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Agriculture, art, science and industry of managing the growth of plants and animals for human use. In a broad sense agriculture includes cultivation of the soil, growing and harvesting crops, breeding and raising livestock, dairying, and forestry (see Animal Husbandry; Crop Farming; Dairy Farming; Forestry; Poultry Farming; Soil Management).

Regional and national agriculture are covered in more detail in individual continent, country, state, and Canadian province articles.

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 Processing and 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, oxen, 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 and helicopters are employed in agriculture for seeding, spraying operations for insect and disease control, transporting perishable products, and fighting forest fires. Increasingly satellites are being used to monitor crop yields. 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


Over the 10,000 years since agriculture began to be developed, peoples everywhere have discovered the food value of wild plants and animals, and domesticated and bred them. The most important crops are cereals such as wheat, rice, barley, corn, and rye; sugarcane and sugar beets; meat animals such as sheep, cattle, goats, and pigs or swine; poultry such as chickens, ducks, and turkeys; animal products such as milk, cheese, and eggs; and nuts and oils. Fruits, vegetables, and olives are also major foods for people. Feed grains for animals include soybeans, field corn, and sorghum. See also Grasses; Hay; Grain; Legume; Silage.

Agricultural income is also derived from nonfood crops such as rubber, fiber plants, tobacco, and oil seeds used in synthetic chemical compounds, as well as animals rose for pelts. Conditions that determine what is raised in an area include climate, water supply and waterworks, terrain, and ecology.

In 2003, 44 percent of the world’s labor force was employed in agriculture. The distribution ranged from 66 percent of the economically active population in sub- Saharan Africa to less than 3 percent in the United States and Canada. In Asia and the Pacific the figure was 60 percent; in Latin America and the Caribbean, 19 percent; and in Europe, 9 percent.

Farm size varies widely from region to region. In the early 2000s the average for Canadian farms was about 273 hectares (about 675 acres) per farm; for farms in the United States, 180 hectares (440 acres). By contrast, the average size of a single land holding in India was 2 hectares (about 5 acres).

Size also depends on the purpose of the farm. Commercial farming, or production for cash, usually takes place on large holdings. The latifundia of Latin America are large, privately owned estates worked by tenant labor. Single-crop plantations produce tea, rubber, and cocoa. Wheat farms are most efficient when they comprise thousands of hectares and can be worked by teams of people and machines. Australian sheep stations and other livestock farms must be large to provide grazing for thousands of animals.

Food Security.

More than two-thirds of an estimated 800 million hungry or malnourished people are in South Asia and in Africa south of the Sahara. Without new investment in their food production, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimated food-deficit countries' import needs would raise from the current 95 million metric tons a year to 229 million by the year 2020, quadrupling in Asia and rising 150 percent in sub-Saharan Africa as a result of continued poor food production. Rising grain prices, IFPRI said, would price many poor people out of the market and require increased food donations. While further replenishment of grain stockpiles will depend on 1998 production, prospects in the southern hemisphere were uncertain because of the potential impact on crops of El Niño weather patterns — driven by unusually warm ocean currents in parts of the Pacific. The need for external food donations had declined about 20 percent from 1996, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said, but food emergencies persisted in 29 countries, mostly in Africa, and worsened in North Korea (after a third year of poor crops), in Iraq, and in Tajikistan. Disappointing harvests were cited in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Tanzania, and Sudan; despite improved harvests, political upheaval contributed to increased malnutrition among refugees in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). The FAO and other UN agencies expressed alarm at food shortages in North Korea, where international relief campaigns were feeding more than 4.5 million people. Iraq's grain crop was the lowest since 1991, the FAO said, as farmland conditions deteriorated and fertilizer, seeds, and farm machinery were in short supply after seven years of international embargo.

Creating an adequate world food supply poses two challenges. The first is to provide enough food to meet the needs of the earth’s expanding population, without destroying natural resources needed to continue producing food. The second challenge is to ensure food security—that is, to make sure all people have access to enough food to live active, healthy lives. Just producing enough food does not guarantee that the people who need it are able to get it. If people do not have enough money to buy food—or to buy the land, seeds, and tools to grow food—or if natural or human-made disasters such as drought or war prevent them from getting food, then people are at risk for under nutrition even when there is an adequate food supply. In industrialized countries, poverty typically prevents people from obtaining food; in developing countries, the circumstances that cause food insecurity include poverty, low crop yields, and unproductive economic policies.


