TTU agriculture course invites students to examine world food and society

Forget worrying about the ‘freshman 15’ weight gain — one Tennessee Tech University course teaches students that hunger and undernourishment are bigger concerns for hundreds of millions of the world’s population.
World Food and Society is an interdisciplinary approach to food production and distribution taught on Tuesday nights this semester by Michael J. Best, associate professor of agribusiness in TTU’s School of Agriculture.

“This course is all about why people eat what they eat,” he said. “It examines factors like a country’s location, its resource base, income level, religion and politics. All of these factors combine to determine what or even if a person eats and how distribution of food commodities is related to types of governmental policies, including agricultural, trade and humanitarian.”

The course, which meets a social and behavioral science requirement for the university’s general education core, was developed by Best “to get students who aren’t agriculture majors to look at agricultural issues that they might not otherwise ever think about.”

“It really opens their eyes up when they’re forced to look beyond the situation they’re used to,” he said.

Each of the 25 students in the course, for example, has to write a paper and give a presentation exploring the particular factors influencing the food production and distribution in one of the world’s 52 developing countries, as identified by the CIA, and recommending how each nation’s food production and distribution could be improved.

“The introduction of technology can often alter the way a country’s food is produced, but it’s important to look at a nation’s specific factors before making any sort of technological recommendations,” Best said.

“Before a student recommends a program that would make tractors more readily available to a developing country’s subsistence level farmers, for instance, he or she should examine the nation’s availability of petroleum and ability to pay for the fuel,” he continued.

“Otherwise, the farmers will use the tractors until they run out of gas and oil to power them, then leave the machines sitting idle while they return to their subsistence agricultural practices.”

Natural disasters also create particular food distribution problems, Best said.

“Whenever a natural disaster happens, the first instinct of the developed world is to send food aid to the countries affected — but too much food aid can in some instances actually hurt farmers more than a natural disaster might because it can flood a nation’s agricultural market and reduce the price of the locally produced food,” he said.

By the end of the course, students should be able to understand the complexity of world food problems, analyze agriculture’s role in economic development theories, demonstrate technical applications to improve the agricultural sector of a nation’s economy, and understand the international forces that affect economic development and food production and distribution.

Perhaps most importantly, Best said, he hopes students use their knowledge of the course “to influence responsible action by society in the development of policy which assures production and distribution of an adequate, secure and safe food supply for all people.”

He will teach a senior-level seminar course about food in a global society in TTU’s Honors Program this spring, and Best is also developing an online version of the World Food and Society course he hopes to offer by summer.

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