Book Summary: “The Agricultural Systems of the World: An Evolutionary Approach” by David Grigg

Title: The Agricultural Systems of the World: An Evolutionary Approach
Author: David Grigg
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 3.5 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Grigg overviews the main characteristics and distribution of major agricultural system of the world and why they came into being. Grigg focuses on both modern systems and historical systems.

If you would like to learn more about the role of agriculture in human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress.: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

My Comments

This book is a great introduction to agricultural systems. Because agricultural systems are the foundation for the vast majority of societies, they are critical to understanding world history. My summary below is particularly long because I believe this book deserves far more attention than it is currently getting.

Key Take-aways

  • Geography plays a key role in the development of agriculture.
  • Crops, livestocks and farming techniques have diffused throughout the world (although only where geography allows).
  • Agriculture is intimately tied with urbanization, technology and industrialization. Agriculture affected them and vice versa.
  • Seed agriculture of Temperate zones is very different from root agriculture in Tropical zones.
  • Each region that developed agriculture had a unique agricultural system based upon geography and technology.
  • Technological innovation has dramatically improved agricultural yield, particularly in Western nations.
  • While virtually every region’s agricultural system has been relatively unchanged for millennia, the agricultural systems of Northwest Europe and United States has undergone radical change.

Other Books by the Same Author:

Important Quotes from Book

In spite of the great migrations which have been going on for some 10,000 years, remarkably little of the earth’s land surface is cultivated. About 11 percent is used for crops and another fifth used for grazing. Further, in spite of the continuing pressure to expand the ecumene, the world’s population is still remarkably concentrated. In 1960 about four-fifths of the world’s population lived on only 16 per cent of the earth’s land surface, whilst only 15 per cent of the land surface had densities above 20 per km.

There are many reasons for this continuing concentration of population, but one of considerable significance is the physical environment. Although geographers have recently been apt to discount the importance of environment, as a reaction to the period when geographical determinism was used as a basis of all explanations, the great importance of the physical environment in explaining the development of types of agriculture can hardly be gainsaid, and will be apparent throughout this book.

A third important process has been the diffusion of crops, livestock and farming techniques.

Fourth is the complex series of changes which have accompanied economic development in the last 200 years: industrialisation, urbanisation, commercialization and transport improvements, combined with radical changes in agricultural technology, have revolutionised farming since 1850.

Early History of Agriculture

It is helpful to make a distinction between ‘seed’ agriculture and ‘vegeculture’. The latter refers to plants reproduced by vegetative propagation, mainly tropical roots such as taro, manioc, yams, sweet potatoes and arrowroot. In tropical vegeculture rhizomes have to be cut from the growing plant and individually planted. There is less need to completely clear the natural vegetation; if a mixture of roots is grown, crops may be harvested, by digging up each root individually, over a long period, rather than at one specific time; there is thus less need for storage. Most tuber-growing communities also collected the fruits of trees such as bananas or coconuts, and little more than protection, rather than domestication, was necessary to provide a food supply.

In seed agriculture, which includes of course the cereals which are now the staple food crops in all but a few parts of the world, more initial clearance of vegetation is necessary, seed is sown en masse  and harvested in one short period. The crops are predominantly annuals, and have a marked growing season, necessitating some form of storage during the winter or dry season. Seed agriculture has formed the basis of the major agricultural civilisations and was associated early on with the plough and draught animals.

[South West Asia and eastern Mediterranean] Here are found the wild plants from which wheat and barley were domesticated (Fig. 2), whilst it is only in this zone that the wild progenitors of sheep, goats, cattle and pigs were found together, for the latter two had a much broader distribution than wild sheep and goats.

See page 14 for map of wild ancestors of domesticated animals.

But perhaps the most important change was the slow adoption of the oxdrawn plough.

By about 3000 B.C. two distinctive types of agriculture had emerged in South West Asia and the eastern Mediterranean. One was dry-farming, possibly based upon shifting cultivation, with wheat and barley as the main crops; sheep, goats, cattle and pigs were kept. The plough was later adopted and then oxen added their manure to that of livestock grazing on the arable stubbles. Reaping knives and sickles were used in harvesting.

The second type did not differ fundamentally in crops, stock or implements, but was found in the flood plains of the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates, where the very low rainfall necessitated a dependence upon irrigation.

First, the crops indigenous to the Americas were quite different from those domesticated in the Old World. Maize, squash, beans, manioc, the potato and groundnuts were the major food crops. Wild cotton seems to have occurred in both India and the Americas, and was domesticated independently in each region. Second, the only animals domesticated in the Americas were the llama, alpaca and turkey. There were no herding animals until after Columbus. Third, the plough was not invented in the Americas, whilst the coa was more akin to the digging stick than the hoe. Metals were rarely used for agricultural implements.

Thus the agricultural civilisations of the Americas were quite different from those in the Old World, although there were common techniques. Slash-and-burn, irrigation, terracing, and the use of llama dung for manure were all practiced.

By the middle of the first millennium B.C. there were already very marked differences in the types of agriculture to be found in the world. They can be categorised as follows.

South West Asia and its derivatives:

  • Irrigation in Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Turkestan and Indus
  • Dry-farming was basic complex in this area
  • Mediterranean: dry-farming plus tree crops (figs, olives and grapes)
  • Northern Europe: Added oats and rye. Cattle and pigs were more important

South East Asia:

  • Tropical vegeculture: taro, yam, bananas and coconuts; shifting agriculture with digging stick and axe as main tools; pigs and poultry were only livestock. Gradually replaced by wet-rice cultivation.
  • Wet-rice cultivation: gradually replaced tropical vegeculture where conducive.

Northern China:

  • Local domesticates: Pigs, foxtail millet, soy beans, mulberry.
  • Imports from South West Asia: wheat, barley, sheep, goats and cattle.


