POL S 385 A: Political Ecology of the World Food System

Meeting Time: 
TTh 11:30am - 12:50pm
KNE 210
Joint Sections: 
Karen Litfin
Karen Litfin

Syllabus Description:

What We Will Study

This course will address these questions and more: Where does our food come from? What are the social, political and environmental roots and consequences of current agricultural practices? Who wins and who loses? To what extent are non-state actors altering the world political system? How is climate change likely to impact the world food system? In particular, we will focus on the pivotal role of petroleum in the world food system, the global carbon and nitrogen cycles, the questions of meat and genetically modified food, and new food movements around the world. How does our planetary food web challenge our sense of personal identity and ethical responsibility?

What You Will Learn

If you participate actively in this course—which means seriously grappling with lectures, videos and readings, engaging yourself dynamically in quiz sections, and writing thoughtful papers—I expect that you will improve your skillfulness in many arenas, especially the following:

  • Critical thinking skills about some of the most important issues of our day
  • Your capacity for integrative thinking, linking science, politics and ethics
  • Your ability to articulate ideas and feelings about these issues, in writing and conversation
  • A deeper sense of what it means to be a human being living at this moment in history
  • Students who write a research paper will learn how to think systemically about global problems.
  • Service learners will gain hands-on skills from organic gardening to data analysis.

What You Will Do

  • Participation: You will read 80-120 pages per week. Please read course material beforehand and bring your full presence to both quiz sections and lectures. Whether you do service learning, an action project or a research paper, you will make a presentation in section at the end of the quarter.
  • Weekly Takeaways: These will be short (300-word limit) essays on weekly prompts; due on Sundays.
  • Hungry planet paper: A 4-5 page paper drawing connections between the photographic essay, Hungry Planet, and course material. This paper is due April 25 on Canvas.
  • Group action projects: You will collaborate with three or four of your classmates to bring what you learn to the larger polis.
  • Final paper due Monday, June 10

    • For action projects and service learning, a 5-7 page essay synthesizing what you learned from your field-based learning with the course as a whole. 
    • For research papers, a 7-9 page essay on a proposed solution to a specific problem in the world food system. 

Course Grading 

  Participation             20%                     

  Takeaways (7)          35%                          

  Hungry Planet          15%

  Midquarter paper        5%


       Final synthesis paper:  25% (service learning or action project)

       Research paper: 15% (7-9 pages) plus course synthesis (4-5 pages)

Required Texts (in order)

Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food (Penguin, 2008).

Michael Carolan, The Real Cost of Cheap Food, Second edition. (Earthscan, 2017).

Lester R. Brown, Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity (Norton: 2012).

Online readings on Canvas

Three options:  Service Learning, Group Action Projects, and Research Papers

Service-learning provides a unique experience to connect coursework with engagement in and with the local community. Service-learning opportunities address concerns that are identified and articulated by community partner organizations. Service-learning combines community-based service with structured preparation and reflection opportunities.

Service-learning opportunities generally require a commitment of 3-4 hours each week. Students are expected to commit from the second week of the quarter through the last week of classes. Service-learning is seen as an essential “text” in your class–you are expected to regularly engage with, reflect on, and integrate the service-learning into your classroom experience through structured classroom reflection and assignments. Building authentic relationships and consistent, weekly engagement with your community partner organization are essential components of successfully completing your service-learning.

Instructions for reviewing service-learning opportunities matched with this course will be presented on the first day of class. To explore available options, visit the Carlson Center online and follow the service-learning links. Registration opens at 8 am on Friday, April 5 and closes on 5 pm on Monday, April 8.

All students are expected to complete an orientation with their selected service-learning organization as soon as possible after registering. Once you register online and receive a confirmation email from the Carlson Center, contact your organization by phone and/or email to either 1) confirm your attendance at an already scheduled orientation or 2) to schedule an orientation if no specific date/time was listed in your position description. Orientations should occur during the second week of the quarter and no later than the third week.

If you do service learning students, you will write a midquarter assessment of your learning experience. Your final paper will, among other things, integrate your field-based learning you’re your  learning from the rest of the course. You will also make a short presentation in quiz section about what you did, what you learned, and how you relate your service learning experience to the course material

Group action projects offer a more creative hands-on learning experience. These groups will involve 4 or 5 students in a collaborative response to our study: political ecology of the world food system. While action projects are likely to be more challenging than service learning because they are self-organized, they can also be more gratifying for the same reason. Your project might be part of an existing endeavor or it might be entirely your group’s own creation. It might have an educational component, it might be an artistic creation, or it might contribute to an existing campaign or initiative. Your audience could be on campus, off campus, in person, or online. Whatever your group decides to do, your project should be complete by June 3 and should grow out of a fair and sensible division of labor.

