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  • If you live in North America like me, the first thing we might imagine when we hear

  • about agriculture and farming are fields of grain that stretch for as far as the eye can see.

  • Or massive ranches with real life cowboys herding cattle and the sprawling feedlots

  • they end up on.

  • But there are lots of other systems for producing food around the world.

  • Like we saw last time, foods have been domesticated pretty much everywhere because hunger and

  • access to food is something weve been trying to figure out forever.

  • So over the millenia, every region on Earth has developed its own successful agricultural

  • ecosystems, which are the complex system of climate, plants, local animals, the soil’s

  • nutrients and microbiome, and whatever's being grown in all of that.

  • And we don’t have to stay on land to farm food!

  • In places near water, aquaculture is also a type of agricultural ecosystem, which can

  • range from communities protecting and cultivating fishing grounds, to fish farms where species

  • are raised in artificial ponds or tanks, often alongside major waterways.

  • Or people would alter the landscape to create conditions to catch and retain soil with mountain terraces.

  • In places too arid to farm, people maintained and herded different animals, and in places

  • with rich soils, traditions developed to maintain soil health.

  • As geographers, were drawn to understanding the connections between the physical needs

  • of the organisms that provide us food, and the systems and structures humans create to

  • interact with those organisms.

  • It’s an economic relationship that connects humans and non-human organisms all over the globe.

  • I’m Alizé Carrère, and this is Crash Course Geography.

  • INTRO

  • In order to talk about and compare different types of agricultural ecosystems, in geography

  • we use a lot of different categories and words to describe each technique.

  • And whether it's aquaculture or herding or some other method, each technique happens

  • at a specific size, or scale.

  • There are different ways of breaking down the size of agricultural systems, and we're

  • going to use one that has three different scales.

  • On the smallest scale is subsistence agriculture, which means someone grows just enough food

  • for themselves.

  • Many cultures where subsistence agriculture is common also share all the land between

  • everyone in the community, so it can also mean growing enough food for the community.

  • A slightly larger farm may have the space to grow enough food to feed your family and

  • community and to trade or sell within the region.

  • This is called small-scale agriculture.

  • In both cases, these farms are sometimes also called smallholder farms or even family farms,

  • and all the food produced is meant for local consumption.

  • But, industrial agriculture operates on a much larger scale and most of the food produced

  • is meant for exporting around the country or world.

  • This is a really big category -- the giant agribusinesses we discussed in episode 41

  • fall into the industrial agriculture category, but so do some independent farms.

  • The key is that most of the food is grown to be exported outside of the community.

  • Within these different scales we can find more categories to compare different systems.

  • Both subsistence and small-scale agriculture can also include polyculture, which is a complex

  • form of intercropping, meaning multiple crops are grown at the same time on the same field.

  • In a polyculture system, it’s common to have plants maturing at different times, and

  • even a mix of plants and animals!

  • Take for example one of the oldest polycultures in the world, raised beds featuring rice and

  • fish that can be found across Southeast Asia.

  • The fish droppings provide fertilizer for the rice.

  • And if ducks are present, they might eat the weeds that try to grow with the rice, and

  • they and their eggs can also provide protein as food for the community.

  • This is an important strategy because with a variety of plants and animals, the agricultural

  • system is more likely to have a steady rotation of crops to harvest, and better mirrors the

  • complexity of the surrounding ecosystem.

  • Like, a diversity of predators keeps pests in check.

  • But globally, as industrial agriculture rose and plots of land were increasingly used for

  • export or to feed larger areas of people, monoculture systems where only one crop is

  • grown on a plot of land, became more popular because theyre more efficient to harvest.

  • And we can also talk about how much we have to put in from outside the farm to maintain

  • the agricultural system.

  • For example, in the Philippines, the Cordilleras Mountain Province contains an UNESCO world

  • heritage site of rice terraces.

