CSUS 855

CSUS 855

The Political Ecology of Food

Fall 2018
blended classroom (2 hours) and online (1 hour) format
3.0 credit hours
Mondays, 12:40 to 2:30pm, 19 Natural Resources

Instructor: Phil Howard
Office Phone: 355-8431
Office Address: 316 Natural Resources
E-mail: howardp@msu.edu

Brief Description
Interactions between food, society and the environment. Ecological impacts and sociopolitical power in international and domestic contexts.

Course Description
This interdisciplinary course will apply political ecology (critical political economy, with attention to environmental changes) to specific foods and food systems. We will explore food production, consumption, and the links in between in the United States, as well as in global/international contexts. We will also apply theories and methods from political ecology to our own specific research interests. Doing so will require understanding the diversity of approaches encompassed by the broad field of political ecology, as well as directly engaging in the difficult task of bridging the social and natural sciences. Issues that will receive particular attention include technologies, scale, development strategies, risk, knowledge, food sovereignty and crisis tendencies.

Learning Objectives

  • Develop a scholarly capacity for analyzing the interactions between food, society and the environment, drawing on disciplines including anthropology, biology, development studies, ecology, economics, geography, history, political science and sociology.
  • Develop a better understanding of how to synthesize political economic and ecological frameworks through case studies of food systems.
  • Critically examine key themes in food research, with a focus on ecological sustainability, political participation and social inequalities.

Course Approach
This course is organized as a small seminar with a commitment to developing collaborative learning among all who participate.

Course Prerequisites
Graduate standing or permission from instructor. CSUS 811 (Community, Food and Agriculture: A Survey) is recommended, but not required.

Course Assignments and Evaluation
Assignments (100 points each) include:

  • required readings and participation in class discussions
  • weekly online reflections following up on the readings and class discussion from the previous week, and final self-evaluation
  • critical review of a scholarly book related to the political ecology of food (Oct. 22)
  • group project that critically applies political ecology to a food issue in Michigan (Dec. 11)

Weekly readings

You are expected to come to class prepared to answer the following questions about the weekly readings:
1. what did you agree/disagree with the most? OR what did you find most useful
2. what did the readings potentially leave out?

Online Component

Each week (beginning in week 2) you will write an essay of approximately 500 words to follow up on the readings and class discussion (please wait until after class discussion to begin the assignment):
1. what question(s) did the readings and discussion raise?
2. what were you able to uncover about this question?
Answering question 2 will require that you seek out and read at least one additional article or chapter in an effort to answer question 1. It’s OK if you’re not able to answer the question, just share what you learned in the process. Please cite the outside article/chapter that you read.

You will also be asked to read the reflections of other students, and brief responses are welcome (but not required).

Critical Review

800 to 1,000 word review of scholarly book, formatted for submission to an academic journal.

Group Project

Peer groups will also engage in research in Michigan communities to apply concepts of political ecology. Each group will investigate a specific food or food system, the results of which will be made publicly available as a multimedia presentation (e.g. powerpoint, keynote, PDF). There are a number of possibilities, but one example from a previous class involved comparing three different animal welfare standards, with a focus on ecological impacts, scale and political power (see https://prezi.com/req8x_tpzmpg/animal-welfare-standards/, but note that I am not a fan of Prezi and its excessive motion).

Topics might include food trucks, community supported agriculture farms, cottage food laws, heritage pork producers, seed libraries, retail cooperatives, Naturally Grown certification, etc..

Grading scale for the course (by percentage of the 400 points obtained):

94 to 100% – 4.0
87 to 93% – 3.5
80 to 86% – 3.0
75 to 79% – 2.5
70 to 74% – 2.0

Required Texts

  • Vandermeer, John. 2011. The Ecology of Agroecosystems. Jones & Bartlett Publishers.
  • Chappell, Jahi. 2018. Beginning to End Hunger. University of California Press.
  • Galt, Ryan E. 2014. Food Systems in an Unequal World: Pesticides, Vegetables, and Agrarian Capitalism in Costa Rica. University of Arizona Press.

