Corn is not what you think. For starters: Most of the time, it's not human food.
Global news with a spatial perspective: Interesting, current supplemental materials for geography teachers and students.
Curated by Seth Dixon
Corn is not what you think. For starters: Most of the time, it's not human food.
Land use practices that determine what is grown in a particular place are partly determined by the health needs of a local population, but they are more directly shaped by economic markets. Over 75% of the corn produced in the United States is destined for animal feed or fuel; since global population projections are now supposed to be 11 billion by 2100, these are some important issues for us to consider before we are forced to reassess our societal choices.
Many advocates of local foods favor a small-scale approach to farming and are opposed to large-scale agribusiness. It might be easy for those disconnected from the food production system (like me) to romanticize and mythologize the farmers of yesteryear and yearn to return to this past. This talk highlights how essential large-scale farming is absolutely critical to feeding the global population; this other TED talk discusses many of the hunger problems especially the uneven access to food. Here are some other pro-agribusiness resources.
"By 2050, the world's population will likely increase 35 percent. But is growing more food the only option—or even the best? National Geographic investigates the challenges and solutions to feeding everyone on our planet, based on an eight-month series in National Geographic magazine. Visit http://natgeofood.com for ongoing coverage of food issues as we investigate the Future of Food today on World Food Day."
"Growing Power is a national nonprofit organization and land trust supporting people from diverse backgrounds, and the environments in which they live, by helping to provide equal access to healthy, high-quality, safe and affordable food for people in all communities. See other videos on this organization here."
There has been a revitalization in urban gardening as many city dwellers feel disconnected from their food systems; urban gardening is a way for people to actively control what they are ingesting into their systems many fear some of the modern agricultural methods. Based in Milwaukee, WI, Growing Power has created an interesting combination of vegetable gardening and aquaponics for the urban environment.
"United Nations, June 2008 - The bio-fuel, ethanol, is generating a revolution in renewable energy that could help reduce the world's thirst for oil. In Brazil, the production of ethanol from sugarcane is booming, but what is not clear is the impact it is having on the industry's sugarcane cutters." Transcript of video available here.
Although ethanol is working well for Brazil, there is a growing literature supporting the idea that wide-scale ethanol production is not sustainable or environmentally beneficial. This is a great example to demonstrate that economic and environmental policies are locally dependent on geographic factors and are not universally transferable. Click here for a simple explanation of the differences in the economic and environmental differences in the production of sugar and corn-based ethanol.
"For at least 70 years, the Red Delicious has dominated apple production in the United States. But since the turn of the 21st century, as the market has filled with competitors—the Gala, the Fuji, the Honeycrisp—its lead has been narrowing. Annual output has plunged."
The story of the Red Delicious is almost a perfect analogy for the food industry. It was genetically selected for its marketable skin, an aesthetically sumptuous red. The skin of the Red Delicious better covers bruises than other varieties and tastes more bitter. Consumers were buying what the industry promoted and “eating with their eyes and not their mouths.” But recently there has been a backlash in the United States and more American consumer are seeking out other varieties; meanwhile the apple producers are working on exporting this variety to around the world, but especially into Chinese markets.
In many countries, eggs aren't refrigerated and they're still considered safe to eat. But in the U.S., we have to chill them, because we've washed away the cuticle that protects them from bacteria.
For many Americans that are traveling abroad for the first time, realizing that eggs aren't in the refrigerator is a bit of a culture shock (not to mention the moment they find milk in a box that also isn't being refrigerated). Agricultural practices dictate storage requirements and some things we might have imagined were universal are actually place-specific or peculiar to our cultural setting. What we are taught to think of as gross, appropriate, attractive or even sanitary is often steeped in a cultural context. So is it strange the we refrigerate our eggs in the United States, or that they don't in other places?
"While people often say that borders aren’t visible from space, the line between Kazakhstan and China could not be more clear in this satellite image. Acquired by the Landsat 8 satellite on September 9, 2013, the image shows northwestern China around the city of Qoqek and far eastern Kazakhstan near Lake Balqash.
The border between the two countries is defined by land-use policies. In China, land use is intense. Only 11.62 percent of China’s land is arable. Pressed by a need to produce food for 1.3 billion people, China farms just about any land that can be sustained for agriculture. Fields are dark green in contrast to the surrounding arid landscape, a sign that the agriculture is irrigated. As of 2006, about 65 percent of China’s fresh water was used for agriculture, irrigating 629,000 square kilometers (243,000 square miles) of farmland, an area slightly smaller than the state of Texas.
