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Introducing Germination: Diseases, Drugs, Farms, and Food

When I was a kid, my favorite part of school wasn’t class — even though I loved studying, and liked showing off what I knew. It wasn’t the uniforms, though my boarding school’s dresses and blazers, and shoes for indoor and outdoor games, were a puzzle that came together differently every time. And it certainly wasn’t the food: School dinner in England was a mystery of boiled sprouts and stewed rhubarb, even if the Texas high school lunches that came after taught me how to make Frito pie.

What I loved most about school, with a fierceness that bordered on devotion, were school supplies. The incense of a just-sharpened pencil. The order in a fresh box of pen cartridges. And more than anything, the promise in a new notebook, and the anticipation of filling its empty, perfect pages with everything I would discover and learn.

I’m feeling a similar thrill now, viewing this new space at Phenomena. Welcome to Germination, a blog that will explore public health, global health, and food production and policy—and ancient diseases, emerging infections, antibiotic resistance, agricultural planning, foodborne illness, and how we’ll feed and care for an increasingly crowded world.

If you followed me here from my previous blog Superbug at Wired, thanks, and get comfortable. If I’m a new discovery for you, here’s a capsule bio. I’m a freelance journalist working mostly for magazines (Wired,  Scientific American, Nature, Slate, the Atlantic, the Guardian and Modern Farmer, along with an array of women’s magazines). I’ve written two books so far—Superbug, about the global rise of antibiotic resistance, and Beating Back the Devil, about the Epidemic Intelligence Service, the disease-detective corps of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—and am working on a third, about how we came to use antibiotics in agriculture, and what a mistake that turned out to be.

Before I was a magazine writer, I was a newspaper reporter, doing mostly investigative work: on the causes of cancer clusters, the social effects of drug trafficking, and a mysterious illness in reservists that turned out to be the first cases of Gulf War Syndrome. In my last newspaper job, I covered the CDC, under orders from the editor who hired me to “get in there and tell us these people’s stories.” I spent a lot of time talking my way into investigations and onto planes in the middle of the night. It was enormous fun.

Me, at TED, on March 18, 2015. Original here/a>.
Me, at TED, on March 18, 2015. Original here.
Maryn McKenna speaks at TED2015 - Truth and Dare, Session 6, March 16-20, 2015, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman/TED

I’m also a Senior Fellow of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, and just finished a fellowship at MIT. I do some video. And I just gave a TED talk, on imagining what the world will be like after we’ve used up antibiotics. (The video has not gone up yet, but I’ll let you know when it does.)

As a journalist, my interest is complexity, inadvertence, and unintended consequences. (My Phenomena colleague Ed Yong jokes that he covers the “Wow” beat; I think of what I do as the “Oops” beat.) We got to widespread resistance because we wanted to cure infections quickly; we got to factory farming because we wanted to ensure affordable food. There isn’t (much) malfeasance in either of those endeavors,  but there is a ton of good intentions—and good intentions gone bad are a rich, rewarding subject. We might be here a while.

Here’s what you can expect at Germination: reports on new scientific findings; inquiries into policy initiatives; profiles and interviews with researchers doing cool things; history; and, occasionally, whimsy. I have been writing for a year for National Geographic‘s food platform The Plate, and some posts that deal more purely with food will be loaned or cross-posted there. (About which: You make Frito pie by opening a serving-size bag of Fritos along the back seam and plopping in a ladle of chili and some shredded yellow cheese. It tastes best when served by a lunch lady in a hairnet and a Texas Longhorns jersey.) If you’d like to hear more about my plans, head over to The Loom, where my new colleague Carl Zimmer has kindly conducted a Q&A with me.

When I think back to being a kid at the start of a school year, the initial thrill might have been those pristine new notebooks—but the bigger thrill was filling them. Phenomena is the most exclusive science-writing club on the internet, and I’m excited to join it. Please come along.

(Much gratitude to Jonathan Eisen, PhD, for suggesting Germination as a blog name.)

12 thoughts on “Introducing Germination: Diseases, Drugs, Farms, and Food

  1. Welcome! These are all interesting subjects to me and I’ll be following along.

    If at some point you run out of Oops, I wonder if you want to look more into this unexpected relationship between disease and food.

    From the introduction to “Foundations of Parasitology”:

    “Even where food is being produced it is not always used efficiently. Considerable caloric energy is wasted by fevers caused by parasitic infections. Heat production of the human body increases about 7.2% for each degree rise in Fahrenheit. A single, acute day of fever due to malaria requires approximately 5,000 calories, or an energy demand equivalent to 2 days of hard manual labor. To extrapolate, in a population with a 2,200 caloric average diet per day, if 33% had malaria, 90% had a worm burden, and 8% had active tuberculosis (conditions that are repeatedly observed), there would be an energy demand equivalent to 7,500 tons of rice per month per million people over and above normal requirements. That is a waste of 25% to 30% of the total energy yield from grain production in many societies.”

    Source: Pollack, H. 1968. Disease as a factor in the world food problem. Institute for Defense Analysis, Arlington, Va.

  2. Another potential ‘Oops’ topic if you run dry would be ‘scary’ cancer and the alchemy of food and lifestyle in holding it in abeyance or letting it flourish…yes more complex than that but given all the foodie recommendations from the likes of ACS, NIH, and NCI, food got squat mention in the “Emperor of all Maladies” (Book and PBS doc)…we always seem to start at, “the genes are mutated” or ” they have X, Y or Z virus” and never at what in the body contriuted to and preceded those few mutations in a small subset of our cells…but not in the other 30+ trillion, or could virus role be an increased risk not causal….best of all Ed Yong gave me the “wrong, wrong, wrong’ Youtube when I pitched another slant

  3. I hope many articles on the abuse of antibiotics in agriculture and the consequences on antibiotic resistance from bacteria present in that food. When one looks at the quantity of antibiotics misused in the agriculture industry, it dwarves the similar issue in medecine. There is much room for education here.

  4. Total agreement with Serge above — antibiotic abuse in food animals makes that in humans look like nothing. Yet nothing is done. Perhaps if your column or site takes this up, we can achieve some change in those behaviors.
    It’ll be tough though — going against both Big Ag and Big Pharma! Both have captured their relevant regulatory agencies — USDA and FDA — quite thoroughly, so nothing can be done within that framework. It’ll have to be changed through public demand based on education about the dangers.

  5. Welcome! I am looking forward to learning more about the evolution of pathogens, and whatever else you feel like posting.

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