Impact of Agriculture on Environment

My grandfather is a farmer. When I was little, he always tells me, “To become a successful farmer, 30% depends on oneself and the other 70% depends on the weather.” At the time, my grandfather probably had nothing in mind about the impact of global environmental change on agriculture. But he also clearly did not realize how his own practices could change the environment and the weather pattern that the farm relies on.

Broadly speaking, there are two main categories of negative impacts that could occur during agricultural practices:

  1. Biotic – including greenhouse gases, introduced species, genetically modified organisms and animal management.
  2. Abiotic – including pesticides, fertilizers, heavy metals and land management.

Among different types of pollution, I would like to pinpoint two major sources that have the biggest impact in terms of their significance and scale.


The first area to be discussed is greenhouse gases (GHGs). The term refers to gases that have a warming potential, absorbing infrared radiation, thus trapping holding heat in the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most prominent GHG that scientists are concerned about because of its relative abundance and long lifespan. CO2 is also commonly used as the standard GHG when we measure emission from different sources.

It is important to understand that GHG is present naturally throughout earth history. However, since the pre-industrial time, the GHG has increased in an exponential way that scientists have relate this sharp increase with anthropogenic practices.

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Keeling Curve: showing unnatural increase in global CO2 level

Now, we understand the CO2 is the main driving force for climate change. Let’s take a close look at how agricultural practices are contributing to the GHG emission portfolio.

According to IPCC, agriculture sector accounts for 24% of the global GHG emission, only 1% lower than the leading energy sector. Within that, United Nation Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimated that 18% of anthropogenic GHGs emission are directly and indirectly related to world’s livestock.

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Source: IPCC (2014); based on global emissions from 2010. Details about the sources included in these estimates can be found in the Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Yes! As you saw, the GHG generated from fecal waste along is already bigger than the Transportation sector. When we have heated discussions on moving to electric cars and more efficient transportation, more efficient agricultural practices could potentially have a larger impact on mitigating climate change.


 

The second area to be discussed is fertilizer usage. Whether it’s natural fertilizer or artificial fertilizer, this kind of product is commonly used to supply more nutrients essential to the plants.

Despite fertilizers could typically increase yields of a certain product, the production of fertilizers could generate GHG and nitrogen fertilizers can be converted to nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas. In addition, the efficiency of fertilizers is very low, and the remnants would pollute the soil and water body.

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Process of Eutrophication by BBC

When excessive nutrients go into water body, a serious ecological consequence — eutrophication could occur. The enrichment of water would reduce oxygen level, resulting in hypoxia. One of the most upfront example right now is the “dead zone” in Gulf of Mexico. Due to the huge farm&city nutrients influx from the Mississippi River, the ecology in the Gulf of Mexico has been devastated.

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Map showing the low oxygen area/dead zone in Gulf of Mexico

To mitigate the ecological impact along the Gulf, collective effort from industries and farmers must be taken. A more efficient and sustainable utilization of fertilizers is an urgent matter for our Earth.


While climate change is affecting agriculture is many ways, it is crucial to retrospectively pay attention to the global impact farms made. Polycentric effort is needed to combat the unprecedented global environmental change we are facing today.

 

 

How extreme weathers like Harvey & Irma occur

Last year, two powerful hurricanes — Harvey and Irma — hit the United States, causing unprecedented habitat and economic loss. Even though Atlanta was not directly impacted by the high level of hurricanes, many students, faculty and staff at Emory are from the regions that are influenced by Harvey&Irma. It is important to understand that the areas those two hurricanes affect are multi-dimensional and in large scale. The frequent natural disasters expose us to the power of nature, but more importantly, they make us ponder why “extreme weather” patterns are so common in the past decade.

“Climate” and “Weather” are two different terms. While weather refers to the state of atmosphere in a regional setting within a relatively short time scale, climate refers to the overall weather pattern in an area for a longer period of time (>30 years). While the two terms are different, they are interconnected. Weathers we experience everyday could be aggregated into the climate pattern over time. We could relate that to how individual test result of a student reflects the overall performance of them at college. There might be some days the student does really well; there might be some days the student does not so well. Even though a single test could not determine the student’s GPA, it could contribute in a subtle/small-scaled level.