The story is quite different in Kazakhstan. Here, large industrial-sized farms dominate, an artifact of Soviet-era agriculture. While agriculture is an important sector in the Kazakh economy, eastern Kazakhstan is a minor growing area. Only 0.03 percent of Kazakhstan’s land is devoted to permanent agriculture, with 20,660 square kilometers being irrigated. The land along the Chinese border is minimally used, though rectangular shapes show that farming does occur in the region. Much of the agriculture in this region is rain-fed, so the fields are tan much like the surrounding natural landscape."
Pharmaceutical companies would need to compensate indigenous people for using their knowhow in creating new medicines
I'd never hear the term biopiracy before this month, but this idea is this: companies from wealthy countries commercially develop the genetic resources of developing countries with local assistance but don't fairly compensate the local population. I never had the vocabulary to describe such a thing, but that is biopiracy in a nutshell and the EU is working to end that. It doesn't only impact the pharmaceutical companies but heavily impact the agricultural industries as well. Anyone in the developed world eating quinoa and kale 20 years ago? Being marketed as 'superfoods' has changed the global production systems but also impacted local indigenous food supplies (some are referring to this as food gentrification).
Maps and charts updated weekly show the latest extent of the drought in the United States.
I've shared numerous links here about the drought situation in California over the past few months, but the situation extends far beyond California as these animated maps and charts demonstrate. Some of the best public data on drought can be found at the National Drought Mitigation Center.
"One-third of the seafood Americans catch is sold abroad, but most of the seafood we eat here is imported and often of lower quality. Why? Author Paul Greenberg says it has to do with American tastes."
The United States exports the best-quality seafood that Americans catch, but import primarily low-grade aquacultural products. This is just one of the counter-intuitive issues withe U.S. fish consumption and production. This bizarre dynamic has cultural and economic explanations and this NPR podcast nicely explains these spatial patterns that are bound to frustrate those that advocate for locally sourced food productions.
Editor's note: This story is one in a series on a crisis in America's Breadbasket –the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer and its effects on a region that hel...
This isn't new, but it is a new development that the media is covering the issue that has been going on for decades. The Ogallala aquifer is the primary water source in an agricultural region from Texas to Nebraska in dry, but agriculturally productive states. The reason behind their agricultural success in the dry high plains is that more water is being extracted from the aquifer than is naturally being replenished. This is the obvious result of a human-environmental interaction where the individual actors are incentivized to deplete a communal resource.
China has long depended on the U.S. breadbasket, importing up to $26 billion in U.S. agricultural products yearly. But increasingly, Chinese investors aren’t just buying from farms abroad. They’re buying the farms.
Globalization is often described as a homogenizing force, but is also pairs together odd bed fellows. A small Utah town near the Colorado border, Jensen is now home to the largest Chinese-owned hay farm in the United States. Utah's climate is right for growing alfalfa, and China's growing cattle industry make this a natural global partnership. Large container ships come to the United States from China, and return fairly empty, making the transportation price relatively affordable. While this might make economic sense on a global scale, local water concerns in the west show that this isn't without it's problems. Water resources are scarce and many see this as a depletion of local water exported to China. Some states see this as a threat and are considering banning foreign ownership of farmland. This article shows the merging of various geographic themes: the global and local, the industrial and the agricultural, the human and the physical.
"With seven billion people now living on Earth, the ever growing demand is putting unprecedented pressure on global resources—especially forests, water, and food. How can Earth’s resources be managed best to support so many people? One key is tracking the sum of what is available, and perhaps nothing is better suited to that task than satellites."
Agricultural production is one of the ways in which people modify the environment more than any other. Global population is expected to top out at around 9 billion around 2050, so will we be able to sustainably feed all of the entire human population? Satellite imagery can help answer these questions.
"The future of the nations will depend on the manner of how they feed themselves, wrote the French epicurean Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1826. Almost 200 years later, how nations feed themselves has gotten a lot more complicated. That’s particularly true in the US, where food insecurity coexists with an obesity crisis, where fast food is everywhere and farmer’s markets are spreading, where foodies have never had more power and McDonald’s has never had more locations, and where the possibility of a barbecue-based civil war is always near. So here are 40 maps, charts, and graphs that show where our food comes from and how we eat it, with some drinking thrown in for good measure."
