Ecological Agriculture: The Science, Justice, and Policy of Food Systems

Fall 2018
Winter 2019
Spring 2019
Credits per quarter

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Taught by

Prita Lal
food justice, social movements, urban agriculture, social inequalities
agricultural ecology, food systems

A battle for the future of our food system is being waged due to competing visions. On one side is the global, industrial-based system that provides large quantities of inexpensive food with significant environmental and social impacts. The competing vision is a local, community-based system that produces higher quality, more expensive food while seeking to minimize environmental and social impacts. We will explore these competing visions from a critical perspective of social and ecological sustainability. Critical questions informing our inquiry include: Can a humane, socially just agricultural system that minimizes environmental degradation meet the food needs of the world? Can farmers be stewards of the soil, biodiversity, and landscape? Can we grow high-quality food that is available to everyone? How did we get into this food system predicament? Are local, sustainable food systems best?

This program will provide a broad, interdisciplinary study of agriculture that explores these competing visions from a critical perspective of social and ecological sustainability that is grounded in a food justice framework. We will develop systems thinking and skills associated with community work, expository writing, laboratory and library research, and quantitative reasoning skills. Lectures will focus on ecological principles applied to agroecosystems, soil science and fertility management, crop and livestock management, as well as local to global food system structure, socio-economic aspects of agriculture, and agricultural history. Labs will provide a hands-on introduction to soil ecology and fertility. Seminar books will support our inquiries. Students will identify needs, gather data, and write a report of relevance to developing a sustainable local food system. Multi-day field trips will allow students to visit farms working toward sustainability, meet key players in food system change, and attend meetings such as the Washington Tilth Producers conference and Eco-Farm conference in California.

Fall: The agroecology portion will emphasize energy flow and biodiversity as applied to agricultural systems, using Steve Gliessman's textbook, second edition. A social science approach will focus on the role that ideas and institutions have played in shaping U.S. agriculture, including grassroots level food justice groups working to transform the food system. We will work toward assessing the needs of our local food system.

Winter: The agroecology focus will be soil science, soil ecology, and nutrient cycling. We will work with civic engagement as a way to move us toward our vision. A policy workshop focusing both on local and national policy such as the 2012 Farm Bill is planned. Students will gather data and write a report on a particular aspect appropriate to developing a local food system in Thurston County. Emphasis will be on lab exercises, critical analysis, library research, and expository writing.

Spring: We will study agroecology, traditional agriculture, and permaculture in a tropical context. The policy portion will study international agriculture and trade policy. Seminar will focus on international sustainable development and its contradictions, successes, and challenges. As a final project, students will apply their knowledge of tropical crops and soils to create a farm plan in a geographic area of their choice.

Upper-division science credit may be awarded in agroecology in fall and soil science in winter upon successful completion of all work; upper-division credit in spring depends on the foundations established in fall and winter.

This offering will prepare you for careers and advanced study in: farm, nursery and garden management; agriculture, food system and environmental consulting firms; state and county agricultural and natural resource agencies; farming internships abroad, Peace Corps service and agricultural and food justice non-profit organizations. This program can help students prepare for Practice of Organic Farming beginning in spring quarter.

Online learning:
  • Enhanced Online Learning - This offering requires access to web-based tools, but use of these tools does not displace any face-to-face instruction.
Special expenses:

$200 in winter for food expenses during conference.


$370 in fall and $860 in winter for overnight field trips and conference registration. $200 in spring for an overnight field trip.


High school general biology and chemistry course.

Scheduled for: Day

Located in: Olympia

May be offered again in: