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food

The Water Chestnut

Botanical illustration of Eleocharis dulcis, the Water Chestnut

Botanical illustration of Eleocharis dulcis, the Water Chestnut

The water chestnut is one of those foods I’ve eaten my whole life without knowing anything more about it than flavor and appearance (and that only because it so often shows up in frozen vegetable mixes).

The scientific name for the Water Chestnut is Eleocharis dulcis, and it’s often classified as a sedge.* It’s also a quite awesome plant. Consider:

  • The visible parts of a water chestnut plant are leafless stems that perform photosynthesis. (The water chestnut has almost completely abandoned leaves!)
  • The edible part of the plant is a botanical structure called a corm** which is a modified underground stem used by a plant to store energy (water chestnut plants are very much about stems). Not to be confused with bulbs like those of onions and garlic, which can look similar, but are instead made up mostly of leaves
  • The reason water chestnuts remain so crunchy after cooking is that their cell walls are reinforced by special phenolic compounds, the same class of molecules as capsaicin, the molecule that makes chilli peppers spicy.

The genus Eleocharis also contains species like Eleocharis vivapara which switch between C3 and C4 forms of photosynthesis depending on whether they’re grown on dry land or in swamps. The relative advantages and costs of these two different forms of photosynthesis are worth a post on their own, but I’d always assumed it was an either/or choice and didn’t realize ANY plant species could pick to use whichever system was best suited to the local environment.[citation]

Domestication: (more…)

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…)

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.

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!

Why should you be excited about the corn genome?

Virginia Walbot has ten reasons in the latest issue of PLOS genetics. PLOS journals are all open access so anyone can read it without a subscription.

The two reasons I think will be the most interesting to non-biologists are #1 and #10:

Corn was domesticated a short 10,000 years ago and domestication is normally a huge genetic bottleneck that results in the loss of much of the gene diversity found in the wild ancestor. (Modern tomatoes are more diverse than heirlooms because breeders are intentionally working to bring some of that diversity back over.) Yet two lines of corn, which certainly shared many common ancestors in the last 10,000 years, contain more genetic differences than humans and chimpanzees which have been evolving separately for 3.5 MILLION years. That’s 10,000 years vs 3,500,000 years!

Number ten drives home how essential corn is to the world today with statistics like American farmers growing so much corn last year than it works out to a metric ton for every man, woman, and child in this country. Or that corn and cornfeed animals feed a billion people around the globe (those aren’t rice numbers, but hopefully it drives home why corn has definitely earned it’s place as one of the big three grains that support civilization around the world).

h/t to the beekeeper (who I haven’t see around the blog in months) for pointing me at this PLOS genetics coverage of the maize genome papers coming out both there and in Science.

About the herbicide application report that’s floating around

I’m sure everyone who follows the genetic engineering debate has heard about the report from The Organic Center which lays a net increase in pesticide usage at the feet of genetically engineered crops. So I finally found a link to the report itself [warning pdf, also 69 pages]. I’m neither a statistician nor an agronomist (despite my awesome ISU hat which has exactly that slogan), so I’m not qualified to confirm or refute the numbers they put forward. Hopefully we’ll see more detailed analysis on that end from someplace like Biofortified or Sustainablog. I now have some analysis of the methodology of the report itself, tracked down by gntis on the biofortified forums. What I can do is given a bit of the broader context about the context of their numbers and what they don’t mean. This post will be in the following format:

  • The 318 million pounds in context
  • Chemicals are different
  • –Different Toxicity
  • –Different Persistance in the Environment
  • Herbicide resistant weeds
  • One trait vs a technology

318 Million Pounds in Context

Example tweet:

Pesticide use has skyrocketed by 318 million lbs (in last 13 years) with use of #GMO seeds!

Let’s put that number in perspective. (more…)

Not Genetically Engineered: Watermelon

I know I'm reusing images, but this is just a really gorgeous watermelon

I know I'm reusing images, but this is just a really gorgeous watermelon

Scientific Name: Citrullus lanatus

Purported Genetically Engineered Trait: Lack of seeds

The Reality:

Seedless watermelons grow on triploid (three copies of every chromosome) watermelon plants. Like the banana, triploid watermelons are seedless because it’s impossible to separate three copies of each chromosome into different different reproductive cells. Unlike bananas, seedless watermelons are grown from seed and must be fertilized by fertile (diploid) watermelons to produce fruit.

Where do farmers get seeds for a seedless plant? (more…)

Bananas: The Original Not-From-Here Fruit

A banana storage room in Salt Lake City in 1913.

A banana storage room in Salt Lake City in 1913.

As early as 1905 the United States was importing 33 million bunches of bananas a year. Bunches averaged more than 100 individual bananas. Billions of bananas were being consumed in America before the Ford Model-T car was first produced. (more…)

Spoiled with Perfect Produce

From teddlerus on flickr

From teddleruss on flickr

Matt over at The Scientist Gardener put up an important post a couple of days ago where he related his own experiences touring a lettuce field:

The crop wasn’t in great shape, but we anticipated a decent harvest. We were shocked to learn that the field had already been harvested! Hundreds of perfectly edible heads lay all around us, left unpicked because they didn’t meet stringent appearance standards for consumer acceptance.

How big an issue imperfection is varies from crop to crop. For a crop like oranges it isn’t one at all, since there’s plenty of demand for orange juice, a use that don’t require visually attractive fruit. Now when it comes to something like cauliflower, or as Matt was talking about lettuce, there’s very little demand for anything other than fresh, whole produce. The rest just goes to waste rotting in fields.

In America it is an issue of consumer preference, and I couldn’t find any statistics on wastage to imperfect fruit. In the European Union it was until recently a matter of government policy. Twenty percent of produce was being thrown away for not meeting government size and shape criteria. This summer the restrictions were removed from 26 type of fruit and vegetables which was expected to cause price drops of up to 40% for some kinds of fresh produce. You could imagine something similar would happen in the US if we as consumers didn’t demand perfect fruits and vegetables, making healthy (if odd looking) food more affordable for everyone.

I’m not sure if there’s a call to action here. Just something to be aware of.