Image of a farmImagining Food Futures: How Should We Eat on a Changing Planet?

Given the increasing awareness of food provenance and its relationship to human well-being, this DukeImmerse program will bring students and scholars in the natural sciences and the humanities together with the Duke Campus Farm to explore how food is grown, who grows it, how we talk about this, and why it matters. The program takes as its premise that cultural narratives have real world impacts and that increased extreme weather events associated with climate change must be addressed in part through changes in the food system. DukeImmerse Summer is a two-course credit program in Term 1 that combines classroom work with field work and field trips around North Carolina. 

DukeImmerse Summer will allow students to move beyond the Duke campus to experience farms in different locations and with different histories. Our state represents huge climatic diversity: from its southeastern corner to its most northwestern corner at high elevation it spans subtropical to boreal climatic zones. Such a climatic gradient can both provide a model or proxi for climatic changes forecasted by the end of the century and showcase the rich and complex history of agriculture in the United States.

To participate in the program you must register for both courses and may not enroll in any other courses during Term 1. Permission to register may be obtained from Professor Chantal Reid of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Dr. Saskia Cornes, Director, of the Duke Campus Farm. Enrollment in the program may not exceed 12.


The modern food system feeds an enormous amount of people with tremendous efficiency; more food is being produced by fewer people than at any point in human history. However, optimization of food production has not in and of itself resolved the persistent global challenges of hunger (FAO, 2015), ill health, and underdevelopment in rural areas. By many measures, 21st century agriculture actually exacerbates these problems. Industrial agriculture produces food of lower nutritional quality (DeFries et al. 2015). Food insecurity persists, even in the United States, and is in fact concentrated in the Southeast (USDA), while obesity rates in the South increased 31% in 2014 (CDC 2014) with a concomitant increase in diabetes.

Agricultural efficiency from industrialization has come at an enormous cost – social and economic inequality, global environmental degradation, and perhaps most pressingly, climate change from greenhouse gas emissions. In a 2013 report, the United Nations estimated that 43-57% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide were related to food. Moreover, the consequent climate change will directly affect future food production (e.g. Rosenzwig et al. 2014). Changing the ways we produce, distribute, consume, and dispose of food will therefore be some of the primary challenges of the coming century. Such changes are particularly important in a context of increased extreme climatic events and the steady depletion of the resources upon which agricultural production depends.

The challenges of the present agrifood system are complex and inherently interdisciplinary. They require scientific and technological expertise and understanding, as well as complex critical and systems thinking. Food, more than most other commodities, is a marker of personal and cultural identity that connects us to complex natural and social ecologies. Our choice of food represents our social and cultural values and is not easily shifted.  As such, a nuanced understanding of the cultural, as well as agricultural, context of food will be needed if we are to change the way we eat. This DukeImmerse program therefore brings a multi-disciplinary, multi-modal approach to the question, “How should we eat on a changing planet?”


CDC. 2014.  Prevalence of Self-Reported Obesity Among U.S. Adults by State and Territory, Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), 2014. US Dept of Health and Human Services. (Retrieved 20 August 2016).

DeFries R, Fanzo J, Remans R, Palm C, Wood S, Anderman TL. 2015. Global Nutrition: Metrics for land-scarce agriculture. Science 349, 238-240.

FAO, IFAD and WFP. 2015. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015.  Meeting the 2015 international hunger targets: taking stock of uneven progress.  Rome. FAO, 58pp. (Retrieved 15 August 2016).

Rosenzweig C, Elliott J, Deryng D, Ruane AC, Muller C, Arneth A, Boote KJ, Folberth C, Glotter M, Khabarov N, Neumann K, Piontek F, Pugh TAM, Schmid, E, Stehfest E, Yang H, Jones JW. 2014. Assessing agricultural risks of climate change in the 21st century in a global gridded crop model intercomparison. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111, 3268-3273.

USDA/ERS. 2016.  Food Access Research Atlas, (Retrieved 20 August 2016).



“Imagining Food Futures” proposes three interlocking approaches:

  1. Through an introduction to basic plant ecophysiology, you will examine the growth response and yield of plants to changing climatic conditions.
  2. Experiential learning at the Duke Campus Farm will allow you the opportunity to both put science into practice and enact alternatives to the current industrial agrifood system.
  3. By critically examining food and farming in literary texts and in other forms of cultural production, you will critically consider the relationship between narrative representations of food and farming and the concrete ways in which we work to produce, share, and consume food.

The program relies on two core courses, in-field experience at the Duke Campus Farm, field trips, and dinner discussions. 

