Gastropod: No Scrubs

In 1900, the average dairy cow in America produced 424 gallons of milk each year. By 2000, that figure had more than quadrupled, to 2,116 gallons.

In this episode of Gastropod, we explore the incredible science that transformed the American cow into a milk machine—but we also uncover the disturbing history of prejudice and animal cruelty that accompanied it.

Along the way, we’ll introduce you to the insane logic of the Lifetime Cheese Merit algorithm and the surreal bull trials of the 1920s. This is the untold story behind that most wholesome and quotidian of beverages: milk. Prepare to be horrified and amazed in equal measure.

BREEDING A BETTER BULL

Something extremely bizarre took place in the early decades of the twentieth century, inspired by a confluence of trends. Scientists had recently developed a deeper understanding of genetics and inherited traits; at the same time, the very first eugenics policies were being enacted in the United States. And, as the population grew, the public wanted cheaper meat and milk. As a result, in the 1920s, the USDA encouraged rural communities around the U.S. to put bulls on the witness stand—to hold a legal trial, complete with lawyers and witnesses and a watching public—to determine whether the bull was fit to breed.

Livestock breeding was a normal part of American life at the dawn of the twentieth century, according to historian Gabriel Rosenberg. The U.S., he told Gastropod, was “still largely a rural and agricultural society,” and farm animals—and thus some more-or-less scientific forms of selective breeding—were ubiquitous in American life.

Meanwhile, the eugenics movement was on the rise. Founded by Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, eugenics held that the human race could improve itself by guided evolution—which meant that criminals, the mentally ill, and others of “inferior stock” should not be allowed to procreate and pass on their defective genes. America led the way, passing the first eugenic policies in the world. By the Second World War, twenty-nine states had passed legislation that empowered officials to forcibly sterilize “unfit” individuals.

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A scrub sire, pictured in the USDA’s pamphlet, “From Scrubs to Quality Stock.” The caption reads: “There is seldom any uniformity in scrub stock. About the only things they have in common are 4 legs, 2 horns, a hide, and a tail.”

A “Better Sires: Better Stock” accredited dairy herd.

Combine the growing population, the desire for cheap meat and milk, and the increasing popularity of eugenics, and the result, Rosenberg said, was the “Better Sires: Better Stock” program, launched by the USDA in 1919. In an accompanying essay, “Harnessing Heredity to Improve the Nation’s Live Stock,” the USDA’s Bureau of Animal Industry proclaimed that, each year, “a round billion dollars is lost because heredity has been permitted to work with too little control.” The implication: humans needed to take control—and stop letting inferior or “scrub” bulls reproduce!

HEAR YE! HEAR YE! WELCOME TO THE COURT OF BOVINE JUSTICE

The “Better Sires: Better Stock” campaign included a variety of elements to encourage farmers to mate “purebred” rather than “scrub” or “degenerate” sires with their female animals. Anyone who pledged to only use purebred stock to expand their herd was awarded a handsome certificate. USDA field agents distributed pamphlets entitled “Runts and the Remedy” and “From Scrubs to Quality Stock,” packed with charts showing incremental increases of dollar value with each improved generation as well as testimonials from enrolled farmers.

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The “Better Sires: Better Stock” certificate, awarded to farmers who pledged to use purebred rather than scrub bulls.

By far the most peculiar aspect of the campaign, however, came in 1924, when the USDA published its “Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial.” This mimeographed pamphlet contained detailed instructions on how to hold a legal trial of a non-purebred bull, in order to publicly condemn it as unfit to reproduce.

The pamphlet calls for a cast of characters to include a judge, jury, attorneys, and witnesses for the prosecution and the defense, as well as a sheriff, who should “wear a large metal star and carry a gun,” and whose role, given the trial’s foregone conclusion, was “to have charge of the slaughter of the condemned scrub sire and to superintend the barbecue.”

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The Order of Procedure, from the USDA’s “Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial,” 1924.

In addition to an optional funeral oration for the scrub sire and detailed instructions regarding the barbecue or other refreshments (“bologna sandwiches, boiled wieners, or similar products related to bull meat” are recommended), the pamphlet also includes a script that begins with the immortal lines: “Hear ye! Hear ye! The honorable court of bovine justice of ___ County is now in session.”

The County’s case against the scrub bull is laid out: that he is a thief for consuming “valuable provender” while providing no value in return, that he is an “unworthy father,” and that his very existence is “detrimental to the progress and prosperity of the public at large.”

