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Intensifying agriculture

Learn about the history of land based agriculture, and begin to understand the methods that produce our food.
Graph: along the bottom there is a timeline starting at 6000 BC extending to current day. On the side, the percentage of ice-free land area (wildlands and semi natural land). Detailed description in attached pdf below
© University of Exeter

We have been using land for agriculture for around 8,000 years, starting in southwest Asia, China and India and later developing in Europe.

As wild food crops were domesticated, land was farmed more intensively and local populations would settle around that land and grow. There followed a gradual increase in land that was used by humans replacing wild, undeveloped land globally (see figure 2.1.1.).

Between 1900 and 2000 however there was a dramatic increase in the intensity and conversion of land for agricultural use that coincided with the industrial revolution. Land used for crop growth and cattle grazing almost doubled over this period as forests and grasslands were lost to agriculture (see figure 2.1.2)

Between 1900 and 2000, natural and secondary forests; mountains; deserts; tundra, sloping lands and those unsuitable for agriculture have reduced from 70.1% to 46.5%. Figure 2.1.2. Comparison of pre and post industrial revolution land use showing how in 100 years croplands and urban area have doubled in their land cover [2].

These land use changes have had a permanent impact on how the planet looks and functions. In fact, there is a suggestion that these should no longer be classed as natural biomes but anthropogenic ones (termed ‘anthromes’)[2]. Today, only small pockets of land remain undeveloped but, as you can see from figure 2.1.3, most of this land was developed in the last 250-100 years.

Map demonstrating the anthropogenic change of the terrestrial biosphere. More intensive use around Europe, Mexico and India.

Figure 2.1.3. Enlarge image Areas of intensive land use for producing food are shown over time, the majority of changes occurring in the last 250 years. In particular, South America, the USA and sub-Saharan Africa have shown the greatest land use changes in this time. [3]

If you would like to learn more about the current challenges we face as a race regarding land use and sustainability the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) global Land Outlook section have produced two videos which summarise the topic nicely.


  1. Global Land Outlook. 1st ed. [ebook] pp.31-35. United Nations. [Updated 2018; Accessed 24 Jul. 2018]. Available from:

  2. Fritsche UR, Eppler U. Global Land Use Scenarios: Findings from a review of key studies and models. GLOBALANDS Working Paper AP 1.3. International Institutefor Sustainability Analysis and Strategy. Darmstadt: IINAS; 2013. Available from:

  3. Ellis EC. Anthropogenic transformation of the terrestrial biosphere. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences. 2011;. 369: 1010-1035.

© University of Exeter
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