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Unit 7: Agriculture // Section 1: Introduction

Agriculture is the human enterprise by which natural ecosystems are transformed into ones devoted to the production of food, fiber, and, increasingly, fuel. Given the current size of the human population, agriculture is essential. Without the enhanced production of edible biomass that characterizes agricultural systems, there would simply not be enough to eat. The land, water, and energy resources required to support this level of food production, however, are vast. Thus agriculture represents a major way in which humans impact terrestrial ecosystems.

For centuries scholars have wrestled with the question of how many people Earth can feed. In 1798 English political economist Thomas Robert Malthus published what would become one of the most famous pamphlets in social science, An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus proposed that because population tended to increase at a geometric (exponential) rate, while food supplies could only grow at an arithmetic rate, all living creatures tended to increase beyond their available resources.

"Man is necessarily confined in room," Malthus argued. "When acre has been added to acre till all fertile land is occupied, the yearly increase of food must depend upon the melioration of the land already in possession. This is a fund; which, from the nature of all soils, instead of increasing must gradually be decreasing" (footnote 1). The resulting scarcity, he predicted, would limit human population growth through both "positive checks," such as poverty, diseases, wars, and famines, and self-imposed "negative checks," including late marriage and sexual abstinence.

In terms of global food production, however, Malthus has so far been proved wrong because his essay failed to take into account the ways in which agricultural productivity of cultivated lands, measured in terms of harvested (typically edible) biomass, could be enhanced. Agriculture involves the genetic modification of plant and animal species, as well as the manipulation of resource availability and species interactions. Scientific and technological advances have made agriculture increasingly productive by augmenting the resources needed to support photosynthesis and by developing plants and animals with enhanced capacity to convert such resources into a harvestable form. The outcome is that world food production has in fact kept up with rapid population growth. Gains have been especially dramatic in the past 50 years (Fig. 1).

World food production, 1961–1996 (measured as the sum of cereals, coarse grains, and root crops)

Figure 1. World food production, 1961–1996 (measured as the sum of cereals, coarse grains, and root crops)
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Source: David Tilman.

But these gains carry with them serious environmental costs. Large-scale agriculture has reduced biodiversity, fragmented natural ecosystems, diverted or polluted fresh water resources, and altered the nutrient balance of adjacent and downstream ecosystems. Agriculture also consumes major amounts of energy and generates greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change. However, these negative impacts must be weighed against human demand for food, as well as the fact that agriculture is the primary livelihood for 40 percent of the human population. In some countries, more than 80 percent of the population makes a livelihood from farming, so increasing agricultural productivity not only makes more food available but also increases incomes and living standards.

The future impacts of agriculture will depend on many factors, including world demand for food, the availability and cost of resources needed to support high levels of productivity, and technological advances to make agriculture more efficient. Global climate change is expected to alter temperature, precipitation, and weather patterns worldwide, thus changing many fundamental conditions that guide current agricultural practice. (For more details, see Unit 12, "Earth's Changing Climate.")

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