Sonia Heckler

agriculture, climate, environment

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American Association of Geographer’s 2017 Meeting

Agriculture was a major topic of discussion at the annual meeting of the American Association of Geographer. Small farmers in developing countries was a popular topic with less focus on small farmers in developed countries. The successes and failures of community and school garden’s were also explored.

Themes for agriculture research moving forward were the need for research, policy and the food movement to work simultaneously in order to create change in the food system. There was also a discussion on how researchers could work with farmers and activists to help each other reach their respective goals.

Here is a link to the presentation I gave on my research: High Tunnels: One Solution to Farmers Crop Growth Challenges.

The Future of Agriculture

In my previous posts, I have highlighted the complexity of the food system as well as some of the problems with it. With the increasing population and unsustainability of the system, how will the inequities in and the environmental damage of the food system be addressed?

Agriculture currently encompasses 38% of the ice-free land on the planet. It has impacts both globally and locally. Agriculture contributes 30% to 35% of greenhouse gas emissions globally (Foley 2011). All the most productive land has been put into agriculture production and while over all yields are increasing, they are increasing at a slower rate and stagnating is some places (Foley 2011, FoodMatters). At the same time, population is increasing. Estimates are that food production will need to double by 2050 (FoodMatters).

Agriculture is facing increased pressure from a growing population while running up against environmental limits. The industry will need to address some critical problems moving forward. Agriculture needs to feed a growing population with nutritious food, while reducing greenhouse emissions (Foley 2011). In addition, agriculture needs to use water responsibly and reduce water pollution (Foley 2011).

Many interconnected solutions are necessary to address the problems that agriculture faces. The only land available left to clear for agriculture is mostly in the tropics. Because there is so little quality agricultural land left, agriculture needs to stop expanding and focus on intensifying production on the agricultural land that already exists (Foley 2011). Agriculture in many parts of the world is not producing as much as it could with the land available. Intensifying agriculture could close these ‘yield gaps’ by increasing production, thereby removing the threat to the most biodiverse land in the world (Foley 2011). Agriculture can also increase resource efficiency thereby decreasing its environmental harm and increasing the sustainability of the system. The most important elements to use more efficiently are nitrogen, phosphorous and water. Some places apply too much while some lack the resources to apply enough (Foley 2011). Evening the distribution of fertilizer and irrigation water will be critical to addressing resource use. The most important change that needs to take place is shifting diets away from meat . Because meat uses so many resources to be produced, reducing demand for it would reduce the pressure the agricultural system places on the environment (Foley 2011). The final piece to improve the food system is to reduce waste. Enough food is wasted to feed 1.9 billion people (FoodMatters). Food is wasted for two main reasons. In developing countries, they lack the appropriate resources to transport and store harvested crops. In developed countries, food waste occurs around how grocery stores, restaurants and households consume food (FoodMatters).

In order to accomplish the necessary changes to the food system, the inherent inequalities and globalized nature of the food system will need to shift. To address the suggested solutions, the inequalities between developed and developing countries must change. The priorities of efficiency and profit need to be adjusted to include resiliency and equity. For more on the latest in agriculture research see


Foley, J., N. Ramankutty, K. Brauman, E. Cassidy, J. Gerber, M. Johnston,
 N. Mueller, C. O’Connell, D. Ray, P. West, C. Balzer, E. Bennett,
 S. Carpenter, J. Hill, C. Monfreda, S. Polasky, J. Rockstrom, J. Sheehan, S. Siebert, D. Tilman, D. Zaks. 2011: Nature. Solutions for a cultivated planet. 20 October 2011. 478.

Nevada Small Farm Conference

See the research presentation I gave at the Nevada Small Farm Conference here.

Research Update

For more on my research and how it fits into the global food system, see my presentation here.

What values are in the food system?

The food system is global in its reach and complicated to untangle. Within the global economy, food processors and producers have consolidated into a few centralized corporations. Values of profit and mass production are often prioritized over non-market values of equity, sustainability and nutrition. However, this paradigm has lead to an imbalance in the system. The production and distribution of food is not equitable. Because of this imbalance, non-market values need to be included in the food system.

The first important value is equity. It needs to be applied across all areas of the food system: for the farm workers, consumers without access to safe, healthy food and farms of all sizes to survive economically (Hesterman 2011). Equally important is the value of ecological integrity (Hesterman 2011). In order to include this value, the biodiversity and sustainability of food production as well as human health need to be taken into account.

