Skip to main content
Engineering LibreTexts

3.2.1: 1 From the Origins of Agriculture to Challenges and Opportunities for the Future of Food

  • Page ID
  • Introduction

    The development of agriculture as part of food systems in the Anthropocene began with domestication, and has continued across millennia among diverse peoples inhabiting a wide variety of the earth’s environments (e.g. the Mediterranean region, the Indus River Valley; southern South America; the Congo River basin; the Island now called Sumatra, and many other highly varied landscapes). The history of agriculture also includes the present: domesticated plants and animals, as well as agricultural management, continues to change. In module 2.2 we will divide an overview of this complex history into four general periods:

    1. Domestication/Early farming (10,000 BP-4,000 BP);
    2. Independent States, Small Groups, World Trade, and Global Colonial Empires (4,000 BP – 1800/1900 CE);
    3. Modern Industrial Agriculture (1800/1900 CE – Present);
    4. Recent Quasi-Parallel Agricultural Types and Possible Next Phase (2000 – Present): Agroecological Modernization (e.g., Organic) and Local Environment-Food Systems.

    Each of these categories lumps together a lot of variation with regard to the specifics of agriculture and coupled human-natural food systems, and if you have the chance to read in more detail about these phases of the Anthropocene, you'll find a significant and interesting amount of variation among different places and time periods (see the additional readings at the end of the unit).

    To continue describing the environment-food systems of each of these four periods, we recall that in module 2.1 we described the long period of hunter-gatherer activities and environment-food systems, which comprised well over 90% of the history of humans as a cultural species. We also looked at plausible drivers and feedbacks in the origins of agriculture and domestication. Here in Module 2.2. We’ll pick up the thread of the environmental and social transformations represented by agricultural origins and domestication. We note that early agriculture, and perhaps a later stage of agricultural development marked the transition to the Anthropocene epoch in which humans became a dominant force in transforming earth's surface and natural systems (see module 1 regarding the Anthropocene).

    Key terms and concepts for the history and development of food systems

    After its first origins, agriculture spread worldwide through a process known as spatial diffusion. The spatial diffusion of agriculture involved individuals and groups of people gaining access to the ideas, information, and materials of agriculture and other innovations through physical relocation and social interactions. Spatial diffusion can occur through local individual-level human observation and the exchanges of goods and information as well as long-distance trade and organized activities (e.g. group-level decisions to adopt a new planting technology). A brief description and examples of spatial diffusion in early agriculture are given in Table 2.2.1. While agriculture was developed independently in each of the different world geographic areas roughly corresponding to centers of crop domestication (Module 2.1, Figure 2.NN), agriculture then spread widely out of these early centers in a way that was highly influential. Agriculture's diffusion from the Near East to Europe, for example, transformed a wide range of environments and societies. As discussed more below, the spread of crops themselves was often transformative for the environment-food systems to which these domesticates arrived. For example, all the major cuisines we know today rely on food ingredients that were made available as the result of spatial diffusion For example, foods originally from Mexico, such as tomatoes, chili peppers, and maize transformed environment-food systems globally beginning in the 1500s, spreading as far as Africa, India, and China.

    The geographic spread of agriculture created both similarities and differences across space and time. On the one hand, sharing the same food crops and sometimes agricultural techniques created commonalities among environment-food systems. The current environment-food system of the country of Peru, for example, is rooted to a large degree in the connections that were forged through spatial diffusion during the Inca Empire that ruled between roughly 1400 and 1532 of the Common Era (CE). On the other hand, differences in environment-food systems also evolved over time as crops and food were subject to the human and natural system influences in each new site to which agriculture spread. One of the main reasons for these differences was the role of people in adapting agriculture to different environments and sociocultural systems.

    A few concepts in addition to spatial diffusion are central to understanding the spread of agriculture and its importance, and we introduce them here. These concepts -- adaptation, agrodiversity, and niche construction -- are briefly described with examples in Table 2.2.1, and the term Anthropocene is also reviewed from the standpoint of its relation to early agriculture. The first of these, adaptation, refers broadly to the way in which humans use technical and social skills and strategies to respond to the newness or changes of environmental and/or human systems (e.g. droughts, hillier topography or increased rainfall as crops moved to new areas, climate change). Adaptation and adaptive capacity of human society are a major focus of Module 11.

