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Food System Primer

History of Agriculture


Agriculture, the cultivation of food and goods through farming, produces the vast majority of the world’s food supply. It is thought to have been practiced sporadically for the past 13,000 years,1 and widely established for only 7,000 years.2 In the long view of human history, this is just a flash in the pan compared to the nearly 200,000 years our ancestors spent gathering, hunting, and scavenging in the wild. During its brief history, agriculture has radically transformed human societies and fueled a global population that has grown from 4 million to 7 billion since 10,000 BCE, and is still growing.3

The road to the present has not been smooth. Resource degradation, rapid population growth, disease, changing climates, and other forces have periodically crippled food supplies, with the poor bearing the brunt of famine. We still face many of the same challenges as our ancestors, in addition to new and even greater threats. To successfully navigate an uncertain future, we can begin by learning from the past.

Dawn of agriculture

ancient food

Left to right: Gingerbread plum (mobola), baobab seed, carissa fruit.

These wild foods, native to Africa, may resemble the fruits, nuts, and seeds that nourished our hunter-gatherer ancestors. There is growing interest in cultivating these “lost” crops on a larger scale—the carissa fruit tastes a little like cranberry and could someday become just as popular.12

Photo credits, left to right: National Academies Press;12 Ton Rulkens, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0; Forest & Kim Starr, Creative Commons CC BY 3.0. All images cropped from originals.


Fried insect pupae.

While the ancestral hunt for wild animals is often depicted as an epic conflict against woolly mammoths, early humans also took to foraging for humble insects. Today, some traditional cultures get as much as 20 percent of their calories from insects.7 Edible insects have tremendous potential as a healthy and more sustainable alternative to red meat and poultry.13,14

Photo credit: Steven G. Johnson, 2009. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.


The San are among the first people to have lived in southern Africa, and are one of the few societies that still follow a hunter-gatherer diet. To sustain their lifestyle, San typically spend 12 to 19 hours per week gathering food from the wild—what many might consider a life of leisure. When one San person was asked why he hadn't adopted farming, he replied, "Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?"15

Photo credit: Dietmar Temps, 2010. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Click images for captions

Paleoanthropologists have estimated that the earliest fossil evidence of Homo sapiens—anatomically modern humans—is roughly 196,000 years old.4 For the vast majority of the time since our species’ arrival on the evolutionary scene, we acquired food by gathering it from the wild.1,5 Wild plant-based foods and fungi were important staples in the paleolithic diet, including the wild ancestors of some species that are widely cultivated today.6 While the ancestral hunt for wild animals is often depicted as an epic conflict against woolly mammoths, woolly rhinos, giant elk, and other prehistoric megafauna, early humans also took to foraging for humble insects7 and scavenging the remains of dead animals.8

From as early as 11,000 BCE, people began a gradual transition away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle toward cultivating crops and raising animals for food. The shift to agriculture is believed to have occurred independently in several parts of the world, including northern China, Central America, and the Fertile Crescent, a region in the Middle East that cradled some of the earliest civilizations.By 6000 BCE, most of the farm animals we are familiar with today had been domesticated.1 By 5000 BCE, agriculture was practiced in every major continent except Australia.2

Why did people give up hunting and gathering for farming? There are many plausible reasons, all of which likely played some role at different times and across different parts of the world:

  • Changes in climate may have made it too cold or too dry to rely on wild food sources.1
  • Greater population density may have demanded more food than could be harvested from the wild, and farming provided more food per acre, even if it did require more time and energy.1,9
  • Overhunting may have helped push woolly mammoths and other megafauna to extinction.10
  • Changing technology, such as domesticated seeds, would have made agriculture a more viable lifestyle.5,11

Dawn of civilizations


An ox-drawn plow prepares a rice paddy field in Vietnam.

The plow and the various improvements upon its design were innovations that transformed human history, allowing farmers to cultivate land with a fraction of the labor they once used. Pulled by animals or tractors, plows are used to turn over the top layer of soil, helping destroy weeds, bury residues from previous crops, bring nutrients and moisture to the surface, and loosen soil before planting.

Photo credit: Thomas Schoch, 2005. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.5.


Grave chamber of an Egyptian public official, circa 1250 BCE.

The plow is believed to have been used as early as 4,000 years ago in ancient Egypt. Although it brought tremendous gains in short-term productivity, it has also been a major contributor to soil erosion. The loss of fertile topsoil has played a role in the decline of numerous civilizations.17  

Photo: public domain.

