InTeGrate Modules and Courses >Future of Food > Section 1: Introduction > Module 2: History of Food Systems
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Module 2: History of Food Systems


This second module in the Future of Food course provides a historical overview of the emergence and development of food systems until the present. Module 2.1, the first half of this module, describes the transition from hunting and gathering to the domestication of crop plants in human prehistory, including the origin of major food crop plants and the locations and processes of domestication, e.g. the emergence of wheat in the eastern Mediterranean or the potato in the Andean region. These processes are seen through the lens of the coupled human-natural systems framework that is introduced in Module 1 and used throughout the course. As part of this historical overview, concepts surrounding human interaction with crop plants and wild relatives are introduced: for example, global regions supporting domestication or centers of diversity; or the concept of niche construction as a clear example of human-natural systems interaction. In the second half, Module 2.2, we describe the history of food systems as four successive stages during which human innovation responded to both human and natural drivers and feedbacks. These stages span from early domestication activities to the most recent transitions of agriculture and food production towards more globalized trade networks. The module also looks at the challenges of sustainability.

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Learning Goals


  • Describe food systems as coupled human-natural systems (CHNS).
  • Define and describe different phases in the history and development of food systems within human history.
  • Describe key interactions (e.g. drivers, feedback) that exist within CHNS.
  • Explain key human and natural system factors that explain the emergence of food system phases in human history, using a CHNS framework.

Learning Objectives

At the conclusion of this module students should be able to:

  • Describe major features of hunter-gatherers' use of food and the environment.
  • Define and describe the domestication of plants and animals in early agriculture.
  • Define and give examples of spatial diffusion, adaptation, niche construction, and carrying capacity in environment-food systems.
  • Define and describe each of the four (4) principal historical-geographic periods of environment-food systems.
  • Give examples of early domesticated plants and animals and their region of domestication.
  • Within a CHNS framework, relate fundamental drivers and feedbacks in natural and human systems over prehistoric and historical time to the development and spread of agriculture and other changes in food systems.
  • Relate the origins and current dominance of agriculture to the concept of the Anthropocene period presented in Module one.

Context for Use

This two-part module is designed for one week of classroom sessions, either as two 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 two is designed to lay the groundwork for understanding modern food production methods (e.g. soil management, crop rotation) and food systems more generally by understanding the origin of crops and the way that humanity's interaction with food production and the organization of food systems has changed over time. We use the coupled human-natural systems framework to understand the different types of interactions and drivers that create changes in food systems. Because of the links illustrated between human system factors and food production, the historical presentation provided here could also be useful in a course on sustainable agriculture, food history and human-environment geography, or an introductory plant breeding course with a historical or social component.

The module is designed for learners in their first two years of undergraduate education or students in other disciplines looking for an introduction to the history of food systems. However upper-level undergraduate students may find the historical account of crop domestication and food systems interesting.

Description and Teaching Materials

This module describes food systems and their historical development, including a variety of activities:

  • Online reading of the course pages in the two modules, one focused on crop domestication and the emergence of agriculture in a coupled human-natural systems framework.
  • Outside, online readings on domestication from National Geographic and a passage by Jared Diamond presenting the impact of agriculture on human society in a critical way.
  • A knowledge check activity on crop domestication.
  • A summative assessment asking students to synthesize their knowledge of drivers and feedbacks that cause historical change in food systems.

The module can be completed by students in a variety of online and classroom options. Students can complete the readings, knowledge checks, and introductory reading activity 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 rhythm and style of completing assignments online. 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 questions about crop domestication or the outside readings on the emergence of agriculture, and a second classroom session focused on historical stages in food systems and beginning the summative assessment.

All materials for students are available online using the Student Materials link below.

Teaching Notes and Tips

What works best for the module

The coupled human natural systems framework and terms like agrodiversity and niche construction in this module are designed to create scaffolding for understanding coupled systems and agrobiodiversity later in the course. Though important parts of an understanding of food systems, these have the potential to become tedious for some learners and it may be important to communicate that the story of how humans molded plants to serve them, and how these crops then came to dominate food production --- known as domestication --- is a fascinating and exciting process that is still unfolding. This could be driven home in classroom sessions if these are part of the course, perhaps using some of the materials in the online text on maize domestication and the geographic centers of diversity, or in discussing Jared Diamond's provocative essay on the origin of agriculture. Instructors may also have to address questions on the coupled human natural systems (CHNS) framework and the somewhat flexible nature of this framework: at base, we are most interested in using CHNS to remember that there are both human and natural factors in play, and putting these on an even footing, rather than taking the formalism of the model to some extreme -- though some learners may find this useful or interesting. As in the other modules, we found it good for students to work in pairs on the summative assessment, and these teams and individual efforts should be closely supported to discuss questions that arise in completing the assessment, since this is still early in the course. First-year students may face challenges with the the amount of online and independent work.

What students found difficult

  • We put more concrete examples of drivers and feedbacks into the coupled human-natural systems diagrams after the course pilot, to not make these diagrams so abstract. Nevertheless, this could be a confusing point for students as they think about the different factors that explain the development of different types of food systems over history. They may not be used to dividing food production or food systems as a whole into human and natural components, and identifying the influences of one component on the other. Helping them to appreciate this as a conscious "lens" of interpreting food systems may be a key point of metacognition for the module.
  • Instructors may want to point out that the four phases of food systems are not the only way of describing the relationships between humans and food production over historical time, but are intended as a useful simplification to capture main trends and tendencies. There are a lot of more specific, detailed, and perhaps contradictory stories around how human society developed, and these may be interesting to students as well.
  • Discussion of the terminology presented may be helpful to guarantee understanding of terms and concepts like spatial diffusion or niche construction that are presented in the module.


This is not a module that is heavy on assignments. The goal is to gain an overall appreciation of human's relationship to crop plants and food production systems and trade over the centuries from prehistory to the present, and to build interest in the way that this represents a constant interaction between human social systems and Earth's natural systems, the latter being conceptualized in geoscience concepts like biodiversity and Earth system processes.


Module 2 Summative Assessment: Students are asked to first explain drivers and feedbacks in an existing system diagram describing the emergence of agriculture and the domestication of crops. Using this as a pattern, they are then asked to fill in labels on another coupled human-natural systems diagram describing a subsequent phase of global food systems, and answer questions that show they can explain how interacting drivers create change in food systems and humans' relationship to natural systems in food production. They also need to be able to recognize the concepts of niche construction and spatial diffusion in the history of food production and explain how these form part of the development of food systems summarized in the four phases presented in Module 2.2.

References and Resources

Brookfield, H., Padoch, C., Parsons, H., & Stocking, M. 2004. Cultivating biodiversity: understanding, analysing and using agricultural diversity.

Crosby, Alfred, Ecological Imperialism: The biological expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition 2004.

Diamond, J. "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race", Discover Magazine, May 1987, pp. 64-66 ;

Diamond, J. Evolution, consequences and future of plant and animal domestication. Nature 418 (6898): 700-707, 2002.

National Geographic, Education Encyclopedia. Domestication.

Pollan, Michael. The botany of desire: A plant's-eye view of the world. Random House, 2001.

Smith, Bruce D. The Emergence of Agriculture. New York: Scientific American Library, 1995.

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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 »