GED Social Studies Practice Test: Agriculture and Urbanization

Agriculture and Land Use

Most of the world’s people practice agriculture, the cultivation of plants and animals for consumption. Before humans learned how to grow plants (and provide irrigation), they were nomadic, that is, they went in search of food, or followed herds of animals. These people are often known as “hunter-gatherers.” In addition to learning how to grow plants, humans learned to domesticate animals such as cattle and sheep and pigs.

When a farmer can grow only enough to feed herself and her family, this is known as subsistence farming. The danger is that a crop failure — due to weather or pests — may endanger the food security of the grower and his/her family. When a farmer can grow more than her/his family (or community) can eat at any one time, the surplus food can be stored, bartered (traded), or sold in order to obtain other goods.

People who raise grazing animals, such as cattle and sheep, may have to move about in search of fresh pastures and water for their animals. They are known as pastoralists. Strictly speaking, they are not nomads, because they usually follow established patterns of migration, and they have food security.

Today, in many parts of the industrialized world, commercial agriculture is practiced on a very large scale. Most work — planting, irrigation, and harvesting — is done mechanically, and a farm may be thousands of acres. Human labor is directed mostly to running the machines that actually do the work. In the United States, huge farms grow lettuce, nuts, soybeans, and corn (to name but a few).

The Green Revolution, begun half a century ago, allows more food to be grown on each unit of land. High-yield varieties of crops were developed in the U.S. and elsewhere with the aim of helping poorer nations boost their food output. In addition, new varieties of pest-resistant crops were developed, along with a host of new pesticides and fertilizers. Grain production has gone up about 50% since the end of World War II, and many countries that were importers of food several decades ago are now agriculturally self-sufficient.

Where there is insufficient food output or the food supply is dramatically reduced because of natural disasters such as drought or flooding, there is the risk of widespread famine (hunger). Science can do much, but it cannot prevent natural disasters. Famine can also be caused by a drop in food production due to military conflict, intra-national conflict, or ethnic infighting.

Two of the major problems facing the world today are desertification (caused by both human and natural actions) and deforestation (man-made). When land is deforested, the soil loses its natural anchors and may become dry and blow away. Deforestation is particularly acute in the rainforest regions of South America.



Urbanization is the growth and spread of cities and urban lifestyles. In cities, commercial activity is the predominant way of living; most cities do not contain large (if any) agricultural areas.

The “how” and the “why” of cities usually depends on a variety of factors. For example, people who live on or near a river may begin to engage in trade (in addition to agriculture). A climate may be unsuitable for agriculture, and so people in a particular region turn to trade and commerce in order to obtain food. In the “Fertile Crescent” of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), the first cities — and the first trade — arose when farmers were able to produce surpluses.

Today, cities are usually characterized by some degree of industrialization. Think back to what you have learned about the Industrial Revolution. Cities grew up around factories. In 1800, less than 1 in 20 people lived in a city; by 1920, in the U.S., more people lived in urban areas than in rural areas. Globally, about one-half of the world’s population lives in cities. As industry grew, so did innovation in agriculture, allowing rural areas to feed the people within cities. The first major cities of the modern world are closely connected with the First and Second Industrial Revolutions. In England, cities were founded and grew in areas with rich coal deposits and access to rivers and the ocean. In the early United States, the major cities were deep-water ports. Later, as industries developed, cities grew up around them.

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