Farming is the set of techniques used to grow plants in order to obtain food, drink, fiber, energy, raw material for clothing, buildings, medicines, tools, or just for aesthetic contemplation (landscaping).
A person who works in farming is called a farmer. The term fazendeiro (en-BR) or lavrador (en-PT) applies to the owner of rural land where agriculture, livestock, or both are usually practiced. The science that studies the characteristics of plants and soils to improve agricultural techniques is called agronomy.
Etymology And Terminology
The prefix agro originates from the Latin word agru meaning “cultivated or cultivable land.” The word “agriculture” comes from the Latin agricultūra, composed of ager (field, territory) and cultūra (cultivation), in the strict sense of cultivating the soil.
In Portuguese, the word “agricultura” kept this strict sense and refers exclusively to the cultivation of fields, that is, it is related to the production of vegetables. However, in English, as well as in French, the word “agriculture” indicates more generally the agricultural activities of both field cultivation and animal husbandry. A closer translation of agriculture would therefore be farming; it is therefore a “misleading cognate,” a concept often confused with false cognate. “Cognate” means “of the same (etymological) origin”, so “agriculture” and “farming” are cognates simply because they have the same origin, regardless of the distinct meaning.
The beginning of agricultural activities separates the Neolithic period from the immediately preceding, chipped stone age period. Since they predate written history, the beginnings of agriculture are obscure, but it is admitted that it arose independently in different places around the world, probably in river valleys and floodplains inhabited by ancient civilizations. Between ten and twelve thousand years ago, during prehistoric times, in the Neolithic or polished stone period, some individuals from hunter-gatherer peoples noticed that some grains that were gathered from nature for their food could be buried, that is, “sown” in order to produce new plants like the ones that originated them. The first systems of cultivation and farming appeared in a few, relatively small and sparse regions of the planet. These first forms of agriculture were certainly practiced near dwellings and alluvial river flows, i.e. land already fertilized and thus not requiring deforestation.
This practice allowed the food supply of these people to increase, plants began to be grown in close proximity to each other. This was because they could produce fruit, which was easily harvested when ripe, which allowed the cultivated plants to be more productive than their natural habitat. Thus the frequent and dangerous foraging trips were avoided. Over time, the first farmers selected among the wild grains those that had the characteristics that most interested them, such as size, productivity, flavor, and others. Thus came the cultivation of the first domesticated plants, among which wheat and barley are included. During the Neolithic period, the main agricultural areas were located in the valleys of the rivers Nile (Egypt), Tigris and Euphrates (Mesopotamia, now known as Iraq) and Yellow and Blue rivers (China).
5,000 years ago, when Neolithic agriculture reached only the Atlantic, the North Sea, the Baltic, Siberia, the Ganges valley and the great African equatorial forest, the regions closest to this center, in western Asia, eastern Europe and northern Africa, had long been cultivated and roamed by herds. The Nile River overflowed each year between July and October. The ebb crops were grown after the receding waters, when the soils were soaked and enriched by the alluvial deposits, and the harvest took place in the spring. Cultivation is recorded in at least three different regions of the world at different times: Mesopotamia (possibly by the Natufian culture), Central America (by pre-Columbian cultures), and in the watersheds of China and India.
After World War II, the world’s agricultural production increased significantly due to the widespread use of various technologies.
Beginning in the 20th century, intensive agriculture increased productivity. It substituted synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for labor, but caused increased water pollution and often involved agricultural subsidies. In recent years, there has been a backlash against the environmental effects of conventional agriculture, resulting in organic, regenerative, and sustainable farming movements. One of the main forces behind this movement has been the European Union, which first certified organic food in 1991 and began reforming its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in 2005 to eliminate agricultural subsidies linked to commodities, also known as decoupling. The growth of organic farming has renewed research into alternative technologies such as integrated pest management, selective breeding (artificial selection), and controlled environment farming.
The predominant recent technological developments include genetically modified foods. Demand for non-food crops for biofuel production, development of former agricultural land, rising transportation costs, the impact of climate change on agriculture, growing consumer demand in China and India, and population growth threaten food security in many parts of the world.
