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Students will examine the impacts of the Columbian Exchange and identify the economic and cultural impacts of contemporary global agricultural trade. They will also explore how food choices influence patterns of food production and consumption.
Columbian Exchange: period of cultural and biological exchanges—plants, animals, diseases, and technology—between the New and Old Worlds
New World food: foods with origins in the Americas
Old World food: foods with origins in Europe, Africa, or Asia
absolute advantage: the ability of a country, individual, company or region to produce a good or service at a lower cost per unit than the cost at which any other entity produces that good or service
agricultural commodity chain: a network of labor and production processes—raw materials, processing/manufacturing, distribution, retailers, consumers—whose end result is a finished commodity
comparative advantage: a situation in which a country, individual, company, or region can produce a good at a lower opportunity cost (production costs, raw materials, taxes, environmental regulations, farmers’ skills, proximity to market) than a competitor
fair trade: a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade and contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers (World Fair Trade Organization)
food miles: the distance food is transported from the time of its production until it reaches the consumer
local food: there is no generally accepted definition of “local” food; in 2008, the US Congress adopted the definition of “local food” as food marketed less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the state
trade route: a logistical network identified as a series of pathways and stoppages used for the commercial transport of cargo
value-added product: a raw commodity that is changed to produce a high-end quality product to meet the tastes and preferences of consumers
The United States produces the most abundant, most affordable, and safest food in the world. Additionally, the US farmer is the most productive in the history of the world. This is not to say that farming is without challenges. However, “U.S. agriculture in uniquely positioned to provide for the food and fiber needs of a growing world community.”2
This impactful US position began in 1492 with Columbus arriving in America. He brought unique foods, animals, and even diseases to this new land. Conversely, he took those same items back to Europe with him. For the next 200 years, this Columbian Exchange—the transfer of animals, plants, ideas, and diseases—resulted in extensive global trade and cultural transfers, especially in regards to food. People living in the New World (the Americas) were experiencing food initially only found in the Old World (Europe, Africa, or Asia). Trade routes opened up, providing networks of pathways and stoppages used for the commercial transport of cargo.
Today it is estimated that food travels an average of 1500 food miles from the time of its production until it reaches the consumer. How is this possible? Technology and labor provide the production processes necessary to bring a commodity from farm to table. An agricultural commodity chain includes raw materials, processing and/or manufacturing, distribution, retailers, and consumers. This is often a complex network requiring large numbers of inputs and resources (time, money, technology, human labor).
In regards to their food choices, consumers are making demands for global products, and consequently, an interesting system of global trade routes has been created. For example, China’s imports of agricultural products have surged over the past decade, and the United States is a major supplier. China’s residents have realized rising incomes and consequent changing consumer preferences. “As a result, imports of processed and consumer-oriented products like meats, dairy, wine, and nuts are increasingly showing up in Chinese markets.”3
Additionally, global consumers are seeking value-added products in which raw commodities are changed to produce high-end quality products to meet diverse tastes and preferences. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, these products include changes in the physical state or form of the product (e.g., honey and beeswax products), the production of a product that enhances its value (e.g., organic vegetables), or even growing alternative crops (e.g., heirloom or ethnic fruits). These value-added products provide benefits to farmers in terms of realized financial benefits, but these products also require “…additional investment in equipment, technology, personnel, marketing, operations, etc.”4 Some of these products are part of the local food movement in which consumers are committed to purchasing foods grown within certain distances of consumers’ homes. Although this is currently a popular trend, there is no generally accepted definition of “local” food. In 2008, the U.S. Congress adopted the definition as food produced less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the state. However, consumers often define this term for themselves, considering “local” to mean within an acceptable distance from the foods’ origin—50 miles, 100 miles, within the region, etc.
The global products produced by a particular country are determined by that country’s advantage in commercial agriculture. If a country produces a good or service at a lower cost per unit than the cost at which any other country produces that good or service, the producing country has absolute advantage. Sometimes, a country may not be able to produce a good at the lowest monetary cost, but it can produce a good at a lower opportunity cost with regards to production costs, raw materials, taxes, environmental regulations, farmers’ skills, or proximity to market. In this situation, a country has comparative advantage in producing that good.
In order to make international trade fairer for small-scale producers trying to compete in a global market, the fair trade movement was established in the 1940s. This movement is a philosophy that seeks greater equity in international trade and contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers. Coffee is the most recognizable fair trade product, but others include tea, chocolate, honey, sugar, and wine.
Activity 1: Columbian Exchange
Activity 2: Commodity Chains
Activity 3: Global Trade
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
We welcome your feedback! Please take a minute to tell us how to make this lesson better or to give us a few gold stars!
Conduct the Chocolate Taste-Testing activity with your students.
Use the websites The Globe of Economic Complexity and/or The Atlas of Economic Complexity for in-depth studies regarding global trade and interdependence. These sites provide excellent data, but they are very complex; the guided “tour” instructions are helpful. You may wish to assign each student or pair of students a research question to investigate using these websites and have students share their research in a report. Alternatively, you may wish to lead a class discussion using these resources.
Find additional, related activities in the lesson The Columbian Exchange of Old and New World Foods.
Doug Andersen (UT), Nancy Anderson (UT), Paul Gray (AR), Ken Keller (GA), Lisa Sanders (MN), Sharon Shelerud (MN), Allison Smith (UT), Kelly Swanson (MN)
National Agriculture in the Classroom