6 Agricultural & Food Systems

Food is a basic human need and considered a by the United Nations and many countries and individuals. People who have steady, affordable, and safe access to sufficient food, which means they experience , tend to think about food in substantially different ways than people who experience , which refers to people whose food access and intake is limited by external factors.

Not only is there an regarding food consumption and nutritional experiences, choices, and conditions for people across the world, but so too is there an unevenness regarding how food is produced. Food systems and agricultural systems vary greatly across space and through time and has altered the need for urban centers to always be located near an . As geographers, we continue to ask “What is where, why there, and why care” a la geographer Charles Gritzner (2002), and in this chapter, these questions are oriented around foodstuffs. This chapter will orient you with types and impacts of agriculture and food production and the geography of food consumption.

Domestication & the Birth of Agriculture

The word domestication comes from the Latin words Domesticus and Domus, referring to “belonging to the household” and “house.” In terms of agriculture, as defined by National Geographic, “ is the process of adapting wild plants and animals for human use. Domestic species are raised for food, work, clothing, medicine, and many other uses. Domesticated plants and animals must be raised and cared for by humans. Domesticated species are not wild.”

To domesticate a plant, seeds are gathered and planted in the ground instead of natural forms of distribution to potentially root and grow. Enough sun and water are provided to facilitate growth and then the plants are harvested. To domesticate an animal, wild animals are enclosed and provided a food source; some animals are more easily domesticated than others. between particularly desirable plant and animal strains and species is common and new species may emerge over time entirely distinct from their wild predecessors.

What did domestication help to directly bring about and set the conditions for?

Food as Currency

I can pay in cheese? What the fork!?


  • (i.e. the process of cultivating domesticated species)
  • Tool development
  • More permanently settled population
  • Food
  • of tasks/labor/jobs away from exclusively agriculture
  • (eventually)
  • Trade
  • Currency

The basic logic goes like this: By growing domesticated plants, you do not have to obtain nourishment by wandering around to follow your food source, which is the norm within  lifestyles. Instead, you stay in one area and produce enough food for yourself (you exceed ) and a . The (first) agricultural revolution refers to when the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture occurred, about 10,000 years ago.

DEEPEN YOUR UNDERSTANDING: If you need or want a review on the connection between agriculture and urbanization, view the Urban and Suburban Spaces chapter of this textbook.

Now that you are familiar with the “what” and “how” of agriculture, you should be wondering about the “where” of agriculture– where did domestication and agriculture emerge? Take a look below for the locations of where major plants and animals were first domesticated. Pull up a reference map on the internet if you don’t know the locations of the green hearths.

Source: https://www.e-education.psu.edu/geog597i_02/node/863

You should notice that domestication is not distributed entirely evenly across place. It is clustered in what are called , referring to regions of the world where many species were domesticated. Check out the video below for a recap of information about domestication, agriculture, and hearth areas.


Types & Transformations of Agriculture

The most basic way to characterize types of agriculture is into the following:

  • : food is produced for family consumption
  • : food is produced for sale

There are additional types of agriculture within these two categories, including , , , , , , and . All of these types of agriculture feature different methods and procedures. Another spectrum of difference in agricultural methods is based on : the amount of agricultural extract per unit land. Agricultural methods can range from to , or from having low human inputs and productive outputs, to having high human inputs and productive outputs. In general, societies tend to become more intensive over time, as it means that more can be produced per unit land. However, intensification does have real drawbacks:

  • Agriculture is more work; hunters and gatherers may only need 2-3 days a week to gather necessary sustenance but agriculturalists must work 6-7 days to maintain large plots of crops
  • Agriculture is more fragile; one major disaster or pestilence can remove a societies major food source
  • Agriculture can be less healthy; if agriculturalists farm and depend upon a single crop, malnourishment may occur
DEEPEN YOUR UNDERSTANDING: Read about additional types of agriculture, how they coincide with the first and second agricultural revolutions, and how the spatial distribution of the various practices coincides with levels of development here. Consider also how prevalence of agriculture type may relate to population pyramid shape for communities and countries. *NOTE: ONLY read until the “Making Sense of Land Use section.”

