InTeGrate Modules and Courses >Future of Food > Section 4: Food Systems and Sustainability > Module 11: Human-Environment Interactions
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Module 11: Human-Environment Interactions


Module 11 focuses on the way that human-environment interactions in food systems respond to stress. Food production systems and food systems in general face adversity and must have sources of resilience to overcome these challenges. Shocks and perturbations from the natural world are a major negative coupling force from the natural systems that are considered in this module. We also seek to examine ways that these natural shocks are compounded by crises within human society. Such shocks are most evident where the natural world meets human management in production areas, and so Module 11.1 focuses on the resilience and vulnerability of agriculture, including the way that humans have manipulated seeds and plant varieties to create agrobiodiversity and the accompanying crop management techniques that make food production resilient (or vulnerable) to shocks and perturbations. The focus on agrobiodiversity reinforces the examination of crop domestication in Module 2 of this course. Meanwhile in Module 11.2, we take up the theme of food access and food insecurity, which represent an ongoing challenge for a significant proportion of humanity. Food insecurity also manifests as acute crises that carry the formal designation of famines. The summative assessment for Module 11.2 focuses on a case study of famine, considering it as a large-scale failure of the modern food system, which currently produces enough food for every person on Earth. Just as health sciences and medicine are ways to improve and guarantee health for all persons, the goal of understanding food security and famines is to address food insecurity for all people as a facet of sustainable food systems. The promotion of food security is a serious consideration that is also considered in the capstone project.

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Learning Goals


  • Describe the concepts of resilience, adaptive capacity, and vulnerability (RACV) in a food systems.
  • Explain food access and food insecurity as a key challenge to food systems.
  • Appraise the value of human seed systems and agrobiodiversity as human system components that incorporate crops as natural components and foster resilience.
  • Apply concepts of RACV to understand changes in seed systems and food production in examples.
  • Analyze stresses and shocks from climate change and food system failure that lead to both gradual changes in food systems and acute crises, such as famines.

Learning Objectives

After completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Define the concepts of perturbations and shocks, resilience, adaptive capacity, and vulnerability in the context of agri-food systems.
  • Define and describe agrobiodiversity within food production systems and changes in this agrobiodiversity over time.
  • Define the concepts of food access, food security, food insecurity, malnutrition, and famine.
  • Give examples of resilience, adaptive capacity, and vulnerability in food systems.
  • Give examples of support systems for biodiversity in land use and food systems.
  • Use an online mapping resource to compare different parts of the United States in terms of food access, and identify key areas with low food access.
  • Evaluate recent examples in land use and food systems of resilience, adaptive capacity, and vulnerability (RACV).
  • Analyze an example of a recent famine and understand how multiple factors of vulnerability and shocks combine to create widespread conditions of food insecurity known as famines.
  • Propose actions that can be taken to respond to and prevent famine within a recent historical example.
  • Propose principles embodying RACV for incorporation into a proposal/scenario for an example food system (capstone project).

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 11 completes the integration the course topics into an overall systems treatment of crops, soil and water, and societal factors to address the ways that food systems respond to stresses and crises. We envisioned this module being accompanied by the previous modules in the course, which provide the building blocks for food system resilience and adaptive capacity (e.g. crop domestication, food systems typologies, soil management). It also allows students to use the concepts of resilience and adaptive capacity in their proposals for food system sustainability in the course capstone project. However it might be possible for this module to stand alone as an introduction to the concepts of resilience and vulnerability of systems in a survey class on sustainability, nutrition, or food policy, for example. Just as for Module 10, the material in Module 11 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 concepts of food system resilience.

Description and Teaching Materials

This module is primarily oriented towards describing and developing the concept of resilience, adaptive capacity, and vulnerability (RACV) of food systems. It takes agrobiodiversity as a major case study or example with which to examine these concepts in Module 11.1, and then also examines food insecurity, its relation to climate, and the extreme vulnerability which explains the occurrence of famines. 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 concepts of resilience and adaptive capacity with such resources as the introductory video on adaptive capacity. A reading in Gary Nabhan's book "Where Our Food Comes From" prior to the formative assessment helps to illustrate resilience and vulnerability concepts in Hopi seed systems of the U.S. southwest over the last century. The second part of the module introduces fundamental concepts related to food insecurity and famine as an illustration of vulnerability of food systems that are applied by students in the summative assessment.
  • Knowledge check activities that check students' understanding of basic concepts of resilience in the introductory video in Module 11.1.
  • A formative assessment that asks students to identify examples of resilience and adaptive capacity in the history of seed systems and food systems of the Hopi in the southwestern U.S.
  • Outside readings by Mark Bittman, arguing that the source of food insecurity globally is not lack of food supply but the inability of the poor to access resources to produce or buy food, as well as a policy brief identifying key steps towards improved food security for smallholder farmers around the world, by the NGO consortium Climate Change Adaptation and Food Security.
  • A summative assessment that asks students to conduct a step by step analysis of the 2012 Somali Famine, using climatic and some primary data on food prices, to identify the main shocks causing the famine and the origin of vulnerability that exposed Somalis to devastating famine conditions. This is a sobering exercise but the hope it that it shows how a large number of things have to go wrong for famine to occur, which should encourage learners to understand and support efforts to avoid famines.

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 RACV definitions and the formative assessment. The second classroom session would focus on examples and causes of food insecurity, possibly discussing the outside readings, and beginning the summative assessment among student groups.

Teaching Notes and Tips

What works best for the module

Students who were able to engage sufficiently with the reading about the Hopi seed and farming systems found it an interesting part of the course, and it is worth emphasizing this case study, perhaps discussing it and the examples of resilience and vulnerability from the formative assessment in class. It may also be important to emphasize to students that resilience and adaptive capacity is not just something that exists among the Hopi or Andean Farmers. Members of their families helping each other with savings during a family crisis, flood insurance, or famine relief that is sent among countries also represent types of resilience, though perhaps not so tied up in local human-natural systems as the seed system example from the southwest U.S. It may help students to recognize that resilience and adaptive capacity are very general attributes of human-natural systems at many scales.

What students found difficult

  • This module presents less content than some of the other modules, but the central concepts of resilience or adaptive capacity (and perhaps the difference between these two) may be difficult for students to grasp -- see the short paragraph in Module 11.1 attempting to explain this.
  • The way that resilience and adaptive capacity are part of a pairing of "natural shock to human adaptation" and "human-generated shock to human adaptation," or by contrast, "natural shock and human vulnerability" are key parts of the way that RACV is understood in a human-natural systems framework. It may be worth explaining this to students if the need arises, since it may be difficult to appreciate this concept at first glance or first reading.
  • Even though we simplified the worksheet for the summative assessment on "anatomy of a famine," it may be useful to check in with student groups or pairs doing the assessment, and avoid any confusion about the instructions for completing the worksheet. The final questions regarding aspects of the famine that overwhelm typical aspects of food system resilience (crop drought resilience; family savings and support networks; international aid networks) may also be a source of confusion and students may need to be guided towards appropriate framing of the questions.


This module is structured around using coupled human-natural systems to understand the resilience and vulnerability of food systems to shocks and perturbations. Instructors and students may be used to thinking of sustainability as reducing the impacts of food production or other human activities under "normal functioning." The aspect of sustainability raised by Module 11 is the way that food production responds and recovers from stresses and crises, versus just normal functioning. This is an important aspect of metacognition around RACV ("this is how we approach the subject under normal circumstances; this is how a crisis can change things"). Awareness of RACV and shocks can help students to add further detail and thinking to their capstone projects on focal regions, thinking about how the regional food system will respond in the case of drought, disease, or social crises, for example.


In the formative assessment in Module 11.1, students are expected to identify examples of resilience, adaptive capacity, and vulnerability (RACV) in a historical account of Hopi seed systems from a reading by the author Gary Nabhan. They need to demonstrate sufficient knowledge of these concepts, and also the way that they function in coupling human systems to natural systems and shocks arising there. In the summative assessment that concludes Module 11.2 students are expected to understand the narrative and the associated map and graphical/tabular data presented of how the famine unfolded, and identify examples of RACV and the general phenomenon of food insecurity and its causes, within the situation of the Somali population during this tragic famine.

References and Resources

Chambers, R. (1989). Editorial introduction: vulnerability, coping and policy. IDS bulletin, 20(2), 1-7.

Folke, C., Colding, J., & Berkes, F. (2003). Synthesis: building resilience and adaptive capacity in social-ecological systems. Navigating social-ecological systems: Building resilience for complexity and change, 352-387.

Gillis, Justin. A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself, New York Times. June 4, 2011. This article provides an insight into the efforts to adapt to climate change with more resilient crops, and maintain or increase production of crops in the next decades.

Hajjar, Reem, Devra I. Jarvis, and Barbara Gemmill-Herren. "The utility of crop genetic diversity in maintaining ecosystem services." Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 123.4 (2008): 261-270.

Nabhan, G.P. "Melting Glaciers and Waves of Grain: The Pamirs", p. 45-64, Chapter 3 in Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine. Washington: Island Press.

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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 »