Sera L. Young, Craving Earth: Understanding Pica, The Urge To Eat Clay, Starch, Ice and Chalk
Craving Earth by Sera L. Young is a ground-breaking work that examines the cross-cultural behavioral phenomenon called pica that has often been misunderstood and condemned by the biomedical community. In the spirit of Margaret Mead, the book presents a difficult subject and findings that are supported by extensive and rigorous research in a very readable form.
Craving Earth highlights the public health significance of pica by quantifying the widespread prevalence of the behavior and examining its potential positive and negative health consequences. Dr. Young identified, gathered, and then quantified the findings of 482 ethnographic reports of geophagy spanning 500 years and many languages using software that she and a collaborator designed for the project. Her meticulous work has proven that pica is a behavior common across time and space and is often seen among some of the most vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and young children. Dr. Young’s cross species examination of geophagy, and her study of the metabolic binding mechanisms of many of the non food substances consumed and their use in medical and industrial applications today, has helped to reframe pica as a potentially adaptive behavior. It has also helped to discredit the commonly held belief that pica functions as a micronutrient supplement. Craving Earth is a significant anthropological contribution that will improve the understanding between the biomedical and public health professionals and the communities in which they practice.
Dr. Sera Young has a personal and professional commitment to public health in low-resource settings that stems from more than a decade of first-hand experiences with the devastating consequences of poor maternal and child health. She received a BA in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Michigan. Subsequently she pursued an MA in Medical Anthropology from the University of Amsterdam and began studying maternal anemia in Zanzibar, Tanzania. She continued with this topic while working on her Ph.D. in International Nutrition from Cornell University and began to construct a database quantifying cultural-level reports of pica; the biochemical analysis of pica substances; and parasitological analyses of pica substances. These data, combined with a large epidemiological study among an obstetric population in Tanzania, yielded the richest dataset on pica to date.
Dr. Young held post-doctoral and faculty positions at University of California at Berkeley, UC Davis, and UC San Francisco. She started working with a number of NIH-funded studies pertaining to HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. In mid-2011, she returned to Cornell to join the faculty of the Division of Nutritional Sciences where she continues to pursue issues related to maternal and child nutrition and global health.