Food Systems: An Academic Discipline at UVM

By Jesse Chang

Obesity, global hunger, climate change, food-borne illness, pollution, and environmental degradation are all unwanted symptoms of a broken food system—and it will be up to the next generation to fix it.


UVM’s Farmer Apprentice Program prepares new farmers with the knowledge and skills to pursue a career in agriculture. (Photo Credit: The University of Vermont)

University of Vermont (UVM) Dean of Continuing Education Dr. Cynthia Belliveau has some ideas for initiating change. “Small yet broad” is her motto for approaching the big problems of modern agriculture, and she believes the answer starts with transdisciplinary education that emphasizes regionally-scaled food systems.

Dr. Belliveau is well-positioned to help make this transition a reality. As founder of the “Sustainable Business: Practices in Support of People, Profit, and Principles” program and a faculty member at UVM’s Department of Nutrition and Food Science, she teaches her students developments in sustainability and economics through the lens of food systems. According to Dr. Belliveau, the focus at UVM is on four topics–food, culture, and health; energy and food; policy, ecology, and land use; and regional food chains.

“We’ve started the problem-solving by placing our academic knowledge on the table,” says Belliveau. “I welcome other academic institutions to the challenge. We can lead in the study of how humans in their environment obtain nourishment with a holistic approach that considers everything from microbes found in compost facilities to global trade agreements.”

Focusing on these topics has already led to the formation of new, innovative programs at the university. The Farmer Apprentice Program, which works with local Vermont farmers, provides new farmers with the agricultural and business knowledge necessary to start their own small-scale farms. UVM undergraduate students learn about sustainable food systems not only in classes such as Environmental Cooking, VT Rural Food Systems and NYC Urban Food Systems, but through intensive summer programs and science classes focused on food systems as well. And on top of all this, the university is partnered with more than 100 faculty and 400 community members engaged with sustainable food systems models and methods that show promise.

Dr. Belliveau is grateful to be based in Vermont, she says, because the residents value the goodness of fresh, local food. Vermont leads the nation in direct market sales from farms to consumers and their organic food industry has grown at a rate of about 20 percent a year. The local food systems are a source of pride for Belliveau, who looks toward organizations such as the Vermont Cheese Council, Vermont Fresh Network, Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, and the Farm-to-Plate Initiative for inspiration. “We must harness the passion and energy around these activities and channel it into a model for the future,” says Dr. Belliveau. “Revitalizing agriculture will improve people’s diet, protect environmental quality, and create economic opportunity.”

What other important roles must academic institutions take on in order to reduce the current ills of industrial agriculture? Tell us in the comments! 

Jesse Chang is an intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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