  • These carefully engineered terraces expertly capture runoff water from the mountains, and

  • are able to create ideal environments for rice that have been carefully maintained for 2,000 years!

  • They recycle nutrients from within their immediate surroundings instead of humans adding them,

  • so theyre low-input agriculture, and often have both rice and fish, making it a polyculture.

  • Whereas industrialized agriculture is high-input agriculture that requires a lot of commercially

  • developed seeds or synthetic fertilizers and herbicides.

  • But we also have words to describe the relationship between how much effort we put in and the

  • amount of land that’s being used.

  • Like the Filipino rice terraces are also an example of an intensive subsistence system,

  • because there’s a large amount of labor to harvest food on usually a small amount of land.

  • Humans have to construct ditches that hold and direct water, in addition to planting rice each year.

  • Other systems like the shifting or swidden styles of agriculture in the Amazon are low-input

  • polycultures but also extensive subsistence systems because they use a lot of land but

  • not as much labor per hectare.

  • So any agricultural ecosystem can fit into a number of categories and scales.

  • So, with so many different agricultural ecosystems to talk about, let’s zoom into just one

  • place and explore how agriculture has progressed through different categories over time.

  • The Philippines are an archipelago of islands in the Pacific Ocean teeming with biodiversity.

  • There’s an abundance of lush vegetation, unique animals, and it’s home to the Coral Triangle,

  • an area with hundreds of corals and 6 of the 7 major sea turtle species.

  • These islands with volcanic soils are considered to be mega-biodiverse.

  • And yet, the Philippines also had an inadequate food supply throughout the 20th century, despite

  • being part of theRice Bowlof the world and one of the main rice producers in Southeast Asia.

  • In a place filled with biodiversity, the lack of available food is a striking contrast.

  • In the 16th century, the Philippines were colonized by the Spanish who drastically changed

  • the land tenure, or who had rights or access to land.

  • They reorganized agriculture to include encomiendas, which were plantations with a range of commercial

  • crops, from sugar to tobacco to coffee.

  • The Filipino workers still had ownership of the land in theory, but in practice, they

  • were subject to high taxes.

  • In the process, land rights shifted from subsistence plots, to increasingly commercialized agricultural activities.

  • And this mass production of food for export has contributed to current day capitalism

  • and the globalization of our food supply.

  • As geographers, we can study how agriculture shapes economic activity, and how it has changed

  • through the forces of globalization, where goods and ideas are exchanged around the world

  • regardless of boundaries.

  • For instance, as food gets industrialized, it becomes cost effective for large amounts

  • of food to be produced and processed in just a few locations.

  • This draws on the idea of economies of scale which is that there are cost savings inherent

  • to large production operations where the costs of equipment and labor are used to produce

  • so many items that the overall cost of production becomes really low.

  • This makes it hard for smaller, local entities to compete, because they don’t have access

  • to the same scale of resources.

  • And to cover their costs, their products will be more expensive, and less competitive.

  • Farming in the 21st century is also really expensive and risky -- there’s lots of equipment,

  • seeds, and technology to buy and always a chance a crop will fail.

  • In the Philippines, flooding from catastrophic typhoons has been one reason for recent crop failures.

  • So economic insecurity is part of why the number of farmers is decreasing worldwide.

  • And it’s helped large agribusinesses like Dole to build economies of scale in the Philippines

  • by contracting with, or partnering with a bunch of little farms.

  • And in situations where the farmers can own their land and retain control over inputs

  • and pricing agreements, this can work decently, and has for some groups in the Philippines.

  • But around the world there are tensions between the high cost of materials needed to farm

  • commercially, low prices for food products, and who gets to own and control the land that

  • farming takes place on.

  • Giant agribusinesses like Dole also have the wealth to set up vertical integration, which

  • is a process of buying up all the pieces of the supply chain.

  • They own the fields where pineapples are grown and also control the packing and processing

  • factories, trucks, and other parts of the supply chain that bring their product to grocery store shelves.