What has largely been ignored in the current food system is the nutrition level of the food. The value of nutrition has been sacrificed for greater production. Rather than focusing solely on maximizing amount of production, the food system should also focus on increasing the nutrient value of the food grown (Weis 2013). In doing so, more consumers will have access to healthier food.

These values can be incorporated everyday through the choices we make about what to eat and where to purchase it. By understanding that we are actively participating in the food system, we can begin to change the values that drive it. The equity and sustainability of the food system are critical for future generations. Changing the food system is not a simple task, but it is critical to improving the health of our communities and future generations.

What values would you include in the food system? What steps would need to be taken to include these values in the food system?



Hesterman, O. 2011: Fair Food: Growing A Healthy Sustainable Food System. Public Affairs. New York.

Weis, T. 2013: The Ecological Hoofprint: The Global Burden of Industrial Livestock. Zed Books. London.

Agriculture in the Environment

Agriculture is inherently part of the natural environment. There is no getting around the fact that crops need soil, sunlight, water and air to grow. Agriculture is vulnerable to changes in weather and climate. Not only is agriculture part of the environment, it impacts the environment changing the way in which it functions. Conventional agriculture increases soil erosion, depletes the soil’s nutrients and increases the salinity of the soil. Fertilizer runoff increases freshwater pollution and puts excess nutrients into the ocean (Hesterman 2011). Agriculture impacts air quality through increased particulate matter, ozone and pesticide drift (Chase 2014). Agriculture also contributes to climate change emitting 30% of all greenhouse gases. Agriculture emits 50% of all methane and 70% of all nitrous oxide, two of the most potent greenhouse gases (Neff 2015). Because agriculture reaches across all scales of the environment and touches all the important resources and ecosystem services, current agricultural practices raise some important questions about the equity, health and cultural impacts of the system. The current system can only be sustained for so long before it hits the upper limit of the environmental system on which it relies. The main focus of the current system is profit, not sustainability. This focus creates ripple effects as many of the negative environmental effects are felt by those without the ability to address them.

Several alternatives to conventional production have been suggested. The most well known alternative is organic. By getting the organic certification, farms are agreeing not to use pesticides and synthetic fertilizers toxic to the environment. While organic addresses some of the issues with conventional agriculture, it leaves out a whole host of agricultural practices that lower the environmental impact of agriculture. Some of these practices include planting buffer zones along streams to prevent erosion, provide habitat and filter nutrients out of runoff. To protect the soil from erosion, farmers will forgo tilling and plant directly in the ground (Neff 2015). They may also plant different types of crops in each row to minimize wind erosion and balance soil nutrients. Finally, planting cover crops when land is not in production also helps to protect the soil (Neff 2015). In response to the limits of the current organic agriculture program, two alternative farming systems have been suggested: sustainable agriculture and agroecology (Neff 2015). Sustainable agriculture takes into account improving the environmental quality and maintaining agriculture production into the future while providing nutritious food. Agroecology takes principals of ecology and applies them so that agriculture mimics the natural environmental system (Neff 2015).

Ultimately agriculture will need to take many of the above principles into account in order to address the challenges facing it with reduced soil quality and climate change. Many farmers are using technology to use less water and become more resilient to environmental changes. While the future is uncertain, it presents an opportunity to incorporate more conservation and sustainable solutions into the food system.


Chase, L., Grubinger, V. 2014: Food, Farms and Community: Exploring the Food Systems. University Press. New England.

Hesterman, O. 2011: Fair Food: Growing A Healthy Sustainable Food System. Public Affairs. New York.

Neff, R. 2015: Introduction to the U.S. Food System. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.

How Retail Stores Promote Food

Grocery shopping is a perennial item on everyone’s to-do list. It is as fundamental as commuting to work everyday, but have you ever thought about what you buy, why you buy it and how grocery stores influence your purchasing. Marketing and promotion are keystones to all businesses. Grocery stores have many tools at their disposal to market and promote before you enter the store, as you are shopping and after you leave. Many of the tools they use include price promotions, store design, shelf placement, labeling and branding (Guptill 2013, Neff 2015). In recent years, the types and kinds of stores selling food has increased. Stores such as Target and CVS have increased their food offerings, and many stores such as Wal-Mart, Costco and Ikea include fast food restaurants within their stores. With an increase in the number of places food is advertised and offered, it is more important for the customer to be aware of how they are being advertised at so that they can make autonomous decisions.

