Genetic Modification: Polarizing the population [infographic]

By Matthew Hardcastle and Poncie Rutsch
BU News Service

With all the angry voices chiming in on genetically modified foods, it can be really hard to figure out where the basic science stands. Lately, the conversation has been getting particularly ugly. People who support genetically modifying their foods (shortened to GMOs for genetically modified organisms) have started to proclaim that without genetic modification, people in the world will always be starving — that is, there is no other way to feed a growing population. Meanwhile, people who reject GMOs start to sound very similar to people suffering from climate denial — limited arguments based on poorly researched science.

We decided to put together a sort of GMO cheat sheet: what you need to know, some basic facts, and a few questions before you lose friends over this polarizing argument. We tried debating, but it felt mean and didn’t represent the amazing level of complexity that surrounds this issue. For this readon, there are occasions when the two paths overlap. In no way is this the end of the argument, but instead of reading another op-ed, why not get to the basics?

Reporting IN FAVOR OF GENETIC MODIFICATION is Matthew Hardcastle. His points follow the blue path.

Reporting LESS FAVORABLY ON GENETIC MODIFICATION is Poncie Rutsch. Her points follow the green path.




clickable map of world hunger.

A few more basics on what world hunger is and how it intersects with malnutrition.

Reporter Sharon Schmickle travels to Tanzania to explore GMO resistance through a Pulitzer grant.

Bee is for Boston

By Cassie Martin
BU News Service

Boston’s Copley Square is the epitome of urban life. Surrounded by towering skyscrapers, people mull about the streets, shop in popular stores, take pictures in front of the Boston Public Library, and people-watch on the grass in the center of the square. But hiding in the midst of this metropolis are colonies of honeybees.

The hives nestled on the rooftop of the Fairmont Copley Hotel belong to a growing trend in big cities such as Houston, San Francisco, and New York. For the past few years, restaurants and hotels ranging from fashionable boutiques to large chains have joined individual city-dwellers in the beekeeping craze. In Boston, at least four restaurants and hotels are raising bees and harvesting honey.

Nationwide, the rise in urban beekeeping can be attributed to the “locavore” movement sweeping the country. People want to know where their food comes from, even if that means growing it themselves. When community and rooftop gardens took root in Boston, urban bees soon followed. After all, plants need pollinators and bees are the most efficient. Yet despite people’s excitement, a mysterious disorder threatens this phenomenon.

Noah Wilson-Rich, a behavioral ecologist and entrepreneur, is emblematic of an innovative and environmentally friendly generation. An expert in bee health, he saw an opportunity to bolster urban beekeeping in Boston and couldn’t resist. In 2010, Wilson-Rich founded Boston’s Best Bees, a beekeeping-consulting firm that’s responsible for over 200 hives in the city, including the apiaries in many bee-friendly restaurants such as The Fairmont Copley Hotel’s Long Oak Bar and Kitchen and The Gallows. Other establishments include The Seaport Hotel and The Taj Hotel.

“Most restaurants and hotels are changing their focus from imported exotic foods to more of a farm to table, local, organic, sustainable cuisine,” said Jessica Tardiff, Fairmont Copley’s sales manager and beekeeper. Last year with the help of Boston’s Best Bees, the Fairmont Copley installed three apiaries, which produced 150 pounds of honey its first season. Most of the honey goes to the restaurant for making honey butter, bread, and turkey brine, or is served during high tea.

This year however, the apiaries only produced 50 pounds of honey. “One of our queens died halfway through our season and one of our hives isn’t that strong,” said Tardiff. “The hives weren’t unhealthy, so we don’t know for sure what’s going on but we think it may have to do with Colony Collapse Disorder.”



In 2006, reports of honeybee disappearances began trickling in. Since then, the decline of bees has increased, which scientists are attributing to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), in which entire colonies disappear. Researchers estimate that approximately one-third of the world’s bee population has succumbed to the disorder. This is troubling because bees are responsible for pollinating one-third of the food we eat including over 130 fruit and vegetable crops, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The cause of CCD continues to elude researchers, but they speculate it’s a combination of factors including pesticides, disease, and climate change. While CCD affects bees that pollinate industrial crops most, urban bees are also susceptible. Harvard University Environmental Biologist Alex Lu believes certain pesticides, which compromise bees’ immune systems and leaves them vulnerable to pathogens such as mites and fungus, are the primary cause of CCD. “[The pesticides] are everywhere including residential areas,” said Lu.

