Frontiers in Agricultural Sustainability: Studying the Protein Supply Chain to Improve Dietary Quality
Posted March 06, 2014
The world population has undergone tremendous and steady growth since 1950, adding nearly a billion people every 12 to 13 years. It is estimated that more food will be required during the next 50 years than has been produced in all human history, mainly because of the demands of a burgeoning middle class for animal-source protein. However, inefficiencies in the production system, such as waste along the nutrient supply chain, greenhouse gas emissions, and overuse of water, exist alongside diminishing natural resources and shortages of water and cultivable land.
At the December 12, 2013, conference Frontiers in Agricultural Sustainability: Studying the Protein Supply Chain to Improve Dietary Quality, speakers from different sectors in nutrition and health, including academia, non-governmental organizations, the food industry, and start-up companies, discussed sustainable solutions to the world's food needs. The conference, presented by the Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science, focused on improving the protein supply chain, especially through programs designed to increase access to a high-quality diet for malnourished populations.
Use the tabs above to find a meeting report and multimedia from this event.
Presentations available from:
Barbara Burlingame, PhD (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)
Jessica Fanzo, PhD (Columbia University)
Gabor Forgacs, PhD (University of Missouri–Columbia)
Geoffrey von Maltzahn, PhD (Flagship Ventures)
Dennis Miller, PhD (Cornell University)
Prabhu Pingali, PhD (Cornell University)
Mark Post, MD, PhD (Maastricht University, Netherlands)
Charles Schasteen, PhD (DuPont Nutrition & Health Protein Solutions)
Josip Simunovic, PhD (North Carolina State University)
Jean Steiner, PhD (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
Anna Thalacker-Mercer, PhD (Cornell University)
Irvin Widders, PhD (Michigan State University)
Guoyao Wu, PhD (Texas A&M University)
Chair: Michael Morrissey, PhD (Oregon State University)
- 00:011. Introduction and overview
- 07:322. Nutrients; Food and protein supplies; Food loss and waste
- 12:153. Code of conduct for sustainable diet; Biodiversity
- 19:344. International Rice Commission; Food insecurity; Tradeoffs and contexts
- 26:505. Improving the evidence base; Challenges; Afrofoods call for action
- 29:536. Quantity vs. quality; Conclusio
- 00:011. Introduction; Life expectancy and impaired life
- 03:182. Changes in skeletal muscle; The use of dietary protein; Amino acid loss
- 07:093. Amino acids and dietary protein in older adults
- 11:054. Aging males vs. females; Elavated BCAA; Study
- 19:075. The influence of fat utilization; Study summary; Acknowledgements and conclusio
- 00:011. Introduction; Amino acids in meat vs. common plant products
- 04:022. Taurine; Dipeptides; The Kenya child and U.S. elderly studies
- 08:283. Increasing importance of animal production; Potential problems
- 12:354. The low efficiency of animal production; Essential and non-essential amino acids
- 19:065. Intestinal amino acid catabolism; Improving efficiency
- 22:566. Optimal patterns of amino acids; Conclusions and acknowledgement
- 00:011. Introduction
- 03:442. Long-term goals; Land use in the U.S.; Rainfall variability and drought
- 08:253. Managing environmental footprint; Grazing CAP structure
- 12:224. The research network; Standardized methodology; Establishing baselines
- 16:005. Mitigation practices; Life cycle analyses
- 19:006. Extension programming; Desired outcomes; Conclusio
- 00:011. Introduction; Biodiversity
- 05:232. The importance for nutrition; Dietary quality; Protein content
- 09:283. Animal biodiversity and protein distribution; The evidence base and recent studies
- 15:004. The links; Econutrition; Aquatic biodiversity; Diet costs
- 19:405. Early lessons; Local diets falling short; Prices; Politics
- 25:486. What's needed; Conclusio
- 00:011. Introduction and overview
- 06:482. Grain legume protein and amino acids; Nutritional intervention study
- 09:143. Multi-functional roles of grain legumes; Improving productivity
- 14:574. Assumptions about productivity's effects on nutrition
- 20:115. Generating nutrition knowledge; The NutriFrijol program; Conclusio
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The science of food proteins
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Tako E, Laparra MJ, Glahn RP, et al. Biofortified black beans in a maize and bean diet provide more bioavailable iron to piglets than standard black beans. J Nutr. 2009;139:305-9.
