A dinner moment about Azadi, that deep existential human and non-human yearning
Sparsha and I were introduced by a mutual friend, Lasse Bruun, and we soon found each other at dinner exchanging a smattering of words in Farsi. You see Sparsha’s mother is Iranian and I’m a Punjabi. With Prof. David Reich’s population genetics research on Ancient North Indians (ANIs) showing how some of my own lineage may have originated in the Zagros mountains of Iran, we settled on this one Farsi word called Azadi (lit. Freedom). A mutual vision for freedom for all humans and nonhumans captured the rest of our conversation and, including concepts such as intersectionality, colonialism, nutritional sovereignty, eco-feminism and toxic masculinity, extractive capitalism, how the unheard voice of deep ancestral trauma rings incessantly like morbid tinnitus in our Vegan ears and mutual dystopic musings over planetary boundaries irrevocably breached. Inspired by our discussion, over the next few months, while I got busy curating a session for students at University of Arts, London – Sparsha’s heart was set on putting together a historic moment at one of the planet’s most reputed epicenters of learning, perspective, innovation and research… causing more than a mild seismic event of her own!, in the most positive way possible. As the saying goes, ‘if you build it, they will come’. Today an entire tribe of climate, animal and food justice warriors gathers twice a week at the CGIS South Building at Harvard University to participate in the movement Sparsha has started. It’s called: The Great Food Transformation – GOV1318/IGA422, the university’s first-ever semester-length course on food systems and politics.
A word about the lecturer: Yes, she started it!
Before I introduce you to the circle of support and expertise she’s managed to surround her students with, it would be remiss if I didn’t properly and succinctly describe the force of nature Sparsha is! Dr. Sparsha Saha, PhD, is the only empirical political scientist in the world who actively researches the intersections between animal agriculture and US politics, including animal rights and meat’s environmental costs. With passionate, compassionate and evidence-based lectures, her course is set to be one of the most compelling and transformative courses offered by Harvard University today. I had an opportunity to interview her on JIVINITI – Connecting the Dots in October 2022 where she shared her vision and dreams for her students and insights from her research on questions such as “what if American politicians included animal rights in their campaigns?.”
Inside the course GOV1318/1GA422: What will students learn?
The Great Food Transformation is formally structured into two units. In the first unit, students are learning about the environmental, health, and ethical costs of our food system. The aim is to gain an understanding of the impact of our food system on climate change, biodiversity loss, water use, land use, and biogeochemical cycles. Students are exploring the field of nutritional epidemiology and how non-communicable diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease are related to what we eat. This first unit also focuses on the ethical costs of agricultural intensification, with a particular focus on marginalized Black and Brown populations in the United States. The course asks the important question of who is bearing the costs of agricultural intensification, and how we can work towards reducing these costs.
The second unit of the course focuses on the politics behind the problems overviewed in the first unit. Students will delve deep into the U.S. government’s subsidies for food, and why it is this way. The course also investigates public investments into alternative proteins, and how spending patterns differ across countries like the U.S., Singapore, Israel, and China. Students will also examine the legislation or proposed legislation aimed at tackling the costs of the current food system, with a focus on the U.S. context, but with some global coverage too. The course explores the political, economic, and scientific barriers to shifting away from the current food system towards a more sustainable one.
Sparsha and I talk about every lecture and what students can expect from it, including perspectives from the wider teaching team and special guest speakers in an exclusive video series by JIVINITI. Click here to learn more as the course progresses.
It takes a village: A passionate teaching team
With Sparsha leading the lectures, there is a talented and diverse teaching team that is the beating heart of this course, better known as “GOV1318.” Composed of a geophysicist Dr. Isabel Varela, PhD, a U.S. army veteran and lawyer, Tyler Wade J.D., a youth advisor to the USDA, Navin Durbhakula, a criminal justice advocate, Olivia Murray and a climate change course designer who speaks at least ten diverse languages, Mauro Morabito – these are the veritable guardians of this academic galaxy and avengers on behalf of all sentient life on our planet, each with a stunning vision of their own!
I spoke to Tyler McKenzie Wade, teaching fellow at GOV1318, – a resilient, disabled veteran with over a decade of experience in various business functions including operations, environmental compliance, sustainability programming, currently an Executive MBA candidate at NYU Stern School of Business. Tyler co-founded “Pluvia” – with a mission to offer drinking water solutions in water-distressed regions, a 3D printed rainwater collection system that aims to increase access to potable water access while reducing water utility demand for residential and commercial use. “We want to exceed several of the European Union’s Sustainable Development Goals while climate-proofing communities around the globe,” says Tyler. “Our long-term vision is to make Pluvia’s technology a standard feature in every real estate development project in the coming years. This will climate-proof communities and remove the economic and political challenges faced by communities like Flint, Jackson, and others.” The potential use-cases for Pluvia’s product include municipal water utilities of the Colorado River Compact, U.S. military training bases, and water distressed communities, and previous solar customers aiming to take their home off grid.
Learning From a Range of Experts
This course is partnered with UC Berkeley’s Plant Futures Initiative’s Challenge Lab. It is also an ‘engaged’ course, affiliated with Harvard’s Mindich Program in Engaged Scholarship, meaning there are outside events and speakers who will be brought into the class.