  • Tropical vegeculture: yams
  • Cultivation of millet and sorghum
  • No plow; shifting cultivation; no livestock
  • No farmers in Tropical Forest or Southern Africa

Americas (two shifting systems):

  • Tropical vegeculture: yams
  • Maize, squash, beans
  • Neither system had plow or livestock

Diffusion of Crops and Livestock:

The wild varieties from which crops have been bred were confined to a very small part of the earth’s surface – about 10 per cent according to Vavilov — and most of the earth has produced no significant plants for man. Most of the crops now grown had been domesticated by 2000 B.C. or before, but many were confined until quite recently to the region in which they were first domesticated.

South West Asia is the home of crops which occupy a third of present-day world cropland, Latin America a little over a fifth, and Africa south of the Sahara rather less than a fifth. No other region has made a major contribution.

South West and South East Asia rely most upon indigenous crops…. the most advanced of modern agricultural regions, rely largely upon crops which were domesticated elsewhere. The low figure for India is partly explained by the assignment of rice, taro and jute to South East Asia. It also indicates how India has stood at the meeting place of three major centres of domestication: South West Asia, South East Asia and Africa. The table also gives a measure of the impact of the discovery of the Americas upon the crops of different regions. Africa has been most influenced, particularly by the introduction of maize and manioc. American crops have had least influence in Australia, South West Asia, China and India.

See Page 37 for table with source areas for major crops.

Since the fifteenth century the dispersal of crops has been greatly accelerated.

In 1500 the crops grown in Europe were either derived from South West or South East Asia, and the latter were for climatic reasons confined largely to the Mediterranean. There were two major developments after 1500. First, potatoes and maize from America were adopted. Second, grasses and root crops were bred from indigenous plants.

Potatoes and maize were thus complementary, for potatoes are mainly a northern European crop whilst maize is confined to the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Of other American crops, only tobacco and tomatoes have been of any great importance.

Nearly all the cultivated grasses – some fifty out of 10000 wild species – are indigenous to the Mediterranean and northern Eurasia.

Africa south of the Sahara had a limited range of crops when Europeans first arrived in the fifteenth century. The most important were Sorghum vulgare and a number of millets. In parts of West Africa the indigenous yams and African rice were grown. Bananas, the greater yam and Asiatic rice were also found. But after the discovery of the Americas two new food crops, manioc and maize, were introduced.

South East Asia has been economically transformed by crops introduced from other areas, yet 70 per cent of the crop area is planted with crops indigenous to the region. This paradox is explained by the overwhelming importance of rice as a food crop throughout the region.

North America has no important indigenous crops and thus all those grown there now are introductions…. Australia and New Zealand, like North America, had no indigenous plants of any value, and their modern crops are all introductions.

Cattle, sheep and goats from South West Asia spread to northern China early in the Chinese Neolithic and the cattle of northern China are still of South West Asian origin, whereas cattle in southern China are a cross between brachyceros and zebu, which came from India at an early but unknown date.

In most of the tropics cattle act as draught animals, but the water buffalo is an important auxiliary in South, East and South East Asia.

Page 42 map of distribution of major types of modern cattle.

Page 43 chart of regional distribution of livestock.

54% of water buffalos are in India. Virtually all the rest are in China or SE Asia.

Technical and Economic Changes in Agriculture

[There] has been a great increase in the cultivated area since the middle of the nineteenth century, not only in the established agricultural civilisations of Europe, India and East Asia but in the hitherto sparsely settled areas of Russia, North America, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Manchuria. Except in the latter area the colonisation of these areas was undertaken by people who migrated from Europe.

The commercialisation of agriculture in the nineteenth century and the growth of new agricultural regions would have been impossible without substantial improvements in transport and the consequent reduction of freight rates. Until the middle of the nineteenth century the most common form of land transport was by ox or horse-drawn cart, and the cost of moving agricultural produce limited trade to high-value products such as silk, wool, spices, wines, tobacco and sugar unless water transport was available.

The remarkable changes in economic conditions in the nineteenth century were not matched by advances in agricultural technology except in the United States, Canada, parts of north-western Europe and Australia. Indeed the pace of technological change in farming has always been remarkably slow. This is partly because most of the basic implements and methods of farming were known at a very early date and subsequent agricultural progress has been a matter of the wider adoption of techniques known to a minority of farmers, and the slow improvement of implements such as the plough. Radical changes were few until recently.

The introduction of the plough was thus a fundamental advance. It appeared in Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium B.C. and by the later part of the first millennium B.C. was in use in the major agricultural civilisations, with three exceptions: Africa, south of the Sahara, where it still remains uncommon and the hoe is the major implement; the Americas, where it was unknown until the arrival of the Europeans; and Polynesia.

Many different varieties of the ard evolved, but it has remained the basic implement in southern Europe, North Africa, South West Asia, South East Asia, India and East Asia.

See Page 51 for map of distribution of plow in pre-modern times.

By the early centuries of the Christian period the great agricultural civilisations of northern China, northern India, southern Europe and South West Asia were on a par technically.16 Between classical times and the Age of Discovery the greatest innovations came in northern Europe.

In A.D. 1500 northern Europe was significantly in advance of southern Europe in farming methods. But there was as yet no great gap in agricultural productivity between Europe, India and East Asia…  On the other hand there were major differences between the plough civilisations, with their rudimentary mixed farming, and Africa, the Americas and Polynesia, where the plough had still yet to penetrate.

The great divide in the history of agricultural technology came in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was this period which created the great gulf in productivity between the present agricultures of Asia, Africa and much of Latin America, and western Europe, North America and Australasia.

The first gasoline-powered tractor was built in 1892, and the first tractor factory opened in the United States in 1907. But it was not until the inter-war period that the tractor replaced the horse in North America and Australia, and in Europe it was since the end of the Second World War. Over much of the rest of the world the tractor remains of little significance.

In the United States the number of man-hours per hectare fell from 148 in 1830 to 37 in the 1890s, whilst in California, where the first combine-harvesters were in use by the end of the century, to only 6.25 hours.

Shifting Agriculture:

The essential features of shifting cultivation are, first, the rotation of fields rather than crops, with short periods of cropping alternating with long periods of natural fallow; second, the use of slash-and-burn methods to clear the vegetation, and third, the maintenance of fertility by allowing the vegetation to regenerate.