Occasionally these lists that say something like "40 maps that..." end up being an odd assortment of trivia that is interesting but not very instructive. Not so with this list that has carefully curated these maps and graphs in a sequential order that will enrich students' understanding of food production and consumption in the United States.
"When the agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada went into effect in 1994, it removed nearly all trade barriers between the countries. Among the industries affected was agriculture, forcing small Mexican farmers into direct competition with big American agribusiness. Cheap American corn – heavily subsidized, mechanized and genetically modified – soon flooded the Mexican market to the detriment of local farmers. As U.S. farmers exported their subsidized corn to Mexico, local producer prices plummeted and small farmers could no longer earn enough to live on."
International trade agreements are usually discussed at the national level. "NAFTA benefits Mexico" is a commonly heard saying because trade with the United States and Canada strengthens the manufacturing sector in Mexico. Even if there is an overall benefit to a country, there are always winners and losers for different regions, economic sectors and many other demographic groups. Farmers in southern Mexico were certainly a sector that struggled mightily under NAFTA.
When streams emerge from mountains, they often spread out and deposit sediment in a distinctive pattern known as an alluvial fan.
In dry areas of interior drainage (such as Central Asia and the Great Basin in the U.S.), the human settlements are often clustered along the foothills of the mountains near landforms called alluvial fans. Take time to analyze this image (and this one as well); in alluvial fans and the agricultural patterns that people create on them, we can see some striking geometric and spatial configurations that show how human settlements are highly dependent of the physical environment.
They've driven prices so low that Mexican growers are giving up.
For the first time ever, many of the farmers who supply Mexican drug cartels have stopped planting marijuana, reports the Washington Post. "It's not worth it anymore," said Rodrigo Silla, a lifelong cannabis farmer from central Mexico. "I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization." Facing stiff competition from pot grown legally and illegally north of the border, the price for a kilogram of Mexican schwag has plummeted by 75 percent, from $100 to $25.
Events that we think of as local (Washington and Colorado legalizing marijuana use) have national and global implications, especially in a globalized economy. This article is but one example of why geographers try to approach every issue at a variety of scales to more fully comprehend the ramifications and ripple effects of any given phenomenon.
Brought to Europe from the New World by Spanish explorers, the lowly potato gave rise to modern industrial agriculture
The Colombian Exchange is a term that describes the most dramatic biologic transfer in history. European explorers brought animals and agricultural items from the Old World to the New and subsequently brought back items from the New World back to the Old. This exchange profoundly reshaped many societies as agricultural diffusion of the potato lead to the changes across northern Europe.
When we think about threats to the environment, we tend to picture cars and smokestacks, not dinner. But the truth is, our need for food poses one of the biggest dangers to the planet.
Agricultural production is one of the ways in which people modify the environment more than any other. Global population is expected to top out at around 9 billion around 2050, so will we be able to sustainably feed all of the entire human population? This one question brings up many more spatial, environmental, political and social questions--this interactive feature nicely addresses many of the pertinent issues in a very accessible manner.
Would you like to map out the GMO-free regions of Europe? Looking for resources discussing the impacts of GMOs on society? This is a partisan site with some nice resources for a student project. Additionally, in this NPR podcast they discuss how some American companies are trying to be GMO free in a GMO world.
"Think of coffee and you will probably think of Brazil, Colombia, or maybe Ethiopia. But the world's second largest exporter today is Vietnam. How did its market share jump from 0.1% to 20% in just 30 years, and how has this rapid change affected the country?"
Vietnam is a historically tea-drinking country, and when the French colonized, they brought coffee. Culturally they still prefer tea, but in the 1980s, the government say this as a major export crop that they were climatically primed to produce. This rapid growth has bolstered the economy, but has had some adverse environmental impacts as well. The article is rich in geographic topics to bring into the classroom.
|Suggested by Mike Busarello's Digital Textbooks|
"New England's woody hills and dales hide a secret—they weren't always forested. Instead, many were once covered with colonial roads and farmsteads."
I love living in New England and finding stone walls from old farmsteads; an archaeology professor at UConn is using geospatial technologies to map out the remants of that historical landscape. This is a great example of using spatial thinking across the disciplines.
A woman in Miami Shores is suing after her town insisted she remove vegetables from her garden.
This podcast highlights the political governance issues surrounding urban agriculture.