FOCTORS AFFECTING FOOD PRODUCTION The number of farmers worldwide has been decreasing since the 1950s as

The number of farmers worldwide has been decreasing since the 1950s as farmers migrate to cities to find other work. Some of the factors that compel farmers to move to cities are the need for a better income, the inability of small farms to compete with larger farms, and the takeover of farms for development of industry or roads. Fewer farmers and the loss of knowledge—passed down through generations of farming families—about the most productive agricultural practices for a region affect the variety, quality, and quantity of food produced.




FOCTORS AFFECTING FOOD PRODUCTION The number of farmers worldwide has been decreasing since the 1950s as

Irrigation Canal

aqueduct paints a striking line of blue across the San Joaquin Valley in California. Without irrigation canals, areas this would remain largely uncultivated and uninhabited. After a period of years, however, irrigation waterlogs and in some areas raises the salt to a level that makes the soil

unusable. Salinization (salt increase) of soils is about one-third of the world's irrigated land.

now jeopardizing

Food production also requires water, arable land (land that can grow crops), some form of energy, such as petroleum, to run tractors and other farm equipment, and the human and animal labor needed to till the land. These vital resources are distributed unevenly around the world, and many have been depleted or damaged by modern agricultural techniques. Scientists estimate that since 1945, about 17 percent of the earth's vegetated surface, or 2 billion hectares (4.9 billion acres) have been degraded, or made less productive, by human mismanagement. Poor agricultural practices, such as overgrazing, plowing vulnerable soils, overfertilizing, and irrigation without proper drainage, have degraded about 552 million hectares (13.6 million acres), 38 percent of the world’s total cultivated area.

Soil Erosion When soil is not protected, it erodes, or washes away. In severe soil erosion,

Soil Erosion

When soil is not protected, it erodes, or washes away. In severe soil erosion, gullies form, a natural geological

process that is greatly accelerated by poor agricultural practices, as well as other human activities. Loss of productive topsoil to soil erosion is one of the most pressing problems confronting modern agriculture.

Water, essential for growth of all crops, is the natural resource in shortest supply. More than 20 countries lack sufficient water to grow enough food for their people. Over half of these people live in the arid, or dry, regions of Africa and the Middle East, where periodic drought, or extreme water scarcity lasting months or years, contributes to severe food shortages. By the year 2025, if current population trends continue, about 75 percent of Africans will live in regions where water shortages limit food production. The increasing costs of irrigation, the greater fluctuation in drought and floods anticipated with global climate change, and population growth are all pushing in the direction of more pressure on water resources.

The primary culprit for water depletion is irrigation, the artificial application of water for crops that makes unproductive lands fertile. Too much irrigation depletes fresh water supplies, seriously damages the environment, and wreaks havoc on human populations. The Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, for example, was once the world’s fourth largest inland lake. Its water volume has dropped over 80 percent since the 1960s because the rivers that flow into the sea have been diverted to irrigate farmlands and cotton plantations. As a result, all of the 24 fish species native to the Aral Sea have disappeared, and the once-thriving fishing villages, now miles from the shore, are ghost towns. The low water level in the sea concentrates salts and toxic chemicals from pesticides, which accumulate on the dry lake bottom. The wind blows the toxic mix over the surrounding farmlands, destroying cropland, poisoning the drinking water, and creating serious health problems among the population. Severe environmental deterioration from improper irrigation threatens ecosystems near other irrigated croplands, including croplands near the Colorado River in the United States and the Ganges River in India.

Like water, arable land is another disappearing agricultural resource. The amount of arable land per person has been shrinking since 1981. An estimated 8 million hectares (20 million acres) of farmland is replaced each year by homes, shopping centers, industries, and roads built to accommodate growing populations. Modern farming practices also contribute to the decline of arable land by causing the wearing away, or erosion, of topsoil, the upper layer of soil that provides the nutrients plants need. Erosion leaves only nutrient-poor subsoil, which cannot support plants.

Farming techniques, particularly irrigation, also contribute to salinization, the accumulation of salt in soils. Salinization stunts plant growth, decreasing harvests and eventually making soils unusable. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN), salinization has degraded an estimated 7 to 10 percent of the world’s 250 million hectares (618 million acres) of irrigated lands.

Modern farming techniques depend on extensive use of fossil fuels—oil, gasoline, and natural gas—for a variety of tasks. Fuels are needed to operate machines for plowing, planting, and harvesting, to make fertilizers and pesticides, and to build irrigation systems. After food is harvested, energy from fossil fuels is used to transport and process food. Although fossil fuel supplies are ample for the near future, they cannot last forever. Also, extensive use of fossil fuels damages the environment, contributing to air, soil, and water pollution, ozone depletion (see Ozone Layer), and global warming.