The International Fund for Agricultural Development posits that an increase in family farming may be part of the solution to food price concerns and overall food security, given Vietnam’s favorable experience. Soil degradation/erosion and diseases affecting crops are major concerns worldwide; approximately 40% of the world’s agricultural land is severely degraded.
In 2015, China’s agricultural production was the highest in the world, followed by the European Union, India, and the United States. Economists measure the total factor productivity of agriculture, and by this measure, agriculture in the United States is approximately 1.7 times more productive than in 1948.
Many advances in the study and creation of new techniques and technologies applied to agriculture have allowed an increase in agricultural productivity. The main ones were:
Tractors, planters, and harvesters replaced animal traction and steam engines. The mechanization of the field made it possible to use machines in almost all phases of cultivation.
The use of chemicals for pest control, especially in developed countries. These pests can range from insects to animals such as rabbits and mice, as well as weeds and organisms such as bacteria, viruses, and disease-causing fungi. With the use of chemicals, crop losses and commodity prices have dropped dramatically.
Fertilization and replacement of nutrients in the soil. Scientists have discovered that the essential elements for plant growth are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Currently, a large proportion of farmers use chemical fertilizers with nitrates and phosphates to significantly increase crop yields.
Irrigation as a way of controlling the level of humidity in crops. With irrigation techniques, farmers have been able to control factors that were previously crucial to agricultural production, such as the frequency and quantity of rainfall. The various types of irrigation allow – for those who have access to them – that a long dry spell no longer represents the loss of a crop, as occurred in the past.
Genetic modification of seeds and plants. Biotechnology applied to agriculture allows genes to be reorganized and new ones to be added with the aim of ensuring resistance to diseases and pests and increasing crop productivity. These are genetically modified organisms – GMOs or transgenics – which are widely used in commercial agriculture and are common in developed countries.
Agricultural activities, in general, can be classified according to cultivation techniques and the distribution of their products. Agricultural systems, however, can essentially be divided into two major groups:
A system that presents high productivity and is carried out on large tracts of land (latifundios). Crops are rotated, fertilizers are used, and seeds and species are selected. The production, which is mechanized, presents a high yield per hectare. The labor force is qualified. It is common in developed countries, and in underdeveloped countries the production is usually destined for export to rich countries.
In this mode, productivity is low, small land extensions (minifundios) are cultivated, and simple or more rudimentary techniques are used. The soil is used continuously, without rest or crop rotation, thus provoking its exhaustion. Production is carried out by unskilled labor. It is common in underdeveloped countries where modernization techniques have not yet been mastered, although export-oriented agriculture in these countries has gradually changed this panorama.
Main Types of Agriculture
Subsistence Agriculture or Family Farming
Subsistence agriculture, also called family farming, corresponds to agricultural production developed by families, whose income is all directed to their own subsistence. Generally, these families live on the same land on which they develop the agricultural activity.
In this type of farming, fertilizers and soil adaptation techniques are not used. In general, the land used for subsistence agriculture is small farms. It is worth noting that it represents about 80% of the world’s food production, and is extremely important for the economy.
Commercial Agriculture Or Modern Agriculture
Commercial agriculture, also called modern agriculture or agribusiness, is characterized by developing its agricultural activity through monoculture produced on a large scale and on large properties. In addition, it uses modern farming techniques, such as fertilizers, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, transgenic seeds, machinery, and skilled labor.
Commercial agriculture uses technology in favor of higher productivity in the field and eliminates much of the human labor, which leads to rural exodus and consequent urbanization.
The Organic Agriculture Association defines organic production as a productive process committed to organic and sanitary production of living foods, to guarantee the health of human beings, using technologies appropriate to the reality of the production site. The organic production process does not use pesticides and promotes the restoration and maintenance of biodiversity.
In addition, organic agriculture uses natural fertilizers, such as fertilization by means of nitrogen-fixing legumes, organic fertilizer from composting, worm culture, management of native vegetation and crop rotation, rational use of water, and other techniques that are adaptable to the local reality.