The languages above are very important to understand because when we are talking about climate change as a global issue, we are not talking about any specific dates or events. However, as mentioned above, extreme high temperature and longer days of high temperature infer a trend of the overall global warming.

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(NASA: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/RisingCost/rising_cost5.php)

George Tselioudis, a research scientist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) and Columbia University explained that the global warming would cause more “weather patterns” like the hurricanes, “Warmer temperatures could increase the amount of water vapor that enters the atmosphere. The result is a hotter, more humid environment. At the equator, where conditions are already hot and humid, the change isn’t expected to be large. At the poles, however, the air is cold and dry; a little extra heat and water vapor could raise temperatures greatly. As a result, global warming may cause the temperature difference between the poles and the equator to decrease. and as the difference decreases, so should the number of storms. But even as a warming climate might decrease the overall number of storms that form, it could increase the number of intense storms. As temperatures continue to rise, more and more water vapor could evaporate into the atmosphere, and water vapor is the fuel for storms.

While we have recently been exposed to hurricanes a lot on media, they are not the only forms of “extreme weathers”. The cycle of droughts and floods could also be more intense because the precipitation in an area would be fall in one extreme event rather than multiple mild ones. This has a huge impact on agricultural products that all human beings rely on.

To sum up, we should understand what’s the difference between “climate” and “weather” while knowing the impact of “climate change” on “extreme weathers”.

Continue reading “How extreme weathers like Harvey & Irma occur”

How to communicate numbers effectively to the public?

Data have now become the indispensable part of people’s everyday life. From shopping in grocery stores to analyzing DNA results, numbers are everywhere. However, sometimes things get a bit tricky when you don’t put them into context.

The most obvious example would be salary. When one said their annual income is $47k, others might no idea of what they are talking about. This is because we don’t have context for the numbers we are talking about. If the person is in Georgia, $47k is about the median income of a household. However, if the person is in NYC, having a $47k income would really struggle to afford housing and food in Manhattan. On a similar note, if the person is from a developing country, that $47k could mean they are the top 1% of the population.

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Importance of numeracy

Understanding numbers in scale is also helpful in making judgement. When we say the Kigali Amendment could contribute 90 Gt CO2 emission reduction by ruling out HFC usage. Uninformed readers wouldn’t know what that means. However, if we stated that the in 2017 the total global CO2 emission is around 37 Gt, we would finally be confident to say ” wow, 90Gt is a lot of reduction”

Numeracy is the ability to reason and to apply simple numerical concepts.

Above is a simple definition of Numeracy by Brooks, M; Pui (2010). However, the concept we are trying to convey today is a little bit more complicated. We will analyze the numeracy component for the energy efficiency campaign ABBC as an example.

For an energy efficiency solution, the part people care the most is how much energy can the program save. I took several approaches to make the numbers make more sense for the readers.

  1. Using common unit to present the number. Despite Btu is a commonly used unit worldwide, the target audience might be more familiar with kWh. Thus, I converted all units to kWh or MWh.
  2. Put it into context of other common practices. In this case, I took the standard yield of solar panels as a comparison to visualize how much energy the ABBC is saving.
  3. Benchmark against other organization. Here, I compared the energy-saving number and relative cost to the one conducted by Georgia Power.
  4. Translate the saving into financial terms. By transcribing 3.21 trillion Btu to $93 million, it is more effective to let many stakeholders understand the potentials of the program.

Of course, there will be a million different ways to communicate quantitative numbers given the various subject matter and audience. But the common strategy is still putting numbers into meaningful and understandable context!

Comment below to let us know if it’s helpful!

Continue reading “How to communicate numbers effectively to the public?”

