We are what we crop? – Part 2

Jacob van Etten continues our coffee-table conversation about whether crops determine everything.

All of this started off with Wittfogel’s Oriental despotism and how crops (rice) and cropping technologies (irrigation) give shape to whole societies. Jeremy mentioned Malcolm Gladwell, who argues in Outliers that Asians are good in math because they grow rice. Crops determine everything?

Wittfogel first. Some more recent opinions nuance the point about hierarchical rice societies. Yes, irrigation tends to give rise to more hierarchical societies. Dorian Fuller and Ling Qin write that the rise of water management in China in archaeological times went hand in hand with the development of social hierarchies. ((D.Q. Fuller & L. Qin. 2009. Water management and labour in the origins and dispersal of Asian rice. World Archaeology 41(1): 88-111.)) But rice irrigation is not as hierarchical as if Henry Ford had organized it. A lot of ‘participation’ goes on, as most water management ultimately relies on the efforts of both big and small players. Francesca Bray writes:

One of the main arguments that underlies such theories is that only a highly centralised state can mobilise sufficient capital and technical and administrative expertise to construct and run huge irrigation systems. It is certainly true that both Hindu and, later, Buddhist monarchs all over Southeast Asia saw it as part of their kingly role, an act of the highest religious merit, to donate generously from the royal treasuries to provide the necessary materials and funding. But kings were not the only instigators of such works. Temples, dignitaries, or even rich villagers often gave endowments to construct or maintain irrigation works on different scales.

Malcolm Gladwell actually argues something similar:

By the 14th and 15th centuries, landlords in central and southern China had a nearly hands-off role with their tenants, collecting only a fixed amount and letting farmers keep whatever yields they had left over. Farmers had a stake in their harvest, leading to greater diligence and success.

Continue reading “We are what we crop? – Part 2”

Church of the Bio-geek

Mary Mangan is a scientist trained in cell and molecular biology in plant and mammalian systems, now using those skills in the field of bioinformatics, and is a co-founder of OpenHelix. Inspired by Luigi, she made a little trip and sent us this account.

Last week I decided to alter my Sunday plans based on a blog post. I was so intrigued about The Glass Orchard, the unique collection of life-sized glass models of plants on permanent display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History that I decided to walk over, weather permitting, to see it. And since Hurricane Bill decided to stay off to the east, Sunday turned out to be the perfect day.

My walk from Somerville passes through old neighborhoods (well, US old, not European old) with houses that are mostly the same vintage as the Glass Orchard, around the turn of the 20th century, give or take 20 years. As I walked I thought about the families that lived in those homes and what they might have been doing on a Sunday in August 100 years ago. I suspect they were mostly in church. I also kept an eye out for the Somerville Madonnas along the way. They are a quirky collection of mass-produced lawn sculptures with individual personalities that are really amusing in general. They are often the centerpiece of a charming garden with little cultural touches, and seem like quaint remnants of another time.

Quite honestly, that’s what I expected The Glass Orchard to be. The last exhibit I attended at the Harvard Museum — a collection of gorgeous old brass microscopes — showed many charming and attractive pieces, but they were really dated as tools of biomedical research. Similarly, I thought the flowers in the exhibit would be a sort of Victoriana frou-frou that would be nice, but quirky.

I was wrong.

These may have come from that time and place, but the Glass Flowers of Harvard are seriously remarkable — a still very effective, detailed structural look at plants and their components and mechanisms that stand the test of time. I won’t go into the history of the collection, you can find that in the linked posts. I’m just going to share my impressions below.

coffee_glass_sm.jpg From the reading I had done, I knew there would be lovely flowers. I expected them to be some of the “pet” species of the Victorians, the irises, orchids, etc. But this display was much broader than that. There were some gorgeous specimens like blue irises. But there were also cow-parsnips — which included the root structure, and not just the green vegetation at the top. There were plenty of samples of commercially important species — coffee, tobacco, potato, and such — not just fashionable hothouse orchids of the day. It wasn’t just “pretty” plants.

I saw glass mosses with their teeny hair-like features rendered in excruciating detail. Pollen samples at diverse magnifications were on display. There were various types and maturity of the flowers — even on the same plants. There were glass specimens of plants I have never seen — and probably never will. I’ll never think about cashews the same way ever again. I had no idea how they actually grew. Now I know.

