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Less than one-third of Asia’s land is in agricultural use. The basic unit for organizing production in the rural areas is either the farm or the village, depending on the way in which rural society is structured. In South, Southeast, and East Asia, agriculture is characterized by small farms in alluvial lowlands, too many people on too little land, production largely for subsistence, and a heavy dependence on cereals and other food staples. Farming with simple handheld tools or plows pulled by draft animals is very common. Many farmers are tenants, not owning the land they work. Communal farming was once common in socialist countries. Most rural communes have disintegrated in China and Vietnam, however, and the rights to use the land have reverted to farm families.
Rice, usually grown under wet conditions, is the staple food crop of South, Southeast, and East Asia. In South and Southeast Asia, controlled irrigation facilities are poorly developed, yields are often low, and double-cropping (planting and harvesting two crops in one calendar year) is seldom practiced. Although high-yield varieties of wet rice have been introduced since the 1960s, this has not increased production as hoped.
In India, irrigation schemes have helped stabilize annual yields and increase overall production, but the average rice yield per hectare in the mid-1990s was only about half that of Japan. Nevertheless, Asian countries produce about 90 percent of the world’s rice. China and India alone account for nearly 60 percent of the world total.
In addition to subsistence and small-farm agriculture, South and Southeast Asia also have large-scale estate agriculture. These farms produce crops for export, such as rubber, palm oil, coconut products, tea, pineapples, and manila hemp. Estate production originated in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when European colonial powers controlled much of the region. Many estates remain under foreign ownership and control.
In East Asia, agriculture is based on flooded-field cultivation to a latitude of about 35° north in China and about 40° north elsewhere. In contrast to Southeast Asia, yields are high, double-cropping is common, irrigation is highly controlled, and fertilizer is used extensively. These practices make Japan’s wet-rice agriculture very productive, despite the small size of Japanese farms.
North of the Huai River in China’s Anhui province, rice gives way to wheat and other dry grains, especially sorghum and corn. Fish farming and swine and poultry raising are practiced throughout East Asia. Dairy and beef cattle, though, are commonly raised only in Japan and Korea.
Farmers grow some grains in Asia’s dry interior regions, and the raising of cattle, sheep, and horses is important. Semiarid regions of Central and Southwest Asia have agriculture centered around oases. For the most part, however, productivity levels are low.