Universities often ask their incoming freshmen to do a summer reading assignment before they arrive on campus in the fall. NC State, however, has developed a truly interdisciplinary online experience for first-year and transfer students called “Wicked Problems, Wolfpack Solutions.” Prior to each academic year, this summer course focuses on a “wicked problem”—a highly complex, societal challenge that can only be addressed through collaborative, multidisciplinary efforts.
For new students beginning in fall 2022, the course focused on the Future of Food. Students considered questions like: How will we produce enough food to feed our growing human population in ways that are just and sustainable, while also being attuned to the importance of pleasure? How will we produce food in the future? What kind of food will we eat, and who will decide that?
The Libraries created the Future of Food event series to further explore these issues throughout the fall 2022 and spring 2023 semesters. This series of conversations about futuristic foods gave students a chance to connect in person to discuss (and taste!) alternative proteins, insect-based foods, and genetically engineered foods. These free, public events took place in the Hill Library’s Fishbowl Forum and were livestreamed on the Libraries’ YouTube channel.
The Libraries’ Karen Ciccone, Lead Librarian for Public Science, organized these events in collaboration with people from several units and departments across campus, including NC State Dining; Biological Sciences; Physics; Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences; Plant and Microbial Biology; English; and the Genetic Engineering and Society Center.
“We created the series to build on the momentum and excitement of the ‘Wicked Problems, Wolfpack Solutions’ course,” Ciccone says. “We wanted to give students the chance to meet some of the NC State faculty doing exciting work in this area, and to see experts from different disciplines asking questions of one another. We also wanted to show students potential career paths and ways they can be involved in addressing wicked problems related to food.”
The series launched in September 2022 with Meat 2.0, in which Melissa Ramirez (Biological Sciences) talked with Karen Daniels (Physics) and Claire Gordy (Biological Sciences) about their work with alternative proteins made from plants and fungi. Conversation focused on the health and ecological benefits of alternative proteins and how, for those who crave the taste and texture of traditional meat foods, they can be made to reproduce those sensations. NC State Dining provided vegan Barvecue sandwiches after the discussion, sponsored by Barvecue CEO and NC State alumni Lee Cooper.
In Edible Insects (nothing to be afraid of!) later in September, Keith Harris (Food, Bioprocessing, & Nutrition Sciences) led a conversation about insects as a sustainable and high-quality protein source, while chef and graduate student Emilize Momplaisir showed how delicious some insects can be. Momplaisir cooked crickets in the manner of Mexican chapulines, marinating them in achiote seasoning and serving them on warmed tortillas with onions and cilantro. The Technician covered the event and also captured the occasion in a short video.
“Having food at these events really added an element of fun, and was also educational,” Ciccone says. “NC State Dining was an enthusiastic partner. They provided vegan barbecue for our Meat 2.0 event, a GMO vs. non-GMO taste-test, and a large number of people enjoyed the delicious cricket tacos cooked by Emilize Momplaisir. I think the food added a festive element to the events and gave people a chance to sample foods they had never tasted before.”
Next, in October, Extreme Possibilities of Genetic Engineering featured Rodolphe Barrangou (Food, Bioprocessing, & Nutrition Sciences) and Heike Sederoff (Plant and Microbial Biology) talking with film studies professor Marsha Gordon (English) and speculative fiction writer and MFA student Rafeeat Aliyu about what might be possible if there were no barriers to the use of genetic engineering for food production. Could we employ microbes to turn waste streams into food, or produce transgenic headless chickens? What impossible-seeming things are underway already? Staff from the Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center shared items from the university archives that highlighted futuristic moments in food history at NC State, including photographs and documents telling the story of the atomic peanut.
The Libraries concluded the Future of Food series in March 2023 with a discussion of Near-Future Genetically Engineered Foods: Prospects and Controversies led by Senior Vice Provost for University Interdisciplinary Programs Rob Dunn. Fred Gould, Jennifer Kuzma, and Jason Delborne of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center addressed questions like: What are genetically engineered foods? Where can you find them in your local supermarket? What values come into play when you consider your willingness to pay for them? NC State Dining provided side-by-side tastings of GMO and non-GMO corn muffins and genetically modified pink pineapple and regular pineapple.
“What stands out to me about these events is the cross-campus and community connections that I saw taking place,” Ciccone says. “Students talked to faculty members about potential internships and got connected to the larger Triangle Future of Food community. Events like these help students find like-minded others on a very large campus.”
The summer 2023 version of the “Wicked Problems, Wolfpack Solutions” course will focus on the theme of (Y)Our Health and will explore the idea that the health of people is connected to the health of animals, plants, and biodiversity. The Libraries will be announcing events building on that theme in the fall.