The following is a compilation of five topics from five Aquinas College students in Dr. Todd Yarbrough’s environmental economics class from the fall semester of 2016. The main focal point of these five topics is to explores issues related to food consumption from an environmental economics standpoint. Students have chosen these topics based both on personal interest, and more importantly on the relevance to the focal point of the compilation. The goal of this work is to briefly bring to the reader’s attention important issues regarding food consumption as to educate and help the reader understand some of the choices human society makes in the provision of sustenance.
In the united states “40 percent of the U.S. land area is used for farming” (1). So why exactly is so much of our land devoted to agriculture when “economic returns to agriculture have generally been volatile and below prevailing market rates of return to capital and labor” (1)? One of the main reasons why is due to the government subsidies farms receive to survive in harsh economic times. However, because of policy lags, this often means that the bigger farmers survive, and the smaller ones dies off, not being able to financially cope during the lag period. The economist reports that “though farmers make up only a small number of voters, even in agricultural states, they are loud and organised enough to punish lawmakers who vote against a farm bill” (2). Not only do farmers occupy massive swaths of land in the United States, but they also have a great deal of political power. This political power has largely been why farmers have been able to receive so many subsidies historically, and this is an essential point when voting for political actors who are supposed to be aiming at bettering society as a whole.
While the issues related to global climate change and other environmental disturbances are innumerable and ubiquitous, one of the most worrying consequences of a deteriorating environment is the future availability of food. Climate change will shift agricultural growing locations and an exponentially-increasing global population is demanding more and more nourishment. As we have discussed in class, over-farming and overfishing are associated with the aforementioned issues, especially as farmers and fishermen face the pressure of providing enough food without degrading the environment. An example of fishermen working towards both goals is the partnership of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute with a local fisherman designing “a trawl net that targets profitable species while avoiding cod.” Because cod is a dwindling species – due to overfishing in the past – current maintenance quotas make fishing in the Gulf in general difficult for fishermen who must try to catch fish besides cod. The net designed by the Institute with trawler Jim Ford is tailored to catch pollock, grey sole, and other seabed fish while avoiding cod, who swim closer to the surface. This net not only reduces the number of cod caught while maintaining the catch of profitable species, it also reduces drag on the ship, improving fuel-efficiency. Examples like this can create hope for the future of environmental improvements.
The wrath of climate change has affected a wide variety of infrastructure and industries in the world, but arguably none have been impacted as heavily as the agriculture industry and maintaining food security. Implementing infrastructure that makes it possible for every member in society to get food is a tall task and having a decreased food supply as a result of climate change has made that task much taller. Cities all around the world have utilized a solution for this problem and that is “Urban Farming”. Urban farming was a concept that started with “3 gardens and a pamphlet” in 2005 and has grown exponentially since. The goal of urban farming is to create an abundance of food for people that are in need and to create this supply within the cities. Urban farming could be taking an old run down plot of land and cultivating it, or even utilizing the limited amount of balcony space one might have to produce food. Urban farming started as a small idea as a potential way to save people money and the stress of not being able to find their next meal and since has blown up into a worldwide phenomena that is accomplishing more than the founders could ever have expected.
The varying effects of climate change on extreme weather conditions such as droughts and floods also have both direct and indirect effects on our ability to produce and distribute food. Our conventional ways of life, particularly in agriculture and the meat industry, are not sustainable systems as they require enormous amounts of water for their processes and destroy the very soil that is essential for growing crops. These systems contribute to the extreme increase in climate change and therefore are self-destructing. Increases in heat waves, drought, pests and parasites will negatively affect food production. Extreme weather conditions can also affect food transportation and distribution, and the resulting scarcity will increase food prices. This tangled web system isn’t the answer and we need to pursue other options with positive environmental impacts, particularly self-sufficiency and local community alliances (which, oddly enough, are near opposites). Species that have survived for ages have done so largely through connections in their local ecosystems. Natural ecosystems and self-sufficient or nearly self-sufficient communities (not all of which are cults) may serve as examples for the restructuring of towns and cities to become more localized and sustainable.
Observing the field of environmental economics, specifically through food, has opened a broad spectrum or research and thought experiments to myself and group members this semester. As a team, we have shown our professor and classmates the value of viewing food as an inelastic good that should not be wasted or mistreated. I personally examined this issue from both an international and domestic standpoint from two specific examples and current issues. France is years ahead of the United States and the rest of the world in the context of how it handles food waste by offering it to charities. At the same time, the United States has a major problem with water consumption and usage in the agriculture industry. However, this is not to say we are not aware and unable or unwilling to make strides to a more sustainable future. Having conversations with others is something that has been brought up throughout the semester, and it is the start to solving issues regarding environmental tribulations.