Several pages and roughly two hours later, the trial concludes with the following stage direction: “The bull is led away and a few moments later a shot is fired.”

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The verdict (a foregone conclusion), from the USDA’s “Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial,” 1924.

Within a month of publication, the USDA reported receiving more than 500 requests for its scrub-sire trial pamphlets. Across the country, the court of bovine justice was convened at county fairs, cattle auctions, and regional farmers’ association meetings, forming a popular and educational entertainment.

THE GENOMIC BULL

These bull trials may seem like a forgotten, bizarre, and ultimately amusing quirk of history, but, as Rosenberg reminded Gastropod, “they are talking about a lot more than just cattle genetics here.”

Indeed, the very same year—1924—that the USDA published its “Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial,” the State of Virginia passed a Eugenical Sterilization Law. Immediately, Dr. Albert Sidney Priddy, Director of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, filed a petition to sterilize Carrie Buck, an 18-year-old whom he claimed had a mental age of 9, and who had already given birth to a supposedly feeble-minded daughter (following a rape).

Buck’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., upholding the decision in a 1927 ruling that concluded: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Historians estimate that more than 60,000 Americans were sterilized in the decades leading up to the Second World War, with many more persecuted under racist immigration laws and marriage restrictions.

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Still from “When the Cows Come Home,” a USDA Extension film, c. 1935, extolling the benefits of livestock improvement. At one point, the voiceover intones: “Domestic animals are supposed to be the slaves of man, but the man who owns a low-producing, non-profitable herd has this idea reversed.” Via the Prelinger Archives.

Eugenics, with its philosophical kinship to Nazism, largely fell out of favor in the U.S. by World War II. But the ideas promoted in the bull trials—that humans can and should take increasing control of animal genetics in order to design the perfect milk machine—have gained ground throughout the past century, as breeding has become ever more technologically advanced.

As we discuss in this episode of Gastropod, the drive to improve dairy cattle through livestock breeding has led to huge innovations—in IVF, in genomics, and in big data analysis—as well as much more milk. But it has also continued, for better and for worse, to highlight the ethical problems that stem from this kind of techno-utopian approach to reproduction.

Listen now to find out more about the bull trials of the 1920s and meet the most valuable bull in the world, as we explore the history and the high-tech genomic science behind livestock breeding today. Along the way, we tease out its larger, thought-provoking, and frequently deeply troubling implications for animal welfare and society in general.

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Gastropod: Enhanced Eating with Dan Pashman

Have you ever wondered how to avoid sandwich sogginess, what scented soap to pair with your restaurant order, and whether airplane food can be made to taste of anything at all?

Dan Pashman, host of The Sporkful, has, and his new book, Eat More Better, is filled with deeply researched, science-based hacks to improve your everyday eating. In this episode of Gastropod, Pashman shares his pro tips and dream lunchbox design: listen, learn, and win a copy of his book for yourself.

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Pear Bulb

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IMAGE: “Die Glühbirne,” 2015, from “The Light Inside,” photograph by Radu Zaciu.

German slang for light bulb is “die Glühbirne,” or “the glow pear.” As Romanian photograph Radu Zaciu explained to Petapixel, his latest series, “The Light Inside,” was originally inspired by this word play.

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IMAGE: Photograher Radu Zaciu preparing a cauliflower; photograph via Petapixel.

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IMAGE: “Apocalypse Now—The Cauliflower,” 2015, from “The Light Inside,” photograph by Radu Zaciu.

Starting with a pear, Zaciu has been drilling and carving holes into fruits and vegetables, inserting a light bulb, and then photographing the glowing produce in a darkened room. The results are gorgeous, from the liquid magma of the cauliflower to the delicate, protoplasmic green waves of a tightly furled cabbage.

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IMAGE: “Cabbage–green,” 2015, rom “The Light Inside,” photograph by Radu Zaciu.

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IMAGE: “Fennel,” 2015, rom “The Light Inside,” photograph by Radu Zaciu.

Visit Zaciu’s Flickr page for more photographs in the series and Petapixel for more detail on his technique.

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Gastropod: Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast: the most important meal of the day. Or is it? In this episode of Gastropod, we explore the science and history behind the most intentionally designed, the most industrialized, and the most argued about meal of all.

