Farming area in Morjim Goa, India
There are three primary kinds of agriculture in the developing world; 1) slash and burn with a hoe; 2) dry-land, rain-fed farming with a plow; and 3) irrigation. Many people still plant and harvest by hand. In some places people are too poor to buy animals to do their plowing and prepare their fields with hoes. Often the first things poor people like this do if they get some money is purchase an animal such as a water buffalo to held them with their farming.

Currently one hectare of land feeds about 4 people. It estimated that a hectare will need to feed 6 people to keep pace with population growth and diet changes that come with prosperity. Improvements also need to be made fighting pests, disease, flooding and droughts. According to the United Nations about 40 percent of the world's crops are destroyed every year before they leave the field as a result of pests, disease and weather.

In many cases while demand for food is increasing the productivity of land is declining. Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa uses a tenth as much fertilizer as farmers in the developed world. Little or no pesticides or fungicides are used. The soil is often so overused the yields are poor.

The share of public spending going to agriculture has fallen by half since 1980. The proportion of development aid spent on agriculture has fallen from a peak of 17 percent in 1982 to around 4 percent in 2007.

Agricultural Land

Worldwide agriculture counts for 38 percent of the world’s land mass. In the United States, one to two percent of farmers produce enough food for the whole country and much of the world.

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Farming in Suru Valley,
Ladakh, near Tibet
Hilly and mountainous land is much better suited for livestock raising than agriculture. Row crops are best raised on flat land. Agriculture is associated with rural areas but that isn’t always the case. Urban agriculture provides 15 percent of the food consumed in cities. That figure could double by 2020.

Much of the world's land is too rocky, mountainous, arid or salty for agriculture. Soils are often poor because either they were poor to begin with or have been depleted from centuries of overuse, erosion, salinization and other forms of soil degradation.

Good arable land continues to be eaten up by urbanization, industry and desertification. In many of the world most populous areas the population has already outstripped the availability of land and water. About 24 billion tons of topsoil---roughly equal to topsoil on the Australian wheat lands---is washed away every year. Degraded soils have lowered global yields by 13 percent since World War II.

Globally arable land is disappearing at an alarming rate of around 50 million acres annually as result of urbanization, population growth and industrial and economic development.

Fertilizer Prices and Phosphorus Shortages

Another problem that has to be dealt with is high fertilizer prices. When oil prices rise so too do the prices of petroleum-based fertilizer. There is also a looming shortage of phosphorus, a key ingredient of fertilizer. Increased agriculture production increases use of phosphorus. The drive to develop biofuel and increased meat consumption are viewed as a threat to phosphorus sources. During the food crisis in 2008 the price of phosphorus surged more than 700 percent to $367 a ton in 14 months.

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Crop harvest in Indonesia
There are no synthetic alternatives to phosphorus. Scientists at the University of Technology in Sydney estimate that current supplies will be depleted in 50 to 100 years. In Sweden scientists are designing toilets that separate and collect urine and then derive phosphorus from it.

The are lots of phosphorous sources but few of them are suitable for mining. Morocco holds 32 percent of the world’s proven reserves of phosphorus. Other large reserves are found in Western Sahara, South Africa, Jordan, Syria and Russia.

Agricultural Techniques

Plant rotations is one of the most successful way to boost agricultural productivity. Legumes like clover, soy beans, alfalfa and velvet beans are widely used in crop rotation because they increase the amount of nitrogen---a vital nutrient for most crops---in the soil. Planting the same crops over and over strips the soil of nutrients and makes them vulnerable to pests.

The roots of legumes shelter a special nitrogen-fixing bacteria that converts nitrogen into nitrogen compounds that provide food for plants. For this reason, farmers often grow legumes with other crops so the legumes can provide nitrogen compounds for the other crops.

Soy beans, alfalfa and sweet clover. For example, are often planted in a rotation with food crops such as corn to provide nitrogen for them. Alfalfa and clover are water thirsty crops that are widely grown as feed for livestock. Nitrogen is also passed on to the legume plants which at least partly explains why legume seeds have high concentrations of protein, which also needs nitrogen

Farmers use pesticides, growth hormones and antibiotics to increase crop yields but not without costs. Some chemical fertilizers promote growth but “burn,” compact, dry out and erode the soil making it more difficult to raise crops in the future. Pesticides poison the soil and contaminate crops. Most non-organic crops have pesticide residues on them. Produce sold in the United States has residues within safety guidelines. Many countries do not have such safety guidelines and many of those that do can’t adequately test and enforce them. Even if they were safe, fertilizers and pesticides are prohibitively expensive for many peasant farmers.

