Charlie Thompson (Duke University)


From 09:15
to 10:45
From 09:15
to 10:45

Course Description

Nowhere else on the planet is food more celebrated than in Italy.  What is less well known is that Italy is also the nexus of what we have come to call the ‘politics of food’.

In this course of study, centered on Venice and on the larger context of Italy, we will focus on the celebratory aspects of a place known for its rich and varied cuisine.  We will take of advantage of the setting of Venice International University by taking field trips to local markets, meeting local farmers and chefs from Venice and surrounding communities, and understanding how foodstuffs, including seafood, make the journey from producer to plate.   These field trips will be required of members of the class, but will also be offered to all Duke students as part of the cultural food study promoted by the instructor.

Building on this introductory foundation, we will move on to look at contested food systems around the world, while continuing our focus on Italy as a case study.  In the process, we will learn that while many in Italy celebrate their food heritage, there is pressure from global forces that have made Italy and other parts of western Europe into a battleground in what we might call the ‘international food fight’.  One prime example is the story of how when fast food was introduced to Italy, the ‘Slow Food Movement’, an initiative started by Carlo Petrini, responded, beginning its campaign in Rome, where a group of activists demonstrated against a McDonald’s opening near the Spanish steps.  Their movement quickly spread and is now international.  Students will attend the Slow Food’s global celebration held in Turin in September, only four hours from Venice.   This field trip will also be open to other Duke students.

Slow food vs. fast food is only the beginning.  Other salient topics included in the course are: the European fight over GM foods, world food trade, food aid to the developing world, the mass production of meats and fish, and the patenting of seeds and animals.  Each of these issues is important in the context of Italy, but the rest of the planet is equally engaged.  As we look at the dual problems of obesity and world hunger often in the same contexts, the decline of fisheries around the world, labor exploitation, migrancy across borders and into Italy, and modern-day slavery we will better understand some of these issues.  Factoring in our exploration of world agricultural crises, we will discuss global climate change and its impacts on agriculture. 

UN-FAO reports issued from Rome, some of the them informed by the work of Hope Shand, will be featured.  Students will be encouraged to bring in examples of food politics from their home countries.   The comparative perspective provided by international students will be an invaluable part of the course.

After starting out from all that we love about food, we will quickly come to the realization that food security and food sovereignty are current problems that threaten the celebrated local cuisine of Italy and everywhere else.  There is no such thing as a local place untouched by powerful global forces.  With this study, undergraduate students who enjoy their food but who may be unaware that this most basic area of human endeavor is fraught with conflicts requiring political solutions, will be given tools to understand and hopefully begin to do something about the food systems of which they are part.   This setting and subject (with field trips) promise to provide a rich experience of the study of food politics and its global ramifications that will not only be relevant here in Venice, but will travel with students back to their home countries.


Learning Outcomes

This course will provide students with a study-abroad experience that is both academically rigorous and culturally enriching.  It will focus on the unique status of the city of Venice, and Italy at large, engaging with its history, geography, and especially its cuisine. The course will provide students with first-hand knowledge of many of the aspects that make northern Italy a site of celebration and contestation in world food politics, making the location itself as important as the readings.  Students from around the world will be encouraged to compare and contrast their own food traditions and challenges with those of Italy.  We will ask: what is Italy doing right with its food systems and we will use the successes and challenges we observe and study to understand our present world food questions, helping us to think about problems and opportunities ‘back home’, wherever home may be.  The unique international makeup of the student body at VIU will be considered an asset we will take advantage of through comparative perspectives.


Required preliminary knowledge:  None, only a keen interest in eating and in food systems worldwide. 


Teaching and Evaluation Methods

The class will be conducted in American Seminar style. Students will be expected to prepare their readings for discussion, and the professor will initiate each discussion by asking questions that are related to the specific and general topics of the course. Often, students will be asked to write short reactions and prepare questions in writing ahead of time.  Each student will be expected to lead one class discussion about a topic related to food studies in a comparative perspective, though this can also occur by forming a team of two.



Students will be graded according class and field trip participation (25%), Seminar Presentation (20%) mid-term short essay responses (25%), and a final paper (30%).



Following introductory visits to markets, restaurants, and an introduction to food in Venice and Italy, we will turn to topics of global concern.  The following is a preliminary outline still under construction:

  • History of Agriculture – Global (general introduction)
    Mechanization and WW II (tractors, fertilizers, pesticides)
    Colonization; Rise of Industrial Agriculture as the Dominant Narrative.
  • Green Revolution, Genetic Erosion and High-Response Seeds
    What is the Green Revolution?
  • Trade, Intellectual Property and Corporate Dominance in Agricultural Research/Policy.
  • New Technologies and Corporate Concentration – Genetic Engineering, Synthetic Biology, Gene Editing, etc.
  • Environmental and Human Impacts of Industrial Ag Model
  • Food Waste
  • Environmental Degradation (cost of fertilizer; pesticide contamination).
  • Industrial Ag, Climate Crisis and Big Meat
  • Land Grab and Agricultural Labor Issues – worldwide examples.
  • Nutrition and public health impacts (obesity, bio-fortification – worldwide examples)
  • International Multilateral Institutions, Private Sector and Agriculture Development – what are the dominant trends? [the rise of public/private collaborations; what role for FAO, IFAD, World Food Program?]
  • Peasant Agriculture and Food Sovereignty movement responses (80% of food worldwide is produced by peasant farmers)
  • Agro-Ecology Movement / local food justice movement – examples worldwide.
  • Who Will Feed Us in the Future?



Patel, Raj.  Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, 2012.

Petrini, Carlo.  Food and Freedom: How the Slow Food Movement is Changing the World, 2015.

Friends of the Earth International, Who Will Feed Africans?, January 2017, 14 pp.

Food First Backgrounder: World Hunger: Ten Myths, 2015 update.

Farmers Under Fire: The Global Fight for Small Farmers’ Rights

Green Revolution Accomplishments:

FAO, SAVE FOOD: Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction

UN FAO video:

Seeds in the Global South:


By Eric Holt-Giménez, Justine Williams and Caitlyn Hachmyer, 2015.

The Six Pillars of Food Sovereignty:

Reading: Laura Silici, 2014. Agroecology: What it is and what it has to offer. International Institute for Environment and Development. Issue Paper. IIED, London.


Short Statement about the Instructors:

Professor Charlie Thompson (Professor of the Practice of Cultural Anthropology and Documentary Studies) and his wife Hope Shand are former organic farmers. Charlie has written extensively and made films about farm labor and immigration internationally. Hope Shand is a specialist in GMO foods, climate change in agriculture, and corporate ownership of seeds and other life forms. Charlie twice taught, with Arts and Sciences former Dean at Duke University Laurie Patton, a university-wide course entitled “Critical Food Studies,” and also teaches a Duke seminar each year entitled, “The Politics of Food.”  Ms. Shand is currently a consultant to a variety of international organizations concentrating on food and farm issues.  



Isola di San Servolo
30133 Venice,

phone: +39 041 2719511
fax:+39 041 2719510

VAT: 02928970272