Exploring the Sustainability of the U.S. Food System

David Koetje and Amy Wilstermann, Calvin College
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In this activity students watch the documentary "King Corn" and its sequel "Big River" to learn how corn is produced via industrial agriculture in the United States, how federal subsidies bolster maximum production, and how corn products find their way into many of the foods Americans eat. The documentaries also investigate associated environmental and human health costs. After viewing these documentaries, student teams identify sustainability problems with the current system and propose a solution that addresses specific problems and identify some realistic measures (such as incentives) that could be taken to achieve them.

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Learning Goals

This activity presents sufficient depth and breadth so that students can comprehend and evaluate specific sustainability concerns associated with industrial agriculture and food systems. Often these issues are simply ignored or dealt with in a superficial manner. The team activity promotes collaboration and communication skills, help students to integrate biological concepts with interdisciplinary perspectives, and facilitates the kind of systems thinking that is necessary in designing sustainable solutions. In short, this activity uses key societal issues identified in the New Biology for the 21st Century report to promote learning of core competencies identified in the Vision and Change report.

This activity:

  • Prepares students to build effective coalitions
  • Engages students in civil discourse/ communications that lead to more effective decisions
  • Catalyzes collective actions
  • Advances student literacy around sustainability issues
  • Encourages self-reflection and personal development of their voice for solving societal challenges
  • Promotes creative visioning around sustainable futures.

Higher-order thinking skills developed by this activity include critical thinking, in-depth analysis, systems thinking, synthesis of insights from interdisciplinary perspectives, collaboration, and communication skills.

Context for Use

As written, this project is approximately four hours long, due largely to the length of the documentaries. Because our course is comprised of three 110-minute "clab" periods per week, we are able to complete this activity in about two periods. Instructors whose course follows the traditional lecture-lab format could devote a 3-hour lab period to viewing the documentaries and a class period to team deliberations and short presentations. A longer time may be needed for the team portion of this activity, especially for teams that are newly-formed or have inefficient work habits. The documentaries do a masterful job of presenting the realities and issues of corn production (even for those who know nothing about U.S. agriculture), giving students plenty of insights to use in formulating solutions.

We teach this activity as part of a larger unit that focuses on nutrition (with readings from Michael Pollan's book, In Defense of Food), food-biofuel production, and sustainability. Because we assign chapters from Donella Meadows' book, Thinking in Systems, and discuss these in the preceding unit, our students are able to incorporate systems thinking into their proposals, which helps them design more realistic practical measures that address sustainability.

This activity is perfectly suitable for biology majors, non-majors, or for mixed majors audiences in an introductory course like ours. The activity promotes Vision and Change (www.visionandchange.org) learning objectives – especially bioconcept literacy dealing with systems and energy-matter transformations and core competencies dealing with interdisciplinary perspectives, collaboration and communication, and science-society relationships.

Description and Teaching Materials

Instructors should print and distribute the attached student handout before showing the documentaries. The questions embedded in the activity are designed to promote in-depth analyses and reflections focusing on key ideas presented in the documentaries, which can be purchased as a set from the movie's website (www.kingcorn.net) or other sources. After viewing the documentaries, student teams will need sufficient time (and perhaps some guidance) to identify sustainability problems associated with industrial corn production and consumption. Based on their analyses, a student team should then identify a feasible strategy that could lead to more sustainable production and consumption practices. Be sure to encourage them to include good rationale and to be ready to explain to the class how their proposed solution(s) address the key problem(s) they have identified.

Learning Activity - US Food System (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 20kB Jul24 13)

Instructor Guide - US Food System (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 24kB Jul24 13)

Teaching Notes and Tips

See the attached Instructor Guide for answer key, teaching tips, and scoring rubric.


See the attached Instructor Guide for answer key, teaching tips, and scoring rubric.

References and Resources

For more information about the documentaries used in this activity, please visit the "King Corn" website: https://www.pbs.org/food/shows/king-corn/.