Coffee Fields Coffee is the principal commercial crop of Uganda, making up more than 90 percent

Coffee Fields

Coffee is the principal commercial crop of Uganda, making up more than 90 percent of the yearly value of exports. Exports provide income for farmers, but in some cases export crops replace food crops needed for domestic populations.

The world’s population is now 6.7 billion people and is projected to reach 8 billion by the year 2025. Food production must keep pace with the increasing number of people living on the planet. Since 1960, world food production has grown faster than population, mainly because of the green revolution, the effort to increase and diversify crop yields in agriculturally less advanced regions of the world. Introduction of irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides, and new seed varieties resulted in increased yields of rice, wheat, and corn in many countries. In most countries, however, added water and fertilizer do not increase yields as much as in the past, and in the future, food production may not match population growth.

Although controlling population growth rate is important for achieving food security, a low population growth rate does not guarantee food security, nor does a high growth rate create food insecurity. China has a low population growth rate of 0.6 percent, but 11 percent of its people are undernourished. China’s food security problem is caused in part by poverty—17 percent survive on less than U.S.$1 per day. Food security is also threatened by the rapid loss of arable land as cities expand. In Haiti, the population growth rate of 2.5 percent is also low, yet 49 percent of the population is undernourished. Lack of food security in Haiti is caused by extreme poverty, largely the result of two centuries of military dictatorships, which have neglected development of agriculture, schools, health care, and transportation.

Somali Feeding Center Foreign governments have established and stocked feeding centers in Somalia, such as the

Somali Feeding Center

Foreign governments have established and stocked feeding centers in Somalia, such as the one pictured, in order to help the Somali people overcome starvation. However, the country’s long-standing civil war has impeded development and limited foreign assistance. Somalia’s rugged terrain and harsh climate allow for little arable land, and the country has few natural resources. Serious droughts in the latter part of the 20th century have crippled the country’s ability to produce food, while the influx of millions of refugees from Ethiopia has strained the nation’s inadequate resources even further.

Population growth negatively affects food security only when other food-related variables are impaired. For instance, a country may not have enough water or arable land to support more people, or agricultural techniques may not produce enough food for a growing population. Food availability depends on physical access—that is, adequate markets, sound highways, reliable vehicles to transport food, and storage facilities. A lack of any one of these items can cause a food crisis. War and political strife also disrupt access to food, resulting in famines and temporary food shortages. In 1992, for example, at the height of the wars of Yugoslav succession, 4 million people in Bosnia-Herzegovina and 3 million refugees in Croatia were without food.

Fish Farming Fish farming, or aquaculture, is a rapidly growing area of farming. Here, oysters are

Fish Farming

Fish farming, or aquaculture, is a rapidly growing area of farming. Here, oysters are cultivated in a saltwater tank full of oyster shells. The tank is stocked with oyster larvae, which settle onto the old shells. Aquaculturists provide the young oysters with food and harvest them when they reach market size.

Paul Harris/Tony Stone Images

Grain, or cereal, production plays a significant role in the world’s food security. Grains such as rice, wheat, and corn provide about 50 percent of the calories people consume each day. Grain supplies may be threatened, however, by the world’s reliance on a small number of crop varieties. Throughout history, farmers planted many varieties of rice, wheat, corn, millet, and other grains, selected for how well they grew in local soils, how they withstood local insects and diseases, and how they adapted to the climate. In the 20th century, however, most of these regional varieties have been replaced by new varieties of rice, wheat, and corn that produce more grain but are vulnerable to unpredictable diseases or insect infestations. For example, in the early 1970s a disease called Southern corn leaf blight destroyed 15 percent of the corn crop in the United States, and eliminated almost the entire corn crop in areas of Illinois and Indiana. To provide a stable food supply, agriculture needs diverse crop varieties so that the failure of one or two crops is less likely to cause famine.

To ensure food security, an adequate diet must include not only calories but the full range of nutrients that humans need (see Human Nutrition). Of particular importance is protein, which is essential for muscles, bones, the antibodies that prevent infection, and the many enzymes that regulate all of the body’s systems. Grains, beans, and seeds are common sources of protein in developing countries, while meat, milk, cheese, and eggs are more likely to be consumed in industrialized countries, and by the newly wealthy in developing countries. The demand for these products is high, despite the inefficient use of land required to produce them. To raise chickens and pigs, it takes an estimated 2 to 4 kg (5 to 9 lb) of grain to produce 1 kg (2.2 lb) of meat, and for cows raised in feedlots, the figure is

an estimated 7 kg (15 lb) of grain per 1 kg (2.2 lb) of meat. In contrast, direct consumption of grain by humans is far more efficient.

an estimated 7 kg (15 lb) of grain per 1 kg (2.2 lb) of meat. In

Protein from Fish

Commercial fishers haul in silvery salmon off the coast of Hokkaidō, Japan. In many countries, fish provide a significant source of protein, but overfishing has seriously depleted stocks of several species including cod, bluefin

tuna, and halibut. In the United States, certain species of salmon also are in danger of being overfished.

Fujifotos/The Image Works

Reliance on fish as a protein source varies widely. Although fish provide only an estimated 6.5 percent of the animal protein consumed in North America, in Africa the figure is an estimated 21 percent, and in Japan, North and South Korea, and China, 22 percent. In regions where fish supply a significant percent of the protein, people’s protein source is threatened by the continuous decline in quality and quantity of fish caught in all parts of the world.

World Birth and Death Rates Worldwide death rates have been lowered by improved nutrition, health care,

World Birth and Death Rates

Worldwide death rates have been lowered by improved nutrition, health care, and sanitation. In developed

countries, birth rates have fallen as well, but in the developing world, birth rates remain high, so that globally the population level is rising rapidly. World food production must continue to increase substantially if a future population crash is to be avoided.

© Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

In 2002, about 70 percent of marine fish stocks were being harvested faster than they could reproduce, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). UNEP also noted that major changes were needed in the use and management of marine fisheries to avoid the commercial extinction of many fisheries. “Fishing fleets are venturing farther from their home ports, off the continental shelves and into deeper waters to meet the global demand for fish,” the report noted. “Consequently, fish are being captured from stocks which were previously unexploited and the long- term viability of a number of species may be jeopardized.” See also Fisheries.

In contrast, fish farming, or aquaculture, is expanding rapidly, especially in developing countries, where it holds the promise of improved food security. Between 1970 and 2000, aquaculture increased from 3.9 percent to 27.3 percent of the total volume of fish raised or captured. Salmon, scallops, and shrimp are among the most popular species for aquaculture. Fisheries exports earn more money worldwide than sugar, coffee, tea, and cocoa combined, crops traditionally raised for export by developing countries.

Crops grown for sale to other countries also influence food security. Export crops can include staple

Crops grown for sale to other countries also influence food security. Export crops can include staple foods, such as rice, or luxury foods, such as strawberries. Export sales provide income for farmers, enabling them to purchase food, and exports help a nation reduce debt owed to other countries for imports. Some countries, however, grow so many crops for export that not enough food is grown for domestic consumption. In Colombia, for example, coffee sold to other countries supplies about 10 percent of the country’s export income, and coffee farms occupy an estimated 25 percent of the arable land, an estimated 1 million hectares (2.4 million acres) that could be used for food crops needed at home. Export crops are widely planted in other Latin American countries and in African countries, which in addition to coffee, provide most of the world supply of cacao (cocoa beans), peanuts, cloves and sisal, a plant from which rope is made.

Food Stores Global food security is measured in part by the amount of food that is

Food Stores

Global food security is measured in part by the amount of food that is stored. This wheat silo in Alberta, Canada, is part of Canada’s network of food storage facilities that can be drawn on in time of need.

Getty Images

To ensure food security in times of low crop yields, natural disasters, or famine, nations must use stored foods. Global cereal reserves, also known as world carryover stocks, are an indicator of world food security. Grain stores reached a historic high in 1988, sufficient to feed the world for 100 days. By the beginning of the 21st century, however, stores had dropped to their lowest level in 20 years. The decrease in grain stores resulted from cutbacks in grain production in Europe and the United States, lower yields due to regional weather problems, and soil erosion resulting from poor farming practices. As yields have decreased, many countries have dipped deeper into carryover stocks to feed their growing populations.

Countries that cannot grow or buy enough food to feed their people, or experience natural disaster or political disruption, are dependent on food aid from wealthier countries. In 1992, 16.9 million metric tons of food were distributed to countries in need. However, in 1996, global food aid fell to about 6 million metric tons of food, and during the first few years of the 21st century, annual aid stood at about 10 million metric tons. The decline in food aid coupled with an increase in natural and political disasters has caused international aid organizations to shift their priorities from long-term agricultural development to crisis intervention and helping refugees survive emergency shortages.