Science Teaching Column — Plants: Food for Thought

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email

Science Teaching Column — Plants: Food for Thought

by Kostia Bergman & Renee Sung

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 7, No. 4, July 1975, p. 36-37

We are two research associates in a group at MIT which is attempting to apply the methods of molecular genetics to agricultural problems. We gave a three week mini-course (6 3-hour sessions) on plants and food during Independent Activities Period at MIT. For this period in January normal classes at MIT are replaced by a variety of educational activities including lectures, mini-courses, and demonstration engineering projects given on a voluntary basis by and for members of the institute community.

We gave this course because MIT has no regular course in plant biology, because we had some new teaching ideas, and because we wanted to discuss technological and political aspects of the world food crisis. Since we are at an elite institution and we were teaching under informal circumstances we had various advantages. We had well-equipped labs, a $200 budget for materials, and students who came of their own free will. However, we also felt nervous since we were competing with a variety of other interesting educational experiences. We had to hold our students’ interest in order to keep them coming back.

We planned to stress several basic points: 1) plants require only mineral nutrients, light, water, and air to grow; 2) as such plants are the food basic to all animal life because only plants can change carbon dioxide to organic molecules; 3) agriculture, the science by which a small number of types of naturally occurring plants are sown and raised for food is a basic activity of all people and their societies; 4) crop improvement research is continuing with a variety of new genetic techniques; 5) new techniques will not end the food crisis unless there is fundamental political change in the structure of society. Early in the planning process we decided to incorporate a lab as part of the course. We were sure that practical experience with plants could not be replaced by talk. However we had both suffered through innumerable boring and useless laboratory exercises justified by such statements. We decided that “take-home” experiments, for which students did more or less as they chose, would be the basis of our course. 

We developed a number of experiments which were started in the lab but then taken home and monitored by the students. The basic necessary material was two pounds each of a variety of edible seeds from a local natural foods cooperative. We chose seed crops which are of major agricultural significance because they are staples of most of the world’s people – cereals such as rice, wheat, com and legumes such as kidney beans, lentils, alfalfa, and soybeans. Simple experiments which could be done in any classroom included: 1) germination of seeds in paper cups filled with vermiculite, a soil substitute which holds water but provides the plant with no mineral nutrients; 2) starvation of seedlings for various mineral nutrients (this requires 3-week-old seedlings since younger plants are provided for by the seed) to demonstrate the need for fertilizer; 3) effects of gravity and light on the growth direction and development of dark-grown seedlings; 4) sprouting of seeds for eating. The plants were remarkably beautiful and with some care students could actually harvest “crops” from some plants. We included other experiments which are basic to our own research but do require equipment and materials for the preparation of sterile media. Actually with the availability of disposable plastic petri dishes, the only necessary equipment is an autoclave (in a pinch a large pressure cooker will do the job). These experiments provided demonstrations of nitrogen fixation by bacteria which live symbiotically in the roots of legumes and the effects of plant hormones on the growth and differentiation of plants grown in tissue culture. Another class activity was a picnic for which everyone involved made a plant dish. We had bean casseroles, various breads, beer, fresh-ground peanut butter, soy milk, and bean sprouts – it was a memorable event! Our students know that plants provide more than lettuce and tomato on the hamburger. 

In lectures and discussions we did not attempt to cover all of plant biology but focused on lab results and our own interests. We talked about what plants need to grow and germinate, the effects of plant hormones, nitrogen fixation and its relation to fertilizer requirements, human nutrition, particularly how to mix plant foods to obtain complete protein and the relative nutritional value of seeds and sprouts, and the politics of food and population. Since we had students of varying experience including graduate students, freshmen, and school teachers it was often difficult to give our lectures at the right level. At this point it was particularly valuable to have two teachers since one of us was free to ask questions and start discussions. We certainly raised more questions than we answered. 

We had most difficulty with the political discussions. On further analysis we think there were several reasons for this. 1) Our students were remarkably naive about the relationship between the use of technology and the economic structure of society. We did not have time to develop the necessary understanding. This understanding could probably have been developed best by concentrating on a few problems such as the ecological and sociological problems with the Green Revolution, inequities in the distribution of U.S. food aid, and the need for land reform in developing countries. 2) We were somewhat ambivalent about how much political discussion was appropriate – at times the discussion lacked content, at other times we may have overpowered the discussion with our own opinions. 3) We avoided giving our students reading material-this was an intentional decision because we felt that MIT students are normally overburdened with reading. By the end of the course our students were demanding a bibliography so that they could gain further information by reading. We were gratified that they were inspired to read further but we still feel it was important for these students to obtain information in other ways. One of these ways could be the use of Feed, Need, Greed, Where Will It Lead? (a teaching method available from the Science Teaching Group of SESPA/SftP.) Although originally developed for elementary school students, this method would have been useful for our class. Student teams learn different facts about food and population which are then presented to the group in various creative ways (skits, radio shows, posters, etc.). Discussions are stimulated and raised to a higher level because everyone in the group now knows the same facts. 

Our course was unusual at MIT because we did discuss the ends as well as the means of science. We also broke down some of the mystique of scientific expertise, we exposed our uncertainties, we openly challenged the opinions of experts, we showed that experiments can be done with simple materials, and we stressed a basic human need – the need for food. We look forward to an opportunity to expand this course and to increase its political content. 

>> Back to Vol. 7, No. 4 <<



The Living Plant (1972) Peter H. Ray; Holt, Rinehart & Winston. A short, clear introduction to plant physiology.

Composition of Foods, Agriculture. Handbook #8, USDA. The bible of nutritionists; cheap, from the government. 

The Oxford Book of Food Plants (1969) Nicholson et al.; Oxford University Press. Beautiful pictures & interesting text. 

Feeding Ourselves, Berkeley Womens Health Collective. Available from New England Free Press. Nutrition and politics made palatable. 

The Great World Food Crisis I (1975) N.Y. Review of Books 21, 20 1/23/75. Clear analysis of energy/food crisis. A second article is coming. 

Two articles documenting the energy inefficiency of the U.S. food system: 

Food Production and the Energy Crisis (1973) Pimental, D. et al., Science 182, 443. 

Energy Use in the U.S. Food System (1974) Steinhart & Steinhart, Science 184,307. 

The Limits to Growth, Meadows et. al. (1972) New American Library, N.Y. Definitely a must to read and reflect on. If only to see some “instant facts” presented in graphic form. Hard put-down of technological optimism. 

The Limits to Capitalist Growth. Jhirad, D. et. al. Science for the People May 1975; An alternative interpretation. 

China: Science Walks on Two Legs; A report from science for the People (1974) Avon Publishers, N.Y. How they do it in China. 

Tle Biosphere. Scientific American 9/73. Now also a book. Various cycles including nitrogen. 

New Advances and Future Potential in Biological Nitrogen Fixation. Journal of Applied Bacteriology, Vol. 37, p. 185, 1974.