Henry Whitehead '17 and Isabella Soparkar '17 present their findings during Scholars at the Capitol.

Several Mac students took part last month in Scholars at the Capitol Day, during which they presented their academic findings to state legislators and other government staff. Following are Q&As with two of those students, both of whom presented environmental studies projects.

Project: “The Effect of NAFTA on Minnesota Agriculture”
Henry Whitehead ’17

What were your project’s objectives?

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy wanted to better understand how free trade deals have impacted agriculture, and what effects NAFTA has had on agriculture in Minnesota. We were sent around the state to interview farmers, economists, agricultural experts, and lenders to determine how Minnesota agriculture has been transformed in the past 20 years and to try to link trade deals with Mexico and Canada to those changes.

What can we learn from your research?

Our current farming situation is much more complicated than you think. Before this summer, I would have been quick to lambaste big farms, but this project showed us the incredible complexity of forces pushing and pulling at American agriculture, and, by extension, at America’s farmers. They have been pressured to mechanize and specialize and grow. There are certainly farmers who could implement better conservation practices and choose not to. But most farmers want to tend the land well, to grow food that feeds people, and to support their families. And the system does not always make it easy for them to do that. This gets even more complicated when you bring in free trade deals. It’s not just a reduction of tariffs; it’s so much more when you consider the geopolitical histories of the U.S. and Mexico. These are high-level decisions that trickle down to the farmer. Before rushing to conclusions about trade policies, it’s important to see the bigger picture and understand what’s going on and why. This project gave us the chance to do that, though we only scratched the surface.

What’s the future of this issue?

On one side, there has been an increase in smaller operations that don’t necessarily supply a household income, such as direct-sale, farmers market, niche types of farms. But huge farms are also growing rapidly. Because of this polarization, the bottom has been falling out of agriculture’s middle class. This has been plainly incentivized by the government, so unless there’s a big shakeup to how we incentivize our farmers, I don’t see that changing. The elephant in the room is climate change, which will only become more of an issue in agriculture as storms get more frequent and intense, droughts are prolonged, and growing seasons shift. It’s the variable that we can’t predict or control, whereas to some degree we can control what we legislate and incentivize. Technology is helping to make conservation more widely applicable—technologies that target how much fertilizer to use, or that allow for testing micro-soil climates—so from a technocratic perspective, good things are coming. I would love to see a system that rewards farmers for biodiversity, soil conservation, and carbon sequestration.

Will you be taking your research further?

I’m doing an honors thesis about the potential for Minnesota agriculture to mitigate its greenhouse gas output and, in some cases, sequester greenhouse gases. Can farms make changes that move agriculture from being Minnesota’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases to an industry that actually sequesters carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and returns it to the soil?

How did this project come about?

It was part of a class called the Sustainability Seminar, which was part of the Educating Sustainability Ambassadors (ESA) Initiative. The first half was a seminar and the second half was a summer internship (paid through the ESA grant), in which we were placed in different Twin Cities organizations. I worked (with two other Mac students) at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), a Minneapolis think tank that looks at sustainable agriculture and trade systems with a policy-minded approach.

What was the research process like?

We spent the first part of the summer learning how free trade deals work, and how Minnesota agriculture functions, which was not a quick task. We also conducted research through census and immigration data. For the interviews we took advantage of the wealth of connections IATP has around the state. We’d go to a farm, and that farmer would have people over, and we’d talk to everyone and get their take on it. This method gave us a level of personal connection to farmers, which led to more authentic conversations. The best part was meeting so many people from across the state and different walks of life—people we wouldn’t otherwise have had the chance to meet.



Project: “Mining Futures: Can Corporate Mining Be Responsible and Sustainable for All?”
By Garrett Eichhorn ’17 

How did the project come about?

Our project originated with a proposal to the National Science Foundation by environmental studies professor Roopali Phadke. I was hired as a research assistant, along with Kaitlyn Lindaman. I was interested because of my background in environmental studies and computer science, fields that are both relevant to questions surrounding sustainable development and the future of industry. I was encouraged to apply after taking Professor Phadke’s Water and Power course.

What were the project’s initial objectives?

Our project investigates how mining companies are framing “sustainability” and “responsibility,” and if these claims are valid in giving agency to community and environment. We explored whether the Twin Metals and Polymet mine controversies (which have incited heated debate over parts of Northern Minnesota that are rich in precious metals) are achieving a “social license to operate,” or a vow of acceptance and support from the community. This project brings together academic research with the complex narrative of mining stakeholders, to determine the future of precious metals and rare earths mining. This sort of mining is critical to our global technology economy, as it provides the metals and compounds for many things we use every day. We brought together regional experts (professors, artists, activists, and more) to ruminate over these questions, culminating in a trip to the proposed mining sites and surrounding communities to get a more personal view of this complex issue.

What was the research process like?

Most of our research process was divided into two categories. First we explored the diverse literature surrounding sustainable and responsible mining endeavors, by both pro- and anti-mining stakeholders. Then we acquired personal accounts, through interviews, meetings with prominent community members, hearings, and traveling around Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. By enlisting the help of regional experts, we hoped to begin a more nuanced and complex discussion. It was interesting to read academic papers, news articles, and policy briefs, and then apply that knowledge in speaking with “Iron Rangers” about their future with mines and the environment.

What can we learn from your research?

After completing our field report (macalester.edu/miningfutures), we concluded that the “social license to operate” moves well beyond the borders of the physical mining town, community, and region. There is so much history embedded in the opinions of the pro-mining advocates, for whom prosperity and livelihood outweigh environmental consequences, that it becomes difficult to separate logic and science from sentiment. Places like Ely, Minnesota, demonstrate the economic benefits of protecting natural ecosystems, but not all Iron Range cities enjoy the same landscape; in fact, much of their landscape is scarred by huge red clay piles of “overburden” left over from past taconite iron mining operations. Our research showed us how complex mining issues are, especially in Minnesota. Protecting the environment is necessary to ensure a sustainable and responsible future, but the mining industry is making similar claims to continue to exploit natural resources. However, communities that rely on these industries are also exploited, so their input should be respected in the debate.

What should be done moving forward?

I hope that both the Twin Metals and Polymet mining proposals are terminated in favor of protecting the local environment and surrounding watershed. Mining endeavors, especially those that extract precious earth metals, produce dangerous chemicals like sulfuric acid, which have severe consequences for the ecosystem. However, I also hope that the local communities can look beyond mining for economic salvation, in favor of building rich and diverse networks that will sustain Iron Rangers and their livelihoods. Investing in local businesses, tourism opportunities, and schools might revitalize the Iron Range and benefit the aging population by bringing back youth and innovation.


March 13 2017

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