Thursday, October 1, 2009

On the continuing need for agricultural geography

Much of what we read in both the media and academic scholarship about agriculture focuses on the trend toward larger farmers, fewer farmers, monoculture production and the environmental impacts that result. Documentary films regularly remind us how large hog barns and cattle feedlots produce as much sewage as small cities, and how our food supply increasingly depends on an ever smaller number of companies and food types; research in a variety of fields suggests water resources in many regions are diminishing due to diversions of surface water and over-pumping of groundwater irrigating farmland. We're warned that our food supply is becoming more homogeneous, that rural livelihoods are under threat, and that agricultural technologies controlled by a few large multinational corporations threaten the very fabric of ecosystems.

These are very real concerns that demand greater attention and scholarly research. There once was a time when geographers made great contributions to research on topics such as these, but I fear our capacity to do so is declining. Every geography department in North America used to contain geographers whose expertise included agricultural geography, rural geography and related topics. Not anymore. When professors with that expertise retire, they don't get replaced. In my department, an undergraduate student in Geography may complete his or her entire program without once getting a substantive lecture on soils or exploring why crop choices in a certain place in Canada may not reflect the actual productive capacity of that land unit. I suspect it may be the same at other universities. When rural or agricultural issues or topics actually make it into the discussion, they are often lumped into such themes as "natural resource management" or "rural-urban linkages". Depending on their study interests, students may actually learn more about agricultural practices in other countries countries without knowing much about how such things work here at home. It's increasingly rare that Canadian agriculture or rural livelihoods ever get separate billing in their own right in geography courses.

This is not to say that my colleagues are deficient in their teaching, nor that the things students are being taught instead are not important. The vast majority of our students come from urban or suburban communities, and so it may be that geography departments and curriculum, which include strong representation of urban geography and urban geographers, simply reflect the interests and background of our clientele and Canadian society at large. Perhaps. But while the majority of the population may live in urban/suburban settings, the majority of our land and the resources on which those urban populations depend is rural. A generation or two ago, it could be safely assumed that people had at least a rudimentary understanding of agriculture, of only because their parents or grandparents had been born on one. Today, I regularly encounter students who have never been to a farm. So it seems to me that as our general, latent knowledge of rural life and economy fades it becomes more important to have that expertise in our geography departments, not less.

These thoughts came to me as I listened to a podcasted interview one of my graduate students recently did with a geographer at a well-known university about the importance of local agriculture. The geographer in question (their identity does not matter, I'm not using this blog to call out people) was advocating the idea grounded in 1980s neo-classical macro-economics that food should be produced wherever local conditions provide a "natural advantage" to doing so. In other words, if an Ottawa supermarket can sell a carrot grown in California more cheaply than one grown in the Ottawa area, then California must have a "natural advantage, and maybe Ottawa-area farmers shouldn't be growing carrots in the first place. I'm all for using economic theories to explain agricultural markets, but the longer I listened to the interview, the more it became apparent that the interviewee had never been to the agricultural regions s/he used as examples, and had little knowledge of agricultural production systems. The geographer's basic assumptions about farming, about agricultural policies and about energy use in agricultural systems were flawed on many levels, and would have been pointed out a long time ago over coffee by the agricultural geographer with the office down the hall from the interviewee - were such a person to exist, that is.

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