link to this page

[click here to restart animation]

Bill Rankin, 2009

The spread of agriculture over the last 300 years has been a dance of intensification and expansion. Nearly every area of the world has seen agriculture become more locally dense: agricultural land has become more and more agricultural, even in areas where it has been long established and where population density has increased as well. Since 1850, this steady-state of intensification has been punctuated by several episodes of rapid expansion into previously untapped areas: the Great Plains in the late nineteenth century, Argentina in the early twentieth century, and in last few decades, Brazil and central India. Decline is relatively rare, but it has happened, such as in the central Amazon, northern Patagonia, or the Appalachian Piedmont after World War II.

There are two important lessons here. First, the transportation revolution that began in the mid-nineteenth century is far from over: vast stretches of Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia could still be opened up to agricultural uses. Preserving these rainforest areas will require further intensification elsewhere. Second, with many agricultural areas at close to 100 percent exploitation, it would seem that much of the logic of density and densification usually applied to the urban condition could apply equally well to agricultural areas. A simple divide between “urban” and “rural” is perhaps less instructive than an analysis of different kinds of intensifications.

Data from Navin Ramankutty (McGill) and Jonathan Foley (University of Minnesota), 1999.