On a recent visit to CVS pharmacy to get my flu shot, I noticed just how the store creates a space to encourage unplanned purchases of food. CVS, now CVS Health, has recently positioned itself as a health care center by discontinuing sales of cigarettes and promoting its pharmacy. Upon enter the store, I was immediately directed to the pharmacy by a large open aisle. As I walked towards the pharmacy, each aisle end cap offered impulse buys of junk food and candy, then toys and alcohol and finally while waiting in line at the pharmacy, over the counter drugs and pill containers. Should I or another customer get bored while waiting in line, there is a convenient barcode scanner available allowing customers to scan items to see the regular price and the member price encouraging customers to join their rewards program. Red and yellow tags alerted the customer to sale items and coupons. Junk food items were displayed at levels easy for adults and children to reach. With the impending arrival of the holidays, seasonal candy displays begged the customer to impulse buy a sweet treat.

Back at the pharmacy, I was processed through the line, told to wait for about 10 minutes and then stand in line again to be finally processed. Two waits in the pharmacy line and 10 minutes to explore the store gives customers ample time to impulse buy. I decided to explore the store. Upon further examination, every end cap on the left side of the store advertised some type of junk food. Each end cap highlighted a particular brand or type of food item for sale. One end cap advertised Arizona Tea. The labels prominently indicated that the product was all natural and fortified with Vitamin C. However, further investigation of the ingredients revealed that most of the teas contained high fructose corn syrup. In the food aisles, the “healthier” food was often located just inside the aisle such that it is easily missed when turning the corner and classic junk food items filled the center of the aisles. Staples such as bread and milk were practically invisible by occupying refrigerators in the back wall without any fanfare or red and yellow signs begging the customer to purchase them.

While sitting in the waiting area to get the flu shot, displays of lozenges for sore throats and coughs in the form of lollipops grabbed my attention. The display was lower to the ground in prefect reach of a child. At the cash register, more junk food impulse buys were within reach tempting the customer once again. If I had not been thinking about how grocery stores encourage impulse buys, I would have walked out with an Arizona Ice tea and a new pillbox, even though I already have a perfectly good pillbox.

The definition of a grocery store is expanding as corporations compete with each other for a larger share of the market. While these tactics used by grocery stores and other types of establishments selling food are not inherently bad, the customer must be aware of how they are being persuaded while shopping. Awareness and education gives the customer more power over their decisions.



Guptill, A., D. Copelton, B. Lucal. 2013: Food and Society: Principles and Paradoxes. Polity Press. Cambridge.

Neff, R. 2015: Introduction to the U.S. Food System. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.

Crop Regulations

At every point in production, processing, distribution and consumption of food, government regulations play a role. The most well known regulation for food is the Farm Bill. Renewed every five years, it authorizes 100 billion dollars for programs related to food production and processing (Neff 2015). The Farm Bill’s regulations have changed drastically over time beginning as a response to the Great Depression and later morphing in to an expansion of large agriculture corporations.

Agriculture has a long history of regulations in the United States, beginning in the 1860’s with the creation of the Department of Agriculture (Neff 2015). Early farm policies were a response to the problems farmers faced from the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. Farmers were experiencing large price fluctuations due to the inherent unpredictability in agriculture production. In addition, the quality of the soil was decreasing rapidly making it even more difficult to grow crops. Beginning in 1933 with the Agriculture Adjustment Act, supply management policies were used to stabilize supplies of agriculture commodities, which resulted in the stabilization of commodity prices (Neff 2015). These programs included price floors to ensure that the price did not go below the cost of producing the crop and price ceilings to make sure that the price did not spike to high for the consumer (Neff 2015). The federal government maintained a grain reserve enabling them to buy grain from the farmers when too much was produced and sell grain when not enough was produced (Hauter 2012). They also helped farmers maintain their cropland by paying farmers to take land out of production in order to let the soil rejuvenate. These policies maintained parity meaning that farm income kept pace with costs (Hauter 2012).

Backed by these policies, large price fluctuations and loss of soil quality were a thing of the past. Farmers became a strong coalition through national organizations such as the National Farmers Organization founded in 1950 and National Farmers Union founded in 1902. They organized and rallied to regulate industry, create labor unions and develop alternative structures to market economies (Hauter 2012).

After WWII, sentiment began to change in government. Industry felt threatened by farmers because they were well organized and kept tabs on abuses by industry. In 1942, business leaders came together to form the Committee for Economic Development. Their agenda was simple: there are too many farmers. Farmers needed to be trained for jobs in industry (Hauter 2012). Those who didn’t needed to get big and plant as much as possible. Largely influenced by the Committee for Economic Development, the U.S. Department of Agriculture replaced the supply management policies with subsides and incentives to drive farms to plant large areas with commodity crops all the time (Hauter 2012). Because this created a glut in the market, it drove prices below the cost of production. The government responded by putting subsides in place to pay farmers the difference (Hauter 2012).

