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Geographic Perspective Matters in Policy Debates

May 12, 2014 By William G. Moseley, Guest Commentary

Over the next several weeks, Minnesota 2020 will run a series of columns focusing on agricultural and biodiversity issues. This is part of our continuing collaboration with Macalester College's Geography Department and its students.

For over a decade I have taught a college course entitled People, Agriculture and the Environment. Believe it or not, agriculture and food are hot topics on college campuses today, and not just at traditional land grant universities, but also at liberal arts colleges like my own. As such, my course is always full with students whose enthusiasm for the subject is palpable.

That said, some of my students don’t always understand why the course is offered in a geography department – even though people in the field have long studied agriculture. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise as geographic education in the US has historically been limited to the confines of grade school where the focus was on memorizing place names and countries. While learning the names of places on a map is important (the basic vocabulary of geographic literacy), this is only the tip of a much more interesting, iceberg size perspective.

Fortunately geographic education is exploding in the US, and especially in Minnesota, as it is increasingly seen as an essential skill for understanding our place in a globalized economy, our interactions with the environment, and the reasons behind the location of our activities on the landscape (from farms to cities).

When geographers think about agriculture and biodiversity in Minnesota they often start with the location of certain phenomena, but then quickly move to the question of trying to understand the reasons for this spatial pattern. For example, if we take the case of corn in Minnesota, there are obviously some biophysical reasons for why we grow corn where - given requirements for rainfall, soils, temperature and growing season length. But biophysical constraints alone do not explain this pattern, equally important are state and federal policies (some of which are explored in student op-eds in this series) which support corn production. Even global phenomenon, such as international demand, agreements between countries and global climate change affect patterns of corn production in Minnesota.

Farming is also one of the key ways that we interact with the environment, both in terms of how we manage environmental resources, how we experience environmental impacts, and how the former might influence the later. As you will see in some of the student op-eds in this series, via agriculture we clearly impact the environment in terms fertilizer use and land management practices that affect water supplies. With increasingly erratic weather patterns in the state, it is often our farms that are most heavily impacted by drought, flooding or severe weather. Often less well understood (and a key contribution of the geographic perspective) is the fact that the way we farm (in terms of field selection, crop mixes, tilling practices and agroforestry) can also influence how exposed we are to phenomenon like drought.

Finally, while it is tempting to see agriculture and biodiversity as local issues, the place we call Minnesota is simultaneously a product of local and global forces (another key element of the geographic perspective). A couple of the student op-eds in this series deal with exotic species, Asian carp and Zebra mussels specifically, which are here because of global connections (the first introduced for aquaculture in the US South and the second the result of global shipping traffic) as well as local boating practices.

I had students embark on writing op-eds for MN 2020 for at least two reasons. The first is that we all need to learn to write for different audiences. While students and professors sometimes write for expert audiences (using specialized and often opaque vocabulary), we also need to learn to write in a way that allows us to share our specialized insights, on issues we may have studied for years, with more general audiences. I really believe that all of us who have the luxury of studying a topic, such as agriculture or biodiversity, have the obligation to share the resulting insights with the broader public when possible, and certainly when it could enrich the discussion on an important question of public policy.

My second reason really has to do with geography. The American policymaking sphere has long been dominated by political scientists and economists. While I have nothing against these disciplines, and acknowledge that they have made important contributions to our public discourse, I am also concerned that we have not always heard the full range of perspectives on important questions of the day. While I am clearly biased, I really believe the geography has a different perspective to offer, and that our public discourse is impoverished without it. In writing these op-eds, my students have begun to apply this new found perspective to important agricultural and biodiversity questions affecting Minnesota.

William G. Moseley is Professor and Chair of Geography at Macalester College. He may be reached on Twitter @WilliamGMoseley.

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