Agriculture

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From time immemorial, agricultural practices are employed by man for the production of food and goods through farming techniques. With domestication of plants (crops) and animals (livestocks) human civilizations have risen and flourished. Agriculture is a broad term used to denote methods and products evolved by use of a wide variety of specialties and techniques. It shows ways to expand, explore and exploit the lands for plant and animal raising, and methods to transport water to the land and also means of harvesting water.

Wheat ready for harvest
Sheep and shepherd in India

Contents

Farming overview

Main article: Agriculture overview

Agriculture includes a wide range of specialties, practices and techniques, including means to expand the suitability of lands and make them arable for raising crops, making means for irrigating the developed land.
The basic foundation of farming has been raising plants and crops on the land made arable and herding livestock on pastures and ranches. In the past sixty years methods have been evolved to identify various farming activities and also to quantify them. Farming concept has changed from ancient and tribal 'slash and burn cultivation' (shifting cultivation) into industrial agriculture. Farming concepts like organic farming, green farming, rotation of crops, inter-cropping, and other sustainable agricultural practices are being evolved.
Modern agronomy, biotechnology, plant breeding, organic manures and fertilizers, pesticides and biological control of insects, technological improvements in harvesting and processing, storage and transportation, and marketing and distribution have made the food production to become surplus in many developed and developing countries.

However the present starvation in the developing countries is the result of falling purchasing power of the people (development and growth becoming vertical and getting restricted to small section of the society) and defective distribution mechanism. The improvements in farm production have simultaneously, brought in land degradation, environmental damage and peaking of yield with the feared slide in yields. These are the very important issues to be immediately look into to avert a global disaster.

Farming history

Main article: History of agriculture

The history of agriculture dates back to 10,000 years. Farming developed independently in many parts of the world. The transition of man from hunter-gatherer to farmer is believed to have taken place soon after the last known ice age. Many hypotheses and theories have been proposed by many historians and anthropologists. Man became increasingly sedentary and the food gathered was becoming insufficient. He started protecting wild plants and domesticating them. Some scholars consider this as co-evolutionary adaptation of humans and plants. However to exactly identify the origin of agriculture is not possible as the farming practices were existing before the invention of 'writing'. Archaeological and anthropological evidence from ancient sites across North Africa and Asia suggest the use of wild variety of grains. From 9500 BC onwards there is clear evidence of use of flax, emmer wheat, chickpeas, enikorn wheat, bitter vetch, hulled barley, lentils and peas by the settlers of PPNB (Pre-Pottery Neolithic B) sites in the Levent (Eastern Mediterranean). Farming was well established on the banks of Nile River by 6000 BC. All the civilizations (3000 BC -2000 BC) in the Middle East and West Asian regions had well established farming practices.

Great Britain saw a massive development in farming productivity from 16th centery onwards. Rapid mechanisation in the later part of 19th centuary propelled the development of farming industry and by the end 20th century many nations were reaching self-sufficiency in food production.

Modern farming

Main article: Modern agriculture

A modern tractor with chisel-plough

In 1492, with the first voyage of Christopher Columbus to Americas, a large scale exchange of fauna and flora occurred between the New and Old Worlds. Major native crops like potato, maize and tobaco were introduced into Europe, Africa and Asia, whereas crops like sugarcane and wheat were introduced to Americas. This has lead to drastic changes in the farming practices in the whole world, even changing the food habits of the resident populations.

19th and 20th centuries saw the mechanization in farming equipments and tractor in particular was very useful in extensive farming. The synthesis of Ammonium nitrate by Haber-Bosch method helped in increasing crop yields by many folds. In the later half of the 20th century pesticides, Selective breeding and biotechnology have further contributed to the yield of crops. The modern farming methods also brought in negative factors like loss soil productivity, pesticide resistant pests, excess use of water and water shortages. With mechanization in many aspects of agriculture, the farming work-force is steadily getting replaced by machinery, leading to unemployment and poverty in plenty.