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Thalacker-Mercer AE, Fleet JC, Craig BA, et al. The skeletal muscle transcript profile reflects accommodative responses to inadequate protein intake in younger and older males. J Nutr Biochem. 2010;21(11):1076-82.
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Sustainability challenges and bottlenecks
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DeClerck FA, Fanzo J, Palm C, Remans R. Ecological approaches to human nutrition. Food Nutr Bull. 2011;32(1 Suppl):S41-50.
Fanzo JC, Pronyk PM. A review of global progress toward the Millennium Development Goal 1 Hunger Target. Food Nutr Bull. 2011;32(2):144-58.
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Kumar P, Reinitz HW, Simunovic J, et al. Overview of RFID technology and its applications in the food industry. J Food Sci. 2009;74(8):R101-6.
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Programs and approaches to solve sustainability challenges
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Innovations in protein production
Forgacs G. Tissue engineering: Perfusable vascular networks. Nat Mater. 2012;11(9):746-7.
Hughes GJ, Ryan DJ, Mukherjea R, Schasteen CS. Protein digestibility-corrected amino acid scores (PDCAAS) for soy protein isolates and concentrate: criteria for evaluation. J Agric Food Chem. 2011;59(23):12707-12.
Jakab K, Norotte C, Marga F, et al. Tissue engineering by self-assembly and bio-printing of living cells. Biofabrication. 2010;2(2):022001.
Owens CM, Marga F, Forgacs G, Heesch CM. Biofabrication and testing of a fully cellular nerve graft. Biofabrication. 2013;5(4):045007.
Post MJ. Cultured beef: medical technology to produce food. J Sci Food Agric. 2013. [Epub ahead of print]
Post MJ. Cultured meat from stem cells: challenges and prospects. Meat Sci. 2012;92(3):297-301.
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Barbara Burlingame, PhD
Barbara Burlingame is the deputy director of the Food and Agriculture Organization's Nutrition Division. She obtained her PhD from Massey University in New Zealand. She is a member of several scientific advisory boards and international committees; the author of many scientific papers and UN publications, book chapters, and reference books; and an editor for several food and nutrition journals. She is past editor-in-chief of Elsevier's Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, and current specialty chief editor of the new Frontiers in Nutrition and Environmental Sustainability. Her expertise includes food composition, nutrient requirements, dietary assessment, biodiversity for food and nutrition, and sustainable diets.
Jessica Fanzo, PhD
Jessica Fanzo is an assistant professor of nutrition in the Institute of Human Nutrition and the Department of Pediatrics at Columbia University. She also serves as the senior advisor of nutrition policy at the Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development. Before joining Columbia University, Fanzo was the evaluation and monitoring officer for the REACH Interagency partnership at the UN World Food Programme. She has also held positions as a senior scientist at Bioversity International, a CGIAR center in Italy; as the nutrition director at the Center for Global Health and Economic Development at the Earth Institute; as the nutrition regional advisor for East and Southern Africa at the Millennium Development Goal Centre of the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya; and as a program officer for the Medical Research Program at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Fanzo became the first laureate in 2012 of the Daniel Carasso Premio for her work on sustainable food and diets for long-term human health. She holds a PhD in nutrition from the University of Arizona and completed a Stephen I. Morse postdoctoral fellowship in immunology at Columbia University.
