Course Number 1911

Professor David E Bell
Fall, 29 sessions

Course Overview

The course will provide a survey of the global food and agribusiness system. In addition to studying the management problems of farmers, processors, branded consumer goods manufacturers and food retailers, we will consider consumer trends, technological advances, public policy issues, food safety and risk management. The pervasiveness of food and agribusiness makes the course suitable for future consultants and investment bankers in addition to those who have a direct interest in the industry; it may also be of interest as a general management course due to its integrative, cross-functional approach and emphasis on strategy. The course may also appeal to students with interests in political economy and business-government relations, since the firm's ability to capture value is affected by regulatory institutions at the national and global levels.


The structure of the course may evolve before the winter semester, but a representative outline is as follows:

The Agribusiness Value Chain
The module provides insight into the typical challenges faced by players in the value chain from input suppliers (seeds and "traits", machinery) to food manufacturers (how to adapt to powerful retailers and increased scrutiny of nutritional attributes) to retailers and consumers (from short term fads such as 'low carb' diets to long term changes in demographics and eating habits). In addition, the food chain now produces outputs other than food, including energy, industrial products and pharmaceuticals.

The Global Food Industry
What was once the most local of industries is becoming truly global. We study the forces causing the industry to evolve and the responses of firms (vertical integration, acquisitions, alliances and partnering) and countries (subsidies, tariffs, self-sufficiency) to these changes.

Food Safety and Environmental Sustainability
Food recalls get a lot of visibility but, at least in developed countries, food is plentiful and remarkably safe to eat despite the distances much of it travels. However, outbreaks of "Mad Cow" disease, the debate over GMO food and the threat of avian flu have heightened consumer sensitivity to the safety of foods. Traceability has become an increasingly important factor in food production. In addition, more and more consumers are asking where and how their food is produced and companies are being judged according to their environmental impact.

Risk Management
The global food system is prone to shocks from weather and fluctuating demand. We will study how firms manage to control risk, through use of the futures market, and natural diversification.

Current Issues
Every January, nearly 200 executives come to the HBS campus to discuss newly written cases on current topics (e.g., nutrition, obesity, functional foods and pharmaceuticals, food safety, organic and natural foods). Each year the course will be updated to include some of these fresh cases. It is expected (but not guaranteed) that many of these cases will feature, as a guest, a senior executive from these companies.

Course Requirements

The course is offered on a 30 session plus exam basis. There may also be a modest, but graded, group project for which time will be allocated during the course.