Agricultural resources

Main article: Agricultural resources

The very important foundations of agriculture are investment, land (soil), water, seeds, climate, tools and implements, fertilizers, agro-chemicals and farmers. Suitable land is the first prerequisite for farming. Different types of agricultural lands are necessary for various farming activities like cultivation of crops (arable land), plantations (land under perennial crops) and livestock raising (pastures and ranches).

Water is the very basis of farming. The quantity of its availability decides a region's cropping patterns. Depending upon the availability of water for irrigation agricultural regions are divided into irrigated or non-irrigated (rain-fed) lands.

For successful farming quality seeds are of high importance. The lineage of the seed, which contributes to the plants yield, its resistance to pest and diseases, its vigor and its germination percentage, plays a major role in increasing the productivity.

Climatic conditions of a region decide about the suitability of a particular crop for that region. Farming equipments and their availability has a direct effect on the crop production. The last, but not the least is the availability of farm hands with know-how for successful farming.

Crop production systems

Main article: Crop production system

The availability of resources and the constraints in the availability of any particular resource decide about the crop production systems of the farm. Other deciding factors for a crop production system are the climate and geography of the farm, socio-economic pressures, political pressures and the policy of the government. Various crop production systems like shifting cultivation, annual crops, perennial crops, mono-cultures, poly-cultures, inter-cropping, extensive farming, intensive farming, agro-forestery, urban agriculture and sustainable agriculture have evolved.

Crop statistics

Main article: Crop statistics

For a rational growth of agriculture, a record of the crop and livestock production and its value is necessary for current and future advices and planning. Farmers usually have less information than the commodity buyers about the detailed market information and these circumstances quite often prevent the producers from getting optimum price for their produce. In such circumstances farmers depend greatly on governmental advices for future planning.

Crop statistics on acreage of land, production, previous and current stocks, current prices and predicted future prices and the value are very essential for the operation of government programs on farming. This statistical data is very important for devising policies and programs relating to conservation, consumer protection, trade, environment and education. Statistical analysts interpret this information to project future trends and economic implications. Evaluations of future alternative methods for the farmers, agricultural businesses and policy makers can be arrived at with agricultural statistics.

Livestock production systems

Main article: Livestock production systems

The term livestock not only refers to domesticated animals used for milk production, fiber (wool) and food but also all animals raised for use in farming activities like cultivation, harvesting, transport and security. The animals raised for human recreation and companionship may also be included under livestock. Livestock production systems typically based on grasslands are useful for feeding ruminant livestock. In the mixed livestock production system apart from use of grasslands, grain feed crops and fodder crops are raised to feed the animals. Both these systems produce manure, which can be used in crop production systems. Landless livestock production systems have only feedlots and totally depend on feed from outside. Many crop production systems are tuned to cater to these needs.

Good agricultural practices

Main article: Good agricultural practices

Good agricultural production practices are methods employed for pre production and post farm production, resulting in healthy and safe food and other produce, while taking care of economic viability and environmental and social sustainability. Good agricultural production practices should produce safe, sufficient and nutritious food efficiently and economically. In the recent years the concept of Good agricultural production practices have changed in tune with rapid changes in farming, globalization trade and agricultural crisis like nitrate pollution of water, food crisis, soil degradation and erosion and pesticide resistance. There are separate good agricultural production practices in relation to the resources like land and water, animal welfare and public health care.

Processing of produce

Main article: Agricultural products processing

Production is only half the battle. When the crops mature, they have to be harvested, cleaned, stored and protected to realize good market price. Harvesting can be manual or with combine harvesters. The harvested crop has to go through initial processing to keep its quality. The harvested ears of crop have to be threshed manually or mechanically to separate them from hay, panicles and other waste materials. The harvested crop has to be dried to protect it from bio-degradation. With the availability of nutrients and warmth, molds attack the grain and release mycotoxins which are harmful to humans and animals. The grains with high moisture also attract insect pests which can degrade the grains and make them unfit for consumption. Depending upon the economic situation, traditional sun drying or noval mechanical drying is resorted to.

If the produce is not to be marketed immediately, it has to be stored properly either at farm level or in modern warehouses. In hot climates the stored produce is susceptible to insect and rodent pests. Plantation products have different harvesting and storage methods. The animal products have to undergo altogether a very different processing and storage method.