Gabor Forgacs, PhD
Gabor Forgacs is the George Vineyard Professor of Biological Physics at the University of Missouri, director of the Shipley Center for Innovation at Clarkson University, and co-founder of the biotech companies Organovo and Modern Meadow. He received his PhD in theoretical physics from the Roland Eotvos University, Hungary, and the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics, Russia. His research focuses on physical mechanisms in early embryonic development applied to building functional living structures using tissue engineering technologies such as bioprinting. He is co-author of Biological Physics of the Developing Embryo (Cambridge University Press, 2005). FastCompany recognized Forgacs as one of the 100 Most Innovative People in Business in 2010.
Geoffrey von Maltzahn, PhD
Geoffrey von Maltzahn holds a PhD in biomedical engineering and medical physics from MIT and an MS in bioengineering from the University of California, San Diego. He joined Flagship Ventures in 2009, where he is focused on inventing technologies and starting companies to address global challenges in nutrition, environmental sustainability, and medicine. He is a founder of the VentureLabs companies Seres Health and Pronutria, among others. He is the co-inventor of technologies including a system to produce pure essential nutrients directly from sunlight, a precision protein nutrition system, "ecological therapeutics" for treating dysbiosis of the microbiome, nanoparticles that communicate in the body to find and treat cancer, mass-coded synthetic biomarkers for diagnosing and monitoring complex diseases, remote-controlled nanoantennas for ultra-precise laser treatments, nanoparticle logic gates, and peptides that behave like fats. Von Maltzahn has received over 20 awards and honors for his inventions, including the Lemelson–MIT Student Prize, awarded to the most innovative student at MIT; the National Inventors Hall of Fame Graduate Student Prize; and the Biomedical Engineering Society Graduate Research Award.
Dennis Miller, PhD
Dennis Miller is chair of the Department of Food Science and a professor of food chemistry and nutrition at Cornell University. He has a joint appointment in the Division of Nutritional Sciences and is a member of the graduate fields of Food Science and Technology and Nutrition. Miller holds a PhD in nutrition from Cornell University and an MS in biochemistry from the University of Washington. He teaches courses in food chemistry and nutrition and his research interests include iron bioavailability and the role of food systems in preventing micronutrient malnutrition. Miller is a fellow of the Institute of Food Technologists and of the International Academy of Food Science and Technology. His awards include the Babcock-Hart Award from the International Life Sciences Institute North America and the Institute of Food Technologists; the Professor of Merit Award for Outstanding Teaching and Advising from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University; and the Outstanding Alumni Award from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Alumni Association at Cornell University.
Prabhu Pingali, PhD
Prabhu Pingali is a professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and the founding director of the Tata-Cornell Agriculture and Nutrition Initiative at Cornell University. Before joining Cornell he was the deputy director of the Agriculture Development Division of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Pingali has received several international awards for his work, including the Research Discovery Award from the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association. Pingali has over three decades of experience working with leading international agricultural development organizations as a research economist, development practitioner, and senior manager. He was the director of the Agricultural and Development Economics Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations from 2002 to 2007. He has also directed the Economics Program at CIMMYT, the International Rice Research Institute, and the World Bank's Agriculture and Rural Development Department. Pingali's work has focused on food policy, technological change, productivity growth, environmental externalities, and resource management in the developing world.
Mark Post, MD, PhD
Mark Post is the chair of the Physiology Department at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. He has also held appointments as an assistant professor at Utrecht University, the Netherlands, and Harvard University; as an associate professor at Dartmouth College; and as full professor and vice-dean at Eindhoven University of Technology, the Netherlands. His main research interest is the engineering of tissues for medical applications and food. Medical applications focus on the construction of blood vessels that can be used as grafts for coronary artery bypass grafting. Tissue engineering for food has led to the development of cultured beef from bovine skeletal muscle stem cells, in an effort to supplement and perhaps transform traditional meat production through livestock. In August 2013, Post presented the world's first hamburger made from cultured beef.
