Two Courses Examine the Technology and the Politics of Food

January 06, 2011

January 6, 2011 — Two January term courses at the University of Virginia focus on food from different directions: an engineering course on relationships between technology, nature and food, and a politics course on how policy issues around food are shaped.

The courses, while separate, are being taught in tandem by two members of the University's Food Collaborative, an interdisciplinary consortium of faculty, staff and students that addresses all aspects of sustainable food issues.

Benjamin Cohen, an assistant professor in the Engineering School's Department of Science, Technology and Society, is teaching "History, Technology and Sustainable Agriculture," while Paul Freedman, a politics professor in the College of Arts & Sciences, is teaching "The Politics of Food."

The courses have some common readings, including Michael Pollan's book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals," and Wendell Berry's essay, "The Pleasures of Eating," from his "What Are People For" collection. The classes will also take joint field trips to Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley and to U.Va.'s Morven Farm.

Cohen's approach to technology involves more than just agricultural equipment.

"I'm not talking about the tractor," he said. "We are looking at food systems as technology, the interrelated parts of storage and markets and production and distribution, the role of specialization, the relationship between consumers and producers."

As a historical example, he cited the expansion of the railroad as a major technological influence on that food-as-technology system, because the final product could be hauled farther and faster and was no longer constrained by what farmers considered the natural constraints of horse-drawn caravans, like nightfall, or muddy roads, or rest for the animals.

"What is it that makes it possible to lead the lives we live?" he said. "How do people control the land? How do they work with nature? Are there ways we can do this in more ecologically healthy ways?"

Laura Kolar, Cohen's teaching assistant, is enthusiastic about the topic because it "touches on every complex issue in American society. It brings a new awareness to the students of what they are eating."

Rowan Sprague, a second-year civil engineering student from Richmond, is taking the class because she is interested in sustainable agriculture, wants to be more involved in the local community and thinks it could relate to her major.

"Civil engineering is such a wide field; it could apply to many different things," she said.

Trey Ellington, a second-year systems engineering major from Farmville, took the course to get more information. While his father had been raised on a dairy farm, Ellington has no direct connection with agriculture.

"I have learned a lot from the readings about where food comes from," he said.

Some of the first-day discussion centered on how far removed people have become from their food sources.

Meanwhile, the production and consumption of food are never far from the political process.

"I'm using the food systems and agriculture and politics as a hook to get the students to think critically," Freedman said. "I want them to think about politics and democracy and the acts of the decision-makers and how all of this plays out in our relationship with food."

Freedman cites the example of the farm bill – officially, the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, much of which will expire in 2012. The bill guides most federal farm and food policies, with 15 sections covering support for commodity crops, horticulture and livestock, conservation, nutrition, trade and food aid, agricultural research, farm credit, rural development, energy, forestry and other related programs. It also includes tax-related provisions to offset some new spending initiatives in the rest of the bill.

"The farm bill is a massive piece of legislation that illustrates much of what does and doesn't work and whose interests get translated into politics," he said. "It determines winners and losers."

Legislation, regulation and subsidies for particular products and practices have critical implications for the environment, health, commerce and budget priorities, Freedman said.

"This course looks at food politics through a series of 'food fights,'" he said. "We examine controversies over agricultural subsidies, labeling requirements, taxation, farming practices, food safety, and advertising and education. In doing so, we explore some of the most important features of American democracy, including legislative politics, regulation, interest group activity, federalism, public opinion, political communication and representation."

U.Va.'s Food Collaborative, which involves people from disciplines across Grounds, provides a focal point for University and community efforts to study and improve the relationships between environmental sustainability, regional food, land use and resource management that have proliferated in the last decade.

For information on the Food Collaborative, visit here.

— By Matt Kelly

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications