FOOD BYTES: WEEKLY NIBBLES FROM APR 5 - 21

Food Bytes is a weekly blog post of “nibbles” of information on all things food and nutrition science, policy and culture.

After all the chaos of the Mueller report and sanctuary cities here in the U.S., I found much joy in tuning out, and instead reading about our fellow friend, the coyote’s diet. Turns out, they eat a lot of cats. Not so much roadrunner. Talk about the new urban hunter! The researchers who investigated the scat of these stealthy creatures also found that their diets consisted of “baseballs, shoes, furniture, and bedazzled jewels.” Hide your pets…

National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report: Sustainable Diets, Food and Nutrition

The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine held a a public workshop in Washington, DC, in mid 2018 on sustainable diets, food, and nutrition. Workshop participants reviewed current and emerging knowledge on the concept of sustainable diets within the field of food and nutrition; explored sustainable diets and relevant impacts for cross-sector partnerships, policy, and research; and discussed how sustainable diets influence dietary patterns, the food system, and population and public health. This publication summarizes the presentations and discussions from the workshop.

This week, climate change was on the minds of many, with young people marching in the streets and young, but wise Greta Thunberg showing her courage in the fight, hence being honored by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people.

We at Johns Hopkins hosted an event on food and water security in the era of climate change. We had some really fantastic experts speaking at the event. I was hoping for a sold out house, but no such luck. We had good attendance but I guess people don’t care that much about the changing climate. I have no other explanation. Here is what the event was about:

The media headlines in the last two weeks showing Nebraska and Mozambique underwater are tragic glimpses of a new era - the era of climate-related natural disasters. Climate change is and will continue to impact the lives of everyone, and will have significant ramifications on both water and food security globally. Climate-related impacts affect water availability in regions that are already water-stressed, as well as the productivity of both irrigated and rain-fed agriculture. Rising temperatures translate into increased crop water demand and have consequences for food availability, and potentially, the nutritional content and quality of crops. Likewise, insufficient and compromised food access and utilization influence households and individuals ability to access healthy diets and drinking water, which can have detrimental health outcomes. No one is immune — both the livelihoods of rural communities and food security of urban populations are at risk of water insecurity linked to climate variability. The rural poor, in particular, are disproportionately affected by climate effects. It is likely that climate variability and change will continue to exacerbate food insecurity in areas currently vulnerable to hunger and undernutrition. There is an immediate need for considerable investment in adaptation and mitigation actions toward “climate-smart agriculture, water and food systems” that are resilient to climate-related shocks. This seminar will delve into water and food security in the midst of a changing climate and what we can do as a global community to adapt and mitigate.

Speaking of climate change, I really liked this piece by Richard Waite and Janet Ranganathan of the World Resources Institute (a speaker at our event) on beef and climate. They unpack 6 common questions about the contentious topic of the sustainability of beef production systems and climate change. Here they are:

  1. Q: How does beef production cause greenhouse gas emissions? A: Through the agricultural production process and through land-use change.

  2. Q: Is beef more resource-intensive than other foods? A:Yes.

  3. Q: Why are some people saying beef production is only a small contributor to emissions? A: Such estimates commonly leave out land-use impacts, such as cutting down forests to establish new pastureland. I think it is politics and some denial there too…

  4. Q: Can beef be produced more sustainably? A: Yes, although beef will always be resource-intensive to produce.

  5. Q: Do we all need to stop eating beef in order to curb climate change? A: No.

  6. Q: Would eating less beef be bad for jobs in the food and agriculture sector? A: Not necessarily

If you want to read their long responses, check out the article! They also have a ton of solutions in their Creating Sustainable Food Futures report and in the figure below.

World Resources Institute’s Menu of Options from their most recent report: Creating Sustainable Food Futures

And climate change is definitely real. Farmers are feeling the effects. A NYT article looked at Honduran coffee farmers are being hit hard. Estimates suggest that least 1.4 million people will flee their homes in Mexico and Central America and migrate during the next three decades. But if Trump has his way, they will be met with a Game of Throne like wall…

Johns Hopkins Global Food Ethics and Policy Program newsletter

Last but not least, there is a lot of talk about cultural appropriation around food these days. A restaurant opened in New York called “Lucky Lee's”, a new Chinese restaurant, not run by Chinese but a Jewish American couple who wanted to have a Chinese restaurant that served “clean” food that was healthy. Not sure what the hell they were thinking. You can’t really mess with food particularly because it is so deep rooted in people’s culture and tradition. It holds a special place in society and it gets quickly politicized when you remove it from its core identity.

And last, last but not least, the Global Food Ethics and Policy Program at the Berman Institute of Bioethics at the Johns Hopkins University puts out a weekly newsletter on interesting articles in the food space, much like this one. It is curated by Claire Davis at the Berman, and I find it to be a rich source of information on ethics and politics of food and nutrition. I encourage you to sign up for it. It is also in the Food Archive resources section.

Food bytes: Weekly nibbles from Feb 18 - Feb 24

Food Bytes is a weekly blog post of “nibbles” of information on all things food and nutrition science, policy and culture.

Since the publication of the Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems,” there have been some thoughtful critiques on the paper. Lawrence Haddad of GAIN and some other GAIN colleagues published what they felt were omissions but also the opportunities for more research, dialogue and debate. Over at the New Food Economy, Sam Bloch tried to eat the planetary health diet for one week. He struggled. He cooked almost all his meals, and he found the diet more expensive. I think he was a bit extreme, forgoing coffee and spices, which is not really recommended, but A effort in at least trying to take the lofty goals of the report and giving some practical insights into whether one can consume this diet on a daily basis. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet. There are many attempts to ensure plant-based diets and vegan cuisine are tasty to our picky palates. Restaurants and food companies are trying new recipes and using new technology to ensure that vegetables make our mouths water just as much as those pavlov-dog-drooling juicy steaks do.