One motivation for many restaurants maintaining hives is boosting suffering bee populations said Tardiff. Although urban bees fare better than their rural counterparts (62.5 percent vs. 40 percent survival rate), experts still worry. “Beekeeping in an urban setting is a good way to raise awareness,” said Lu. “But a handful of bee colonies don’t help the whole population.” If people really want to make a difference, he suggests lobbying congress to ban pesticides linked to CCD—something European nations like Great Britain have already done.

Bobbing for Paganism

Ah the raw thrill of completely soaking one's trunk in pursuit of a crispy apple bobbing in pathogenic brine. Photo courtesy of flickr Creative Commons user Rob Swystun.
Ah the raw thrill of completely soaking one’s trunk in pursuit of a crispy apple bobbing in pathogenic brine. Photo courtesy of flickr Creative Commons user Rob Swystun.

By Poncie Rutsch
BU News Service

I’ve always wanted to bob for apples on Halloween but unfortunately, I grew up in the era of germaphobes. The first time I saw an actual bucket filled with water and apples primed for the bobbing, I was 12. Now people bob for apples on strings. Or in their own private buckets.

But why is it that people decided to stick their heads in a bucket of water in the first place?

Bobbing for apples supposedly dates back to pagan festival of Samhain, the beginning of fall. More recently, bobbing was used for fortune telling on the British Isles in the 19th century. Once a person caught the apple, they would peel it and toss the long peel over their shoulder, where it would supposedly form the letter of their true love’s first name on the floor.

What’s especially interesting is that the apples they would have bobbed for would not have tasted all that sweet. Sweet apples originated in Kazakhstan, but even there they were more likely to be pressed into hard cider than eaten.

The sweet apples we have today are the result of thousands of years of careful domestication. If you grow apples from seed, the results will be small and bitter; palatable, but not the apple of your dreams. The best apples come from grafting different species together.

After years of manipulation, many favorite apple varieties are lacking in genetic diversity. Breeders graft native crabapple species to choice trees to try and raise their diversity — to prevent the spread of disease or pests. They’ve done this so many times that apples in North America are now more closely related to crabapples than to their ancestors in Kazakhstan.

I particularly like that if you slice an apple in half at its equator, the seeds form a pentagram, classically associated with paganism.

So fortune telling, alcohol, paganism…sensing a theme yet?


When sliced across the equator, the seeds at the center of an apple forms a pentagram. Photo courtesy of flickr Creative Commons User Denise Cross.
When sliced across the equator, the seeds at the center of an apple forms a pentagram. Photo courtesy of flickr Creative Commons User Denise Cross.

Is Food Porn Ruining Your Appetite?

Instagram photo of carrot cake waffle with orange cream cheese. Researchers found that looking at too many photos of a particular food can ruin appetites, according to a new study. Photo courtesy of Cassie Martin.

By Cassie Martin
BU News Service

The hipster-chic food photos on your Instagram feed aren’t just annoying, they could also be ruining your appetite according to a Brigham Young University study published earlier this month in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Researchers recruited 232 people to look at and rate pictures of food. Half of the participants viewed 60 pictures of desserts while the other half looked at 60 pictures of salty foods. Both groups had to rate each picture based on how appetizing the food appeared. At the end of the experiment, each participant was given peanuts–a salty food–as a snack. The ones who had been looking at pictures of salty food all reported enjoying the peanuts less.

The results indicate that over-exposure to food imagery increases people’s satiation (feeling full, a loss of appetite). “In a way, you’re becoming tired of that taste without even eating the food,” said Ryan Elder, co-author of the study. “It’s sensory boredom – you’ve kind of moved on. You don’t want that taste experience anymore.”

That doesn’t mean that checking out a filtered photo or two of your friend’s latest treat will ruin your next meal. You’d have to look at a large amount of pictures of a certain food before you become turned off by it the researchers said.

Food Physics: Dessert Edition

By Cassie Martin

It’s that time of year again, readers! Every week from September through December, hundreds of people line the halls of Harvard University eagerly waiting to get their hands on one of the hottest tickets in town and a chance to sample some truly delectable creations. If you love food and are even mildly interested in science, then Harvard’s free lecture series, Science + Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter, is the place to be.