Charles Schasteen, PhD
DuPont Nutrition & Health Protein Solutions
Charles Schasteen is a senior science fellow for DuPont Nutrition & Health Protein Solutions. He has over 30 years of industry research and development experience. His work focuses determining the molecular mechanism by which soy protein lowers cholesterol and, as part of the Sustainable New Products Project, to reclaim protein, sugar, and minerals for new products and water for environmental stewardship from the isolated soy protein production process. Before joining DuPont, Schasteen was the director of biochemistry and analytical research for Novus International and held technical leadership positions with Monsanto and G.D. Searle Company. He holds a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Kansas. His work has focused on drug design, inhibitor-enzyme molecular modeling, toxicology, enzymatic synthesis, protein digestibility prediction, reperfusion injury following heart attack, and microbial population control in the gut.
Josip Simunovic, PhD
Josip Simunovic is a research associate professor in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences at North Carolina State University. He has over 30 years of experience in research, development, and implementation of novel methods, devices, and processes for advanced thermal processing and aseptic packaging of foods and biomaterials. He has contributed to the creation and commercialization of advanced technologies for aseptic processing and process-safety validation, resulting in the construction of new processing facilities and the introduction of new food products to consumer markets. He is a co-founder of Aseptia/Wright Foods, an aseptic food processing company that produces shelf-stable fruit and vegetable products with superior nutrient and flavor retention. He is the recipient the 2010 USDA/ARS Technology Transfer Award, the 2012 Marvin Tung Award from the Institute for Thermal Processing Specialists, and the 2012 Innovator of the Year Award from North Carolina State University, among others. Simunovic received an MS in food science and human nutrition from the University of Florida as a Fullbright Scholar and a PhD in food science from North Carolina State University.
Jean Steiner, PhD
Jean L. Steiner is the director of the Grazinglands Research Laboratory in El Reno, where she studies watersheds and climate and leads research in sustainable forage-grazing systems. She has been employed by the Agricultural Research Service since 1983, first in the Texas Panhandle, focusing on water conservation, crop residue management, and energy balance research in dryland agricultural systems, and then in the Georgia Piedmont region, focusing on sustainability of agriculture at farm and watershed scales. Steiner is co-director of the Grazing CAP project Resilience and Vulnerability of Beef Cattle Production in the Southern Great Plains Under Changing Climate, Land Use and Markets. She is president of the American Society of Agronomy, has served on the Board of Directors and as president of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, and is the former chair of the Agroclimatology and Agronomic Modeling Division.
Anna Thalacker-Mercer, PhD
Anna Thalacker-Mercer received her PhD at the Interdepartmental Nutrition Program in the Department of Nutrition Science at Purdue University, where she focused on geriatric nutrition (predominately dietary protein), nutritional genomics, protein metabolism, and mechanisms underlying aging skeletal muscle. She continued her research training as a postdoctoral fellow in the NIH T32 Obesity Training Program and the Center for Aging Translational Research Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). She joined the UAB Department of Cell, Developmental, and Integrative Biology as an assistant professor in 2010, before moving in 2012 to Cornell University, where she is an assistant professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences. Her research focuses on mechanisms underlying skeletal muscle metabolic dysfunction in aging and chronic disease and on the efficacy of nutrition and exercise interventions for the treatment of sarcopenia and metabolic dysfunction.
Irvin Widders, PhD
Irvin Widders earned a PhD in plant physiology from the University of California, Davis. He joined the Department of Horticulture at Michigan State University in 1982. The focus of his research is environmental physiology and the regulation of ion transport in plants. Widders has been actively engaged in international programs at MSU, including serving as director for the Bean/Cowpea Collaborative Research Support Program (CRSP) and the Dry Grain Pulses CRSP project. Most recently, he has served as director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Grain Legumes (Legume Innovation Lab). MSU is the Management Entity of this Title XII program, funded by USAID's Bureau of Food Security, which partners U.S. universities with institutions in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America in collaborative research and capacity building. Under his leadership, the program expanded in technical scope to include research on human nutrition and developed international ties with CGIAR grain legume research programs. The program aims to improve the livelihoods of the poor in developing countries who grow, market, and consume grain legumes.
