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Nicole Ackerman | SLAC | USA

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Food and other elements

Two weeks ago I saw the new documentary “Food, Inc” in San Francisco. It was very enjoyable with much of its content based on the books The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation, both of which I hadn’t read prior to the movie. I now own both books and have started reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma. As a scientist, I like receiving information as “objectively” as possible. There is always some level of subjectivity – even in particle physics – but journalism tends to balance objectivity with the sensationalism that will actually sell books, newspapers, or magazines. I certainly hope that this book is heavier on the facts than sensationalism.

I haven’t made it very far yet, but I was disappointed to find the phrase “Next to water, carbon is the most abundant element in the body…” I understand what he was trying to say, but he fell a little short by implying that water is an element. Later he deals with some of the chemistry of carbon capture in corn, but his notation makes it very unclear. He uses “C-4” to denote a molecular process where 4 atoms of corn are processed, which would be more clear as C4.  He also refers to different isotopes as “C-13”, where it would be correct to use 13C or carbon-13.  Why does he choose to use the SAME wrong notation for both molecular and nuclear specifications? Later, he describes the means by which corn reproduces (ie, pollination) and the genetic mutations responsible for turning teosinte grass into zea mays (corn). He refers to the “changes on as few as four chromosomes” as “teosinte’s sex change”. His description of “corn sex” is disturbingly anthropomorphic, and includes the phrase “the male anthers resemble flowers and the female cob a phallus”, which he considers an “oddity in the sex life of corn”. Last time I checked, plant reproduction usually is not broken down into a flower and phallus – often the “male” and “female” parts all reside in the flower (see the lily). This not only offends my scientific sensibilities, but also my feminist ones as well.

How is it he manages to violate both high school chemistry and biology in the first chapter? Did neither he nor his editor (nor any of the others who may have done early readings of the text) have a basic understanding of high school science? Was it decided that using proper chemistry notation would scare off readers? Was the sensationalism of corn sex (and sex change) more interesting than a mature discussion of corn reproduction? I’m not so offended that I will stop reading, but I am certainly disappointed.

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