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Agriculture is practiced on 38% of the landmass on Earth, and having replaced natural ecosystems, it is the largest terrestrial biome on Earth. Agricultural biomes are typically focused on annual crops that are produced as a succession of genetically uniform monocultures. Compared to the ecosystems they replaced, agroecosystems provide fewer ecosystem functions and contain much less biodiversity. The large-scale conversion from natural lands to agriculture occurred centuries ago in the Old World (Africa, China, Europe, and India), but in many areas during the latter 20th and early 21st centuries, especially tropical areas with rich biodiversity, agriculture is an emerging industry. Here, displacement of natural ecosystems is also a late 20th-century occurrence, and much of it is ongoing. Regardless of where or when agriculture was established, biodiversity declined and ecosystem services were eroded. Agricultural practices are the second largest contributor to biodiversity loss, due to the loss of habitat, competition for resources, and pesticide use. Most (~96%) of the land used to produce crops is farmed using conventional methods, while smaller percentages are under organic production (~2%) or are producing biotech crops (~4%). Regardless of how agriculture is practiced, it exacts a toll on biodiversity and ecosystem services. While organic agriculture embraces many ecological principals in producing food, it fails to recognize the value of biotechnology as a tool to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. Herbicide- and/or insect-resistant crops are the most widely planted biotech crops worldwide. Biotech crops in general, but especially insect-resistant crops, reduce pesticide use and increase biodiversity. The widespread adoption of glyphosate-resistant crops increased the use of this herbicide, and resistance evolved in weeds. On the other hand, glyphosate has less environmental impacts than other herbicides. Because of the limited scale of biotech production, it will not have large impacts on mitigating the effects of agriculture on biodiversity and ecosystem services. To have any hope of reducing the environmental impact of agriculture, agro-ecology principals and biotechnology will need to be incorporated. Monetizing biodiversity and ecosystem services through incorporation into commodity prices will incentivize producers to be part of the biodiversity solution. A multi-level biodiversity certification is proposed that is a composite score of the biodiversity and ecosystem services of an individual farm and the growing region were the food is produced. Such a system would add value to the products from farms and ranches proportionate to the level by which their farm and region provides biodiversity and ecosystem services as the natural ecosystem it replaced.

Article

Along with ceramics production, sedentism, and herding, agriculture is a major component of the Neolithic as it is defined in Europe. Therefore, the agricultural system of the first Neolithic societies and the dispersal of exogenous cultivated plants to Europe are the subject of many scientific studies. To work on these issues, archaeobotanists rely on residual plant remains—crop seeds, weeds, and wild plants—from archaeological structures like detritic pits, and, less often, storage contexts. To date, no plant with an economic value has been identified as domesticated in Western Europe except possibly opium poppy. The earliest seeds identified at archaeological sites dated to about 5500–5200 bc in the Mediterranean and Temperate Europe. The cultivated plants identified were cereals (wheat and barley), oleaginous plant (flax), and pulses (peas, lentils, and chickpeas). This crop package originated in the Fertile Crescent, where it was clearly established around 7500 bc (final Pre-Pottery Neolithic B), after a long, polycentric domestication process. From the middle of the 7th millennium bc, via the Balkan Peninsula, the pioneer Neolithic populations, with their specific economies, rapidly dispersed from east to west, following two main pathways. One was the maritime route over the northwestern basin of the Mediterranean (6200–5300 bc), and the other was the terrestrial and fluvial route in central and northwestern continental Europe (5500–4900 bc). On their trajectory, the agropastoral societies adapted the Neolithic founder crops from the Middle East to new environmental conditions encountered in Western Europe. The Neolithic pioneers settled in an area that had experienced a long tradition of hunting and gathering. The Neolithization of Europe followed a colonization model. The Mesolithic groups, although exploiting plant resources such as hazelnut more or less intensively, did not significantly change the landscape. The impact of their settlements and their activities are hardly noticeable through palynology, for example. The control of the mode of reproduction of plants has certainly increased the prevalence of Homo sapiens, involving, among others, a demographic increase and the ability to settle down in areas that were not well adapted to year-round occupation up to that point. The characterization of past agricultural systems, such as crop plants, technical processes, and the impact of anthropogenic activities on the landscape, is essential for understanding the interrelation of human societies and the plant environment. This interrelation has undoubtedly changed deeply with the Neolithic Revolution.