Click images for captions

For better or for worse, agriculture was a driving force behind the growth of civilizations.

Farming probably involved more work than hunting and gathering, but it is thought to have provided 10 to 100 times more calories per acre.5 More abundant food supplies could support denser populations, and farming tied people to their land. Small settlements grew into towns, and towns grew into cities.1

Agriculture produced enough food that people became free to pursue interests other than worrying about what they were going to eat that day. Those who didn’t need to be farmers took on roles as soldiers, priests, administrators, artists, and scholars. As early civilizations began to take shape, political and religious leaders rose up to rule them, creating classes of “haves” and “have-nots.” Whereas hunter-gatherer societies generally viewed resources as belonging to everyone, agriculture led to a system of ownership over land, food, and currency that was not (and is still not) equitably distributed among the people.1,16

Some have questioned whether moving away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle was in humanity’s best interests, pointing to problems of social inequality, malnutrition, and military conflict that followed the adoption of farming.1,5 One prominent scientist has even called agriculture the “worst mistake in the history of the human race.”15 That may be, but given the size and density of human populations today, returning to a paleolithic lifestyle is not a practical option. Hunting, gathering, and farming, however, can complement one another in ways that provide people with a more varied and abundant food supply. People still harvest aquatic plants and animals from the sea, for example, and even urban dwellers might find edible berries, greens, and mushrooms in their local park.

Limits to growth


Depleted farmland and a changing climate set the stage for periodic famines throughout much of Europe from 1300 to 1850.22 This print, titled Dance of Death, conveys the fragility of life during this period.

Image attributed to Michael Wolgemut, 1493. Public domain.

Click images for captions

In the history of civilization … the plowshare has been far more destructive than the sword.

– Daniel Hillel18

Agriculture may have made civilizations possible, but it has never been a safeguard against their collapse. Throughout history, increases in agricultural productivity competed against population growth, resource degradation, droughts, changing climates, and other forces that periodically crippled food supplies, with the poor bearing the brunt of famine.

Like many of their modern counterparts, early farmers often worked land in ways that depleted its fertility. Technological innovations like irrigation (circa 6000 BCE) and the plow (circa 3000 BCE) brought enormous gains in productivity, but when used irresponsibly they degraded soil—the very foundation that makes agriculture possible.19,20 By the beginning of the Common Era, Roman farmers had degraded their soil to the point where they could no longer grow enough food and had to rely on imports from distant Egypt. Rome’s eventual decline is one of many cautionary tales about the importance of sustainable agriculture.1

By 1798, economist Thomas Malthus warned that unchecked population growth would outpace food production, setting the stage for widespread starvation.21 History is no stranger to this scenario—depleted farmland and changing climates set the stage for periodic famines throughout much of Europe from 1300 to 1850.1,22 Malthus’ critics, meanwhile, argued (and still argue) that scientific innovation would keep famine at bay by always finding ways to increase food production. Although his predictions have not played out exactly as he described, Malthus’ work reminds us that the Earth has limited capacity to support human development.

The population boom


World population, 10,000 BCE to 2000 CE.

In 1798, economist Thomas Malthus warned that unchecked population growth would outpace food production, setting the stage for widespread starvation.21 What has kept Malthus’ scenario at bay? Synthetic fertilizers, first introduced in the early 1900s, have been credited with feeding the lion’s share of the global population as it grew from 1.6 billion to 6 billion over the 20th century.27


Application of anhydrous ammonia (synthetic nitrogen) fertilizer at planting time on an Iowa farm.

Synthetic fertilizers are manufactured using a technique that transforms nitrogen in the atmosphere into a form that can be applied to crops (ammonia). These chemicals have dramatically increased short-term crop yields, though not without consequences. The heavy use of synthetic fertilizers has become a hallmark of industrial agriculture

Photo credit: Lynn Betts, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service.


Freight train carrying grain across Washington state.

Beyond synthetic fertilizers, other innovations in food production and distribution helped food supplies keep pace with population growth. Expanded railways, shipping canals, and new machinery for storing and moving grain made it easier to transport food to where it was most needed.25 Improvements in refrigerated transport, meanwhile, allowed farmers to ship perishable food over greater distances.26

Photo credit: David Gubler. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.

Click images for captions

From 1900 to 2011, the global population grew from 1.6 billion to 7 billion.23 Despite such explosive growth, the world’s farmers produced enough calories in 2012 to feed the entire population, plus an additional 1.6 billion people.24 Hunger remains a global crisis, largely because those calories are not evenly distributed across the population, and much of the world’s food supply is never eaten. Still, the sheer volume of production dwarfs that of earlier generations. What has made such unprecedented abundance possible?

