Montana State University

MSU offers new degree program in sustainable food and bioenergy systems

January 14, 2009 -- Anne Pettinger, MSU News

Beginning this spring MSU will offer a new degree program in sustainable food and bioenergy systems. The program is designed to contribute to the development of bioenergy and a stronger, more secure food system in Montana. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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Beginning this spring Montana State University will offer a new degree program designed to contribute to the development of bioenergy and a stronger, more secure food system in Montana.

"It's an exciting opportunity for both faculty and students to be on the front end of what we at MSU hope will be a transformational program in food systems," said Jeff Jacobsen, dean of MSU's College of Agriculture. The new major is a partnership between the College of Agriculture and the College of Education, Health and Human Development.

The Board of Regents approved the new undergraduate Bachelor of Science program in sustainable food and bioenergy systems (SFBS) at its regular meeting in November, and students enrolled in the program will be able to take their first courses in the spring semester.

Three degree options, housed within three different departments at MSU, will be available to students working toward the degree. Those options and departments are agroecology (Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences); sustainable crop production (Department of Plant Science and Plant Pathology); and sustainable food systems (Department of Health and Human Development). Together, the options will focus on ecologically sound, socially just, and economically viable farming methods, food and people's health, and other issues related to food and bioenergy systems.

Jacobsen said it is the program's combined coursework that distinguishes it from other programs across the country.

"The partnership between agriculture and health and human development is what makes this program unique," Jacobsen said. "It brings together coursework in plant sciences, agriculture, food and nutrition and ecology, while simultaneously promoting the student experience through internships."

Some experiential learning experiences will take place at Towne's Harvest Garden, a 2 ˝-acre diversified vegetable farm located at MSU's Bozeman Agricultural Research and Teaching (BART) Farm. Other opportunities for students will be arranged through internships with Montana producers, small farmers and other industries.

The program's dual focus on sustainable agriculture and bioenergy systems is important because agriculture in Montana is more than food, said Alison Harmon, an assistant professor in MSU's Department of Health and Human Development and one of the people that designed the program.

"When we talk about crop production, we're talking about both food and energy," Harmon said. "We are also very geared toward improving Montana's food system. There is public interest in knowing what's in our food and where it is coming from."

The program also will address issues associated with market garden systems and community supported agriculture, a rapidly growing part of food systems in the U.S. and Europe.

"We are bringing science to the market garden production systems, an aspect of agriculture not previously addressed by land-grant universities," said Bruce Maxwell, a professor in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences who also worked to develop the program.

The program could help Montana producers who are looking for ways to improve their profitability, added William Dyer, another member of the program's development team and a professor of plant sciences and plant pathology.

"We hope that our students can help Montana producers identify sustainable ways of producing food and bioenergy crops that can reach new markets," Dyer said.

Meeting the challenges of food and bioenergy production in Montana and the region is one of the goals of the degree program, which is due, in part, to consumer demands, Jacobsen said.

"Consumers in the food system have increased their expectations more than ever before, both in knowing more about their food and the impact its production has on the environment," Jacobsen said. "The system is more dynamic and complex, so the challenges and problems we face are broader than historical agricultural systems."

Jacobsen noted that agriculture has changed not only because of consumers' increased expectations, but also because of production practices.

"From an efficiency standpoint, production practices have changed due to time, energy, and fossil fuel requirements. They've also changed because of harvesting and storing methods," Jacobsen said.

Faculty involved with the SFBS degree hope the program will appeal to students who otherwise might not have chosen agriculture, particularly those from rural Montana and the state's Native American communities.

Students who enroll in the program should develop well-rounded knowledge of food and bioenergy systems, as well as practical skills to help them land a variety of jobs, Harmon said. Those careers include jobs in food safety, agricultural biosecurity, rural economic decline and poverty, obesity, loss of indigenous foods, and bioenergy production and improvement.

Indeed, students who graduate from the program should be well-positioned in the field, predicted Kate Malone, a graduate student in health and human development who helped develop the program and is designing its introductory class as her master's project.

"The success of the program relies on interdisciplinary collaboration, hands-on experiences, and a way of thinking and addressing issues that takes into account not just isolated parts of food, agriculture, and energy industries, but the whole system," Malone said. "It is a truly unique program that will give students an edge in this increasingly important, popular and vital discipline."

Grants from the Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program and the US Department of Agriculture Higher Education Challenge Grant Program will initially help fund the program.

Anne Pettinger, 406-994-4902 or