Article

David Roland-Holst

This overview article examines the historical and technical relationship between agrifood supply chains and energy services. Because agriculture is the original environmental science, all technological change in food production has environmental implications, but these are especially serious in the context of conventional energy use. Agrifood sustainability is of paramount importance to us all, and this will require lower carbon pathways for agriculture.

Article

Kandace D. Hollenbach and Stephen B. Carmody

The possibility that native peoples in eastern North America had cultivated plants prior to the introduction of maize was first raised in 1924. Scant evidence was available to support this speculation, however, until the “flotation revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s. As archaeologists involved in large-scale projects began implementing flotation, paleoethnobotanists soon had hundreds of samples and thousands of seeds that demonstrated that indigenous peoples grew a suite of crops, including cucurbit squashes and gourds, sunflower, sumpweed, and chenopod, which displayed signs of domestication. The application of accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) dating to cucurbit rinds and seeds in the 1980s placed the domestication of these four crops in the Late Archaic period 5000–3800 bp. The presence of wild cucurbits during earlier Archaic periods lent weight to the argument that native peoples in eastern North America domesticated these plants independently of early cultivators in Mesoamerica. Analyses of DNA from chenopods and cucurbits in the 2010s definitively demonstrated that these crops developed from local lineages. With evidence in hand that refuted notions of the diffusion of plant domestication from Mesoamerica, models developed in the 1980s for the transition from foraging to farming in the Eastern Woodlands emphasized the coevolutionary relationship between people and these crop plants. As Archaic-period groups began to occupy river valleys more intensively, in part due to changing climatic patterns during the mid-Holocene that created more stable river systems, their activities created disturbed areas in which these weedy plants thrive. With these useful plants available as more productive stands in closer proximity to base camps, people increasingly used the plants, which in turn responded to people’s selection. Critics noted that these models left little room for intentionality or innovation on the part of early farmers. Models derived from human behavioral ecology explore the circumstances in which foragers choose to start using these small-seeded plants in greater quantities. In contrast to the resource-rich valley settings of the coevolutionary models, human behavioral ecology models posit that foragers would only use these plants, which provide relatively few calories per time spent obtaining them, when existing resources could no longer support growing populations. In these scenarios, Late Archaic peoples cultivated these crops as insurance against shortages in nut supplies. Despite their apparent differences, current iterations of both models recognize humans as agents who actively change their environments, with intentional and unintentional results. Both also are concerned with understanding the social and ecological contexts within which people began cultivating and eventually domesticating plants. The “when” and “where” questions of domestication in eastern North America are relatively well established, although researchers continue to fill significant gaps in geographic data. These primarily include regions where large-scale contract archaeology projects have not been conducted. Researchers are also actively debating the “how” and “why” of domestication, but the cultural ramifications of the transition from foraging to farming have yet to be meaningfully incorporated into the archaeological understanding of the region. The significance of these native crops to the economies of Late Archaic and subsequent Early and Middle Woodland peoples is poorly understood and often woefully underestimated by researchers. The socioeconomic roles of these native crops to past peoples, as well as the possibilities for farmers and cooks to incorporate them into their practices in the early 21st century, are exciting areas for new research.

Article

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.

Article

Nutrient pollution can have a negative impact on the aquatic environment, with loss of biodiversity, toxic algal blooms, and a deficiency in dissolved oxygen in surface waters. Agricultural production is one of the main contributors to these problems; this article provides an overview of and background for the main biogeochemical processes causing agricultural nutrient pollution of surface waters. It discusses the main features of the agricultural impact on nutrient loads to surface waters, focusing on nitrogen and phosphorus, and describes some of the main characteristics of agricultural management, including processes and pathways from soil to surface waters. An overview of mitigation measures to reduce pollution, retention in the landscape, and challenges regarding quantification of nutrient losses are also dealt with. Examples are presented from different spatial scales, from field and catchment to river basin scale.