Foremost among these is the absence of the plough…  In both the Americas and Asia the digging stick was for long the main implement in shifting cultivation, and often, with axes and cutlasses, remains so.

Few shifting cultivators keep livestock. The most common are pigs and poultry, particularly in the Americas and Asia, and they survive by scavenging. In Africa sheep, goats and cattle are kept, but receive little attention, and cattle are hardly kept at all in the tropical forest regions and those parts of the savannas where the tsetse fly is found. But many shifting cultivators still hunt and fish.

It is the rapidity of weed growth as much as the decline in soil fertility which prompts the abandonment of a swidden.

See page 59 for map of present distribution of shifting cultivation in SE Asia.

Agriculture with most of the above characteristics is found in parts of the Americas, Asia and Africa and for the most part is confined to the tropical areas within these continents.

Shifting cultivation is now largely confined to the tropics, and there is no doubt, given a long enough fallow, that is an efficient method of maintaining soil fertility in the humid  tropics. No satisfactory alternative, except the plantation, which also simulates the primary forest, or wet-rice cultivation, which is confined to deltas and river valleys, has yet been devised.

Thus an alternative explanation is that it has been replaced by the expansion of more intensive systems. Every year between 400000 and 800000 hectares of land used for shifting cultivation in South East Asia are converted to permanent agriculture. Shifting cultivation may then be regarded as a residual feature remaining only in those regions as yet unpenetrated by the plough and where population densities are low enough to allow an adequate fallow. There is much evidence to support this view.

In Europe shifting agriculture survived as a supplementary technique, particularly in mountainous and infertile areas; it remained an independent farming system longest in the forests of Scandinavia and Russia.

In India, South East Asia and southern China … Shifting cultivation is characteristically found in upland areas, whilst the dominant farming system in the lowlands is wet-rice cultivation. But there is no reason to suppose that shifting cultivation is an adaptation to upland areas and steep slopes. On the contrary, it was probably more widely distributed formerly and has been pushed into the uplands by more intensive systems, particularly wet-rice cultivation.

The first type of agriculture in South East Asia was tropical vegeculture, based upon taro and yams, and trees such as the coconut and banana.

Latin America has the most complex of agricultural heritages, for not only is there the agricultural tradition of the Indians, but also the influence of Europeans, who brought the farming practices of medieval Iberia, and also established stock-raising and the plantation system, the latter based initially on introduced crops.

Shifting cultivation is still an important method of farming, particularly in the areas where Indian communities remain relatively isolated from European influence.

Shifting cultivation is of considerable antiquity in Latin America; archaeological investigations suggest that at the beginning of the Christian era it was the predominant method of land use over most of lowland Central and South America, and barbecho was practised in many of the upland areas.

Two types of shifting cultivation can be distinguished at least as early as the first millennium B.C. In Mexico and as far south as western Nicaragua, the dominant crops were maize, beans and squash. They were grown in clearings called milpa,

In southern Central America and in the tropical lowlands shifting cultivation was based largely on tubers – manioc, sweet potatoes and arrowroot, a system described as conuco, a form of vegeculture; in contrast milpa was based on seed agriculture.

Under certain circumstances shifting cultivation is a remarkable adjustment to the environment. In the humid tropics, where primary or secondary rain-forest still survives, the fallow period – provided it is of sufficient length – is fully capable of restoring plant nutrients to the soil, and thus plays the role that manures, fertilisers, legumes and rotations play in other farming systems. Further, the apparent disorder of the system has some positive advantages.

For all this, slash-and-burn is a method of farming which has been adopted in a variety of environments when land has been abundant, for it gives a reasonable return for a limited input of labour, and negligible inputs of capital. Thus it has frequently been adopted by pioneer farmers in forest lands at a variety of times and in a variety of places.

Wet Rice Cultivation in Asia:

Wet-rice cultivation is perhaps the most distinctive of the types of agriculture discussed in this book, and certainly one of the most important, for it supports a majority of the rural population of the Far East. It is the dominant mode of farming in China as far north as the Hsin Ho; in South Korea; in most of Japan; in Taiwan; in the Tonkin delta and the Annamite coastlands in North Vietnam; in the Mekong delta and around the Tonle Sap; in the Central Plain of Thailand; the Irrawaddy delta; the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta, the lower Ganges plain, the deltas of the eastern coast of India, and in Kerala; in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) it is important in both the Dry and Wet Zones. In the islands of South East Asia wet rice cultivation is less widespread than on the mainland, but it is found in Java and the central plain of Luzon.

Although wet-rice cultivation supports much of the rural population of the Far

East, it occupies but a small part of the total area.

Most wet-rice cultivation is thus found in deltas or the lower reaches of rivers. In these areas little cost is involved in levelling the fields — the elaborate terracing of valley slopes is not typical of most rice-growing areas – and a water supply is nearby.

See page 76 for map of wet rice cultivation in Asia.

The ease of levelling land for sawahs, and the nearness of a water supply, whether it be irrigation from canals or wells, clearly make river plains favourable  sites for wet-rice. Furthermore wet-rice requires an impermeable sub-soil, else the water in the sawahs will soon drain away. Rice also yields best on heavy soils. As rivers deposit mainly fine-grained material in their lower reaches, heavy soils predominate.

The micro-environment of the sawah also helps to explain the ability of the wet-rice cultivator to produce constant crop yields from the same field for year after year, often without the use of manures or rotations, in contrast to the upland farming of the Far East, where shifting cultivation is practised. This phenomenon has not been satisfactorily explained, but a partial explanation can be offered. First, the water-covered sawah is protected from high temperatures, the direct impact of tropical raindrops, and high winds; soil erosion is thus reduced to a minimum. Second, the high water table reduces the vertical movement of water and thus limits the leaching of plant nutrients. Third, both floods and irrigation water bring silt in suspension and other plant nutrients in solution, renewing soil fertility each year. Fourth, the water in the sawahs contains bluegreen algae which promote the fixation of nitrogen. Nonetheless in the last thirty or forty years rice yields have shown signs of decline in parts of the Far East, particularly where double-cropping has been introduced.

