751-2102-00L  History of Food and Agriculture

SemesterSpring Semester 2017
LecturersP. Aerni
Periodicityyearly recurring course
Language of instructionEnglish


751-2102-00 VHistory of Food and Agriculture2 hrs
Mon10:15-12:00LFW C 4 »
P. Aerni

Catalogue data

AbstractKnowledge about the history of food and agriculture is crucial to understanding the emergence of modern agriculture and public resistance to industrial farming. The lecture discusses the evolution of agriculture and its impact on social structures, human health and the environment from an anthropological, a cultural, a political and a technological point of view.
Objective- to become familiar with the milestones of the history of food and agriculture
- to understand innovation in agriculture as one of the major forces of change in the history of mankind
- to learn how perceptions, politics and policies in food and agriculture are shaped by social, technological and environmental change
- to be able to embed the current debate on the food crisis and climate change into a historical context
ContentThis lecture starts with the Neolithic revolution and its cultural and environmental impact on humankind. In this context, it will discuss the transition from hunter-and-gatherer societies to societies that rely more upon the domestication of nature (agriculture and pastoralism) (Keeley 1996, Diamond 1999).
The various forms of domestication of plants and animals and their economic, political and environmental implications for society will be discussed using examples from different parts of the world (Stone et al.2007).
The emergence of civilization based on agrarian law will be discussed by using the example of the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire (Weber 1891, Love, 1996).
Subsequent innovations such as the three-field system in medieval times, the introduction of new plants and animals during the colonial period, and scientific and technological breakthroughs in plant breeding, agricultural practices and food preservation in the 19th century gave a major boost to agricultural productivity, food availability and agro-biodiversity. These prior developments also laid the foundation for industrial agriculture at the beginning of the 20th century (Kingsbury 2009). The global implications resulting from change in food preferences and agricultural innovation will be illustrated by using selected examples of innovations in food and agriculture (Braudel 2002, Pendergast 2010).
Public resistance to industrial agriculture manifested itself in the early 1920s with counter-movements such as biodynamic farming (Kingsbury 2009) but also with organized lobbying groups that fought against change caused by refrigeration and cheap food (Freidberg 2009). Applying science to plant and animal breeding also caused a cultural divide in biology departments at universities between those who changed nature (plant breeders) and those who wanted to preserve it (botanists, ecologists) (Anker 2001).
The period during and after the two World Wars changed the business of agriculture entirely. Food security became a matter of national security and thus justified state intervention on all levels in the production of food from farm to fork. This also helps explain why the Green Revolution was largely a public sector initiative that cared more for productivity increases on the supply side than for consumer preferences on the demand side (Aerni 2007). After the end of the Cold War, attention shifted from the supply side to the demand side and thus from food security to food safety.
Food safety concerns were largely due to distrust of industrial agriculture and this led to major policy shifts in the way agricultural subsidies and resources were allocated and how food safety was managed and monitored. While the public sector largely withdrew from investing in productivity-related agricultural research, the private sector started to invest more. This led to the growing need to engage again in public-private partnership, as had been the case in the 19th century. Despite the Agreement on Agriculture of the World Trade Organization, agricultural trade remains highly restricted and the growing vertical integration of the food supply chain tends to concentrate market power with global retailers. They have designed private standards that are meant to protect consumers from unsafe food and promote good agricultural practices abroad, as well as ethical trade. Yet, the increasing importance of south-south trade in agriculture and the global food crisis might again shift more power back to producers (Aerni 2009).
Lecture notesLink
LiteratureAerni, Philipp (2011) Food Sovereignty and its Discontents. ATDF Journal 8(1/2): 23-49.
Aerni, Philipp (2011) Do Political Attitudes Affect Consumer Choice? Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Study with Genetically Modified Bread in Switzerland. Sustainability 3: 1555-1572.
Aerni, Philipp (2009) What is sustainable agriculture? Empirical evidence of diverging views in Switzerland and New Zealand. Ecological Economics 68(6): 1872-1882.
Aerni, Philipp. 2007. Exploring the Linkages between Commerce, Higher Education and Human Development: A Historical Review. ATDF Journal 4(2): 35-47.
Anker, Peder (2001) Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895-1945. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
Braudel, Fernand (2002) The Wheels of Commerce. Civilization and Capitalism 15th -18th, Volume II. Phoenix Press, London.
Cook, Harold (2008) Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age. Yale University Press, New Haven.
Fagan, Brian (2001) The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History. Basic Books, New York.
Morgan, Dan (1979) Merchants of Grain: The Power and Profits of the Five Giant Companies at the Center of the World's Food Supply. iUniverse, Inc: Lincoln, NE.
Diamond, Jared (1999) Guns, Germs and Steel. Norton, New York.
Freidberg, Susanne (2009) Fresh: A Perishable History. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
Freidberg, S. (2007). Supermarkets and imperial knowledge. Cultural Geographies, 14(3): 321-342.
Kingsbury, N. (2009) Hybrid: the History and Science of Plant Breeding. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Love, John (1986) Max Weber and the Theory of Ancient Capitalism. History and Theory 25(2): 152-172.
Stone, Linda, Lurquin, P. F. and Cavalli-Sforza (2007) Genes, Culture, and Human Evolution: A Synthesis. Blackwell, Malden, MA.
The Economist, 2008. Hunters and Gatherers: Noble or Savage, Dec. 19th.
Keeley, Lawrence, H. (1996) War Before Civilization. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Pendergast, M. (2010) Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and how it transformed our World. Basic Books, New York.
Weber, M. (1891) Die römische Agrargeschichte in ihrer Bedeutung für das Staats- und Privatrecht. Stuttgart.
Prerequisites / NoticeThe 2-hour course will be held as a series of lectures. The course materials will be available in form of an electronic Reader at the beginning of the semester.
The class will be taught in English.
Students will be asked to give a (a) presentation (15 Minutes) or write a review paper based on a article selected from the electronic script, and (b) they will have to pass a written test at the end of the course in order to obtain 3 credit points in the ECTS System. In the final mark (a) will have a weight of 40% and (b) 60%.

Performance assessment

Performance assessment information (valid until the course unit is held again)
Performance assessment as a semester course
ECTS credits3 credits
ExaminersP. Aerni
Typeend-of-semester examination
Language of examinationEnglish
RepetitionA repetition date will be offered in the first two weeks of the semester immediately consecutive.

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Offered in

Agroecosystem Sciences MasterAgricultural- & Food- and Environmental EconomicsWInformation
Agroecosystem Sciences MasterDevelopment and International PolicyW+Information
Agroecosystem Sciences MasterAgricultural Trade and PoliciesWInformation