Article

Despite millennia of success as hunters and gatherers, some human groups made a monumental transition to agricultural economies and more sedentary lifeways, broadly referred to as the “Neolithic.” This major tipping point in human history first occurred around 12,000 years ago in Southwest Asia and the eastern Mediterranean, where it is also the best documented. Much research has focused on the origins of agriculture, asking questions about why this event occurred after so much success at hunting and gathering. While early investigations concentrated on the economic significance of the Neolithic, studies in the late 20th century and continuing into the early 21st century also address what are perhaps more significant issues related to social, ritual, political, and ecological aspects of the Neolithic. Equally important is a focus on not only why the Neolithic first occurred, but also its consequences. These often are addressed in relation to the subsequent development of so-called civilizations and the environmental and social impacts that these had, but increasingly there are investigations of the consequences of the Neolithic within itself. These consequences refer to Neolithic societies on both the Near Eastern mainlands and adjacent Mediterranean islands. These include not only economic consequences but also ones related to social organization and complexity, trade, and health and disease. What is apparent is that consequential events during the Neolithic were not linear, following a predictable path. For example, there is strong evidence for substantial environmental deterioration during the Neolithic at sites such as ‘Ain Ghazal in Jordan, where adaptive responses may have included divisions of domestic animal and plant resources. However, in Cyprus, where the Neolithic is now known to be as early as it was on the mainlands, evidence is limited for severe ecological degradation throughout the period. Thus, Neolithic consequences must be examined from a broad perspective, considering both successes and failures.

Article

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.

Article

Worldwide, governments subsidize agriculture at the rate of approximately 1 billion dollars per day. This figure rises to about twice that when export and biofuels production subsidies and state financing for dams and river basin engineering are included. These policies guide land use in numerous ways, including growers’ choices of crop and buyers’ demand for commodities. The three types of state subsidies that shape land use and the environment are land settlement programs, price and income supports, and energy and emissions initiatives. Together these subsidies have created perennial surpluses in global stores of cereal grains, cotton, and dairy, with production increases outstripping population growth. Subsidies to land settlement, to crop prices, and to processing and refining of cereals and fiber, therefore, can be shown to have independent and largely deleterious effect on soil fertility, fresh water supplies, biodiversity, and atmospheric carbon.

Article

The ancient Near East was one of the earliest centers of agriculture in the world, giving rise to domesticated herd animals, cereals, and legumes that today have become primary agricultural staples worldwide. Although much attention has been paid to the origins of agriculture, identifying when, where, and how plants and animals were domesticated, equally important are the social and environmental consequences of agriculture. Shortly after the advent of domestication, agricultural economies quickly replaced hunting and gathering across Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Anatolia. The social and environmental context of this transition has profound implications for understanding the rise of social complexity and incipient urbanism in the Near East. Economic transformation accompanied the expansion of agriculture throughout small-scale societies of the Near East. These farmsteads and villages, as well as mobile pastoral groups, formed the backbone of agricultural production, which enabled tradable surpluses necessary for more expansive, community-scale economic networks. The role of such economies in the development of social complexity remains debated, but they did play an essential role in the rise of urbanism. Cities depended on agricultural specialists, including farmers and herders, to feed urban populations and to enable craft and ritual specializations that became manifest in the first cities of southern Mesopotamia. The environmental implications of these agricultural systems in the Mesopotamian lowlands, especially soil salinization, were equally substantial. The environmental implications of Mesopotamian agriculture are distinct from those accompanying the spread of agriculture to the Levant and Anatolia, where deforestation, erosion, and loss of biodiversity can be identified as the hallmarks of agricultural expansion. Agriculture is intimately connected with the rise of territorial empires across the Near East. Such empires often controlled agricultural production closely, for both economic and strategic ends, but the methods by which they encouraged the production of specific agricultural products and the adoption of particular agricultural strategies, especially irrigation, varied considerably between empires. By combining written records, archaeological data from surveys and excavation, and paleoenvironmental reconstruction, together with the study of plant and animal remains from archaeological sites occupied during multiple imperial periods, it is possible to reconstruct the environmental consequences of imperial agricultural systems across the Near East. Divergent environmental histories across space and time allow us to assess the sustainability of the agricultural policies of each empire and to consider how resulting environmental change contributed to the success or failure of those polities.