Numeracy Component for ABBC

Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge

 

  1. Energy
  • In 2015, the ABBC’s annual source energy saving was 3.21 trillion Btu1, equals to 940,758 MWh, while the total energy production of Georgia that year was 622 trillion Btu2, equals 18,234,882 MWh. Savings from ABBC could account for 5% of the total energy production.
  • If we are using a 265W solar panel for 5hrs/day, the energy saved through ABBC would equals to the amount could be generated by 2 square milessolar panels, about the area of 4 Piedmont Park, for entire year of 365 days3.
  • Benchmarking wise, the biggest local supplier Georgia Power reported 309,275 MWhof net electric savings after spending $50 millionon electric efficiency programs4.
  • To put the saving into dollar, 93,040,966 dollarswere saved from commercial electricity use.5

 

  1. Water
  • In 2016, the ABBC’s annual water saving was 241 million gallons. Putting this number into context, an Olympic size swimming pool would have 660,000 gallons of water. And the amount ABBC saved in 2016 can fill 309of those pools.6
  • Based on 2009 level of per capita consumption in Atlanta Service Area, the water ABBC saved equals to 4,471people’s water consumption for an entire year.7Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 10.36.44.png

 

1 http://www.abbcdata.com/data/energy

2 https://www.eia.gov/state/rankings/?sid=GA#series/101

3 https://solarpowerrocks.com/solar-basics/how-much-electricity-does-a-solar-panel-produce/

4 https://database.aceee.org/city/atlanta-ga

5 https://www.eia.gov/state/data.php?sid=GA#Prices

6 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympic-size_swimming_pool

7 http://documents.atlantaregional.com/regional-snapshot/2014/june/water_2014_full.pdf

 

 

 

 

How to communicate results climate initiatives effectively to policy-makers

Scientists have been struggling to deliver their research findings to the public-sphere despite their expertise in coming up with results. Some blame policy-makers only focus their own political success; others realized that the science-policy interface is truly a hard issue to address.

At the end of the day, we have to realize that people with different backgrounds communicate differently, let alone the cultural and language barrier that potentially exist. The two pyramids below are great examples of different communication strategies.

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Scientists want people to know where they came from and they are detail-oriented people. People in the public-sphere, like the policy-makers, however, are more interested in their bottom-line because time constrains and other concerns. After understanding the difference between the gap between communications, let’s see what an effective way would be to deliver important information to stakeholders in the public.

A white paper is an authoritative report or guide that informs readers concisely about a complex issue and presents the issuing body’s philosophy on the matter. It is meant to help readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision.

As we know, one-pager policy white paper is an effective tool to communicate a given project. Here’s an example of a one-pager from previous post. Of course, every project is different in its nature and should be presented differently. However, there are a few commonly used rules that could help to improve your one-pager:

  1. Engage Your Audience. In pretty much every style of writing, you want to do this. In the instance of writing a 1-page policy white paper, it is almost crucial given the time your readers have and the length of the paper. By knowing what they are expecting and their level of expertise, it could really assist with the effectiveness of your writing.
  2. Present an Executive Summary at the front. Imagine the audience of this document is a busy politician and they only have 30 seconds to read your piece before making the decision for the next step. You probably would put the most important information, result, and implication upfront concisely, right? That’s why we always start with a paragraph-long summary, so people could decide whether or not to continue reading the details of it.
  3. Have visual element helps. Again, it comes back to the limited time our audience have. To attract them read further along the article, using graphs or charts to emphasize key results could be really helpful. You should only include crucial information in the graphs (like energy, water, economic savings in ABBC’s case in the example). Otherwise it would weaken the credibility and the professional feeling of the document.
  4. Use Bulletin Points. This point is very similar to the technique of writing a résumé. Utilizing bulletin points could help the entire page look clearer and more professional. Again, at the end of the day we want to engage the audience.
  5. Close with Summary and Suggestion. Despite already having a detailed summary upfront, it is always helpful to recap the project that you have been analyzing for the paper. Here is also a great place you could reassure your suggestions for the project to improve or move forward.

Above are the five main points that really helped me throughout my writing of the one-pager for Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge. Hopefully that could help you communicate more effectively using 1-page white paper format.

Continue reading “How to communicate results climate initiatives effectively to policy-makers”

Policy White Paper/One-pager for Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge

Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge

 

The Atlanta Better Building Challenge (ABBC) is a voluntary program that challenges key stakeholders to reduce water and energy consumption in buildings through a variety of efficiency improvement programs. Since its inception in 2011, the ABBC has been growing rapidly in terms of the number of participants and the total floor area. Aiming at the target of 20% more efficient by 2020, the initiative has so far generated benefits in the fields of economy and health in addition to the pre-set target areas on energy and water.

