New Curricula for Undergraduate Food-Systems Education: A Sustainable Agriculture Education Perspective1

By Jordan, N.; Grossman, J. et al. | NACTA Journal, December 2014 | Go to article overview

New Curricula for Undergraduate Food-Systems Education: A Sustainable Agriculture Education Perspective1


Jordan, N., Grossman, J., Lawrence, P., Harmon, A., Dyer, W., Maxwell, B., Cadieux, K. V., Galt, R., Rojas, A., Byker, C., Ahmed, S., Bass, T., Kebreab, E., Singh, V., Michaels, T., Tzenis, C., NACTA Journal


Abstract

New undergraduate degree programs that address food systems have appeared at a number of North American universities in the past decade. These programs seek to complement established food- and agriculture-related courses of instruction with additional curricular elements that build students' capacity to address complex food-systems issues (e.g., food sustainability, security, quality, equity and justice) in the course of their work in food-related professions. Here, we examine these emerging food-systems curricula, building on our collective experiences developing food-systems degree programs at University of British Columbia, Montana State University, University of California-Davis and the University of Minnesota. We present the conceptual framework that underlies our efforts, based on the premise that our degree programs should help students build "systemic" capacities that complement disciplinary training provided by various specialization "tracks." Thus, we intend for our graduates to have a dual preparation, in both a particular specialization, and in overarching systemic capacities that enhance their ability to address complex food-system issues. We assess our current curricula in light of our framework, and outline high-priority pathways for further development of these curricula.

Introduction

Our food comes from a complex nexus of biophysical and social factors and processes. These include physical life-support systems-land, biota, water, energy-and social dimensions that include economic, political, cultural, and even emotional and spiritual aspects. On the one hand, this nexus is producing more food than ever before. On the other hand, there are many problems with food: troublesome patterns of consumption, scarcity and abundance, threats to the resource base supporting food production, and complex and controversial issues of equity, justice, and quality. Here we present our vision for how to apply best practices in teaching and learning theory and systems thinking to develop undergraduate curricula that address broad issues related to food production, health, and social justice. This vision is based on our collective experiences developing food-systems majors at University of British Columbia (UBC), Montana State University (MSU), University of California-Davis (UCD), and the University of Minnesota (UMN). Our majors are four-year degree programs explicitly focused on building capacities relevant to food systems as "wholes," and thus differ from related efforts that are more narrowly focused, e.g., on sustainable agriculture with emphasis on production. We believe our programs provide an informative sample of efforts to develop relative extensive curricula focusing on food systems per se, although we are well aware of relevant curriculum development at many other colleges and universities. We begin by outlining the rationale for our curricula.

To better address the food system and its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, we propose that society must "up-scale" analysis and action to better address broader spatial-temporal scales, biophysically, socially, and conceptually (Foley et al., 2005; Jordan et al., 2007; Robertson et al., 2008). For example, expanding the scale of agricultural management to address landscapes is seen as a critically important strategy for sustaining food production. In the same vein, up-scaling of social organization by development of more extensive and effective social networks is recognized as crucial to develop a citizenry that can address global food challenges and controversial food-system issues such as equity, justice and quality. Metaphorically, up-scaling is often described as a shift in perspective-'looking up and out"-to gain understanding and new strategies for action. As well, we believe we must enable our students to "down-scale" analysis and action, by a second shift in perspective-looking down and in"-to gain understanding of underlying processes and local mechanisms that manifest and help explain the workings of larger-scale phenomena

Consequently, we are working to create food-system curricula that will equip our students to upscale and downscale their thinking as integral parts of theirquest for sustainability, equity, and resource efficiency. …

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