Article

Charlene Murphy and Dorian Q. Fuller

South Asia possesses a unique Neolithic transition to agricultural domestication. India has received far less attention in the quest for evidence of early agriculture than other regions of the world traditionally recognized as “centers of domestication” such as southwest Asia, western Asia, China, Mesoamerica, South America, New Guinea, and Africa. Hunter-gatherers with agricultural production appeared around the middle of the Holocene, 4000 to 1500 bce, with the cultivation of domesticates and a correspondingly more sedentary lifestyle emerging at this time. Two thousand years ago South Asia was inhabited by farmers, with densely populated river valleys, coastal plains, urban populations, states, and even empires. While some of the crops that supported these civilizations had been introduced from other regions of the world, a large proportion of these crops had local origins from wild plants native to the subcontinent. As a case study for the origins of agriculture, South Asia has much to offer archaeologists and environmental scientists alike for understanding domestication processes and local transitions from foraging to farming as well as the ways in which early farmers adapted to and transformed the environment and regional vegetation. Information exchange from distant farmers from other agricultural centers into the subcontinent cannot be ruled out. However, it is clear that local agricultural origins occurred via a series of processes, including the dispersal of pastoral and agro-pastoral peoples across regions, the local domestication of animals and plants and the adoption by indigenous hunter-gatherers of food production techniques from neighboring cultures. Indeed, it is posited that local domestication events in India were occurring alongside agricultural dispersals from other parts of the world in an interconnected mosaic of cultivation, pastoralism, and sedentism. As humans in South Asia increasingly relied on a more restricted range of plant species, they became entangled in an increasingly fixed trajectory that allowed greater food production levels to sustain larger populations and support their developing social, cultural and food traditions.

Article

Juha Helenius, Alexander Wezel, and Charles A. Francis

Agroecology can be defined as scientific research on ecological sustainability of food systems. In addressing food production and consumption systems in their entirety, the focus of agroecology is on interactions and processes that are relevant for transitioning and maintaining ecological, economic, political, and social-cultural sustainability. As a field of sustainability science, agroecology explores agriculture and food with explicit linkages to two other widespread interpretations of the concept of agroecology: environmentally sound farming practices and social movements for food security and food sovereignty. In the study of agroecology as science, both farming practices and social movements emerge as integrated components of agroecological research and development. In the context of agroecology, the concept of ecology refers not only to the science of ecology as biological research but also to environmental and social sciences with research on social systems as integrated social and ecological systems. In agroecological theory, all these three are merged so that agroecology can broadly be defined as “human food ecology” or “the ecology of food systems.” Since the last decades of the 20th century many developments have led to an increased emphasis on agroecology in universities, nonprofit organizations, movements, government programs, and the United Nations. All of these have raised a growing attention to ecological, environmental, and social dimensions of farming and food, and to the question of how to make the transition to sustainable farming and food systems. One part of the foundation of agroecology was built during the 1960s when ecologically oriented environmental research on agriculture emerged as the era of optimism about component research began to erode. Largely, this took place as a reaction to unexpected and unwanted ecological and social consequences of the Green Revolution, a post–World War II scaling-up, chemicalization, and mechanization of agriculture. Another part of the foundation was a nongovernmental movement among thoughtful farmers wanting to develop sustainable and more ecological/organic ways of production and the demand by consumers for such food products. Finally, a greater societal acceptance, demand for research and education, and public funding for not only environmental ecology but also for wider sustainability in food and agriculture was ignited by an almost sudden high-level political awakening to the need for sustainable development by the end of 1980s. Agroecology as science evolved from early studies on agricultural ecosystems, from research agendas for environmentally sound farming practices, and from concerns about addressing wider sustainability; all these shared several forms of systems thinking. In universities and research institutions, agroecologists most often work in faculties of food and agriculture. They share resources and projects among scientists having disciplinary backgrounds in genetics (breeding of plants and animals), physiology (crop science, animal husbandry, human nutrition), microbiology or entomology (crop protection), chemistry and physics (soil science, agricultural and food chemistry, agricultural and food technology), economics (of agriculture and food systems), marketing, behavioral sciences (consumer studies), and policy research (agricultural and food policy). While agroecologists clearly have a mandate to address ecology of farmland, its biodiversity, and ecosystem services, one of the greatest added values from agroecology in research communities comes from its wider systems approach. Agroecologists complement reductionist research programs where scientists seek more detailed understanding of detail and mechanisms and put these into context by developing a broader appreciation of the whole. Those in agroecology integrate results from disciplinary research and increase relevance and adoption by introducing transdisciplinarity, co-creation of information and practices, together with other actors in the system. Agroecology is the field in sustainability science that is devoted to food system transformation and resilience. Agroecology uses the concept of “agroecosystem” in broad ecological and social terms and uses these at multiple scales, from fields to farms to farming landscapes and regions. Food systems depend on functioning agroecosystems as one of their subsystems, and all the subsystems of a food system interact through positive and negative feedbacks, in their complex biophysical, sociocultural, and economic dimensions. In embracing wholeness and connectivity, proponents of agroecology focus on the uniqueness of each place and food system, as well as solutions appropriate to their resources and constraints.

