The adage “you are what you eat” is true on societal, cultural and global levels, as well as the individual level. Our diets may be contributing to the rapid rise of food allergies in America. Meanwhile, worldwide farming and dietary trends alter the landscape, contribute to environmental degradation and exacerbate climate change.
These and other topics were discussed during “Food and Science,” a joint speaker event by faculty from the University of Chicago and researchers from Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. The June 2 event was held at The Promontory and included a meal.
Rise in food allergies, other diseases
Cathryn Nagler, the Bunning Food Allergy Professor, hypothesized that large increases in food allergies, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, asthma and autism is due to 21st-century lifestyle changes that have altered the composition of people’s intestinal bacteria.
While she pointed to many changes, including overuse of antibiotics and the growing number of Caesarian-section deliveries, Nagler focused on dietary changes. “The trillions of bacteria living in our intestines eat what we eat, and have co-evolved with us for millennia,” she said. “Recently, however, their food source has changed in a way that has changed them, seemingly for the worse.” Our microbiota just does not protect our bodies from allergens as well as it used to.
To understand the problem, Nagler colonized germ-free mice with feces from healthy and cow’s milk allergic (CMA) infants. The study demonstrated that the CMA bacterial population had the capacity to create an allergic response to cow’s milk in the mice. “This research gives us a platform we can use to screen potential microbiome-modulating therapeutics for humans,” she said. “The key will be to fortify the barrier in the mucus lining of the intestines.”
Measuring humans’ impact on the Earth
Kathleen Morrison, the Neukom Family Professor and chair of the Anthropology Department, studies diet on a broader scale. She said food choices have consequences not only on an individual level but also on the landscape. “When we think about food,” she added, “we must think about it from the plate to the planet.”
Accordingly, she grows much of her food in community gardens and works with Landcover 6K, an international group with the “insanely ambitious” goal of documenting how vegetation has changed everywhere around the world during the past 10,000 years, ever since humans started domesticating plants and animals. The project uses pollen analysis as a proxy record of past vegetation.
“We know a great deal about human impact on the earth over the last several thousand years in specific regions, but we haven't yet put all that information together in a usable way,” she said. For example, the decision to eat rice changes the landscape— it consumes a lot of water, produces the greenhouse gas methane, increases the use of fertilizers, reduces carbon sequestration in trees and reduces biodiversity.
“We need to aggregate, commensurate and synthesize empirical evidence of land use and land cover during human history for the entire earth,” Morrison said.
Reducing agricultural pollution
Thinking forward, science could help farmers decide what and where to plant so that the most sustainable system to produce food, feed, fiber and bioenergy could be developed, which is important because agriculture is the oldest human practice altering the environment and probably one of the least obvious polluting activities on earth, according to M. Cristina Negri, principal agronomist and environmental engineer at Argonne.
She’s helping Midwestern farmers reconsider land use practices to create more diversified and sustainable landscapes. Marginal land where corn and soybeans are planted but do not grow well could be devoted to other crops, such as switchgrass, woody crops, prairie grasses, willow and perennials, Negri said. “What would a resilient landscape look like?” she asked. “We want a more complex landscape that includes wetlands, windbreaks, grassy waterways, contoured buffers and other dynamic features to make farms more environmentally complete.”
Meanwhile, a holistic approach is needed to integrate supply chains, markets, logistics, policy, economics and land ownership, she said. “Every practice and use of resources has to be seen through a lens of ecology, culture, agricultural production, conservation, economics and development.”
Mitigating threats to global food supply
Such improvements would come none too soon, according to Joshua Elliott, research scientist and fellow at the University and Argonne’s Computation Institute.
“We study global change and food security, one crisis at a time,” he said. “We’re on the worst possible emissions pathway…and likely to stay there until at least 2020.” The resultant global warming “is already baked into the system such that global surface temperatures won’t stop rising for thirty years which could cause an 8 percent to 45 percent reduction in productivity on presently harvested agricultural land.”
But climate change is only one type of global change that’s threatening food security. Others include population growth, urbanization, habitat degradation, depletion of fresh water and demand for resource-intensive meat.
“These changes could lead to a dramatic acceleration in the frequency and severity of disruptions in the supply and availability of food,” which could lead to civil unrest, famine and warfare, Elliott said.
To mitigate such threats, scientists are developing tools that measure and assimilate climate, soil and other environmental data in real time to improve crop management, increase agricultural efficiency, reduce fertilizer usage, monitor droughts and improve irrigation practices.
“We’re translating all the data into large scale maps to identify hotspots of potential food insecurity before they emerge,” Elliott said. “The next step is to apply these tools at farm and subfarm levels using precision agricultural applications.”
“Food and Science” was the 12th in this joint speaker series, which has run under the leadership of Donald H. Levy, Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories at the University. Levy took the occasion to announce his forthcoming retirement.
Throughout the evening, moderator Timothy Meyer, Chief Operating Officer at Fermilab, regaled the “hungry-to-learn” audience with food-related puns. Some were delectable, others hard to swallow.
Full video below.