In the N and W United States the era of mechanized agriculture began with the invention of such farm machines as the reaper, the cultivator, the thresher, and the combine. Other revolutionary innovations, e.g., the tractor, continued to appear over the years, leading to a new type of large-scale agriculture. Modern science has also revolutionized food processing; refrigeration, for example, has made possible the large meatpacking plants and shipment and packaging of perishable foods. Urbanization has fostered the specialties of market gardening and truck farming. Harvesting operations (see harvester) have been mechanized for almost every plant product grown. Breeding programs have developed highly specialized animal, plant, and poultry varieties, thus increasing production efficiency. The development of genetic engineering has given rise to genetically modified transgenic crops and, to a lesser degree, livestock that possess a gene from an unrelated species that confers a desired quality. Such modification allows livestock to be used as "factories" for the production of growth hormone and other substances (see pharming). In the United States and other leading food-producing nations agricultural colleges and government agencies attempt to increase output by disseminating knowledge of improved agricultural practices, by the release of new plant and animal types, and by continuous intensive research into basic and applied scientific principles relating to agricultural production and economics.
These changes have, of course, given new aspects to agricultural policies. In the United States and other developed nations, the family farm is disappearing, as industrialized farms, which are organized according to industrial management techniques, can more efficiently and economically adapt to new and ever-improving technology, specialization of crops, and the volatility of farm prices in a global economy. Niche farming, in which specialized crops are raised for a specialized market, e.g., heirloom tomatoes or exotic herbs sold to gourmet food shops and restaurants, revived or encouraged some smaller farms in the latter 20th and early 21st cents., but did little to stop the overall decrease in family farms. In Third World countries, where small farms, using rudimentary techniques, still predominate, the international market has had less effect on the internal economy and the supply of food.
Most of the governments of the world face their own type of farm problem, and the attempted solutions vary as much as does agriculture itself. The modern world includes areas where specialization and conservation have been highly refined, such as Denmark, as well as areas such as N Brazil and parts of Africa, where forest peoples employ "slash-and-burn" agriculture—cutting down and burning trees, exhausting the ash-enriched soil, and then moving to a new area. In other regions, notably SE Asia, dense population and very small holdings necessitate intensive cultivation, using people and animals but few machines; here the yield is low in relation to energy expenditure. In many countries extensive government programs control the planning, financing, and regulation of agriculture. Agriculture is still the occupation of almost 50% of the world's population, but the numbers vary from less than 3% in industrialized countries to over 60% in Third World countries.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.