Geography of Agriculture
Around ten to twelve thousand years ago, human began to domesticate plants and animals for food. Before this first agricultural revolution, people relied on hunting and gathering to obtain food supplies. While there are still groups of hunters and gatherers in the world, most societies have switched to agriculture. The beginnings of agriculture did not just occur in one place but appeared almost simultaneously around the world, possibly through trail and error with different plants and animals or by long term experimentation. Between the first agricultural revolution thousands of years ago and the 17th century, agriculture remained pretty much the same.
In the seventeenth century, a second agricultural revolution took place which increased efficiency of production as well as distribution which allowed more people to move to the cities as the industrial revolution got under way.The eighteenth century's European colonies became sources of raw agricultural and mineral products for the industrializing nations.
Now, many of the countries which were once colonies of Europe, especially those in Central America, are still heavily involved in the same types of agricultural production as they were hundreds of years ago. Farming in the twentieth century has become highly technological in more developed nations with geographical technologies like GIS, GPS, and remote sensing while less developed nations continue with practices which are similar to those developed after the first agricultural revolution, thousands of years ago.
About 45% of the world's population makes their living through agriculture. The proportion of the population involved in agriculture ranges from about 2% in the United States to about 80% in some parts of Asia and Africa. There are two types of agriculture, subsistence and commercial.
There are millions of subsistence farmers in the world, those who produce only enough crops to feed their families.
Many subsistence farmers use the slash and burn or swidden agricultural method. Swidden is a technique used by about 150 to 200 million people, and is especially prevalent in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. A portion of land is cleared and burned to provide at least one and up to three years of good crops for that portion of land. Once the land can no longer be utilized, a new patch of ground is slashed and burnt for another round of crops. Swidden is not a neat or well-organized method of agricultural production by it is effective for farmers who don't know much about irrigation, soil, and fertilization.
The second type of agriculture is commercial agriculture, where the primary purpose is to sell one's product at market. This takes place throughout the world and includes major fruit plantations in Central America as well as huge agribusiness wheat farms in the Midwestern United States.
Geographers commonly identify two major "belts" of crops in the U.S. The wheat belt is identified as crossing the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Corn, which is primarily grown to feed livestock, reaches from southern Minnesota, across Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.
J.H. Von Thunen developed a model in 1826 (which wasn't translated into English until 1966) for the agricultural use of land. It has been utilized by geographers since that time. His theory stated that the more perishable and heavier products would be grown closer to urban areas. By looking at the crops grown within metropolitan areas in the U.S., we can see that his theory still holds true. It is very common for perishable vegetables and fruits to be grown within metropolitan areas while less-perishable grain is predominantly produced in non-metropolitan counties.
Agriculture uses about a third of the land on the planet and occupies the lives of about two and a half billion people. It's important to understand where our food comes from.
Agricultural practices lie on a spectrum dependent upon the intensity and technology of the methods. At the one end lies the subsistence farmer who farms a small area with limited inputs and produces only enough food to meet the needs of his or her family. At the other end lies intensive agriculture which includes traditional labor intensive farming (e.g. South-East Asia rice paddies), and modern agriculture which includes industrial agriculture, organic farming and sustainable farming. Industrial agriculture involves large fields and/or numbers of animals, high resource inputs (pesticides, fertilizers, etc.), and a high level of mechanization. These operations achieve economies of scale and require large amounts of capital in the form of land and machinery.
The twentieth century saw changes in agricultural practice, particularly in agricultural chemistry and in mechanization. Agricultural chemistry includes the application of chemical fertilizer, chemical insecticides (see pest control), and chemical fungicides, analysis of soil makeup and nutritional needs of farm animals.
Mechanization has increased farm efficiency and productivity in most regions of the world, due especially to the tractor and various "gins" (short for "engine") such as the cotton gin, semi-automatic balers and threshers and, above all, the combine (see agricultural machinery). According to the National Academy of Engineering in the United States, 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. By 1999, due to advances in agricultural technology, a single farmer could feed over 130 people.
Other recent changes in agriculture include hydroponics, plant breeding, hybridization, gene manipulation, better management of soil nutrients, and improved weed control. Genetic engineering has yielded crops which have capabilities beyond those of naturally occurring plants, such as higher yields and disease resistance. Modified seeds germinate faster, and thus can be grown on an accelerated schedule. Genetic engineering of plants has proven controversial, particularly in the case of herbicide-resistant plants.
Genetic engineers at companies such as Monsanto are working to develop plants for irrigation, drainage, conservation and sanitary engineering, particularly important in normally arid areas which rely upon constant irrigation, and on large scale farms.
The processing, packing and marketing of agricultural products are closely related activities also influenced by science. Methods of quick-freezing and dehydration have increased the markets for many farm products (see food preservation and meat packing industry).
Animals, including horses, mules, oxen, camels, llamas, alpacas, and dogs, are often used to help cultivate fields, harvest crops, wrangle other animals, and transport farm products to buyers. Animal husbandry not only refers to the breeding and raising of animals for meat or to harvest animal products (like milk, eggs, or wool) on a continual basis, but also to the breeding and care of species for work and companionship.
Airplanes, helicopters, trucks, tractors, and combines are used in Western (and, increasingly, Eastern) agriculture for seeding, spraying operations for insect and disease control, harvesting, aerial topdressing and transporting perishable products. 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.
In recent years, some aspects of intensive industrial agriculture have been the subject of increasing debate. 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. Another issue is the type of feed given to some animals that can cause bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cattle. There has also been concern over the effect of intensive agriculture on the environment.
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. The Indian activist and scientist Vandana Shiva argues that these companies are guilty of biopiracy.
Soil conservation and nutrient management have been important concerns since the 1950s, with the most advanced farmers taking a stewardship role with the land they use. However, increasing contamination of waterways and wetlands by nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus are concerns that can only be addressed by "enlightenment" of farmers and/or far stricter law enforcement in many countries.