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deforested land
Farmers are encouraged to use pest-resistant crops and pest-eating insects rather than chemical pesticides. These and other alterative environmental-friendly methods are often more expensive than ordinary pesticides and fertilizers. In some surveys, farmers that have abandoned chemical fertilizers for organic farming have had their yields increases by 117 percent.

Using pest-fighting alien species to attack pest isn’t always the answer. In the United States a weevil released to eat weeds has also gobbled up native plants; a beetle that was supposed to wipe out invasive moth have wiped out native moths instead; and an insect used to combat a weed lead to an increase in the population of mice carrying a potential deadly virus.

In cold climates, greenhouses have made it possible to grow fresh vegetables year round. A device with "spring action in which a whole section of discs rises when it hits rocks" makes is easier to cultivate hard, stony soil.

Agriculture is getting increasingly more complicated. Peasant farmers have to the know the difference RR21 Triple dwarf wheat and PVW34 durum wheat, plus be up to date on the latest pesticides and fertilizers.

Slash and Burn Agriculture

Satellite image of Bolivia in June 2002
Slash and burn agriculture is a method of cultivation in which crops are grown on a plot of land, and the crop remains or overgrowth are burned off after the harvest so the ashes can provide fertilizer for new crops. "Slash" refers to the practice of cutting down small trees, vines and shrubs during the clearing process. "Burn" refers to burning them.

Slash and burn agriculture is also known as impermanent field agriculture, shifting cultivation, swidden, bush fallowing, milpa (in Mexico and Central America), ladang (in Indonesia), caingin (in the Philippines) and citemene (in parts of Africa).

Worldwide slash and burn farming destroys 50 acres of rainforest an hour. The end of the dry season, right before the first rains and the beginning of the planting season, is generally when the slashing and burning is done. At that tome of the year the air a smokey and hazy in the day and lines of fire snake across the hills at night. From the air you can the fires are visible across the landscape and the smoke is as thick as clouds.

Machinery doesn't work very well in rainforest agriculture. For the machines to work crops have to be harvested before the rainy season begins. Even with canals to drain the water combines and harvester get bogged down in the mud like German tanks in springtime Russia.

Sustainable Slash and Burn Agriculture

swidden fire
Slash and burn agriculture is really the only way to grow crops in the rainforest. If properly done it is sustainable and doesn’t damage the environment all that much. They keys to success are: 1) avoiding land with soils that erode easily; 2) periodically allowing the land to lie fallow for several years to regenerate nutrients; and 3) inter-croping fields with a variety of plants that provide nutrient and replicate the multi-storied conditions in rainforests.

In Melanesia, slash and burn agriculturalists terrace and irrigate their land but still let lie fallow for long periods of time so it can regenerate. With Caribbean Creole method of slash and burn agriculture, rice and beans are grown for two years until soil becomes depleted then farmers plant coconut and banana trees which last another five years. After this, the fields lie fallow and become overgrown with bush for 15 years, after which time the bush is burned and cleared, starting the entire process over gain.

Slash and burn agriculture is an effective way for farmers to utilize the tropical rain forest if the population density is low and the forests are allowed to lie fallow for at least 25 years. Indigenous people tend practice sound slash and burn techniques because they have a lot of experience working the land and long term interests on mind while new settlers and subsistence farmers have less experience and are more concerned with their short term needs.


Swidden agriculture in Yunnan, China
Slash and burn agriculture was first described by anthropologists with the swidden agriculturalists of New Guinea. Ancient "hunter gatherers" in Melanesia and Australia practiced a primitive form of agriculture in which they burned off vegetation so that food-producing palm-like cycads could grow and produce seeds.

Traditional gardens of the people of Papua New Guinea look like a tangled mess of vines, shrubs and trees. In actuality though they are carefully-and well- managed plots with over 40 food-providing plant such as sugars, yams, grains, spices, bananas, fruits as well as tobacco and medicinal herbs. By intercropping the people take advantage of different state in the rainforest and produce food that can be harvested year round.

Traditional New Guinean slash and burn farmers let their fields lie fallow for a minimum of 15 years and often wait for 40 years before replanting. The rainforest gardens required only 9.5 hours of work each week and the yields enough surplus food to raise pigs.

Highlanders who have switched from traditional swidden agriculture to large scale farming devote as much as 75 percent of their land to the harvesting of sweet potatoes in gardens that are cultivated continuously for 15 to 20 years. Even the swidden plots have been left fallow for only two to five years. As a result production was low as nutrients in the soil were depleted.