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Continue reading “Policy White Paper/One-pager for Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge”

Agriculture Agreement Reached @ COP23

Establishment of Gender Action Plan (GAP), progress on Green Climate Fund (GCF), starting of Talanoa Dialogue, all these wonderful things happened during the 23rd Conference of Parties (COP23), in Bonn Germany. However, what excites me the most is the historic breakthrough in agriculture sector, ending a deadlock that lasted for years.

Agriculture is a field that is often neglected but crucial to mitigate climate change. The sector itself accounts for 24% of the GHG emissions globally, only 1 percent lower than the leading sector — Energy. The mitigation in agriculture sector is crucial if the goal of keeping global temperature below 2 ℃ change wants to be realized.

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Source: IPCC (2014); based on global emissions from 2010. Details about the sources included in these estimates can be found in the Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

A very recent article by Griscom showed us the potential of using “Natural Climate Solutions (NCS)” to reach 2 degree goal. The NCS includes conservation, restoration and/or improved land management practices that could increase carbon sink capacity , providing one third of the cost-effective CO2 mitigation needed through 2030. Among different NCSs, management of fertilizers alone can contribute 6% of the emission reduction needed.

However, for the contribution to be realized, farmers are not provided with necessary technology and financial incentives. This is also beneficial for farmers. In recent years, extreme weather pattern has become more frequent and severe. Droughts and flooding are impacting farmers in a global scale.

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Most recently, the California wildfire caused by extended drought period and other factors is devastating, damaging farmland and houses. To adapt into the new climate regime and the consequences of climate change, farmers deserve the right to be supported financially and technologically.


After discussing the importance of a global collaboration on the issue of agriculture, let’s take a look at what is the actual decision that has been made.

Prior to COP23, the discussion of agriculture has been thwarted by disagreement including trade implication on commodity crops, priority of the negotiation agenda and certain UNFCCC’s regulation.

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UNFCCC

This year in Bonn Germany, delegates agreed to have both Subsidiary Body for Science and Technology Advice(SBSTA) and Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) to review the agricultural issues.

We have to understand that because of negotiation’s complex nature, using both SBSTA and SBI to address a issue is not common. By reaching this agreement, we can see a huge push to promote sustainable agriculture globally.

According to Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the working committee is likely to first consider topics include:

  • How to assess adaptation, adaptation co-benefits (code for mitigation), and resilience
  • How to improve soil health, soil carbon in grasslands and croplands, and related water management
  • How to improve nutrient management – e.g. more efficient fertilizer use
  • How to improve livestock management systems
  • Studying the socioeconomic and food security issues associated with climate change in the agriculture sector
  • Any of the previous topics discussed in a set of workshops in recent years

The agreement is to report back 3 years later at the COP26 in 2020. As we all know, 2020 is a huge watershed that determines the post-2020 climate regime. While all nations are working hard to reach 2020 goal set by Kyoto Protocol, this momentous agreement on agriculture shines another light on our future after 2020.

Farmers’ Market — A community effort to support sustainable agriculture

 

Every Tuesday around 12 o’clock, I would walk over to the Cox Hall Bridge, not because I have any class at the time, nor do I have any friend to see. The only reason I go there is because the weekly farmers’ market here at Emory.

Farmers’ market is not a brand new idea. It had a long history since people were growing their own food. Whenever there is extra, people would bring it to the market and sell it in exchange for other good they need.

Of course, the farmers’ market today is no longer bartering. According to Sommer (1980), the farmers’ market in the United States is a renaissance that is viewed to have a better quality, social atmosphere and sometimes price. In metropolitan Atlanta alone, there is a extensive network of markets in different counties. 98 locations have been authorized by  United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), aiming to provide easy access to the general public.

So what is USDA trying to promote and how’s the result of the purpose?


According to Mokdad et al. (2003), diabetes is one of the most prominent disease among modern Americans. The cause of the disease is complex, but Seligman et al. (2007) found that the lack of food security is linked to the diabetes.