  • So as agriculture has become more globalized on the one hand, this has made some food cheaper.

  • But on the other hand, intensive commercial agriculture takes a lot out of the Earth and its people.

  • This type of agriculture also creates tensions around who can afford to participate in commercial

  • agriculture, and who can earn a dignified living working in that sector.

  • For instance, from the colonial plantations of the 1700s to today, labor is still the

  • hidden cost in agriculture.

  • Small scale agriculture is often seen as hard and risky, with industrial agriculture being

  • seen as more profitable.

  • But in both cases those doing the labor are often in precarious positions.

  • For much of the produce consumed around the world, there’s no automated way to harvest

  • the delicate foods, other than by hand.

  • So seasonal migrant labor is fairly common.

  • But in many areas of the world, migrant labor doesn’t have protected legal rights, making

  • them vulnerable to abuse, enslavement, and harmful legal policies.

  • And pretty much by definition, agriculture alters the environment.

  • Take the soil.

  • Traditional methods dealt with soil conservation through terracing and windbreaks as a way

  • to stop the soil from being washed or blown away.

  • And farmers have gotten creative with ways to restore soil nutrients, like swidden systems

  • where the soil is allowed to rest for at least one growing season.

  • Or rice terrace systems that are integrated with animals providing a gentle cycling of

  • nutrients using organic, or non-industrial fertilizers.

  • But industrial agriculture is too intensive and specialized to use these methods, which

  • often leads to soil degradation and erosion.

  • Globally there’s also more pressure on aquifers and surface water from agriculture and droughts.

  • Remember just 0.3% of water on Earth is freshwater that we can drink, and food production uses

  • between 70 and 80% of that.

  • Managing nutrient cycles, soil health, and water supplies also becomes more complicated

  • in a world of climate change.

  • It will mean finding new plants, new varieties, and perhaps changing some of the foods we eat.

  • Geographers and scientists are also exploring agroecology, which is a term used to describe

  • agriculture ecosystems that are rooted in the knowledge of local environments, justice,

  • and are often small-scale and ecologically diverse.

  • So will we use these methods in the future?

  • I sure hope so!

  • But given how much agriculture is currently focused on exporting food around the world

  • rather than feeding local communities, it’s unlikely therell be a mass shift to agroecology

  • anytime soon.

  • But, there are so many people on the planet that we will need a diverse portfolio of agricultural

  • practices to feed everyone.

  • And yet, humans are ever innovating.

  • Climate change and economics play a big role, but there are movements to change how farmers

  • finance their costs, like micro loans and co-ops, which may or may not help depending

  • on the country.

  • Farming communities in the Philippines have pioneered peer-to-peer lending platforms in

  • an attempt to make financing more affordable for farmers.

  • Because well, food is our life.

  • The story of agriculture is an integral part of the story of humans, and well keep struggling and innovating.

  • Including next time, when we continue on our journey to understand how humans interact

  • with and use land -- this time deep within the Earth.

  • Many maps and borders represent modern geopolitical divisions that have often been decided without

  • the consultation, permission, or recognition of the land's original inhabitants.

  • Many geographical place names also don't reflect the Indigenous or Aboriginal peoples languages.

  • So we at Crash Course want to acknowledge these peoplestraditional and ongoing relationship

  • with that land and all the physical and human geographical elements of it.

  • We encourage you to learn about the history of the place you call home through resources

  • like native-land.ca and by engaging with your local Indigenous and Aboriginal nations through

  • the websites and resources they provide.

  • Thanks for watching this episode of Crash Course Geography which is filmed at the Team

  • Sandoval Pierce Studio and was made with the help of all these nice people.

  • If you want to help keep all Crash Course free for everyone, forever, you can join our

  • community on Patreon.

If you live in North America like me, the first thing we might imagine when we hear

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How Do We Produce Food? Crash Course Geography #43

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    joey joey posted on 2022/02/27
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