Innovations in food production and distribution have thus far helped food supplies keep pace with population growth. Crops indigenous to the Americas, such as corn, sweet potatoes, and cassava, spread across the globe. The nutrients provided by these prolific crops helped prevent malnutrition, supporting a widespread increase in population over the 18th century.20 Expanded railways, shipping canals, and new machinery for storing and moving grain helped the U.S. become a major exporter of surplus wheat and corn, supplying much of Europe during times of scarcity overseas.25 Improvements in refrigerated transport allowed farmers to ship perishable food over greater distances.26

Of all the innovations in agriculture, arguably none has been more influential than synthetic fertilizers—chemicals manufactured using a technique that transforms nitrogen in the atmosphere into a form that can be applied to crops (ammonia). First introduced in the early 1900s, synthetic fertilizers dramatically increased crop yields (though not without consequences), and have been credited with providing the lion’s share of the world’s food over the 20th century.27 The use of these and other chemicals has become a hallmark of industrial agriculture.


The following list of suggested resources is intended as a starting point for further exploration, and is not in any way comprehensive. Some materials may not reflect the views of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

For teachers




1. Montgomery D. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press; 2008.
2. Bulliet RW, Crossley PK, Headrick DR, Johnson LL, Hirsch SW. The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History, Volume I. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin; 2008.
3. Kremer M. Population Growth and Technological Change: One Million B.C. to 1990. Q J Econ. 1993;108(3):681-716.
4. Trinkaus E. Early Modern Humans. Annu Rev Anthropol. 2005;34(1):207-230.
5. Diamond J. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York, New York: W. W. Norton and Company; 1999.
6. Diamond J. Evolution, consequences and future of plant and animal domestication. Nature. 2002;418(6898):700-707.
7. Raubenheimer D, Rothman JM, Pontzer H, Simpson SJ. Macronutrient contributions of insects to the diets of hunter-gatherers: A geometric analysis. J Hum Evol. 2014;71:70-76.
8. Moleón M, Sánchez-Zapata JA, Margalida A, Carrete M, Owen-Smith N, Donázar JA. Humans and Scavengers: The Evolution of Interactions and Ecosystem Services. Bioscience. 2014.
9. Vasey D. An Ecological History of Agriculture: 10,000 B.C. - A.D. 10,000. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press; 1992.
10. Stuart AJ, Sulerzhitsky LD, Orlova LA, Kuzmin Y V., Lister AM. The latest woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius Blumenbach) in Europe and Asia: A review of the current evidence. Quat Sci Rev. 2002;21(14-15):1559-1569.
11. Dow G, Olewiler N, Reed C. The Transition to Agriculture: Climate Reversals, Population Density, and Technical Change. Simon Fraser University; 2005.
12. National Research Council. Lost Crops of Africa. Washington D.C.: The National Academies Press; 2008.
13. van Huis A. Potential of Insects as Food and Feed in Assuring Food Security. Annu Rev Entomol. 2011;58(1).
14. Premalatha M, Abbasi T, Abbasi T, Abbasi SA. Energy-efficient food production to reduce global warming and ecodegradation: The use of edible insects. Renew Sustain Energy Rev. 2011;15(9):4357-4360.
15. Diamond J. The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race. Discov Mag. 1987:64-66.
16. Price TD. Social Inequality at the Foundations of Agriculture. In: Price TD, Feinman G, eds. Foundations of Social Inequality. New York: Platinum Press; 1995.
17. Pryor LF. The invention of the plow. Comp Stud Soc Hist. 1985;27(4).
18. Hillel D. Out of the Earth: Civilization and the Life of the Soil. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press; 1991.
19. Montgomery D. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press; 2008.
20. Cohen JE. People control the growth of nonhuman populations. In: How Many People Can the Earth Support?. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company; 1995.
21. Malthus TR. An Essay on the Principle of Population, Volume 1.; 1798.
22. Appleby AB. Epidemics and Famine in the Little Ice Age. J Interdiscip Hist. 2013;10(4).
23. Cohen JE. How Many People Can the Earth Support? New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company; 1995.
24. U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization. FAOSTAT. 2013.
25. Fornari HD. U.S. Grain Exports: A Bicentennial Overview. Agric Hist. 1976;50(1):137-150.
26. Rees J. Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America. Johns Hopkins University Press; 2013.
27. Smil V. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 2001.