Section 1: Introduction
Authors in this section are Steven Vanek and Karl Zimmerer, Pennsylvania State University, Department of Geography
Summary and Overview
In this section:
This introductory section of the Future of Food course introduces the topic of food systems, including the history of food production and its relationship to earth's natural system and biodiversity. It also introduces conceptual tools and frameworks that are applied throughout the course, such as systems thinking, the coupled human-natural systems (CHNS) model of human-environment interactions, and the concept of the anthropocene. It also includes a short introduction to diet and nutrition. The three modules in this section span three weeks of instruction in a classroom or blended online/classroom modality. Students learn from following an online text, with occasional self-evaluations, a small amount of outside reading, and the formative and summative assessments (see assessment, below).
Strengths of the SectionThis first section introduces main themes and also conceptual tools needed by learners in the Future of Food course. Concepts introduced here are systems thinking, via concept-mapping activities and an explicit case study on complex systems (the crisis of vulture populations within Indian food systems). This section is very strong in introducing the coupled human-natural systems framework as an interdisciplinary way to engage both ecological aspects of food production and Earth surface processes (a more traditional geosciences lens) and also social factors in the form of human systems that emerge from the discipline of human-natural systems geography. We use this framework to explain the domestication of crops and the history and development of different stages of food systems on the global stage, examining how Earth surface processes and biodiversity interact with human systems in each stage. These themes continue to be developed in the following modules of the course. In addition, Module 3 provides a brief introduction to diet and nutrition needs of humans, and the issues in nutrition faced by food systems around the world today, including malnutrition and chronic diet-related diseases. Among the geoscience-related grand challenges addressed by this module are the impacts and sustainability challenges associated with the global climate system and land use. These are introduced via the concept of the anthropocene and the dramatic changes wrought by humans and food production over recent centuries and before. Within the framework of the anthropocene, for example, students are asked to work with published data about global land-use change from the year 1700 on. These modules also introduce the formal definitions associated with sustainability and how these can be applied to a focus region for a capstone project that the module introduces.
This section is meant to prepare students to understand both natural (Earth system) and human societal aspects of food systems in our course, the Future of Food. It lays the groundwork for systems thinking about how food is produced and consumed and how this represents one of the predominant ways that humans have interacted with Earth surface processes over human history, as well as addressing the nature of and need for healthy diets as part of food systems. It could, therefore, fill a role in sustainability-oriented courses with some degree of focus on food or food policy. It could also be used to set a theoretical and historical context for a class on sustainable agriculture, given the emphasis on crop domestication, agrobiodiversity, and the history of agricultural food production, and human nutrition.
The course and especially this section assume very little prior experience on the part of students, although those with a background in environmental sciences, agriculture, and/or nutrition may engage with the material more readily. It is designed for first- and second-year undergraduate students.
Section Learning Goals
See the overall learning goals and detailed student learning objectives in the instructor pages for each module (links below in the section outline).
- Module 1: Introduction - Introduces food systems as an example of coupled human-natural systems, systems thinking, and the concept of the anthropocene. The summative assessment has case studies of U.S. and international food systems.
- Module 2: History of Food Systems - Examines crop domestication and four historical stages of food systems from prehistory, hunting and gathering, through domestication and up to the present debates and proposals for more sustainable food systems.
- Module 3: Diet and Nutrition - provides fundamental understanding of healthy diets and human nutrition, as well as understanding of challenges faced by modern food systems such as malnutrition, chronic diseased related to diet, and deficits in access to healthy food.
- Capstone Project 1 - launches students (in teams or individually) on the course capstone project by applying concepts from the first three modules to a focal region chosen by students with faculty.
The following brief descriptions of assessments are provided as a summary. Each module's instructor page (see links above) has more details on the assessments, which can also be found on the global assessments page.
- Summative Assessment 1.2: Students summarize basic human-natural system characteristics and sustainability challenges of food system cases from the United States and Peru, at a variety of scales
- Summative Assessment 2.2: Students identify and analyze drivers from human and natural systems leading to development and change in food systems over human history
- Formative Assessment 3.1: Students work with an online diet assessment tool to explore how different foods affect the nutritional quality of human diets
- Summative Assessment 3.2: Students work with an online mapping tool to assess food access and food deserts in two U.S. urban areas, and draw conclusions and proposals for addressing food deserts in a low food access city.