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Food security refers to the lack of access to food or healthy options. USDA suggested average people to take a balanced diet, avoiding from large amount sugar and fat that we observe today on American’s table. As mentioned above, farmers’ market could serve as a onsite access to the fresh produce that you could not find otherwise in regular grocery stores.

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Fruit & Vegetable based diet

It seems like the farmers’ market is a great place to healthy lifestyles, social bounding, etc. However, some scientists don’t agree.

Many products in the farmers’ market, despite their freshness, are far more expensive than those found in places like Walmart. In fact, according to a study on Atlanta farmers’ market, 85.7% of the participants regarded price as their number one barrier to purchasing healthy food (Anderson et al. 2015).

To combat the financial barrier for people with relative low socioeconomic status, Wholesome Wave Georgia (WWG) invented a Double Value Coupon Program (DVCP), allowing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients to double their purchasing power at the designated farmers’ market location.

In addition to the financial barrier, other critics also argue that a culture barrier of “Whiteness” exists in farmers’ market. Guthman (2008) stated that the farmers’ market and other food movement in general does not only compose of the “pale bodies” but also a derivative of white cultural practices. Alkon and McCullen (2011) critiqued the existence of certain “Whiteness” in farmers’ market could prevent people of color from entering, creating a inequality among different social groups.


To find out what a farmers’ market look like (Emory farmers’ market is a little bit different in nature), I conducted a field research including a series of survey and interviews at the Brookhaven Farmers’ Market (BFM).

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BFM PC: Wenhao Sun

During 3-hour period of observing, out of 18 vendors present that day, only 1 was African American and 1 was Caribbean American. The rest of the farmers were all caucasians.

Similar observation was made but in a more extreme way for consumers. Out of  245 customers entered the market, only 5 were African Americans and the rest were all white.

From interviews with farmers, we learned that not a single person has used the SNAP coupon this year. They said at the Tucker farmers’ market, more people are using the DVCP. Some veteran who has been in BFM for 5 years recalled that 3 years ago there was someone who tried to use the coupon but the machine was broken since no one ever use it.

Of course the neighborhood could play a huge role in demographic composition, it is still saddening that the “whiteness” does exist to some extent and the DVCP incentive does not work that well.

 


Reference:

Anderson, C., S. Blackwell, E. Gerndt, and I. Martin. 2015. Evaluation of Wholesome Wave Georgia’s Double Value Coupon Program.

Sommer, R. 1980. Farmers markets of America: a renaissance. Capra Press.

Sustainable Agriculture — Corporations taking Social Responsibility

If you were to ask me what’s my opinion on business’ effort on combating global environmental change last year, I would probably laugh at you. The nature of a corporation is profit-driven and I would not have regarded anything related to business as environmentally friendly.

Things began to change after I enrolled in Dr. Benjamin Jordan’s “Green Business” class in the spring of 2017. At first, I was one of the many skeptics in the class who don’t believe companies could do any good. But Prof. Jordan used his own experience at Coca-Cola and showed us why and how a corporation as big as Coke would care about the environment.


Dr. Ben Jordan is the Senior Director of Supplier Sustainability and he told us that every corporations now have to be socially responsible. It’s not only benefiting the company from a goodwill perspective but also meeting stakeholders’ need when it comes to sustainability.

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Coca-Cola is arguably one of the most recognized brand across the globe. Its products range from the most classic Coke to Minute Maid juice and to Honest Tea. We have to admit the Coca-Cola is everywhere.

To take advantage of the influence those big corporations have, Jason Clay, during his famous TED talk , stated that if we convince just 100 key companies to go sustainable, global markets will shift to protect the planet that has been degraded by consumerism.

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Coke as a beverage company relies hugely on agriculture products. Sugar and other sweeteners are the most important ingredients purchased around the world. They come from sugar cane, corn, beet, etc. An interesting  fact, Americans ingest 1.7 million tons of sugar per year from Coca-Cola alone.