Guoyao Wu, PhD
Guoyao Wu is a distinguished professor, faculty fellow, and AgriLife research senior faculty fellow in the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M University. Wu also holds a joint appointment with Department of Medical Physiology at Texas A&M Health Science Center. He received an MS in animal nutrition from China Agricultural University and MS and PhD degrees in animal biochemistry from the University of Alberta, Canada. He completed postdoctoral training in biochemistry and nutrition at McGill University and Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. His research interests include the biochemistry, nutrition, and physiology of amino acids and proteins in animals at molecular, cellular, and whole-body levels. He is the author of Amino Acids: Biochemistry and Nutrition (CRC Press, USA).
Norberto Chaclin, MBA
Norberto Chaclin is a senior director of corporate R&D at PepsiCo, responsible for developing a research portfolio strategy and managing business alignment on long-term research investment. Previously, Chaclin facilitated PepsiCo's Human Sustainability initiatives, supported business development strategy in sub-Saharan Africa, and led a nutrition business development initiative that resulted in the pilot launch of Lehar Iron Chusti (iron fortified snacks) in India. He has also worked in product innovation for Lay's, Dips, and Rold Gold Pretzels. He holds an MBA from Southern Methodist University.
Michael T. Morrissey, PhD
Michael T. Morrissey is a professor of food science and technology at Oregon State University (OSU) and the director of the OSU Food Innovation Center. He was previously director of the OSU Seafood Laboratory. The Food Innovation Center is part of the College of Agriculture Experiment Stations and is unique in its urban location and mission to promote agri-businesses and start-up food companies. Morrissey's research focuses on food safety, seafood quality, product development, fish species identification, and by-product utilization. He has been an invited scientific lecturer at Fundacion-Chile, the National Fisheries Institute of Peru, the Japanese Society of Fisheries Science, and other organizations. He served on the External Advisory Board for SEAFOODplus, a multidisciplinary project involving 17 European countries. Morrissey has received the OSU Oldfield-Jackman Team Award for Pacific whiting research, the Earl P. McPhee Award for his contributions to seafood science, and the Briskey Award for Faculty Excellence from the College of Agricultural Sciences at OSU. He was elected an Institute of Food Technology (IFT) Fellow in 2003.
Nelson G. Almeida, PhD
Nelson Almeida is the vice president of global nutrition, scientific affairs, and technology scouting at the Kellogg Company. He leads nutrition, food ingredient, and regulatory science groups and represents the Kellogg Company in technical leadership roles in various professional, academic, research, and industry organizations dedicated to nutrition, food, regulatory, and health sciences. He holds a PhD in nutritional sciences (clinical nutrition) from Cornell University.
Scientific Organizing Committee
Nelson G. Almeida, PhD
Norberto Chaclin, MBA
Bruce Cogill, PhD
Girish Ganjyal, PhD
Washington State University
Michael Morrissey, PhD
Oregon State University
Amy Beaudreault, PhD
The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science
Mandana Arabi, MD, PhD
The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science
Hema Bashyam holds a PhD in immunology and virology from the University of Massachusetts Medical School for her study of human immune responses to secondary dengue virus infections. She enjoys writing about basic research in creative, compelling ways for a diverse audience that includes scientists, clinicians, and lay readers.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently estimated that more than 800 million people, nearly a seventh of the world's population, are chronically hungry. This number could increase: a UN report released in June 2013 projected that the world population will reach 8 billion by 2025 and 11 billion by 2100, emphasizing the urgent need to find sustainable solutions to food insecurity.
The Frontiers in Agricultural Sustainability conference featured discussion on the science of food proteins, challenges and bottlenecks in achieving a sustainable protein supply, new technologies for protein production, and nutrition interventions implemented at the level of the farm, community, and country.
