Richard W. Hazlett and Joshua Peck
Satellite reconnaissance of the Earth’s surface provides critical information about the state of human interaction with the natural environment. The strongest impact is agricultural, reflecting land-use approaches to food production extending back to the dawn of civilization. To variable degrees, depending upon location, regional field patterns result from traditional farming practices, surveying methods, regional histories, policies, political agendas, environmental circumstances, and economic welfare. Satellite imaging in photographic true or false color is an important means of evaluating the nature and implications of agricultural practices and their impacts on the surrounding world. Important platforms with publicly accessible links to satellite image sets include those of the European Space Agency, U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Centre D’etudes Spatiales, Airbus, and various other governmental programs. Reprocessing of data worldwide in scope by commercial concerns including Digital Globe, Terrametrics, and GoogleEarth in the 21st century enable ready examination of most of the Earth’s surface in great detail and natural colors. The potential for monitoring and improving understanding of agriculture and its role in the Earth system is considerable thanks to these new ways of viewing the planet.
Space reconnaissance starkly reveals the consequences of unique land surveys for the rapid development of agriculture and political control in wilderness areas, including the U.S. Public Land Survey and Tierras Bajas systems. Traditional approaches toward agriculture are clearly shown in ribbon farms, English enclosures and medieval field systems, and terracing in many parts of the world. Irrigation works, some thousands of years old, may be seen in floodplains and dryland areas, notably the Maghreb and the deep Sahara, where center-pivot fields have recently appeared in areas once considered too dry to cultivate. Approaches for controlling erosion, including buffer zones, shelter belts, strip and contour farming, can be easily identified. Also evident are features related to field erosion and soil alteration that have advanced to crisis stage, such as badland development and widespread salinization. Pollution related to farm runoff, and the piecemeal (if not rapid) loss of farmlands due to urbanization can be examined in ways favoring more comprehensive evaluation of human impacts on the planetary surface. Developments in space technologies and observational platforms will continue indefinitely, promising ever-increasing capacity to understand how humans relate to the environment.
Agriculture is at the very center of the human enterprise; its trappings are in evidence all around, yet the agricultural past is an exceptionally distant place from modern America. While the majority of Americans once raised a significant portion of their own food, that ceased to be the case at the beginning of the 20th century. Only a very small portion of the American population today has a personal connection to agriculture. People still must eat, but the process by which food arrives on their plates is less evident than ever. The evolution of that process, with all of its many participants, is the stuff of agricultural history. The task of the agricultural historian is to make that past evident, and usable, for an audience that is divorced from the production of food. People need to know where their food comes from, past and present, and what has gone into the creation of the modern food system.
Early agricultural and arboricultural practices in the Pacific are based on vegetative principles, namely, the asexual propagation and transplantation of plants. A vegetative orientation is reflected in the exploitation of underground storage organs (USOs) within Near Oceania, as well as Island Southeast Asia, during the Pleistocene. During the early Holocene, people in the New Guinea region (including Near Oceania) began to intensify the management of plant resources in different landscapes. The increased degree of plant management, as well as associated environmental transformation, is most clearly manifest in the agricultural chronology at Kuk Swamp in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. At Kuk, shifting cultivation was potentially practiced during the early Holocene, with mounded cultivation by c. 7000–6400 cal BP and ditched drainage of wetlands for cultivation by c. 4400–4000 cal BP. Comparable agricultural records are lacking for other regions of Near Oceania; lowland sites indicate a range of arboricultural practices focused on fruit- and nut-bearing trees during the Terminal Pleistocene and throughout the Holocene, as well as potentially sago during the late Holocene. By c. 4000–3000 cal BP, indigenous agricultural and arboricultural elements were integrated with new cultural traits from Southeast Asia, including domestic animals, pottery and potentially new varieties of traditional crops. From c. 3250 to 2800 cal BP, different elements of agricultural and arboricultural practices from lowland New Guinea and Island Melanesia were taken by Lapita pottery–bearing colonists into the western Pacific. A later period of agricultural expansion occurred around c. 1000–750 cal BP with the colonization of eastern Polynesia. Agricultural practices and crops were variably taken and adapted to different islands and island groups across the Pacific. Additional transformations to agriculture occurred with the Polynesian adoption of the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), a South American domesticate, as well as following protohistoric and historic encounters.
James M. MacDonald
Industrialized livestock production can be characterized by five key attributes: confinement feeding of animals, separation of feed and livestock production, specialization, large size, and close vertical linkages with buyers. Industrialized livestock operations—popularly known as CAFOs, for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations—have spread rapidly in developed and developing countries; by the early 21st century, they accounted for three quarters of poultry production and over half of global pork production, and held a growing foothold in dairy production.
Industrialized systems have created significant improvements in agricultural productivity, leading to greater output of meat and dairy products for given commitments of land, feed, labor, housing, and equipment. They have also been effective at developing, applying, and disseminating research leading to persistent improvements in animal genetics, breeding, feed formulations, and biosecurity. The reduced prices associated with productivity improvements support increased meat and dairy product consumption in low and middle income countries, while reducing the resources used for such consumption in higher income countries.
