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agricultural geography

  Agricultural geography, like agriculture itself, has undergone profound changes in the second half of the twentieth century. Until the 1950s agricultural geography was a specialist sub-set of economic geography, concerned with the \'spatial distribution of agricultural activity\' (Dictionary of Human Geography, 1985). Its traditional focus had been variations and changes in the pattern of agricultural land-use and their classification at a variety of scales (Grigg, 1984; see also farming, types of). As the economic significance of agriculture declined in terms of the sector\'s contribution to GDP and employment, particularly in advanced industrial countries, so interest in the subject diminished in the geographical research community. Thus, in 1987 two of its leading UK practitioners were moved to declare that the \'traditional field of agricultural geography … shows every sign of diminishing returns (and requires) a new stimulus to maintain its development and vitality\' (Bowler and Ilbery, p. 327). Others went further: Atkins (1988, p. 282), for example, advocated the end of agricultural geography and the dawn of a \'geography of food\'.

The stimulus which Bowler and Ilbery, and many other geographers, identified centred on importing theoretical concepts from political economy and turning the substantive focus of study away from farming as a self-contained activity to its complex relationships with off-farm agencies which, taken together, could be said to constitute an \'agro-food chain\'. Research agendas framed in these terms, for example those by Wallace (1985) in the North America; Marsden et al., (1986) in the UK and Le Heron (1988) in New Zealand, set the parameters for a new phase of geographical interest in the agro-food sector which could no longer be confined to the narrow disciplinary specialism that had been agricultural geography. Its initial momentum came from encounters with inter-disciplinary networks and ideas, notably those of rural sociology and international political economy, as much as with closer contacts with the broader community of economic geographers.

By the early 1990s, attention had turned beyond the farmgate in two directions. First, to look at the wider organization of capital accumulation in the agro-food system, focusing on the social, economic and technological ties between three sets of industrial activities, those of food raising (i.e. farming); agricultural technology products and services; and food processing and retailing. Secondly to look at the regulatory infrastructure of this system, focusing on the political and policy processes by which national and supranational state agencies underpin agricultural markets. Efforts to comprehend these expanded parameters of agro-food production and regulation led to the development of several new concepts, such as commodity chains (see also agribusiness) and food regimes (see Friedmann and McMichael, 1989).

A composite of these various perspectives and concepts describes the contemporary agro-food system (see, for example, Goodman and Redclift, 1991; Tansey and Worsley, 1995). The figure depicts this enlargement of the scope of agricultural geography from a focus primarily on activities taking place on the farm itself (B) to one spanning the diverse sites and activities of food production and consumption (A-D). In addition to emulating Economic Geography\'s enduring emphasis on Transnational Corporations, this broadening of the focus of agricultural geography has seen particular attention being paid to the regulatory agencies and processes which are so prominent in the organization of advanced industrial agriculture (see, for example, Ufkes, 1993; Le Heron, 1993; Marsden and Wrigley, 1996).

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agricultural geography (reproduced from Whatmore, 1995, p. 40)

Research within this political economy tradition has been driven by two contradictory impulses (Goodman and Watts, 1994). On the one hand, it has sought to treat agriculture and food production as just another industrial sector, like cars or steel, so aligning it much more closely with the broader community of industrial geography and its concerns with globalization; corporate capitalism and the so-called transition from Fordism to post-Fordism (see, for example, Page and Walker, 1991; Kim and Curry, 1993; Jarosz, 1996). Indeed, many of the concerns associated with the agrarian question, such as the uneven process of capitalist development, anticipated some of those which have come to preoccupy industrial geographers in the last decade. On the other hand, researchers have sought to make sense of the distinctive features of the industrial organization of farming which continue to persist, particularly the predominance of family and peasant forms of production (see, for example, Whatmore, 1991; Moran et al., 1993; Watts, 1994; Roberts, 1996) and their significance in the social and political landscapes of late twentieth-century agriculture.

The tensions between these two impulses have proved potentially creative and efforts to recognize and work through them mark out one of the major contributions of geographers to the development of the highly interdisciplinary field of agro-food analysis. These efforts centre on bringing quite different levels of analysis into common focus to examine the social and economic connections between, for example, global and local scales; corporate and household arenas; production and regulatory processes. This is best exemplified by the influential collection of essays Globalizing food edited by David Goodman and Michael Watts (1997). But, as this same volume indicates, the tensions between these two impulses as they have been embraced by agricultural geographers have also generated some significant analytical disagreements and silences.

Two recent overviews of the field prepared for a special issue of the journal Economic Geography, for example, show up some interesting divergences in terms of theoretical influence and substantive concern between North American (Page, 1996) and European (Marsden et al., 1996) work over the last decade or so. Crudely put, these revolve around the extent to which social, political and cultural diversity of food production and consumption processes are admitted into the compass and terms of analysis. But there is arguably a more widely shared sense emerging amongst geographers, and others, about the need to direct attention to (at least) three critical issues which have been eclipsed or marginalized by the terms of political economic analysis.

The first of these is the question of nature (Fitzsimmons and Goodman, 1998). Agriculture, and many of the distinctive features of the organization of food production, is derived from its biological base in the processes of plant and animal growth and reproduction and in the land. The industrialization of agriculture has seen the radical transformation of these processes, through mechanical, chemical and genetic technologies, with potent consequences for the rural environment, animal welfare and human health. Public anxieties on all these fronts are being registered by important changes in food consumption habits, agricultural policies and land-use practices throughout the advanced industrial world (Lowe et al., 1998).