Throughout the second unit, multiple speakers (such as David Hindin, Faraz Harsini, Seb Alex, Lasse Bruun and others) will be brought into the course to share their perspectives. These speakers represent a diverse cast of stakeholders at the intersections of food and ethics, health, and the environment. There are opportunities to be a part of this shift toward a future that is less dependent on animal-based foods, and the engaged aspects of this course are designed to expose and connect the students to many different groups and stakeholders, across a vast array of sectors, who are working to make the Great Food Transformation a reality.
Instead of traditional weekly discussions, students are enrolled in a parallel (challenge) lab, in collaboration with the Plant Futures Initiative, a program based in UC Berkeley. The Challenge Lab is an applied or experiential learning experience in plant-centric food systems. Based on student preferences, they are teamed up with other students in the course and assigned a professional Challenge Lab Partner (CLP). CLP’s represent a diverse variety of for-profit, non-profit, governmental, and academic organizations. Current partners include an International animal justice organization, farm transition and factory farming awareness nonprofits, human-centric design thinking and behavior change company, a research-based intersectional advocacy nonprofit, a major think tank, a major national level political office, a plant-based investment fund and ETF, a cruelty-free marketing agency, a major plant-based corporation, and, Harvard Office of Sustainability and Harvard University Dining Services and many more!
For instance, Lena Ashooh, a sophomore and co-lead of Harvard College Animal Advocates, and part of the team assigned to The Virsa Foundation’s qualitative study “SHAKTI” says, “I’m looking forward to learning more about the new theoretical underpinnings Project Shakti developed to formulate their protocols and conduct their interviews. I am particularly interested in their model of 5Cs of a Non-Vegan Identity. I am very interested in discovering the role respondents’ identities, culture, traditions, and beliefs play in the way they think about other animals and their relations to them, and the foods they eat.”
Building Resilience amidst a grim climate and food systems reality: Connecting with the breath
One unique aspect of our course is its steadfast commitment to bringing a holistic experience to students. Climate anxiety and ecological concerns are at endemic levels, especially in the wake of the pandemic, and the course recognizes the importance of taking care of students’ mental and emotional wellbeing. A Lancet study published in December 2021 found that more than 84% of 16-25 year olds are worried about climate change and 1 in every 2 of the 10,000 respondents surveyed said they experienced sadness, anxiety, anger, powerlessness, helplessness and guilt related to climate change. Every lecture includes health and wellness meditations, and free health and wellness coaching hours are offered by course partner, JIVINITI at The Virsa Foundation. Towards the end of the semester, the course also aims to include a one-hour facilitated session to address student emotional health and eco-anxiety. Learnings will be incorporated from the recently concluded HPAIR Conference, where JIVINITI Research’s Climate Anxiety related case-study won the Impact Challenge in the Mental Health category.
Early Feedback: How are students feeling?
It’s clear that Sparsha’s experience as a researcher, woman of color, an animal rights advocate and intersectional vegan activist brings a unique perspective to the course. She has a vision for how to connect multidisciplinary dots and package them into one of the most compelling courses offered by Harvard University today. Her expertise in empirical political science, combined with her passion for animal rights and veganism, make her the perfect person to lead this transformative course. Some early feedback is already in, captured in an anonymous pulse survey that goes out after every lecture:
“I have loved engaging in both scientific and empathetic education with Dr. Saha.”
“By the meditation, I felt incredibly relaxed, and deeply grateful that this class encourages not only learning of facts, figures, concepts that can often seem separable from our individual lives, but an intrinsic learning of our relationship with the planet.”
“I like the overview of all the areas that are impacted by animal agriculture and the compassionate way that Professor Saha teaches the material. I would love to dive into more of the tensions in the industry – barriers to growth and change, what’s happening with alt protein now, what’s the future of this look like, what do we need to do to transition”
“The content we learn is always information that mainstream media never acknowledges, so I am always glad to learn more about topics that aren’t regularly talked about. I like when we have visual aids/videos incorporated into the lesson as well”
A clarion call and a bold challenge
The Great Food Transformation aims to equip students with the knowledge, tools, and resources, and self-compassion and resilience they need to make a meaningful impact in a world where forced climate transformation is an undeniable reality. I can’t wait to see how this experience unfolds for everyone involved throughout the semester.
And as far as the wider world of academia goes, The Great Food Transformation – GOV1318 has set a tall benchmark across so many levels – and calling out animal agriculture as the biggest bully that’s holding our and ALL OTHER species hostage is just one of those!
After wrapping up a week full of lectures, on a rainy Friday evening in Cambridge, Sparsha tells me – “Making this course happen took a team of us working together. What I’ve been able to do would not be possible without the support of Mindich Program in Engaged Scholarship, the incredible and expert teaching team, Harvard Food Systems Initiative (particularly Dr. Walter Willett), and the Government Department at Harvard University, and The Virsa Foundation and JIVINITI Research Program. For me, transferring all of my interdisciplinary knowledge to the next generation of leaders who will transform the food system is my main priority through my work. While doing this, we are making sure that we take care of our students as well because they are what all of this is about – multiplying healthy and kind leaders who are going to be a part of the solution to the existential problems our species faces on this planet. They give me hope. A very Great Food Transformation is within our reach.”
Written by Nivi Jaswal, Founder and President – The Virsa Foundation and JIVINITI Research Program.