Hunger and micronutrient malnutrition are distinct nutritional problems. Hunger is a problem of food quantity, while micronutrient malnutrition is a problem of food quality. In her keynote address, Barbara Burlingame explained that food quality has often been misguidedly targeted through clinical and pharmaceutical solutions such as individual nutrient supplements, fortifications, and ready-to-use therapeutic formulations.
Burlingame argued that to improve food quality we should instead focus on dietary diversity, whole foods (as opposed to individual micronutrients) containing a spectrum of nutrients and beneficial bioactive non-nutrients, and sustainable farming systems. Human health is inseparable from the health of ecosystems: rich local food sources reduce the risk of malnutrition. Thus, dietary interventions should complement local biodiversity—the variety of livestock, crops, forestry, and fish available within an ecosystem—to provide sustainable solutions to malnutrition. She presented data to support a whole-foods approach to nutrition and described policy initiatives linking efforts by agricultural, health, and environmental sectors to build better food systems.
Dennis Miller is also interested in micronutrient malnutrition, particularly in populations that rely heavily on plant-based foods. He agreed with Burlingame's emphasis on dietary diversity but argued for the use of micronutrient fortification. He pointed to data in livestock showing that bio-fortified food crops can overcome micronutrient deficiency and improve animal health.
Grain legumes such as beans and lentils, which are protein-rich staple foods, are the focus of USAID's Feed the Future initiative, which aims to improve nutrition for children and women of childbearing age. Irvin Widders described strategies to increase grain legume productivity and improve knowledge of the nutritional value of legumes among undernourished rural populations in Guatemala.
The importance of biodiversity for dietary quality is widely accepted, but there is debate about how to use this knowledge in agriculture to improve nutrition and health. Jessica Fanzo reviewed the literature to identify how to improve nutritional security and to find knowledge gaps.
Dietary protein intake is known to decrease with age. Aging bodies cope with this decrease by breaking down protein in muscle for energy. Together with changes in muscle protein metabolism, this process leads to sarcopenia (age-related skeletal muscle atrophy) and metabolic dysfunction, which can lead to diseases such as diabetes. Anna Thalacker-Mercer presented data on the effect of dietary intake on muscle metabolism, based on transcriptomic and metabolomic studies.
Animal meat has a higher protein content than plant sources, and global meat production is expected to double by 2050. However, the supply of plant-based foods, upon which both humans and animals rely, is expected to remain stable over this time. Guoyao Wu described his efforts to increase animal growth and reproduction despite plant food scarcity by improving protein production in farm animals. Josip Simunovic described his efforts, at other end of the animal protein supply chain, to develop aseptic processing technologies to improve the safety, shelf life, and nutritional profile of processed meats.
Another way to improve animal productivity—the contribution of animal protein to the food supply—is to improve animal productivity systems. In the case of beef cattle this goal is achieved by improving forage, using a mixture of cropland, prairies, and native grasslands. Jean Steiner described long-term research projects intended to reduce the environmental footprint of grazing and agronomic activity and to increase the resilience of beef cattle to variability in climate, market, and government policy.
With an endowment from the Tata Education and Development Trust, Prabhu Pingali is deploying several interventions in India, focused on child malnutrition, food, clean water and sanitation, and poverty. He described three interventions intended to improve household nutrition in rural India.
At the end of the conference, a panel discussed new methods for producing protein, including reclaiming protein material from previously wasted production streams, optimizing single-celled photosynthetic organisms to produce consumable nutrients, manufacturing protein in the lab through bioprinting, and engineering stem cell-derived tissue. These efforts aim to create sustainable alternatives to animal protein in response to a scarcity of natural resources required for its production.
Barbara Burlingame, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
- Fortifications, supplements, and therapeutic injections of individual micronutrients are inadequate approaches to malnutrition and cannot replace whole complex foods, according to Barbara Burlingame of the FAO.
- Biodiversity is essential to the nutritional quality of a sustainable diet, and preventing its erosion should be a priority.