Article

Agroecology is a science that applies ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agricultural ecosystems. Inspired by the diversified models of traditional agriculture, agroecologists promote crop diversification (polycultures, crop-livestock combinations, rotations, agroforestry systems, etc.) as an effective agroecological strategy for introducing more biodiversity into agroecosystems, which in turn provides a number of ecological services to farmers, such as natural soil fertility, pest regulation, pollination, and others. The agroecological approach involves the application of blended agricultural and ecological sciences with indigenous knowledge systems. A variety of agroecological and participatory approaches have shown in many rural areas very positive outcomes, even under adverse environmental and socioeconomic conditions. Potentials include raising crop yields and total farm output, increasing stability of production through diversification, enhancing resilience of farms to climate change, improving diets and income, and conservation of the natural resource base and biodiversity. Agroecological principles can also be applied to break the monoculture nature of modern mechanized farms. Strategies include complex crop rotations, cover cropping in vineyards and fruit orchards, strip intercropping, and so on. The ultimate goal is to develop integrated diversified and resilient agroecosystems with minimal dependence on external, off-farm inputs.

Article

Research during the late 20th and early 21st centuries found that traces of human intervention in vegetation in Southeast Asian and Australasian forests started extremely early, quite probably close to the first colonization of the region by modern people around or before 50,000 years ago. It also identified what may be insubstantial evidence for the translocation of economically important plants during the latest Pleistocene and Early Holocene. These activities may reflect early experiments with plants which evolved into agroforestry. Early in the Holocene, land management/food procurement systems, in which trees were a very significant component, seem to have developed over very extensive areas, often underpinned by dispersal of starchy plants, some of which seem to show domesticated morphologies, although the evidence for this is still relatively insubstantial. These land management/food procurement systems might be regarded as a sort of precursor to agroforestry. Similar systems were reported historically during early Western contact, and some agroforest systems survive to this day, although they are threatened in many places by expansion of other types of land use. The wide range of recorded agroforestry makes categorizing impacts problematical, but widespread disruption of vegetational succession across the region during the Holocene can perhaps be ascribed to agroforestry or similar land-management systems, and in more recent times impacts on biodiversity and geomorphological systems can be distinguished. Impacts of these early interventions in forests seem to have been variable and locally contingent, but what seem to have been agroforestry systems have persisted for millennia, suggesting that some may offer long-term sustainability.

