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Food insecurity, or the lack of access to enough nutritious food, is a complex problem. In the 21st century, even with all of our advances in technology, access to food is still uneven. Today we're going to look at the diffusion of food across the globe during the Columbian Exchange and examine how changes in food technology from the Agricultural Revolution to the Green Revolution to the Genetic Revolution have played a significant part in food availability across the globe.



For a free and open source option for Intro to Human Geography, see:

For a free and open source option for World Regional Geography, see:

Cracking the AP Human Geography Exam: 2020 edition. The Princeton Review.

Hobbs, Joseph J. Fundamental of World Regional Geography, 4th ed. Cengage. 2017.

Miller and Spoolman. Living in the Environment 19th ed. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole,
Cengage Learning. 2017. ISBN: 978-1-337-09415-3

Gregory, Derek, Ron Johnston, Geraldine Pratt, Michael Watts, and Sarah Whatmore, eds. 2009. The Dictionary of Human Geography. 5th ed. Willey-Blackwell. ISBN: 978-1-4051-3288-6


Wheat (wheat beat the heat)

Overall production

Cost of Food/ Food Access

Food Origins

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#Geography #CrashCourse #Food

When my dad started an egg farm in the French countryside, I got up close and personal with all the hard work and logistics that go into agriculture and farming in ways I'd never experienced before, and 700 new feathered friends. Small farms like ours are just one part of today's agricultural world, which spans everything from giant 1500+ acre complexes to the backyard or balcony food gardens many of us grow for ourselves.

We've got a lot of different systems, because hunger has been something humans have been trying to address since, well, forever, and along the way we've developed dozens of different ways to grow food and countless ways to prepare food. And yet, in the 21st century, many people don't have enough food or know where their next meal will come from. With all of our advances in technology, access to food is still uneven.

Food insecurity, or the lack of access to enough nutritious food that meets dietary needs and cultural preferences to lead active and healthy lives, is a messy problem, but from global to local scales, geographers can make a difference by recognizing the various forces at work influencing access to that food. I'm Alizé Carrère, and this is Crash Course: Geography.

 Theme Music (1:02)

As geographers, we like to ask why something is happening here and not someplace else, and after literally thousands of years of agricultural innovation, we've learned there isn't one answer to why places experience hunger. A place like what's now called Chad, or even Ethiopia, experiences hunger largely due to ongoing political and ethnic conflicts. These conflicts disrupt the ability of farmers to carry out food production and humanitarian food aid from being accessible.

But somewhere like Puerto Rico or New Orleans in the U.S. might experience short-term hunger because of disasters like hurricanes. Events like bad weather and shipping bottlenecks, or anything that disrupts the global distribution of food to an area, also contribute to short-term problems with food access.

Studying these issues is part of agricultural geography, where we work on understanding how agricultural ideas diffused around the world, like we discussed in our episode on diffusion and language. We're also trying to understand how food production and access are arranged across space, which involves so many other things, like all of the physical processes, culture, economics, and politics that influence what foods we eat and how we access it.

And to do this agricultural geography work, maps can provide clues and be useful tools. Maps like this one illustrate just how far-reaching serious hunger can be. It also shows us that lower income countries often have higher rates of food insecurity, which has led to assumptions over the decades about the ability of the people there to grow food.

But geographers dig deeper and bring in additional context. These are also places with colonial legacies that have disrupted traditional agriculture systems, but we know that people in places with food insecurity can feed themselves if the infrastructure for food production and distribution is left intact.

For instance, the indigenous peoples of what's now called North America were able to feed themselves for thousands of years, but more recently, traditional ways of eating have been systemically broken. There are now efforts like Dream of Wild Health to help rejuvenate traditional knowledge about traditional foods, many of which have been reduced or eliminated in the landscape.

In fact, it's easier to see that there's nothing inherent to places experiencing serious hunger if we compare the map of global hunger with the spread of agriculture around the world. Much like there are cultural hearths, there are also centers of origin, or hearths of domestication, which are places where certain plant and animal species were plentiful enough to allow domestication.

Every part of the world has something it's domesticated, or started growing and breeding intentionally, because every place in the world had to invent ways to feed the people who lived there. Domestication was part of the first agricultural revolution that established agriculture as a human activity. We talked about potatoes and bananas, but every food we've ever eaten or natural fiber we've ever worn has a center of origin.

The use of certain crops and livestock as food or fiber are innovations that diffused out of those centers. In particular, after Christopher Columbus and other colonizers arrived in what we now call the Americas, a fresh wave of relocation diffusion picked up and moved foods and agricultural ideas to new places. We call this wave the Columbian exchange, which involved food and other items moving around the world through triangular trade, which is named for the triangle-ish shape it forms on a map.

Enslaved people were moved to the Americas to grow food and textiles, like sugar, bananas, and cotton. Those raw goods were moved to Europe to be manufactured, and some of what was manufactured went back to African leaders in exchange for more enslaved peoples. To enable this triangle of trade and all the wealth it created for the European and eventually North American merchant class, meant that colonists changed local systems.

So, for example, food production in the Caribbean and Central America went from the relatively reliable but difficult subsistence models, where people grew food mostly for their own consumption and that of their community, to export models, where food mostly left the area to be consumed outside of the community.

