PRIOR TO THE FIRST AGRICULTURAL REVOLUTION, people relied on hunting and gathering to obtain food supplies. The agricultural revolution began as the individuals in the society began to cultivate soil, plant seeds, and use plows and animals to assist with the cultivation of the soil. This change from a hunting and gathering society did not occur in just one place but appeared almost simultaneously around the world.
In the 17th century, a second agricultural revolution began. During this phase agriculture production and distribution increased, individuals became less dependent on growing crops themselves, and they began to move to the cities starting the Industrial Revolution. In the years between the first agricultural revolution and the second little changed with the way that agriculture was grown and harvested. It was during the second agriculture revolution that commercial agriculture was developed. This involved a shift from hand labor to machine farming. Between 1860 and 1910, the number of farms in the United States tripled, from 2 million to 6 million, while the area farmed more than doubled.
The third revolution began in the 1920s with the development of fertilizers, chemical farming, and the processing and refining of food. The main characteristics of this agricultural revolution were the blending of primary, secondary, and tertiary activities, intensification of mechanization, and development of biotechnology. One of the main elements influencing the third revolution was the green revolution, which is a process of technological development of agricultural techniques that began in Mexico in 1944 and has since spread throughout the world.
The agricultural revolutions and their main characteristics include:
Second revolution. 1700s in western Europe and North America: production of an agricultural surplus and the development of commercial agriculture; closely associated to Industrial Revolution (begins in Britain; later spreads across Europe).
Third revolution. 1920s in western Europe and North America: development of agriculture, industry, chemical farming, and inorganic fertilizers (biotechnology); agriculture is related to processing and refining of foods.
Today, about 45 percent of the world’s population makes its living through agriculture. The proportion of the population involved in agriculture ranges from about 2 percent in the United States to about 80 percent in some parts of Asia and Africa. Farming in the 20th century has become highly technological in the more developed nations, while less developed nations continue with using growing practices and methods that are similar to those developed after the first agricultural revolution.
The advent of corporate farms endangers the viability of the familyfarmer in developed and underdeveloped nations alike.
At present, there are two main types of agriculture: subsistence and commercial agriculture. Subsistence agriculture is defined as producing food primarily for local consumption (the farmer’s family) and most often occurs in developing nations. Commercial agriculture is the production of crops for sale and is designed to produce crops for widespread distribution (supermarkets), larger markets, and export. It also extends to limited distribution (local produce stands) and any nonfood crops such as cotton and tobacco. It contributes substantially to the gross domestic product of a country.
Commercial agriculture is found in both the developing, developed, and the most the developed nations. This is now the predominant form of farming in Southeast Asia and throughout the world and includes major fruit plantations in Central America as well as enormous agribusiness wheat farms and facilities in the midwestern United States. In developed countries, farmers are involved in large-scale commercial farming, both rain-fed and under irrigation. In addition, they receive substantial government support aimed at increased domestic production and exports.
Agriculture was brought into the multilateral trade rules at the conclusion of the Uruguay Round and the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995. Critics say the agreement tends to emphasize commercial as opposed to subsistence farming.
It is believed that a successful transition to a system of high-yielding commercial agriculture will open new opportunities for developing countries by allowing farmers to benefit from advanced technologies and expanded trade opportunities. However, not all farmers will gain from these changes. Many small-scale subsistence farmers in more remote areas where the new technologies are less suitable may become more vulnerable and increasingly marginalized.
Since the beginning of the 1990s, there has been a considerable increase in the production of commercial cash crops. There has been a dramatic increase in the land planted to grow annual crops—cotton, jute, sugarcane, peanut, soybean, tobacco—as well as crops planted more than once a year: tea, coffee, rubber, peppers, coconut, and fruit crops. The farming of cattle and pigs has also increased.
Rapid changes in technology are the characteristic of U.S. agriculture and a major force of contemporary commercial agriculture. Agricultural industrialization is a process in which the role of the farm has moved from the centerpiece of agricultural production into being only one part of the system of production. This also includes storage, processing, distribution, marketing, and selling the food. With agricultural industrialization, the farm becomes only one link in a large chain of food production.