The high-stocking densities associated with confined feeding also exacerbate several social costs associated with livestock production. Animals in high-density environments may be exposed to diseases, subject to attacks from other animals, and unable to engage in natural behaviors, raising concerns about higher levels of fear, pain, stress, and boredom. Such animal welfare concerns have realized greater salience in recent years.
By consolidating large numbers of animals in a location, industrial systems also concentrate animal wastes, often in levels that exceed the capacity of local cropland to absorb the nutrients in manure. While the productivity improvements associated with industrial systems reduce the resource demands of agriculture, excessive localized concentrations of manure can lean to environmental damage through contamination of ground and surface water and through volatilization of nitrogen nutrients into airborne pollutants.
Finally, animals in industrialized systems are often provided with antibiotics in their feed or water, in order to treat and prevent disease, but also to realize improved feed absorption (“a production purpose”). Bacteria are developing resistance to many important antibiotic drugs; the extensive use of such drugs in human and animal medicine has contributed to the spread of antibiotic resistance, with consequent health risks to humans.
The social costs associated with industrialized production have led to a range of regulatory interventions, primarily in North America and Europe, as well as private sector attempts to alter the incentives that producers face through the development of labels and through associated adjustments within supply chains.
Benjamin S. Arbuckle
The domestication of livestock animals has long been recognized as one of the most important and influential events in human prehistory and has been the subject of scholarly inquiry for centuries. Modern understandings of this important transition place it within the context of the origins of food production in the so-called Neolithic Revolution, where it is particularly well documented in southwest Asia. Here, a combination of archaeofaunal, isotopic, and DNA evidence suggests that sheep, goat, cattle, and pigs were first domesticated over a period of several millennia within sedentary communities practicing intensive cultivation beginning at the Pleistocene–Holocene transition. Resulting from more than a century of data collection, our understanding of the chronological and geographic features of the transition from hunting to herding indicate that the 9th millennium
Alexander N. Hristov
Agriculture is a significant source of methane, contributing about 12% of the global anthropogenic methane emissions. Major sources of methane from agricultural activities are fermentation in the reticulo-rumen of ruminant animals (i.e., enteric methane), fermentation in animal manure, and rice cultivation. Enteric methane is the largest agricultural source of methane and is mainly controlled by feed dry matter intake and composition of the animal diet (i.e., fiber, starch, lipids). Processes that lead to generation of methane from animal manure are similar to those taking place in the reticulo-rumen. Methane emissions from manure, however, are greatly influenced by factors such as manure management system and ambient temperature. Systems that handle manure as a liquid generate much more methane than systems in which manure is handled as a solid. Low ambient temperatures drastically decrease methane emissions from manure. Once applied to soil, animal manure does not generate significant amounts of methane. Globally, methane emissions from rice cultivation represent about 10% of the total agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. In the rice plant, methane dissolves in the soil water surrounding the roots, diffuses into the cell-wall water of the root cells, and is eventually released through the micropores in the leaves. Various strategies have been explored to mitigate agricultural methane emissions. Animal nutrition, including balancing dietary nutrients and replacement of fiber with starch or lipids; alternative sinks for hydrogen; manipulation of ruminal fermentation; and direct inhibition of methanogenesis have been shown to effectively decrease enteric methane emissions. Manure management solutions include solid-liquid separation, manure covers, flaring of generated methane, acidification and cooling of manure, and decreasing manure storage time before soil application. There are also effective mitigation strategies for rice that can be categorized broadly into selection of rice cultivars, water regime, and fertilization. Alternate wetting and drying and mid-season drainage of rice paddies have been shown to be very effective practices for mitigating methane emissions from rice production.
Deborah L. Nichols
The Basin of Mexico is a key world region for understanding agricultural intensification and the development of ancient and historic cities and states. Archaeologists working in the region have had a long-standing interest in understanding the dynamics of interactions between society and environment and their research has been at the forefront of advances in both method and theory. The Basin of Mexico was the geopolitical core of the Aztec empire, the largest state in the history of Mesoamerica. Its growth was sustained by a complex economy that has been the subject of much research.
Two themes underlie a broad interest in the pre-Hispanic agriculture of the Basin of Mexico. First, how with a Neolithic technology did the Aztecs and their predecessors sustain the growth of large cites, dense rural populations, and the largest state system in the history of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica? Second, what is the relationship of agricultural intensification and urbanization and state formation? Mesoamerica is the only world region where primary civilizations developed that lacked domestic herbivores for either food or transportation. Their farming depended entirely on human labor and hand tools but sustained large cities, dense populations, and complex social institutions. Intensive agriculture began early and was promoted by risk, ecological diversity, and social differentiation, and included irrigation, terracing, and drained fields (chinampas). Most farming was managed by smallholder households and local communities, which encouraged corporate forms of governance and collective action. Environmental impacts included erosion and deposition, but were limited compared with the degradation that took place in the colonial period.
