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November, 2009:

State Dinners

Anastasia has started an interesting discussion over at Biofortified about the food served at the Obamas’ first state dinner, a reception for the visiting Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh.*

The dinner was quite light on meat** and included both traditional American and Indian foods. As I said last night on the twitter feed: Anyone who serves naan and cornbread in the same meal has my approval.

*Prime Minster Singh comes from the Indian National Congress which formed a coalition government with several other Indian parties rule the country. Indian party politics are very complex, though in some ways it could be argued a complex multiparty system is more responsive to the wishes of voters than the two party system we have here in the US (I’m waiting for a program to run and have too much time to think).

**The reporter for the nytimes seems to have lumped prawns (a crustacean similar to shrimp, although I always associate them with the crayfish I had to dissect in intro bio) with the vegetarian parts of the menu…

What is it about purple plants?

I’m really at a loss here, but there’s just something way cooler about eating a purple colored plant over a more regular color. I’m not sure what it is (I’m not particularly partial to the color purple in other contexts).

Consider the case of the cauliflower. (more…)

Could we feed ourselves with tomatoes?

Obviously no one is suggesting turning the US into a tomato monoculture, but tomatoes seem like a easy, if not necessarily accurate, proxy for the sort of fresh vegetable passed diets that some people advocate as a solution for the entire nation. If the did the same calculation for lettuce, the numbers would likely be much worse. If I did it for sweet potatoes, I’m guessing they would be substantially better.

There is a very useful resource on growing tomatoes made available by the Iowa State extension service. They estimate yields of 12,000-16,000 pounds of tomato per acre. A pound of tomatoes contains 86 calories. (more…)

Food Stamps Usage

Today 1 in 8 Americans and 1 in 4 children is on food stamps. We have some of the most productive agriculture in the world, which translates into some of the lowest food prices. Any change that decreases our productivity is going to have to include some way to protect those who already don’t have enough to eat.

At the same time the status quo isn’t acceptable. Food stamps are a great program (for fighting hunger but it’s also one of the two most effective ways of stimulating the economy along with increasing unemployment benefits), but families often still run out of money before the end of the month. I propose three key areas to work on:

  • Increase funding for the food stamps program to make more eligible and give them enough money to make it through the month
  • Increase agricultural productivity, this will bring down prices somewhat domestically, and also help fight hunger around the world
  • Get government funding to train people in how to cook simple meals (things with lots of rice, dried beans, and pasta) and even buy hot plates and a few pots and pans for those most in need. The cost of homemade rice and bean burritos is a lot less frozen food and potato chips. Some people still won’t have time to put together their own meals, but for some, such training and equipment could make a HUGE difference.

I got thinking about this after seeing this cool/frightening graphic from the nytimes about the huge increase in food stamp usage in this country.

Bt Rice in China

Reuters has a story up, based on anonymous sources, that China has just approved a government developed strain of bt rice*. Bt crops express a protein isolated from Bacillus thuringiensis a bacteria used by organic farmers to control insects. The introduction of bt crops (primarily corn and cotton) has lead to substantial reductions in the use of insecticides. China plants more than 100,000 square miles of land with rice each year, so the environmental and economic** impact of being able to reduce insecticide applications would be substantial.

China is also in a unique position when it comes to commercializing any form of genetically engineered rice, as the world’s largest producer of rice, but only a small next exporter*** China stands to benefit from any improvements to rice, and is largely immune to pressure from food importing countries such as the members of the European Union. China has also invested (and continues to invest) billions of dollars in developing their own, publicly-funded, domestic crop research and breeding which has kept their per acre crop yields trending upwards, and now means they’re prepared to make the leap to genetically engineered food crops (they’ve had bt cotton for some time) with home-grown technology, killing any narrative about this being western tech foisted off on the developing world. (more…)

The Cost of the Turkey Genome

Just to give you a sense of how fast technology is advancing:

Sequencing the maize genome took four years and 30 million dollars. Today Virginia Tech announced the University of Minnesota and themselves had received a $908,000 grant to sequence the Turkey genome in two years. I don’t know how big or complex the turkey genome is, but the idea of sequencing a whole new species for less than a million dollars is still pretty cool.

h/t to 538 they’ve got more cool turkey statistics over there.

Happy Thanksgiving!

In recognitions of the huge feasts many of us are or soon will be sitting down to, let us take a moment to think about the very fact that vast range of different foods human beings can eat might be the very reason we out competed other hominids (specifically neaderthals) with more specialized diets. Our ability and willingness to eat almost anything may have been the crucial edge we needed.

Picture a small, warm valley in Northern Europe that supported enough deer, wild cattle and sheep to support a band of neanderthals. If they reproduced too much (or another band of neanderthals moved in), the now-unsustainable harvest of prey would force them to disperse to better hunting grounds, and in time, with relaxed predation, the prey would likely repopulate the valley.

But if a band of humans moved in, they may not only help over-harvest the big game, but also refuse to leave when the game ran out. Maybe there’s still good year-round living to be made on rabbits, seeds, fish, grubs and berries. And while they’re out gathering, they’d certainly help themselves to any of the (now rare) big game that they came across.

Read more in MAT Kinase’s exciting post on the subject over at The Scientist Gardener.

In addition to the many other things I am grateful for, from my amazing family, to being able to work on such interesting science surrounded by such wonderful fellow researchers, and all the many other things that aren’t of any interest if you don’t know me personally, I am grateful for a digestive system that can handle fungus and the milk produced by other species to feed their own young, and insects, and grains, and fruits, and vegetables (including some vegetables that are just glorified leaves), and, of course, delicious turkey.

Edit: I’m also very thankful for readers of this site, and the fellow authors I’ve discovered through my writing here, too numerous to name. It’s good to know I’m not alone in my attempt to bring the public and science back together.

Edit 2: I also just realized this is my 250th post in 22 months writing on this site!

Rainbow of Carrots!

Carrots ranging from yellow to almost black:

Carrots from pale yellow to black

At least five distinct colors: yellow, light orange, orange, purple, and near black

Still missing ┬ádark red lycopene containing carrots, but it’s a wonderful range of colors. And there’s something different about the purple and black carrots. Check it out:

Yellow, orange, and purple carrots. Chopped onions too.

Yellow, orange, and purple carrots. Chopped onions too.

Notice how the purple carrots are still white in the centers? I want to know more about why!

Traveling

So I’m about to depart on what promises to be a 14 plus hour journey back to the land of corn (maize), porkburgers, and possibly snow. This couldn’t be coming at a worse time in the submission process for the paper my lab is trying to get out the door. Never before have I so closely mapped out my travel times and when I’ll have internet access. I kind of like it. I’ll be out of town until Monday and if I’m pulling long hours on the computer instead of seeing friends and family it’s going to be in pursuit of publication not internet fame and fortune. Anyway I’ve got a few ideas about content over the thanksgiving holiday but I’m afraid I can’t promise many 200+ word updates. Here’s wishing everyone a happy Thanksgiving tomorrow.

Summary of the Coverage of the Maize Genome here at J+TGC

Summarizing a couple of Virginia Walbot’s ten reasons you should care about the maize genome

Hear one of the lead authors of the maize genome paper explain how and why it was done in under four minutes.

Reviewing the quality of the genome sequence itself.

We can already see research made possible by the maize genome.

How maize fits in the family tree of grasses/grains

Read about how the maize genome project is helping researchers find more genes selected for during the domestication of maize.

Plants have more genes than people, why is this still news

Other people on the web react to the maize genome (also why different colors of corn are not different species)