Article

Geoffrey L. Taylor and Katherine L. Chiou

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article. The Andean highland region of South America was a center for the domestication of crops and the development of novel agricultural intensification strategies. These advances provided the social and economic foundations for one of the largest pre-Hispanic states in the Americas—the Inca—as well as numerous preceding and contemporaneous cultures. The legacy created by Andean agriculturalists includes terraced and raised fields that remain in use today as well as globally consumed foods including chili pepper (Capsicum spp.), potato (Solanum tuberosum), and quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa). Research on modern forms of traditional agriculture in South America by ethnographers, geographers, and agronomists can be grouped into three general themes: (1) the physical, social, and ritual practices of farming; (2) the environmental impacts of farming; and (3) agrobiodiversity and genetic conservation of crop varieties. Due to conquest by European invaders in the 16th century and the resulting demographic collapse, aspects of native knowledge and traditions were lost. Consequently, much of what is known about pre-Hispanic traditional agricultural practices is derived from archaeological research. To farm the steep mountainous slopes in the quechua and suni zones, native Andean peoples developed a suite of field types ranging from rainfed sloping fields to irrigated bench terracing that flattened the ground to increase surface area, raised soil temperatures, and reduced soil erosion. In the high plains or puna zone, flat wetlands were transformed into a patchwork of alternating raised fields and irrigation canals. By employing this strategy, Andean peoples created microclimates that resisted frost, managed moisture availability, and improved soil nutrient quality. These agricultural approaches cannot be divorced from enduring Andean cosmological and social concepts such as the ayni and minka exchange-labor systems based on reciprocity and the ayllu, a lineage and community group that also integrates the land itself and the wakas (nonhuman agentive beings) that reside there with the people. To understand traditional agriculture in the highland Andes and how it supported large populations in antiquity, facilitated the rapid expansion of the Inca Empire, and created field systems that are still farmed sustainably by populations today, it is essential to examine not only the physical practices themselves, but also the social context surrounding their development and use in ancient and modern times.

Article

Glenn H. Shepard Jr., Eduardo Neves, Charles R. Clement, Helena Lima, Claide Moraes, and Gilton Mendes dos Santos

The tropical lowlands of South America were long thought of as a “counterfeit paradise,” a vast expanse of mostly pristine rainforests with poor soils for farming, limited protein resources, and environmental conditions inimical to the endogenous development of hierarchical human societies. These misconceptions derived largely from a fundamental misunderstanding of the unique characteristics of ancient and indigenous farming and environmental management in lowland South America, which are in turn closely related to the cultural baggage surrounding the term “agriculture.” Archaeological and archaeobotanical discoveries made in the early 21st century have overturned these misconceptions and revealed the true nature of the ancient and traditional food production systems of lowland South America, which involve a complex combination of horticulture, agroforestry, and the management of non-domesticated or incipiently domesticated species in cultural forest landscapes. In this sense, lowland South America breaks the mould of the Old World “farming hypothesis” by revealing cultivation without domestication and domestication without agriculture, a syndrome that has been referred to as “anti-domestication”. These discoveries have contributed to a better understanding of the cultural history of South America, while also suggesting new paradigms of environmental management and food production for the future of this critical and threatened biome.

Article

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.

Article

Saket Pande, Mahendran Roobavannan, Jaya Kandasamy, Murugesu Sivapalan, Daniel Hombing, Haoyang Lyu, and Luuk Rietveld

