Early farmers worked on small-scale plots growing crops and varieties unique to their region. Slash and burn agriculture was the first technique applied (Neff 2015), and is still applied in many developing countries.
The evolution of modern agriculture began when feudalism in Europe broke down in favor of capitalism. The traditional feudalism system of the Crown holding all the land while the peasants worked the land gave way to a new system of landlords who owned the land and rented it out to tenant farmers who employed wage laborers (Weis 2007). The scale of land in production increased. Crops and livestock became commodities that are bought and sold (Weis 2007). As capitalism in Europe expanded, more land and laborers were needed to continue increasing economic growth. Colonization became the answer to this problem. Spreading wheat and livestock across the world, large plantations growing specialty crops from the new world with slave labor became the norm (Weis 2007). A dynamic was set up between the colonizing countries in Europe and the colonized countries in the New World where Europe depended on cheap commodities such as coffee, bananas, and tobacco from the New World.
Increasing urbanization of European countries coupled with two world wars, dramatically changed agriculture. After World War II, developed countries felt it was imperative to get their economies going again. A series of policies were introduced promoting the export of cheap commodity crops from the developed countries to the developing countries (Guptill et. al. 2013). This increased the dependency developed during colonialism of countries in what is now the developing world becoming dependent on countries in the developed world for cheap commodity foods (Guptill et. al. 2013). Countries in the developing world became stuck in a cycle of debt.
This relationship was only compounded by the ideas of neoliberalism promoted by Reagan and Thatcher. The World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund begin lending money to developing countries with the conditions that countries remove all their regulations and protections for their farmers (Guptill et. al. 2013). Structural Adjustment Policies applied uniform policies of deregulation and high-interest rate debt across the developing world (Weis 2007). At the same time, developed countries subsidized their farmers in order to create an excess of staple crops such as corn, soy and wheat to export to developing countries (Guptill et. al. 2013). While the developed world was building up their agriculture economies with heavy government intervention, they were not allowing developing countries to do the same. Small farmers in developing countries were devastated as their markets were flooded with cheap goods from the developed world.
Developed countries placed incentives on growing large quantities of commodity crops in their own countries and exporting them to developing countries. These crops included corn, wheat and rice. At the same time, they created policies in developing countries to increase the amount of land producing crops that could not be grown in developed countries, but were nonetheless in high demand from their consumers. These crops included bananas, coffee, chocolate and tobacco.
The current food system evolved over time to favor large-scale farming with more automation and fewer workers. Small and mid-sized farmers in both developed and developing countries began to be pushed out of agriculture. Many of these farms are family run businesses passed down from generation to generation. Their identities as farmers are important to them, but it is increasingly difficult for them to make a living in the current food system.
Guptill, A., D. Copelton, B. Lucal. 2013: Food and Society: Principles and Paradoxes. Polity Press. Cambridge.
Neff, R. 2015: Introduction to the U.S. Food System. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.
Weis, T. 2007: The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming. Fernwood Publishing. Halfax.