Food Bytes: Sep 1 - 15 -- getting ready for climate summiting

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

Get your climate crisis funk on ya’ll. Tear the roof off. Oh wait. Climate will do that for us.

We are gearing up for a couple of big weeks with the climate summit in New York. Lots will be happening for those of you who follow the UN General Assembly better known as UNGA. Politicians will emerge onto Gotham city carrying with them their massive carbon footprints to get there. Reports will be released from every organization who touches on climate change. Hotels will be overbooked and insanely expensive. New Yorkers will avoid the Murray Hill neighborhood like it a bad case of…Climate marches will be marched. Greta will be at the forefront. Excitement abounds! But seriously, this will be a decisive moment for the future of us and the planet. Let’s hope we see real action, real political commitment, and lots of investment. A few early highlights already:

  • Pastoralists are the hardest hit by climate change. Thomas Reuters Foundation did a great multi-media piece on Somaliland’s fight for their life against climate change.

  • The Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU) will release a global report on transforming food and land use systems. They propose 10 critical transitions.

  • The Trump administration continues to totally ignore climate change. One example? The administration is limiting the scientific input to the United States’ 2020 dietary guidelines. The biggest thing they are ignoring are issues of sustainable diets. They will exclude the health effects of consuming red and processed meat, ultra-processed foods and sodium. Shocked? These shenanigans have been going on for decades. Marion Nestle wrote about the meddling of guidelines in Food Politics back in 2002. The scientific advisory committee has just squandered another five years to get these damn guidelines right.

  • But Trump can’t tell our army what to do. The US Army is doing their part. They have a “Go for Green” campaign in their cafeterias which is promoting healthy and sustainable diets. Guess what? The red color are foods that are bad. “Did you order the code red? YOUR DAMN RIGHT I DID!”

  • The Global Commission on Adaptation just released their report. By investing $1.8 trillion (yikes) in 5 areas from 2020 to 2030 could generate $7.1 trillion in total net benefits. The five areas? Early warning systems, climate-resilient infrastructure, improved dryland agriculture, mangrove protection, and investments in making water resources more resilient.

  • A whole bunch of really smart people published an opinion piece on how to make food systems sustainable. They plead that improvements in environmental impact assessments of food production is needed.

  • And the Washington Post highlights that there are places in the world already hitting 2 degrees. Yikes. Uruguay being one.

And if you are just tired of living in the now, and yearn for those dreamy bygone days, Atlas Obscura takes us back to ancient times to learn where our food comes from. Check out this “preserved” bread from the ruins of Vesuvius. Oh wait. Don’t volcanos have something to do with climate change? Sigh…

Food Bytes: Aug 26 - Aug 31

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

Have you ever wondered which cuisine the world craves? Turns out, Italy. Yeah, no shit Sherlock. Italy is the largest exporter of their cuisine followed by Japan, Turkey and Mexico — Órale! Who is the largest importer, meaning, their food just sucks? You guessed it Sherlock. America. F!@#%* yah! China and Brazil don’t seem so keen on their local cuisine either. They follow the U.S. on importing other country cuisines. Funny. Brazil’s food based dietary guideline boasts harnessing its local cuisine. We guess people just don’t read those pesky guidelines…

Dari Mozaffarian and Dan Glickman wrote a timely op-ed piece in the New York Times that diets are now the number one risk factor killing Americans, costing the U.S. health care system billions each year. They provide a range of solutions and signify that governments and food and beverage industries need to be held accountable. While unhealthy diets continue to kill so many, politicians completely ignore the issue. As America moves towards what will be a contentious, decisive election year, they suggest that “every candidate should have a food platform, and every [presidential] debate should explore these positions.” Not sure this rhetoric will be high on the Trump “make American great again, for real this time” re-election campaign because the “Potus” just ain’t really that into food. Unless you consider consuming fast food a gourmand type diet.

Another op-ed piece in the New York Times by Catherine Kling urges that producers who cause “nutrient pollution,” in the form of nitrogen and phosphorus coming from agriculture fertilizer and manure run-off, should be required to pay for the cleanup. She suggests that state government regulations should be enforced to ensure that farmers reduce nutrient pollution. Wonder how livestock ranchers feel about that? Gee, take a guess.

IFAD and Bioversity just put out a great guideline on supporting nutrition-sensitive neglected and underutilized species (NUS) and wild edibles (check out Figure 2 particularly). The guideline is led by the great Stefano Padulosi at Bioversity who has some deep experience working on NUS value chains in many parts of the world. He is also the “Rocket Man.” What are NUS you ask? Here is how they define it in the guideline:

Many are the synonyms which have been used since the mid-1980s to refer to NUS, including minor, under-used, under-exploited, under-developed, orphan, promising, lost, alternative, traditional, niche crops, crops of the future, future smart food. In reality, all these terms are often context-specific and loaded with heavy cultural meanings and not easily understood in the same way by everybody. The term “Neglected and Underutilized Species” might not be the ideal expression and may not be appealing to people.

There is so much focus these days on diet and the food system footprints on climate change. It is seriously having its moment. But in the back of our mind’s eye, we hark back to an article published in 2017 in Environmental Research Letters, that indicated that largest impact an individual can make to reduce their greenhouse gas footprint is to have one less child. Check out this graphic to the right. Powerful. This action is followed by living car free. Diet is further down the list of impacts. Food for thought…

Interestingly, they didn’t model reducing food waste by individuals. The World Resources Institute (WRI) has just released a global action agenda on reducing food loss and waste by 2030. It is a really practical guide to setting targets, honing in on who should take action and what scalable interventions are available. Everything WRI puts out is pretty stellar and this is another data rich, practical guide to tackle one of the most important issues of the food system.

What if all Americans ate less meat? Not necessarily eliminating meat completely, but just much less? By the way, American are already slowly and steadily decreasing their beef consumption since the 1980s. In the Nature journal Scientific Reports, scientists tested this idea. By replacing 25% meat with plant alternatives dominated (strangely) by soy, green pepper, squash, buckwheat, and asparagus, Americans can eliminate pastureland use while saving 35–50% of their diet related needs for cropland and 330 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year, but increase their diet related irrigation needs by 15%.

These advertisements on the left for PETA Vegan guides are all over DC (note the elephant in the background just to remind you that yes, DC is the capitol of the U.S. and the district lives and breathes politics. You can’t get away from it. It will smother, suffocate and slowly destroy you). Where were we? Oh yeah. We picked up the guide and thumbed through it. Some of the recipes didn’t look so tantalizing, and much of what was recommended wasn’t all that healthy. There were lots of photos of faux meat mimicking fried chicken fingers, hotdogs, and meatballs doused in sticky sauce, as well as lots of cakes. Is it possible to promote sustainable, healthy, and animal cruelty free vegan diets for those who choose to go that route PETA? That can’t be too hard can it? While it was an A for effort, maybe version 2 of the guide will feature more healthy foods and less overly processed, junk food.

In other news, with Uber Eats and other gig economy food deliveries on the rise, so is the toll on the drivers delivering food. They are risking their lives in places like South Africa. Tragic. And just to deliver the ultimate convenience to our dinner table.

Venezuela. Talk about a free fall into despair and chaos. Because of the turmoil, food security and the deeper issues of consistent insecurity have taken a big hit. Venezuelans lost an average of twenty-four pounds in body weight. Nine out of ten live in poverty. Roughly one in ten have left the country.

A paper just published in the Lancet hits right at the heart of the trade war between the U.S. and China. The authors feel that it is time to reshape trade policies towards those that favor sustainable food and nutrition systems. They argue there are three starting points for public health actors to take up this agenda.

  1. Recognize the fundamental and front-line nature of trade policy as both a barrier and potential catalyst for health.

  2. Engage more effectively and with the right stakeholders to push for policy space within trade and investment agreements.

  3. Reach beyond trade to promote a development discourse that makes explicit the nutrition imperative — nutrition is crucial to achieving most of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Food Archive holds a special place in its heart for special focus issues that scientific journals put out. That is, when journals hone in on a hot topic and publish a complementary set of articles on the topic to show different facets and perspectives on the topic.