Armed with a healthy dose of caffeine chronopharmacology, we embark on a global breakfast tour that exposes the worldwide dominance of Nutella, as well as the toddler kimchi acclimatization process. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., we trace the American breakfast’s evolution from a humble mash-up of leftover dinner foods to its eighteenth-century explosion into a feast of meats, griddle cakes, eel, and pie—followed swiftly by a national case of indigestion and a granola-fueled backlash. Breakfast has been a battleground ever since: in this episode, we not only explain why, but also serve up the best breakfast contemporary science can provide.

TO SKIP OR NOT TO SKIP

Much has been made about the importance of a good breakfast to a healthy lifestyle. It gives you energy to start your day, according to conventional wisdom, and scientific studies conducted a decade ago had proclaimed that eating breakfast was the key to maintaining a healthy weight.

Breakfast skippers are plagued with well-meaning spouses, partners, family members, and friends, all insisting that they should eat something in the morning. But, according to nutrition scientist P. K. Newby, that advice was based on what’s known as observational studies, in which scientists follow groups of people and observe the outcomes. The result had seemed to indicate that people who lost weight or maintained a healthy weight ate breakfast. The problem, Newby told us, is that those studies didn’t isolate breakfast as the important factor. It could be, she says, that those who lost weight also exercised more, or one of dozens of other variables.

Then, last year, a group of researchers at the University of Alabama published a study that took a more rigorous look at this question. They enlisted 300 participants and randomly assigned them to eat breakfast, to skip breakfast, or to simply go about their normal routine. After 16 weeks, they found no difference in weight loss among the three groups. Meanwhile, in a similarly controlled Cornell University study, people who skipped breakfast consumed fewer calories by the end of the day. And, in a smaller study at the University of Bath, people who skipped breakfast also seem to have consumed slightly fewer calories during the day, though they then expended slightly less energy.

Based on this new research, the bottom line, Newby says, is this: if you’re not hungry in the morning, there’s no harm in skipping breakfast when it comes to weight management. “It’s the what that is more important than the when, when it comes to breakfast,” she says, which also means that grabbing a sugary muffin, doughnut, or other pastry, just to eat something in the morning, is a worse idea than eating nothing at all.

QUESTIONING THE CULT OF JUICE

It’s January, and everybody on the Internet has embarked on a juice cleanse. But you don’t have to feel guilty for sticking to solids: without the accompanying fiber in fruit, juice delivers a straight shot of sugar.

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Photograph by Viktor Rosenfeld.

Juice, like sugary cereals, muffins, and white bread, is “quickly metabolized,” said Newby. “These foods lead to a spike in sugar and insulin, and then it dissipates. And so then, in a short period of time, you feel hungry again.” That, she continues, can lead to overeating and weight gain. And there are long-term health consequences as well: she says diets high in refined carbohydrates are a risk factor for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Newby says that the most important thing to understand about breakfast is that it’s simply another meal. It may seem as though we should eat only breakfast foods—cereal, juice, bagels—at breakfast time, but, as historian Abigail Carroll explains during this episode of Gastropod, that’s just a historical hangover from nineteenth-century American health reformers. And, as Newby points out, we already know what makes a healthy meal at any time of day: put vegetables at the center of the plate, accompanied by whole grains, beans, nuts, and healthy fats.

THE FIRST CUP OF COFFEE

Though Newby says that it’s what you eat that matters, not when, that may not be the case when it comes to coffee. We spoke to neuroscience PhD candidate Steven Miller, studying at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, about chronopharmacology, or the science of how brain chemistry interacts with drugs, in order to learn how timing affects the most popular stimulant in the world: caffeine.

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Photograph by trophygeek.

Cortisol, the stress hormone that helps us feel alert and energized, peaks at about 8 or 9am, at least for people who work a typical 9-to-5 job and sleep during the same hours each night. Most people, says Miller, don’t need caffeine to give them a boost at a time they’re already naturally alert. In addition, drinking a caffeinated beverage at a time when you’re already sharp could lead to desensitization, which, Miller explains, means that you’ll need an increasing amount of the drug—in this case caffeine—to get the same effect.

For the best morning buzz based on brain biology, Miller recommends saving your coffee fix until 9:30am, when cortisol levels are starting to drop off.

