriculture and intensive farming. Modern agronomy, plant breeding, pesticides and fertilizers, and technological improvements have sharply increased yields from cultivation. Selective breeding and modern practices in animal husbandry such as intensive pig farming (and similar practices applied to the chicken) have similarly increased the output of meat. The more exotic varieties of agriculture include aquaculture and tree farming.
The major agricultural products can be broadly grouped into foods, fibers, fuels, raw materials, pharmaceuticals and illegal drugs, and an assortment of ornamental or exotic products. In the 2000s, plants have been used to grow biofuels, biopharmaceuticals, bioplastics, and pharmaceuticals.
Specific foods include cereals, vegetables, fruits, and meat. Fibers include cotton, wool, hemp, silk and flax. Raw materials include lumber and bamboo. Drugs include tobacco, alcohol, opium, cocaine,and digitalis. Other useful materials are produced by plants, such as resins. Biofuels include methane from biomass, ethanol, and biodiesel. Cut flowers, nursery plants, tropical fish and birds for the pet trade are some of the ornamental products.
In 2007, about one third of the world's workers were employed in agriculture. However, the relative significance of farming has dropped steadily since the beginning of industrialization, and in 2003 - for the first time in history - the services sector overtook agriculture as the economic sector employing the most people worldwide. Despite the fact that agriculture employs over one-third of the world's population, agricultural production accounts for less than five percent of the gross world product (an aggregate of all gross domestic products).
Agriculture has played a key role in the development of human civilization. Until the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of the human population labored in agriculture. Development of agricultural techniques has steadily increased agricultural productivity, and the widespread diffusion of these techniques during a time period is often called an agricultural revolution. A remarkable shift in agricultural practices has occurred over the past century in response to new technologies. In particular, the Haber-Bosch method for synthesizing ammonium nitrate made the traditional practice of recycling nutrients with crop rotation and animal manure less necessary.
Synthetic nitrogen, along with mined rock phosphate, pesticides and mechanization, have greatly increased crop yields in the early 20th century. Increased supply of grains has led to cheaper livestock as well. Further, global yield increases were experienced later in the 20th century when high-yield varieties of common staple grains such as rice, wheat, and corn (maize) were introduced as a part of the Green Revolution.
The Green Revolution exported the technologies (including pesticides and synthetic nitrogen) of the developed world out to the developing world. Thomas Malthus famously predicted that the Earth would not be able to support its growing population, but technologies such as the Green Revolution have allowed the world to produce a surplus of food.
Many governments have subsidized agriculture to ensure an adequate food supply. These agricultural subsidies are often linked to the production of certain commodities such as wheat, corn (maize), rice, soybeans, and milk. These subsidies, especially when done by developed countries have been noted as protectionist, inefficient, and environmentally damaging. 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 1900s 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 2000s there has been a movement towards sustainable agriculture by some farmers, consumers, and policymakers.
In recent years there has been a backlash against perceived external environmental effects of mainstream agriculture, particularly regarding water pollution, 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, 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.
As of late 2007, several factors have pushed up the price of grain 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.
Food riots have recently taken place in many countries across the world. An epidemic of stem rust on wheat caused by race Ug99 is currently spreading across Africa and into Asia and is causing major concern. Approximately 40% of the world's agricultural land is seriously degraded.
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.
History of Agriculture
Agriculture was developed at least 10,000 years ago, and it has undergone significant developments since the time of the earliest cultivation. Evidence points to the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East as the site of the earliest planned sowing and harvesting of plants that had previously been gathered in the wild. Independent development of agriculture is also believed to have occurred in northern and southern China, Africa's Sahel, New Guinea and several regions of the Americas.
Agricultural practices such as irrigation, crop rotation, fertilizers, and pesticides were developed long ago but have made great strides in the past century.
The Haber-Bosch method for synthesizing ammonium nitrate represented a major breakthrough and allowed crop yields to overcome previous constraints. In the past century, agriculture has been characterized by enhanced productivity, the substitution of human labor for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, selective breeding, and mechanization.
The recent history of agriculture has been closely tied with a range of political issues including water pollution, biofuels, Genetically modified organisms, tariffs, and farm subsidies. In recent years, there has been a backlash against the external environmental effects of mechanized agriculture, and increasing support for the organic movement and Sustainable agriculture.
The Fertile Crescent of the Middle East was the site of the earliest planned sowing and harvesting of plants that had previously been gathered in the wild. Independent development of agriculture occurred in northern and southern China, Africa's Sahel, New Guinea and several regions of the Americas. Barley has been found in archeological sites in Levant, and East of the Zagros mountains in Iran.