A few other interesting and creative ways to produce food include the following:

  • Aquaculture in Greece. Source: Flickr.com

    , or cultivating food or animals in water (examples: fish, cranberries, hydroponic lettuce)

  • , or cultivating food or animals in an urban as opposed to rural setting (examples: growing a tomato plant on your front stoop or balcony, renting a community garden plot, rooftop gardens)

Agricultural Adaptations

In some ways, the type of agriculture someone can or chooses to do is influenced by the geography of where s/he is, including the topography, land cover, and climate. Humans have adapted how they produce the basic need of food in creative ways. Examples include:

  • in the Incan Empire and Asia, which allow agriculture to take place on steep slopes
  • in arid regions, which releases tiny bits of water so it is absorbed into dry soil
  • in Arabian Peninsula, which are ancient underground water reserves used to support agriculture on otherwise non-arable land

Aside from the first agricultural revolution, which refers to the birth of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, the refers to major transformations in technology used for agriculture, specifically regarding irrigation, harvesting, and transportation, around the time of the , ~mid-1700s-mid -1800s.

An additional agricultural revolution that has taken place is the , referring to the influx of high-yield seeds and fertilizers, and often (genetically modified organisms).

DEEPEN YOUR UNDERSTANDING: Read more about the Green Revolution and 3 main critiques of it here. *NOTE: you only need to read the section called “The Green Revolution.”

Consumptive Behaviors & Food (In)security

The amount and type of food we consume varies across space as does our safe and secure access to food. This chapter opened by defining as having steady, affordable, and safe access to sufficient food and as just the opposite.

DEEPEN YOUR UNDERSTANDING: Read more about food insecurity as explained by Feeding America here and be sure to view the chart that appears on the linked page.

To get an idea of food security and insecurity at a global scale, compare and contrast the maps below and consider the following questions:

  • What spatial patterns are present?
  • What socio-cultural, economic, political, and physical geographical factors contextualize the spatial distribution of daily per capital caloric supply, obesity, and undernourishment?
Source: https://ourworldindata.org/exports/daily-per-capita-caloric-supply-1961-2013_v4_850x600.svg
Source: https://ourworldindata.org/app/uploads/2019/11/share-of-adults-defined-as-obese-1-768×542.png
Source: https://ourworldindata.org/hunger-and-undernourishment

Some people may experience food insecurity due to living in what’s called a food desert. refer to “regions of the country often feature large proportions of households with low incomes, inadequate access to transportation, and a limited number of food retailers providing fresh produce and healthy groceries for affordable prices” according to the USDA. Often food deserts are identified by the following parameters:

  • : distance to nearest grocery store is 1+ miles in area with primarily low-income residents (profiled in the embedded video below)
  • : distance to nearest grocery store is 10+ miles in area with primarily low-income residents

Check out the USDA’s Food Desert Research Atlas to explore patterns in the US and see if you live in or near a food desert. Remember, you may experience food security or food insecurity if you technically live in a food desert; level of food security has to do with your overall access and capability–physical, social, and financial–to food, not just if you live in a designated food desert or not.


Beyond food insecurity and food deserts can be large-scale bouts of hunger called . Famines affect large populations and can be regional to national in geographic scale. The common perception is that famine occurs when there is not enough food in a region to support the population. Scholar Amartya Sen argued instead that famines are often failures of the system that links food supply to food demand. Sen showed that the 1943 Bengal famine occurred due to the inability for millions to afford the rapid inflation of food prices, along with with poor distribution, government response and hoarding. The 1959-1962 famine in China coincided with the Great Leap Forward, a program of rapid industrialization. The program may have caused some 35 million people to die in a famine due to processes of collectivization of farms that produced food sent to industrial cities, leading to massive rural starvation.

End of Chapter Activity: Compare & Contrast

This chapter has provided language to describe the differences in agricultural practices and unevenness regarding agricultural lifestyles and individual consumptive behavior. To end, watch the videos below, each of which profiles fish cultivation and answer the following questions pertaining to each video:

  • What are the processes for securing fish?
  • Who is the typical consumer of the fish?
  • What types of economic activity (primary, secondary, etc) are present for each process?
  • How would you describe each of these fishing landscapes in terms of culture and economy?
  • How are the processes in each video related to globalization?
  • How could the different ways of fishing relate to food security and insecurity?





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Human Geography by Christine Rosenfeld & Nathan Burtch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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