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Over the millennia, every region on Earth has developed its own successful agricultural ecosystem from flat fields of grain and mountainside rice terraces to coastal fish farms and goat herding. Today, we’re going to break down agricultural systems into three scales: subsistence, small-scale, and industrial agriculture. And we’ll take a look at how a place's history plays a huge role in the system we see today as we follow the story of agriculture in the Philippines.


Davila, F. (2018). Human Ecology and Food Systems: Insights from the Philippines. Human Ecology Review, 24(1), 23–50.
Theresa Ventura. (2016). From Small Farms to Progressive Plantations: The Trajectory of Land Reform in the American Colonial Philippines, 1900–1916. Agricultural History, 90(4), 459–483.
The development and agriculture paradigms transformed: Reflections from the small-scale organic rice fields of the Philippines Robin Broad &

John Cavanagh  

Colonial history


Age of Farmers

Land Tenure

Climate Change

Altieri, M.A., Funes-Monzote, F.R. & Petersen, P. Agroecologically efficient agricultural systems for smallholder farmers: contributions to food sovereignty. Agron. Sustain. Dev. 32, 1–13 (2012).
Agroecology – writ large;
Eric Holt-Giménez & Miguel A. Altieri (2013) Agroecology, Food Sovereignty, and the New Green Revolution, Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 37:1, 90-102, DOI: 10.1080/10440046.2012.716388

Water Footprint

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If you live in North America like me, the first thing we might imagine when we hear about agriculture and farming are fields of grain that stretch for as far as the eye can see. Or massive ranches with real life cowboys herding cattle and the sprawling feedlots they end up on. But, there are lots of other systems for producing food around the world.

Like we saw last time, foods have been domesticated pretty much everywhere because hunger and access to food is something we've been trying to figure out forever. So, over the millennia, every region on earth has developed its own successful agricultural ecosystems, which are the complex system of climate, plants, local animals, the soil's nutrients and microbiome, and whatever's being grown in all of that.

And we don't have to stay on land to farm food! In places near water, aquaculture is also a type of agricultural ecosystem, which can range from communities protecting and cultivating fishing grounds to fish farms where species are raised in artificial ponds or tanks, often alongside major waterways.

Or, people would alter the landscape to create conditions to catch and retain soil with mountain terraces. In places too arid to farm, people maintained and herded different animals. And in places with rich soils, traditions developed to maintain soil health.

As geographers, we're drawn to understanding the connections between the physical needs of the organisms that provide us food, and the systems and structures humans create to interact with those organisms. It's an economic relationship that connects humans and nonhuman organisms all over the globe.

I'm Alizé Carrére and this is Crash Course Geography.

 Scale of Agriculture (1:31)

In order to talk about and compare different types of agricultural ecosystems, in geography we use a lot of different categories and words to describe each technique. And whether it's aquaculture or herding or some other method, each technique happens at a specific size, or scale. There are different ways of breaking down the size of agricultural systems, and we're going to use one that has three different scales.

On the smallest scale is subsistence agriculture, which means someone grows just enough food for themselves. Many cultures where subsistence agriculture is common also share all the land between everyone in the community, so it can also mean growing enough food for the community.
A slightly larger farm may have the space to grow enough food to feed your family and community and to trade or sell within the region. This is called small-scale agriculture. In both cases, these farms are sometimes also called smallholder farms or even family farms, and all the food produced is meant for local consumption.

But industrial agriculture operates on a much larger scale and most of the food produced is meant for exporting around the country or world. This is a really big category -- the giant agribusinesses we discussed in episode 41 fall into the industrial agricultural category, but so do some independent farms. The key is that most of the food is grown to be exported outside of the community.

 Polyculture vs Monoculture (2:42)

Within these different scales we can find more categories to compare different systems. Both subsistence and small-scale agriculture can also include polyculture, which is a complex form of intercropping, meaning multiple crops are grown at the same time on the same field. In a polyculture system, it's common to have plants maturing at different times, and even a mix of plants and animals!

