InTeGrate Modules and Courses >Future of Food > Section 4: Food Systems and Sustainability > Module 10: Food Systems
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Module 10: Food Systems


Module 10 continues the theme of human-environment interactions seen at a smaller scale with agroecosystems in Module 8, and develops the ideas of coupled human-natural systems (CHNS) begun at the beginning of the course (Modules 1 and 2). Module 10.1 explores different scales and types of food systems that currently dominate human-environment interactions on our planet. Module 10.1 also describes barriers food producers face within food systems, and examines how the CHNS framework allows us to understand divergences of food system into different types, and transitions from one type to another. In Module 10.2 students will learn about the impacts of food systems on natural systems, and practice a method called Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) which is used to measure the impact of Human Food System components on the environment. In practice, LCAs are used to measure the impacts of both products and complex human systems on the environment. The food systems typology, the CHNS framework and the broad ideas behind LCAs in measuring impacts across a system are tools that will should help students to develop an analysis of a regional food system and proposed scenarios for sustainability in that regional setting in the capstone project, as well as in other learning efforts beyond this course. As they learn about and apply the CHNS framework and the LCA method, students will exercise a geoscience habit of mind introduced in Module 1, that of systems thinking. Systems-oriented frameworks and methods are ways of interpreting and and measuring complex systems in a way that incorporates the scale of an entire system as well as linkages among many interacting parts.

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Learning Goals


  • Describe ways that food systems impact the Earth system.
  • Explain the characteristics and scale of the three major food systems coexisting in the world today, and their overlap.
  • Demonstrate the complexity and interconnectedness of food system types that connecting society to the environment in different ways within a globalized world.
  • Construct an assessment that measures the impacts of food systems on the Earth system and local environments.

Learning Objectives

After completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Define food systems and name the component systems, the roles played by each, and the three dominant and overlapping types of food systems in the world today.
  • Name different types of impacts of the food system on Earth's natural systems.
  • Define the basic elements of a coupled human-natural system.
  • Describe a life cycle assessment (LCA) and state what it is used for.
  • Explain examples of food systems to illustrate and compare their combined social and environmental inputs and impacts.
  • Apply the concept of natural human systems to food systems and distinguish different ways that food systems develop and change because of human and natural factors.
  • Apply a coupled natural system framework to describe how human systems affect Earth's natural systems within food systems.
  • Construct life-cycle assessments using data on food production activities that compare the impacts of different types of food systems on the Earth systems.
  • Synthesize outputs of LCAs you have constructed to compare impacts of different food production systems.

Context for Use

This two-part module is designed for one week of classroom sessions, either as two or three classroom sessions or as a blended format with out-of-classroom reading and work followed by a classroom session to introduce and begin the summative assessment. An all-online format could also be used, although we piloted the module in the blended format. Module 10 begins the integration of other elements presented in the course into an overall systems treatment, for example systems thinking, natural components like crops, soils, and water, societal factors, and human nutrition. This integration is continued with the final module of the course focusing on the sustainability-oriented themes of resilience and adaptive capacity of food systems. This module depends heavily on the previous modules in the course, so that it may be difficult to adapt it for other courses. Nevertheless the typology of food systems we develop here could be a useful addition to other courses on food systems, nutrition, and food policy. It may be interesting and thought-provoking for independent learners or professionals in public policy, development, or other fields who want a brief introduction to the food systems approach. The module is designed primarily for learners in their first two years of undergraduate education or students and professionals in other disciplines looking for a brief introduction to food systems.

Description and Teaching Materials

This module is primarily oriented towards describing and developing the concept of different types of overlapping food systems that integrate food production, distribution, and consumption. It also explores the opportunities and challenges faced by food producers within these different types of food systems, and in an integrated strategy of evaluation of systems called life-cycle assessment. It accomplishes this via the following materials:
  • Online reading of the course pages in the two modules. The first part of the module develops basic definitions and different typologies of food systems, as well as major challenges for social sustainability that are created for producers within currently dominant food systems in the world today. The second part of the module focuses on integrated impacts of food production and distribution on the environment, and describing the life-cycle assessment method that students will practice in the summative assessment.
  • An introductory Activate Your Learning exercise that engages students in thinking about how food products move through the global (or local) food system to reach them, illustrating how ubiquitous and important food systems are.
  • Knowledge check activities that verify students' understanding of basic concepts: in Module 10.1, regarding the typology of food systems proposed in the module: global corporate, smallholder, and variants of alternative, new options in food systems; in Module 10.2, asking students to identify types of impacts on natural systems created by integrated food system activities.
  • An outside reading on Life-Cycle Analyses written in an engaging manner by expert practitioners.
  • A summative assessment that asks students to perform a life-cycle assessment using realistic data on energy use for potato production in globalized and smallholder variants of food systems, and analyze how this assessment reflects sustainability challenges related to the two food productions systems.

