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: 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…