Take for example one of the oldest polycultures in the world, raised beds featuring rice and fish that can be found across Southeast Asia. The fish droppings provide fertilizer for the rice. And if ducks are present, they might eat the weeds that try to grow with the rice, and they and their eggs can also provide protein as food for the community.
This is an important strategy because with a variety of plants and animals, the agricultural system is more likely to have a steady rotation of crops to harvest, and better mirrors the complexity of the surrounding ecosystem. Like, a diversity of predators keeps pests in check.

But globally, as industrial agriculture rose and plots of land were increasingly used for export or to feed larger areas of people, monoculture systems where only one crop is grown on a plot of land, became more popular because they're more efficient to harvest. And we can also talk about how much we have to put in from outside the farm to maintain the agricultural system.

For example, in the Philippines, the Cordilleras Mountain Province contains an UNESCO world heritage site of rice terraces. These carefully engineered terraces expertly capture runoff water from the mountains, and are able to create ideal environments for rice that have been carefully maintained for 2,000 years!

They recycle nutrients from within their immediate surroundings instead of humans adding them, so they're low-input agriculture, and often have both rice and fish, making it a polyculture. Whereas industrialized agriculture is high-input agriculture that requires a lot of commercially developed seeds or synthetic fertilizers and herbicides.

 Intensive vs Extensive (4:25)

But we also have words to describe the relationship between how much effort we put in and the amount of land that's being used. Like the Filipino rice terraces are also an example of an intensive subsistence system, because there's a larger amount of labor to harvest food on usually a small amount of land. Humans have to construct ditches that hold and direct water, in addition to planting rice each year.

Other systems like the shifting or swidden styles of agriculture in the Amazon are low-input polycultures but also extensive subsistence systems because they use a lot of land but not as much labor per hectare.

So any agricultural ecosystem can fit into a number of categories and scales.

 Case Study: Philippines (5:00)

So, with so many different agricultural ecosystems to talk about, let's zoom into just one place and explore how agriculture has progressed through different categories over time.

The Philippines are an archipelago of islands in the Pacific Ocean teeming with biodiversity. There's an abundance of lush vegetation, unique animals, and it's home to the Coral Triangle, an area with hundreds of corals and 6 of the 7 major sea turtle species. These islands with volcanic soils are considered to be mega-biodiverse.

And yet, the Philippines also had an inadequate food supply throughout the 20th century, despite being part of the "Rice Bowl" of the world and one of the main rice producers in Southeast Asia. In a place filled with biodiversity, the lack of available food is a striking contrast.

In the 16th century, the Philippines were colonized by the Spanish who drastically changed the land tenure, or who had land rights or access to land. They reorganized agriculture to include encomiendas, which were plantations with a range of commercial crops, from sugar to tobacco to coffee.

The Filipino workers still had ownership of the land in theory, but in practice, they were subject to high taxes. In the process, land rights shifted from subsistence plots, to increasingly commercialized agricultural activities. And this mass production of food for export has contributed to current day capitalism and the globalization of our food supply.

As geographers, we can study how agriculture shapes economic activity, and how it has changed through the forces of globalization, where goods and ideas are exchanged around the world regardless of boundaries.

For instance, as food gets industrialized, it becomes cost effective for large amounts of food to be produced and processed in just a few locations. This draws on the idea of economies of scale, which is that there are cost savings inherent to large production operations where the costs of equipment and labor are used to produce so many items that the overall cost of production becomes really low. This makes it hard for smaller, local entities to compete, because they don't have access to the same scale of resources. And to cover their costs, their products will be more expensive, and less competitive.

Farming in the 21st century is also really expensive and risky -- there's lots of equipment, seeds, and technology to buy and always a chance a crop will fail. In the Philippines, flooding from catastrophic typhoons has been one reason for recent crop failures. So economic insecurity is part of why the number of farmers is decreasing worldwide. And it's helped large agribusinesses like Dole to build economies of scale in the Philippines by contracting with, or partnering with a bunch of little farms.

And in situations where the farmers can own their land and retain control over inputs and pricing agreements, this can work decently, and has for some groups in the Philippines. But around the world there are tensions between the high cost of materials needed to farm commercially, low prices for food products, and who gets to own and control the land that farming takes place on.

Giant agribusinesses like Dole also have the wealth to set up vertical integration, which is a process of buying up all the pieces of the supply chain. They own the fields where pineapples are grown and also control the packing and processing factories, trucks, and other parts of the supply chain that bring their product to grocery store shelves.

 Labor (7:54)

So as agricultural has become more globalized on the one hand, this has made some food cheaper. But on the other hand, intensive commercial agriculture takes a lot out of the Earth and its people. This type of agriculture also creates tensions around who can afford to participate in commercial, and who can earn a dignified living working in that sector.
For instance, from the colonial plantations of the 1700s to today, labor is still the hidden cost in agriculture. Small scale agriculture is often seen as hard and risky, with industrial agriculture being seen as more profitable. But in both cases those doing the labor are often in precarious positions.

For much of the produce consumed around the world, there's no automated way to harvest the delicate foods, other than by hand. So seasonal migrant labor is fairly common. But in many areas of the world, migrant labor doesn't have protected legal rights, making them vulnerable to abuse, enslavement, and harmful legal policies.

 Altering the Environment (8:46)

And pretty much by definition, agriculture alters the environment. Take the soil. Traditional methods dealt with soil conservation through terracing and windbreaks as a way to stop the soil from being washed or blown away.

And farmers have gotten creative with ways to restore soil nutrients, like swidden systems where the soil is allowed to rest for at least one growing season. Or rice terrace systems that are integrated with animals providing a gentle cycling of nutrients using organic, non-industrial fertilizers. But industrial agriculture is too intensive and specialized to use these methods, which often leads to soil degradation and erosion.

Globally there's also more pressure on aquifers and surface water from agriculture and droughts. Remember just 0.3% of water on Earth is freshwater that we can drink, and food production uses between 70 and 80% of that.
Managing nutrient cycles, soil health, and water supplies also becomes more complicated in a world of climate change. It will mean finding new plants, new varieties, and perhaps changing some of the foods we eat.

Geographers and scientists are also exploring agroecology, which is a term used to describe agriculture ecosystems that are rooted in the knowledge of local environments, justice, and are often small-scale and ecologically diverse
So will we use these methods in the future? I sure hope so! But given how much agriculture is currently focused on exporting food around the world rather than feeding local communities, it's unlikely there'll be a mass shift to agroecology anytime soon. But, there are so many people on the planet that we will need a diverse portfolio of agricultural practices to feed everyone.

And yet, humans are every innovating. Climate change and economics play a big role, but there are movements to change how farmers finance their costs, like micro loans and co-ops, which may or may not help depending on the country.

Farming communities in the Philippines have pioneered peer-to-peer lending platforms in an attempt to make financing more affordable for farmers. Because, well, food is our life.

The story of agriculture is an integral part of the story of humans, and we'll keep struggling and innovating. Including next time, when we continue on our journey to understand how humans interact with and use land -- this time deep within the Earth.

Many maps and borders represent modern geopolitical divisions that have often been decided without the consultation, permission, or recognition of the land's original inhabitants. Many geographical place names also don't reflect the Indigenous or Aboriginal peoples languages.

So we at Crash Course want to acknowledge these peoples' traditional and ongoing relationship with that land and all the physical and human geographical elements of it. We encourage you to learn about the history of the place you call home through resources like and by engaging with your local Indigenous and Aboriginal nations through the websites and resources they provide.

Thanks for watching this episode of Crash Course: Geography. Which is filmed at the Team Sandoval Pierce Studio, and was made with the help of all these nice people. If you want to help keep Crash Course free for everyone forever, you can join our community on Patreon.