The module can be completed by students in a variety of online and classroom options. Students can complete the readings and knowledge checks before class, and then prepare for and begin the summative assessment in-class after addressing questions about the module material. A completely online format is also possible, especially if instructors are available on discussion boards, chats, or other formats to address questions and introduce students to the summative assessment. Some modifications for online group work may be necessary if an all online option is chosen. In an all-classroom format, each of the two module sections would be used to structure a class, with class time in the first session used to address the opening exercise on food's journey in the food system, concepts related to the food systems typologies and/or a discussion of challenges faced by food producers in different systems. The second classroom session would focus on the life-cycle assessment tool, with ample time left to begin the summative assessment an ensure that student teams in the assessment understand what they are asked to do and the overall analysis of the system being requested.

Teaching Notes and Tips

What works best for the module

The opening exercise on foods' journey through the food system was generally fun and engaging for students, and should not be missed in class conversation or online dialogue, since it is an important way to engage learners at the beginning of the module and relate the behavior of the entire food system to a familiar food item. It may be helpful for the instructor to emphasize the transition point towards finalizing the course, e.g. the way that Modules 10 and 11 are intended to support the development of students' capstone projects. During the early part of the summative assessment, student teams should be assisted and questions resolved about how to use the information resources and fill in the necessary parts of the Excel spreadsheet, since wrong turns at this juncture will make the final evaluation more difficult.

What students found difficult

  • This is a content-heavy module, and at this point in the course it may be good for the instructor to adapt to students' ability to handle the workload or demands coming from the capstone project. The last sections of module 10.1 (challenges to producers, development and change in food systems through a coupled human-natural systems lens), for example, can be made optional if the overall workload of the module is too heavy, since these latter sections do not lead directly into aspects of Module 10.2. Capstone project teams may then be instructed or suggested to look at these sections as ways to understand sustainability challenges in their capstone regions.
  • Students may need careful explanations and close supervision and assistance in beginning to fill in the tables for the life-cycle assessment (LCA). Handling relatively large amounts of information to carry out accounting is part of LCA, and we have tried to make the assessment exercise easier after the pilot, but questions and confusion can still arise.


This module further develops the concepts and models of food systems introduced earlier in the course. It may be helpful for the instructor to point out the way that this module "brings it all together" and gives the students skills and concepts they may want to refer to in their capstone projects. At the same time, it is important to steer clear of an overly challenging workload from the module that will obstruct students in their efforts to assemble their own systems thinking approaches using the concepts in the module. In addition, it is important to stress that a fair amount of contentious discussion often ensues from discussions of food systems, challenges to producers, and assessments of food system sustainability. Instructors should think about how they plan to address these discussions and debates, maintaining a "neutral middle" that respects different viewpoints, while exploring the arguments of opposing sides if these become apparent.


In the summative assessment 10.2 students carry out a life-cycle assessment to compare energy use as one measure of environmental impact and compare two potato production systems: smallholder versus industrialized. Although there is only one major formal assessment with a rubric listed in this module, it may be helpful for instructors to evaluate students' understanding by checking in class whether the concepts associated with the introductory activity or the knowledge check are being understood. For example, the nature of the overlapping food systems types being presented, and any debates or questions that these raise. In the summative assessment, it is important for students to both successfully carry out the mechanics of the analysis, and also recognize the importance as well as shortcomings of the particular analysis strategy chosen. Some of these issues have been flagged in the discussion and final questions for the summative assessment.

References and Resources

This list is relatively long because we anticipate that instructors and some students may want a large resource base to draw from, compared to the more discipline-specific information in earlier modules.

Altieri, M. A., Funes-Monzote, F. R., & Petersen, P. (2012). Agroecologically efficient agricultural systems for smallholder farmers: contributions to food sovereignty. Agronomy for Sustainable Development, 32(1), 1-13.

Cooper, J. M., Butler, G., & Leifert, C. (2011). Life cycle analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from organic and conventional food production systems, with and without bio-energy options. Njas-Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 58(3), 185-192.

Ericksen, P. J. (2008). Conceptualizing food systems for global environmental change research. Global Environmental Change, 18(1), 234-245

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 1997. "Chapter 3: The food system and household food security" in Agriculture food and nutrition for Africa - A resource book for teachers of agriculture. Available at the document website of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization . (

Hinrichs, C. C. (2003). The practice and politics of food system localization. Journal of rural studies, 19(1), 33-45.

IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development): Investing in smallholder family agriculture for global food security and nutrition. IFAD -2015 Policy Brief 3, 2013.

Liu, J., Dietz, T., Carpenter, S. R., Folke, C., Alberti, M., Redman, C. L.,& Provencher, W. (2007). Coupled human and natural systems. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment, 36(8), 639-649.

NCAT/ATTRA: Life Cycle Assessment of Agricultural Systems. Available at:

Netting, R. M. (1993). Smallholders, householders: farm families and the ecology of intensive, sustainable agriculture. Stanford University Press.

P. Pinstrup Andersen and D. D. Watson. 2011. Toward a dynamic global food system". In: Food Policy for Developing Countries: The Role of Government in Global, National and Local Food Systems, 1-25

Sage, Colin. 2011. "Final foods and their consequences" Ch. 5 in Environment & Food. Routledge, 2011.

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »