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.

How much does it cost to eat a decent meal?

The incredible Alex Honnold, also a vegan… Copyright: The great Jimmy Chin for National Geographic

The answer to that question turns out to be a lot for some people. There are have been some recent projects and papers as a result aimed at trying to understand whether or not people can afford the kind of diets recommended in national food-based dietary guidelines, the EAT Lancet, and other publications. Many have pontificated that these healthy, higher quality diets — promoted in such guidelines and Commissions made up elitist scientists — are unaffordable for most of the world. Some argue the recommendations are just downright dangerous (beef industry responding to the EAT Lancet) or unfair. GAIN argued that meat is important for child growth, and athletes. I don’t think they meant it is an absolute essential for athletes, as Alex Honnold is a vegan and that dude climbed El Capitan with nothing but sheer muscle strength, stamina and maybe an insanely lack of feeling of fear. If you have not seen the documentary Free Solo, I highly recommend it. What a human feat, and with no meat! Yes, I wax poetic.

This debate is not new, and there has been a lot of science articulated the cost. And there are more papers to come. But a few new papers are looking beyond just a specific country, a specific national dietary database or a specific population, and looking at the costs of foods and diets around the world from low- to high-income countries, whether they fulfill nutritional needs, and if not, what disease outcomes are they associated with.

IFPRI’s Derek Headey and Harold Alderman, two pretty stellar researchers in nutrition, published a fantastic piece in the Journal of Nutrition. They tested relative caloric prices (RCPs) for different food categories across 176 countries. One will have to read the methods in some detail to understand how they come up with this calculation but one key piece is how they calculate the RCP. They measure the ratio of the price of 1 calorie of a given food (the edible portion) to the price of 1 calorie of a representative basket of starchy staple food in each country. As the authors articulated: an RCP of 5 for eggs implies that it is 5 times as expensive to obtain a calorie from eggs as it is to obtain a calorie from starchy staples. Easy yes?

While the authors find that there is a lot of variety in the food prices nationally, in high-income countries, most non-cereal foods were relatively cheap, including sugar- and fat-rich foods. In contrast, in low-income countries, healthy foods were expensive, especially most animal-sourced foods and fortified infant cereals. Oils/fats were notably very cheap in all regions as were unprocessed red meat, which was moderately cheap in all regions. As the authors wrote in a recent blog:

“As countries develop, their food systems get better at providing healthier foods cheaply, but they also get better at providing unhealthier foods cheaply. Hence the problem in less developed countries is that poor people also live in poor food systems: Nutrient-dense foods like eggs, milk, fruits and vegetables can be very expensive in these countries, making it much harder to diversify away from nutrient-sparse staple foods like rice, corn and bread. The problem in more developed countries is rather different: Unhealthy calories have simply become a very affordable option. In the U.S., for example, calories from soft drinks are just 1.9 times as expensive as staple food calories and require no preparation time.”

The authors then looked at the association of these prices with nutrition outcomes, controlling for confounders like education, urbanization and income. Higher milk and fortified infant product prices were positively associated with childhood stunting. They also found that little children consume less of these important foods when expensive. An increase in soft drink prices was associated with a reduction on overweight prevalence.

Headey and Alderman show the association of milk prices with childhood stunting. Copyright: IFPRI

A few years ago Adam Drewnowski and Nicole Darmon published a study, using very different methodology and from French databases, showing that foods of lower nutritional value and lower-quality diets generally cost less per calorie and tended to be selected by groups of lower socioeconomic status. A number of nutrient-dense foods were available at low cost but were not always palatable or culturally acceptable to the low-income consumer. Acceptable healthier diets were uniformly associated with higher costs. They argue three things:

  1. Energy-dense foods composed of refined grains, added sugars, or fats are cheaper per calorie than are the recommended nutrient-dense foods.

  2. Lower-quality diets, with a higher content of added sugars and fats, were generally less expensive on a per-calorie basis.

  3. Cheaper and more energy-dense diets, often devoid of vegetables and fruit, tend to be selected across different countries by lower-income groups.

Another paper coming out in the Lancet by IFPRI (including Headey) and Tufts colleagues including the great Will Masters, examined retail prices of foods and identified the most affordable foods to meet EAT-Lancet targets. They compared the total cost per day of these foods to each country's gross national income to see if the MOST affordable EAT-Lancet diet exceeded household incomes.