To transform market and promote more sustainable agriculture, Coke set the goal of sourcing 100% of their sugar by 2020. It is a very ambitious goal because the Coca Cola Company has a variety of suppliers that are different in nature. To target different audience, identical strategy needs to be used.

The first kind of suppliers are common in the US — farmers with big farmland. For this group of supplier, it is relatively easy to communicate. The Coke Company would typically reach out to them and tell explain what they should do to have their commodities purchase by the company in the future. Under the money power, many farmers chose to comply and transition their farms using more sustainable practices.

The second kind of suppliers are more common in the developing countries like China — household farmers with small land. According to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), China has 498.73 million farm workers, about 187 times more than that of the US. With such a huge population, it is almost impossible to convince farmers one by one.

In this case, company like Coca Cola would reach out to the regional aggregator who collect the agricultural produce from local farmers who then sell it to the Coke. The Company took advantage of this liaison and applied similar strategy to the aggregators. Thus, without spending a extensive amount of men power and money, Coke is able to communicate with its suppliers about the sustainable agriculture that it has visioned.

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Coke’s Sustainable Sugarcane Initiative to promote water efficiency, farmer income in Guangxi Province, China

It is impressive what Coca Cola Company alone has done to promote the sustainable agriculture globally. If more big corporations could opt-in for more socially and environmentally responsible practices, our environment and people could improve significantly.

 

Money Power? Secrets behind Agricultural Subsidies

Gum, Yogurt, Ethanol, etc… What do these things have in common? Guess what, they are all corn products! Because its multipurpose, corn is a crucial agricultural goods to the whole world. But especially to the United States.

In fact, the US produced 361.1 millions of tonnes of corn in the year 2014, accounting for 36% of the global yield. However, US does not have the biggest land or population. The question is, how and why would US has such a high production of this single product?

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In order to generate tons and tons of certain produce, government around the world provide monetary incentives — known as subsidies to support products that can be easily shipped, stored and traded. Some examples of commodities around the world include: corn, cotton, milk, rice, tobacco.

According to a report from Congressional Budget Office, United States paid $20 billion in 2005 directly to farmers through farm bills, which pre-date to the Great Depression era. Economically speaking, subsidies provide extra money for the farmers. In addition, a price ceiling is guaranteed from the government so that the farmers would worry less about the potential upcoming turbulence in the market.540px-United_States_farm_subsidies_(source_Congressional_Budget_Office).svg

Other national level policies also concurrently support the growth of certain subsidized commodity. As mentioned earlier, corn could also be used to produce ethanol, a alternative energy source for vehicles. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 requires billions of gallons of ethanol to be mixed into fuels, creating a huge demand in the market.


Supporting farmers, increasing revenue.. It seems agricultural subsidies are beneficial from different perspectives. However, while receiving those benefits, people often neglect the negative impact of subsidies are causing both internationally and locally.

First, export subsidies have negative impact on developing countries. Despite World Trade Organization (WTO) has noted cheaper food could benefit consumers from developing countries, it is not as beneficial for farmers who do not receive certain subsidies.

Because many developing countries could not afford subsidies, they lost their normal competitive advantage when it comes to agricultural commodities. Products can not be exported to other countries and many farmers from those countries would lose their livelihood. It is also essential to understand that developing nations have a really high farmer population. Just benefiting the consumers could potentially exacerbate the poverty situation in certain countries.

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Second, domestic subsidies are affecting  people’s health. Because subsidies are typically put onto meat and dairy production (According to Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine), as well as sugar subsidies for unhealthy food. Some argue artificially reduced prices for products like corn syrup created bad incentives for consumers.

It is even more alarming that marginalized and food-insecure people with low income would be affected disproportionately on health because the affordable food is not vegetables, but corn.

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Third, mass subsidies would cause degradation of our environment. In the US, monoculture, where only one type of crops is planted, is utilized for large-scale production. Out of $200 billions subsidies for crops, two thirds went to animal feed, tobacco and cotton industries.  Those energy intensive commodities would not only reduce ecological resilience but also drain up nutrients in the soil.


I hope you guys learned how subsidies work. And besides the benefits they could bring, start to think about the impact subsidies could bring to us economically, nutritionally and environmentally.