Geography of food

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The geography of food is a field of human geography. It focuses on patterns of food production and consumption on the local to global scale. Tracing these complex patterns helps geographers understand the unequal relationships between developed and developing countries in relation to the innovation, production, transportation, retail and consumption of food. It is also a topic that is becoming increasingly charged in the public eye. The movement to reconnect the 'space' and 'place' in the food system is growing, spearheaded by the research of geographers.


Spatial variations in food production and consumption practices have been noted for thousands of years. In fact, Plato commented on the destructive nature of agriculture when he referred to the soil erosion from the mountainsides surrounding Athens, stating "[In previous years] Athens yielded far more abundant produce. In comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body; all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left". And it was not only ancient Greece struggled under the pressure to feed its expanding population. The people of Easter Island, the Maya of Central America and most recently the inhabitants of Montana have been experiencing similar difficulties in production due to several interconnecting factors related to land and resource management. These events have been extensively studied by geographers and other interested parties (the study of food has not been confined to a single discipline, and has received attention from a huge range of diverse sources).

Modern geographers initially focused on food as an economic activity, especially in terms of agricultural geography. It was not until recently that geographers have turned their attention to food in a wider sense: "The emergence of an agro-food geography that seeks to examine issues along the food chain or within systems of food provision derives, in part, from the strengthening of political economy approaches in the 1980s".[1]

Overlapping areas of study[edit]

Because food is a bridge between the natural and the social world, it has received attention from both the physical sciences and the social sciences. Some of the earliest numerical data about food production come from bureaucratic sources linked to the ancient civilizations of Ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire. Traders have also been influential in documenting food networks. Early Indian mapped the location of trading posts associated with food production nodes.

Thomas Malthus famously stated that food output could only expand arithmetically (in proportion with the extension of farmland) while population could increase geometrically, leading to a 'population bomb' or a Malthusian catastrophe. His theory was also given a spatial element when he predicted the Irish potato famine (though there was enough non-potato based food produced in Ireland at the time the potato crop failed, the British, who controlled Ireland, sold the food abroad).

Food production[edit]

Food production was the first element of food to receive extensive attention from geographers in the field of cultural geography, particularly in agricultural geography.

Globally, the production of food is unequal. This is because there are two main components involved in sustenance production that are also distributed irregularly. These components are the environmental capacity of the area, and the human capacity. Environmental capacity is its ability ‘to accommodate a particular activity or rate of an activity without unacceptable impact’.[2] The climate, soil types, and availability of water affect it. Human capacity, in relation to food production, is the size of the population and the amount of agricultural skill within that population. When these two are at ideal levels and partnered with financial capital, the creation of intense agricultural infrastructure is possible, as the Green Revolution clearly portrays.

Simultaneously, the ability of a country to produce food is being severely impacted by a plethora of other factors:

Pests are becoming resistant to pesticides, or pesticides may be killing off the useful and necessary insects.[3] Examples of this happening occur around the globe. Tanzania experienced a particularly horrible infection of armyworms in 2005. At the infections peak, there were over 1000 larva per square meter. In 2009, Liberia experienced a state of emergency when invading African armyworm caterpillars began what became a regional food crisis. The caterpillars traveled through 65 towns and 20 000 people were forced to leave their homes, markets, and farms.[4] Losses like this can cost millions to billions, depending on size and duration, and have severe effects on food security. The FAO has created an international team, the Plant Production and Protection Division, which is attempting to ‘reduce reliance on pesticides’ and ‘demonstrate that pesticide use often can be reduced considerably without affecting yields or farmer profits'[5] in these, and other hard-struck areas.

Water stress and increased levels of desertification are leading to loss of arable land.[6] Agricultural practices use the bulk of the Earth’s fresh water – up to 70 percent – and those numbers are predicted to rise by ’50-100 percent by 2025’.[7] Countries are being forced to divert more water than ever before to irrigate their land. Hydroelectric dams and mega-canal projects are becoming the new standard for countries like Egypt that can no longer depend on rainfall or natural flood cycles. These water shortages are also causing a source of conflict between neighboring nations as they live with increasingly high levels of water scarcity. Policy responses to these events need to be implemented in order to strengthen the socio-economic growth, human health statuses, and environmental sustainability of these areas.

Climate change is creating more extreme weather patterns, and agricultural practices are estimated to cause from 10 to 12 percent of greenhouses gas emissions.[8] Warming will increase the previously mentioned rates of desertification and insect activity and agricultural zones near the equator may be lost. However, due to the uneven warming that will probably occur, higher latitudes are expected to warm up at faster rates than other areas of the globe.[9] Scientists are now presenting the idea that areas in Canada and Siberia may become suitable for farming at the industrial scale, and that those areas will be able to account for any farmland that is lost at the equator. Conservative estimates place the shift of traditional crops (maize, grain, potatoes) northward at 50 to 70 kilometers a decade. It is also believed that non-traditional crops (berries, sunflowers, melons) could be established on the southern sides of these countries.[10]

It is willingness to adapt, adopt new practices, and alter old habits that will allow for countries to succeed in the uncertain age of climate warming ahead.