Biodynamic agriculture is a model of agricultural production that does not use chemical fertilizers, herbicides, transgenic seeds, antibiotics, or hormones. For this reason, it is often confused with organic agriculture. The method, created by Rudolf Steiner in 1924, can be understood as a branch of anthroposophy that aims to understand more deeply what the relationships between human beings, the earth, and the cosmos are.
Agriculture itself is always an impacting activity, to a greater or lesser degree. Thus, Steiner proposed ways to reestablish the broken balances through the use of biodynamic preparations, so that agricultural activities do not compromise the entire system. In this model of agriculture, the farm is seen as a living organism, whose health depends on the interactions between its elements inside and outside the farm. In this way, biodynamics seeks to maintain a production cycle that is consistent with its area, the species used, and their natural cycles.
The term “regenerative agriculture” was coined by the American Robert Rodale, who used theories of ecological hierarchy to study the processes of regeneration in agricultural systems over time. It is a concept linked to the possibility of producing by recuperating the soils. His proposal aims at the regeneration and maintenance of the whole food production system, including rural communities and consumers. This regeneration of agriculture should take into account, besides economic aspects, ecological, ethical, and social equality issues.
Soil care is an important aspect of regenerative agriculture. Thanks to its practices, impoverished soils can be restored and put to good use. In this context, regenerative agriculture values the micro-organisms present in the soil, since they are fundamental for the maintenance of the land. Therefore, one of the mechanisms of this type of agriculture is the development and use of biofertilizers prepared with natural materials, which are then made available to the farmer. These biofertilizers enrich the soil and benefit the crop with microorganisms.
Synthropic agriculture is the term given to an agroforestry farming system based on the concept of syntropy. It is characterized by the organization, integration, balance, and preservation of energy in the environment. This agricultural system seeks inspiration in the natural dynamics of ecosystems that have not suffered human interference for a sustainable management.
The general idea of syntropic agriculture is to accelerate the natural succession process by using two techniques: selective weeding, removing native pioneer plants when they are mature, and pruning trees and shrubs, then distributing them over the soil as fertilizer, providing greater availability of nutrients to it.
Chemicals or organics that do not originate from the cultivated area itself are also not used in syntropic agriculture. The insects and living organisms that populate the cropped areas are seen as signals of deficiencies in the system and help the farmer to understand the needs or failures of that crop.
Organic agriculture can be defined as “a holistic production system, which promotes and enhances the health of the agricultural ecosystem by enhancing biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It emphasizes the use of good on-farm management practices rather than the use of external inputs, bearing in mind that production systems must be adapted to regional conditions. This is achieved, whenever possible, through the use of cultural, biological and mechanical methods rather than synthetic materials,” according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Organic farming systems seek to optimize the health and well-being of animals, crops, and humans, and to maintain and improve the environment on and around the farm. To do this, this farming practice uses no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides, and applies production techniques that enhance the natural fertility of the soil and reduce the incidence of pests, diseases, and weeds in crops.
Permaculture is a method and a philosophy of life. The principles of permaculture state that human needs are linked to sustainable solutions, always taking into account the balance between ecosystems and respect for others.
This is a work methodology that, according to its creators, stimulates sustainable development allied to a productive environment in rural and urban areas. It is a system in which the inhabitant, the house, and the environment are integrated in the same living organism.
The environment is directly impacted by agriculture and cattle ranching. Environmental impact is defined as the disastrous consequences in nature, due to the disordered practices of human beings.
Agricultural activity is indispensable for human survival, but it automatically changes the environment. For this reason, it needs to be constantly reviewing its concepts and attitudes, seeking alternatives that reduce the aggression to nature. The deficiencies caused by man in nature cause irreversible effects to the planet.
Planting needs a fertile place, and for this to occur, deforestation inevitably occurs. If there is a substitution of the existing plantation in the place, it ends up destroying the planet’s genetics and alters the balance of the ecosystem.
And, besides this, there is still the use of agricultural equipment, which are machines powered by fossil fuels that pollute the air, besides the use of agricultural inputs that rain and irrigation end up being conducted to the rivers and thus contaminating the water.