Here are some recent highlights:

In the last food bytes post, the hard to watch unfold Brazilian Amazon fires were highlighted. This piece highlights that forest fires are happening all over the world, many in biodiverse hotspots, making climate change all that much worse. Very sad not only for forests but for those who live among and depend on them. The map on the right shows fires over the last year. Look at southwest Africa and Southern Africa. Look at Madagascar (think lemurs…) and Southeast Asia. Wah!!

One place prone to massive forest fires (the 2018 fires were the most devastating in the state’s history) is California but every day it finds a way to rub its beauty in our face. Geez, okay Cali, you win.

Speaking of California, and to keep the whole Woodstock vibe going, let’s just end with a little Joni Mitchell, because she sings about omelets and stews and well, because this has to be one of the best albums ever recorded. Click below to hear her beautiful song, California.

Oh the rogue, the red red rogue
He cooked good omelets and stews
And I might have stayed on with him there
But my heart cried out for you, California
Oh California, I'm coming home
Oh make me feel good rock'n roll band
I'm your biggest fan

California, I'm coming home

— Joni Mitchell

 

 

Food Bytes: July 21 - Aug 25

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

Took a bit longer to get up the next Food Bytes entry due to summer holidays. So here it goes.

Summer is going out with a roar. The Inter-Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced their outstanding report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. Lots of media coverage followed. Diet recommendations were made (reducing beef, taking on a more flexitarian diet etc). If we want to live in this changed climate, we need to adapt. The saber-toothed tiger had a less flexitarian diet and we know what happened to them…

Speaking of adapting, scientists found a “stature gene” among Central African hunter gatherers, also known as pygmies. This short gene gave them an advantage in Africa’s hot, humid rainforests. I was really hoping this gene hopped across the Atlantic to Italians, or even more so, short Italian American women living in DC to help explain my enduring squat-ness, but alas, no such luck. While on the topic of luck, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, you should also stay away from cereal that has corn as the main ingredient if you want to have an environmentally friendly diet. So better forget about your Froot Loops and Trix and reach instead for your Lucky Charms.

Farmgate value of global vegetable production by income groups of countries, average 2012–2013, current US dollars (Source: Schreinemachers et al 2019 GFS Journal)

Let’s continue with the climate onslaught shall we? This article talks about the beginning of the end of the livestock industry. But is that really so? Don’t underestimate the chicken man. And do you know how much of a carbon footprint you consume with your diet? BBC provides a calculator - do the math and you will quickly be blanketed in a quilt of guilt. It ain’t just beef that you gotta worry about…

Sam Myers of Harvard published a great piece in the WaPo on how increased CO2 in the atmosphere will “zap” nutrients from key crops. He argues that 175 million people could become zinc-deficient, 122 million would not be able to get protein, and 0.5 billion would have iron-deficiency-related disease. So now we need to worry not only about getting enough food to feed 10 billion, but the quality of those foods in fulfilling our nutrient needs. And the declines in nutritional quality are happening in real time. A study examining 43 “garden” crops in the U.S. found declines of 6 nutrients - protein, calcium, iron, phosphorous, riboflavin and vitamin C - since 1950. The food supply already can’t keep up. Mario Herrero and colleagues found that our current food supply does not produce enough fruits and vegetables, and in the course of the next 30 years, that supply will worsen. If everyone were to follow the WHO recommendation of 400 g/person/day of fruits and vegetables, 1.9 billion people would not have the access to these foods – the food supply just cannot keep up.

But a recent article in the Global Food Security Journal argues that vegetables hold a lot of economic power. Yeah sure. That is, if we can produce them. And then people want to eat them. They suggest that governments will need to increase their investment in farm productivity including improved varieties, alternatives to chemical pesticides, and the use of protected cultivation. There is also a need for better post-harvest storage of veggies, food safety and market opportunities. To tap the nutritional power of vegetables, consumers need to know how vegetables contribute to health, be able to afford them, or be able to grow them themselves. God speed to those New Yorkers living in 300 square feet of space with no windows and definitely, no outdoor space.

The recent paper by Eker and colleagues, published in Nature Sustainability, adds to the sustainable diet literature and evidence base, examining how consumer diet shifts can contribute to mitigation of climate change. Utilizing scenario assessments, the authors model the impacts of different compositional and behavioral dietary shifts among the global population on environmental footprints. Compositional dietary shifts included average meat consumption, flexitarian (more plant-based), vegetarian, and vegan dietary patterns. As other studies have shown, changes in diet composition towards more plant-based diets, have implications on the environment. However, more significant shifts, by a large swatch of the world’s population, towards vegetarianism would need to occur to see impacts on greenhouse gases and other environmental measures (such as land use). The paper is unique in that it models the behavioral dietary shifts among consumers and their impacts. The authors found that younger populations (ages 15-45) respond to social norm behaviors, that is, as the world moves towards more vegetarian type diets, the change towards those diets is more rapid.

They argue that the values a society holds among peer groups can outweigh the influence of scientific facts. This was evident in that behavior shifts in response to health or climate risks were not as significant as motivators of behavior change. Secondary education attainment (a predominant proportion of the world’s population) and self efficacy and identity among women were also important motivators of dietary behavioral change. This study argues that for us, as individuals to make an impact on the environment through our diets, significant shifts need to be made by a large segment of the world’s population. These shifts require a movement towards a vegetarian type diet to reap both environmental and health benefits. Much of this change would happen through peer influence (think social media), through women’s agency, and through those with a secondary school education. The change, would need to happen on a grand, transformative level as called for by the EAT-Lancet Commission report in early January 2019.

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon. Source: NYTIMES

Foreign Policy well articulates the findings from the EAT Lancet and the IPCC report here and argue that the global food crisis is here. Now. Live. I also was on the Bloomberg Daybreak America’s show to discuss the impacts of the food system and diets on climate change. Check out the show here (segment starts at 1:22:50). Scientists have been forecasting their warnings for 40 years - they were right and no one listened. Maybe people (and governments) will start paying more attention and take some serious action. The NOAA show that July 2019 was the hottest month on record since they started recording temperatures. Speaking of heat, the Brazilian amazon fires are getting lots of attention right now. The NY Times shows a time scale of problem. It should be noted that these human induced fires are mainly done to prepare agriculture lands. And they occur every year, around the same time in the Amazon. The article makes three points on why these fires are different. (1) There were 35 percent more fires so far this year than in the average of the last eight years. (2) There has been a rise in deforestation in recent years, after a long period of decline. (3) While a large majority of the fires were on land that had already been cleared of forests many others are burning with particular intensity that are “deforestation fires.”

While we are discussing trees, it seems a banana fungus, known as “Fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4)” has been devastating plantations in Asia and now the Americas. It is supposedly impossible to eradicate and can live in soil for 30 years. The economic upheaval cannot be overstated. Speaking of loss, a study out of Santa Clara University found that one-third of edible produce (like tomatoes, sweet corn, artichokes, watermelon, cabbage, strawberries and kale) remains unharvested in the fields. Reasons? Field/harvest stability, weather, pests and plant diseases, labor availability, market prices, and buyer specifications for how produce should look and feel like.

By the time we got to Woodstock…

I just can’t keep up with all the latest food trends. Did you know McDonalds has jumped on the podcast bandwagon? Yeehaw. Virtual restaurants are on the rise, meaning that they are digital-only establishments that don’t need a dining room or waiters. They rely on people ordering their food from apps. But kickin it back to ol’ school, this article gives ode to the Waffle House, started in 1955 in Avondale Estates Georgia. You just can’t replicate that with an app. Oh, how I reminisce of those bygone days. Can you believe Woodstock happened 50 years ago? I just bought this book: Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat by Jonathan Kauffman. Bring on the tempeh. Seems all things hippie are back in style. Keep an eye out for a blog dedicated to 1968-1969 and how it influenced our food ways.

Delving further back into history, the New York Times has an excellent piece on the “barbaric history of sugar” that fueled slavery in the United States. By the mid-19th century, the U.S. had 125,000 slaves working on sugar plantations! Fast forward to today, we are now trying to figure out how to reduce, remove or tax this “white gold” in the food supply. Forty countries and 7 cities have a sugar tax. The Economist highlights a study showing how to optimize sugar taxes without regressive effects. They suggest that: “In the real world, if taxes in one place get too high shoppers will arbitrage the rules by traveling to buy soft drinks elsewhere. Taking this into account they reckon that the optimal rate for cities is 0.5 cents, although a more efficient system would be a state or national tax to control America’s sugar rush.”