In this new paradigm, farmers are incentivized to grow large acreages as efficiently as possible. Commodities are incentivized while specialty crop growers struggle to survive. Few subsidies exist to help the small to mid-sized farmer. Some critically important subsidies do exist, such as crop insurance. The current subside program does not take environmental damage into account, nor does it take the farmers voices into account. Whether this current trajectory is sustainable remains to be seen.



Neff, R. 2015: Introduction to the U.S. Food System. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.

Hauter, W., 2012: Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America. The New Press. New York.

The Temperate Grain-Livestock Complex and Industrialization

Being a farmer is tough! For over 100 years, but particularly in the last 50, farming has radically changed due to industrialization (Weis 2007). The scale of farming rapidly increased as a single farmer could manage larger tracks of land with new technologies (Neff 2015). Larger, more efficient machinery, chemical pesticides, chemical herbicides, synthetic fertilizers and irrigation systems allowed more to be produced with less labor. These technologies also favored large areas of land that could be treated the same (Neff 2015). Farmers who were unable to get on this “technology treadmill” were unable to compete against the large farms and were forced out of business (Weis 2007). Two important changes came out of industrialization. First, corporations now supply all the inputs necessary to produce the crop or livestock. In the past, farmers would have produced the inputs through the plants and livestock on the farm. Now, farmers are dependent on a corporation to provide everything. Second, the products farmers produce are easily interchangeable with other products should one be too expensive or get wiped out by disease or insects (Guptill et. al. 2013). Interchangeable products drives down prices and provides large retail corporations increased supply guarantee. Each new technology drives up yield and therefore profit per acre at the cost of quality. Corporations replaced farmers as the driver of the system (Neff 2015). Farmers and farm workers are increasingly being replaced by capitol and technology that is concentrated by a few corporations (Ikerd 2015).

Farming has become a uniform production line where all the products must come out the same way despite the fact that farming is still subject to an unpredictable environment (Guptill et. al. 2013). The treadmill has continued to expand without taking into account the damage it is doing to the environment. The faster yields go up the faster soil loses its nutrients (Neff 2015). This problem is compensated for by spreading excessive amounts of fertilizers, which often leach out of the fields and pollute waterways. A positive feedback loop has formed. With higher yields, more nutrients are lost from the soil leading to more fertilizer use (Neff 2015).

Industrialization has led to the development of the temperate grain-livestock complex (Weis 2007). At the beginning of industrialization, wheat and livestock were spread across the world by Europeans, and meat began to be seen as an important part of an individuals diet. With an increased demand for meat, there needed to be more land put into production to grow feed for the livestock. A system developed in which government interventions in developed countries kept commodity crops cheap for corporations to produce. With plentiful feed and high demand, livestock has grown to 37% of all agriculture production and continues to grow (Weis 2007). In order to keep up with demand, livestock were put on a production conveyor belt called the factory farm. Confining the livestock to small areas, using antibiotics and disinfectant spray and genetic manipulations to speed up production, lowered the nutritional quality of the meat and increased the environmental impacts (Weis 2007, Weis 2013). In addition, there is increasing evidence that diets high in meat increase health risks such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease (Neff 2015).

Several principles were key to the success of pre-industrialized agriculture: diversity in crops and livestock, animals integrated with crop production and crop rotation (Neff 2015). The temperate grain-livestock complex uprooted the principles key to the success of small farms prior to industrialization. However the principles of small farms are more sustainable in the long run than industrialized agriculture. At some point in the future, industrial agriculture will reach the limits of its ability to produce increased amounts of food. In order to continue to feed a growing population while maintaining ecological integrity, industrialized agriculture will need to incorporate some of the principles used by small farmers that were key to the success of early agriculture.


Guptill, A., D. Copelton, B. Lucal. 2013: Food and Society: Principles and Paradoxes. Polity Press. Cambridge.

Ikerd, J. 2015: Dollars and Sense. The Failure of Modern Industrial Agriculture. March/April 2015.

Neff, R. 2015: Introduction to the U.S. Food System. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.

Weis, T. 2007: The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming. Fernwood Publishing. Halfax.

Weis, T. 2013: The Ecological Hoofprint: The Global Burden of Industrial Livestock. Zed Books. London.

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