He admits, though, that his recommendation doesn’t hold true for everyone: anyone whose sleep schedule is not regular or who works evening or night shifts will have a different cortisol production rhythm. In fact, he actually doesn’t follow his own chronopharmacological advice. Miller told Gastropod that, as a neuroscience PhD student, he works long, irregular hours and gets little sleep, and he always starts off his day, at any hour, with an extra strong caffeinated beverage.

THE MOST CAPITALIST MEAL OF ALL

Miller’s decision to design his coffee routine around his work schedule, rather than biology, isn’t surprising given the history of breakfast. As we learn from journalist Malia Wollan, while breakfast foods may be different all around the world, it’s the first meal to change in immigrant households. And, as Three Squares author Abigail Carroll explains, those classic American breakfast foods can be traced directly back to the Industrial Revolution and its transformation of labor—combined with some entrepreneurial innovations in processing, packaging, and marketing that were first pioneered in breakfast cereal but went on to transform the American diet. To learn more about the revolutionary history, global peculiarities, and surprising science of breakfast, listen to our latest episode!

You may also enjoy this Edible Geography review of Abigail Carroll’s Three Squares from November 2013.

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Holy Radish Water, Scientists!

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IMAGE: Bottles of holy water (available at the Sacramentals Foundation of Omaha, Nebraska) and a radish.

In a paper published in the journal Psychological Reports in 1979, Sandra Lenington measured the mean growth of 12 radish seeds watered with holy water against that of 12 radish seeds watered with tap water. It was not, Lenington concluded, “significantly different.”

Lenington, a life coach specialising in “Radiant Recovery” whose career has included spells as a research engineer at NASA Ames and as a Curves franchise owner, initiated her experiment in an attempt to reproduce the findings of Canon William V. Rauscher, who had previously reported “that canna plants given holy water left over from use in from use in religious services grew more than three times higher than canna plants which were not given holy water.”

Having secured a glass container full of holy water from a local church that used the same municipal source as the Santa Clara University tap water, as well as two identical watering cans, Lenington watered her seedlings every other day for three weeks and then measured them. After reporting her null finding, she goes on to speculate that Rauscher’s previous results might have been due to his belief in the power of holy water to affect plant growth. In her own case, she writes, “the author had no expectations of the outcome.”

Another critical difference was that Rauscher had dipped his hands in his holy water, whereas the water received by Lenington’s radishes had only been blessed. “Is the ‘laying on of hands’ necessary or helpful for a transfer of energy to take place?” Lenington wonders. “Future work to check differences in growth rates of plants given prayer while being touched versus plants given prayer alone might prove interesting.”

Finally, a more mundane consideration: the holy water was only changed weekly, meaning that “it was necessarily older and had been sitting a little longer than the tap water.”

Despite the irresistible temptation to giggle at this experiment—it, like many of my favourite examples of scientific research, has been featured in the Annals of Improbable Research—it also serves as an interesting reminder of a recurring debate in plant science: the thorny question of plant intelligence.

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IMAGE: L. Ron Hubbard, better known as the founder of Scientology, attempting to measure whether tomatoes experience pain, in 1968. Photo: Getty Images.

As Michael Pollan pointed out in his recent essay for the New Yorker, a New Age-inspired belief in plant sentience was not uncommon in the 1970s. Former C.I.A. analyst Clive Backster had spent the late 1960s measuring plant-human thought transference by attaching a polygraph machine to tomatoes and bananas, and The Secret Life of Plants was a nonfiction best-seller when it was published in 1973. Seen in this context, Sandra Lenington’s holy water-irrigated radishes tell us less about vegetables, and rather more about humans and the limitations of the conceptual structures from within which we examine the world.

What is fascinating is that, although many of these original experiments have since been discredited, botanists have recently, if tentatively, returned to the idea of plant intelligence. And, just as Lenington did in 1979, they have done so using the dominant metaphors of our time. The scientists quoted in Pollan’s (fascinating) article draw heavily on twenty-first century buzz words to explain plant-based phenomena: “modular,” “resilience,” “emergent,” and “networks” are all used repeatedly.

Just as the new technology of the railway provided an analogy that helped Einstein to develop, as well as explain, his theory of relativity, and just as the invention of the telephone both reflected and structured how scientists understood the human nervous system, so, too, it seems with our ability to understand how a plant experiences and functions in the world: it is both expanded and limited by the available metaphors. From telekinesis to distributed intelligence, we think like our technology when we try to think like a plant.

