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.

Revival of the Student Research Conference

by Jennifer Huang

The 10th Future of Food and Nutrition Graduate Student Research Conference, known fondly within the Friedman community as the SRC, took place on April 7th and 8th. Jennifer Huang gives us a photo-filled recap of this student-led event, where she—and all who attended—were blown away by the amazing capabilities of student presenters and the Friedmanites who worked tirelessly since last November on planning this event.

This year the SRC had its first-ever Poster Slam, where presenters competed against one another to win the prize for the best three-minute talk about their research. A total of 13 presenters from various institutions participated at this Friday evening event where an anomaly at Friedman occurred: Free beer and wine! (And delicious veggies, of course). Some presenters transformed their talks into an entertaining rap or poem, while others presented theirs straight. Topics ranged from food insecurity during and after climate shocks, celebrity marketing to global food supply and demand. Overall, there was just the right amount of (wine-fueled) nerdiness!

On Saturday, Helena Bottemiller Evich, Senior Food and Agriculture Reporter at POLITICO, gave the keynote lecture. While Helena anticipates fewer advancements in agriculture and nutrition policy during the Trump presidency than during the Obama administration, she holds a bit of hope after browsing Ivanka Trump’s Instagram, finding pictures of healthy food and farming. Maybe having Ivanka as an adviser isn’t a terrible thing after all, she mused. Helena also noted that advocates for the National School Lunch Program and other nutrition programs seem to agree as they have already begun to target lobbying efforts in Ivanka’s direction. In addition to Ivanka, Helena also mentioned other key players to follow for agriculture and nutrition issues, such as Chairmen Roberts in the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and Chairmen Conaway in the US House Committee on Agriculture.

Helena recounted how she got out of her urban “bubble” before the election and spoke to farmers around the country. As a result, she was one of the few in Washington, D.C. who correctly predicted Trump presidency. She ended her talk by encouraging us all to branch out of our personal networks and engage with others of different mindsets.

Helena Bottemiller Evich gave her keynote speech. Photo: Jeroen Eyckmans.

Helena Bottemiller Evich gave her keynote speech. Photo: Jeroen Eyckmans.

The panel discussion in the afternoon continued the conversation about the future of food and nutrition, and was equally inspiring. The panelists came from various sectors, including Dr. Julian Agyeman, a professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University, Dr. Richard Black, Principal at Quadrant D Consulting who recently served as the VP of Global R&D Nutrition Sciences PepsiCo, Ms. Anne McHugh, the Director of Chronic Disease Prevention and Control Division at the Boston Public Health Commission, and Ms. Sylvia Rowe, President of SR Strategy. Our very own Dr. Parke Wilde moderated the panel.

When discussing the role of scientific evidence across sectors, Ms. Rowe clearly summarized the current social climate when she said, “There is not going to be science for the sake of science anymore, [as] public faith in science is questioned.” On the topic of private and public partnerships, there was consensus among the panelists that it will be critical to “find the synergy of goals,” as stated by Ms. McHugh.

The panel ended on a lighthearted note when a student asked a hypothetical question: Without time and monetary constraints, what questions (not necessarily about food) would the panelists want to ask and solve? The answers ranged from establishing public-private partnerships to combatting obesity, nudging behavioral changes for healthier lifestyle, discovering the role of microbiome in health and disease, to promoting public acceptance of diversity by understanding our personal genomics. Their diverse responses suggest the richness of this multidisciplinary discussion.

Panel discussion on the role of scientific evidence across sectors. Photo: Jeroen Eyckmans.

Panel discussion on the role of scientific evidence across sectors. Photo: Jeroen Eyckmans.

 

Of all the wonderful SRC activities, I personally enjoyed interacting with student presenters the most during the Saturday presentation sessions and poster session. I learned about my fellow classmates’ research, such as alfatoxin exposure in pregnant Nepalese and the minimum grocery delivery order requirement for elderly SNAP participants. I also met people from other institutions who are working on topics I have been learning about in class. When I chatted with an Emory student about her qualitative evaluation of food and nutrition security knowledge and practices in Guatemala and Honduras, I drew my learning from Dr. Jennifer Coates’ NUTR217: Monitoring and Evaluation. When a University of Delaware student presented his regional field experiment on nontraditional irrigation water, I saw how the concepts I have learned in Dr. Sean Cash’s NUTR341: Economics of Agriculture and the Environment are applied. I am excited to cross paths with those students again when we are professionals.

Faculty and student presenters at the poster session. Photo: Jeroen Eyckmans.

Faculty and student presenters at the poster session. Photo: Jeroen Eyckmans.

 

The 10th Future of Food and Nutrition Conference ended with a delightful networking reception at Trade, where conference presenters and participants continued their conversations and deepened their connections with mouthwatering appetizers and refreshing drinks.

Networking reception. Photo: Jeroen Eyckmans.

Networking reception. Photo: Jeroen Eyckmans.

The learning and the personal connections that this year’s SRC has facilitated for meand for all who attendedare invaluable. The coming together of creative and ingenious students from around the country who are working to make our food and nutrition future better is truly an event you need to see to believe. I am grateful for the SRC team, particularly the SRC chairs, Dianna Bartone and Delphine Van Roosebeke, for leading this wonderful event. I am already looking forward to the 11th Future of Food and Nutrition SRC!

The hardworking team of Friedmanites who made the 10th SRC possible! Photo: Jeroen Eyckmans.

The hardworking team of Friedmanites who made the 10th SRC possible! Photo: Jeroen Eyckmans. 

 

Jennifer Huang is a first-year Food Policy and Applied Nutrition MS student and a registered dietitian. She is interested in econometrics, agricultural trade, and food safety.