Cultural Anthropology

Food Procurement Systems an Introduction

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"Food Procurement Systems an Introduction"
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Introduction to Food Procurement Systems:

Food is the most basic necessity of life for any human society. The means by which a particular culture goes about acquiring food is referred to as its "food procurement system," or "subsistence system" in the anthropological literature. Cross-cultural research suggests that there have been five basic food procurement systems throughout human history. These include: foraging, horticulture, intensive agriculture, pastoralism and industrial agriculture.

1. Foraging, or hunting and gathering, involves a primary reliance upon the collection of wild vegetable foods, the hunting of animals and fishing. Foraging is the oldest subsistence strategy and the original adaptation of the human species. In other words, all of our ancestors were originally foragers at some point in their history.

Foraging survived as the predominant subsistence strategy in many areas of the world up until very recently. Most aboriginal Australians, and the majority of Native America societies, for example, were foragers. In marginal environments like the Kalahari Desert and the Canadian Arctic, independent foraging societies continued to exist into the middle part of the twentieth century.

In fact, there are still societies in which foraging remains very important to the local subsistence economy, even though there are no foraging societies which remain unaffected by the expansion of the global system. Many Native American groups in northern Canada and in Alaska, for example, continue to hunt and fish on a regular basis. In many cases the "bush" economy continues to provide a substantial amount of sustenance to such isolated northern communities, the rest being provided by paid labor and social assistance programs, as is typical of the larger society.

2. Horticulture or subsistence agriculture is a technologically simple form of agriculture based upon the cultivation of small plots of land using relatively simple hand tools (axes, digging sticks, etc.). Thus, unlike foraging, horticultural societies produce food by managing domesticated plants and sometimes animals as well. While horticulture provides the bulk of their food, such societies often continue to hunt, fish and gather wild foods as well.

Horticulture was also common in many areas of the world up until recent times. The most common examples are in rain forest areas, such as Amazonia, highland New Guinea, Polynesia, and parts of North America (eg. the Iroquois, Huron and Hopi).

There are also surviving horticultural societies in some areas, especially in rain forest areas, though again none remain unaffected by the expansion of the global system. In such places, subsistence agriculture is now often supplemented by cash cropping, in order to raise enough money to pay taxes and buy limited amounts of Western goods (clothing, metal implements).

3. Intensive agriculture involves farming large plots of land, often using draft animals and even complex irrigation systems. Intensive agriculture is generally found in societies where social organization is more complex and where a market has developed for specific crops, and all state level societies have practiced some form of intensive agriculture (eg. Egypt, the Incas, feudal Europe).

Intensive agriculture generally produces far larger yields per acre of land with less human labor than horticulture, but also produces a smaller number of staple crops. In other words, intensive agriculture is generally highly specialized as compared to horticulture with individual farmers relying on one or two main crops. For the Incas it was potatoes, for Meso-American states it was maize beans and squash, for ancient China it was rice, and for Mesopotamia it was barley and wheat.

This is one of its key differences between intensive agriculture and horticulture. Horticulturalists normally interplanted a wide variety of different crops in their gardens in order to meet many of their own subsistence needs, or to be as self-sufficient as possible. The horticultural pattern of interplanting species is known as "polyculture," while intensive agriculture practices "monoculture" (a single crop in a single field).

4. Pastoralism is a specialized form of intensive agriculture which is based primarily upon the herding of animals; such as cattle, sheep, goats, camels or reindeer. Pastoral societies not only use the products and byproducts of the animals they herd to support themselves but also generally exchange them with neighboring groups of intensive agriculturalists in order to obtain agricultural products such as grains. Pastoralism may also be supplemented by hunting and gathering or small scale horticulture.

Pastoralism was again common up until recently in many areas of the world and continues to be practiced in some areas. These include East Africa, Mongolia, the Middle East, and northern Scandinavia. In fact, ecological anthropologists argue that pastoralism remains the optimal food production strategy in many marginal areas which are unsuited to intensive agriculture, since it allows forage, which humans cannot consume, to be converted to usable calories.

5. Industrial agriculture is the subsistence system which is typical of modern capitalist societies such as our own, and which has been expanding around the world along with the expansion of the global system, especially through international development initiatives. Industrial agriculture involves food production and manufacturing through the use of machines powered by fossil fuels, as well as the use of artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

Industrial agriculture is a very recent invention which first began to appear in the industrial revolution with the introduction of tractors and other mechanical devices. The development of industrial agriculture has been characterized by three processes historically:

1. The "mechanization" of agriculture, or the introduction of machinery and tractors, first powered by horses, then steam, then petroleum.

2. The introduction of artificial chemicals, or the "chemicalization" of agriculture. These include artificial fertilizers and pesticides, which increased markedly after World War II and are now increasingly common around the world.

3. The very recent introduction of biotechnology or genetically engineered food crops in the past couple of decades.


Many societies don't fit neatly into a single subsistence system. Horticulturalists, pastoralists, and even industrial agriculturalists may continue to hunt. My father always brought a deer home each fall to supplement our family's diet with venison, for example, even though I grew up on an industrial agricultural farm in Canada.

Similarly, it is unlikely that pastoralists could survive without trade with intensive agriculturalists, and the same is true of foragers in rain forested areas, who have generally traded with neighboring horticultural societies for carbohydrate rich crops (carbohydrates being sparse in rain forests).

None the less, ever society tends to emphasize one strategy at the expense of others, and each type of subsistence strategy is associated with a tendency towards different levels of social and technological complexity. Foragers, horticulturalists and pastoralists are often tribal, for example, while intensive agriculture is almost universally associated with state level societies, and intensive agriculture with a commercial, industrial society.

References, additional reading:

Daniel G. Bates (2001) Human Adaptive Strategies: Ecology, Culture & Politics, Allyn & Bacon.

Carol R. Ember & Melvin Ember (2004) Cultural Anthropology, Pearson Education.

More about this author: Roy C Dudgeon

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