Previously in vegetable metaphors on Edible Geography: “The Carrot Hack”. Sandra Lenington’s study discovered via @kyledropp.

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Outsourcing the Mouth

Until recently, the question of whether an apple was truly ripe could only be answered by destroying it.

The human mouth, with its variety of multi-functional sensory detection mechanisms, provides the traditional—and, until recently, the most reliable—guide. But once an apple has been bitten, there is, as Eve reminds us, no going back.

For eaters, this is a simply one of life’s occasional but inevitable disappointments: a mouthful of tasteless mush or eye-watering acid instead of the sweet, crisp crunch of a perfect apple. For fruit growers, it is a serious financial liability. The quality and storage-life of their season’s crop—and thus its value—depend on harvesting the apples at peak ripeness.

Industry standard ripeness-detection tools add up to little more than a disassembled mouth: the hole-punch-like penetrometer, which, like the human jaw, assesses flesh firmness; the refractometer, a taste bud analogue that measure sugar levels; and the iodine test, which operates in reverse, exposing sugar’s absence. (Iodine reacts with starch, dyeing the apple’s not-yet-sweet tissue purple-black.) All three methods, like their inspiration, the human mouth, require the sacrifice of an apple or several.

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IMAGE: Starch iodine test guide for harvesting Red Delicious apples, via.

But, as I write in a new post for The New Yorker, a new technique that relies on the granular interference patterns generated by a perceptual mechanism that lies outside human anatomical reach: the laser.

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IMAGE: Laser biospeckle measurement array. Photograph by Rana Nassif.

Finally, no apples have to suffer in order to determine a fruit’s peak ripeness: that elusive moment of maximum crunch and sweetness, before the inexorable softening sets in. The mouth, released from its analytical responsibilities, can dedicate itself entirely to a retirement of guaranteed pleasure.

For more on the laser-filled orchards of the future, read my story in full at The New Yorker.

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Gastropod: Night of the Living Radishes

For this special New Year episode, Gastropod transports you to Oaxaca, Mexico, for the legendary Night of the Radishes, celebrated the night before Christmas eve, where locals present their most elaborate and inventive radish carvings. You’ll also get a taste of entomophagy, otherwise known as the practice of eating bugs, when Cynthia and her partner Tim try chapulines, or grasshoppers, for the first time.
 

 
The Night of the Radishes has taken place in the central square, or zocalo, of Oaxaca on December 23, every year for the past 117 years, since 1897. Originally intended as a way to decorate produce stands and attract Christmas shoppers, the festival now attracts more than a hundred participants, and thousands of tourists and locals alike wait for more than four hours for a glimpse at the carved scenes.

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IMAGE: Radish musicians. Photograph by Cynthia Graber.

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IMAGE: Native god in radish form. Photograph by Cynthia Graber.

Fruit and vegetable carving as a way to attract custom is a time-honored tradition that is still alive and well in Mexico’s markets. As Nicky mentions in the episode, vendors at Mexico City’s La Central de Abasto, the largest wholesale market in the world, spend hours carving watermelon and mamey into pyramids, rosettes, and even monstrous mouths.

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IMAGE: Carved watermelon on display at La Central de Abasto’s in-house art gallery. Photographed by Nicola Twilley during her two-week residency at the market with the Laboratorio Para La Ciudad.

While the radishes are inedible, insects are very definitely on the menu in Oaxaca. In the episode, we discuss some of the benefits of entomophagy: in a 2013 paper, the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations argued that the “mini-livestock” contain high-quality protein, amino acids, and omega-3 fatty acids, and require about a quarter of the feed to yield the same amount of “meat” as beef, as well as much less water. Insects also create significantly less pollution than cattle, sheep, or chickens, and need a smaller amount of land for cultivation.

The problem, of course, is that to many Western eyes, insects are disgusting.

For Cynthia and Tim’s first insect-eating experience, they made sure to try a dish that paired the bugs with two of Cynthia’s favorite Oaxacan products: hierba santa, a slightly anise-flavored leaf, and a thick layer of a melted Oaxacan cheese called quesillo.

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IMAGE: Chapulines with hierba santa and quesillo. Photograph by Cynthia Graber.