In developing countries, mechanization and technological advances are not widely seen. This can be attributed to small land holdings, scattered plots, and poor rural infrastructure. Low income levels and the availability of cheap household labor also discourage households from either purchasing or renting machinery. Despite a government rhetoric encouraging industrialization and modernization, farm mechanization is hampered by a lack of positive government policies such as finance subsidies, low-interest loans for farm machinery, tax exemptions for the manufacturing of machinery and fuel to operate the farm machinery.
Other trends in commercial agriculture during the 1990s include consumerism, internationalization, environmentalism, policy change, and high technology. Historically, farmer’s main objective was to keep up with the food demand generated by a growing population. However, over time, the population not only requires that basic energy requirements are met, but it is demanding better access to a wider variety of nutritious foods. Today’s consumers are very concerned about the nutritional characteristics of the food as well as the safety of the food. With the increasing number of both men and women in the labor force, there is an emphasis on developing new products that not only meet the nutritional and the safety requirements but also increase the ease and speed of preparation.
Because of the size of the world market, internationalization is one of the fundamental forces affecting the well-being of U.S. farmers. In the international market many of the crops are characterized by: 1) marketing value-added products; 2) developing more alternative crops and more specialty crops; and 3) finding new ways to deliver those to foreign consumers in the form in which they want to buy. We live in a global market and a global society. This creates tremendous opportunities for the U.S. farmer us to draw upon genetic material and new crops from other countries.
The third major trend of the 1990s is increasing concern for the environment. One of the goals is to provide modern agriculture with the best available, most environmentally friendly irrigation, prevention of soil erosion, and pest control.
The change is in the policy of farming or agriculture. There has been a decline in the role of “old-line” subsidy programs for corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice, programs that used to make up the most important elements of the U.S. agricultural policy. Instead, the new agenda is free trade, environmental conciseness, concern for the welfare of the animals that are farmed, and food safety.
Lastly, in the 1990s, agriculture is becoming an increasingly high-tech industry. There a tremendous array of powerful tools of modern plant science at our disposal used to improve traditional crops through genetic manipulation and to find alternative means of pest control.
Some problems with commercial farming include overproducing, harvesting fewer varieties of food, and limiting the ability of the small farmer to be able to earn a living.
Overproduction or an oversupply of food because of mass production has had a negative impact on both small and commercial farmers, as it often reduces their incomes. However, government policies often try to control overproduction through different means: paying farmers not to grow cash crops; providing price supports for products that are sold too cheap; and buying surplus production and then storing it, donating it, or destroying it.
With the global spread of commercial agriculture, fewer varieties of food are being planted in shrinking areas of arable land. Varieties of rice, corn, and wheat and new forms of livestock breeding have displaced many local varieties of crops and animal breeds. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has estimated that more than 75 percent of agricultural crop varieties and more than 50 percent of domestic livestock breeds have disappeared over the past century because of modern farming methods. “The spread of modern, commercial agriculture and the introduction of new varieties of crops has been the main cause of the loss of genetic variety,” explains an FAO report. When coupled with the rapid spread of commercial agriculture, market barriers, and the privatization of knowledge that has accompanied advances in biotechnology, the patenting of life forms poses a direct threat to the livelihoods of farmers and indigenous communities in developing countries.
In Asia, large resettlement schemes, intensive timber harvesting, and the expansion of commercial agriculture have been important agents of deforestation and forest degradation. The conversion of forest to plantations—both forest plantations and agriculture plantations of rubber and oil palm—has also been carried out on a large scale.
From a commercial perspective, the world hopes for greater security, protecting fragile environments and reforming local farm policies. To achieve this, developed countries must find less trade-distorting ways to support rural incomes and end the practice of subsidizing their exports. Developing countries need to embrace a similar vision of openness and allow imports as well as exports, as nearly half of global food trade, and virtually all of its growth potential, is among developing countries.
Second, the developed world needs to assist and encourage developing countries to build upon their capacity to participate in a global economy and to ensure that the rural farmers gain from globalization. Developed countries have pledged to reduce global hunger dramatically by increasing aid going to rural development and investing in commercial opportunities for developing country entrepreneurs. If these policies are appropriately supported by agricultural trade consortiums, the investment could increase and broaden the gains in a short amount of time instead of decades.
Finally, attitudes toward new technologies, especially agricultural biotechnology, need to be reexamined. New technologies can raise agricultural productivity and human nutrition at an affordable rate. It would be unfortunate if developing countries were denied these tools by trade barriers disguised as safety or marketing rules unsupported by science.