Intensive farming

Intensive farming of wheat in Lund, Sweden

Intensive agriculture, also known as intensive farming (as opposed to extensive farming), is a type of agriculture, both of crop plants and of animals, with higher levels of input and output per cubic unit of agricultural land area. It is characterized by a low fallow ratio, higher use of inputs such as capital and labour, and higher crop yields per unit land area.[1]

Most commercial agriculture is intensive in one or more ways. Forms that rely heavily on industrial methods are often called industrial agriculture, which is characterised by innovations designed to increase yield. Techniques include planting multiple crops per year, reducing the frequency of fallow years, and improving cultivars. It also involves increased use of fertilizers, plant growth regulators, and pesticides and mechanised agriculture, controlled by increased and more detailed analysis of growing conditions, including weather, soil, water, weeds, and pests. This system is supported by ongoing innovation in agricultural machinery and farming methods, genetic technology, techniques for achieving economies of scale, logistics, and data collection and analysis technology. Intensive farms are widespread in developed nations and increasingly prevalent worldwide. Most of the meat, dairy products, eggs, fruits, and vegetables available in supermarkets are produced by such farms.

Some intensive farms can use sustainable methods, although this may necessitate higher inputs of labor or lower yields.[2]

Intensive animal farming involves large numbers of animals raised on limited land, for example by rotational grazing,[3][4] or in the Western world sometimes as concentrated animal feeding operations. These methods increase the yields of food and fiber per acre as compared to extensive animal husbandry; concentrated feed is brought to seldom-moved animals, or with rotational grazing the animals are repeatedly moved to fresh forage.[3][4]


Early 20th-century image of a tractor ploughing an alfalfa field

Paddy-based rice-farming has been practised in Korea since ancient times. A pit-house at the Daecheon-ni archaeological site yielded carbonized rice grains and radiocarbon dates indicating that rice cultivation may have begun as early as the Middle Jeulmun Pottery Period (c. 3500–2000 BC) in the Korean Peninsula.[5] The earliest rice cultivation there may have used dry-fields instead of paddies.

Agricultural development in Britain between the 16th century and the mid-19th century saw a massive increase in agricultural productivity and net output. This in turn contributed to unprecedented population growth, freeing up a significant percentage of the workforce, and thereby helped enable the Industrial Revolution. Historians cited enclosure, mechanization, four-field crop rotation, and selective breeding as the most important innovations.[6]

Industrial agriculture arose in the Industrial Revolution. By the early 19th century, agricultural techniques, implements, seed stocks, and cultivars had so improved that yield per land unit was many times that seen in the Middle Ages.[7][page needed]

The industrialization phase involved a continuing process of mechanization. Horse-drawn machinery such as the McCormick reaper revolutionized harvesting, while inventions such as the cotton gin reduced the cost of processing. During this same period, farmers began to use steam-powered threshers and tractors.[8][9][10] In 1892, the first gasoline-powered tractor was successfully developed, and in 1923, the International Harvester Farmall tractor became the first all-purpose tractor, marking an inflection point in the replacement of draft animals with machines. Mechanical harvesters (combines), planters, transplanters, and other equipment were then developed, further revolutionizing agriculture.[11] These inventions increased yields and allowed individual farmers to manage increasingly large farms.[12]

The identification of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) as critical factors in plant growth led to the manufacture of synthetic fertilizers, further increasing crop yields. In 1909, the Haber-Bosch method to synthesize ammonium nitrate was first demonstrated. NPK fertilizers stimulated the first concerns about industrial agriculture, due to concerns that they came with side effects such as soil compaction, soil erosion, and declines in overall soil fertility, along with health concerns about toxic chemicals entering the food supply.[13]

The discovery of vitamins and their role in nutrition, in the first two decades of the 20th century, led to vitamin supplements, which in the 1920s allowed some livestock to be raised indoors, reducing their exposure to adverse natural elements.[citation needed]

Following World War II synthetic fertilizer use increased rapidly.[14]

The discovery of antibiotics and vaccines facilitated raising livestock by reducing diseases.[citation needed] Developments in logistics and refrigeration as well as processing technology made long-distance distribution feasible. Integrated pest management is the modern method to minimize pesticide use to more sustainable levels.[citation needed]

There are concerns over the sustainability of industrial agriculture, and the environmental effects of fertilizers and pesticides, which has given rise to the organic movement[15] and has built a market for sustainable intensive farming, as well as funding for the development of appropriate technology.