Fast facts: Agriculture

A quick rundown on our planet’s ecosystems

An aerial view of rice paddy fields. smcde, Flickr
13 September 2019
Sandra Cordon

This photo essay is part of a series on the planet’s major ecosystems, a topic that will be discussed at the Global Landscapes Forum New York on 28 September.

Tea plantation, Kerala
A tea plantation in Kerala, India. Silver Blu3, Flickr

Agriculture – the cultivation of plants and livestock – was a key part in the transition from hunting and gathering to sedentism that occurred at the end of the last Ice Age. The domestication of wild plants started in Western Asia around 12,000 to 11,000 years ago, while domesticated animals appeared around 10,000 years ago.

Cassava farmers, Indonesia
Farmers in East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia, holding their harvest, cassava. Aris Sanjaya/CIFOR

Elsewhere in the world, agriculture developed independently but followed relatively quickly. Farming started in Central and South America around 9,000 to 8,000 years ago, and around the same period in China. Today, about 2 billion people worldwide depend on subsistence or smallholder agriculture.

Palm oil production, DR Congo
Palm oil production near Yangambi, Democratic Republic of Congo. Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Agroecosystems comprise between 30 and 40 percent of the Earth’s land surface and are defined as ecosystems created by humans based on their choices, such as producing crops to feed themselves or livestock. But due to the climate crisis, there are increasing concerns over the future of land productivity and the world’s ability to feed itself.

Modern harvest, Czech Republic
A modern agricultural harvest in the Czech Republic. Jan Fidler, Flickr

In particular, agro-chemicals, such as pesticides and fertilizers, plus other technological development and plant breeding have increased agricultural yields dramatically – but have also caused widespread ecological damage. Emissions relating to fertilizers have risen ninefold since the early 1960s.

Olive plantation, Portugal
An olive plantation in Portugal. J Mark Dodds, Flickr

Likewise, soil is being lost more than 100 times more quickly than it is being formed in plowed areas, and lost 10 to 20 times faster even on fields that are not tilled. Other major environmental issues related to agriculture include its contribution to climate change, deforestation and aquifer depletion, as well as the use of growth hormones in livestock and industrialized meat production.

Read the rest of our ‘fast facts’ series on ecosystems below.


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