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What's that you're eating?

Why did the British army need prickly-pear cactus? How can spinach be bad for you? How old is a one-pound lobster? Students in biologist Monica Raveret-Richter’s “Food Ecology” course have the answers, and lots of other social and scientific knowledge about the ripple effects of who eats what.

After a semester of honors-level class and lab study, plenty of readings, and a few field trips to area farms (a local sheep dairy and cheese sampling was on the itinerary), each student presented research—and a potluck dish on
a particular food item, discussing its nutritional value, environmental niche, economic or commercial impacts, and sociohistorical roles. Among the fascinating tidbits they served up:
• Prickly pears are good in salad and pie; Native Americans used the spines for pins; and the cochineal insect, which relies on the plant, was the source of the dye for the famous red coats of British soldiers.
• Commercial spinach growers use so much pesticide that spinach rivals strawberries as the most heavily treated produce.
• Today’s wild rice is pretty tame: farmed in paddies, it’s bred for shatter-resistant grains that all ripen at the same time to allow mechanical harvesting.
• It takes 15,000 sesame seeds to tip the scale at one pound; it takes a lobster about six years to grow to one pound.

Putting it in a nutshell (so to speak): “The immense ecological ramifications of human production and harvest of food resources,” says Raveret-Richter, are “complex, fascinating, and quite often unsettling.” —SR