Transportation and distribution

Main article: Agricultural distribution

Transport is a necessity, allowing agricultural production and consumption of the produce to occur at different places. Moving produce from the farms to warehouses, between regional, national and international facilities and then to distributors and consumers can add logistics cost to produce and make the product available in the market at many times the procurement price. With the advent of modern supply chain management system a detailed planning is necessary for transportation and distribution of any produce to cut down the cost of the product at the comsumer level. The produce should reach the comsumer safely and efficiently with the shortest channel formed for savings on the costs.

Agricultural marketing

Main article: Agricultural marketing

Agricultural marketing involves the services for moving the agricultural produce from the production location to consumer. These series of activities which are inter-connected involve production planning, producing, harvesting, grading and packaging, transportation, storage, distribution and sale. These agricultural marketing systems are dynamic and competitive, undergoing continuous improvement and change. The intermediate services that have lower costs, are very efficient and deliver quality products, quickly, prosper. The services with high costs and the services which are inefficient fade from the market. Efficient agricultural marketing infrastructure like assembly markets, retail and wholesale markets and warehouse facilities is very essential for marketing to be cost effective. These services must also minimize post-harvest loses for the farmer and reduce health risks for the consumer.

In a nutshell marketing has to be consumer oriented and at the same time should be economically viable for the farmer, with transporter, processor and trader making minimal profit.

Agricultural biotechnology

Main article: Agricultural biotechnology

Since its inception, the methods and processes of agriculture have been refined by other biological and mechanical sciences. The farmers were selecting the best crops with high yields and producing more food for growing human population. Inadvertently, farmers were altering the genetics of plants by introducing them to different environments and breeding and hybridizing them with other plants. Then the fermentation process was discovered by man and utilised in many food modification processes. Development of antibiotics owes its origin to biotechnological works of Alexander Fleming in discovering the use of the mold Penicillium.

Modern biotechnology has made significant advances in plant breeding by developing disease resistant, drought resistant and high-yielding crops. Hybridization and genetic modification have thrown open immense possibilities for research efforts for producing organisms with characteristics, either for the good or for the harm of human beings. Crops are being modified genetically to get herbicide-tolerant GM crops (soybean) and insect-resistant GM crops (cotton).

Agricultural engineering

Main article: Agricultural engineering

Agricultural engineering is the discipline that applies science and technology to production and processing of farm produce. Agricultural engineering has a broad scope, combining the knowledge and principles of disciplines like animal and plant biology, civil, mechanical and chemical engineering with agricultural principles. Agricultural engineering is useful in designing, building and improving agricultural equipment, machinery and agricultural structures. Its principles are utilised for irrigation and water and soil conservation methods. In every aspect of agriculture like land development, tillage, seeding, irrigation, drainage, removing weeds, fertilizer and pesticide application, harvesting, threshing, drying, storage, transportation and marketing agricultural engineering principles are applied for finding a methodology and building necessary equipment and structures.

Genetic engineering

Main article: Genetics

DNA structure

The appearance and function of a living organism is preplanned in its genes. Though for thousands of years, humans have been altering the genomes of plant and animal species, it was from outside, by artificial selection for traits like higher yield and disease resistance. Later on by mutagenesis using chemicals and radiation the chromosome material was altered during cell division creating triploid and tetraploid organisms having some of the plant characteristics getting exaggerated. All these developments were from outside and without altering genes or DNA, the genetic material in the cells.

Genetic modification or genetic engineering is manipulation of genetic material of an organism by humans, in a way different from its occurrence under normal and natural condition. Organism which is genetically engineered is called genetically modified organism (GMO). If the genetic material is sourced from another species, the resultant organism is called transgenic and if the genetic material is from the same species, the resultant GMO is called cisgenic. In 1973, bacteria were the first genetically engineered organisms and later in 1974 genetically modified mice were produced. Production of genetically modified organisms involves a lengthy process. Genetically modified herbicide tolerant soybean and tobacco and pest resistant cotton plants are already under commercial production.