Impact of climate change on crops, water and income in Timor-Leste. Source: Bonis-Profumo et al 2019.

Here is just a few cool papers, reports and books that came out in the last few weeks:

  • Association Between Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. There is a strong inverse dose response association between plant-based diets and risk of type 2 diabetes This association was strengthened when healthy plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts.

  • Soft condensed matter physics of foods and macronutrients. This article discusses the importance of physics in understanding the texture, taste, and composition of foods. It is an atom-colliding article of food science and matter physics. Get your genius on.

  • Ravaged landscapes and climate vulnerability: The challenge in achieving food security and nutrition in post-conflict Timor-Leste. This article focuses on the fascinating Timor-Leste - an agrarian society that won independence in 2002 and is struggling to achieve food security and reduce undernutrition as the country modernizes. The economy depends on fossil fuel revenues and oil reserves are dwindling. A review of climate, agricultural, and nutrition data reveals high weather vulnerability, low agricultural productivity, and slow dietary and nutritional progress. But solutions exist. Agricultural sector actions can make important contributions to poverty reduction, food security, dietary diversity, micronutrient sufficiency, and overall nutrition. Agriculture can be made to be more nutrition- and gender-sensitive with a focus on mixed farming systems, biodiversity, climate-smart practices, and access to inputs, training, and technologies for farmers to enable sustainable and healthy rural livelihoods. Ultimately, productivity levels must improve to support the availability of sufficient and nutritious foods.

  • Gene-environment interplay: what do our genes say about dietary choices? Those of us who work in public health often forget about epigenetics and the way our genes play out in our diets and health status. The authors say: Diet is not just dictated by guidelines and individual choices, but also by availability and accessibility. Therefore, future studies that investigate the relationship of gene expression and a healthy diet in individuals exposed to a similar environmental milieu—for example, in accessibility, inducements, and the socioeconomic construct—are needed to understand the gene–environment interplay at the community level. These results can leverage genetic expression analyses to provide early biological footprints of an unhealthy diet environment, in order to facilitate the investigation of social factors that influence prevalences and outcomes of disease processes, such as food deserts and food swamps.”

  • Trends and Correlates of Overweight among Pre-School Age Children, Adolescent Girls, and Adult Women in South Asia: An Analysis of Data from Twelve National Surveys in Six Countries over Twenty Years. The researchers found that overweight children had significantly higher odds of having an overweight mother and were more likely to come from wealthier households, live in urban areas, and have more education.

  • Modernization of African Food Retailing and (Un)healthy Food Consumption. In Zambia, two-thirds of the households use modern and traditional retailers simultaneously, but richer households are more likely than poorer ones to use supermarkets and hypermarkets. Use of modern retailers is positively associated with higher consumption of ultra-processed foods, after also controlling for income and other socioeconomic factors. However, the use of traditional stores and kiosks is also positively associated with the consumption of ultra-processed foods, suggesting that modern retailers are not the only drivers of dietary transitions. Interesting!

  • The SDG of zero hunger 75 years on: Turning full circle on agriculture and nutrition. In this paper, Derek Byerlee and I look back to the pioneering 1943 UN Conference on Food and Agriculture in Hot Springs, Virginia where the first international commitment to ending hunger was made. Despite these good intentions, however, the agricultural and nutrition communities largely went their separate ways for the next 50 years. Following through on the conference’s balanced approach of “more and better food” would have resulted in better nutrition for all. Today, the SDGs have once again put nutrition and agriculture together at center stage. Despite some important gaps in knowledge, financing, and implementation capacity, we are finally in a better position to shape food systems in a way that ends hunger and all forms of malnutrition.

  • Technical Brief: Economic Evaluations of Multi-sectoral Actions for Health and Nutrition. This is a fantastic brief by the AHN Academy. This is a fantastic brief by the AHN Academy to “created to advance knowledge and scientific understanding among the global research community of economic evaluation methods and metrics related to costs and benefits of agriculture, food and livelihood strategies for nutrition and health.” They examine different types of economic evaluations and move towards standardizing a set of metrics to economically assess nutrition.

  • The Political Economy of Food. Jody Harris and colleagues at IDS just published this IDS Bulletin that examines the issues of power across food systems. It looks at the various active players, relationships, activities, and institutions that play a major role in shaping food systems and power inequities. This was a much needed publication and I plan to use it in my class on food policy.

Su-su-summertime sadness

Summer is coming to an end and Lana Del Ray’s song, su-su-summertime, summertime sadness keeps running through my head. Not sure if I am sad it is coming to an end, or sad that it wasn’t the summer I dreamed it would be. But is it ever? Summer always starts with such high hopes. The stretched-out days, sun-drenched bronzed skin, quality time with nature whether it be in water or atop mountains, relaxing nights in the backyard, vacations, beaches. A time when the livin’ is easy. When “laziness finds respectability.” As Charles Bowden said, “summertime is always the best of what might be.”

Summer conjures up inspiration. Just think of the vast number of songs that have eloquently articulated that summertime feeling. Sly and the Family Stone, War, Bananarama, the Isley Brothers, Childish Gambino, the Motels, Seals and Crofts, Don Henley, Death Cab for Cutie, Lana Del Ray, The Lovin’ Spoonful, to name a few.

The posted playlist is just a sampling of “summer” songs. I purposely chose songs that had “summer” in the title, but clearly there are so many songs about summer, the anticipation of it, or the experience of it. Think Alice Cooper’s “Schools out for Summer”, The Go Gos “Vacation”, The Ramones “Rockaway Beach”, and anything by the Beach Boys…

Remember when square Sandy and T-bird Danny reminisce about their summer affair “summer lovin’ had me a blast, summer lovin’ happened so fast” in Grease? Oh the fleeting moments of young, summer romance…We’ve all been there.

But my favorite summer (sad) song has to be from Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers.

That summer feeling
When there's things to do not because you gotta
When you run for love not because you oughtta
When you trust your friends with no reason not ta (nada)
The joy I name shall not be tamed
And that summer feeling is gonna haunt you
One day in your life.

My summers always haunt me. The could’ves, the should’ves, the would’ves. I could have done more with my summer, or I could have done less. I should have done what the Italians do and take a whole month off to celebrate Ferragosto. I would have gone to the beach this summer and worked on my tan but alas, I don’t want to look like Keith Richards, an old leather shoe with lips.

So what the hell does this post have to do with food you may be asking yourself? Indulge me for just a few minutes more.

When I got to thinking about writing a post about summer and what it means for all things food, it got me thinking about seasons. The beginning of one season, ends another season. I feel that years go by faster when a place experiences four seasons - winter, spring, summer and fall. It can be refreshing - shedding skin, birth and death, light and dark. Winter is often associated with death, old age, pain, loneliness, despair or an end. Yikes. Spring is almost always associated with rebirth, renewal, hope. Summer, well, we have already expunged that season enough, but it does symbolize fullness, joy, and dare I say, freedom. August, often means bounty, change, maturity and maybe some anticipation of decay...

Lynch’s annoying twitter feed

When you live in a place like Arizona or California in the US, or in the southern tropics, you have sort of two seasons - hot and less hot, wet and dry. Back in 2009, David Lynch would annoyingly remind us on a daily basis of the wonderful, consistent, balmy weather in Los Angeles. And he wasn’t fibbing. Way to rub salt in the wounds of us New Yorkers struggling to stay alive amidst the bleak snow-covered streets and dead plantation.

The Earth’s tilt toward the sun and its trips around the sun dictates the cycle of seasons. The longest and shortest day of the year occur when Earth's axis is either closest or farthest from the sun also known as the summer and winter solstices.

Equinoxes are another significant day during Earth's journey around the Sun. On these days, the planet's axis is pointed parallel to the Sun, rather than toward or away from it. The spring, or vernal, equinox for the northern hemisphere takes place on the same day as the south's autumnal equinox and vice versa.

