Agriculture: Farmers, Crops, Animals, and the Environment

How Agriculture Works

Every day, agriculture touches your life: the food you eat, the ethanol in your car, and the natural fibers in your clothes. Agriculture is an integral part of our civilization.

Agriculture is both a science, with measurable outcomes, and an art. It prioritizes working with nature, rather than against it.

Farmer

Farmers are responsible for growing, nurturing and harvesting crops for human consumption. They may also be involved with raising animals for meat, milk and wool. Some farmers are specialists, for example dairy and pig farmers who watch over and raise cows and hogs with the ultimate goal of selling them.

A career in farming offers many benefits, including the ability to be self-sufficient and a connection to the land. It can also be a rewarding and challenging job that requires a wide range of skills and knowledge.

However, most family farmers say that over the past few decades, decisions about who produces our food and how it is produced have moved from households and governments to large corporate boardrooms. This trend, known as agribusiness, has led to consolidation of farms. Many small, family-owned operations have been replaced by larger ones that produce a variety of products at higher rates of efficiency. This allows corporations to sell these products at a lower cost.

Crop

When a farmer plants and harvests an entire field of one type of fruit, vegetable or animal, it’s called a crop. Agriculture is the world’s largest industry, employing millions of people around the globe, from scientists developing new crops to factory workers building farm machinery and harvesting food.

Crops provide food, fuel and other raw materials for people worldwide. They also drive transportation, manufacturing and countless other industries. People began shifting from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies about 10,000 years ago.

As agriculture evolves to meet the demands of a global population, many farmers seek ways to produce more with less land and water. These innovations include crop rotation and fertilization, which allow people to grow more on a field and keep soil productive. Farmers also use chemicals to fight insects, weeds and diseases that harm plants and livestock. Many of these methods, however, deplete the earth’s nutrients, mistreat animals and generate various forms of pollution.

Animal

Agriculture is a huge industry that provides raw materials for other industries and helps sustain global communities. But it can also be a source of suffering and poverty.

Many family farmers who raise animals find themselves trapped in a system that exploits both people and animals. On factory farms, workers in slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants earn poverty wages to perform dangerous and traumatic jobs. The exploited animals are the unfortunate victims of an industrialized animal agriculture system that trades soil and water quality, food safety and rural communities’ well-being for maximized profits achieved through consolidation and mechanization.

Despite the immense scale of the agriculture industry, two billion people in the world are malnourished. To reduce hunger, corporations and consumers in rich countries should focus on environmentally sustainable farming systems that don’t degrade natural resources. They should also minimize food waste, as one trillion dollars’ worth of food is wasted around the world each year. In addition, they should support family farmers by lowering prices for their crops.

Environment

Many public policies and big businesses push farmers to treat their land like food factories: places where inputs (seed, fertilizer, pesticides, water, energy) are converted into outputs (marketable foods). These systems have raised crop yields but also sparked environmental crises. The use of industrial chemicals has depleted soil, triggered toxic algal blooms in rivers and lakes, and caused global warming.

But a growing movement of farmers and scientists are transforming agriculture into something more sustainable—environmentally, economically, and socially. These new approaches, known as agroecology, build healthy soil by using natural inputs, embracing diversity, and maximizing ecosystem services.

These changes can protect our natural resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and give people the healthy, nutritious food they need for a long, happy life. They can also support farmers and workers, create local economies, and promote racial equity and justice. This is a vision worth fighting for. To do it, we need to repurpose the subsidies that perpetuate unsustainable farming practices.

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The Downsides of Agriculture

Why Agriculture Was a Mistake

Many historians believe that agriculture was a key step in the development of civilization. It increased our food supply and allowed for greater societal, economic and technological advancements.

But Jared Diamond, author of ‘Collapse’ and ‘Guns, Germs and Steel,’ has argued that agriculture was the worst mistake in human history. He says people went from frolicking in the wilderness to lives of drudgery and limited diets.

1. It led to malnutrition and starvation

Some historians argue that farming was a mistake and that humans would be better off returning to hunter-gatherer ways. One such scholar, Jared Diamond (author of ‘Collapse’ and ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’), even called agriculture “the worst mistake in human history”.

He argues that we went from frolicking in the wild to a life of drudgery and a diet based on a few staple crops like wheat, barley, rice, and maize. As a result, people experienced malnutrition and a host of new diseases that didn’t exist before.

In addition, the reliance on maize led to nutritional deficiencies because the crop is hard on the soil and doesn’t provide the full range of nutrients that people need. This is why it’s important to grow a variety of different types of food in our gardens and farms today. This is also an important part of Climate Smart Agriculture, a way of growing that’s good for the planet and promotes healthier eating habits.

2. It brought about deep class divisions

Agriculture is a vital part of any economy and supplies food to the world. It also provides raw materials for industries, such as textiles and biofuels. Traditionally, most people were involved in agriculture to some extent. However, as societies developed, farming became a specialized career choice instead of an everyday necessity.

As agriculture became more specialized, farmers looked for ways to maximize their yield. This led to the development of different farming methods, such as crop rotation, fertilizer use, and chemical sprays.

This 2nd agricultural revolution also caused land ownership to change. Farmers began to develop larger plots and sell them for profit. This lead to class divisions and social inequality.

3. It led to the spread of disease

The emergence of agriculture brought with it the rise of infectious disease. The shift from a diverse diet to dependence on one or a few staple crops resulted in malnutrition, which is the perfect environment for parasitic infection. Moreover, concentrating people into a small area increased the likelihood of disease spread by mosquitoes and other insects.

Some historians have viewed the invention of agriculture as the single worst mistake in human history, with disastrous implications for social inequality and ill health. Jared Diamond, author of ‘Collapse’ and ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’, is the most vocal proponent of this view. More recently, Yuval Noah Harari, author of ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’, has made similar claims. Several recent studies support these claims. For example, a rice-based diet leads to low iron absorption and increases the risk of anaemia. Undernourishment also exacerbates the severity of infections like diarrhoea, malaria and measles. The reduction in biodiversity that accompanies agricultural intensification can also increase the incidence of zoonotic diseases, such as tick-borne encephalitis and salmonella.

4. It led to the emergence of large cities

Regardless of its precise origins, agriculture soon gave people the ability to sustain far more of their populations than could hunter-gatherers. One reason is that the average farm produces 100 times more food than a forest full of edible plants.

The other reason is that farming allowed people to live sedentary lives rather than constantly shifting camp. That led to lower death rates and boosted birth rates.

It also meant that families no longer had to share a single camp site or hunting grounds, and women had fewer problems with childbirth. But that also encouraged infertility, and archaeological mummies show that, among farming societies, many more men than women suffered from tuberculosis.

These changes eventually led to the development of large cities. But they didn’t happen overnight. Within a short window, intensive farming developed independently in the Fertile Crescent, the Yangzi and Yellow River basins of China, the New Guinea highlands, and elsewhere. Those early societies then began to trade and settle, resulting in the emergence of modern civilizations and all that goes with them—arts, culture, science, a booming economy, and complex language.

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