Food consumption[edit]

There is a great deal on interest on why and how industrialized food system still has not created a way to provide nutritious, ecologically sound, equitable food for the world's population. Systems that are currently in place do succeed at providing relatively cheap food to millions, but often cost the Earth greatly in terms of water and soil degradation, local food insecurity, animal welfare, rising obesity and health-related problems, and declining rural communities. The huge variation in diet and consumption practices on global and regional scales became the focus of geographers and economists with the vastly expanding population and widely publicized famines of the 1960s, and the food riots of 2007-2008 in 60 different countries. Partly due to these events, differences in the caloric intake of food and the composition of diet was estimated and mapped for many countries from the 1960s onward.

Canada, USA, and Europe consume the most calories with an average per capita consumption per day of around 3400.[11] The recommended daily calorie intake for men living in these areas is 2500 and for women 2000. Studies focused on consumption patterns in these areas lay the blame on increased caloric intake on soft drink and fast food consumption, and decreased physical activity.[12] Many developing countries are beginning to follow the leaders in rising calorie intake as they develop further due to increased availability of these high-impact items. Ballooning weight and all the problems associated with obesity – high blood pressure, cholesterol concentrations, heart problems, and diabetes to name a few – are being recorded in skyrocketing numbers.[13]

Globally, consumption is still extremely uneven, and areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa still have some of the lowest rates of per capita calorie intake, often falling below the recommended levels. The Democratic Republic of Congo holds the lowest average, at 1800 calories. (One must always be careful with these types of statistics when making generalized statements, as a countries average can often hide much more drastically high or low numbers within the average[14]). However, steps are being made to shorten the gap. In parts of South Africa, the government implemented a widespread electrification system and a free electricity allowance. A longitudinal study was conducted from 1991 to 2002, and it was found that there was a positive increase in consumption habits within the villages that were given electricity. The electricity allowed for less time to be spent on menial tasks such as gathering firewood, and more time working on higher-level tasks that could increase income. In fact, the villages were often going over their electrical allowances.[15] With more innovative ideas like these, perhaps the gap can be shortened still further in areas of need.


  1. ^ Atkins, P. and Bowler, I. 2001 Food in Society: Economy, Culture, Geography ISBN 978-0-340-72004-2.
  2. ^ Environmental Protection 1986. Environmental Capacity. An approach to marine pollution prevention. Rep.Stud.GESAMP, (30):49p.
  3. ^ Scholes, J. Food Security and Sustainability – Can we avert a food crisis? University of Shefield. 29 June 2009. Keynote Address.
  4. ^ Scholes, J. Food Security and Sustainabliity – Can we avert a food crisis? University of Shefield. 29 June 2009. Keynote Address.
  5. ^ FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). 2013. Pest and Pesticide Management.
  6. ^ FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). 2005. Irrigation in Africa in Figures: AQUASAT Survey – 2005. FAO Water Report No. 29. Rome, FAO
  7. ^ WHO (World Health Organization)/UN-Water. 2010. UN-Water Global Annual Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water: Targeting Resources for Better Results. Geneva, WHO/UN-Water.
  8. ^ The Strategy Unit. Food Matters: Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century. July 2008. Web.
  9. ^ Chamberlin, 1897, "A group of hypothesis bearing on climatic change" J. Geology 5:563–568.
  10. ^ Tchebakova, N. (2012). Insight: Siberian agriculture could benefit from climate change. Krasnoyarsk: Sukachev Institute.
  11. ^ Fine, B., Heasman, M., & Wright, J. Consumption in the Age of Affluence: The World of Food. Canada: Routledge.
  12. ^ St-Onge, M.P., Keller, K. L. & Heymsfield, S. B. 2003. “Changes in childhood food consumption patterns: a cause for concern in light of increasing body weights” American Society for Clinical Nutrition. 78(6): 1068-1073.
  13. ^ Fine, B., Heasman, M., & Wright, J. Consumption in the Age of Affluence: The World of Food. Canada: Routledge.
  14. ^ Coons, K. A. & Rogers, B. L. 2001. “Relationships Between Use of Television During Meals and Children’s Food Consumption Patterns.” Pediatrics. 107(1): 7-12.
  15. ^ Madubanski, M. & Shackleton, C. M. 2006. “Changing energy profiles and consumption patterns following electrification in five rural villages, South Africa.” Energy Policy. 34(18): 4081-4092.

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