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Engineering LibreTexts

4: Food Systems and Sustainability

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  • Overview

    Note to Learners: This is the fourth and final section of the course, where you as learners will assemble key concepts that deal with the complexity of food systems and strategies to make food systems more sustainable in the areas of both food production and consumption. Complexity is a key notion as we assemble these concepts: food systems are complex, which means that they are made up of large numbers of interacting parts and systems that can lead to sometimes unexpected outcomes as these parts interact and change through time. To deal with this complexity, in this section you will deepen your knowledge of the coupled natural-human framework that serves as a conceptual backbone for the course and is one way to understand the complex food system by dividing it into two large subsystems. Using this framework and other key concepts such as agroecosystems, some of the topics you will touch on will be sustainable soil and water management, tools for assessing impacts of the human food systems on the natural earth systems, the resilience of food systems, food insecurity, and diets and nutrition across different food systems. This section will also give you the ability to apply this new knowledge and skills to your capstone project on a regional food system as you finalize this for presentation to the class.


    • Module 10: Food Systems
    • Module 11: Human-Environment Interactions
    • Capstone Stage 4
    • Module 12: Capstone Stage 5

    Section Goals

    Upon completion of Section 4 students will be able to:

    • Describe ways that food systems impact the earth system.
    • Explain the characteristics and scale of the three major food systems coexisting in the world today and their overlap.
    • Demonstrate the complexity and interconnectedness of food system types that connecting society to the environment in different ways within a globalized world.
    • Construct an assessment that measures the impacts of food systems on the earth system and local environments.
    • Describe the concepts of resilience, adaptive capacity, and vulnerability (RACV) in a food system.
    • Explain food access and food insecurity as a key challenge to food systems.
    • Appraise the value of human seed systems and agrobiodiversity as human system components that incorporate crops as natural components and foster resilience.
    • Apply concepts of RACV to understand changes in seed systems and food production in examples.
    • Analyze stresses and shocks from climate change and food system failure that lead to both gradual changes in food systems and acute crises such as famines.

    Section Learning Objectives

    In order to reach these goals, we have established the following learning objectives for student learning. Upon completion of the modules within Section 4, you will be able to:

    • Define food systems and name the component systems, the roles played by each, and the three dominant and overlapping types of food systems in the world today.
    • Name different types of impacts of the food system on earth’s natural systems.
    • Define the basic elements of a coupled human-natural system.
    • Describe a life cycle assessment (LCA) and state what it is used for.
    • Explain examples of food systems to illustrate and compare the combined social and environmental inputs and impacts.
    • Apply the concept of natural human systems to food systems and distinguish different ways that food systems develop and change because of human and natural factors.
    • Apply a coupled natural system framework to describe how human systems affect earth’s natural systems within food systems.
    • Construct life-cycle assessments using data on food production activities that compare the impacts of different types of food systems on the earth systems.
    • Synthesize outputs of LCAs you have constructed to compare impacts of different food production systems.
    • Define the concepts of perturbations and shocks, resilience, adaptive capacity, and vulnerability in the context of agri-food systems.
    • Define and describe agrobiodiversity within food production systems and changes in this agrobiodiversity over time
    • Define the concepts of food access, food security, food Insecurity, malnutrition, and famine.
    • Give examples of resilience, adaptive capacity, and vulnerability in food systems.
    • Give examples of support systems for biodiversity in land use and food systems
    • Use an online mapping resource to compare different parts of the United States in terms of food access, and identify key areas with low food access.
    • Evaluate recent examples in land use and food systems of resilience, adaptive capacity, and vulnerability (RACV).
    • Analyze an example of a recent famine and understand how multiple factors of vulnerability and shocks combine to create widespread conditions of food insecurity known as famines.
    • Propose actions that can be taken to respond to and prevent famine within a recent historical example.
    • Propose principles embodying RACV for incorporation into a proposal/scenario for an example food system (capstone project)

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