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Steep mountain landscapes aren’t an ideal place for farming. Yet, for thousands of years farmers in mountainous regions all over the world have grown crops, even on some of the steepest slopes. To accomplish this effectively, farmers needed to carve gigantic steps across mountainous contours, forming terraces. These terraces create enchanting ripple like patterns across the landscape and make one almost forget that these farms are meant to help feed local and global communities.
Since the transition to agriculture 10,000 years ago, human communities have struggled against the reality that soil suffers nutrient depletion through constant plowing and harvesting (mostly nitrogen loss). The specter of a significant die-off in human population owing to stagnant crop yields was averted in the 1970s by the Green Revolution, which, through the engineering of new crop varieties, large-scale irrigation projects, and the massive application of petroleum-based fertilizers to supplement nitrogen, increased staple crop production with such success that the numbers suffering malnutrition actually declined worldwide in the last two decades of the 20th century, from 1.9 to 1.4 billion, even as the world’s population increased at 100 times background rates. The prospects for expanding those gains in the new century are nevertheless threatened by the success of industrial agriculture itself. Soil depletion, declining water resources, and the diminishing returns of fertilizer technology—all the products of a half-century of industrial agriculture—have seen increases in crop yields level off.
Thumbnail image - Women farmers planting a rice field in West Sumatra.
Modified by Melissa Ha and Rachel Schleiger from The Industrialization of Nature: A Modern History (1500 to the present) from Sustainability: A Comprehensive Foundation by Tom Theis and Jonathan Tomkin, Editors. Download for free at CNX. (licensed under CC-BY)
- 14.1: Food Security
- Poverty—not food availability—is the major driver of food insecurity. In 2019, 8.9% of the world population were undernourished (lacked sufficient calories). Food security is dependent on availability, access, and utilization. Undernourishment, malnutrition (lack of essential vitamins and minerals), and obesity, all threaten global health.
- 14.2: Industrial Agriculture
- Industrial agriculture employs heavy machinery, synthetic pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers. It relies on monocultures of high yield crop varieties. While industrial agriculture has delivered tremendous gains in productivity and efficiency, it has also caused serious ecological damage.
- 14.3: Selective Breeding and Genetic Engineering
- The development of a new crop variety is an example of agricultural biotechnology: a range of tools that include both traditional breeding techniques and more modern lab-based methods. Traditional selective breeding dates back thousands of years, whereas biotechnology uses the tools of genetic engineering developed over the last few decades. Through genetic engineering, scientists can more quickly and directly alter an organisms DNA, producing a genetically modified organism (GMOs).
- 14.4: Sustainable Agriculture
- Sustainable agriculture means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices that can be continued indefinitely because they do not degrade the environment or deplete natural resources. It incorporates integrated pest management and sustainable methods for promoting soil fertility. Organic agriculture abstains from using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, hormones, and antibiotics. Consumer choices can promote sustainable agriculture.