And the legacy of the Columbian exchange, slavery, and triangular trade lives on today and touches even the most basic aspects of our lives. Just take dietary staples like pizza, which is an Italian dish featuring tomatoes native to the Andes region, like what we now call Peru, and wheat, which is native to places around the Fertile Crescent, like what we now call Turkey, but which is grown throughout the world.

So, as geographers examining hunger, we might wonder what else about agriculture in these places has changed. Globally, there were additional innovations in agriculture, like the second agricultural revolution, that coincided with the Industrial Revolution. This is when more and more machines started being used for all aspects of farming, from planting to harvesting.

Before machines, agriculture relied on polyculture, meaning growing more than one crop at a time, but polyculture is also labor-intensive, and it's difficult to use machines to harvest crops in a polyculture arrangement. So, to make efficient use of machines like tillers, planters, and combines, crops needed to be grown as monocultures, or just one crop in a field, because it's easier to plant and harvest them mechanically.

And this eventually led to more focus on commercialization and commercial agriculture, meaning focusing on varieties, or types of plants, that are easy to harvest in large quantities and of similar quality. So, theoretically, agriculture was getting more efficient, and more food should have been grown.

These were significant changes, and, as geographers, we want to understand what causes technology to change and why the real world can be vastly different from our theories. Right after World War II, much of the world was trying to recover, and there was a lot of fear around famine and hunger. Specifically, there was deep concern that places with high population growth would face famines that would perpetuate global war and conflict.

This is an example of how Western researchers at the time were thinking in Neo-Malthusian terms, or thinking that people in low income places were to blame for large population numbers that would stress food sources, rather than our agricultural systems being able to adapt. So finding a way to feed the world became a major effort that led to the third agricultural revolution, which included the Green Revolution along with those other commercial changes.

During the Green Revolution, researchers in North America and Europe focused on crossbreeding different varieties of seeds to create faster, stronger, and more pest-resistant crops, and the results were, well, revolutionary. New hybrids of crops like corn, rice, and wheat had amazing increases in crop yields, or how much of a crop is harvested.

But the new hybrid seeds required more attention, like large amounts of water and fertilizers. They also firmly established the practice of using commercial seeds, and these changes were often also part of development programs, so, like we saw last time, countries like India received a lot of focus to address hunger and any political instability that could come from that hunger with mixed results.

So having a lot of food certainly helps address hunger, but even if there's a lot of food, there are still concerns about long-term reliability of all that food. For instance, despite how many cereal options you might find in the cereal aisle of an American grocery store, they're all made with the same types of wheat, corn, and rice. Through the spread of commercial agriculture and hybrid and genetically modified seeds, the diversity of foods humans eat has actually declined, especially in the last 100 years.

It's estimated that wheat, rice, and corn provide roughly half of all the world's calories, and some researchers estimate about three quarters of our calories come from just 12 plant and five animal species. That's not a lot of food diversity when we realize there are over 200,000 known edible plants.

And many agricultural scientists think this is a consequence of the technological innovations that have continued from the Green Revolution into the agricultural genetic revolution, where seeds have been genetically modified in a lab rather than bred and collected by farmers. And there are concerns that reduced biodiversity in our food means less adaptability to changing climates, so even with all the technological innovations of different agricultural revolutions, our efforts to feed the world are ongoing.

Many researchers and geographers studying different scales have realized that global hunger is less about whether there is enough food and more about asking, "What keeps people from accessing food?" Some of it is just economic. Those who don't make much money can't afford as much food or have to select whatever is cheapest, but this has gotten complicated, especially as large agri-business corporations are taking over everything from seed development to selling the final product. Because of their size, they're able to access more resources and produce cheaper food than small farmers trying to feed their families ever could.

But though the food might be cheap, food processed in many of these factories still add to many issues around nutrition and access. For instance, processed foods are often fairly cheap, but we can see a change in texture, quality, and even the nutritional value of the food, and those changes can be positive, like a longer shelf life, or negative, like removing nutrients.

Even in places with good overall food access, food insecurity can be an issue when we zoom in to the local level, whether in an urban or rural place. Food deserts are areas that lack access to full-service grocery stores and often especially lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and lack of access can range from a lack of physical stores to a lack of transportation to the stores that do exist.

So, to fully understand the nature of hunger as geographers, we look at the cultural and political factors in addition to the economic factors. For example, in Black or indigenous communities in the United States, there have been systemic efforts to stigmatize foods that were important culturally, to discourage the sharing of agricultural knowledge, and to keep people from accessing land to grow food.

So, understanding that hunger and food access are about more than just the number of people in a place and whether or not we can buy food can help us create more food secure and equitable societies. Ultimately, what we've seen today is that, just like the rest of the Earth, agriculture is a dynamic innovation.

The food on your plate has a geographic story from its ancestral home to who grew it to how it was packaged to sell to you. That story crosses through colonial and market-based relationships, and even the price you are charged for that food is related to political and economic systems worked out in the 20th century. And while how we access food is a lot of agricultural geography, how we use the land food is grown on is its own story, which we'll get to next time.

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 people's languages. So we at Crash Course want to acknowledge these people's traditional 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 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 Pier Studio and was made with the help of all these nice people. If you want to help keep Crash Course free for everyone forever, you can join our community on Patreon.