Industrial Harvest

Mapping the Food System by sarah kavage
February 15, 2010, 11:15 pm
Filed under: big ag, Food Geography & Culture | Tags: , , ,

Y’all know that I love maps, right?  I have a professional obligation to be interested in “spatial data”, sure – but they’re also such an attractive way to present information. 

Well, the USDA has just launched this nifty interactive Food Environment Atlas.  You, your computer and your internet connection can explore the geography of spending on food, food prices, food taxes, poverty and grocery store access, etc. across the US.  There are even a number of data layers related to local food production, looking at things like number of farms that sell directly to consumers, farmers markets and acreage devoted to vegetable farming. 

If you don’t want to mess around with creating the maps yourself, Nicola Twilley at Edible Geography has created a lovely sampling here

Like any other means of communication or displaying information, maps are just as frequently used to deceive and conceal as they are to enlighten – and the prettier the map, the more likely people will be to be seduced into taking it at face value.  It’s important to think about maps as skeptically and critically as you might a newspaper or Wikipedia article (we all do that, right?) – what is missing is just as important as what is there.  Although it’s a legitimately useful product, the Atlas also contains no data on acres of farmland that are devoted to industrially produced crops like wheat, corn & soybeans.  Acres of land farmed organically is also left out.  USDA keeps statistics on both, and both relate to our environment, our health and our food system.  Nor is there anything on meat production (slaughterhouses), which is fraught with environmental health negatives, especially now that it’s been concentrated and consolidated to an extreme degree.  Although I can understand why these topics would be neglected at the USDA,  there is nothing in the Atlas that might justify an argument that “corporate ag” might not be the best model of food production for our health, social justice and our environment – and indeed is likely at the root of many of the problems the Atlas seeks to address.

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