Plagues, Food and People: Ecology of Food and Disease

Mary Azarian, artist

STOCKSCH 171 – 4 credits Gen Ed (BS)

May 17 – June 25, 2021

Instructor: Daniel Cooley dcooley@umass.edu

Course Description:

It’s all about food, the center of life, really. As the Persian proverb goes, “A person who has bread may have many problems, but a person without bread has but one problem.” To try to eliminate, or at least reduce, the chance that we’ll have that ‘one problem’, humans put tremendous amounts of energy and resources into producing food, into agriculture. In this endeavor, we have dramatically reshaped our world, and we continue to do it today. Looking at food through twin lenses of ecology and diseases, we see, that food is not always good for our health. Industrial agriculture creates water pollution, pesticide contamination and climate change, for example. Modern diets can lead to obesity, heart disease and autoimmune problems. Agricultural systems can fail when they suffer from plant or animal diseases, leading to famines. Eating food from animals, either from farms or forests, also has brought to us many microscopic organisms that in turn eat us – infectious diseases. In consuming food we’ve recently discovered we interact with and depend on a microbial ecosystem inside us, the microbiome. A healthy microbiome is a good thing, but when it malfunctions, we may suffer a number of diseases. Maybe saying it’s ALL about food is a slight exaggeration, but a big part of getting to a sustainable and healthy world means addressing the kinds of issues we’ll discuss in this course.

 WeekGeneral TopicSpecific Topics
Week 1 Feb. 1  It’s All About Food: Diseases and FoodBasic disease concepts and pathogen groups. Abiotic diseases. Infectious and non-infectious diseases related to diet. The microbiome in us.
Week 2 Feb. 8  The Ecosystem That Is Our BodyHuman gut ecology, the hygiene hypothesis, celiac disease and other autoimmune diseases related to diet. Basic cellular elements and concepts of innate and adaptive immunity.
Week 3 Feb. 15  Farm Animals and Bush MeatZoonoses and agriculture. The ecology and biology of flu, cycling through chickens, pigs and us. 1918 Flu. Vaccines. Why we need a flu vaccine every year. Bush meat, anthrax, Ebola and COVID 19.
Week 4 Feb. 22  Was Agriculture a Mistake?How agriculture started, then dominated societies. The Columbian Exchange of diseases and crops, and the evolution of major crowd diseases. Smallpox and rinderpest.
Week 5 Mar. 1  Sick Sheep, Sour Wine and Healthy Milk: Germ Theory and Food Exam 1A short history of germ theory, related to the disease anthrax. Pasteur and Koch.
Week 6 Mar. 8  Cereal Killers: Witches, Magical Mushrooms and MycotoxinsBasics of fungi. Ergot. Ergotism, witch trials, fungal hallucinogens and mental health. Mycotoxins in food, their importance in the developing world, related cancers and other diseases.
Week 7 Mar. 15Once and Future FaminesHistory of the Irish Potato Famine– plant disease, human politics and famine. The potential for famine. Technological solutions vs. conservation, and issues facing sustainability in agriculture.
Week 8 Mar. 22Cereal Killers: Wheat Stem Rust, The Green Revolution and Genetic EngineeringThe major wheat disease, stem rust, Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution. Modern plant breeding, monocultures and diseases. Genetic engineering, papayas, Bt and CRISPR.
Week 9 Mar. 29  Industrialized Ag: Pesticides and HealthPesticides, and how they are used in agriculture. Benefits in terms of plant and human health, costs in terms of the environment and human health. DDT, EPA, and toxicology. 
Week 10 Apr. 5Industrialized Ag: Health and Soils   Exam 2Soil health. Tilling to the Dust Bowl. Nitrogen and other fertilizers. The broken cycle of manure and other waste. Albert Howard and organic agriculture.
Week 11 Apr. 12It’s Alimentary Watson: Food-borne DiseasesClassic food-borne diseases, modern food systems and supply chains. Antibiotics and animal ag. Toxoplasmosis, a parasite that changes behavior. “Worms” in food. Prions and Mad Cows.
Week 12 Apr. 19Don’t Drink the Water: Water-borne Diseases    Cholera and sewer sytems. John Snow, epidemiology and Typhoid Mary, public health.  
Week 13 Apr. 26  Darwin, Diseases and SexEvolution of pathogens and hosts. Evidence for disease selecting for sexual reproduction. Sickle-cell. Rabbits and myxomatosis in Australia. Parasitism to mutualism – endosymbiosis.
Week 14 May 3Not So Busy Bees: Pollinators, diseases and food Exam 3The forces behind pollinator decline: pesticides, diseases and modern beekeepers. It’s impact on food.

Teaching Assistants

Undergraduate TAs: We have a group of undergrad TAs that are familiar with the class topics – they took the course and did very well in it. Each TA will be responsible for a group of students through the semester, helping you with questions, guiding on-line discussions, and grading writing assignments. Contact information is available on the course Moodle site.

Reading and Videos

This course is asynchronous, which as we all now know, means we will not all meet via Zoom at the same time. There are several video lectures recorded for each section of the course. That’s where you’ll find the core information. PDF versions of the slides in the videos will be posted as well.

There is no textbook in the class, but reading and other videos will be assigned regularly. There are many good videos and articles about food, agriculture and disease. If it is assigned,then it can appear on tests.

Assignments and Grades

Grades are given based on discussion assignments, writing assignments, quizzes, three one-hour exams and an optional final exam.The exams are one place where you will need to be at your computer at a specific time. You will have a limited time to take the exam.

Discussion Assignments:Discussions are online and are done in Forums on Moodle. We will assign students to groups, each led by an Undergraduate TA. We will prime the discussion with a question, reading and/or video. Students will be expected to participate in the discussions by writing a short analysis (generally 200 to 250 words), and then making brief comments about other’s writing (generally 100 words). Grades will be largely based on the quality of the comments and participation. Discussions open and close. One will be available in each section of the course. Check the Moodle calendar for closing dates.

Writing Assignments:During the course, three short writing assignments of 600 to 1,000 words (about 2 to 4 typed pages double spaced, depending on the font) will be given. The assignments will ask you to think critically about some aspect of the ecology of agriculture and diseases, and apply what you’ve learned to an analysis of a problem. There will be rubrics available for each assignment. Writing assignments open and close. One will be available in each section of the course. Check the Moodle calendar for closing dates.

Quizzes:Most weeks there will be a short, on-line quiz that will ask you basic questions about important diseases and concepts. These quizzes are meant to familiarize you with important terms and ideas. Information to answer the questions on these quizzes is in lectures, readings and videos. These quizzes are multiple choice, matching and short answer, and may be taken twice. The best grade will be recorded. Quizzes will be open through the semester. You can take them anytime before the end of the semester.However, they’re meant to be taken as study aids, in conjunction with lectures, with three taken before each Hour Exam.

Hour Exams:Three, one-hour exams will be given during the semester. Exam questions will be based on material presented in lectures, videos and reading. Hour exams generally have 50 multiple-choice questions. Each exam is worth 100 points. Any hour exam that is not taken will receive 0 pts. If an hour exam is missed, the grade for that exam is ‘0’.

Final Exam:There will be an optional, comprehensive final exam during the final exam period. If students have taken all three hour exams, and are satisfied with the grade they have going into the final, they may choose not to take the final and receive the average of the other grades. The final cannot lower a grade, and it will improve the grade if your final exam grade is higher than at least one of the hour exam grades. We drop the lowest exam grade, regardless of whether it’s an hour exam or the final.

Bonus:I give points on the overall grade for completing all assignments and quizzes.Last year it was 1 point.

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