Kimberly M. Carlson and Rachael D. Garrett
Oil crops play a critical role in global food and energy systems. Since these crops have high oil content, they provide cooking oils for human consumption, biofuels for energy, feed for animals, and ingredients in beauty products and industrial processes. In 2014, oil crops occupied about 20% of crop harvested area worldwide. While small-scale oil crop production for subsistence or local consumption continues in certain regions, global demand for these versatile crops has led to substantial expansion of oil crop agriculture destined for export or urban markets. This expansion and subsequent cultivation has diverse effects on the environment, including loss of forests, savannas, and grasslands, greenhouse gas emissions, regional climate change, biodiversity decline, fire, and altered water quality and hydrology. Oil palm in Southeast Asia and soybean in South America have been identified as major proximate causes of tropical deforestation and environmental degradation. Stringent conservation policies and yield increases are thought to be critical to reducing rates of soybean and oil palm expansion into natural ecosystems. However, the higher profits that often accompany greater yields may encourage further expansion, while policies that restrict oil crop expansion in one region may generate secondary “spillover” effects on other crops and regions. Due to these complex feedbacks, ensuring a sustainable supply of oil crop products to meet global demand remains a major challenge for agricultural companies, farmers, governments, and civil society.
Growing a cover crop between main crops imitates natural ecosystems where the soil is continuously covered with vegetation. This is an important management practice in preserving soil nutrient resources and reducing nitrogen (N) losses to waters. Cover crops also provide other functions that are important for the resilience and long-term stability of cropping systems, such as reduced erosion, increased soil fertility, carbon sequestration, increased soil phosphorus (P) availability, and suppression of weeds and pathogens.
Much is known about how to use cover crops to reduce N leaching, for climates where there is a water surplus outside the growing season. Non-legume cover crops reduce N leaching by 20%–80% and legumes reduce it by, on average, 23%. There are both synergies and possible conflicts between different environmental and production aspects that should be considered when developing efficient and multifunctional cover crop systems, but contradictions about different functions provided by cover crops can sometimes be overcome with site-specific adaptation of measures. One example is cover crop effects on P losses. Cover crops reduce losses of total P, but extract soil P to available forms and may increase losses of dissolved P. How to use this effect to increase soil P availability on subtropical soils needs further studies. Knowledge and examples of how to maximize the positive effects of cover crops on cropping systems are improving, thereby increasing the sustainability of agriculture. One example is combined weed suppression in order to reduce dependence on herbicides or intensive mechanical treatment.
Luis S. Pereira and José M. Gonçalves
Surface irrigation is the oldest and most widely used irrigation method, more than 83% of the world’s irrigated area. It comprises traditional systems, developed over millennia, and modern systems with mechanized and often automated water application and adopting precise land-leveling. It adapts well to non-sloping conditions, low to medium soil infiltration characteristics, most crops, and crop mechanization as well as environmental conditions. Modern methods provide for water and energy saving, control of environmental impacts, labor saving, and cropping economic success, thus for competing with pressurized irrigation methods. Surface irrigation refers to a variety of gravity application of the irrigation water, which infiltrates into the soil while flowing over the field surface. The ways and timings of how water flows over the field and infiltrates the soil determine the irrigation phases—advance, maintenance or ponding, depletion, and recession—which vary with the irrigation method, namely paddy basin, leveled basin, border and furrow irrigation, generally used for field crops, and wild flooding and water spreading from contour ditches, used for pasture lands. System performance is commonly assessed using the distribution uniformity indicator, while management performance is assessed with the application efficiency or the beneficial water use fraction. The factors influencing system performance are multiple and interacting—inflow rate, field length and shape, soil hydraulics roughness, field slope, soil infiltration rate, and cutoff time—while management performance, in addition to these factors, depends upon the soil water deficit at time of irrigation, thus on the way farmers are able to manage irrigation. The process of surface irrigation is complex to describe because it combines surface flow with infiltration into the soil profile. Numerous mathematical computer models have therefore been developed for its simulation, aimed at both design adopting a target performance and field evaluation of actual performance. The use of models in design allows taking into consideration the factors referred to before and, when adopting any type of decision support system or multicriteria analysis, also taking into consideration economic and environmental constraints and issues.
There are various aspects favoring and limiting the adoption of surface irrigation. Favorable aspects include the simplicity of its adoption at farm in flat lands with low infiltration rates, namely when water conveyance and distribution are performed with canal and/or low-pressure pipe systems, low capital investment, and low energy consumption. Most significant limitations include high soil infiltration and high variability of infiltration throughout the field, land leveling requirements, need for control of a constant inflow rate, difficulties in matching irrigation time duration with soil water deficit at time of irrigation, and difficult access to equipment for mechanized and automated water application and distribution. The modernization of surface irrigation systems and design models, as well as models and tools usable to support surface irrigation management, have significantly impacted water use and productivity, and thus competitiveness of surface irrigation.