As Tim said, it looks exactly as if the grasshoppers climbed onto the leaves, got stuck in the cheese, and died there. Mmm…

Gastropod is the fortnightly podcast that explores food through the lens of science and history. I co-host with award-winning science writer Cynthia Graber; you can find us online at gastropod.com, follow us @gastropodcast, and subscribe via iTunes, Stitcher, RSS, or email.

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Gastropod: Kale of the Sea

Call off the search for the new kale: we’ve found it, and it’s called kelp! In this episode of Gastropod, we explore the science behind the new wave of seaweed farms springing up off the New England coast, and discover seaweed’s starring role in the peopling of the Americas.

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Charles Yarish’s seaweed lab at the University of Connecticut, Stamford.

The story of seaweed will take us from a medicine hut in southern Chile to a high-tech seaweed nursery in Stamford, Connecticut, and from biofuels to beer, as we discover the surprising history and bright future of marine vegetables. Along the way, we uncover the role kelp can play in supporting U.S. fishermen, cleaning up coastal waters, and even helping make salmon farms more sustainable.

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D. J. King’s crew haul up the kelp line, attached to a buoy.

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Seaweed growing in Charles Yarish’s lab.

As a wild food, foraged from the rock cliffs and littoral strand of the world’s coastlines, seaweed has been an important food, fuel, and fertilizer since ancient times. In Japan, seaweed was such an crucial part of the diet that legislation in AD 703 confirmed the right of the Japanese to pay their taxes to the Emperor in kelp form. According to Scottish kelp scientist Iona Campbell, traces of it have been found in Orkney island cremation sites dating back to the Bronze Age. Even further back in history, archaeozoologist Ingrid Mainland has confirmed that the use of seaweed as a fodder for sheep in the Orkneys, which still continues today, dates to the Neolithic period, roughly 5,000 years ago.

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“Irish Distress: gathering seaweed for food on the coast of Clare,” from the Illustrated London News, May 12, 1883.

Surprisingly, scientists have found even older seaweed remains in the Americas, from 12,500 years ago. Five chewed cuds of Gigartina, a red seaweed, mixed with Boldo leaves, a medicinal herb and mild hallucinogen, were found on the floor of a medicine hut at Monte Verde, Chile—one of the oldest human habitation sites in the Americas. In the episode, Jack Rossen, the archaeobotanist who excavated the site’s fragile plant remains using dental picks, explained how the site’s age and location, combined with the four different species of seaweed found in the medicine hut and in residential areas, led to the development of an entirely new theory to explain how humans arrived in North America.

Rossen also pointed out that the Monte Verde findings led to a re-evaluation of the importance of plants in the diet of hunter-gatherers—and thus also of the role of women in those early human communities.

We’ve always had the stereotype of early people being hunters, big-game hunters. And now we’re thinking more that plants would have been a much more reliable resource; they just didn’t get preserved as well at most sites. And maybe archaeologists, when archaeology was dominated by men, just liked the idea of being big tough hunters, instead of wimpy plant gatherers.

As it turns out, women have also played a pivotal role in transforming kelp from wild to farmed food. Basic seaweed cultivation techniques began to be developed in Japan beginning in the mid-seventeenth century. But, despite becoming a staple food of the Japanese, the basic biology of edible seaweed species remained almost completely unknown until two centuries later, when pioneering British scientist Kathleen Drew-Baker saved the country’s nori farming industry.

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Cynthia recording the sound of seaweed sex in Charles Yarish’s lab.

In 1948, a series of typhoons combined with increased pollution in coastal waters had led to a complete collapse in Japanese nori production. And because almost nothing was known about its life cycle, no one could figure out how to grow new plants from scratch to repopulate the depleted seaweed beds. The country’s nori industry ground to a halt, and many farmers lost their livelihoods.

Meanwhile, back in Manchester, Dr. Drew-Baker was studying laver, the Welsh equivalent to nori. In 1949, she published a paper in Nature outlining her discovery that a tiny algae known as Conchocelis was actually a baby nori or laver, rather than an entirely separate species, as had previously been thought. After reading her research, Japanese scientists quickly developed methods to artificially seed these tiny spores onto strings, and they rebuilt the entire nori industry along the lines under which it still operates today. Although she’s almost unknown in the U.K., Dr. Drew-Baker is known as the “Mother of the Sea” in Japan, and a special “Drew” festival is still held in her honor in Osaka every April 14.

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Spools seeded with baby kelp, growing in Charles Yarish’s lab.

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Charles Yarish in his office.