In some cases the associated insects appeared with the plants. The Venus flytrap hosts a fly immortalized just prior to tripping the hinge on the trap. And the White Oak Wool Sower Galls included wasp larva and all.

I was surprised to see so many samples of cross-sections and higher magnifications of the plants and plant organs. In many cases the root structure details were included in the specimens. I was told by a terrific volunteer guide — also named Mary — that the father and son who created these works, Leopold and Rudoph Blaschka, had been provided a Zeiss microscope to examine the plants. It made me think of those brass ones I had seen years before. They used it very effectively.

cross_sect_2.jpg Mary the guide also pointed me to a number of special features of the collection. She pointed out the earliest ones and it was clear that the skill of the Blaschkas ramped up rapidly. She showed me some of the samples that are showing their age, and talked about some of the curation issues around this incredibly rare and fragile stuff. We looked at some of the special details that cursory glances wouldn’t have revealed to me—like the fly I missed in the flytrap on my first pass through.

The curators provide some highlights to special groups of plants — those with detailed and interesting pollination strategies, threatened plants (“plants in peril”), and food plants. Currently there is no list of all the species in the collection, but I’m told that one is in the works.

My few poorly-lit iPhone photos would never do justice to the 3-dimensional presence of these sculptures. And even the books I picked up about the glass plants — while beautifully illustrated and photographed—don’t have the same feeling as being in the room. If you are a plant lover — either professionally or as a hobbyist — I would certainly encourage you to visit this exhibition. It is stunning.

It was great to see quite a few other people there. Parents were using the models to teach their kids about pollens and fruits. Other plant lovers were equally amazed and overwhelmed with the quality and beauty of these treasures.


The workbench that the Blaschkas used to create the flowers is also on exhibit. It has a foot bellows on the bottom and a few primitive looking tools on a very plain wood surface. From my digital perspective it is nearly unfathomable that such valuable scientific educational tools as these could be created in such a low-tech way. As someone who creates contemporary educational tools for biology, I wondered if someday someone will put my laptop in a room (I’m guessing not …). I’m seriously humbled by the accomplishments of the Blaschkas and the foresight of their patrons, and impressed by the curators and volunteers who maintain and share their work today.

The last time that I felt such a reverence and touched the direct line from my career ancestors was when I worked on an Earthwatch project on the Medicinal Plants of Antiquity in Rome. We handled centuries old Medicinal Herbal texts that had beautiful illustrations, many of which are coming online now at the Smithsonian in the Renaissance Herbals collection, part of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions.

I came out of the exhibit having had a quasi-religious experience at the church of the bio-geek. And I intend to go back on another Sunday soon. I’ve already recruited potential converts as well …

Books available at the Harvard Museum shop:

The Glass Flowers at Harvard. 1992. Schultes, ((Yes, that Schultes. Ed.)) Davis, & Burger. This book has gorgeous photos of the plants, beautifully arranged and lit. But it mostly focuses on the flowers, there’s very little on the cross sections and other details. There is an introduction to the Blaschkas and more photos of the people involved and the shipping process and such. ($19.95 USD)

Drawing upon Nature: Studies for the Blaschkas’ Glass Models. 2007. Rossi-Wilcox & Whitehouse. This is a compilation of many of the field drawings that were used to create the glass versions back in the studio. Classic images with lovely details, and locations of the specimens. ($24.95 USD)

I’m adding the price so that you know, and aren’t tempted to pay $50 on Amazon for a used copy. They have plenty of new copies at the Museum store.

Is there a natural diet?

A few days ago I wrote a brief post about natural selection and breeding. In essence, can human breeders achieve what natural selection has not, like turn rice into a species that uses the C4 photosynthesis pathway. Ford Denison, whose blog post I was quoting, weighed in not only to agree about C4, but also to point to another recent post of his, The bitter fountain of youth. In this, Denison expands on a paper in which he and colleagues showed that if food is scarce, it may pay ((In evolutionary terms, obviously.)) to swap early reproduction for a longer life. What has all this to do with agricultural biodiversity?

Because, as Denison pointed out, many components of a diverse diet have tastes and odours that could be associated with times of famine, times when it would be a good evolutionary strategy to delay reproduction and increase longevity.

Past population declines were often caused by shortages of food, which can affect both the amount and types of food eaten. For example, natural insecticides in plants often have an unpleasant taste. Over most of our evolutionary history, therefore, these plants may have been eaten only when preferred foods, like meat or fruit, were not available. Consumption of these “famine foods” would therefore have been a reasonably good predictor of population decline, so they may trigger physiological changes (lower testosterone, etc.) that increase longevity while tending to delay reproduction.

A remarkable result, seen in both nematode worms and fruit flies, is that food odors can reverse the beneficial effects of dietary restriction on longevity (Libert, et al. 2007). If an individual smells food, others may be eating that food, so population size may be increasing. In that case, delaying reproduction would be a losing strategy, even if reproducing now increases the chance of an early death.

What about humans? Our models assumed that individuals reproduce only once, then die, like salmon or soybeans. However, we expect that some of our results will apply to species, like humans, with more complex life histories. One result for humans that is consistent with our hypothesis is that artificially sweetened soft drinks are just as likely to cause metabolic syndrome (related to diabetes) as sugared soft drinks are (Lutsey, et al. 2008). Like food odors, sweet foods may have been correlated, over much of our evolutionary history, with abundance, and therefore with impending increases in population size. If we want to live longer, maybe we should instead eat foods whose chemical composition or flavor remind our bodies of past famines. The health benefits we get from eating vegetables like kale may be due, in part, to the chemicals that give them their slightly bitter taste.

The idea that our preferences and appetites were shaped some time ago is a common one, and in diet gives rise to ideas like the Pleistocene Diet. As Ford commented, his theory suggests a new explanation, for humans, of chemicals plants make to defend themselves against insects, the very chemicals that breeders are trying to increase in some varieties.

Penny, however, was not convinced.

Indigenous diets are often far more diverse in the range of flavors they seek out. They recognize flavors that in the western context, we would interpret purely as smells and include foods that are intentionally bitter, sour, astringent (ie. under ripe bananas), spicey, hot (as in creating heat), rich (oily or high in protein), bland, sweet, salty, pungent (like durian), what we might call foetid or just plain stinky (a sour green sort of smell-taste), and “off” (ie. turned the freshness corner or moulded) along with a few others.

She thinks that the westerners’ preferences are the result of reduced dietary diversity and “corporate food producers and plant breeders making ‘sweet’ junkies out of the city masses”.

Things then get a little out of hand, but I think they’re both correct. It was easy to turn us into “sweet” (and salty, and fatty) junkies precisely because those food elements were rare in our evolutionary history, and so there was no evolutionary advantage to be gained by turning them down, when available. Hence, we don’t know when to stop.

For me, some of the proof of that lies in the fact that indigenous cultures, confronted with a superabundance of sweet, salty and fatty foods are no better than the rest of us at resisting their appeal.

While I’m about it, I wonder how Denison’s idea of bitter tastes being a famine signal relates to the science behind Seth Roberts’ Shangri La diet? Both notions depend on associations being formed between the availability of calories and specific flavours and tastes. Are they even aware of one another? Maybe this post will make them so.

Anyway, my own lunch (bitter, fatty, spicy) calls, so with a quiet “ramen,” I’ll leave the last word to Ford Denison, a genuine, working scientist who is not afraid to blog:

On the other hand, evolution is an ongoing process, so I don’t exclude the possibility that different human groups might respond differently.

Studying organic agriculture in Germany

Renee Ciulla is an American graduate student studying Agroecology at the University of Kassel in Germany. She wrote to offer a small description about her course, her personal experiences on organic farming with a European perspective and some ongoing research projects. Sure, we said, and here it is. Thanks, Renee.
You could write something too; just contact us.

ReneeCiulla.jpg As an American passionate about the global food system and how we can foster more organic farming and local food initiatives, I have devoted two years to getting my MSc in Agroecology studying in various European countries including Norway, Italy, Germany and Holland interacting with a plethora of different food cultures, nationalities, and physical environments. For anyone interested in organic or biodynamic farming, agricultural biodiversity, renewable energy, soil biology, plant nutrition, or organic food quality, processing and marketing, I would highly recommend checking out this graduate program.