Seasons are so critical for food. Seasons bring different harvests of food that contribute to the diversity and quality of our diets. There are many studies out here looking at the seasonal affects associated with access to and availability of foods. Studies in Ghana, Bangladesh, and Malawi show that seasonality is a key element to food availability in many low-income countries, what is often called “local seasonality.” Seasonality impacts food access often through food prices of even the most basic staple foods. In many high-income countries, people don’t even think about seasons. You can get anything you want, any time of the year, what is called “global seasonality.” Blackberries in January, apples in June, corn in April. All completely off-season from when they could actually be harvested in the United States. Thank you global trade (take note Potus). We have become completely disconnected from the agrarian calendar. But more on that in a minute.

Jenny MacDiarmid, a fantastic researcher in Scotland, asked whether eating seasonal foods contributes to a more sustainable diet. One could argue that demanding global seasonality in a diet would provide nutritional benefits by increasing diversity of the diets, particularly perishable foods, but it could have high environmental costs. MacDiarmid argues that greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) of globally seasonal food are not necessarily higher than food produced locally as it depends more on the production system used than transportation. She wrote: “Adopting a global seasonality approach to food supplies may not have major consequences for GHGE but to meet demands it could create greater water stress in already water scarce countries. A similar argument could be made against increasing the global supply of fresh food year-round because of the increased land it will require, which will have knock-on effects for loss of environmental biodiversity.”

Nigerian crop calendar

The agrarian or farm calendar is essentially the same as the crop calendar which is a time tool on when to plant, sow, and harvest local crops based in specific agro-ecological zones or landscapes. FAO has a bunch of examples based on crop or country. Here is an example of Nigeria. Yams looks like a solid bet for year-round food. This calendar shows maize across a few countries. It shows how diverse the planting and harvesting seasons are across the world, with some places getting in two harvests of corn per year.

Harvest calendar of the United States

It was always thought that the United States school year calendar was based on the agrarian calendar. The idea is to keep kids at home during the summer months (June through August), the most active time to plant and harvest. I even thought that was true. Turns out, it is not. Rural and urban schools had different calendars but summer was just a logical time for teachers and students to take breaks. According to this Washington Post article, “In the early 1800s, agrarian communities generally operated public schools for a winter and a summer term of two to three months each. The spring and fall, labor-intensive times for farming, featured no school. During the summer — no less important an agricultural season — older children were typically absent from school, since families counted on their labor.” Interesting. The myth of the United States education system still rooted in ancient agrarian times is a myth after all.

And if one were to look at the seasonal calendar of the United States, it would be near impossible to line that up with the current school year calendar of the country. The sheer diversity in temperatures, what is grown, where, and when, would put a child in each region of the country in a different academic calendar year, were it to be dependent on our farm systems. The harvest calendar of the United States based on temperature is shown on the right.

Seasonality also brings challenges associated with malnutrition. Due to seasonal variability of food production, dietary intake, food security and morbidity in the developing world, many children suffer from impaired growth or acute malnutrition issues. Seasonal malnutrition is often tied to disease burden brought on by seasons - rainy seasons bring about diarrhea incidence as one example. Stephen Devereux and colleagues published a PLoS paper about seasonal hunger and showed the patterns linking severe acute malnutrition and malaria during the rainy season in Niger.

Vaitla B, Devereux S, Swan SH (2009) Seasonal Hunger: A Neglected Problem with Proven Solutions. PLoS Med 6(6): e1000101. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000101

Interestingly, when one searches for reviews in PubMed on seasonality and stunting (54 articles) or wasting (4) or undernutrition (220), very little emerges with most articles involving Vitamin D specifically. It shows how little the nutrition community pays to seasonality - which impacts interpretations of research findings of timed surveys and interactions with disease burden, programming and policy interventions. Andy Prentice has been studying seasonality for a good long time in The Gambia, and he wrote a paper back in 1994 on the topic. Crazy. Action Against Hunger wrote about it as a “missing link” a few years ago, arguing that seasonality rarely get attention by governments.

But how are seasons changing with climate change and what will this mean for malnutrition and our food security? A lot. We wrote about the seasonal affects on malnutrition in the context of near-term weather events, like El Nino and La Nina in the Global Nutrition Report in 2015 with Madeleine Thomson of Wellcome Trust. The report (check out chapter 6), articulates that for the poorest groups, the seasonal cycles of food availability, infection, and time use remain a significant challenge to nutrition security and provide a stark indicator of the vulnerability of populations to climate risk. The figure below shows how stunting varies by month of birth for Indian children under the age of three.

Stunting variation in India based on season (Global Nutrition Report 2015)

We also wrote about the impacts of seasonality in the context of climate change on the entirety of the food system. Forecasts of the future climate— whether short-term seasonal anomalies or long-term climate change scenarios—may also impact production and consumption patterns, price hikes of food staples, and social stability. And with climate change, the length and intensity of our seasons are getting harder to predict and harder to control. Farmers are challenged and will continue to be challenged.

Seasons. They are essential for the foods we grow, the diets we consume and our overall wellbeing. Seasons fill in the gaps and pauses that the world makes. But they are shifting, shaping and changing. Much of that due to the anthropocene.

My favorite season? You guessed it. Summer. But that summer feeling haunts me. As much as I want to hold onto it and its cumulative memories, it is gone as soon as it arrives. Although I tend to get sad when summer ends, I am glad when it comes around with each passing year.

Food Bytes: July 8 - July 20

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

Food environments seem to be on the tip of the tongue for everyone these days. Food environments are the “collective physical, economic, policy and sociocultural surroundings, opportunities and conditions that influence people’s food choices and nutritional status.” Or to put it more simply, it is the place where consumers go to buy or order food - a market, a restaurant, a cafeteria.

The UN Standing Committee on Nutrition, also known as UNSCN, has just published a collection of papers on the food environment. It splits up the food environment into two entry points - the food supply shaping these environments and the consumer demand side - and what it would take to make change, also known as the enabling environment. The publication is chock-full of case studies from all over the world. I like the ones on Mexico, the private sector last mile, the flathead reservation, cash transfers, and the digital influence.

Food Environment Framework showing supply and demand. Source: Marshall et al 2019 UNSCN report

In South Africa’s Soweto hood, women struggle to be healthy. Food environments are pretty dismal (fries, fries and more fries), and exercising outside can be dangerous. It is not just about supply and demand of healthy foods, which the UNSCN publication focused on, but the whole built environment, the way women are treated in our society and urban safety. At the same time, its seems many South Africans are taking food security into their own hands. One study found that 2.2 million households have recently constructed food gardens at their homes in order to avert food insecurity.

While we are on the lovely UN, the UN Committee on Food Security is rolling out a series of regional consultations on what is known as the Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition. This stems from the High Level Panel of Experts on Nutrition and Food Systems report which called for these guidelines to be developed by governments collectively and collaboratively. These voluntary guidelines are meant to create a global norm of reference in the governance of food systems and nutrition/diets. The guidelines outline principles and practices that governments can refer to when making laws and administering food systems. These guidelines should be seen as an internationally negotiated soft law or a set of guidelines in which all governments have reached a common ground. So, they can be important, and quite powerful. Anyone can comment on the zero draft - far from its final - here. The regional consultations started in Africa, Ethiopia. Then, Asia, Bangkok. Then Central and South America, Panama, North Africa, Egypt, Europe, Budapest and last but not least, North America. I had the pleasure of being at the Ethiopia meeting and it was quite fantastic to have so many African countries in one room talking about African food systems. Amazing stuff.

Source and Copyright: Johnny Miller, NYT 2019

Speaking of Africa, the diversity of cuisines and culture is what makes the continent so amazing. Take Nigeria. Reading Yewande Komolafe’s recipes made me want to jump on a plane to Lagos and eat my way through it.

But it is not always a rosy picture for Africa. The continent is still struggling with food insecurity, while at the same time, obesity is creeping up, up and up. The FAO State of Food Insecurity (SOFI) 2019 report just came out, two months early. It was reasoned that it came out to line up with the High Level Political Forum. Yeah sure. I think it was timed to be released right before the Director General, José Graziano da Silva stepped down to celebrate his 8 years as the leader of FAO. However, the report is nothing to celebrate. I digress…The major findings of the SOFI were the following:

  • More than a quarter of the world’s population now struggles to eat safe, nutritious and sufficient food.