In the United States, Charles Yarish should probably be called the “Father of the Sea.” The University of Connecticut marine biologist has spent the past forty years studying the biology of seaweeds, and then applying his research to develop revolutionary new techniques for growing seaweed off the coast of North America. His innovations have helped make make kelp an economically viable crop for the fishermen and shellfish farmers of New England, whose livelihoods have been threatened by a combination of over-fishing, pollution, and warming waters.

Listen to this episode of Gastropod for a visit to Yarish’s lab to learn what he accomplished, and how seaweed farms can help soak up pollution from aquaculture, such as salmon farming, as well as from agricultural run-off and sewage. You’ll also hear how seaweed is something of a superfood; research in China has even demonstrated that it contains compounds that lower cholesterol and blood glucose levels in mice. Now the only remaining challenge is to convince Americans to eat it: Gastropod visits chef Elaine Cwynar‘s kitchen at Johnson & Wales University to sample creative new recipes.

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Charles Yarish’s seaweed nursery.

This is the last episode of the first season of Gastropod. Co-host Cynthia Graber and I will be back with more food- and farming-related stories explored through the lens of science and history in the New Year. Thank you for listening!

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Gastropod: The Microbe Revolution

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years, you’ve probably heard about the human microbiome. Research into the composition, function, and importance of the galaxy of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that, when we’re healthy, live in symbiotic balance in and on us has become one of the fastest moving and most intriguing fields of scientific study. But it turns out that plants have a microbiome too—and it’s just as important and exciting as ours.

In this episode of Gastropod, we look at the brand new science that experts think will lead to a “Microbe Revolution” in agriculture, as well as the history of both probiotics for soils and agricultural revolutions. And we do it all in the context of the crop that Bill Gates has called “the world’s most interesting vegetable”: the cassava.

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Isabel Ceballos and Alia Rodriguez surveying the cassava field in Colombia. Photo by Cynthia Graber.

We now know that we humans rely on bacteria in our gut to help us digest and synthesize a variety of nutrients in our food, including vitamins B and K. There’s a growing body of evidence that the different microbial communities we host—in our guts, on our skin, in our mouths, and deep inside our bellybuttons—help protect us against disease and may even play a role in regulating mental health.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, plants, including all the ones that we rely on to provide grains, vegetables, and fruit for our tables, have an equally tight relationship with microbes. And, as in humans, the symbiotic partnership between a plant and the microbes that live on its leaves and roots and in the soil around it is utterly essential to the plant’s continued existence and health. Indeed, the very plant-ness of plants—their photosynthetic ability to harness light and transform it into food—comes from an ancient microbe that plants came to depend on so closely that they incorporated it into their own cells, transforming it into what we now know as a chloroplast.

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Mycorrhizal fungi growing on a petri dish in Alia Rodriguez’ lab. Photo by Cynthia Graber.

But, despite its importance to their (and thus our) survival, the plant microbiome is perhaps even less well understood than its human equivalent. The main way in which scientists study such tiny creatures is by growing colonies of a particular microbe on a petri dish in a lab. But researchers estimate that only about 1 percent, the tiniest sliver of the plant world’s microbial citizens, can be cultured that way.

High-tech tools such as metagenomics, proteomics, and transcriptomics help researchers take a snapshot of the genetic diversity of life in a given bit of soil. But it’s still incredibly difficult to tease out exactly which bacteria or fungus performs what function for a given plant. Janet Jansson, whose lab at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is studying the role of soil microorganisms in the cycling of carbon, calls this great unknown “the earth’s dark matter.” She’s part of a new venture called the Earth Microbiome Project, an international collaboration of scientists working to understand microbial communities in soils all around the world.

While researchers scramble to map and analyze the plant and soil microbiomes, companies have sensed that there’s money to be made. When it comes to the human microbiome, processed food giants have started adding probiotics and prebiotics to everything from frozen yogurt to coconut water. In the field, scientists, small biotech companies, and agricultural behemoths such as Monsanto are all racing to develop probiotics for plants: learning from bacteria and fungi to develop supplements that can help crops grow better, using less fertilizer and pesticide, even in challenging environmental conditions.

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Mycorrhizal fungi. Photo courtesy of Ian Sanders.

In this episode, Gastropod hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley focus on one particular kind of microbe: mycorrhizal fungi. These are ancient fungi that are believed to have lived on plant roots ever since plants first moved onto land, and they still co-exist with and support 80 percent of all plant species on the planet. We meet British scientist Ian Sanders, whose career has been devoted to studying mycorrhizal fungi genetics. Sanders’ latest big idea is that, by breeding better mycorrhizal fungi, he can help plants grow more food. He’s been working with agronomist Alia Rodriguez to test this theory in the cassava fields of Colombia, and we join him to find out his astonishing, as yet unpublished, results. Can the Microbe Revolution live up to its promises, out of the lab and in the field?

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Ian Sanders in Colombia. Photo by Cynthia Graber.

Along the way, we discuss other research into plant microbes, some of which has already been commercialized. For example, Rusty Rodriguez, head of a company called Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies, has scoured extreme environments to find fungi that can help plants survive heat, cold, drought, and floods. During trials, AST’s new product, BioEnsure, which was released onto the market this fall, enabled crops planted during the 2012 drought in the American Midwest to produce 85 percent more food than untreated ones.

With early results like these, microbes are being called the next big thing in agriculture. There’s plenty of hype: Monsanto’s BioAg Alliance claims to be “rewriting agricultural history,” the American Academy of Microbiology recently issued a report titled “How Microbes Can Help Feed the World,” and even normally sober scientists have declared that this research may well “precipitate the second Green Revolution.”

But the first Green Revolution has plenty of critics, and the process of translating promising science into food on tables is never without its challenges. Listen in to this episode of Gastropod for the scoop on the history and potential impact of the Microbe Revolution.

Gastropod is my new podcast, exploring food through the lens of science and history and serving up a fresh audio story each fortnight. I co-founded it and co-host it with award-winning science journalist Cynthia Graber.

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100 Shades of French Fry

For just two days this weekend, a gallery on New York’s Lower East Side hosted a pop-up French fry exhibition.

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IMAGE: A French fry on the Bowery. All photos in this post by Nicola Twilley.

It was a PR stunt put together by craft condiment contender Sir Kensington, but, as someone who has never successfully resisted a French fry in her life, I couldn’t help but go. Apparently many of my fellow New Yorkers feel a similar fondness for fries: when I visited, the single-room space was more packed than MoMA on a free Friday.

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IMAGE: The central table at “Fries of New York.”

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IMAGE: The gallery was packed.

The centrepiece of the exhibit consisted of 100 French fries, each sourced from a New York City restaurant, coated in resin, and mounted on a metal spike in individual bell jars. A label noted the fry’s provenance, classified it according to the curators’ taxonomy (steak, straight cut, string, wedge, curly, waffle, etc.), and included comments from its chef (“Fried at 400 degrees, topped with salt, parmesan, fresh parsley, and white truffle oil”).

A timeline laid out key moments in the history of the French fry and its common accompaniment, ketchup, from the domestication of the potato to the first known published tomato ketchup recipe, written down by Philadelphia surgeon and agricultural scientist James Mease in 1812.

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IMAGE: A Parmesan and parsley dusted waffle fry.

To one side sat a rack of various frying oils and a copy of Dennis Bernstein and Warren Lehrer’s award-winning book, French Fries, which takes as its starting point the discovery of an old lady’s dead body, face down in a pool of blood and ketchup.

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IMAGE: Salts and oils. From left to right: olive oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, white truffle oil, duck fat, iodized salt, sea salt, Maldon salt, White Truffle salt, Black Truffle salt, Pink Himalayan Sea Salt, and “Fry Spice.”

The display was designed to be Instagram-ready and there was indeed much jostling for the best iPhone angle. Still, people seemed to be spending much more time examining individual fries than the 15 to 30 seconds that researchers have found that museum goers typically spend in front of the greatest works of art.

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IMAGE: French fry connoisseurship.

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IMAGE: Sir Kensington’s fry-sourcing map.

All gimmickry aside, it was actually fascinating to see the diversity of fried potato shapes and colours available within a mile or two of the gallery. From the processed glory of tater tots and curly fries to the sculpted sophistication of a pomme soufflé, and from the pale yellow bistro fry to the dark brown of a wedge, a vast amount of human ingenuity has clearly been devoted to exploring the full range of formal and flavour possibilities inherent to the combination of oil and potato.

To some, this will undoubtedly provide confirmation of the irreversible decline of American civilisation, but I was rather impressed. Now, if only I could taste all one hundred, side by side…

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