Until the 1960s changes in traditional wet-rice agriculture had been few: increases in output were obtained by expanding the area under cultivation and by greater labour inputs. Only in a few areas had modern engineering allowed the creation of dams, reservoirs.

First, farms are small, and fields invariably small and widely scattered. The typical rice farmer has only one or two hectares (Table 9). Only in the more recently settled areas of the lower Irrawaddy, Menam and Mekong are farms larger, averaging 4-6 hectares.

Most wet-rice farms are operated by family labour alone.

Most wet-rice areas support very high population densities.

Rice is the dominant crop in the wet-rice farming system.

The use of rotations is rare among rice cultivators,.

A last characteristic of wet-rice farming is the unimportance of livestock in the farm economy. The animals kept are used primarily for draught purposes…. Meat and milk form a negligible part of the diet.

In the first century A.D. – the time of the Han Dynasty in China and of the Guptas in India — the rice regions were sparsely populated (Fig. 13). The most densely populated part of China was the lower Hwang Ho valley, in India the middle Ganges, and in neither area was rice the dominant crop. In A.D. 2 there were 58000000 people in the Han Empire, and of these 43000000 lived north of the Yangtse delta, 35000000 on the alluvial plains of the Hwang Ho, and its tributaries the Wei Ho and Fen Ho.35  South of the Yangtse there were few Han Chinese; most of the area was occupied by Thai-speaking peoples, who practiced shifting cultivation in the uplands and a primitive form of wet-rice cultivation in the river valleys, and kept zebu cattle and water buffaloes… night-soil, although how far these principles were practised is unknown. Hand cultivation with the hoe and the spade still predominated, although the use of the ox-drawn plough, with a metal share, was becoming increasingly important.

Thus the characteristic features of Chinese wet-rice cultivation emerged later, when the Han Chinese migrated south of the Yangtse; they combined wet-rice, the zebu, the water buffalo and the poultry of the Thai-speaking peoples, bringing with them pigs and the intensive practices of the North, but abandoning their sheep.

So rapidly did Han migration proceed that by the eighth century A.D. half the Chinese population lived in the Yangtse valley and the areas further south; indeed in the fourteenth century A.D. when the Mongols pillaged the North, over four-fifths of the total population lived in the Yangtse and the South.38

By the fourteenth century the major rice-growing areas of the present were already well-established — the Yangtse delta, the Hsiang valley.

In the eighth century early-maturing varieties were introduced from Champa, an Indian state in Indo-China. This had a number of consequences; the cultivation of two crops in a year — rice and wheat – became more common in the Yangtse valley, particularly after the tenth century, whilst further south two rice crops in a year became possible. The earlymaturing varieties also needed less water than the superseded late-maturing varieties. It thus became possible to grow rice on terraces on the slopes of the southern uplands, using water from springs or relying upon rainfall alone; much of southern China was terraced by the fourteenth century. The new crops were well fertilised; by the fourteenth century the use of night-soil and silt was well established.

By the fourteenth century most of the present intensive methods practised by wet-rice cultivators were known in the Rice Region of southern China.

Wet-rice farming in Java is a curious outlier of East Asian techniques in South East Asia. Terracing, double-cropping, transplanting and irrigation are all practised, and population densities are high, farms small and fragmented, and tenancy common. Yet crop yields are low. Further, Java has a much longer history of wet-rice cultivation than most other South East Asian countries.

The slow occupation of the deltas of the Irrawaddy, Menam and Mekong by peoples whose original homes lay further north and who had cultural affinities with the Chinese.

When the British arrived in the 1820s [Burma] was still thinly populated; rice was grown, but only by shifting cultivation. There was no irrigation, nor had any attempt been made to control the floods of the Irrawaddy.

The main British contribution in Burma, apart from establishing law and order, was to build, between 1860 and 1930, a series of embankments to control the floods of the Irrawaddy.

The area under rice in lower Burma expanded prodigiously (Table 18), as did exports, so that by the 1930s the rice area in the delta was nearly ten times what it had been in the 1850s, and over half the output was exported.

As in Thailand, the expansion of the rice area in the lower Mekong was slow in comparison with the colonisation of the lower Irrawaddy.

Malaya and the Philippines have much in common with Burma, Thailand and South Vietnam, in that they were without wet-rice civilisations in the sixteenth century, and that they have also experienced a considerable expansion of their rice area in the last hundred years.

Thus in Asia we can envisage a number of types of farming emerging. First was tropical vegeculture; second, after about 3500 B.C., rice was domesticated. Dry-rice was grown as a part of a shifting cultivation system. Wet-rice, on the other hand, needed different conditions; it was one of the few crops that could successfully utilize seasonally inundated deltas and the lower reaches of rivers. But, as was noted above, there was no need for wet-rice to be grown intensively. Thus at some date prior to 500 B.C. extensive wet-rice cultivation was found in most of the river valleys of Asia, but it bore little resemblance to the intensive farming practices of modern times. The first millennium A.D. was the frontier period of the wet-rice cultivators. They colonised southern China, Honshu and the delta of the Ganges-Brahmaputra. At a fairly early time in this millennium most of the techniques of wet-rice cultivation were known to some farmers in most parts of South, South East and East Asia.

Nonetheless there were, by medieval times, very different levels of wet-rice techniques in Asia; it seems reasonable to suppose that this was a result of differences in population density (Table 22). By about 1400 most of the land suitable for wet-rice cultivation in China, Japan, northern Vietnam and probably Korea was already occupied; to feed the growing populations, wet-rice cultivators have been forced to intensify production. In 1400 the nutritional density of Japan already reached 900 per km2 and the rice region of the Chinese South, 300.

In 1600 Japan had a nutritional density of 850, China nearly 500. At this time India, the only other country for which even the most tenuous information is available, had a nutritional density of only 269.

Although there is little reliable information on nutritional densities in South East Asia before the twentieth century, it seems certain that, except in Java, nutritional densities were lower than in India, and much lower than in East Asia. Although population growth has been faster in these regions (Table 17) than in East Asia or India, they still have comparatively low nutritional densities. Their cultivators have thus not yet been compelled to adopt the intensive methods of East Asia.