The second new research direction is the question of food consumption. Until very recently, the last \'link in the chain\' of the agro-food system illustrated in the figure opposite has been paid remarkably little attention by agricultural geographers, not least those working in the political economy tradition. It has tended to be treated by default as an analytically unproblematic and socially undifferentiated process — after all everyone has to eat. At least two lines of inquiry are emerging to redress this serious oversight. One concerns the issue of social construction of food quality — the idea that what constitutes \'wholesome\', or even \'sufficient\', food is by no means standard or unchanging in human societies but is the outcome of complex cultural processes in particular times and places (Marsden and Arce, 1995; Allaire and Boyer, 1995). The second explores the cultural meanings and practices which make food consumption much more than a question of nutrition or sustenance; for example, in terms of the social capital derived from culinary knowledges amongst affluent social groups (Cook and Crang, 1996) (see also food, geography of).

The third direction takes us into perhaps the most intimate of geographical spaces whose contours are intricately bound up with the question of food, namely the body (see also body, geography and). These micro-spaces in the geographies of agro-food link the material and experiential worlds of people and animals variously positioned in the food production and consumption processes in intricate and multiple ways (Bell and Valentine, 1997). These include the engineered bodies of the industrial pig or cow made larger and leaner by genetic engineering, and hormone supplements; the chemically induced illnesses of farm workers routinely handling crop and livestock treatments; and the food-related illnesses experienced by consumers from food poisoning to eating disorders (Lupton, 1996).

These themes point to important new directions for geographical research which are refiguring the field of agricultural geography yet again as we enter the new millennium. (cf. animals, geography of) (SW)

References Allaire, G. and Boyer, R. 1995. La grande transformation. Paris: Institute Nationale de Recherche Agronomique (INRA). Atkins, P. 1988: Redefining agricultural geography as the geography of food. Area 20 (3): 281-3. Bell, D. and Valentine, G. 1997: Consuming places. We are where we eat. London: Routledge. Bowler, I. and Ilbery, B. 1987: Redefining agricultural geography. Area 19: 327-3 2. Cook, I. and Crang, P. 1996: The world on a plate: culinary culture, displacement and geographical knowledges. Journal of Material Culture 1: 131-54. Fitzsimmons, M. and Goodman, D. 1998: Incorporating nature: environmental narratives and the reproduction of food. In N. Castree and B. Willems-Braun, eds, The production of nature at the end of the twentieth century. London: Routledge. Friedmann, H. and McMichael, P. 1989: Agriculture and the state system: the rise and decline of national agricultures. Sociologia Ruralis 29: 73-117. Goodman, D. and Redclift, M. 1991. Refashioning nature: food, ecology and nature. London: Routledge. Goodman, D. and Watts, M. 1994: Reconfiguring the rural or Fording the divide: capita list restructuring and the global agro-food system. Journal of Peasant Studies 22: 1-49. Goodman, D. and Watts, M., eds, 1997: Globalising food. London: Routledge. Grigg, D. 1984: An introduction to agricultural geography. London: Hutchinson. Jarosz, L. 1996: Working in the global food system: a focus for international comparative analysis. Progress in Human Geography 20 (1): 41-55. Kim, C. and Curry, J. 1993: Fordism, flexible specialization and agri-industrial restructuring. Sociologia Ruralis 33: 61-80. Le Heron, R. 1988: Food and fibre production under capitalism: a conceptual agenda. Progress in Human Geography 12 (3): 409-3 0. Le Heron, R., 1993: Globalised agriculture. Political choice. Oxford: Pergamon Press. Lowe, P., Clark, J., Seymour, S. and Ward, N. 1998: Moralizing the environment. London: UCL Press. Lupton, D. 1996: Food, the body and the self. London: Sage. Marsden, T. and Arce, A. 1995: Constructing quality: emerging food networks in the rural transition. Environment and Planning A 27: 1261-79. Marsden, T. and Wrigley, N. 1996: Retailing, the food system and the regulatory state. In N. Wrigley and M. Lowe, eds, Retailing, consumption and capital: towards a new retail geography. London: Longman, 33-47. Mars den, T., Munton, R., Whatmore, S. and Little, J. 1986: Towards a political economy of capitalist agriculture: a British perspective. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 10: 498-5 21. Mars den, T., Munton, R., Ward, N. and Whatmore, S. 1996: Agricultural geography and the political economy approach: a review. Economic Geography 72: 361-7 5. Moran, W., Blunden, G. and Greenwood, J. 1993: The role of family farming in agrarian change. Progress in Human Geography 17 (1): 22-42. Page, B. 1996: Across the great divide: agriculture and industrial geography. Economic Geography 72 (4): 376-97. Page, B. and Walker, R. 1991: From settlement to Ford ism: the agro-industrial revolution in the American Mid-West. Economic Geography 67: 281-315. Roberts, R. 1996: Recasting the agrarian question: the reproduction of family farming in the southern High Plains. Economic Geography: 398-415. Tansey and Worsley, 1995: The food system. London: Earthscan. Ufkes, F., 1993: Trade liberalization, agro-food politics and the globalization of agriculture. Political Geography 12 (3): 215-31. Wallace, I. 1985: Towards a geography of agribusiness. Progress in Human Geography 9: 481-5 14. Watts, M. 1994: Life under contract: contract farming, agrarian restructuring and flexible accumulation. In P. Little and M. Watts, eds, Living under contract: contract farming and agrarian transformation in sub-Saharan Africa. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 21-73. Whatmore, S. 1991: Farming women: gender, work and family enterprise. London: Macmillan. Whatmore S., 1995. From farming to agribusiness: the global agro-food system. In R.J. Johnston, P.J. Taylor and M.J. Watts, eds, 1995. Geographies of global change. Oxford: Blackwell, 36-49.

Suggested Reading Bell and Valentine (1997). Goodman and Watts (1997). Lowe, Clark, Seymour and Ward (1998).



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