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13: Food Systems

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    Understanding Coupling in Natural and Human Systems

    Module 10 continues the theme of human-environment interactions seen at smaller scales in agroecosystems in module 8 and elaborates on the coupled human-natural systems (CHNS) concept introduced in Module 1. As learners, in Module 10.1 you will explore different scales and types of food systems, learn about barriers food producers face within food systems, and look in detail at how the framework of CHNS allows us to see divergences of food system into different types, and transitions from one type to another. In Module 10.2 you’ll learn about the impacts of food systems on natural systems, and practice a method called Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) which is used to measure the impact of Human Food System components on the environment. LCAs can be applied to measure the impacts of both particular products as well as complex human systems on the environment. The food systems typology, the CHNS framework and the broad ideas behind LCAs in measuring impacts across a system are tools that you can use to develop your ideas for the capstone project and other learning efforts beyond this course.

    As you apply the CHNS framework and the LCA method, you'll be using a geoscience habit of mind introduced in module 1, that of systems thinking. Systems-oriented frameworks and methods are ways of interpreting and measuring complex systems in a way that incorporates the scale of an entire system as well as linkages among many interacting parts. As designers of this course, we believe that these frameworks and skills will be useful to you whether or not you go in some area of geosciences since systems thinking is a needed skill in today's complex world.


    • 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.

    Learning Objectives

    After completing this module, students 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 their 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.



    Module 10 Roadmap

    Detailed instructions for completing the Summative Assessment will be provided in each module.

    Module 10 Roadmap
    Action Assignment Location
    To Read
    1. Materials on the course website.
    2. Watch the video on introduction to food systems, 2013 World Food Day, from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
    3. NCAT/ATTRA: Life Cycle Assessment of Agricultural Systems, pp. 1-3 and figure 3 within the reading, which refers to the life-cycle analysis comparing light bulbs, on page 9.
    1. You are on the course website now.
    2. Online: 2013 World Food Day
    3. Online: Life Cycle Assessment of Agricultural Systems
    To Do
    1. Summative Assessment: Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of potato production in smallholder Andean and globalized North American Systems
    2. Participate in Module 10 Discussion
    3. Take Module Quiz
    1. In course content: Summative Assessment; then take quiz in Canvas
    2. In Canvas
    3. In Canvas


    If you prefer to use email:

    If you have any questions, please send them through Canvas e-mail. We will check daily to respond. If your question is one that is relevant to the entire class, we may respond to the entire class rather than individually.

    If you prefer to use the discussion forums:

    If you have any questions, please post them to the discussion forum in Canvas. We will check that discussion forum daily to respond. While you are there, feel free to post your own responses if you, too, are able to help out a classmate.

    This page titled 13: Food Systems is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Heather Karsten & Steven Vanek (John A. Dutton: e-Education Institute) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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