Here is what they found: Examining 744 items across 159 countries, revealing that the most affordable EAT-Lancet diets cost a global average of $2.89 per day ($2.44 per day for low-income countries and $2.77 for high-income countries). The largest share was the diet cost was fruits and vegetables (31.2%), followed by legumes and nuts (18.7%), meat, eggs and fish (15.2%) and dairy (13.2%). While this is a pretty cheap diet in high-income countries, it is not affordable for 1.56 billion of the poorest households in the world where this diet would cost households 70% of their daily income (national averages)! Where is this diet unaffordable? Mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

On the left side is the cost of the EAT-Lancet diet by country income levels and major regions. On the right side, is the cost of the EAT-Lancet diet as a percentage of Gross National Income per capita. Copyright: Lancet.

They also concluded that the EAT-Lancet diet would cost 64% more than achieving minimally adequate levels of essential nutrients and is currently unaffordable in low-income countries, because “it requires larger quantities of higher-cost food groups such as dairy, eggs, meat, fish, fruits and vegetables than the near-subsistence diets that are currently consumed by very low-income people.” The authors argue that:

“Our findings indicate that a widespread global shift to the EAT-Lancet diet recommendation is feasible only through some combination of higher earnings, more favorable market prices and nutrition assistance for low-income people, in addition to changes in local and global food systems that drive food choice among more affluent populations. Meeting EAT-Lancet targets in low-income areas will require higher farm productivity and improved access to markets, plus greater non-farm earnings and social safety nets, allowing people to shift consumption away from starchy staples and increase their intake of more nutritious but currently unaffordable animal-sourced and vegetal foods.”

Sam Bloch tested out the EAT-Lancet diet in early 2019 and wrote up a great piece in the New Food Economy (love this site). He found it hard to follow and it was more expensive. And he is probably a high-income consumer (living in New York City) and his wife is a chef!

A group at World Food Programme is doing a “Fill the Nutrient Gap” (FNG), which aims to “support identification of strategies to increase availability, access, and choice of nutritious foods, to ultimately improve nutrient intake.” This approach looks at the nutrient intake of different target groups, and then uses linear programming to look at the barriers to nutrient intake including the availability, cost and affordability of nutritious diets for households and target groups with higher nutritional needs. They then model potential interventions to improve them. I have heard they have done at least 25 countries. So they are taking it further as compared to these other studies. They are not only looking at the cost of diets, but why they are expensive and what households can do about it.

In last year’s Global Nutrition Report, we showed some preliminary data on the range of non-affordability of a nutritious diet across areas in different countries. The data shows a range of non-affordability depending on the region in each country – for example, across different regions of El Salvador, 9% to 44% of households cannot afford a nutritious diet, whereas the range is much greater in Lao People’s Democratic Republic (17% to 95%).

The range of “non-affordability” of the typical diet in select countries. Copyright: GNR 2018

There are others working on the cost of a diet. Marco Springmann will also test out the cost of the EAT-Lancet diet, as an EAT-Lancet Commissioner. I think his study will look more at the cost of dietary patterns - vegetarian, pescetarian, omnivorous etc. So keep your eye out on that publication!

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.

Food Bytes: Weekly Nibbles from Mar 4 - 24

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

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs released their annual report. This year focuses on water: From Scarcity to Security: Managing Water for a Nutritious Food Future. There are lots of nuggets on the links of water to food and nutrition. Definitely worth a read.

IFPRI has also launched a new book: Agriculture for improved nutrition: Seizing the momentum. I contributed a chapter on biodiversity and its importance for food and nutrition security.

I always like what Bee Wilson writes. She recently wrote a great piece in the Guardian on how modern food is killing us. The grape story is an interesting analogy of how our food system has changed.

I just can’t help myself, but the EAT Lancet continues to get press. This article hones in on how it spurred a global debate. Great. It did its job. Keep debating! The Guardian is going a bit nuts on the diet side. They also published a recent piece on “peak beef.” And the Hopkins HUB, published an article on proteins of the future where they warn us to “get ready for a menu of lab-grown steaks, "bleeding" plant burgers, and cricket smoothies!”

Speaking of animal source foods, eggs seem to be bad for us once again. The nutrition science field is just one big teeter totter. This JAMA study shows that eggs increase cholesterol and cardiovascular mortality.