Recommended Text (recommended to read before first class)

  • Robbins, Paul. 2012. Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction. 2nd edition. Wiley-Blackwell

Additional readings as assigned (see below).



Week 1 (8/29) – Class introductions, formation of peer groups

Week 2 (9/10) – The Political Ecology of Food

  • Galt, R. E. 2013. Placing food systems in first world political ecology: a review and research agenda. Geography Compass, 7(9), 637-658.
  • Baines, J. 2014. Food price inflation as redistribution: Towards a new analysis of corporate power in the world food system. New Political Economy, 19(1), 79-112.
  • Moragues-Faus, A., & Marsden, T. 2017. The political ecology of food: Carving ‘spaces of possibility’ in a new research agenda. Journal of Rural Studies, 55, 275-288.

Week 3 (9/17) – Agroecology Part 1

  • Vandermeer, The Ecology of Agroecosystems, Chapters 1-4

Week 4 (9/24) – Agroecology Part 2

  • Vandermeer, The Ecology of Agroecosystems, Chapters 5-8



Week 5 (10/1) – Scale

  • DuPuis, E. M., & Block, D. 2008. Sustainability and scale: US milk-market orders as relocalization policy. Environment and Planning A, 40(8), 1987-2005.
  • Stuart, D. 2011. ‘Nature’ is not guilty: foodborne illness and the industrial bagged salad. Sociologia Ruralis, 51(2), 158-174.
  • Kremen, C., Iles, A., & Bacon, C. 2012. Diversified farming systems: an agroecological, systems-based alternative to modern industrial agriculture. Ecology & Society 17(4):44.

Week 6 (10/8) – Technologies

  • Friedberg, S. 2014. Moral economies and the cold chain. Historical Research, 88(239), 125-137.
  • Warner, K. D., Daane, K. M., Getz, C. M., Maurano, S. P., Calderon, S., & Powers, K. A. 2011. The decline of public interest agricultural science and the dubious future of crop biological control in California. Agriculture and Human Values, 28(4), 483-496.
  • Lawhon, M., & Murphy, J. T. 2012. Socio-technical regimes and sustainability transitions: Insights from political ecology. Progress in Human Geography, 36(3), 354-378.

Week 7 (10/15) – Knowledge

  • Cuéllar-Padilla, M., & Calle-Collado, Á. 2011. Can we find solutions with people? Participatory action research with small organic producers in Andalusia. Journal of Rural Studies, 27(4), 372-383.
  • Montenegro de Wit, M., & Iles, A. 2016. Toward thick legitimacy: Creating a web of legitimacy for agroecology. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene, 4, 1-24.
  • Robinson, P. A. 2017. Farmers and bovine tuberculosis: Contextualising statutory disease control within everyday farming lives. Journal of Rural Studies, 55, 168-180.

Week 8 (10/22) – Critical Book Reviews due

In-class presentations



Week 9 (10/29) – Food Sovereignty

  • Chappell, Beginning to End Hunger

Week 10 (11/5) – Development

  • Stone, G. D., & Glover, D. 2017. Disembedding grain: Golden Rice, the Green Revolution, and heirloom seeds in the Philippines. Agriculture and Human Values, 34(1), 87-102.
  • Hoelle, J. 2017. Jungle beef: consumption, production and destruction, and the development process in the Brazilian Amazon. Journal of Political Ecology, 24(1), 743-762.
  • Gengenbach, H., Schurman, R. A., Bassett, T. J., Munro, W. A., & Moseley, W. G. 2018. Limits of the New Green Revolution for Africa: Reconceptualising gendered agricultural value chains. The Geographical Journal, 184(2), 208-214.

Week 11 (11/12) – Risk

  • Galt, Food Systems in an Unequal World

Week 12 (11/26) – Crisis Tendencies?

  • Weis, T. 2013. The meat of the global food crisis. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 40(1), 65-85.
  • Moore, J. W. (2010). The end of the road? Agricultural revolutions in the capitalist world‐ecology, 1450–2010. Journal of Agrarian Change, 10(3), 389-413.
  • Bichler, S., & Nitzan, J. (2017). Growing through Sabotage: Energizing Hierarchical Power (No. 2017/02). Working Papers on Capital as Power.