Last night’s lecture featured Bill Yosses, the White House pastry chef and frequent contributor to the series. He kicked-off the night with a Youtube video of two Tesla coils playing House of the Rising Sun. At first I thought it was a techno cover until I saw the bolts of electricity flash across the screen. “Oh, this is gonna be good,” I thought.

Yosses presented the concept of elasticity and how it informs the texture and flavor of desserts to make for an incredible dining experience. The first half of the lecture felt like a high school physics class. We watched cool, old-timey gadgets build up and discharge static electricity; we watched Yosses bend the glowing green ray inside of a cathode ray tube with a magnetic field; we brushed up on surface tension; and we picked up some cool science history facts along the way. 

Did you know that Benjamin Franklin used one of the gadgets–called a Leyden jar–in his infamous kite experiment? Neither did I. Franklin’s portrait is also the only portrait in the White House not of a president or first lady.

White House Pasty Chef Bill Yosses teaches the crowd about electricity and magnetism. He uses these concepts to create intricate desserts. Photo courtesy of Cassie Martin.
White House Pasty Chef Bill Yosses teaches the crowd about electricity and magnetism. He uses these concepts to create intricate desserts. A Leyden jar can also be seen in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Cassie Martin.

After a quick overview of the science, the demonstrations began. Yosses’ demos covered some building blocks of desserts including foam, gel, and sugar–here are the coolest ones:

Peaches are one of my favorite fruits, so when he brought out peach puree to make foam I was excited, hoping I would get to taste it. Foam is a congregation of bubbles held together by surface tension and electrical charge that builds up between between the molecules. Immersion blenders are generally used to beat air into liquids, which releases more flavor molecules, according to Yosses. At one point, he pulled out a metal container brimming with fog. Liquid nitrogen is used by chefs to manipulate surface tension to get the right consistency (without adding unhealthy ingredients such as butter or oil) and preserve the flavor of food. It has a much lower boiling point than water, so it requires less energy to disrupt bonds which means that fewer flavor molecules are lost to heat. 

For one of the gel demos, which demonstrated bond formation and the cross-linking of molecules, he dipped a spoonful of hibiscus sauce into a mixture of water and a gelling agent (I’m unsure of it’s name). The gelling agent bound to the sauce, forming a skin around the outside. “It’s like an egg yolk, still liquid in the middle,” he said. After a few minutes, he scooped out a purple ball and added it to the plate of desserts.

Yosses ended the evening sculpting, but it looked more like glass-blowing. Under a red heat lamp sat a blob of sugar stuck between liquid and solid phases. Chefs commonly refer this as glass–the sugar is malleable, has a shiny quality, and becomes very brittle once it cools. Initial heating to 320 degrees Fahrenheit disrupts the crystalline structure resulting in a soft consistency, but the structure reforms upon cooling. Yosses carefully stretched the ball of sugar, wrapping small strands around a plastic stick. When he removed the wrapped strands of sugar from under the heat lamp, he was left with a hardened sugar coil which was promptly added to the dessert plate.

A plate of sugar and gelatin based desserts made by manipulating their molecular structure. Photo courtesy of Cassie Martin.
A plate of sugar and gelatin based desserts made by manipulating their molecular structure. Photo courtesy of Cassie Martin.

The Take Away:

Molecular gastronomy is giving chefs new tools and re-purposing old ones to make food better–not just by improving how a dessert looks or tastes, but it’s healthfulness too. Manipulating food at the molecular level makes it possible to achieve the same textures and flavors without adding notoriously unhealthy ingredients such as butter, oil, and fat. Yosses hopes his legacy will be known for “including desserts as part of a healthy diet, restoring food as a pleasurable experience, and preserving flavor,” he said.

The Critique:

The lecture was fun and informative. I learned something new and I sampled cocoa beans and fruit gel–can’t get much better than that. The one criticism I have is that there were a few times where I was unsure of how the science applied to his cooking techniques. I wish he would have explained the science alongside his demos instead of separating the two, so I could get a better understanding of what I was watching.

How to Eat an Elephant: the Anthropology of What We Eat

By Poncie Rutsch

With this post I hereby kickoff the great Science Journalism Blog for all ages! And what better way to commemorate this post than with a discussion of two things representing the apex of humanity: food and culture.

