Agricultural intensification can affect any of the inputs of an agricultural system—the crops planted, the labor expended, and the productivity exacted from the land. It can be driven by increasing population relative to the land available or by changes in market prices and demand for crops. It can result in dramatic investments in and transformations of the landscape, and it can be accompanied by, but will not necessarily result in, intensive social change.
There are several ways of categorizing the changes in intensive agriculture. In small-holder systems, intensive agriculture is marked by high investments of time in weeding, planting, and especially watering crops and manuring the soil. Several crops will be planted in the same field and mature at different times, and fields will also be worked several times a year as long as conditions support growth. All this requires a high population density and a strong work ethic. In Chagga agriculture on Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, for example, competition for land is high, and use of space intensified by the complex systems of agro forestry that are practiced. These involve planting shade-tolerant species (yams, coffee) intermingled with banana and fruit and timber trees. In anthropology, the work of Robert Netting is probably the most well-known corpus of study on the ecology and practices of intensive small-holder agriculture in diverse parts of the world.
Agricultural intensification can be driven by population increase. This has been famously theorized by Esther Boserup in The Conditions of Agricultural Growth. Boserup, in contrast to Malthus, saw population growth as the independent variable driving agricultural and social change, not as the consequence of agricultural output or social systems. But the changes resulting are also intimately related to market pressures and increased demand for crops. The development of labor-intensive irrigated agriculture in the Pare mountains, in Tanzania, for example, is thought to have preceded their dense settlement and was driven by the need to acquire livestock for marriage through trade with neighboring pastoralists. Similarly, there are many cases where population increase has not been marked by intensification.
The landscapes of intensive small-holder agriculture have tended to attract admiration from people who enjoy the gardens cape of different patches of intensive use. Some of the most dramatic anthropogenic landscapes in the world are the complex layers of irrigated rice terraces, which can produce 5 to 10 tons per hectare per year (higher yields are dependent on advanced technology). One famous study of intensification in Machakos, Kenya, has recorded the transformation of a land characterized by extensive land use and apparent erosion to a gardens cape of trees, terraces, and well-tended land.
But we should note that changes in landscape are never socially neutral. The Machakos case was widely received as a good-news story of averted degradation. But at the same time, the transformation in the land has had its social costs, with poorer families finding it harder to cope with population pressure. In other parts of Africa, investment in agricultural intensification and land improvement is reduced because of the changes they portend to social support mechanisms. Similarly, the intensification of agriculture in the United Kingdom in the 18th and 19 the centuries was accompanied by an extraordinarily vigorous enclosure movement, which concentrated land in the hands of wealthy estate owners. Improving estates was intimately bound up in denying others access to rural resources. Clifford Geertz has famously characterized change in Indonesian agriculture as “Agricultural Involution,” which saw increased labor investment in agriculture with no real increase in per capita productivity.
The diversity and intricacy of small-holder intensive farming stands in sharp contrast to the landscapes and practices of capital intensive agriculture. This is characterized by monocropping; heavy investment in machinery and chemicals, which maximizes productivity per person; as well as working with high-yielding, fast-maturing crops and animals. The spread of scientifically and, more recently, genetically engineered crops has been associated with global booms in production (the Green Revolution) and at the same time erosion of the genetic diversity of crops; increased use of pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics; and a decline in the quality, especially taste, of food.
Capital intensive farming’s great service is that it provides cheap food, which, as Bjorn Lomborg noted, means that people are healthier from the better nutrition. But it has provoked opposition in diverse quarters. First, there are the environmental costs of pesticides and fertilizers, and there are also potential problems of feeding growth hormones and antibiotics to domestic stock, as these may affect consumers. Fears here and dissatisfaction with the miserable lives of factory-farmed animals have generated a whole industry of “organic” agriculture. Second, there is a tendency to produce a great deal of food where there is no market for it, and this leads to “dumping” of food at low prices in places where there is apparent demand, but at considerable cost to local producers. The fact that this agricultural production can be heavily subsidized makes the whole situation rather perverse. Others observe that factory farming and agribusinesses can be characterized by low wages and poor working conditions.
Nonetheless, agricultural development is generally assumed to mean greater intensification along the lines of capital intensive agriculture practiced in the Global North. It was the hallmark Netting’s work to resist that assumption. Intensive agriculture, Netting argued, could be achieved in other ways apart from concentrating land and resources to a few farmers who work the land with machines and chemicals. Small-holder agriculture could be just as productive, with fewer environmental costs and different sorts of social costs.
- Geertz, C. (1963). Agricultural involution: the processes of ecological change in Indonesia. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Kates, R. W., Hyden, G., & Turner B. L. II. (1993). Population growth and agricultural change in Africa. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.
- Netting, R. McC. (1993). Smallholders, householders, farm families, and the ecology of intensive, sustainable agriculture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.