Week 13 (12/3) – group project oral presentations, draft PDF due



Final group project (PDF) and final self-evaluation due Tuesday, Dec. 11 by 5pm.



Books that may be considered for the critical review assignment may include (but are not limited to):

  • Aistara, G. A. 2018. Organic sovereignties: Struggles over farming in an age of free trade. University of Washington Press.
  • Blay-Palmer, A. 2008. Food fears: From industrial to sustainable food systems. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.
  • Besky, S. 2013. The Darjeeling distinction: Labor and justice on fair-trade tea plantations in India. University of California Press.
  • Bowen, S. 2015. Divided spirits: Tequila, mezcal, and the politics of production. University of California Press.
  • Davidson, J. 2016. Sacred rice: An ethnography of identity, environment, and development in rural West Africa. Oxford University Press.
  • DuPuis, E. M. 2015. Dangerous digestion: The politics of American dietary advice. University of California Press.
  • Fischer, E. F., & Benson, P. B. 2006. Broccoli and desire: Global connections and Maya struggles in postwar Guatemala. Stanford University Press.
  • Freidberg, S. 2009. Fresh: A perishable history. Harvard University Press.
  • Goodman, D., Dupuis, E. M., & Goodman, M. K. 2012. Alternative food networks: Knowledge, practice, and politics. Routledge.
  • Grossman, L. S. 1998. The political ecology of bananas: Contract farming, peasants, and agrarian change in the Eastern Caribbean. University of North Carolina Press.
  • Guthman, J. 2014. Agrarian dreams: The paradox of organic farming in California. 2nd edition. University of California Press.
  • Ives, S. F. 2017. Steeped in Heritage: The Racial Politics of South African Rooibos Tea. Duke University Press.
  • Jaffee, D. 2014. Brewing justice: Fair trade coffee, sustainability, and survival. 2nd edition. University of California Press.
  • Jansen, K. 1998. Political ecology, mountain agriculture, and knowledge in Honduras. Thela Publishers.
  • Kloppenburg, Jack R., Jr. 2004. First the seed: The political economy of plant biotechnology. 2nd edition. University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Mintz, S. W. 1985. Sweetness and power. New York: Viking.
  • Osterhoudt, S. R. 2017. Vanilla landscapes: meaning, memory, and the cultivation of place in Madagascar. New York Botanical Garden.
  • Pachirat, T. 2011. Every twelve seconds: Industrialized slaughter and the politics of sight. Yale University Press.
  • Paxson, H. 2013. The life of cheese: Crafting food and value in America. University of California Press.
  • Perfecto, I., Vandermeer, J., & Wright, A. 2009. Nature’s matrix: Linking agriculture, conservation and food sovereignty. Earthscan.
  • Perkins, J. H. 1997. Geopolitics and the green revolution: wheat, genes, and the cold war. Oxford University Press.
  • Ross, C. 2017. Ecology and power in the age of empire: Europe and the transformation of the tropical world. Oxford University Press.
  • Scott, J. C. 2009. The art of not being governed: An anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia. Yale University Press.
  • Scott, J. C. 2017. Against the grain: a deep history of the earliest states. Yale University Press.
  • Tilzey, M. 2017. Political ecology, food regimes, and food sovereignty: crisis, resistance, and resilience. Springer.
  • Tsing, A. L. 2015. The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton University Press.
  • Vandermeer, J. H., & Perfecto, I. 2013. Breakfast of biodiversity: The political ecology of rain forest destruction. 2nd edition. Food First Books.
  • Weis, T. 2013. The ecological hoofprint: The global burden of industrial livestock. Zed Books.
  • Wells, M. J. 1996. Strawberry fields: Politics, class, and work in California agriculture. Cornell University Press.
  • West, P. 2012. From modern production to imagined primitive: The social world of coffee from Papua New Guinea. Duke University Press.
  • Wolford, Wendy. 2010. This land is ours now: Social mobilization and the meanings of land in Brazil. Duke University Press.
  • Wright, A. 2005. The death of Ramón González: The modern agricultural dilemma. University of Texas Press.