Univ. debuts food and agriculture concentration

For Elis who plan to spend their post-graduation careers in agriculture, workdays at the Yale Farm are now just the tip of the iceberg lettuce.

The University’s department of Environmental Studies officially pioneered a food and agriculture concentration within the environmental studies major this semester, although undergraduates have been informally concentrating in agriculture for several years. While few environmental studies majors have elected the new option, current “Food-Ag” students said they think the concentration fills a noticeable hole in the major and will likely grow more popular as the need for sustainable and environmentally friendly agriculture becomes more urgent across the nation.

Environmental studies is an interdisciplinary major that combines studies from numerous fields, including political science, economics and biology.

Laura Hess ’06, program director for the Yale Sustainable Food Project, said she completed the food and agriculture concentration before it was formally listed under the environmental studies major. Hess and Environmental Studies Director of Undergraduate Studies John Wargo codified the concentration in spring 2007 by compiling a list of pre-existing Yale College classes which food and agriculture students could include in their program of study.

“In the past, environmental studies always had concentrations, but they were more flexible and student-directed,” Hess said. “Now prospective students can see what they would need to take to complete a concentration.”

Hess also co-authored the proposal to create the Yale Farm in her freshman year.

She said she thinks education is crucial to the future of sustainable agriculture and plans to continue working at Yale because the University is at the forefront of agrarian studies.

“Sustainable agriculture education is a really exciting place to be working right now,” she said. “Students have started coming to Yale because they know it’s a site for discourse about these topics.”

Anna Johnson ’08, who elected to concentrate in food and agriculture, said she chose the major because of the flexibility it afforded her.

“I was able to do what I wanted to do in environmental studies because there is so much freedom,” she said.

Johnson said her goal after leaving Yale is to make corporate agriculture more environmentally sustainable, most likely through agricultural research that investigates pollution prevention.

Adedana Ashebir ’09 said she shares similar goals, in part because her family comes from Ethiopia, where the coffee trade is a large part of the national economy. She said she realized the importance of agriculture — and specifically the role it plays in developing nations — during a trip to Nicaragua this past summer.

Hess said 17 percent of fossil fuels consumed in the United States is used for corporate agriculture — a measure of the close relationship between sustainable agriculture and the health of the environment.

“Upon completing the food and agriculture concentration, students are going to be equipped with all the tools that they need to understand how they can solve these problems,” she said.

But Bente Grinde ’09 said she found the food and agriculture concentration too narrow to encompass all of her areas of interest within the environmental studies major.

“I decided to pursue an urban problem-solving and community development track so that I could combine farming and agriculture with urban issues, pollution and other environmental topics,” Grinde said.

Hess said interest in environmental sustainability has skyrocketed in the past year, and schools across the country are starting to make local, organic and sustainable food projects a priority. While the number of food and agriculture concentrators at Yale may be low right now, she said, the popularity of this option will likely increase in the future, reflecting national trends.

“People are realizing the importance of sustainable food production, and they know Yale is the place where they can pursue it,” she said.

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