The childbirth pattens in the highlands follow the cropping cycle. Most children are conceived in March when food is plentiful. Unfortunately the last couple of months of pregnancy coincide with a period of time when food is in short supply and women are laboring in the fields planting the next crop. During this time pregnant women are found to be receiving just 31 percent of the energy, 49 percent of the protein, and 41 percent of the iron requirements recommended for a pregnant woman.

Unsustainable Slash and Burn Agriculture

Slash and burn agriculturalists today often continue cultivated the same plot of land until it is exhausted and in some cases unreclaimable as agricultural land. Then they often simply go off into the forest and slash and burn another plot and exhaust that.

The shallow, poor rainforest soil is good for about three crops at most. High yields of corn, cassava, beans, yams, squash and other crops can be obtained for one or two seasons. But after that the soil erodes away, the ash fertilizers is leached away by rainfall and garden plots are covered with weeds that move in from the uncut forest. The crops of farmers working on sloped land often fail even sooner because what little soil is there is quickly is eroded after land is cleared.

After the land is exhausted for agriculture grasses are allowed to grow for cattle grazing or simple abandoned. After a time the grasses and plants that grow often fail as the clay left behind from the depleted soil bakes in the sun, cracking and turning as hard as concrete. During the rainy season slopes erode, and rivers silt and flood. Without the trees even rainfall starts to become erratic.

Environmentalists argue that the root cause of the problems is that peasant have no right to own land. If they did they would tale care of the land, instead of exploiting it until it is no longer valuable and then moving on to new land.

Slash and Burn Techniques

Fires along the Rio Xingu Brazil
Slash and burn farmers different crops in different regions. Those is Asia grow dry-land-rice, bananas, and corn. In Latin America, they grow corns, beans and squash. In Africa, corn and cassava. Even so their technique are often very similar. On a typical plot of land, first the trees are cut and torched. The nutrient rich ash is used to fertilize the soil. Stumps are easier to pull in the rainforest than other places because the soil is shallow and the roots aren't very deep. Still, they are usually left in the field until they rot because they are difficult to move without a bulldozer.

Burning is usually done just before the onset of the rainy season. "Slash and burn" agriculturists often don't have to slash the vegetation because the underbrush is so dry that it burns quickly and ferociously. They have to be careful, however, that the fire doesn't spread. The layer of ash created acts as a fertilizer. The more ash that higher the yield; the longer the plot is left fallow and plants and trees are allowed to grow the more wood there is to get ash from.

Crops are often planted directly into the ash-covered soil in holes or small mounds without any tilling. If stumps are present farmers imply plant around them. Farmers spare the palm trees, which they use for roof thatch. Otherwise they usually cut down all the trees on their land, even though only a few can be sold for their timber, because it easier to plant that way.

Irrigation, Water and Agriculture

Drains for irrigation
Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of all water use and irrigation grows 40 percent of the world’s food. In developing countries irrigation accounts for 80 percent of the water consumed. In places where irrigation doesn’t exist, if the rains fail, crops often fail.

Water for irrigation can come from wells, rivers, canals, lakes, ponds and reservoirs. Often dams are built to supply water for irrigation.

Pumps are important for irrigation. In the old days water wheels and manual labor were needed to lift water from wells, rivers, canals and ponds to agricultural land. Now gasoline- and diesel-powered pumps do much of the work. Pumps may be noisy but are a relatively cheap and efficient.

Studies in South Asia have shown that a traditional treadle water pump---operated by a person on a device that looks a bit like a Stairmaster stair climber---can increases the income of farmers by 25 percent. First introduced to Bangladesh in the 1980s and now widely used in Asia and sub-Sahara Africa, these pumps are easy to install and simple to operate and often deliver higher crops yields than those obtained using diesel pumps.

One woman farmer told the New York Times, “Now we can’t just depend on rain -fed agriculture, so we plant two crops---one watered with rain and one that needs irrigating. But irrigation is back-breaking and can take four hours a day.”

Irrigation Systems

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irrigation canal in Afghanistan
Water used in irrigation often times originates from sources miles away. Irrigation systems sometimes use tunnels, aqueducts and canals that were built over a 1000 years ago. The water often flows from the source in a single canal which in turn divides in smaller canals that lead to the fields. There may thousands of fields, each averaging from a few acres to many dozen acres in size, or huge swaths of agricultural land.

The water flowing in and out of an irrigation system is regulated by a complex process that has been fine tuned over the centuries. In many places water is distributed by opening and closing gates which provide water to certain areas for a specific amount of time. Some places still use water clocks (a pot with a small hole in the bottom that measures out about three minutes) to determine when the gates of the irrigation system should be opned and closed.

The schedule for distributing water is made by an annual calendar. The various stages of the crop-growing process---the flooding of the fields (for rice), the transplanting of seedlings, and the harvesting of the crop---are all determined by the calendar and sometimes each stage is marked by festivals and rites.

The distribution of water is often overseen by individuals who follow customs and rules to determines which fields get water when. In traditional societies the water is often distributed through a system based on fairness and equity in turn based on family size and land holdings. Each member of the community is entitled to their share as long as they fulfill their duties in maintaining the system. In corrupt system, water is often diverted to large landowners who produce cash crops from which the government receives taxes or kickbacks.

Problems with Irrigation

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Irrigation flow-gate in Kyrgyzstan
Irrigation with canals is very inefficient. Lots of water is lost to evaporation, run offs and absorption into the soil before it reaches crops. Governments are often to blame for these practices because they subsidize water so heavily that farmers have little incentive to save it.

Poorly-drained irrigated land leaves behind salt deposits as water evaporates. In many places, fields that once grew bountiful crops of grains are now encrusted in salt. More than a quarter of the world's irrigated land has become so salty that many crops will no longer grow there. To make the land productive again the fields have to be flooded around four times to clear away the salt.

Irrigation also causes large amounts of salts, fertilizers and pesticides to be flushed into rivers and streams. Short supplies of water can result in increases in disease as untreated sewage water is used in irrigation.

The drilling of wells for irrigation, farming and animal herding can trigger an unhealthy cycle. Drilling wells causes the water table to drop. After a while the water may become too salty for crops and animals or too expensive to pump resulting in the sinking of more wells, which causes the water table to drop further.

Water-Saving Technology

Environmentalists are pushing for a more “crop by drop” approach to agriculture that stresses more efficient irrigation, planting more drought- and salt-tolerant plants that require less water and closely monitoring growing conditions such as soil humidity.

Drip irrigation equipment delivers water to individual plants at times when the plant needs it so no water is wasted. Perfectly calibrated portions of nutrients and water are delivered to plant roots a drop at a time through holes in plastic hoses. Crops grown using drip irrigation include watermelons, apples, green onions, cucumbers, corn, hot peppers, melons, bell peppers, radishes, carrots, cabbage, soybeans, pears, tomatoes, squash and spinach.

Drip irrigation uses 30 to 90 percent less water than traditional methods. Under ideal circumstances, 800 gallons of water can be used on a large plot as opposed to 7,200 gallons with conventional irrigation and produce higher yields. Because the water source is so reliable the quality of the produce is good. The technology was developed in the 1960s in Israel. It is used on less than one percent of irrigated land.

An effort is also being made to harvest surface water that runs off fields and catchment areas and reusing it on crops or collecting it in reservoirs for later use as drinking water. If the water is polluted with pesticides and fertilizers the aim is to prevent it from entering rivers, lakes and the sea.


Terrace farming in the Andes, Pisac Peru
In hilly and mountainous areas, terraces are widely used to make slopes into arable land. Terraces conserve soil and prevent erosion but their primary purpose is to create flat land that retains water rather than letting it trickle away. Temporary dams direct the flow of water. Dirt and water are kept in place with earth or earth-and-rock ridges, or dikes, that are constructed at a standard height of around 15 inches and are wide enough for people can walk on them.

In terraces on mountain slopes the high terraces are often rain-fed and used to grow crops that don’t need much rain such as potatoes or dry land rice. Those further down receive irrigation water and are intensively cultivated to produce staples such as maize and wetland rice.

Many terraces have been used for hundreds and even thousands of years. In terraces that grow rice, water flows down hill in stages with plots near the top being planted first. After the water is used it is released filling the terraces below it. The rice is harvested in stages with plots at the bottom harvested last. In places where water is somewhat scarce, groups of fields are watered one at a time because relatively little water is wasted that way.

Some terraces are collectively owned and worked by a community. Others are owned by individuals, sometimes from distant villages, who are free to sell the land, work it, or lease it and consume or sell the crops that are grown on it. The water is distributed using a system like that used in conventional irrigation systems.

Small Land Owners in the Developing World

farmer in Guinea
A typical subsistence farm contains a vegetable plot, a mango or banana grove, and larger plots with maize, cassava, rice or sorghum. A farmer may own a few chickens or some pigs. If he is lucky or relatively well off he may have a water buffalo or a cow.

Poor farmers eat most of what they grow. With the help of fertilizer and erosion control, they can raise enough to feed their families and have a little left to sell but remain poor. Sharecroppers working for landowners generally have to fork over a large share of grain or a cash crop to pay their landlords for rents. Local official may demand high taxes.