Pastoral Nomadism:

Pastoral nomads rely for their subsistence upon their herds. Milk, from camels, cattle, sheep and goats, provides food. Meat is only rarely eaten, when animals die or when they are slaughtered on ceremonial occasions; then hides or skins are also obtained.

Yet few nomads have been completely independent of sedentary societies. They have often been described as living in a symbiotic relationship with cultivators… perhaps might more fittingly be described as predatory.

Nor has the pastoral nomad’s economy remained static. There has been a long-run tendency for nomadic groups to become, first semi-nomadic, and then finally completely sedentary.

Although the routes of pastoral nomads are ordered and confined to their own territories in the short-run, in the long-run many nomadic groups have displayed pastoral drift: the long-term, long-distance movement from one area to another.

Herd composition varies from one region to another, but throughout the whole of the dry belt sheep and goats are the most common animals, cattle the least common. Cattle need better pastures and more water to drink, and they are only the dominant livestock in the Sahel and Sudan zones of Africa, where rainfall may reach 880 mm a year. In the most arid parts of the Sahara and the Arabian desert, the camel, which can go for long periods without drinking, and will browse salty plants, is the dominant animal. In Turkestan and Mongolia sheep and goats are the most numerous; the double-humped Bactrian camel is used for transport, but the prestige animal is the horse, in contrast to the Sahara-Arabian areas, where the camel holds this position.

See page 116 for chart on Herd composition by region.

But it was the development of horse riding which was critical in the rise of pastoral nomadism in the Eurasian steppes, for not only did it make herding, particularly long-distance herding, easier, but it gave the nomads a considerable military advantage over sedentary peoples.

[In North Africa] The camel grew in importance in the early Christian centuries, but the expansion of pastoral nomadism in the Sahara is closely associated with two periods of Arab expansion. The first, in the seventh century.

In the eleventh century there was a second outpouring of bedouin from Arabia into Africa, the Hilalai invasions. The numbers involved were far greater than in the seventh century, and sedentary agriculture declined on the coast, particularly in Cyrenaicia and Tripolitania.

In Anatolia there was no true nomadic pastoralism until the eleventh century, when Turkish pastoralists arrived.

The decline [of pastoral nomadism] began in the sixteenth century. We must now consider why this has happened.

Until the sixteenth century pastoral nomads had a military advantage over peasants. They were mobile, on horses or camels, and their mounted archers and clever tactics were generally too much for medieval European armies. However improvements in weapons after the sixteenth century took the initiative from the nomads. It was not however until the late eighteenth century that the European steppes were finally opened to settlement when the Russians defeated the Turks in 1768—74 and 1787—92.42  Outside Europe the nomad still had the upper hand, and retained the advantage as long as central governments were weak. Thus in North Africa and the Middle East the pacification of the nomads did not come until European powers arrived. In North Africa the French occupation in the late

nineteenth century, and in the Middle East the British and French occupation after the First World War, finally brought the bedouin under control. Pacification removed several sources of nomad income. First, it led to the abolition of slavery. In the Sahara many bedouin  had Negro slaves who worked land which provided grain and dates…  Second, pacification has reduced tribal warfare, and more significant, the ‘protection’ of sedentary cultivators by the bedouin.  Third, pacification and modernisation have ended the nomads’ monopoly of transport across the desert.

Mediterranean Agriculture:

Three environmental characteristics have been of fundamental importance in the evolution of traditional Mediterranean agriculture. First is the long summer drought; rainfall is confined to the winter half of the year. Unless crops are irrigated they must either be sown in the autumn and harvested by early summer, or be capable of resisting drought. Second are the comparatively mild winters and hot, sunny summers. Temperatures are such that a variety of temperate crops can be grown in the rainy season, and — with irrigation — sub-tropical crops in the summer. Thus, given adequate moisture, not only rice, sugar-cane, tobacco, citrus fruits and even bananas can be grown, but wheat, barley, potatoes and deciduous fruits as well. Third is the terrain. Mediterranean agriculture has its classic locus on the shores of the Sea, where coastal plains are backed by low hills which share the summer drought, and mountains which have not only more rain in winter, but some in summer too…  typical village community would grow wheat and barley in the plain, and graze sheep and goats on the stubble; it would grow olives and grapes on the lower hills, with patches of irrigated vegetables around the village; in the summer the flocks would be driven to the higher pastures of the mountains to return to the plains when the autumn rains came.

The prime feature of land use in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea is the great importance of cereals, and in particular wheat. In the countries of the West Mediterranean about half the arable land is under cereals and a further 40 per cent in fallow, leaving only a tenth of the area in fruits, vegetables and other crops.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of cereal cultivation is the fallow. After a crop has been harvested, the land is left fallow not only for the ensuing summer, but for the following winter and summer as well, the aim being to conserve soil moisture.

Although most of the arable land is devoted to cereals, much of the land used for agricultural purposes is for grazing. But most of this is unimproved pasture, and little cropland is used for fodder crops. Thus livestock products are a low proportion of farm income.

Sheep and goats are the dominant animals, for they can survive on much poorer fodder than cattle. Two central problems limit the development of livestock production. First is the summer drought and the consequent absence of good grazing. The traditional response to this was transhumance; sheep and goats fed in the plains in winter and spring, and were driven to the upland pastures in summer.

Second is the lack of integration between crop and stock farming in the Mediterranean. As yet no legume has been found which, inserted in the rotation, can provide feed for livestock and replenish soil fertility as does clover in temperate areas. Thus most crops grown in the Mediterranean are for direct human consumption; in contrast, in northern Europe crops as well as grass are fed to animals.

The Mediterranean is dominated by extensive wheat cultivation and grazing (Fig. 17); both have a low productivity. However this impoverished farming system is partially redeemed by the importance of tree crops and horticulture. The olive and the grape-vine are the most important of the tree crops.

The fourth element in the agricultural landscape of the Mediterranean basin is the cultivation of fruits and vegetables. Not only can temperate fruits such as apples and pears be grown, but also sub-tropical fruits such as the peach and citrus; of the citrus fruits the orange is of special significance. The vegetables grown include potatoes, lettuce, onions, cauliflowers and peas.

