Friedman Hosts the 2018 Global Food+ Symposium

by Sam Jones

The second annual Global Food+ Symposium was hosted at Tufts University’s Friedman School this year. Innovative research being conducted at Tufts, MIT, Boston University, and Harvard University in the realm of the global food system was presented in speed-dating style, with each speaker giving only a seven-minute talk. Only some of the takeaways are reported here; the entire event can be viewed online.

February 16, 2018 marked the second annual Global Food+ Symposium, hosted by Tufts University at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. This year, 23 researchers from Boston University, MIT, Harvard, and Tufts shared the findings of their work in seven-minute presentations on topics ranging from microbiology to nutrition to theology. I attended the conference in its entirety from 12:30 to 4:30 on a Friday afternoon because I wanted to learn about what other researching in our consortium of schools are investigating to gain insight into what the non-Friedman community has to say about the global food system.

Throughout the afternoon, speakers presented fascinating research that touched every corner of the food system. Several presenters from Harvard and MIT discussed how water affects our food system, covering everything from breeding crops to use less water, to developing more adaptable water conserving technologies, and the ramifications of developing a water market in which price reflects scarcity. These speakers together illustrated that whether in the Zambezi River Basin or in Melbourne, Australia, water use and availability affects our food system, but there are steps we can take right now to plan for uncertainty in the face of climate change.

Nutrition was, of course, the subject of several of the presentations. Tufts professor Will Masters discussed his findings on the nutritional quality of baby food. Spoiler alert: the global baby food supply is not actually that nutritious. Alison Brown, a post-doctoral fellow at Tufts presented the research from her dissertation comparing the diet quality and risk of hypertension in foreign-born non-Hispanic blacks to those of U.S.-born blacks. Her findings suggest that the former are better-off than the latter. While useful for developing culturally-appropriate nutrition strategies, it does not delve into the root causes of these differences. A more causal-based study would be useful if the intention were to narrow the gap in diet quality and health between these groups.

Most of the presenters at the symposium used or researched cutting-edge technology to answer some of the most vexing problems in our global food system. Karthish Manthiram from MIT, for example, presented his research on how electricity derived from solar panels can be used to create fertilizer. His research found that by using electric voltage in place of high temperatures, a low-footprint nitrogen fertilizer can be created and used by small-scale farmers in even the remotest parts of Africa.

Angela Rigden, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, presented exciting research derived from new satellite data. These data showed that vapor pressure and root zone soil moisture actually explain significantly more variability in crop yields than does temperature alone. Both Jenny Aker from Tufts and Alicia Harley from Harvard separately explored the effects of having access to technology for poor farmers in Africa and India, respectively. They found that even where a technology exists, the targeted problems may not be solved in exactly the way they were intended. For example, Alicia Harley’s research found that poorer rice farmers were not adopting a system of rice intensification (SRI) that used less water because such a practice required control over one’s water source—a luxury most poor farmers do not have. As Jenny Aker put it, one specific technology is “not going to be a silver bullet.”

Water, technology, health, and sustainability were the overarching themes that wove the presentations together. But one researcher stood alone both in his discipline and in his ability to wow an audience of entirely dissimilar mindsets. Dan McKanan, a senior lecturer in Divinity at Harvard University, revealed that the foundations of organic agriculture, organic certification, WWOOFing, biodynamic agriculture, community supported agriculture, and the environmentalist movement all sprung out of a religion called Anthroposophy. In his words, this was a religion that acted as an antidote to the ideological monoculture system—an antidote to the “monocultures of the mind.”

What the innovative research presented at the Global Food+ Symposium made me realize is that there probably will never be a “silver bullet” that can solve the issues of water scarcity, food insecurity, malnutrition, or climate change. But the research that is being done in these interdisciplinary and diverse fields is worth pursuing, whether it aims to solve a big problem in a small place or a small problem on a global scale.

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with a passion for sharing others’ stories. She is currently an intern at Culture Magazine nd hopes to pursue a career in sustainable agricultural development and food journalism.

Gut Microbiota and the Developing Child

by Ayten Salahi

Undernutrition poses a formidable threat to the health and life trajectory of children around the world. A new study examines the role of gut microbiota in modulating nutritional status and early life development, and sheds light on bacterial transplants as a potential new method to tackle this longstanding challenge.

The human gut microbiome is the bacterial ecosystem that lives predominantly in the digestive tract and plays a significant role in our immune response, neurological networks, and both our mental and physical development throughout life. The delicate balance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ gut bacteria – or gut maturity – partially determines a developing child’s ability to absorb critical nutrients through food. Without that ability during early life, or without medical interventions to restore that ability, children are likely to manifest long-term health consequences associated with childhood undernourishment, including physical stunting, immune dysfunction, and neurodevelopmental issues. Childhood undernourishment has also been linked to permanent impairments to health and human capital, that impact both extant and future generations.

The ‘solution’ to childhood undernutrition is multivariate. As scientific understanding of microbiota continues to evolve, researchers and healthcare practitioners have begun to shift their focus towards examining how the microenvironments of our gut bacteria impact our macroenvironments, and whether these microenvironments could signal potential new treatment targets to alleviate the global burden of childhood undernutrition.

Bacterial transplants have been identified as one potential treatment. A study from Blanton et al. examined whether developmental outcomes could be inherited through microbiota – specifically, through fecal transplants. They tested what would happen if germ-free mice were transplanted with the gut bacteria of both ‘healthy’ and  ‘severely stunted’ infants and children, all of which were fed a traditional Malawian diet of cornmeal, peanuts, and kidney beans. The results showed that when germ-free mice were transplanted with fecal transplants from severely undernourished children, the mice manifested stunted growth, impaired bone morphology, and metabolic abnormalities in the muscle, liver, brain, and immune system. This study therefore suggests that gut bacteria play a role in the transference of developmental outcomes.

Findings from the same study also suggest that microbiota transplants from healthy donors could potentially prevent growth impairments and undernourished health outcomes in recipient animals, depending on the age of the donor and the type of bacteria. When researchers co-housed mice that had just received microbiota from either 6-month-old healthy donors or severely undernourished donors, microbiota from the healthy donor group overpowered and displaced the microbiota from the undernourished donor group, and prevented developmental impairments in both groups.  More research is needed to confer these findings in humans, but the results of this study present the interesting possibility that gut immaturity can be prevented and repaired through transplantation of microbiota from healthy donors. Future research must also be conducted to examine whether bacterial transplants play a role in preventing long-term mental, physical, and socioeconomic consequences of early life undernourishment, or constitute any reduction to the global burden of childhood undernutrition.

Study of microbiota in the developing child offers a compelling new lens with which to examine health inequity at the microscopic scale, with macroscopic implications for therapeutic interventions in community health. Adequate nutrition is the cornerstone of human development, and a growing body of evidence suggests that gut microbiota play an important role in promoting early life nutritional status. The potential therapeutic use of bacterial transplants could have significant implications for global nutrition programs seeking to identify new levers to improve childhood nutrition, particularly in resource-poor settings. However, gut microbiota therapeutics constitute only a small and largely theoretical part of the much bigger and more complex picture that is global nutrition. Pervasive issues around sanitation, hygiene practices, and access to potable water and nutritious food continue to constitute some of the greatest challenges to global health worldwide.

Ayten Salahi is a first-year FPAN MS and RD candidate, and is dedicated to the future of policy, programming, and clinical practice in sustainable diets. Ayten came to Friedman after working as a molecular and clinical researcher in neuropharmacology and diabetes management for nearly 8 years.