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.

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…