Cross-college major bridges agriculture and human health

Closeup of Kevin Murphy in a wheat field.
Kevin Murphy

Students will study the connection from fields to dinner plates to human health in the new Human Nutrition and Food Systems major at Washington State University.

Available this fall, the new joint degree from WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS) and the Elson Floyd College of Medicine helps students learn how food systems and agriculture can benefit health.

“This is a broad major geared toward training students to become well-versed in different skills that span agriculture and nutrition,” said Kevin Murphy, a professor in WSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences (CSS) and one of the developers of the new major. “We’re seeing a lot of students that are interested in human health and how it ties in to agriculture.”

The major is housed within CAHNRS’ Agricultural and Food Systems (AFS) interdisciplinary program, but many courses are available in the College of Medicine catalog for students who complete AFS core requirements. Most core courses are taken during students’ first two years of study.

The new offering grew out of a large, ongoing research project that involves scientists in both colleges.

“WSU has fantastic agriculture and nutrition programs, but they’re often siloed,” said Pablo Monsivais, an associate professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology. “We’ve bridged them in our research project, led by Kevin. This new major will bring them together educating undergraduates. Hopefully we’ll start to knock down those silos by teaching about the links between agriculture, food science, human nutrition, and human health.”

Monsivais, whose primary fields are population health and nutrition, said some of the most significant causes of death, like cardiovascular disease and cancer, are related to unhealthy diets.

“The idea is to develop our food system to serve human health, to create a system that goes beyond just providing calories to benefitting human health and nutrition,” he said. “The research we’re doing and the new major will help students think about questions on those topics.”

For students, the new major could lead to careers in a wide variety of fields, ranging from dietary counseling to international community food security to public policy advocacy.

“Every county in Washington experiences food insecurity,” said Holly Henning, associate professor in CSS and WSU’s Swantz Distinguished Professor of Teaching and Learning. “This is a way to explore what nutrients are missing and what can be done to get better nutrition to our communities.”

Students in this major will have opportunities to help on research projects as well as chances for internships with public and private employers, she said.

“Employers are looking for students that understand the nutritional needs of their communities and know how to best meet those needs by strengthening regional food systems,” Henning said.

Another benefit for students who enroll is that they will learn to communicate across topics.

“Students will learn to speak languages they aren’t used to speaking,” Murphy said. “My team and I had to learn to speak the language of human nutrition and health when this started. And my College of Medicine colleagues had to learn about plant breeding and soil science. Students in this major will come out of the program with the ability to talk competently across many disciplines.”

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