How Geography is Used to Study Agriculture

Mark Altaweel


Many geographic factors affect today’s modern agricultural businesses and trade. From climate to key trade and shipping hubs, location has shaped the fortunes of states and agricultural production.

For farmers, timing is critical in the obtainment of resources, such as fertilizer and seed, but also forecasting likely weather in the coming season, informing on how much irrigation is needed as well as temperatures that can affect crop growth.[1]

The impact of different countries, however, has emerged as one of the more dominant or significant actors in shaping agricultural land found within their borders; regions within states are often subject to investment and policies such as pollution control.

Productive areas are also more likely to develop greater nitrate-based pollution or require policies to curb and limit pollutants.[2]  

An agriculture field in California. Photo: U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain
An agriculture field in California. Photo: U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain

Patterns of Pollutions and Agricultural Policies

Patterns of geographic locality of pollution has, therefore, had a strong association with regions of focused agricultural policies by the state.[3]

In Europe, pollution laws have transcended many states under the European Union, forcing many countries to also adopt their policy towards potential pollutants such as pesticides.[4]

Feedlot runoff at a farm.
Feedlot runoff at a farm. Photo: Kathleen M. Rowland, USGS. Public domain.

For countries and regions where agriculture has formed a greater focus for the local economy, greater environmental damage has been evident.

In many first world countries, improved ecological conditions as well as food safety have, therefore, emerged as key issues.[5]

Economic Policies Have Affected the Geography of Farms

Economic conditions, particularly competition, have encouraged generally larger farms in the West.

However, Western countries have also often subsidized their farms, as that keeps this important sector viable under increased foreign competition and where domestic labor is more expensive.

Geographers have determined that this policy has also the effect of allowing the preservation of smaller farm holdings, even though economic theory had largely expected smaller farms to increasingly disappear.

Smaller holdings have also been seen as more beneficial for social and environmental reasons, resulting in subsidies as being seen as beneficial for smaller land holdings.[6]

Satellite image of crops in southeast Kansas captured by Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) .  Image: NASA, 2001.
Satellite image of crops in southwestern Kansas captured by Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) . Image: NASA, 2001.

Where food production and transport have also contributed a lot of pollution, a recent focus on developing less globalized and more localized agriculture has been a focus in the research literature, particularly in the more industrialized northern hemisphere.

Government policies have included exploiting urban spaces and less built up areas where agriculture can be created to minimize distance between production and the market.[7]

The Impact of Agriculture on Urban Growth

Agricultural land also acts as a limit to urban growth.

In some countries, such as in the United States, liberal land laws have allowed many urban areas to easily expand into agricultural lands.

A future development billboard in an abandoned agriculture field.
A future development billboard in an abandoned agriculture field in Iowa. Photo: USGS, public domain.

In other countries or states, such as around London, UK, more restrictive laws prevent urban expansion. This has the secondary result of also possibly increasing land and home prices, as greater protection limits urban sprawl but also limits living areas.

In part, this is guided by how agricultural land is seen, whether it is seen as vital for economic and/or cultural reasons.[8]


[1] For more on agricultural forecasting and examples from South Asia, see:  Shafi, Mohammad. 2000. Agricultural Geography of South Asia: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and Maldives. Delhi: Macmillan India.

[2] For more on the role and intersection of agriculture, policy, and geography, see:  Bowler, Ian R., ed. 1992. The Geography of Agriculture in Developed Market Economies. Harlow, Essex, England : New York: Longman Scientific & Technical ; Wiley.

[3] For more on geography, policy, and pollution in agriculture, see:  Wu, JunJie, and Bruce A. Babcock. 1999. “Metamodeling Potential Nitrate Water Pollution in the Central United States.” Journal of Environment Quality 28 (6. doi:10.2134/jeq1999.00472425002800060031x.

[4] For more on agriculture and pollution, see:  Jess, Stephen, Steven Kildea, Aidan Moody, Gordon Rennick, Archie K Murchie, and Louise R Cooke. 2014. “European Union Policy on Pesticides: Implications for Agriculture in Ireland: European Union Policy on Pesticides.” Pest Management Science 70 (11): 1646–54.

[5] For more on consumer and environmental issues measured by agricultural geographers, see:  Marsden, Terry, Richard Munton, Neil Ward, and Sarah Whatmore. 1996. “Agricultural Geography and the Political Economy Approach: A Review.Economic Geography 72 (4): 361.

[6] For more on how subsidies enable smaller farm holdings to exist in Western countries, see:  Atkins, P. J., and Ian R. Bowler. 2001. Food in Society: Economy, Culture, Geography. London ; New York: Arnold.

[7] For more on urban agriculture and production, see:  Tornaghi, Chiara. 2014. “Critical Geography of Urban Agriculture.” Progress in Human Geography 38 (4): 551–67.

[8] For more on urban growth and sprawl in relation to agricultural land, see:  Fertner, Christian, Gertrud Jørgensen, Thomas Alexander Sick Nielsen, and Kjell Svenne Bernhard Nilsson. 2016. “Urban Sprawl and Growth Management – Drivers, Impacts and Responses in Selected European and US Cities.” Future Cities and Environment 2 (1). doi:10.1186/s40984-016-0022-2.


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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

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