If Africa doesn’t have it tough enough these days, my heart goes out to Mozambique with the cyclone devastation, the armyworm seems to be eating its way across the continent destroying staple crops like maize. Let’s hope R & D can be ramped up quickly with solutions.

I am a closet Chipotle lover and Tamar Haspel outlines the woes the chain has been dealing with.

Two other interesting papers came out last week. One is unpacking stunting - faltering of linear growth in children. The other is a paper in the journal I edit, Global Food Security, on the use and interpretation of dietary diversity indicators in nutrition-sensitive agriculture literature.

In the world of food ethics, with colleagues at Hopkins and Columbia University, we published two papers. The first is in the Oxford Handbook of Public Health Ethics. The chapter focuses on three key ethical challenges in the nutrition public health sphere: the prioritization of key actions to address the multiple burdens of malnutrition, intergenerational justice issues of nutrition-impacted epigenetics, and the consequences of people’s diet choices, not only for humanity but also for the planet. In the second paper, we unpack the meaning of nutrition and demonstrate that a standalone right to adequate nutrition does indeed exist in international human rights law as a sum of other rights. This right to nutrition is, essentially, the sum of the human rights to food, health, education, water and sanitation, a healthy environment, information, political participation, and social security, along with rights ensuring adequate protection of and nondiscrimination against specific groups, such as women, children, and indigenous peoples.


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 21 - 27

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

Environmental effects per serving of food produced

Environmental effects per serving of food produced

The EAT Lancet Commission report entitled: “Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems” came out this week. It was both praised and demonized but regardless, it made a big splash across many media outlets. I was part of the Commission and I must say, I felt pretty worn out with interviews and podcasts after the first week of its release. So what is the report? It was made up of 37 scientists that came together to do three things: The first was to quantitively describes a universal healthy reference diet that would provide major health benefits, and also increase the likelihood of attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals. The second was to define six scientific boundaries for food systems that would ensure a safe operating space within six Earth systems, towards sustaining a healthy planet. The third outlined five strategies needed for the “Great Food Transformation.” Establishing targets has its benefits but it also breeds controversy. I will write in some detail on the politics of the report at a later date, but for now, the link above has all the deets including a podcast I did with Professor Tim Lang.

On the same week as the EAT Lancet, a paper was quietly published in the New England Journal of Medicine by Andy Haines urging for a renewed focus on climate and health. The authors argue that “climate change is expected to alter…climate-sensitive health outcomes and to affect the functioning of public health and health care systems.” One could argue, we know this, but the fact that it was in a clinical medical journal shows the breadth of how climate change will impact all facets and medical professionals need to be thinking about how this will impact their patient populations, particularly the more vulnerable.

What wasn’t discussed much in the EAT Lancet were “food environments.” These are the places where consumers make a decision about what to buy, order or have delivered. Food environments are markets or cafeterias, or restaurants or food trucks. They look different everywhere. My colleague, Shauna Downs and I published an article in Public Health Nutrition looking at consumers’ perceptions of their food environments and their food consumption patterns and preferences in urban and rural Myanmar. The study shows that the availability of diverse foods had increased over time, while the quality of foods had decreased. Most consumers greatest concern about the foods available was the safety. Consumers preferred fruits, vegetables and red meat compared with highly processed snack foods/beverages. Although consumers reported low intakes of highly processed snack foods, Burmese street food was consumed in high quantities.

One food environment that could improve is the office. A study done by the CDC shows that nearly a quarter of respondents ate food obtained directly at their office. And the foods they ate were not necessarily healthy. Think the leftover pizza, the corporate snack bar, the candy in the jar, the cake for someone’s birthday. The study found that what they officemates ate during work hours was “high in empty calories, sodium, and refined grains, and low in whole grains and fruit.” Shocker? Not really but I do think work places need to stop making it so hard for their colleagues to eat healthy.

Enough with the studies! How about a podcast? A great one has just been started by our friends at NPR. It is called Life Kit and they “help you cut through all the nutrition noise” and provide guidance on how to eat healthy. And there is indeed a lot of noise out there. I listened to three of their podcasts - only about 20 minutes long - and they had some stellar nutrition experts including Dary Mozaffarrian who is the Dean of Tufts Friedman School and Doctors David Katz and David Ludwig. They are great, and I think provide sound advice on nutrition and what to eat. Listen to them on your way to work or even better, while exercising!

And speaking of eating healthy, here is an old video of Andy Warhol, eating a hamburger. Took him about 4 minutes.