  • Hunger is on the rise in most of Africa, in parts of the Middle East and in Latin America and the Caribbean. The situation is most alarming in Africa, where since 2015 undernourishment has steadily increased in almost all subregions. In Asia, undernourishment has been decreasing in most regions, reaching 11.4 percent in 2017. In Latin America and the Caribbean, rates of undernourishment have increased in recent years, largely as a consequence of the situation in South America.

  • Economic shocks are contributing to prolonging and worsening the severity of food crises caused primarily by conflict and climate shocks.

  • No region is exempt from the rising trends of overweight and “obesity rates are higher in those countries where moderate food insecurity is also higher.”

We see this in the United States too. I just wrote a piece for Bloomberg Opinion (I didn’t choose the photo.) showing that food insecure adults in the U.S. are 32% more likely than others to be obese — especially if they are women. Poverty and unemployment have driven the dual rise in food insecurity and obesity since the 1960s, especially in rural America. But many city dwellers subsisting with inadequate social services and support structures are also susceptible. Every time I write a piece in Bloomberg Opinion, I always get lots of interesting email comments. For this piece, most commenters feel that if you are fat, it is your fault. If healthy foods are available, affordable and easy to access, “these people” will always make the wrong choice. My reaction? WOW. It is so hard to eat healthy in our perverse food environments. Blaming and shaming is not going to make things better. But it seems, consumers are catching on in the U.S. - diet quality is improving.

But what does the latest evidence suggest for those who are overweight and want to lose weight? I will soon dedicate a longer blog to this issue because the literature is confusing. Is it a keto diet? Is it intermittent fasting? Is it low-carb? Is it putting a teaspoon of oil in your coffee every morning? New evidence suggests that cutting 300 calories per day, from any food, can lead to substantial weight loss in adults (7.5 kilos over two years) compared to the control group. Tamar Haspel of the Washington Post, argues that eating ultra-processed foods comes down to increased calorie consumption. We consume more of those foods, and they are calorically dense. She wrote:

“In a nutshell: The root of obesity is palatability and calorie density, combined with ubiquity and convenience. Satiety hormones and other metabolic machinations have much less to do with it. We’re responding to cues from without, not from within. One new study doesn’t prove it, of course, but it’s the hypothesis that best fits the preponderance of the evidence.”

I really appreciate this article that “Being Fat is Not a Moral Failure.” Damn straight. This Scientific American article argues “Individual behavior change is ineffective in the face of social and structural barriers that constrain individual choice. These barriers are uniquely relevant among racial and ethnic minorities and impoverished adults who are more likely to be obese.”

A bunch of scientific papers and media articles came out this week on diets, nutrition, and food systems. Here are some highlights.

Kathmandu food stall - healthy and unhealthy foods. Source and Copyright: Jess Fanzo

  • “Ultra-processed” foods or what I call, junk food, are in the news again. This article outlines four dangers with food reformulation - redesigning an existing processed food product with the objective of making it healthier. This article argues that reformulation just tinkers around the edges, and isn’t really fixing the root problems of the food system, and what the authors say is food and beverage industries.

  • Case in point? Nearly 10,000 cases of heart disease and stroke and 1,500 cases of cancer could have been avoided in England if the government had not switched to a voluntary deal (as opposed to mandatory) with the food industry to cut salt in food. England is doing so much good stuff in the food space right now, but man, there are potential setbacks with Brexit and political shifts. This BMJ post by Annie Purdie and colleagues is concerned about Boris Johnson’s recent decision to look at “sin taxes” and creating a nanny state. The authors argue that the public health community needs to “move beyond debating the cost-effectiveness of interventions, and engage with the underlying political nature of the issue.” We need to pay more attention to the language (sin, nanny, liberties etc) used to highlight the problem and the proposed solutions like taxes on soda and regulating the levels of salt and sugar in foods. As Bob Marley sang, “don’t let ‘em fool ya.”

  • There is more and more coming out that nutritional sciences is “broken.” In this article, they use the “eggs are again bad for you” study that came out in JAMA. Waah. Is it? I disagree! Of course, when we focus on specific foods and nutrients, the data is not clear, but dietary patterns show basically the same thing. Give it a rest dudes.

  • While these researchers argue that more evidence is needed, they did find that snack foods and sugar‐sweetened beverages are providing a substantial proportion of energy intakes (ranges from 13 to 38%!) among children below 2 years of age in Latin American and South‐east Asian low and middle income countries.

  • A study in the capitol of Nepal, Kathmandu, showed just that consumption of unhealthy snack foods and beverages contributed 47% of total energy intake among the wealthiest consumers, compared with 5% among the poorest. This pattern of junk food consumption among young children was associated with inadequate micronutrient intakes. The reason that mom’s give these foods to their children? Convenience - they are easy to prepare and easy to feed. Makes sense. Looks like even among very poor countries, we are seeing the nutrition transition play out in real time. Ever try making dal bhat from scratch? Not easy and incredibly time consuming…

  • I love that the Lancet is calling on oral health researchers to review the evidence and conflicts of interest of the impacts of what we eat on our dental health and the caries that come with sugar consumption. The lead scientist argues, and this goes back to the infant studies: “A particular concern is the high levels of sugar in processed commercial baby foods and drinks which encourage babies and toddlers to develop a preference for sweetness in early life. We need tighter regulation and legislation to restrict the marketing and promotion of sugary foods and drinks if we are to tackle the root causes of oral conditions.”

  • New microbiome research shows that a specialized food made up of chickpeas, soy, peanuts, bananas and a blend of oils and micronutrients substantially boost microbiome health in severely malnourished children. Yummy.

  • Do cookbooks need nutrition labels? Great question but sort of takes the fun out of cookbooks no?

Some things have improved for food security and nutrition. Source: Byerlee and Fanzo, 2019 GFS Journal

Derek Byerlee and I wrote a piece looking back 75 years on commitment to hunger when the first international commitment to ending hunger was made at the UN Conference on Food and Agriculture, at Hot Springs, Virginia, USA in 1943. That conference set the goal of ‘freedom from want of food, suitable and adequate for the health and strength of all peoples’ that should be achieved ‘in all lands within the shortest possible time’ (US Department of State, 1943). It is sobering and shameful that 75 years after this clarion call, as well as the dozens of similar global declarations since 1943 for ending hunger, some 800 million persons are estimated to be undernourished and over 2 billion adults and children suffer from other forms of malnutrition be it obesity or micronutrient deficiencies. We remind readers of the significance of the Hot Springs conference and briefly trace the long road that has led us back to the original vision of ending hunger that recognized the several dimensions of nutrition, from undernourishment to micronutrient deficiencies. While there has been progress, this reflection over 75 years helps appreciate the fact that today for the first time, the links of agriculture, health and nutrition outlined in 1943 are again at center stage in the global hunger challenge as embraced in SDG2. Accordingly, SDG2 offers a better foundation for accelerating progress in reducing malnutrition in its several dimensions, although we recognize major gaps in knowledge, financing, and implementation capacity for realizing SDG2 targets.

Someone else is realizing the importance of agriculture. It seems Bill Gates has woken up to the fact that the CGIAR exists. His article is titled “You’ve probably never heard of CGIAR, but they are essential to feeding our future.” Hate to spoil it Billie Boy, but we have heard of the CGIAR…and I don’t confuse it with the word “cigar,” cigarillos, ciggies, or ziggie stardust.

Country ratios of fruit and vegetable availability to WHO age-specific recommendations. Source: Mason-D’Croz et al 2019

Country ratios of fruit and vegetable availability to WHO age-specific recommendations. Source: Mason-D’Croz et al 2019

On the environmental and climate change front, lots going on. The World Resources Institute released a mother of a report - 564 pages - on Creating A Sustainable Food Future. You may have seen the abbreviated version released 6 months ago. But this one goes into great detail a 22-item “menu” which is divided into five “courses” that together could close the food, land and greenhouse gas gaps: (1) reduce growth in demand for food and agricultural products; (2) increase food production without expanding agricultural land; (3) protect and restore natural ecosystems; (4) increase fish supply (through improved wild fisheries management and aquaculture); and (5) reduce GHG emissions from agricultural production. Richard Waite and Janet Ranganathan are seriously my heroes in creating these action oriented solutions. Well done.