The eight so-called Neolithic founder crops of agriculture appear: first emmer wheat and einkorn wheat, then hulled barley, peas, lentils, bitter vetch, chick peas and flax. Bitter vetch and lentils along with almonds and pistachios appear in Franchthi Cave Greece simultaneously, about 9,000 BC. Neither are native to Greece, and they appear 2,000 years prior to domesticated wheat in the same location. This suggests that the cultivation of legumes and nuts preceded that of grain in some Neolithic cultures.
By 7000 BC, small-scale agriculture reached Egypt. From at least 7000 BC the Indian subcontinent saw farming of wheat and barley, as attested by archaeological excavation at Mehrgarh in Balochistan.
By 6000 BC, mid-scale farming was entrenched on the banks of the Nile. About this time, agriculture was developed independently in the Far East, with rice, rather than wheat, as the primary crop. Chinese and Indonesian farmers went on to domesticate taro and beans including mung, soy and azuki. To complement these new sources of carbohydrates, highly organized net fishing of rivers, lakes and ocean shores in these areas brought in great volumes of essential protein. Collectively, these new methods of farming and fishing inaugurated a human population boom dwarfing all previous expansions, and is one that continues today.
By 5000 BC, the Sumerians had developed core agricultural techniques including large scale intensive cultivation of land, mono-cropping, organized irrigation, and use of a specialized labour force, particularly along the waterway now known as the Shatt al-Arab, from its Persian Gulf delta to the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. Domestication of wild aurochs and mouflon into cattle and sheep, respectively, ushered in the large-scale use of animals for food/fiber and as beasts of burden. The shepherd joined the farmer as an essential provider for sedentary and semi-nomadic societies. Maize, manioc, and arrowroot were first domesticated in the Americas as far back as 5200 BC.
The potato, tomato, pepper, squash, several varieties of bean, tobacco, and several other plants were also developed in the New World, as was extensive terracing of steep hillsides in much of Andean South America. The Greeks and Romans built on techniques pioneered by the Sumerians but made few fundamentally new advances. Southern Greeks struggled with very poor soils, yet managed to become a dominant society for years. The Romans were noted for an emphasis on the cultivation of crops for trade.
During the Middle Ages, Muslim farmers in North Africa and the Near East developed and disseminated agricultural technologies including irrigation systems based on hydraulic and hydrostatic principles, the use of machines such as norias, and the use of water raising machines, dams, and reservoirs. They also wrote location-specific farming manuals, and were instrumental in the wider adoption of crops including sugar cane, rice, citrus fruit, apricots, cotton, artichokes, aubergines, and saffron. Muslims also brought lemons, oranges, cotton, almonds, figs and sub-tropical crops such as bananas to Spain. The invention of a three field system of crop rotation during the Middle Ages, and the importation of the Chinese-invented moldboard plow, vastly improved agricultural efficiency. Another important development towards the end of this period was the discovery and subsequent cultivation of fodder crops which allowed over-wintering of livestock.
After 1492, a global exchange of previously local crops and livestock breeds occurred. Key crops involved in this exchange included the tomato, maize, potato, cocoa and tobacco going from the New World to the Old, and several varieties of wheat, spices, coffee, and sugar cane going from the Old World to the New. The most important animal exportations from the Old World to the New were those of the horse and dog (dogs were already present in the pre-Columbian Americas but not in the numbers and breeds suited to farm work). Although not usually food animals, the horse (including donkeys and ponies) and dog quickly filled essential production roles on western hemisphere farms.
By the early 1800s, agricultural techniques, implements, seed stocks and cultivated plants selected and given a unique name because of its decorative or useful characteristics had so improved that yield per land unit was many times that seen in the Middle Ages. With the rapid rise of mechanization in the late 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in the form of the tractor, farming tasks could be done with a speed and on a scale previously impossible. 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.
The Haber-Bosch method for synthesizing ammonium nitrate represented a major breakthrough and allowed crop yields to overcome previous constraints. In the past century agriculture has been characterized by enhanced productivity, the substitution of labor for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, selective breeding, mechanization, 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.
Agricultural exploration expeditions, since the late nineteenth century, have been mounted to find new species and new agricultural practices in different areas of the world. Two early examples of expeditions include Frank N. Meyer's fruit and nut collecting trip to China and Japan from 1916 - 1918 and the Dorsett-Morse Oriental Agricultural Exploration Expedition to China, Japan, and Korea from 1929 - 1931 to collect soybean germplasm to support the rise in soybean agriculture in the United States.
In 2005, the agricultural output of China was the largest in the world, accounting for almost one-sixth world share followed by the EU, India and the USA, according to the International Monetary Fund. Economists measure the total factor productivity of agriculture and by this measure agriculture in the United States is roughly 2.6 times more productive than it was in 1948.
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