As someone who has practiced, taught, and wrote about agricultural law for over twenty years, the current upswing in interest in studying issues of food and agriculture is gratifying. You can imagine my reaction when the Washington Post published Field Studies: In Exploring Culture, Politics and the Environment, Food Programs Hit the Academic Mainstream last week.
The article reports that Yale now offers 19 food and agriculture courses, with that number up almost 50 percent from five years ago. "Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food, taught for the first time in fall 2006, had to be moved to one of the college's largest lecture halls to accommodate the 325 students who registered."
"There's a generation of students that understand that the modern world has been shaped by agriculture, and they are turning to their curriculum to understand those connections," says Melina Shannon-DiPietro, director of the six-year-old Yale Sustainable Food Project, which runs the pre-orientation program [in organic farming].And, highlighting that the trend is not just at Yale, the article references "pioneering" food studies programs that have existed for some time at Boston University and New York University. "[F]ood is now entering the academic mainstream" with new programs this year at the University of New Hampshire and the University of California at Davis and food courses referenced at George Washington University and Catholic University.
Professors point to several reasons behind the boom in food studies. One is competition for enrollment. As more students profess a broader awareness of food and its cultural and environmental implications, colleges are scrambling to offer courses to attract them.
Trends in academia also are fueling the growth. First, the explosion of food literature has produced books students want to read. "When I first taught a course on food seven years ago, it was hard to find books," says Carolyn de la Peña, associate professor of American studies at UC Davis. Instead, she had to use narrow, often technical articles that didn't appeal to students.
In the past 10 years, a body of literature has emerged: Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation," Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and Morgan Spurlock's documentary film "Super Size Me," among others. "You can hand them to a student, and they can see how their own choices affect labor practices or health or the environment," de la Peña says.Will the trend continue? While "[p]rofessors acknowledge that all the courses in the world aren't going to end college students' love affair with pizza and beer . . . once you have gone from ignorance to a greater understanding of how your choices impact the food system, you can't go back."
In the LL.M. Program in Agricultural Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law, we are continuing to expand our offerings in food law, with three courses in the curriculum and others being developed. There has been enough interest among J.D. students so that we have opened two of these classes to them, and yes, we have had to move to a slightly larger classroom (although admittedly we are a long ways from the largest lecture hall). Similarly, our new Journal of Food Law & Policy has been very well received. And, I have contracted with Carolina Press for the publication of an Agricultural Law J.D. casebook - with an emphasis on the natural link between agriculture and food.