My first few days in Witzenhausen, Germany as an exchange student at the University of Kassel’s International Organic Agriculture program kept bringing memories into my head about childhood fairy tales. The perfectly painted half-timbered homes, meticulously groomed trails through surrounding thick, mystical forests, and castles dotting the rolling farmland outside the town create an enchanting experience. Set in the Werra River Valley in central Germany, Witzenhausen is the smallest University town in the country. This means that after a few weeks you can’t leave your room without seeing someone you know and it seems to have resulted in a close-knit community of very friendly down-to-earth people. The rolling farmland surrounding the University is full of cherry trees that blossomed into brilliant white flowers in early April and have now become loaded with delectable deep red bursts of sweet cherries. I’m looking forward to helping some local farms harvest cherries in late June, but until then I’m distracted by the dozens of incredible types of sourdough wholegrain breads from the small bakeries throughout town. Organic enthusiasts can feel instantly at home by the plethora of organic food in all the supermarkets, a wonderful health food store, many community garden plots, a large student garden and a weekly farmers’ market. There are also several local, organic farms producing honey, meat, vegetables, grain, dairy, berries and fruit where it is easy to grab a shovel, get dirty and attempt the tongue-twisting German language.

One of my favorite things about this program is the diversity of “organic themes” offered through the 23 different academic Faculties. Some examples of Departments include Agrobiodiversity, Soil Biology & Plant Nutrition, Organic Farming & Cropping Systems, Ecological Plant Protection, Agricultural Engineering, Biodynamic Agriculture, Economics & Agricultural Policy, and Organic Food Quality & Food Culture. Although I hadn’t planned on studying renewable energy here, once I visited the outdoor lab for Agricultural Engineering and saw the student windmills (which generate some of the electricity for the University), solar distillation and solar herb drying experiments and several of the solar panels being utilized, I was intrigued to try following a German course in this subject. Furthermore, it has been enlightening to learn about the various current and past agrobiodiversity projects led by Professor Hammer which include an EU-Project about networking on conservation and use of plant genetic resources in Europe and Asia, analyses of agrobiodiversity on national and international levels under tropical and subtropical conditions (including home gardens), the biodiversity of wheat and barley in Oman, Iran, and Ethiopia as well as several underutilized and neglected crop plants in the Mediterranean area, Iran and Oman.

Classes are generally small and professors are easy to approach with research ideas or questions about how to bike to a nearby farm for a weekend festival. If you are interested in a career in international agricultural work this program is particularly fitting because you are in contact with students from every corner of the globe. A bulk of research is being conducted in tropical and subtropical areas as well as arid regions such as Africa. There is a Tropical Crops greenhouse on campus founded in 1902 which is open to the public. It houses 350 agricultural species from semi-arid to higher altitude crops and is the largest facility of its kind in Germany. Students are welcome to take part in research in the greenhouse as well as at the large campus research farm located near Kassel where grazing cattle and fields of cereals and vegetables are found. Furthermore, professors have contacts with countless numbers of influential international agricultural organizations (such as the FAO in Rome and FiBL in Switzerland) and countless other Universities in Europe. The worldwide umbrella organization for organic farming, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) is located in Western Germany and BioFach (the largest annual World Organic Trade Fair and lectures) takes place in Southern Germany.

I am pleased to continue my exploration into the complexities and dramas of our planet’s food supply in the hopes that I can teach others about the importance of sustainably managing a biologically diverse soil, growing their own food and eating as local and organic as possible. Please feel free to contact me with any questions regarding studying in Witzenhausen or general European organic agriculture inquiries (especially related to Italy).

Cats and dogs and maize: A Darwinian view

The Rough Guide To Evolution lists the entire content (with linky goodness) of the current early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences of the USA. As Mark Pallen notes, it “is chock full of articles on evolution from a recent colloquium”. Two that we’ll be reading over the weekend are:

  1. From wild animals to domestic pets, an evolutionary view of domestication, and
  2. Tracking footprints of maize domestication and evidence for a massive selective sweep on chromosome 10.

Who says we don’t know how to have fun round here?