Obligatory elephant foreshadowing. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons User Randi Deuro
Obligatory elephant foreshadowing. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons User Randi Deuro

That’s right, I’m talking about a little topic in anthropology called culinary nationalism, meaning that a defining facet of any country’s pride and culture comes from its food. In America’s case, I think it also means every reason why we’re all overweight.

Jokes aside, though, culinary nationalism is more complicated than it sounds. Social anthropology is about traditions and community, so it only makes sense that sharing food would play a role here. But having a sense of national pride in a food – especially in a highly regionalized country like the United States – sounds like a recipe for disaster.

I caught up with Harvard’s Mary Steedly today, where she talked about her anthropology research in northern Sumatra. Steedly has been building an oral history of the region, focused specifically on 1945-1950 when Indonesia proclaimed its independence.

Steedly recognized that her interviewees mentioned food when they recalled momentous periods in this era. Before 1945, when Japan controlled Indonesia in a brutal occupation, her subjects remember watching Japanese soldiers feed the Indonesian rice to the pigs. Meanwhile, Indonesians ate birdseed and corn used for animal feed.

After World War II, the Dutch tried to repossess Indonesia, which it had controlled under colonial rule for about three hundred years prior to WWII. The resulting struggle lasted four years, and went through periods of face-to-face battle and guerilla warfare.

Although the Sumatrans that Steedly interviewed remember this era more fondly than the Japanese occupation, it was by no means easy. The Dutch cut off imported salt, so many remember with disgust eating saltless meat. Every citizen was expected to donate food to the Indonesian soldiers, who recall the rice being red, rather than white or yellow. The rice was allotted in small packets, wrapped in leaves. Banana leaves were scarce, and the substitute leaves dyed the rice inside red – hence, red rice.

All the salt the Indonesians weren't eating. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user McKay Savage.
All the salt the Indonesians weren’t eating. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user McKay Savage.

One woman remembers eating an elephant, not because it was better than eating beef, but because beef was scarce. To be clear, eating an elephant in Indonesia is not a common affair; the interviewee made it clear that while no one she knew went hungry, the elephant eating was out of mild desperation. She recalls the meat as tough and bitter, but also that they had to leave the meat far away from their homes. The elephant attracted flies more effectively than any cow they had slaughtered.

Part of what makes Indonesia a fascinating place for culinary nationalism is that each island has its own microcosm of culture. When Steedly told the story of the elephant to an interviewee from another island, the interviewee responded (roughly) “Different fields, different grasshoppers. There certainly are a lot of foods eaten in our nation!”

But what interests Steedly most is that an estimated 80% of Indonesians didn’t know the meaning of independence at the time. She reasons that they could not have known what nationalism was because they could only imagine what their nation looked like. Yet they still felt a strong sense of pride in their culture.

True, this may be the case in other countries. But at least for me, it’s a very different way of approaching what it means to be part of a community, let alone part of a country. What does it mean to be an American? Liberty, freedom, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. Also, hot dogs and pie on Independence Day. But the intellectual ideas are far more ingrained in my America than any sense of culture. Nationalism looks far better in retrospect.

What is American food, anyway? Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Pat Ossa.
What is American food, anyway? Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Pat Ossa.

Steedly’s research is a different approach to how people see their culture – a kind of grassroots approach that neither confirms nor contradicts the official history. She says that when her subjects talked about food, she knew an important memory was coming. Memory attaches most closely to the senses – smell, taste, sight, touch, and sound.

So how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, of course. But I think the same goes for how you consume science. Just make sure to leave everything you can’t digest today far away from your home…because then it can encourage new growth like fungus and bacteria!

But seriously, today’s take home message? Science is pervasive. Even when we think we’re merely fueling our bodies (more science!), we’re also defining history and human communities past and present.

On that note, it’s time for me to consume a very American ice cream sundae and ponder the founding fathers.


As a postscript to today’s post, one of the best parts of living in Boston is the ridiculous number of outlandishly smart people around researching mindboggling topics. Today’s post originated from a lecture series that I had (almost) no business attending…except that it was free to the public. Here at BUNS Science, we’ll be posting our top picks of the area’s events and lectures (science oriented, of course).

Today’s field trip is brought to you by the letter P and the number 14. P for Poncie, and 14 for when this kid finishes her master’s at BU. Twelve more weeks of class, kids!