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.


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 Many small, family-owned operations have been replaced by larger ones that produce a variety of products at higher rates of efficiency.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.


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.


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.


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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