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Commercial Agriculture



Agriculture is practiced in some form by virtually all of humanity but the range and types of practices are quite different. Commercial agriculture is largely a European invention and spread with colonization and the Industrial Revolution. The development of a global transportation network to support industrialization facilitated the flow of foodstuffs to the colonial powers who also introduced plantation agriculture in their colonies to produce luxury-crops These systems still persist today and affect the well-being of many poorer countries. The following points should be noted when reading this chapter.

A Global Network

Modern commercial agriculture developed out of a global system of commodity exchange established by European colonial powers. As the era of global exploration and colonization by European countries un folded, new products both agricultural and nonagricultural from the colonial countries became available to a European population that was both growing and becoming more affluent as a result of the Second Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. Products from an industrializing Europe made their way to colonies around the world, transportation between source and market was handled by the shipping fleets of the major colonial powers, producing a global pattern of raw materials, manufactured products, and foodstuffs moving between colonies and colonial powers.


Plantations—large land holdings devoted to the efficient production of a single tropical or subtropical crop for market—were first established in the 1400s by the Portuguese on islands off the west coast of Africa. Suitable natural environments and plentiful labor led colonial powers to establish plantation- and luxury-crop agriculture throughout the tropical regions. Such enterprises disrupted traditional practices of subsis tence agriculture, displaced farmers appropriated land, and generally created poverty and hardship for the indigenous population. This pattern remains today even though many plantations are owned not by colonial powers but by the governments of the countries where they are located. Their persistence is largely because poorer countries need the cash generated by these crops. In the late 1990s, the greatest concentration of plantations was in the American tropics.

Rice and Wheat

Most of humanity depends upon the cereal grains for their survival with rice and wheat feeding well over half of the world’s population In general, these two key grain crops represent different societies. Rice, originally domesticated in tropical Asia, and still the dominant crop in the south and east realms of that continent, is grown labor-intensively on small plots in poorer countries. Rice production by modern com mercial methods is limited to a few countries and the cost of such production often makes it too expensive for many of the poorer countries who need it most.

Wheat, the second most important of the world’s grain crops, was domesticated in several loca tions (see Table 14-I) and lends itself well to commercial production methods. It has come to be associ ated with Western cultures where it is grown on large landholdings by mechanized means in the richer countries. The principal grain moving in international trade, it is also grown at a subsistence level by mil lions of farmers as a first or second crop where environment4 conditions are favorable.

Specialized Farming

The single most important factor in successful agricultural production is climate. Only one form of agri culture mentioned in the legend of figure 16-1 refers to a particular climate; Mediterranean agriculture. This is a specialized form of farming in a dry-summer climate (most climatic regions have wet summers). In the five world regions where this climate prevails a special combination of crops is grown, including grapes, olives, certain vegetables, and others. Many wines come from these areas and, along with other commodities, are exported to distant markets because Mediterranean products tend to be popular and command high prices.