6. New course explores geographies of sustainability and food

Andean tubers 





 Oca, an Andean tuber similar to a potato, is an important part of the local food diversity. Photo by Karl Zimmerer.





Faculty from multiple disciplines develop an integrated approach

Where did that quinoa in your instant hot cereal come from? [Bolivia; see “Quinoa commercialization in Bolivia,” this issue.] What’s the deal with fair-trade coffee? Which is better for the environment, farmed or wild-caught shrimp? The sustainability of food systems and land use is a global challenge we all face. To help students understand and respond to that challenge, Karl Zimmerer introduced a new course this spring: GEOG 297H Geographies of Sustainability and Food.


I have never before been so challenged
to think deeply about where our food comes from
and how our food choices influence
the ecology of people and places.
—Britta Schumacher

“Our goal is to examine food and agriculture through geographic integration with an emphasis on active learning,” Zimmerer explained.

Issues in the course include the human-biogeophysical systems of food-growing, resources, nutrition-health, and social-ecological sustainability and resilience. The course takes a holistic, geographic view of food as an integral part of human ecosystems and landscapes. Through geographic integration, it encourages students to place themselves actively in the center of understanding current food issues from the local to global scales. It places emphasis on current opportunities and challenges involving personal choices, policy, and management. Issues range from health and sustainability to food security and sovereignty. The course uses a geographic and interdisciplinary approach throughout to examine the ongoing dynamics, future trajectories, and past legacies of food and sustainability.

“My inspiration for developing this course comes from the challenges and hope of new and better land use and food systems. The increased awareness of connections between environmental sustainability issues and food is also a major inspiration. In addition, these connections are very geographical in the sense that they connect the where and how food is produced to where and how it’s consumed, with flows and feedbacks between these networks of places,” Zimmerer said.  In addition, he noted, the current course is a “pre-pilot” of a new course that he and a group of colleagues are developing on Earth System Science and Food through the NSF-funded InTeGrate Center.

InTeGrate, Interdisciplinary Teaching about Earth for a Sustainable Future, is funded by a five-year STEP Center grant from the National Science Foundation. The program supports the teaching of geoscience in the context of societal issues both within geoscience courses and across the undergraduate curriculum. “The goal is to develop a citizenry and workforce that can address environmental and resource issues facing our society,” explained Tim Bralower, professor of geosciences and part of the leadership team for InTeGrate.
Learn more about InTeGrate here:

Zimmerer is the lead PI among a group of four others working on the course, including Heather Karsten in the College of Agricultural Sciences; Steve Vanek, a post-doctoral researcher in his GeoSyntheSES lab; and faculty members in Geography and Geoscience at SUNY-Binghamton and Colorado-Mesa, respectively.
Zimmerer and his lab, known for their research on agrobiodiversity systems at local and global scales, have been expanding this research to global environmental change and governance. That research has been incorporated into the course.

“I’ve incorporated aspects focused on agrobiodiversity in sustainability and food security; also a focus on smallholder farm-and-food systems, which comprise 2.0-2.5 billion persons globally and that are a focus of my modelling projects in my new research. Also I incorporate an emphasis on the dynamism of smallholder farm-and-food systems, including newly occurring or emergent processes such as migration, peri-urban farming, and the expansion of alternative and local food systems.”

Students interested in food issues and environmental sustainability will be interested in the course, Zimmerer noted. And what will they get out of it? “Knowledge and awareness of the connections of food to the environment and how these social-environmental couplings take place and both within the United States and in different global contexts.”

Undergraduate student Britta Schumacher said, “GEOG297A has changed the way I consider the age-old question of what food means—its cultivation,  our connection to it, or lack thereof, personal choice, and responsibility. I have never before been so challenged to think deeply about where our food comes from and how our food choices influence the ecology of people and places. The academic journey this class has taken me on has been incredibly eye opening thus far.”

The course employs class discussion, readings, online tools, and field trip experiences. For the readings, “We use a pair of excellent yet contrasting books: Bet the Farm and Where Our Food Comes From, plus the World Atlas of Food and other selected readings and website resources,” Zimmerer noted.
The first field trip was to the annual conference of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), which was held at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel in early February. “Students loved it!” Zimmerer said. The second field trip was to a diverse group of farms in Penns Valley that included organic, Amish, and conventional.

So far, Zimmerer said, the course is very energizing. “Student interest and motivation are extremely high—I knew it’d be good, but it’s extremely so. I have also been pleasantly surprised at the range of interests and backgrounds of the students, who come from several different colleges and multiple departments.”