The individual machines that are shown in this video aren’t so important to our geographic inquiry, but the scale and the scope of mechanization on the agricultural sector is absolutely the point here. Agricultural production has increased exponentially (dare I say geometrically?) since the Industrial Revolution and machines (and increasingly sophisticated machinery) are the reason why. Our collective capacity to grow grow more food has many reverberating implications, and I’ll mention a few of them here:
Population growth has never faced the feared Malthusian limits.
The prices of most commodities (relative to the time in takes to earn the money) has dropped in the last few decades.
One of the reasons for the importance of the uniform agricultural landscape (i.e.-evenly spaced rows) is that the mechanization process requires a degree of precision that only works with a highly uniform landscape. The vast majority of these machines rely of fossil fuels and not so easily replaced with commercial electric vehicles given their power requirements and need to be away from recharging stations.
The collapse of the Sri Lankan government was a shock, but outside of regional experts, few were paying attention to the South Asian Island nation during the global pandemic to worry about their agriculture and economy. Now is the time for us to reflect and consider. There was a currency crisis, food shortages, energy shortages, a suffering tourism industry during COVID, a popular uprising, but underneath it all were the policies that destabilized the whole system. Policies that sounded seductively enticing, and generated global admiration from the WEF and sustainable agriculture advocates. Sri Lanka received a glowing ESG score, but despite this international acclaim, it came with one fatal flaw—the policies didn’t support the people of Sri Lanka.
I will focus primarily on the agricultural aspects of crisis (since it fits best with human geography curriculum) but yes, there were other political and economic factors. Organic farming is only for the wealthy in developed countries that can afford organic food as a lifestyle choice, or the very poor in rural, underdeveloped regions that engage in subsistence agriculture without access to Green Revolution technologies. Organic food accounts for 1% of the global food trade, and most of humanity relies of the technological advancements made by the Green Revolution for their food supply.
The government of Sri Lanka announced a 10-year plan to transition to 100% organic farming, by banning synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (the very inputs that double Sri Lanka’s yield in the 1960s from the Green Revolution). Over 30% of Sri Lankan farmland lay dormant without enough manure and other approved replacements. Something else that we often forget is the modern agriculture is heavily dependent on fossil fuel usage for the heavy machinery to replace manual labor. As the economy struggled, fuel prices went up and resources were rationed so that farmers couldn’t run their machinery and couldn’t get they products to the market. 85% of farmers suffered crop losses and overall production declined by over 20%, which might not sound like much as the 4th largest tea exporter in the world and a country that primarily consumes rice, crashing the rice and tea markets in catastrophic.
Sustainable agriculture sounds lovely as a goal, but not if the needs of the people are not being met first. Sri Lanka serves a cautionary tale for countries prioritizing international environmental aims over policies that will promote economic growth and human flourishing within their borders. The romanticism of organic agriculture is a fine choice for those who can afford it, but horrible to impose on those who cannot.
This visualization shows Crop Intensity data (regions that produce the most crops), followed by the MODIS croplands product, the 26 countries that produce 82% of the world’s food, the population density in 2002 and finally the projected population in 2050.
“The robots have arrived. And they’ll be picking crops in Florida fields soon. Robots can do things humans can’t. They can pick all through the night. They can measure weight better. They can pack boxes more efficiently. They don’t take sick days, they don’t have visa problems.
Google ‘are robots taking our jobs?’ and you get millions of theories: Robots will take over most jobs within 30 years; yes, but it’s a good thing; yes, but they will create jobs, too; chill out, they won’t take them all. Truckers, surgeons, accountants and journalists have all been theoretically replaced by prognosticators.
But harvesting specialty crops is different: Plants vary in shape and size and determining ripeness is complex — experts have said there are too many variables for robots. Until now.”
Many industries have been, and will continue to be transformed by automation and robotics. There is a great amount of uncertainty and anxiety in the labor pools as workers see many low skill jobs are being outsourced and other jobs are being automated. Some economic organizations are preparing resources for workers to strengthen their skills for the era of automation.
Questions to Ponder: How will a machine like this transform the agricultural business? How might it impact migration, food prices, or food waste?
This 5-minute video is a good introduction to garlic, it’s production, environmental requirements, nutritional profile and diffusion. Historically, garlic was far more important than I ever imagined. The geography of food goes far beyond the kitchen and there are many more episodes in the “How Does it Grow?” series to show that.
Avocados have become a super trendy food, but few of us know how they’re even grown or harvested. We visit a California farm to uncover the amazing story of the avocado — and share the secrets to choosing, ripening and cutting the fruit.
My childhood house in the Los Angeles area had an avocado tree in the backyard; I now realize that the climatic demands of avocado production means this is a rarity in the United States, but as a kid I thought guacamole was as ubiquitous as peanut butter. This 5-minute video is a good introduction to the avocado, it’s production, environmental requirements, nutritional profile and diffusion. The geography of food goes far beyond the kitchen and there are more episodes in the “How Does it Grow?” series to show that. WARNING: the video does mention the Nahuatl origin of the word (‘testicle-fruit’) in the video so as you manage your own classroom…just so you know.
I have more questions than definitive answers, so let’s get right to it.
Questions to Ponder: How have technological and logistical shifts in various industries made this once unthinkable union workable? How will a retailer like Amazon change the food industry on the production side of the equation? What are the advantages and disadvantages of creative destruction (eliminating old jobs by creating new ones)? Who stands to benefit the most, and who are the most negatively impacted?
“Rick Friday has been giving farmers a voice and a laugh every Friday for two decades through his cartoons in Farm News. Now the long-time Iowa farm cartoonist tells KCCI that he has been fired. Friday announced Sunday that his job was over after 21 years in a Facebook post that has since gone viral.”
There are some intriguing layers connected to the politics of agribusiness in this story. First off, the political cartoon highlights a pithy truth–that while the ‘traditional’ farmer is a lucrative position, in the global economy, there are corporations that are amassing fortunes in agribusiness. The second connection is more telling–the newspaper company felt compelled to fire the cartoonist as for voicing this perspective as the newspaper advertisers flexed their pocketbooks to change the direction of the news being reported.