Another Lancet journal commission report was published last week on the “Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change.” What is a syndemic one might ask? It is a synergy of pandemics that co-occur in time and place, interact with each other, and share common underlying societal drivers. Oh. Sounds serious. Well, in this case, it is. The pandemics are climate change and malnutrition - that being undernutrition and obesity. All three affect most people in every country. They give this example:

“Food systems not only drive the obesity and undernutrition pandemics but also generate 25-30% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), and cattle production accounts for over half of those. Car-dominated transportation systems support sedentary lifestyles and generate between 14-25% of GHGs. Underpinning all of these are weak political governance systems, the unchallenged economic pursuit of GDP growth, and the powerful commercial engineering of overconsumption. The outcomes of obesity, undernutrition, and climate change interact. For example, climate change will increase undernutrition through increased food insecurity from extreme weather events, droughts, and shifts in agriculture. Likewise, fetal and infant undernutrition increases the risk of adult obesity. The effects of climate change on obesity and vice versa are currently uncertain.”

The Commissioners argue that double and triple duty actions are necessary to address The Global Syndemic. This figure below shows some options of triple duty actions. Some are very similar to what was recommended in the EAT Lancet Commission like reducing meat consumption and more sustainable dietary guidelines. Seems, most scientists are somewhat on a similar page on these recommendations. They do rip into both governments and food and beverage industries for not governing and not having public health concerns in mind respectively.

Triple duty actions to address the “global syndemic”

Triple duty actions to address the “global syndemic”

Dark cuisine. Copyright: NYT

Dark cuisine. Copyright: NYT

Of course, as part of these global conversations is the issue of meat production and consumption and the potential future technologies that could save the planet, animals and humanity. One report just released argues that lab-grown meat could accelerate climate change, more so than current cattle production. Shwoops. Not sure about the authors assumptions, but they do acknowledge the limitations of their modeling of different types of gases and the energy calculations to come up with such a sweeping conclusion. The podcast Freakonomics breaks down the potential future of meat - weighing the pros and cons. It is worth a listen. One thing they discuss in the podcast that I had not heard of is “finless foods” - where fish are produced from stem cells. With 33% of fish stocks overly fished, this could be a game changer. That is, if people want to eat cultured meats and seafoods….

And speaking of weird science, and the future of food, ever heard of stargazy pie? It is a pie made up of herring, half buried in the pie with their heads and eyes peaking up from the buttery crust. Underneath is the rest of their bodies “leaching their brine in a rich custard, larded with bacon and hard boiled eggs.” Yummmm. Welcome to the world of ugly food and “dark cuisine.” These ugly food concoctions are highlighted in the New York Times Fashion section no less.

Food Bytes: Weekly Nibbles from Jan 1 - 7

Food Bytes is a weekly blog post of “nibbles” of information on all things food and nutrition science, policy and culture.

As the world slowly wakes up to a new year, there are already some interesting food nibbles published this week.

Great commentary in Lancet Planetary Health on a new, longitudinal study being led by researchers at the Australian National University to understand the relationship between culture and health of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, a group of indigenous peoples who have been discriminated against, underserved and disrespected for too long. The study is actually being designed BY and WITH Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and will gather comprehensive data to explore the links between land, culture, and health amidst the “backdrop of an evolving human civilization and changing state of planetary health.” Looking forward to seeing the results and the transferability of the research to other indigenous peoples.  

In light of the frightening IPCC report on climate change, the Washington Post asked activists, politicians and researchers for 11 climate policy ideas that offer hope. Two involve food. One is about cutting the food we waste in half and is a “win-win-win-win-win for waste mitigation, jobs, economic activity, food security and of course, the climate.” The second is reducing the expansion of CAFOs - concentrated animal feeding operations, and instead, supporting smaller-scale farmers practicing sustainable grazing practices, expanding the infrastructure for grass-fed beef and dairy markets, and enforcing fair market and fair contract rules for the livestock industry.

The Lancet published a very short piece on how digital technologies may revolutionize nutritional sciences. One big gap in the science is that we do not know what people eat, and for everyone who does eat (which is everyone…), we have no way of tracking the health of those foods without going through a very laborious process. Now, with the advancement of technology, we may be able to carry our own personal nutritionist in our pocket, that is, through our smart phones. “By synchronizing various health data types from multiple sources, such as wearable sensors, electronic health records, metabolic profile, gut microbiome, and diet, all analyzable in real-time using machine or deep-learning algorithms, a person’s smartphone has the potential to function as a digital nutritionist.” I am particularly keen to see how the photo-based dietary tracking through automated food image recognition that determines calorie and nutritional content will work.

Gerald Nelson and colleagues published a Nature Sustainability paper and a follow-up op-ed piece in the Washington Post that the global agriculture sector’s narrow focus on feeding the world, in the form of carbohydrate calories (mainly maize, rice and wheat), has led us and will continue to lead us down a dangerous path. In their study, they found that there will be more than enough food per capita to feed 10 billion people by 2050, even with the business as usual climate change pathway. They argue that the focus on carbohydrates has been a contributor to the rising rates of obesity and continued micronutrient deficiencies. They recommend that agriculture shift gears and increase production of major nutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and beans instead of the forty-year focus on staple grains.