Following on the heals of that report, two Lancet Planetary Health papers came out. One paper shows that even under optimistic socioeconomic scenarios future supply of fruits and vegetables, central components of a healthy diet, will be insufficient to achieve recommended levels in many countries. Consequently, systematic public policy targeting the constraints to producing and consuming fruits and vegetables will be needed. The second paper shows climate change and increased atmospheric CO2 will impact the availability of protein, zinc and iron availability. The many countries that currently have high levels of nutrient deficiency would continue to be disproportionately affected.

This expose by the Guardian shows that Brazil’s huge beef sector, and the appetite for beef, continues to threaten health of world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon. This is just downright sad.

And while those of us in nutrition don’t really get to the larger social determinants of food insecurity and malnutrition, it is important to do so. This article in NPR’s Goats and Soda delve into the practice of trading sex for fish in Lake Chilwa in Malawi. This is driven by poverty and food insecurity and the impacts are catastrophic in this southern African country - HIV, violence and stigma - for these women.


Food Bytes: July 1 - July 7

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

Ever wonder why the nutrition community doesn’t play nice with each other? I do. Phil Baker at Deakin University just published an interesting, but heady, paper trying to understand nutrition action networks and what it would take to make them more effective in garnering political commitment towards ending malnutrition. Just take a look at the figure below looking at the context in which nutrition sits. Talk about complex! They argue for four things to improve political commitment to nutrition:

Complex contexts for the nutrition world

  1. Coordinating bodies that are better at advocating resources can of course, get more money and strengthen the networks in which they work.

  2. Coordinating and governance bodies need to be more inclusive and transparent in their decision making.

  3. Civil society should work to influence decision makers. Helps when transparency is in place.

  4. Finances matter and create powerful incentives for us to play in the sandbox together.

I may have gotten all this wrong, but like I said, the paper is intense, but super important to better understand why nutrition hasn’t seen massive progress like other sectors. I really do think that the grand nutrition architecture has some serious issues around coordination, cooperation, and reality checks it needs to come to grips with. Not Phil’s words, but mine…For another blog post!

Of course, the nutrition community doesn’t just struggle with political commitment. It also struggles with delivering key interventions to those populations most in need. A recent study by Stuart Gillespie and colleagues looked at 24 different nutrition interventions to see if their coverage is measured and tracked in major health surveys done at the national level. These interventions are things like vitamin A and iron supplementation, growth monitoring, and infant feeding counseling. Basically the answer is no. The coverage of these interventions are not collected and not in any standard way across countries. The paper presented a few case studies including India. The figure on the right shows the scatter of data collection of key nutrition actions (counseling, growth monitoring and food supplements) typically not included in the core national health surveys. The bars show the national coverage of data and the dots are the states of India. Another paper published in PLoS medicine looked not only at whether or not a health intervention coverage was captured in surveys, but looked at need, use, and quality of those interventions. It would be great to see these authors do a follow up looking at those three measures to assess effective coverage of nutrition indicators.

And while we are ripping on the functionality of nutritionists and their work, let’s discuss the indecisiveness of the science they dabble in. The Atlantic published a piece on why nutritional sciences is so confusing for consumers. There have been a lot of articles on this recently, and I think it started with Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food a decade ago. The Atlantic argue that doing the science is very hard - figuring out what people eat and the consequences of those eating patterns - is not so straight forward and as the article highlighted “inexact.” But the evidence over decades has accumulated and most nutritionists agree largely on what is considered a healthy diet and the healthful habits that people should take on. But that is sort of boring isn’t it. The article also highlights the emerging role of the microbiome. But more on that later.

There have been a few recent papers looking at the impact of interventions to improve food environments. One was a systematic review and meta-analysis on sugar‐sweetened beverage - SSB - taxes and their impact on beverage purchases and dietary intake. A suite of different taxes were examined mainly in Europe and US cities. What the researchers found was that a 10% SSB tax was associated with an average decline in beverage purchases and dietary intake of 10% in 6 jurisdictions. This tax was associated with a 2% increase in total untaxed beverage consumption (e.g. water) but this was not significant. Another study looked at the anticipated impacts of implementing a 2016 Chilean Law of Food Labeling and Advertising mandating front‐of‐package (FOP) warning label for products high in sodium, total sugars, saturated fats, and/or total energy. Researchers photographed packaged food and beverage products from six different supermarkets in Santiago, Chile before the law went into effect. They found that basically very little reformulation by industry occurred before the law went into action and <2% of products would have avoided at least one warning label with reformulation. A similar study looked at the food supply ahead of the law implementation and found similar issues.

While we are on the topic of FOPs, a really interesting study looked at how realistic would it be to mandate these types of labels in the U.S. The study found that: “Certain interpretive FOP labels which provide factual information with colors or designs to assist consumers interpret the information could similarly withstand First Amendment scrutiny, but questions remain regarding whether certain colors or shapes would qualify as controversial and not constitutional. Labels that provide no nutrient information and only an image or icon to characterize the entire product would not likely withstand First Amendment scrutiny.” Wow. Interesting. Gotta love the ol’ US of A’s constitution.

The U.S. is not always the asshole in the room. Well, maybe we are. Let’s talk USAID. For those of you who are not familiar with them, they are the United States Agency for International Development and self describe as “the world's premier international development agency and a catalytic actor driving development results.” Okay…they are also the agency driving around in white trucks all over Africa and Asia with the cringe-worthy signage “From the American People.” Awkward. USAID has done some not so good things in international development but it has done some good things too, dammit. They have been committed to nutrition. The Official Development Assistance (ODA) numbers that are reported in the Global Nutrition Report each year demonstrate their financial commitment. They have supported many programs at a significant scale in low- and middle-income countries. Some impactful, some, not so much. I am really screwing myself over here to ensure I never get USAID money aren’t I. Anyways, they just published the history of USAID in nutrition. It is a nice story. Check it out.

Speaking of food environments and obesity, with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, I did a one-minute video on why is obesity such an issue globally and the importance of food systems in solving, not just contributing to the issue. If your attention span lasts the whole one minute, you can find out my favorite food. It involves a food rich in zinc!

It’s not just food systems that need to improve if we want to make a dent in the obesity pandemic, it is what is inside our bodies as well. The microbiome is the next frontier for science and its role and relationship with obesity is a complex Game of Thrones TV series - it is going to take some time to dig into the history, to understand the future and who really rules us. Some researchers argue that our microbiota is associated with the propensity of being overweight. Others argue that diet is a big driver of the biome composition and species richness, maybe more so than the biological state of nutritional status - i.e. overweight and underweight. But unraveling this game requires us to be brave, yonder north of the wall, and live in peace with the Wildlings. And John Snow. Rrrrrrr.

And as always, I throw in something just to scare the hell out of any of you who are still living in la la land thinking the world is just bliss. Check out this paper. The title reads: "Global warming has increased global economic inequality.” Boom. Do I need to say more? Now you can go back to your mind-numbing regular programming.

Just so you don’t think I am a vindictive person, I leave you with Google’s Stories of Yoga. For any of you yogi gurus out there, this is everything you want and need to know about yoga, its history, its practice and its inspiration. See? I can be nice. NAMASTE!

Everybody wants to rule the world

As we approach this year’s climate summit, the Tears for Fears song “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” keeps running through my head.

Welcome to your life.

There’s no turning back.

When it comes to climate change, we are now moving on a linear path. No looking back, as painful as it is. While scientists have been warning us for decades — bordering half a century of ‘red flags’ in both evidence and advocacy — here is where we now sit. In the midst of a massive climate breakdown which will change the world as we know it.

The headlines read: Climate emergency. Climate breakdown. Climate crisis. Global heating, not global warming. It took a young girl, Greta Thunberg, to push governments — the rulers of our world — to take notice. It took an older gent, David Attenborough to scare the hell out of all of us. Fish stocks and biodiversity collapse, wildlife extinction, and with that, human extinction not being far behind.

