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The emergence of agriculture was one of the most prominent events in human history, and transformations in agriculture have proved to be among the most significant sources of social change. Even in the postindustrial world, agriculture and agricultural change continue to have major implications for human societies. Fundamentally, humans remain absolutely dependent on agriculture for food and many other products used on a daily basis.
The emergence of and subsequent developments in agriculture have transformed human societies in at least three major ways: First, when compared to hunting and gathering, agriculture greatly increased the amount of food that could be produced and made food production much more consistent and dependable. With an everincreasing and more dependable food supply, the human population that the earth can support has increased dramatically (Vasey 1992). Second, agriculture made permanent settlement possible because it was no longer necessary for humans to follow herds of animals or go out in search of edible plants. Third, as agriculturally based societies developed, the ownership or control of agricultural lands became perhaps the most important source of wealth and power. Extensive inequality quickly followed.
Agricultural production has always been, and continues to be, totally dependent on two broad sets of input. These include: (1) the force, energy, or labor to accomplish necessary agricultural tasks such as preparing the soil, planting seeds, removing weeds, and harvesting; and (2) environmental resources such as soil, water, and sunshine (Schlebecker 1975). From the beginning, attempts to procure these resources have had substantial societal impacts.
For most of agriculture’s long history, human beings, with assistance from domesticated animals, have provided the bulk of agricultural labor. Agriculture has always faced the unique and somewhat troublesome challenge of securing an adequate labor supply: While an industrial labor force can generally be used consistently and efficiently throughout the year, the same is not true in agriculture, where the production of most commodities is seasonal. Consequently, throughout the year there are periods of extensive labor needs, primarily during planting and the harvest, followed by periods when labor requirements are minimal as biological processes unfold (Mann and Dickinson 1978). Employing an agricultural workforce large enough to meet labor requirements during peak seasons means that during most of the year this labor force will be underutilized, while the cost of feeding and housing workers remains constant. On the other hand, if a year-round workforce is not retained and attempts to secure a sufficient temporary labor force during critical labor-intensive periods fail, the results could be disastrous. Throughout history, attempts to deal with the unique labor problems of agriculture have taken a variety of courses. Initially, approaches revolved around securing an adequate but relatively cheap human labor supply. More recently, technological solutions were sought in which machines were developed to replace human labor in the production process. Both paths have had major social consequences.
Maintaining an Adequate Labor Force
Historically, agricultural lands have often been unequally distributed, largely controlled by wealthy and powerful landowners who sought for ways to maintain a sufficient agricultural labor force at relatively low costs. Some of the solutions have resulted in some of the darkest chapters of human history. In the past couple of centuries more equitable labor solutions have been attempted.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, and at times in Japan, China, and other areas, feudalism emerged as a complex and varied cultural system that provided a way for the wealthy and powerful aristocracy to maintain a constant and relatively inexpensive agricultural labor force. In theory, feudalism resembled a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid was the monarch—a king, emperor, or shogun—who owned all of the land within the kingdom. Since it was impossible for the monarch to supervise or control such a large area, he or she divided the land and granted control of various segments to upper-class nobles. These nobles were the second level on the pyramid. In exchange for the land grant, the noble would swear an oath of loyalty to the monarch, collect taxes from the land to be shared with the monarch, and provide soldiers when requested. Often upper-level nobles would further subdivide the land under their control and provide land grants to lower-level nobles, who in turn, were expected to collect taxes to be shared with those above them and to provide soldiers. Further subdivisions were found in some areas. If production increased, greater levels of wealth would flow to all levels up the pyramid. The higher up the pyramid an individual resided, the greater the power, prestige, and financial benefits.
At the base of the pyramid were the peasantry and serfs, who often comprised up to 95 percent of the population. These individuals provided a constant and cheap source of agricultural labor, became soldiers when requested, and generally lived near abject poverty. They owned virtually nothing, spent their days working as day laborers on the lands of the aristocracy, and had few freedoms. The entire feudal system was based on ascribed status, where a person’s position in life was almost entirely a function of his or her birth.
Slavery has a long and painful chapter in world history. While slaves have been used in a variety of economic endeavors, slavery has most prominently been a way of maintaining a consistent and cheap agricultural labor force. Although slavery has been a part of numerous cultures throughout the world, perhaps the most vivid example of slave labor in agriculture involved exporting Africans to the Americas to work as agricultural slaves. Studies by David B. Davis estimate that between 1500 and 1870, about 9.4 million Africans were transported to the Americas. About 48 percent of the slaves arrived in the Caribbean Islands, 41 percent were sent to Brazil, about 6 percent arrived in the southern United States, and the remaining 5 percent were sent to mainland Central and South America (Davis 2006).
Slavery was a part of an extremely productive agricultural system that generated great wealth to those who owned land and slaves and allowed most slaveholders to live a life of relative comfort. However, this wealth was generated by the labor of slaves who endured torture, degradation, and were treated as property. Individuals were often separated from friends and family and sold like animals. One of the lasting consequences of slavery is a legacy of racism. To justify the race-based slavery that existed in the Americas, an ideology emerged in which the slave-owning race was defined as superior while the enslaved race was defined as inferior. The ramifications of this ideology continue to have implications for human interactions in modern society.
The Family Farm
When the United States became an independent nation, policies were instigated that were intended to create an agricultural system based on numerous medium-sized family farms. The traditional agricultural labor problems would be solved by having the farmer and other family members provide the vast majority of the labor. Family labor was relatively effective because family members could be used extensively when labor needs were high and idled with minimal costs when not needed (Buttel et al. 1990). A nation of family farmers would also largely eliminate the tremendous inequality inherent in a system of landed aristocracy. The Homestead Act of 1862 perhaps best exemplifies the policy of encouraging family farms in the United States. This act made it possible for a settler, after paying a small registration fee and residing on and working 160 acres of land for five years, to gain clear title to that land. The opportunity to own one’s own land was the magnet that drew millions of immigrants from Europe to the United States. In time, millions of mediumsized, full-time family farming operations dominated agriculture in the United States.
Karl Marx expressed great concern over the inequality inherent in the feudally based agricultural system that prevailed in Europe. He felt the basic problem was that a few individuals owned the land while the masses provided the agricultural labor. Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the existing agricultural system was totally overturned in areas under communist control. In time a system of large state-owned, centrally controlled collective farms was developed. The manifest goal of collective agriculture was equality. All members of the collective farm worked together and shared equally in the output. Despite an egalitarian land-ownership system and production units that were conducive to machinery and other modern technology, the productivity of collective farms was never as extensive or as efficient as communist leaders hoped it would be.
The Mechanization of Agriculture
Prior to about 1800, the vast majority of the world’s population lived on farms in rural areas in an economy based on subsistence agriculture. It was necessary for nearly everyone to be involved in agriculture because most farms were barely able to produce what was needed by their own workers, and thus there was little surplus. Then in the mid-eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution emerged in Great Britain. Developments in science, technology, and machinery greatly increased the efficiency of human labor. Initially, the industry most extensively affected was agriculture. By using increasingly advanced machines, farmers were able to produce an ever-greater surplus of food and fiber. With fewer workers needed in agriculture, a labor force was available to work on the new machines coming into use in manufacturing and industry. For many farmers, the development of machines was a welcome solution to agricultural labor problems. Machines had several advantages over human labor. Once a machine was purchased, it could be stored during periods of disuse for little additional cost and made quickly available when needed. Additionally, machines eliminated much of the back-breaking work once associated with farming.
Despite some nineteenth-century breakthroughs, a large proportion of the world’s population remained directly involved in agricultural production into the early decades of the twentieth century. Between about 1940 and 1970 the mechanization of agriculture proceeded rapidly in economically advanced nations. The impact of this process was dramatic. The mechanization of agriculture changed the very nature of farm work, totally transformed the face of rural areas, and had dramatic implications for urban and nonfarm populations as well. By utilizing new technologies, the labor capacity of farmers was greatly increased, which enabled them to operate progressively larger farms. With a rapid increase in farm size, there was a corresponding decline in the number of farms (Albrecht and Murdock 1990). In the United States, Calvin Beale (1993) described the subsequent transition as the largest peacetime movement of people in history as millions of people left the farm and moved to urban areas seeking industrial employment. The industrialization of agriculture also significantly altered what was once a familyfarm-based agricultural structure. Increasingly, agriculture in the United States and other advanced economies became more dualistic: Most production now comes from a number of large and highly mechanized farms, with another large segment of the farm population running small part-time retirement or hobby farms. The number of medium-sized family farms has declined substantially.
The extent to which agriculture has been transformed by industrialization varies greatly from one part of the world to another. In economically advanced nations, a highly mechanized agricultural sector is extremely productive and typically less than 5 percent of the labor force is involved in agriculture. The large nonfarm sector is then able to produce goods and services that add to the quality of life in these countries. By contrast, in less developed countries a majority of the labor force remains involved in agricultural production and the standard of living is much lower.
Agricultural Environment and Society
Agricultural production has always been and continues to be closely tied to the natural environment (Albrecht and Murdock 2002). The quality and quantity of resources available play a major role in determining which commodities can be produced and in what quantity. While innumerable environmental factors influence agricultural production, a few are obviously vital. Successful agricultural production requires the appropriate combination of soil, water, and temperature. If these factors are missing or vary too widely, production will either not occur or will be somewhat limited. Although the production of agricultural commodities requires all of these essential resources, the amounts required vary substantially from one commodity to another. Wheat can be produced in areas that experience harsh winters and have relatively short growing seasons, while citrus fruits cannot, and rice production requires substantially more water than cotton production. Thus basic environmental differences severely limit farm production in some areas, and certain commodities cannot be effectively produced in other areas.
Throughout history, humans have attempted to overcome the shortcomings of their agricultural environment. Unwanted vegetation is removed, complex irrigation systems carry water to land whose natural rainfall is insufficient, and fertilizers, including animal manure, are added to the soil to improve its natural fertility. As a continuation of these efforts, scientists are seeking to overcome environmental limitations through developments in biotechnology. The implications are extensive. On the one hand, agricultural production far exceeds what it would be otherwise. On the other hand, some environmental resources have been severely depleted and other significant environmental pollution problems have emerged.
In many cases agricultural production has severely impaired the environment. Soil erosion is a classic example. Many great civilizations of the past were founded on an extensive base of fertile soil. Ample soil allowed for surplus farm production, which freed part of the population from agriculture and permitted some workers to become artisans, engineers, and artists (Dale and Carter 1955; Lowdermilk 1953). However, with few exceptions, humans have not been able to sustain a progressive civilization in one locality for more than a few hundred years. Over time the natural resource base (particularly the soil base) that permits surplus production becomes depleted. As resources are depleted, surplus production decreases and the civilization declines (Brown 1981). Lowdermilk (1953), for example, found evidence of over a hundred dead villages in Syria. These villages now stand on bare rocks with the soils completely washed or blown away. He concluded that “if the soils had remained, even though the cities were destroyed and the population dispersed, the area might have been repeopled and the cities rebuilt. But now that the soils are gone, all is gone” (p. 10). In most cases, the more technologically advanced the civilization, the shorter its period of progressive existence and expansion (Diamond 2005; Dale and Carter 1955). Similarly, in Mesopotamia, the rich soils of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys supported some of the world’s greatest civilizations. Through the centuries the soils have been severely eroded and today the land supports less than one-sixth of the population that lived there during its historic peak. Dale and Carter state:
Let’s not put the blame for the barrenness of these areas on the conquering hordes that repeatedly overran them. True, those conquerors often sacked and razed the cities, burned the villages, and slaughtered or drove off the people who populated them. But while the soil and other resources … remained, the cities were usually rebuilt. It was only after the land was depleted or exhausted that the fields became barren and the cities remained dead. (1955, p. 15)
Even today, many of the world’s most severe environmental problems are a direct result of modern farming practices. These problems include soil depletion; water pollution from eroded soils, fertilizers, and pesticides; and the depletion of critical resources, including groundwater and nonrenewable energy supplies. The extent to which societies deal with these problems effectively will profoundly influence the world in years to come.
Agriculture of the future will no doubt look substantially different from the agriculture of today, and its evolution will continue to have significant societal impact. Three factors are likely to play significant roles. First, technological developments have always figured prominently in agriculture and will continue to do so. Second, the emergence of a true world economy will have massive implications for prices and production in communities throughout the world. Third, the depletion of resources and environmental change will drastically alter agriculture. Of special concern is global warming, which could significantly alter the agricultural environment in a myriad of ways. The role of social scientists in understanding these issues will be of continued significance.
- Albrecht, Don E., and Steve H. Murdock. 1990. The Sociology of U.S. Agriculture: An Ecological Perspective. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
- Albrecht, Don E., and Steve H. Murdock. 2002. Rural Environments and Agriculture. In Handbook of Environmental Sociology, ed. Riley E. Dunlap and William Michelson. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
- Beale, Calvin L. 1993. Salient Features of the Demography of American Agriculture. In The Demography of Rural Life, ed. D. L. Brown, D. Field, and J. J. Zuiches, 108–127. University Park, PA: Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development.
- Brown, Lester R. 1981. Building a Sustainable Society. New York: Norton.
- Buttel, Frederick H., Olaf F. Larson, and Gilbert W. Gillespie Jr. 1990. The Sociology of Agriculture. New York: Greenwood.
- Dale, Tom, and Vernon Gill Carter. 1955. Topsoil and Civilization. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Davis, David Brion. 2006. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
- Diamond, Jared M. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking.
- Lowdermilk, Walter C. 1953. Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years. Agriculture Information Bulletin 99. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service.
- Mann, Susan A., and James M. Dickinson. 1978. Obstacles to the Development of Capitalist Agriculture. Journal of Peasant Studies 5(4): 466–481.
- Schlebecker, John T. 1975. Whereby We Thrive: A History of American Farming, 1607–1972. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
- Vasey, Daniel E. 1992. An Ecological History of Agriculture, 10,000 BC–AD 10,000. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
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