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 Home » Tutorials » Geography » Human Geography » Agriculture




Among all primary activities, agriculture is the most important. Nearly half of the world population is still dependent on it. In developing countries, the proportion of people dependent on agriculture is over 65 per cent.

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About 12,000 years ago, the first farmers selected their crops and animals for domestication from the existing flora and fauna, particular to the world’s biomes, and began the cultivation of plants. Different crops and animals were domesticated in different parts of the world, some in more than one place simultaneously.

Despite all the developments since then, humans are still dependent basically on the choices made by people in particular climatic regions thousands of years ago. Only about 20 crops out of several thousands species of wild plants are grown the world over as the major food sources. It is clear from the brief description below that the initial selections were influenced by the climate and the natural vegetation. The distribution of biomes reflects the distribution of solar radiation, temperature and rainfall resulting in the spread of vegetation types from equatorial forest to the tundra of the sub-Arctic and the high mountains. This broad climatic framework is still the main influence on the pattern of agriculture, though the limits of growing particular crops have now changed under human influence.

With the beginning of agriculture, the nomadic herding gave way to a comparatively settled life. The most primitive form of agriculture is known as shifting cultivation, which still persists in some parts of the world. It is mainly practiced in the tropical forests. Trees are cut and burnt to make a clearing in the forests. Using simplest tools, fields are prepared for planting crops. After a few years of crop production, the soils get exhausted. These fields are then left fallow and new clearings are made in the forest. This kind of cultivation is known by different names in different parts of the world e.g. as Jhuming in the north-east India, Chengin in Philippines, Roka in Brazil and Masole in Democratic Republic of the Congo. Though, shifting cultivation is also migratory in nature, it allowed people to stay in a place for a longer duration.

Subsequently, sedentary agricultural systems with permanent fields and villages emerged in areas of favourable climate and fertile soils. Great civilisations were built on the foundation of sedentary agriculture in the fertile river valleys – the Euphrates, the Tigris, the Nile, the Indus, the Huang He and the Chang Jiang, about 6,000 years ago. Gradually, the sedentary system of agriculture spread over most parts of the world.

The industrial revolution, which took place in the eighteenth century in Europe, influenced Asia, Africa and Latin America indirectly. It boosted agricultural production in Europe and changed the cropping pattern in the Asian, African and Latin American colonies. These colonies specialised in the production of crops such as cotton, sugarcane, rice, tea, coffee and rubber, which were processed in the European factories. As demands for these crops grew in Europe, the large-scale commercial farming of some of these crops, commonly known as plantation agriculture, was started. Large estates of monocrop were established. They were managed scientifically with the sole objective of export or trading for earning money.

One of the effects of colonisation was worldwide diffusion and exchange of several species of plants and animals. For example, potatoes, a native of the Andes, flourished in the cool damp environment of the northern Europe and soon became a world crop. Similarly, corn (maize) spread across the world to become the third most widely grown grain after rice and wheat.

The industrial revolution in Europe provided more efficient and more specialised agricultural implements such as plough, reaper, threshing machines, harvesters, tractors and milking machines. They changed the character, scale and geography of agricultural production. In North America, mechanisation enabled farmers to expand and specialise in the production of commodities that could be sold for the maximum profit. Thus specialised commercial agricultural systems emerged there, which gave rise to distinct crop regions—wheat belt, cotton belt, corn belt, dairy farming and truck farming (fruits and vegetables) regions. In other parts of the world also, similar technological revolutions brought power driven machines. In addition, adoption of hybrid seeds, chemical fertilisers and pesticides increased the yield of crops dramatically in many areas, though at varying rates.

Plant dispersal and industrialisation of agriculture improved agricultural production profoundly. Large number of people were freed to pursue other economic activities because high yields could be achieved with less number of people and using scientific and technological innovations. The industrialised countries of the world, therefore, witnessed a perceptible shift of population from primary activities to secondary and tertiary activities in a sequential manner viewed as a sign of economic development, though in developing countries employment structure has moved directly from primary to tertiary sectors.

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