The importance of sea transport in the establishment of colonies and the expansion of imperial dominions must not be underestimated, for it allowed the Greek city states and later Rome to specialise in the production of wine and olive-oil for export, and in return to import grain. Thus the Mediterranean economy became at least partly commercialised early in the millennium before Christ.

By the first centuries of the Christian era the basic features of traditional Mediterranean agriculture were well established. Wheat and barley were the main crops, invariably grown with a fallow; the ard was used to cross-plough, and the fallow was worked two or three times to eliminate weeds. The crop was harvested with the sickle. Cereals and fallow dominated the land-use pattern.

It is perhaps appropriate here to stress the significance of Mesopotamia in the development of Mediterranean agriculture. Farming was – and is – based upon three types of crop: those which would complete their life cycle in the period of winter rain, such as wheat; those which could survive the summer drought, such as the olive; and those crops indigenous to areas outside the Mediterranean climate which grew in summer and thus had to be irrigated. These crops came from the monsoon lands of South and South East Asia, and were first introduced into Mesopotamia before being adopted in Egypt and the Levant.

The Dark Ages in northern Europe were a period of important technological change; the mouldboard plough replaced the Mediterranean ard, and the twofield system of the south was superseded by the three-field system. But the lack of rain in early summer made this impossible in the Mediterranean ;  the ard,  on the other hand, was probably well adapted to the light soils of the south, where moisture conservation was more significant than drainage, and too vigorous cultivation encouraged soil erosion. The Mediterranean countries were also beginning to pay the penalty of their long history of  settlement. The steady deforestation of the uplands encouraged soil erosion, which in turn overburdened the streams with silt. Centuries of oversilting led to poor drainage in the lowland plains, making them.

Of equal significance was the encouragement of the intensive cultivation of fruits and vegetables. But of greatest moment was the introduction of a wide range of crops already grown in South West Asia, or recently brought from India or South East Asia. First were the citrus fruits.

Perhaps more important were a number of other crops. Sugar-cane… cotton and the mulberry tree… rice.

But perhaps one of the most grievous long-term effects of Islamic expansion was the introduction of Arab land law, which, later modified by the Ottoman Turks, led to the proliferation of estates owned by absentee landlords and worked by share-croppers overburdened by tax and with little interest in improving their farming.

Most progress was made in northern Italy, where agricultural advance was a response to rapid urban growth, and where, conversely, urban investment went into agriculture. The textile industries prompted the growth of new crops – mulberry trees for silk, and woad for dyeing; the land under fruits, vegetables and grapes expanded to feed the communes; the fallow declined as rotations were devised, and, most striking of all, irrigated pastures supported a dairying industry. This was the achievement mainly of small farmers, not large estates. Indeed northern Italy had by the fourteenth century the most advanced agricultural system in Europe. But it should be remembered here that the Po valley is one of the few large areas of fertile lowland in the Mediterranean basin.

After the remarkable achievements of Italy in the Renaissance and of Spain in settling the New World, the Mediterranean declined — or perhaps more accurately stagnated – until the nineteenth century. There was very little technological change in agriculture, although new crops were adopted.

About half the sixteenth-century settlers of the Americas came from Andalusia.

The precise nature of early Spanish land grants is extremely complex, but certainly in the eighteenth century the hacienda, the very large estate, operated by peons tied to the estate, predominated throughout Spanish America save where the plantation, based on slavery, was the rule.

Thus since 1880 the agriculture of California has been profoundly changed. In the 1880s extensive wheat production and livestock rearing predominated. Since then, viticulture and more especially fruit and vegetables have superseded these extensive land uses.

Mixed Farming in Western Europe and North America:

Europe north of the Alps in Roman times was thinly populated, and, compared with the Mediterranean region, possessed of a backward agricultural technology… Northern Europe is the home of two of the most productive of agricultural systems, mixed farming and dairying.

Mixed farming – or Commercial Crops and Livestock… is found throughout Europe, from Ireland in the west through central Europe into Russia. It is also found in North America east of the ninety-eighth meridian, reaching its apogee in the Corn Belt: outliers are to be found in other areas of European settlement, in the Argentine pampas, South East Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.

The mixed farming of north-western Europe has many distinctive features. It is, first of all, highly commercialised.

The typical farm in the mixed farming regions of north-western Europe and the eastern United States is the family farm, owned and operated by family labour. Hired farm labourers are uncommon in both continents; family workers provide 70-85 per cent of the labour force in western Europe.

The major feature of mixed farming is that farms produce both crops and livestock, and the two enterprises are integrated. This is most obvious in the land-use patterns. Few farms in western Europe or the eastern United States have less than a fifth of their cultivated area under grass.

The advantages of growing a number of crops are threefold. In the first place it protects the farmer against the risk of poor prices and disease. In the second place it spreads labour requirements more evenly throughout the year, particularly where both autumn- and spring-sown crops can be grown, which is true of most of north-western Europe — in contrast to the Mediterranean areas. Third, and perhaps most important, it aids in the maintenance of soil fertility if crops are grown in rotations. Instead of growing the same crop continuously in the same field, a succession of different crops is grown. This reduces the risk of disease; further, if complementary crops are grown, different nutrients are removed from the soil.

But whilst crops are an important source of income for many farmers in the mixed farming regions, they are of little consequence compared with livestock products. Indeed much cropland is used to feed animals, as has already been noted. In western Europe only a quarter of the cropland is sown with crops intended for direct human consumption14. In Denmark, which will be touched upon in more detail in Chapter 10, nine-tenths of all grains are fed to livestock, and in Sweden three-quarters of all the crops are so consumed.15 Not surprisingly a high proportion of farm income is derived from the sale of livestock products—milk, butter, cheese, beef, poultry, pigs and eggs.