Water quantity and quality crises are emerging everywhere, and other crises of a similar nature are emerging at several locations. In spite of a long history of investing in sustainable solutions for environmental preservation and improved water supply, these phenomena continue to emerge, with serious economic consequences. Water footprint studies have found it hard to change culture, that is, values, beliefs, and norms, about water use in economic production. Consumption of water-intensive products such as livestock is seen as one main reason behind our degrading environment. Culture of water use is indeed one key challenge to water resource economics and development. Based on a review of socio-hydrology and of societies going all the way back to ancient civilizations, a narrative is developed to argue that population growth, migration, technology, and institutions characterize co-evolution in any water-dependent society (i.e., a society in a water-stressed environment). Culture is proposed as an emergent property of such dynamics, with institutions being the substance of culture. Inclusive institutions, strong diversified economies, and resilient societies go hand in hand and emerge alongside the culture of water use. Inclusive institutions, in contrast to extractive institutions, are the ones where no small group of agents is able to extract all the surplus from available resources at the cost of many. Just as values and norms are informed by changing conditions resulting from population and economic growth and climate, so too are economic, technological, and institutional changes shaped by prevailing culture. However, these feedbacks occur at different scales—cultural change being slower than economic development, often leading to “lock-ins” of decisions that are conditioned by prevailing culture. Evidence-based arguments are presented, which suggest that any attempt at water policy that ignores the key role that culture plays will struggle to be effective. In other words, interventions that are sustainable endogenize culture. For example, changing water policy, for example, by taking water away from agriculture and transferring it to the environment, at a time when an economy is not diversified enough to facilitate the needed change in culture, will backfire. Although the economic models (and policy based on them) are powerful in predicting actions, that is, how people make choices based on how humans value one good versus the other, they offer little on how preferences may change over time. The conceptualization of the dynamic role of values and norms remains weak. The socio-hydrological perspective emphasizes the need to acknowledge the often-ignored, central role of endogenous culture in water resource economics and development.

Article

In 2018 barley accounts for only 5% of the cereal production worldwide, and regionally for up to 40% of cereal production. The cereal represents the oldest crop species and is one of the best adapted crop plants to a broad diversity of climates and environments. Originating from the wild progenitor species Hordeum vulgare ssp. spontaneum, biogeographically located in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East, the domesticated form developed as a founder crop in aceramic Neolithic societies 11,000 years ago, was cultivated in monocultures in Bronze Age Mesopotamia, entered the New World after 1492 ce, reached a state of global distribution in the 1950s and had reached approximately 200 accepted botanical varieties by the year 2000. Its stress tolerance in response to increased aridity and salinity on one hand and adaptability to cool climates on the other, partially explains its broad range of applications for subsistence and economy across different cultures, such as for baking, cooking, beer brewing and as an animal feed. Although the use of fermented starch for producing alcoholic beverages and foods is globally documented in archaeological contexts dating from at least the beginning of the Holocene era, it becomes concrete only in societies with a written culture, such as Bronze Age Mesopotamia and Egypt, where beer played a considerable role in everyday diet and its production represented an important sector of productivity. In 2004 approximately 85% of barley production was destined for feeding animals. However, as a component of the human diet, studies on the health benefits of the micronutrients in barley have found that it has a positive effect on blood cholesterol and glucose levels, and in turn impacts cardiovascular health and diabetes control. The increasing number of barley-breeding programs worldwide focus on improving the processing characteristics, nutritional value, and stress tolerance of barley within the context of global climate change.

Article

Holly Morgan, Saran Sohi, and Simon Shackley

Biochar is a charcoal that is used to improve land rather than as a fuel. Biochar is produced from biomass, usually through the process of pyrolysis. Due to the molecular structure and strength of the chemical bonds, the carbon in biochar is in a stable form and not readily mineralized to CO2 (as is the fate of most of the carbon in biomass). Because the carbon in biochar derives (via photosynthesis) from atmospheric CO2, biochar has the potential to be a net negative carbon technology/carbon dioxide removal option. Biochar is not a single homogeneous material. Its composition and properties (including longevity) differ according to feedstock (source biomass), pyrolysis (production) conditions, and its intended application. This variety and heterogeneity have so far eluded an agreed methodology for calculating biochar’s carbon abatement. Meta-analyses increasingly summarize the effects of biochar in pot and field trials. These results illuminate that biochar may have important agronomic benefits in poorer acidic tropical and subtropical soils, with one study indicating an average 25% yield increase across all trials. In temperate soils the impact is modest to trivial and the same study found no significant impact on crop yield arising from biochar amendment. There is much complexity in matching biochar to suitable soil-crop applications and this challenge has defied development of simple heuristics to enable implementation. Biochar has great potential as a carbon management technology and as a soil amendment. The lack of technically rigorous methodologies for measuring recalcitrant carbon limits development of the technology according to this specific purpose.