    Table 2.2.1 Key Terms and Definitions with Examples and Significance in the Development of Agriculture and Environment-Food as Covered in Unit 2.2
    Term Definition Examples Synopsis of Significance
    Spatial Diffusion Movements of people, things, ideas, information, and technology through physical relocation and social interaction. Spread of agriculture from the major areas of early agriculture and domestication (e.g., from Near East to Europe). Each period of agricultural development covered in Module 2.2 relied on spatial diffusion of environment-food systems
    Adaptation Humans use social and technical skills and strategies to respond to the newness or changes of environmental and/or human systems. Domestication of plants and animals by the early farmers responding to changes in the environment and human systems; changes in a crop variety or farming techniques carried out by human groups as crops moved into new environments with new requirements for successful agriculture. Adaptation is an ongoing process that has continued through the major periods of agricultural development to the present. (Also covered in Module 9.1)
    Agrodiversity Human management of the diversity of environments in agriculture and food-growing; This definition was later expanded to included human organizational diversity in the use of the environment. Many areas of early agriculture had high environmental diversity, such as tropical and subtropical mountains, humans developed myriad agricultural techniques to master food production in these different environments, e.g. irrigation systems, planting methods, terraced fields, special tools, and implements. Agrodiversity is a major form of human-environment interaction. It is related to, but different, than agrobiodiversity (Covered in Module 9.2)
    Niche Construction Agriculturalists (and hunter-gatherers) shaped food-growing environments (“niches”) through constructing fields and other kinds of activities Hunter-gatherers shaped heavily used habitats through hunting, gathering, and habitation. These intensively used habitats created the niches that were first occupied by crops in the beginnings of agriculture, with somewhat more disturbed soils, fewer forest plants, and perhaps higher fertility from all sorts of human refuse. Later, farmers actively fertilized and tilled soils to favor domesticated annual crops or created niches within managed forests that favored "forest garden" species. The concept of niche construction is important since it teaches us that humans are adapting not only to environments but also to environments being shaped through human influence

    Distinct geologic epoch representing the present and defined by the significant level of human modifications of the earth’s environmental systems (see module 1)

    Two factors commonly mentioned in the definition of the Anthropocene are the global clearing of woodlands (deforestation) in early agriculture and the spread of modern industrial agriculture. Agriculture-related activities are considered major factors in most though not all definitions of the Anthropocene.

    The use of agrodiversity was also vital to the spread of early agriculture. Agrodiversity is described by the geographer Harold Brookfield and the anthropologist Christine Padoch as human management of the diversity of environments in agriculture and food-growing. Brookfield and Padoch use agrodiversity to describe indigenous farming practices among native peoples, but all knowledgeable farmers actively make use of agrodiversity, even if the technologies may differ greatly. Managing diverse agricultural environments was essential since early farmers produced domesticated plants and animals under new and different conditions. The third concept is that of niche construction, meaning that agriculturalists (and hunter-gatherers) shaped food-growing environments (“niches”) through constructing fields and all kinds of other activities. As a result, adaptation occurring across the wide geographic and historical evolution of environment-food systems involves responses to a range of factors that include both natural ones and those resulting from human activities.

    The development of agriculture through the four periods mentioned above has resulted and continues to incur, a wide range of both environmental and social impacts that will be mentioned in the following pages of this module. Environmentally these impacts have altered the biogeophysical systems of our planet, including the land, water, atmosphere, and biodiversity of the earth. As mentioned the idea of the Anthropocene epoch---a distinct geologic epoch defined by drastic human modifications of the earth’s environmental systems---is often tied to agricultural activities. Global environmental sustainability, whether the earth’s systems are operating within limits that will enable long-term functioning, is fundamentally influenced through agriculture, as you’ll see in this module and all the ones to follow.