The variety of crops grown in northern Europe in Roman times was much less than in the Mediterranean region. Oats, barley, wheat and rye were all grown, as was spelt, which remained a major crop until late in the Middle Ages.21 There is evidence of peas, lentils and vetch being grown, but vegetables and fruits, so important in the Mediterranean region, were of little significance. Agricultural settlement was in villages or hamlets and farming was on an individual, not a collective, basis. There was still much shifting agriculture, or at least long fallowing; where permanent settlement was found, fields were small and rectangular in shape, and a two-field system was often practised. The implements were primitive. The plough, made of wood, was based upon the Mediterranean ard and had neither wheels, coulter nor mouldboard.

Most farmers kept livestock as well as growing cereals; pigs probably provided most of the meat, for cattle were raised as draught animals rather than for beef.

In much of northern Europe — particularly in the cooler and moister north west – cropping was unimportant compared with pastoralism, whilst in the east, Slav tribes still placed much reliance on hunting and collecting.

The introduction of the three-field system was thus an important advance…  Instead it spread slowly from north of the Loire into the Low Countries, Germany, Denmark and England. But in all these areas both temporary cropping and the two-field system survived until the end of the Middle Ages, especially on poorer soils and in the remoter areas. Nor does the three-field system seem to have penetrated western Britain, northern Scandinavia or southern France.

However between about 950 and 1300 there was a remarkable change in farming, prompted not only by an increase of population – which had declined in the second half of the first millennium – but also by the revival of urban life, the rise of industry, and the spread of a monetary economy. The Dark Ages were past.

This period was the great age of land clearance in Europe.

But it was German colonisation eastwards that was the most dramatic… Germans took across the Elbe the open fields, the heavy plough and the iron axe which accelerated the rate of forest clearance.

By the end of the Middle Ages crop yields, although well below those of modern times, were perhaps twice those of the Carolingian period, whilst the spread of the three-field system gave more harvests. The harrow came into general use, whilst the adoption of the horse and the use of larger teams for ploughing made more cultivations of the seed bed and the fallow possible; thus farming became more labour-intensive, particularly after 1250 when the supply of new land had largely run out.54

 Thus by 1300 northern European farming had taken on many of the features it was to retain until well into the nineteenth century. The main aim of the farmer was to raise cereals; the winter-sown crops, wheat and rye provided flour; the spring-sown, oats and barley, fodder for horses, grain and malt for ale. Other crops were rare, although some pulses were grown. Few fodder crops were grown, and livestock depended upon rough grazing. Stockbreeding for beef, milk or butter was thus subsidiary to the maintenance of draught animals.

The considerable urban population encouraged the production of crops for sale as well as some local specialisation. Nonetheless commercialisation was hampered by the high cost of transporting agricultural products, except in the areas immediately near to towns, or those with easy access to waterways. Before the eighteenth century no more than 1 per cent of Europe’s cereal production entered international trade.

But for the most part late medieval agriculture was still largely subsistence orientated and dominated by the production of cereals. Between 1300 and 1800 there were three major trends which gave rise to modern mixed farming. First was the reduction of the fallow…

A number of solutions were devised, all first practised in the Low Countries, Flanders and Brabant, and later in Zeeland and Friesland. First was the growth of turnips upon the fallow, in the fourteenth century. The turnip provided winter feed for cattle, and so increased the density of stocking, and in turn the supply of manure… Second were the beginnings of convertible husbandry: two years under cereals, one year fallow, followed by three to six years under grass.  Third was the growth of industrial crops, particularly hemp, woad, flax, cole seed to give oil, and, in the fourteenth century, hops for brewing. This took place near the towns in Flanders,

Many farmers in the Low Countries became full owners of their land before those of much of the rest of Europe.

By the late seventeenth century turnips and clover were grown in parts of south east England, and in the early eighteenth century the classic four-course rotation emerged…

Thus by the late eighteenth century the more advanced farmers in eastern England had integrated livestock production and crop production. A range of products could be sold off the farm – beef, wool, milk, wheat for flour and barley for malting. Furthermore the combination of crop and livestock production evened out seasonal labour demands. Thus although essential features of mixed farming appeared first in late medieval Flanders, the system matured in eighteenth-century England and thereafter became the model for the rest of western Europe.

The second major trend was the extinction of common rights and the consolidation of the dispersed strips; this proceeded most rapidly in England, and later in Denmark and Sweden. Enclosure began in England at least as early as the thirteenth century, and proceeded slowly in the next four centuries.

The third major trend to be discerned after the end of the Middle Ages was a slow increase in the importance of livestock.

But it was only in the eighteenth century that specialised production of livestock became established — cattle began to be bred for meat or milk, and sheep for wool or mutton, rather than as general-purpose animals.

But even by the early nineteenth century farming outside the more densely populated areas was still remarkably backward. The open fields had gone from most of England and Scandinavia, but from the Loire they stretched north to the Elbe and indeed further. Oxen still pulled a plough which had been little improved since medieval times: it was not until the iron Rotherham plough was designed in the late eighteenth century that the medieval plough began to be replaced.

It seems reasonable to argue that until the 1840s the changes which took place in European agriculture were slow. The medieval economy was slowly eroded; agricultural change was a matter of evolution not revolution. The great break came in the mid-nineteenth century and was a function of industrialisation, the challenge of the New World, and the adoption of quite new farming methods based on the application of scientific method.

It is significant that the greatest increases in farming productivity came in the late nineteenth century in those countries where most attention was paid to rural education, the Netherlands and Denmark; in Denmark elementary education was introduced as early as 1814.


Five-sixths of the world’s milk is produced in Europe, Russia, North America and Australasia, nearly nine-tenths of the butter, over four-fifths of the cheese, and virtually all the condensed, evaporated and dried milk. Further, much of the dairy production of Afro-Asia and Latin America is produced in outliers of European settlement such as South Africa and Argentina.

The specialised dairy farmers however have a number of features in common. First of all their farms are small, particularly those in western Europe.

Since 1850 a series of interlocking technical changes have transformed the dairying industry in the United States, western Europe and Australasia. Milk is now the most valuable single farm product in nearly every country in these three regions. The most important underlying factor has been the relative improvement of prices for dairy products compared with those for grains.

Pasteurisation — the heating of fresh milk to destroy germs — was adopted in some wholesale dairies in the 1890s but did not become general practice in Britain or the United States until after the First World War.

