Plagues, Food and People: Ecology of Food and Disease

STOCKSCH 171 – 4 credits Gen Ed (BS)

Course Description:

Food is intimately linked to our health. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. This course looks at food through the twin lenses of ecology and diseases. Doing that, we see that food is not always good for our health. Take modern, industrial agriculture. It grows most of our food, but in the process it creates water pollution, pesticide contamination and climate change. In developed countries, eating modern diets we may have too much food, leading to obesity, heart disease and autoimmune problems. Drought or floods can destroy food crops, causing famines. Some microbes eat our crops and livestock, and us! That’s infectious disease. Other microbes live inside our guts, crucial to our nutrition and health. Microbes produce antibiotics, which we use to make cows, pigs and chickens grow faster. The result: disease-causing microbes have become resistant to many antibiotics. Fungi that cause plant diseases can produce drugs. Some are useful as medicine, others are more recreational, some are both. The literal roots of agriculture are in soil, which may be healthy, but more and more is “sick”. This course looks at these interactions, and asks “What can we change about our food systems to make a healthier world?”

Instructor: Dan Cooley, Professor


The course is based on PowerPoint lectures, videos, reading, quizzes and exams. There is no textbook. You can do the class on your schedule. As they say in the online ed. world, it’s completely asynchronous.

Moodle. The course is on Moodle. Here’s a link to a guide for students.


Grades are based on 9 quizzes, 3 exams, and 6 short writing assignments. There’s an optional final exam that can help your grade, if needed, but does not need to be taken.


WeekGeneral TopicSpecific Topics
Week 1 May 17  It’s All About Food: Diseases and Food
The Ecosystem That Is Our Body
Basic disease concepts. Diseases related to diet. The microbiome in us. Basic concepts of innate and adaptive immunity.
Week 2 May 24  Was Agriculture a Mistake? Flu, Anthrax, Covid and Bush MeatAgriculture, infectious diseases and human nutrition. Germ theory. The 1918 flu pandemic, the Covid 19 pandemic, Ebola, and food from wild animals.
Week 3 May 31  Exam 1 Cereal killers: Ergot, LSD, Witches and Zombies. Fungal ToxinsErgotism, witch trials, fungal hallucinogens and mental health. Fungi that insects making zombie ants. Fungal chemicals that cause human and animal diseases.
Week 4 June 7  The Irish Famine
Industrialized Ag: Wheat Stem Rust and Breeding Plants
Industrialized Ag: Pesticides and Health
The Irish Potato Famine. Stem rust of wheat, the Green Revolution, plant breeding and genetic engineering. Sustainable agriculture. Pesticides, costs and benefits in health. 
Week 5 June 14  Exam 2 Industrialized Ag: Soils and Health Don’t Drink the Water: Water-borne DiseasesSoil health and organic agriculture.
Cholera and sewer sytems. John Snow, epidemiology and Typhoid Mary, public health.
Week 6 June 21  It’s Alimentary Watson: Food-borne Diseases
Darwin, Diseases and Sex Not So Busy Bees: Pollinators, diseases and food Exam 3
Food-borne diseases, Antibiotics and animal ag. Toxoplasmosis, prions and Mad Cows. Evolution of pathogens and hosts. Sickle-cell. Rabbits in Australia. The forces behind pollinator decline: pesticides, diseases and modern beekeepers.

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