Concept Caching: Soybean Agriculture in Presho, South Dakota

From our Concept Caching image cache that hopes to promote student spatial awareness by relating specific features on the Earth’s surface with their visual character and GPS coordinates. Through the site photographs and GPS coordinates demonstrate core concepts in geography.  Images are “cached” for viewing by core concept and by region.  Images are certainly useful for introducing visual content to students in all  Geography classes.

Soybeans growing in the semiarid ranchlands of western South Dakota.

This image submitted by Erin Fouberg provides a visualization of the scale and landscapes of crop agriculture in the United States.  The companion image description offers insight into this landscape and details over the two types of crop agriculture in this region.  It is also an interesting visual companion to some of the issues raised in the post, “Geographies of Green Diets.”

“Driving across the semiarid ranchlands of western South Dakota, I noticed the presence of a crop in the landscape that was recently found only in the eastern, moister region of the state: soybeans.

I called a colleague who works in agriculture at South Dakota State University to ask, “When did the cattle ranchers of western South Dakota start growing soybeans?” He replied, “When the soy biodiesel plants started popping up in Nebraska and Kansas and when genetically modified soybeans made it possible to grow the crop here.” He explained the development of Roundup Ready soybeans, a particular genetically modified soybean that can grow in more arid regions of the country. First, you plant the soybean; then you use an airplane to spray Roundup, a common weed killer that is manufactured by the company that produces the Roundup Ready soybeans, over the field. The application of Roundup over the entire field saves a lot of time and energy for the farmers because the genetically modified soybeans are resistant to the Roundup, but the weeds are killed. Monsanto, the company that produces Roundup, has developed soybeans, corn, cotton, and other crops that are resistant to Roundup.

Counter to the genetically modified Roundup Ready crops, organic agriculture —the production of crops without the use of synthetic or industrially produced pesticides and fertilizers—is also on the rise in North America. In wealthier parts of the world, the demand for organic products has risen exponentially in recent years. Sales of organic food in the United States, for example, went from under $200 million in 1980 to $1.5 billion by the early 1990s to over $10 billion by 2003 and $17.8 billion in 2007. Organic foods are now about 3 percent of all food sales in the country. The growth rate is so strong that some predict organic sales will approach 10 percent of total U.S. food sales within a decade. Parts of western Europe are already approaching that figure—notably Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and parts of Germany.”

To continue reading the cache description visit the Concept Caching website.

Mato Grosso: The Future of Food

Paul Ehrlich’s publication of The Population Bomb in 1968 explained why human population growth was accelerating, and touched off serious debate about whether enough food could be produced to feed ever-more billions of people. Even as many have faced malnutrition and even starvation, however, total food production has tended to keep pace.

For the foreseeable future, population will continue to grow, albeit it at a decreasing rate. Over the next half-century, the question seems not to be whether humans will produce enough food, but rather how that food will be produced. The human population is passing through what E.O. Wilson has called the bottleneck, and by the middle of the twenty-first century, it is likely to level off at somewhere between 8 and 9 billion people.

Overall food production can be achieved in just a few ways:

  • Distribute food more equitably by curtailing over-consumption and reducing the production of meat
  • Increase crop yields
  • Increase the land area under cultivation

Each of these broad strategies involves a lot of possible specific cases and a number of complicated trade-offs. The story of soybeans in Brazil — particularly in the huge, interior state of Mato Grosso — illustrates several of the complications associated with the second and third options.

Cargill terminal in Porto Velho

I took these photographs of Cargill’s riverfront terminal just downstream from Porto Velho, Rondônia in 2003. Much of the soy grown in the center-west portion of the country is brought by road to this break-in-bulk point, where it is transfered to barges that can take it all the way to Belem, at the mouth of the Amazon River, for export.

For many years, agricultural production in Brazil increased slowly, if at all, and sometimes not fast enough to keep up with domestic population growth. What little increase did occur was strictly the result of increases in the amount of land being cultivated. Even though considerable efforts were made to increase yields, improvements in technology did little more than offset the poor quality of the new lands being cultivated.

The twentieth-century experience of Brazil is hardly surprising; humans farm about 1/8 of the earth’s land surface and almost by definition this is the most productive 1/8. Any new areas brought into production are likely to be marginal lands in both senses of the word: in peripheral locations relative to existing human settlement and of lower quality relative to already-settled lands.

By the close of the twentieth century, however, something clearly had changed, as Brazil’s agricultural output — particularly of soybeans — began to challenge the role of the United States as the dominant producer in the Western hemisphere. Reporting for the radio program Living on Earth, Bruce Gellerman has described this transition beautifully in Magic Seeds and the Miracle Crop. (His report is available as an mp3 and as text with some excellent photographs.)

The report describes how Mato Grosso has become such a large and still-growing producer of soybeans, despite the unsuitable soil conditions. It then goes on to describe the consequences associated with such success: increased reliance on pesticides, the tendency of crop pests to develop pesticide resistance, and the great loss of habitat in the savanna, known in Brazil as cerrado, or “closed” for its traditional inaccessibility.

Brazil is advancing on its frontier just as the United States did more than a century ago. A decade ago, I wrote  comparison of the two frontier experiences: that of the United States in the 19th-century West and that of Brazil in the 20th-century Amazon. According to Gellerman’s report, the process continues in the 21st-century cerrado, but with more than one biome at stake and with the potential for much more substantial clearing. With the techniques currently being employed, the area remaining to be cultivated in Brazil might be greater than the area currently cultivated in the entire United States.