 The growth of milk output for liquid consumption was not only dependent on a wealthier population and better hygiene. In the mid-nineteenth century fresh milk could only be carried — at the most — ten or twenty miles to its market, and so the large cities depended upon urban dairies or a narrow zone of dairy farmers on the outskirts of the cities. However the spread of the railway allowed farmers at ever increasing distances to sell milk in distant cities.


The major industrial centres of the world lie in cool temperate areas. On the other hand a number of valuable crops can only be grown in the tropics — such as cacao, bananas, coconuts, jute, sisal, hemp, rubber, coffee, oil-palm – or the subtropics — such as sugar-cane, cotton, tea, groundnuts and tobacco. All these crops had been cultivated by the inhabitants of the tropics long before the arrival of Europeans…  However the expansion of European settlement and trade led to the production of these crops specifically for export to Europe.

Thus from the very beginnings of the cultivation of tropical crops for export there were two types of producer: the European-owned, financed and managed plantation, at first characteristic of the Americas; and the small subsistence farms which only secondarily produced cash crops for sale. The plantation however was pre-eminent until the middle of the nineteenth century, when the abolition of slavery led to the collapse of many of the classic cotton, coffee and sugar-cane plantations.

The classic plantation crops are tree crops — rubber, coconuts, oil-palm, sisal, cacao and coffee.1  All are confined to the tropics; more significant, there is a period of some years between planting and the first yield. Thereafter there is another period before the crop reaches its maximum yield, and then a further period when yields decline.

To this group of crops may be added bananas and tea.

Plantations specialise in the production of one or possibly two crops which are tropical or sub-tropical. Parts of the plantation may be used for growing food crops for the resident labour force. Livestock are not kept, except as draught animals. Plantations are generally large and are found mainly in thinly populated areas.

Most of the production of plantations is exported to either Europe or North America, and most of the capital for the establishment of the plantation is derived from these areas.

Many – indeed nearly all – plantation crops have to be processed before leaving the plantation, and furthermore processed rapidly after harvesting.

The heyday of the New Plantation System — the modern corporate plantation — was at the turn of this century. But since then smallholders have grown an increasing proportion of tropical exports.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century the Americas dominated the trade in tropical crops… The distinguishing feature of the classic plantation was the use of slaves.

Plantations for the most part concentrated on the production of one crop.


Ranching is largely confined to the areas of recent European settlement, and was unknown in the Old World, except in South Africa, until recently..

The major ranching areas are: (i) the western United States, with the adjacent parts of Canada and Mexico; (ii) the llanos  of Venezuela; (iii) the sertao of Brazil, the pampa of Uruguay, the south east of the Argentine pampa, the Chaco and Patagonia; (iv) the Karoo of South Africa; (v) the arid interior of Australia; (vi) the high country of South Island, New Zealand (Fig. 1). All these regions are occupied by European settlers, and all except the humid pampa and South Island are semi-arid.

Ranching emerged as a major agricultural system only in the second half of the nineteenth century. The major factor was the growth of demand for beef and wool in the urbanised areas of the eastern United States and western Europe, and in particular Great Britain. The establishment of export-orientated grazing systems in areas as remote as New Zealand and Patagonia was made possible not only by the reduction of oceanic freight rates (see Chapter 4) but also by the introduction of refrigeration into ships and railways and the advances in meat-canning. Until the 1880s ranching was relatively primitive.

Ranching is highly specialised, generally with only one product, beef or wool.

Livestock depend almost entirely on natural pastures.

In the fifteenth century southern Iberia was the only part of Europe with a ranching economy, and it is significant that Andalusians were a high proportion of the early settlers in the Americas.

In Latin America cattle ranching was an important part of the agricultural economy from the beginning of European settlement, and played a major role in expanding the frontier.

From the 1530s the Spanish cattle raisers moved north into the semiarid lands occupied by the Chichimec. Northern Mexico was colonised by ranchers and miners in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; by the early eighteenth century there were ranches in what are now California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The Spanish brought with them to Mexico the characteristic features of medieval Iberian ranching.

In the other areas settled by Europeans – South Africa, Australia and New Zealand – sheep played the leading role.

The sequence of land-use changes in Australia thus bears a striking similarity to that in the American West. Until the 1860s extensive, relatively primitive shepherding techniques were practised on what was, in effect, the open range, but thereafter ‘runs’ were fenced, stock improved and water facilities extended. Bad prices and bad weather led to a crisis in pastoralism; thereafter much of the better-rainfall areas moved towards wheat and later wheat and sheep farming, leaving only the driest parts of the country practising ranching.


The most important factors in explaining the present distribution of the major types of agriculture are, first, the slowness of technical change in agriculture until the nineteenth century, and, second, the very limited areas in which the new techniques of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been adopted. Thus the simplest and perhaps the most useful classification of modern agriculture is into those countries which have experienced economic development in the last century and those which have not.

Until about A.D. 1600 there was probably very little difference in agricultural productivity between Europe, India and China. Thereafter the reduction of fallow, the elimination of medieval institutions and the introduction of roots and grasses gave significant increases in crop yields. But the major break came in the nineteenth century with the introduction of labour-saving machinery, the use of steam and later electricity on the farms, and the petrol-driven tractor, the use of inorganic fertilisers and the application of scientific knowledge to plant and animal breeding. Although most of these advances came in the later nineteenth century they have not been widely adopted until the last forty years. This period has been a real agricultural revolution in western farming.

In the mid-nineteenth century it was possible to find farmers whose methods and implements had hardly changed since medieval times; thereafter change was rapid and comprehensive in Europe itself, and brought into being new types of agriculture overseas – the large-scale grain production of the Red River Valley, the ranching of the Great Plains and the pampas, and the New Plantation System of Asia.

No such break has occurred in the continuity of agricultural tradition in Asia, Africa or much of Latin America; true, Indians in the Americas adopted the plough, as have some African cultivators; new crops were certainly adopted quickly in both Africa and Asia, where they fitted easily into the existing farming systems. But there has been little change in farming methods.

If you would like to learn more about the role of agriculture in human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress.: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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