But is anyone listening? Is there anyone out there? It seems rulers just want to keep ruling their kingdoms, playing that fiddle while Rome burns. Literally.

“All for freedom and for pleasure.

Nothing ever lasts forever.

Everybody wants to rule the world.”

Top on the list of Nero-like impersonators is Donald Trump. A buffoon, but a dangerous one. He has completely ignored the science, and refuses to cooperate with other nations by not ratifying the COP Paris agreement in which the the United States signed in 2015. By signing onto the COP, each country has in principle, agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, use green energy sources and keep the world well below 1.5 degrees. This signing was an “intent.” But ratification is key. Since 2015, there are still some countries who have not legally ratified their agreement and they include Angola, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Libya, Oman, Russia, South Sudan, Suriname, Turkey, and Yemen. Trump is wanting to completely pull out let alone ratify. His next opportunity to do so will be in November 2020. Interesting timing yes?

This is all sad nonetheless. It would be one thing if the United States solely suffered from their silly political choices, but that is just not the case with climate (among other things). Everyone suffers from decisions of powerful rulers who just don’t give a shit.

The UN Secretary General’s remarks at the Climate Summit Preparatory Meeting said:

“It is plain to me that we have no time to lose. Sadly, it is not yet plain to all the decision makers that run our world. On the plus side, we have the Paris Agreement on climate change and a work programme agreed last year in Katowice. But we know that even if the promises of Paris are fully met, we still face at least a 3-degree temperature rise by the end of the century – a catastrophe for life as we know it. Even more worrying is that many countries are not even keeping pace with their promises under the Paris Agreement.”

The UN SG has reason to worry if one were to actually look historically at the data and trends. And the science holds up. Twenty-five years ago in 1992, the Union of Concerned Scientists comprised of 1700 independent scientists, wrote a canary in the coal mine (excuse the analogy…) piece entitled “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.” This group called on our global society to stop the environmental destruction being witnessed back then if we are to ensure that “vast human misery is to be avoided.” They expressed concern about past and future damage to the planet and outlined areas of concern involving ozone depletion, freshwater availability, marine life depletion, ocean dead zones, forest loss, biodiversity destruction, climate change, and continued human population growth. These scientists argued that we are fast approaching the limits of the biosphere and we may not be able to reverse the damage done.

Source: Ripple, W.J., Wolf, C., Newsome, T.M., Galetti, M., Alamgir, M., Crist, E., Mahmoud, M.I., Laurance, W.F. and 15,364 scientist signatories from 184 countries, 2017. World scientists’ warning to humanity: a second notice.  BioScience ,  67 (12), pp.1026-1028.

Source: Ripple, W.J., Wolf, C., Newsome, T.M., Galetti, M., Alamgir, M., Crist, E., Mahmoud, M.I., Laurance, W.F. and 15,364 scientist signatories from 184 countries, 2017. World scientists’ warning to humanity: a second notice. BioScience, 67(12), pp.1026-1028.

Fast forward to 2017, another group of scientists looked back at their warning and evaluated the human response since that time by exploring available time-series data across a series of environmental indicators. Since 1992, with the exception of stabilizing the stratospheric ozone layer, humanity has failed to make sufficient progress on almost all of the environmental challenges outlined in the Warning paper, and in most cases, the situation has become much worse. The figure to the left shows the different trends tracked before and after 1992 in gray and black lines, respectively. Pretty dismal and downright scary to see the the massive deforestation, declines in species, increases in dead zones, and the steep rises in greenhouse gases and temperature.

How did our world get to this state? We are in the middle of a new experiment -- a democracy free fall in which global freedom, open political systems and free societies are threatened. The world experiences ebbs and flows in the history of time, and let us hope that the decisions of rulers, the political institutions that provide the checks and balances on these rulers, and our planet survive this ebb. As the UN SG said, we have to. We are in a battle for our lives.

Food Bytes: June 3 - June 30

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

The month of June was filled with lots of food-related action - meetings, conferences, prizes and elections. Let me tell ya, it was hard to keep up. The question is, what is the result of all these meetings and the environmental footprint of moving all these bodies from meeting to meeting? Does it actually shift the agenda in positive directions? Are we all just talking to our friends? Is it just a way to keep us busy posting photos and videos on twitter? I wonder sometimes. I am not criticizing. I am a part of the problem. But I do think it is time to rethink what all this effort is amounting to, and for who.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization, also known as FAO, hosted a Future of Food Symposium with some dynamo speakers, but not a lot of action coming out of it. FAO also just announced the election of their new Director General. His name is Qu Dongyu from China. He is currently the Vice Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs of China. Makes sense. China is a giant and is greatly shaping the world’s food system. Looking forward to seeing his vision. He has a lot of work to do…

The American Society of Nutrition @nutritionorg hosted their annual nutrition conference, right upon Johns Hopkins doorstep in Baltimore. Lots of diverse science being presented and also lots of controversy around sponsporship of events and significant presence by industry. I was only there for a day but that was about all I could take sitting in an over air-conditioned window-less conference center looking at powerpoint after powerpoint. That said, it is a great way to get caught up on the latest science. And Marie Ruel, a stellar international nutrition scientist at IFPRI, was awarded the Kellogg Prize for Lifetime Achievements in International Nutrition. Well deserved. Her talk is here. I highly recommend reading Marie’s incredible body of work. Much of it can be found here. You will see why she got the award - she accomplished so much over the last 30+ years. And she still has more to do!

The @EATforum Stockholm Food Forum, also an annual affair, took place. Glitz? Check. Grand? Check. Aspirational? Check. But what’s next? The impact of EAT is yet to be seen and it remains unclear on where they will go from here. Do they do advocacy? Policy? Science? I did the opener with Johan Rockstrom or also known as Johan Rockstar. It was fun. The video is below. One thing is clear to me, if they are advocating for a better food future for all, they need to take the show on the road.

Speaking of EAT, the EAT Lancet Commission fall-out keeps churning. Some of the authors of the Commission provide some explanation of issues raised by other scientists on the environmental targets here in a Lancet short response/commentary. Another study put the EAT-Lancet reference diet to the test among a large prospective cohort of British adults. The researchers found that the diet has beneficial associations for ischaemic heart disease and diabetes, but no association with stroke and no clear association with mortality. The media continues to churn out pieces on sustainable diets and mentioned the EAT Lancet report. Great that the work is garnering so much attention in the popular press but what now? Some highlights in the last few weeks:

  • This Vox piece closely examines what our diets will look like in a hotter, drier climate. Lots of talk (literally - it is an interview style piece) on the future of food and technology.

  • The Eater highlights the rise of the plant-based burgers in particular, the Impossible Burger, and how fast it went viral. Seems everything David Chang touches turns to gold.

  • Stepanie Feldstein also wrote for Yes Magazine about the plant-based burgers and argues that while it won’t save the course we are on with climate, small individual actions do matter, and manifest in different ways.

  • This Devex article asks about the relevancy of the EAT Lancet report to the global south. Good question. One expert from Liberia indicated that many in her country don’t even know about the report. That is not a surprise. That said, in the talks I have given on the report, I have emphasized what it does and does not mean for Africa and Asia (as well as what the report did and did not do), as a researcher who squarely works in both continents. Still a lot of work to do to ensure the global findings of the report translate in appropriate ways that ensure livelihoods and culture are considered right along with health and environmental challenges for particular, diverse country contexts.

  • I had to laugh at the title of this Guardian article. “Most 'meat' in 2040 will not come from dead animals, says report.” Why does that sound scary when taken at face value?

Okay enough on that! The @WorldFoodPrize 2019 winner was announced this month. The prize will go to Simon Groot, a Dutch vegetable “seedsman” where he started the East-West Seed Company reaching over 20 million smallholder farmers. More about his life can be found here. Not sure how the World Food Prize calculates the reach. I recall last year they credited shared prize winners Haddad and Nabarro, with “reducing the world’s number of stunted children by 10 million between 2012 and 2017.” While these two giants definitely made contributions, how did they get to that number?