Action groups will submit a short project proposal and have a mandatory meeting with their TA and/or professor by midquarter. The point is to give you teaching team a clear idea of what you’re up to so that we can offer some guidance. For the final paper, students in action groups will, among other things, integrate their field-based learning with what they have learned from the rest of the course. They will also make a short presentation in quiz section about the project in the last week of classes.

If you choose to write a research paper, you will first write a short research proposal (including bibliography of preliminary research) outlining your research question. Your paper should  frame a specific solution to a problem in the world food system and how you will go about answering your question. Note that your paper should have an international component and aim to integrate the political, economic, environmental and social dimensions of the solution you have chosen. Optional W credit is available and will require additional work.  Please inform your TA by April 9 if you wish to receive W credit and we will create a separate timeline for your assignments.                 

Your will discuss your idea with your TA and submit your research proposal in midquarter. Aim to touch upon the political, economic, environmental and social dimensions of your proposed food solution. This is a mandatory meeting; without it, your TA will not accept your final paper. Your proposal should also cite at least five authoritative sources on your topic. Your TA's feedback on your proposal will offer you some guidance in the research and writing stage of your project. Your final 7-9 page research paper will be due via Canvas on Friday, June 7. In order to share the results of your research, you will give a brief presentation of your research in quiz section.

Late papers

Late papers are not accepted without a medical excuse. All requests on these matters must be made through the professor before the due date.

Academic dishonesty

Plagiarism and other cases of cheating will be handled in accordance with University policy. This whole UW webpage is worth a read, but here’s an important excerpt:

One of the most common forms of cheating is plagiarism, using another's words or ideas without proper citation. [This includes]:

  1. Using another writer's words without proper citation…
  2. Using another writer's ideas without proper citation…
  3. Citing your source but reproducing the exact words of a printed source without quotation marks…
  4. Borrowing the structure of another author's phrases or sentences without crediting the author from whom it came…
  5. Borrowing all or part of another student's paper or using someone else's outline to write your own paper.
  6. Using a paper writing "service" or having a friend write the paper...

You will receive a zero on any assignment including plagiarized portions and you will be reported to the committee on academic misconduct for violations of academic integrity.

Notice: The University has a license agreement with VeriCite, an educational tool that helps prevent or identify plagiarism from Internet resources. Your instructor may use the service in this class by requiring that assignments are submitted electronically to be checked by VeriCite. The VeriCite Report will indicate the amount of original text in your work and whether all material that you quoted, paraphrased, summarized, or used from another source is appropriately referenced.

Grade appeal process

  1. Wait 24 hours after receiving a graded assignment to reflect upon the instructor’s comments.
  2. Provide a typed statement to the TA explaining why you believe your grade received should be altered, being specific about why more points should be given for a particular answer). This must be about the substance of your work, not the effort you put into it or the class as a whole.
  3. Bring the work and your written concerns to the TA’s office hours within one week of receiving the graded assignment for discussion. Anything beyond one week will not be considered.
  4. Your TA will reread the work, re-evaluate it if appropriate, and return to you within 2 days. If you are still dissatisfied, please bring your appeal directly to the professor within 2 days upon receipt of your TA’s decision. Your professor will either regrade the assignment or ask another TA to do so. Please note that if the appeal comes to the professor, s/he may determine that your assignment deserves a lower grade.

Disabled Student Provisions  Disability Resources for Students (DRS) offers resources and coordinates reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities. If you have not yet established services through DRS, but have a temporary or permanent disability that requires accommodations (this can include but not limited to; mental health, attention-related, learning, vision, hearing, physical or health impacts), you are welcome to contact DRS at 206-543-8924, or uwdrs@uw.edu. See this website.

Student Support Services  The Counseling Center and Hall Health are excellent resources on campus that many UW students utilize. Students may get help with study skills, career decisions, substance abuse, relationship difficulties, anxiety, depression, or other concerns.

PDF of preliminary syllabus for up-to-date assignments and readings, please always check Canvas.


Catalog Description: 
Investigates the intersection of globalization and food politics, the pivotal role of petroleum in the world food system, and the commodity chains for some foods. Includes an optional service learning component. Offered: jointly with ENVIR 385.
Department Requirements: 
International Relations Field
GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Natural World (NW)
Last updated: 
August 2, 2019 - 9:08pm