Food and the Future Environment

Course Introduction


Course Introduction

By the time today's undergraduates send their children to college, there will be more than eight billion people on Earth. Our climate will be punctuated by extreme weather events. One or more major metropolitan areas may have experienced a devastating earthquake or volcanic eruption. Energy resources will be strained and more expensive. This world requires both an Earth literate public and a workforce that can bring geoscience to bear on tough societal issues. Developing widespread Earth literacy and this workforce are the objectives of the InTeGrate project.

InTeGrate is a 5-year, NSF-funded STEP Center grant, running from 2012 through 2016. The STEP (STEM Talent Expansion Program) Center program enables "a group of faculty representing a cross-section of institutions of higher education to identify a national challenge or opportunity in undergraduate education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and to propose a comprehensive and coordinated set of activities that will be carried out to address that challenge or opportunity within a national context." This course was developed through the InTeGrate STEP grant. For more information see InTeGrate Project

Have you ever eaten at a restaurant, grown your own food in a garden, made a traditional recipe handed down in your family, hunted, or shopped at a supermarket or open-air market? If you’ve done any of these activities, you’ve played an important role in the global food system of planet earth. This introductory course takes on the subject of food not just in the way it is produced or consumed, but as a system: the relationship of food production to the environment, human knowledge, and social factors like government policies, and the way that we consume food as a product of regional cultures, history, and climate. We call the course “the future of food” because we will place emphasis on the challenges facing food systems in the 21st century, and issues of sustainability for agriculture and other food production activities as well as the challenges posed by food insecurity and modern diets to human health and well-being.

Three Course Sections and Themes


The first section or Introduction presents the themes of the course. Here we will introduce the concept of the food system as a coupling or interaction of human societies and human knowledge with natural environments around the world. We will also spend time analyzing the history of food systems and the emergence of modern food systems, and introduce the course capstone assignment (see below).

Environmental Drivers

The second section, Environmental Drivers, can be thought of as your introduction to the natural factors where the interactions between societies and environments play out to produce food, with modules that feature soil, water, the atmosphere, plants, and other earth system features of food systems and how these are modified and managed by humans. It’s in this section that the overarching theme of sustainability emerges strongly.

Human-Environment Interactions

The third section, Human-Environment Interactions is where you as learners will put together some skills and overarching concepts that are used to analyze food systems. We will weave together human and natural factors in a very deliberate way that should help you in the capstone project for the course. You will learn concepts and gain tools that you can come back to throughout your university education when you discuss sustainability (a word that is all about Humans and the Environment). Among other topics, we’ll look at ways to quantify the food system impacts on earth systems, the concept of resilience, management and policy interactions with agroecosystems, and food insecurity and diet.

The Capstone Project

One of the marvelous things about studying food systems is that they come in so many descriptions and sizes based on culture, nature, and geography, and yet we all have good intuitions about food systems because we all participate as consumers of food and observers of our local food systems. In that vein, and because doing is learning, you’ll be putting together an analysis of a food system in a given part of the world over the semester, working in stages as you complete the other learning tasks for each module and section. You will draw on the material in the course to both describe and assess different parts of the food system. The capstone culminates in you proposing scenarios for “the future of food” for the region you choose out of the ones assigned.

Course Mechanics

Online and assessments: if you have read this far in the orientation, you know that this is an online course. In the online portion, you will be expected to read the course materials, along with some outside resources, usually websites, videos, or occasional reserve readings. These resources will allow you to complete the formative assessments. You will also use the website to complete the summative assessments. Along with weekly quizzes and the capstone project, these assessments form the basis of your grade in the course.