What is Agriculture?

Now that you have an understanding of the study of economics and the seven key principles that we will focus on in this class, let’s take a look at what “agriculture” means. The definition of agriculture according to the Oxford English Dictionary is:

“The science or practice of farming, including cultivation of the soil for the growing of crops and the rearing of animals to provide food, wool, and other products.”

Oxford English Dictionary (accessed online May 16, 2016, at
URL: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/agriculture

Taking a look at Dictionary.com, you will find something similar:

  1. The science, art, or occupation concerned with cultivating land, raising crops, and feeding, breeding, and raising livestock; farming.
  2. The production of crops, livestock, or poultry.
  3. Agronomy.
Dictionary.com (accessed online May 16, 2016, at URL: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/agriculture

Agriculture has been practiced for millennia and is largely responsible for the beginning of civilization, as we know it. When early humans learned to grow food and to save seeds for the following years, they were largely able to move from hunting and gathering and to settle in one location. Additionally, increasing food production to the point where each farmer had more than their family could eat enabled people to begin storing food, specializing in different activities, and trading goods and services.

Today, society specializes in all aspects of agricultural production from basic science to management and policy. Take a look at the programs offered by the College of Agriculture and Bioresources. While some of these programs have been offered for decades, there are new programs being developed all the time to meet the needs of society. You’ll see under each of the four theme areas a variety of programs in which you can choose to specialize.

Under the “Plants and Animals” tab, you will see the sciences including animal bioscience, horticulture science, and poultry science, just to name three. You will also see management options that focus on the environment including rangeland resources and soil science. Each of these specializations is important in the agriculture industry but varies significantly in terms of theoretical underpinnings and disciplinary focus.

Looking at “Environment and Ecology” you will see again a lot of science options, but these programs have a much broader focus than the individual farm. Rather, they look at the effects of farming and agricultural production on the environment in general. Under this option, you might study the effects of fertilizer on waterways, or how different plants can be used to clean up pollution. Under the soil science option, you might study forest soils or work in a lab examining soil chemistry.

Under the “Food, Feed and Bioproducts” tab, you will again find many varied options that examine how we create food and how to examine nutrient content for example. Because agriculture is not just about producing food for human consumption, but animal consumption as well – feed – you could study the nutrients affecting feed for a range of different species. In this way, you are very strongly connected to animal science. When I first started working at the University of Saskatchewan, I talked to one of the professors in the department who told me that some “foods” have no nutritional value and can be created totally from synthetic products. I was quite surprised and fascinated to know that what we call food, was not food at all!

Finally, take a look at the “Business and Applied Economics” option. You will again see the word “science” as well as resources. However, you see some new options including business and entrepreneurship. While the science of agriculture focuses on land and biophysical production, economics looks at trade-offs in the markets and even at the farm level where producers make economic decisions about what to produce, and how to make a living. Additionally, governments hire agriculture economists to develop and assess policy to ensure it produces benefits for society at large.

What does all this mean? First, that you as an individual in this class are likely to have a different background with interests different from many of your student colleagues. You will also likely select different academic paths forward that will enable you to work in an area in which you are interested. While many of you will study different topics, you will most likely have to work together to solve problems that emerge in the industry making it important to have an overview of areas with which you are not familiar.