Genetically enginered plants and their introduction and use has become controversial. GM plants with sterile seeds (terminator seeds), patent and ownership of the GM seeds and restriction on use of seeds obtained from GM plants have risen many issues among ecologists, economists and farmers requiring a well defined global policy.

Synthia, the first synthetic bacterial life form, was created in 2010, by scientists at J. Craig Venter Institute, by adding the first synthetically created bacterial genome to a cell devoid of DNA.

Global food security

Main article: Global food security

starving children

Global food security refers to availability of food to the world's population and their access to it. When the members of a household do not live in fear of starvation or hunger, the household is considered to be food secure. World's per capita food production, for the past decade, has been increasing substantially. Though the food availability has increased, its affordability has decreased due to more people getting pushed into poverty. Due to varying levels of poverty, globally more than 2 billion people are not having food security. More than 800 million people, due to extreme hunger, are chronically hungry. Many countries are perpetually affected with problems like food shortages and inefficient distribution. These result in widespread and chronic hunger amongst majority of the population.

The interconnection between hunger and poverty has to be understood for their eradication. Food insecure people undergo malnutrition and hunger, which diminish theirs ability to earn a livelihood, starting a fresh cycle of poverty and hunger.

Sustainable agriculture

Main article: Sustainable agriculture

The practice of integrating ecological requirements with the immediate as well as long term vision of human requirements of animal and plant production is 'sustainable agriculture'.

Though the 'green revolution' increased the food production to meet the immediate food requirements of many countries, it did not address the resulted problems like soil degradation, top soil depletion and agricultural run-off, loss of bio-diversity, increased cost of production and social imbalances. Many social and environmental issues have cropped up due to intensive as well as extensive farming.

Sustainable farming practices are envisaged to maintain environmental health, economic viability and socio-economic equity of the producers as well as consumers.

Climate change and agriculture

Main article: Agriculture and climate change

Climate change refers to changes in the climate system over a long period of time. However in the context of our topic we can specifically use the term for the changes induced by the human activity.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change defines climate change as "a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods."

Though industrial production contributes to the climate change, agriculture (including animal husbandry) also contribute substantially to the climate change, mostly by release of greenhouse gases.

Agricultural economics

Main article: Agricultural economics

Agricultural economics (also known as agronomics) is the social science that analyzes the production, distribution, and consumption of agricultural goods and services.

Agricultural economics is essential for resource creation, resource allocation, planning for risk and uncertainty, establishment of agricultural supply and consumption chains, fixing of prices of commodities, market structures, development of agricultural trade and arriving at the viability of farm practices.

Farm energy

Main article: Farm energy
A wind turbine

For farming industry, energy is one of the most important requirements. All the farming inputs like irrigation, fertilizers and manures and pesticides require energy as the basic component. So all the activities must be energy efficient and sourced as far as posssible from renewable energy sources like wind, solar and hydro energy.

Agricultural residues, wastes and manures can be converted into biogas and methane by anaerobic digestion. These bio fuel can be used to generate heat and electricity.

Agricultural education

Main article: Agricultural education

Modern trends in farming are replacing the age old traditional farming knowledge passed on to the younger generations in the farming families. Agricultural education now embraces various aspects of agriculture like agricultural production, animal husbandry, agricultural engineering and environmental studies.

Agricultural education is imparted at various levels in schools and colleges. Colleges and universities catering to higher level of agricultural education have come up. There are programmes to educate the farmers to increase productivity and achieve better farming practices.

Agricultural policy

Main article: Agricultural policy

International cooperation and competition have made nations to enact certain regulatory acts to govern their imports and exports. To protect the interests of their farmers and also their consumer population, agricultural policies have been formulated from time to time by nations for catering to the particular situation and need.

Agricultural policy usually describes a set of laws pertaining to import of agricultural products from other countries and also export of agricultural products to other countries.

In domestic agriculture, agricultural policies are enacted and implemented to stabilize prices, ensure supplies and product quality, implement regional product selection for the particular crop season, ensure proper land use and encourage growth in rural employment.

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Author: Mahmood Syed Faheem
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