In recent years, Central America, Egypt, India and Sri Lanka have reported a high prevalence of chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology in agricultural communities, predominantly among male farmworkers. This essay examines the disease's case definitions, epidemiology (disease burden, demographics, associated risk factors) and causal hypotheses, by reviewing published findings from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Sri Lanka, Egypt and India. The range of confirmed chronic kidney disease prevalence was 17.9%-21.1%. Prevalence of reduced glomerular filtration (<60 mL/min/1.73 m2 body surface area) based on a single serum creatinine measurement was 0%-67% men and 0%-57% women. Prevalence was generally higher in male farmworkers aged 20-50 years, and varied by community economic activity and altitude. Cause was unknown in 57.4%-66.7% of patients. The dominant histopathological diagnosis was chronic tubulointerstitial nephritis. Associations were reported with agricultural work, agrochemical exposure, dehydration, hypertension, homemade alcohol use and family history of chronic kidney disease. There is no strong evidence for a single cause, and multiple environmental, occupational and social factors are probably involved. Further etiological research is needed, plus interventions to reduce preventable risk factors.