Two publications on India just came out that I highly recommend. The first is a book, published by the great Prabhu Pingali and colleagues on Transforming Food Systems for a Rising India. It is a part of a book series by Chris Barrett at Cornell, on Agricultural Economics and Food Policy. I will publish a book on food systems for nutrition in mid 2020. At the same time, the Global Food Security Journal just published an article on future diets in India. They show that by 2050, there will be projected increases in per capita consumption of vegetables, fruit and dairy products, and little projected change in cereal (rice and wheat) and pulse consumption. Meat consumption is projected to remain low. The question remains, what will that mean for their production and food supplies and their nutrition outcomes?

Future direct consumption trends in India by Alea-Carew et al 2019 GFS Journal

Much being written about the food system front these days. To start, Nicholas Kristof, Opinion Columnist for the New York Times, in all of his eloquence highlighted the obscene inequities of our food system. He wrote:

“If some distant planet sends foreign correspondents to Earth, they will be baffled that we allow almost one child in four to be stunted, even as we indulge in gold leaf cupcakes, $1,000 sundaes and half-million-dollar bottles of wine.”

Guido Schmidt Traub and colleagues from the Food and Land Use Coalition argue that there are three ways to fix the food system in Nature. I agree with their three pillared approach (see figure below) but how? and with what investment? More details please! And if you don’t even know what I am talking about when I say “food system”, Corinna Hawkes and colleagues lay it all out in a policy brief. She also has another brief on why food systems matter for policies. I really like these - and there are more to come. Marion Nestle also lays out what it would take to change the United States food system. Marion is so practical. I would love to see her do more global work. Maybe we all need a dose of her realism.

What it would take to change the food system. Schmidt-Traub et al 2019 nature

The SDSN Network hosted an online conference on nutrition-sensitive agriculture from 3-5 June, 2019. Nutrition-sensitive agriculture offers great potential for achieving SDG 2, as it connects agricultural development to improved nutrition outcomes. Many nutrition-sensitive agriculture interventions have been applied in recent years. This e-conference aimed to turn the evidence coming from these interventions into concrete recommendations for practitioners. Close to 1,000 people from all over the world registered for this e-conference, taking part in three live sessions and interacting via an online conference platform. We had great speakers — Matin Qiam, Harold Alderman, and Agnes Quisumbing — who highlighted the latest research. Missed it? All the powerpoints and videos can be found here.

Speaking of SDSN, they are also responsible for the SDG Index. The 2019 report just came out. Do indices really do much? Do they spur action?Guess who ranked number one in the world in moving towards achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals? Denmark followed by Sweden. What a shocker! Last? Central Africa Republic. Second worst? Chad. Triste…Looking at the OECD countries, the USA is awful. Yo Trump, I thought you were going to make America great again. Yah, right.

OECD Progress on the SDGs (2019)

But it ain’t just America my friends, Italy is struggling on many fronts. Just coming back from Rome, I am reminded about the scale of the rubbish there. And now it seems the trash problem is becoming a public health hazard. Such a beautiful dazzling city ruined by poor management. Oh, and tourism. Mamma mia.

Speaking of indices, Bioversity just released their Agrobiodiversity Index Report which assesses dimensions of agrobiodiversity in ten countries to measure food system sustainability and resilience. Strangely, only 10 countries are shown. Not sure why there are not more. Would be interesting to know if this will be more widespread. And if you think dedicating a day to biodiversity is important, think again. @AgroBioDiverse lays out why he dislikes the International Day for Biological Diversity. I actually completely agree with him. I have very similar sentiments with the Decade of Nutrition…

"EAT"ing my banoffee pie

I had the pleasure of launching the EAT Lancet Commission report in beautiful Cork Ireland at the University of Cork College, hosted by Nick Chisholm at the Center for Global Development. It was a really great event attended by a diverse set of individuals including those from the livestock sector and dairy farmers, advocates, students, professors and researchers.

I presented the overall findings from the EAT Lancet Commission report but I also gave two additional perspectives. The first was my personal view on what I thought the EAT Lancet did not cover adequately or ignored, but should not have. The second was the Ireland perspective - what does the EAT Lancet mean for the future of Ireland’s food system? My slides are here.

On what I thought the EAT Lancet did not adequately do. It did not:

1. Address the confused space of sustainable diets and the epidemiology and science to support it. This was the most contentious aspect of the report and continues to be questioned. I don’t think the report cleared up the debate of what are considered sustainable diets and may have made things more contentious and perplexing.

Inequities in meat consumption

Inequities in meat consumption

2. Tackle the inequities in food systems. The report did not at all go into how people experience difficulties in accessing healthy foods and the inequities in which they bring. It is easy to say eat less meat, but it really depends on where you are in the world, who you are, how contexts and situations can be more or less vulnerable, and what you can afford and access.

3. Take on the entirety of food systems. The EAT Lancet Commission just covered food production and consumption — the head and the tail of the food system — but we know there is this whole middle piece that drives health, sustainable and economies: food supply chains, food environments and drivers of food system transition. The EAT fell short in covering the full scope of food systems but if we did, the report would be 500 pages, not the current 50, in which still, no one read…

4. Focus on who will feed us and their livelihoods. The report did not at all go into the impacts of this type of diet and earth system change on food producers and their livelihoods, ways of life, and traditions. Nor did it go into women producers, small and medium sized producers or rural development/impacts.

5. Examine the actors, especially, consumers and behavior change. The diet really looked at supply side changes and not much on how consumers can take on such a diet, how behavior change is needed and what nudges should be put into place.

6. Consider the local social determinants, and the trade-offs. The report was lofty, ambitious and global. But local nuance, decision making and context is needed, and the report just didn’t have the bandwidth to take on local to global perspectives.

On Ireland. It was fascinating to launch the report in Ireland for a few reasons. I took the train from Dublin to Cork and the landscape was riddled with black and white cows and green rolling hills. I knew the launch could be tough…Was I entering a snake pit?

Bountiful beef cows!

Bountiful beef cows!

First, the cattle and dairy industry is strong here. And for good reason. The agriculture sector contributes significantly to the GDP of the country. The Irish beef sector currently accounts for over 30% of the value of Irish agricultural output at producer prices. Number of cattle heads here. The beef output of Irish farming provides the key input to the Irish meat processing industry. In 2014 the Irish meat processing employed over 13,000 people. Irish agriculture is dominated by family-owned farms.  There are almost 140,000 farms, with an average land holding of 32.5 hectares.  Pasture-based farm enterprises dominate, and as a result, Irish output is dominated by dairy and livestock, especially beef.  Dairy and beef account for two-thirds of gross agricultural output and similar proportions of agri-food exports. Ireland is currently one of the world’s fastest-growing dairy producers and exporters.

Second, the impacts on climate change should not be taken lightly. They have seen a 25% and 9% increase in dairy and cattle head numbers. As a result, their agriculture sector contributes 33% of GHGe in Ireland. Methane is 64% of that. Nitrous oxide from N fertilizer application and excretion of manure is 31%. Energy contributes less - 20% and transport 19% of GHGe. GHGe have been increasing 3.5% every year since 2015 in Ireland. Ireland can play a lead role in fulfilling the “sustainable intensification” goal but so far, they are falling short on the climate agenda. Irish farmers are aware of the need to produce more from less and are addressing their carbon footprint. There is a lot more to do. A Teagasc blueprint on how to make Irish farming carbon neutral is a roadmap, but stakeholders have not signed up to the necessary timelines which will cause them to be fined 600 million for not adhering to the targets set out during the Paris COP agreement. 

The insanely delicious banoffee pie

The insanely delicious banoffee pie

Third, we know that the traditional Irish diet is not sustainable. Some of the top risk factors of death and disease in Ireland are related to diet. And have you ever had banoffee pie? Enough said.

While I was there, there were a lot of the questions about the “hangover” of the report. More of the questions asked by media were about the political backlash of the report findings, why WHO pulled their consensus of the report, and what it means for Ireland’s livestock industry. I found myself defending a report that while I feel fully responsible for what it says, I too find not helpful when we get into the nitty gritties, the realities and the nuance needed to make such transformational changes.

I have never been in something so high profile that I have had to defend but don’t have complete ownership over its content. I am glad to take the fall on things that I believe in or that I have been solely responsible for. But this is a different beast.