The two courses present food in different ways: how it is grown from a scientific perspective, how it is grown from a practical perspective, and how we imagine its growers and what they do from a literary perspective.  The first course, “How Plants Feed/Fuel the World?” (BIOLOGY 228/ENVIRON 228), will incorporate agricultural practices and scientific experimentation into the theories of plant/environment interactions in ways that will be both rigorous and approachable to students with limited or no natural sciences background.  The second course, “Land and Literature,” will explore literary representations of American agriculture that are critical for changing the way we eat. This DukeImmerse program therefore brings a multi-disciplinary, multi-modal approach to the question “How should we eat on a changing planet?”


Learning Outcomes

Proposed learning outcomes include both conceptual understanding and practical skills.

  1. Evaluate how plants respond to their environment, what plant traits will be needed in forecasted climatic predictions, and how to manage agricultural practices for future food production.
  2. Ability to work across multiple modalities (scientific, literary, agricultural) to analyze food not only as an object of consumption, but also as an object of intellectual inquiry and meaning-making, and as the embodiment of particular social, economic, cultural and environmental systems.
  3. Assess how cultural constructions inflect representations of food and farming (for example in literary fiction and narrative non-fiction) as well as their materiality (where food is grown, how it’s grown, where it’s sold, how it’s eaten).
Practical skills:
  1. Build practical skills in sustainable crop production, including soil fertility management, plant propagation, irrigation, and integrated pest management techniques; field observation and analysis of plants/environment in the field.
  2. Compare agroecological principles with other methods of food production in a range of farmscapes.
  3. Develop skills in administering surveys and skills in gathering qualitative and/or quantitative data, and in analysis and presentation of quantitative and qualitative data.
  4. Correlate environmental conditions with plant growth and contextualize these impacts in an era of climate change, by interpreting quantitative data including climate forecasts.
  5. Write two critical, claim-driven essays that use multiple modalities to answer identified research questions.
  6. Develop skills in metacognition and self-assessment, and to reflect on your experience of the course and your own impacts on existing systems as consumers and eaters.

Program Structure

“Imagining Food Futures” will meet three times weekly – once in a typical classroom; once at the Duke Campus Farm for an integrated approach to theory and practice, both cultural and agricultural; and once for field experience which will focus on building technical skills and knowledge of whole farm systems in sustainable agriculture, either at the Duke Campus Farm or through local field trips to farms in the Piedmont.

Students will spend 3-6 hours each week doing in-field data collection and experiments, learning and practicing techniques in agroecology and sustainable food systems, interviewing farmers, and building physical as well as conceptual competencies in sustainable agriculture.

Additionally, two field trips will highlight other bioregions in North Carolina and the impacts of these ecologies on plants and people. The first field trip is to the eastern part of the state to examine the impact of soil quality, moisture availability and migration patterns on crops and the land. The eastern trip visits farms with different histories, labor forces, and agricultural management styles.  For example, Newberry Blueberry Farm is a single-crop farm on sandy soils that is run by beginning farmers.  In contrast, Middle Creek Farm is a corn and soy commodity farm in the “black land” (rich alluvial soil), run by a multi-generational farming family. We will also visit the Center for Environmental Farming Systems in Goldsboro to learn how new generations of farmers are being educated. Plus, we will meet with young photographers from NC Field’s Poder Juvenil Campesino program and with staff from the Chef and the Farmer, a farm-to-table restaurant-turned-reality TV series, to learn more about (self) representation of workers on seemingly opposite ends of the food supply chain.

The northwestern NC field trip visits farms with the genetic biodiversity of perennial crops adapted to colder climates, different soils, and local mountain microclimates. For example, we will tour the Horne Farm’s historic orchard and learn about the work of Lee Calhoun to restore genetic diversity to North Carolina’s forgotten apple industry.  We will explore the mountain’s grass and heath balds, zones that historically served as rangeland for large herbivores such as the American buffalo, and learn about the indigenous systems of land management that maintained these.  Contemporary rangeland management will be explored during a visit to Hickory Nut Gap, a fifth generation farm that transitioned to pastured meats in 2000. Students will be able to investigate the challenges and benefits of an integrated farm system that mimics a natural ecosystem.

Field trips around Durham include multi-generational farms that have transitioned from tobacco into more diversified and innovative business models, and young farmers coming back to the land.

Students will produce six kinds of core products for this course:
  • Three lab reports stemming from observation and experimentation in the field at the Duke Campus farm or during field trips, plus three self-assessments produced over the course of six weeks on core competencies in sustainable agricultural practices.
  • A whole farm systems analysis that compares a selected farm system visited with two other farms using both quantitative and qualitative data collected and climate forecasts presented in the literature to recommend best practices for the same location in 2067, taking into account the cultural context of farm and farmer.
  • Weekly blog posts on readings.
  • Two short critical essays of 4-5 pages
  • A final reflection paper of 4-5 pages