Villagers need money for improved seeds, tools, machinery, fertilizer and pesticides. They can't afford tractors or often even plow animals and fertilizer is so precious it is carefully dispensed a handful at a time. Villagers have to be careful about borrowing money to buy animals or fertilizer. Money is often borrowed at high interest and one bad harvest can mean the loss of their land.

Some farmers have traditionally divided their land equally among their oldest sons. But often the land has been subdivided so many times that individual plots do not produce enough food to feed a family. Others have been kicked off their land so that cash crops can be grown for export to earn money to pay off government debts.

Large Land Owners in the Developing World

In some countries cash crops have traditionally been raised on plantations with production concentrated into the hands of so few landowners that one percent of plantations raise 45 percent of the country's sugar and coffee. Money from these crops provides the financial base of the oligarchy, the country’s wealthiest families.

Although most of the money from African exports during the colonial period came from mining, agricultural exports also increased. The land was cultivated one of three ways: 1) by peasant farmers on small plots of land; 2) black laborers on farms owned by white settlers; or 3) on large plantations run by big companies. Peanuts, cocoa and palm oil were the major export products.

palm plantation in Indonesia

White plantations often failed because the farmers were ignorant of tropical agriculture and their specialized farms were vulnerable to pests and disease. There was a shortage of labor so new plantations had a hard time attracting labor cheap enough to make their enterprises profitable.

"The development of the [cocoa] industry," wrote Nigerian governor Hugh Clifford, "has been practically spontaneous on the part of the inhabitants. The inevitable result of the rapid increase of the people's wealth has been to bring about what almost amounts to a revolution. The commensal ownership of the land is being largely repudiated for individual ownership.; the sale of the land , and almost unheard of practice has became a matter of everyday life; a tendency for the maker of a cocoa plantation to leave his property to his son rather than his sister's son has brought about a change from matrilineal to patrilineal descent.”

Agricultural Chores in the Developing World

Planting is often done by hand with dribble sticks to make a hole and plowing is done with a hoe or an animal such as a water buffalo or ox. Weeding and spreading fertilizer is done by hand and pesticides are sprayed with backpack spraying devices. Crops are often harvested with a sickle and taken to a threshing ground. Everyone pitches in with the harvest. Members of several families often collectively harvest one family’s field and then another’s.

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Farming tools, Zhong An village Yunnan
Threshing means removing the grain (seeds) from the plant. Sometimes this is done by trampling the grain and stalks with cattle. Winnowing means removing the husks and chaff and other impurities from the threshed grain. In many villages, winnowing is done with a hand-cranked winnower or by tossing basketfuls of grain upwards into a breeze (the lighter husks blow away while the grain drops down) and grain is crushed into flour with mortars and mallet-like pestles.

On large farms many of the agricultural chores are done with machines like tractors, reapers, threshers and combines. Tractors are most beneficial plowing the land before planting. A reaper is a machine that sorts grain. A combine cuts the grain, separates it from the straw with a powerful fan and deposits the grain from back of the machine to be collected later. A combine can harvest a wheat field when its too wet to cut with a sickle.

Many kinds of vegetables and fruits are dried in the road or on blankets before they are stored. Beans are beaten out of their pods while still on the stalks with poles.

To keep away birds farmer use scarecrows and noisemakers and sometimes sleep in their fields and personally shoo away the birdd themselves.

In the winter, when there are less agricultural chores, people visit one another before dawn and socialize at breakfast.

Agricultural Chores for Men and Women

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milking the goats
Village men have traditionally done the heavy chores such as plowing the fields, clearing the land, planting and harvesting, building homes, hunting, fishing, setting traps, cutting down trees. and doing work that requires the most strength while the women the tended crops.

Since the work of the men is often concentrated into a few weeks they have a lot of free time, which is spent hanging around, gambling or making deals. Often, while women work the men spend much of the time in the tea houses chatting and playing games such as poker, backgammon or dominoes, or sitting around the radio or television tuned into soccer matches or the news.

In many societies women do two-thirds of the farm labor. During the harvesting and planting season men and women work about equally but when those tasks are done women do much of the day-to-day farming chores while the men often goof around. Women often do so much of the farm work men are often encouraged not to come to agricultural meeting sponsored by aid workers.

Among the daily chores performed by village women are grooming and washing the children, preparing drinks for the men, making meals, cleaning the corrals of the animals, tending the family's crops, selling and buying stuff at the market, milking goats, making butter or cheese, collecting and processing dung, washing, pounding rice or grain, spinning cloth, threshing or separating beans from their pods, hoeing and weeding the fields, carrying firewood, transporting the harvest, fetching water, housekeeping and looking after the children.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2012

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