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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.
Tamara Shapiro Ledley, Juliette Rooney-Varga, and Frank Niepold
The scientific community has made the urgent need to mitigate climate change clear and, with the ratification of the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the international community has formally accepted ambitious mitigation goals. However, a wide gap remains between the aspirational emissions reduction goals of the Paris Agreement and the real-world pledges and actions of nations that are party to it. Closing that emissions gap can only be achieved if a similarly wide gap between scientific and societal understanding of climate change is also closed.
Several fundamental aspects of climate change make clear both the need for education and the opportunity it offers. First, addressing climate change will require action at all levels of society, including individuals, organizations, businesses, local, state, and national governments, and international bodies. It cannot be addressed by a few individuals with privileged access to information, but rather requires transfer of knowledge, both intellectually and affectively, to decision-makers and their constituents at all levels. Second, education is needed because, in the case of climate change, learning from experience is learning too late. The delay between decisions that cause climate change and their full societal impact can range from decades to millennia. As a result, learning from education, rather than experience, is necessary to avoid those impacts.
Climate change and sustainability represent complex, dynamic systems that demand a systems thinking approach. Systems thinking takes a holistic, long-term perspective that focuses on relationships between interacting parts, and how those relationships generate behavior over time. System dynamics includes formal mapping and modeling of systems, to improve understanding of the behavior of complex systems as well as how they respond to human or other interventions. Systems approaches are increasingly seen as critical to climate change education, as the human and natural systems involved in climate change epitomize a complex, dynamic problem that crosses disciplines and societal sectors.
A systems thinking approach can also be used to examine the potential for education to serve as a vehicle for societal change. In particular, education can enable society to benefit from climate change science by transferring scientific knowledge across societal sectors. Education plays a central role in several processes that can accelerate social change and climate change mitigation. Effective climate change education increases the number of informed and engaged citizens, building social will or pressure to shape policy, and building a workforce for a low-carbon economy. Indeed, several climate change education efforts to date have delivered gains in climate and energy knowledge, affect, and/or motivation. However, society still faces challenges in coordinating initiatives across audiences, managing and leveraging resources, and making effective investments at a scale that is commensurate with the climate change challenge. Education is needed to promote informed decision-making at all levels of society.
Zhanqing Li, Daniel Rosenfeld, and Jiwen Fan
Aerosols (tiny solid or liquid particles suspended in the atmosphere) have been in the forefront of environmental and climate change sciences as the primary atmospheric pollutant and external force affecting Earth’s weather and climate. There are two dominant mechanisms by which aerosols affect weather and climate: aerosol-radiation interactions (ARIs) and aerosol-cloud interactions (ACIs). ARIs arise from aerosol scattering and absorption, which alter the radiation budgets of the atmosphere and surface, while ACIs are connected to the fact that aerosols serve as cloud condensation nuclei and ice nuclei. Both ARIs and ACIs are coupled with atmospheric dynamics to produce a chain of complex interactions with a large range of meteorological variables that influence both weather and climate. Elaborated here are the impacts of aerosols on the radiation budget, clouds (microphysics, structure, and lifetime), precipitation, and severe weather events (lightning, thunderstorms, hail, and tornadoes). Depending on environmental variables and aerosol properties, the effects can be both positive and negative, posing the largest uncertainties in the external forcing of the climate system. This has considerably hindered the ability to project future climate changes and make accurate numerical weather predictions.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Marianne Bechmann and Per Stålnacke
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.
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.
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.
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.
John M. Marston
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.
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
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.
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.
Miguel A. Altieri
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.
Aijun Ding, Xin Huang, and Congbin Fu
Air pollution is one of the grand environmental challenges in developing countries, especially those with high population density like China. High concentrations of primary and secondary trace gases and particulate matter (PM) are frequently observed in the industrialized and urbanized regions, causing negative effects on the health of humans, plants, and the ecosystem.
Meteorological conditions are among the most important factors influencing day-to-day air quality. Synoptic weather and boundary layer dynamics control the dispersion capacity and transport of air pollutants, while the main meteorological parameters, such as air temperature, radiation, and relative humidity, influence the chemical transformation of secondary air pollutants at the same time. Intense air pollution, especially high concentration of radiatively important aerosols, can substantially influence meteorological parameters, boundary layer dynamics, synoptic weather, and even regional climate through their strong radiative effects.
As one of the main monsoon regions, with the most intense human activities in the world, East Asia is a region experiencing complex air pollution, with sources from anthropogenic fossil fuel combustion, biomass burning, dust storms, and biogenic emissions. A mixture of these different plumes can cause substantial two-way interactions and feedbacks in the formation of air pollutants under various weather conditions. Improving the understanding of such interactions needs more field measurements using integrated multiprocess measurement platforms, as well as more efforts in developing numerical models, especially for those with online coupled processes. All these efforts are very important for policymaking from the perspectives of environmental protection and mitigation of climate change.
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.
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.
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.
Jan Zalasiewicz and Colin Waters
The Anthropocene hypothesis—that humans have impacted “the environment” but also changed the Earth’s geology—has spread widely through the sciences and humanities. This hypothesis is being currently tested to see whether the Anthropocene may become part of the Geological Time Scale. An Anthropocene Working Group has been established to assemble the evidence. The decision regarding formalization is likely to be taken in the next few years, by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the body that oversees the Geological Time Scale. Whichever way the decision goes, there will remain the reality of the phenomenon and the utility of the concept.
The evidence, as outlined here, rests upon a broad range of signatures reflecting humanity’s significant and increasing modification of Earth systems. These may be visible as markers in physical deposits in the form of the greatest expansion of novel minerals in the last 2.4 billion years of Earth history and development of ubiquitous materials, such as plastics, unique to the Anthropocene. The artefacts we produce to live as modern humans will form the technofossils of the future. Human-generated deposits now extend from our natural habitat on land into our oceans, transported at rates exceeding the sediment carried by rivers by an order of magnitude. That influence now extends increasingly underground in our quest for minerals, fuel, living space, and to develop transport and communication networks. These human trace fossils may be preserved over geological durations and the evolution of technology has created a new technosphere, yet to evolve into balance with other Earth systems.
The expression of the Anthropocene can be seen in sediments and glaciers in chemical markers. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by ~45 percent above pre–Industrial Revolution levels, mainly through combustion, over a few decades, of a geological carbon-store that took many millions of years to accumulate. Although this may ultimately drive climate change, average global temperature increases and resultant sea-level rises remain comparatively small, as yet. But the shift to isotopically lighter carbon locked into limestones and calcareous fossils will form a permanent record. Nitrogen and phosphorus contents in surface soils have approximately doubled through increased use of fertilizers to increase agricultural yields as the human population has also doubled in the last 50 years. Industrial metals, radioactive fallout from atomic weapons testing, and complex organic compounds have been widely dispersed through the environment and become preserved in sediment and ice layers.
Despite radical changes to flora and fauna across the planet, the Earth still has most of its complement of biological species. However, current trends of habitat loss and predation may push the Earth into the sixth mass extinction event in the next few centuries. At present the dramatic changes relate to trans-global species invasions and population modification through agricultural development on land and contamination of coastal zones.
Considering the entire range of environmental signatures, it is clear that the global, large and rapid scale of change related to the mid-20th century is the most obvious level to consider as the start of the Anthropocene Epoch.