The role of agriculture in diet: quantity versus quality
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's Zero Hunger Challenge, announced in 2013, presents his vision for global food security: 100% access to adequate food throughout the year, 100% growth in smallholder productivity and income, 0% stunted children under age 2, and 0% food loss or waste. These goals are arrayed around a central aim: sustainable food systems. Keynote speaker Barbara Burlingame, deputy director of the Food and Agriculture Organization's Nutrition Division, elaborated on this goal; in her vision, sustainable agriculture would be guaranteed by eliminating unnecessary monoculture, intensive livestock industries, overuse of agricultural chemicals, and food-chain inefficiencies.
Burlingame argued that fortifications, supplements, and therapeutic injections of individual micronutrients are inadequate approaches to micronutrient malnutrition because they do not mimic the complexity of food, which is comprised of nutrients and beneficial bioactive non-nutrients. The FAO recently developed a code of conduct for the food industry that emphasizes the inseparable relationship between human health and ecosystem health and promotes the idea that a diet based on whole foods, not individual micronutrient supplementation, provides ideal nutrition.
Biodiversity has often been ignored in the study of nutrient content. The sole cultivation of plant species with a high content of specific nutrients has caused a tremendous erosion of biodiversity. For example, areas of Asia in which thousands of rice varieties were once grown now use more than 70% of cultivable land to grow three varieties carrying high levels of iron or zinc, resulting in a loss of genetic diversity and nutrient complexity. The recognition of varietal differences in nutrient content prompted the Internal Rice Commission to recommend in 2013 that rice biodiversity and nutritional composition be analyzed before engaging in genetic modification.
Burlingame recommended that policy makers look to local food systems and ecosystems when implementing programs for malnutrition, rather than to global, non-contextual recommendations. This approach would help to prevent well-intentioned aid programs, which often apply a one-size-fits-all solution without characterizing local agro-ecological zones, from unwittingly implementing policies that damage local diets and ecosystems.
Burlingame concluded by discussing notable recommendations made in 2013 by the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture to the FAO. These recommendations are intended to promote collaboration among government sectors focused on biodiversity and environment and academic departments and nonprofits focused on human nutrition. She pointed out that African nutrition experts have long argued that agrobiodiversity determines dietary quality, and is therefore central to food security, but this idea is only now finding broader acceptance.
Anna Thalacker-Mercer, Cornell University
Guoyao Wu, Texas A&M University
Dennis Miller, Cornell University
- Reduced dietary protein intake causes muscle loss in the elderly due to changes in the expression of genes involved in protein catabolism. Branched-chain amino acids and glycine play a role in the body's response to insulin.
- The concept of the "ideal protein" should be revised to include non-essential amino acids along with essential amino acids, because both are required for livestock reproduction and protein production.
- Micronutrient biofortification is a valid way to enhance dietary protein quality in regions where people suffer from malnutrition, according to Dennis Miller of Cornell University.
The role of proteins in aging and metabolic dysfunction
When dietary protein intake is reduced, as it is in the elderly, the body breaks down skeletal muscle protein to generate the amino acids it needs for energy. Muscle also becomes less able to take up and use protein, leading to muscle atrophy. Anna Thalacker-Mercer of Cornell University has identified a crucial clue to the impact of aging on muscle metabolism from her studies of skeletal muscle transciptome (gene expression) profiles. At protein intakes below the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) (represented as LPro in the figure below), the expression of genes involved in protein synthesis appears similar in young and old men. However, when protein intake increases in young men the gene profile suggests an increase in protein synthesis, which does not appear in older men. When the older men consume a low-protein diet, the gene profile suggests heightened protein catabolism compared to the young.
Branched-chain amino acids such as leucine have recently been implicated in metabolic dysfunction. They are found at higher levels in the blood in obese and insulin-resistant individuals compared to healthy adults. Using metabolomic approaches, Thalacker-Mercer identified a strong correlation between another amino acid, glycine, and insulin action: healthy adults had higher circulating levels of glycine than obese adults and those with type 2 diabetes, suggesting this amino acid is protective against insulin resistance.
She also found that the relationship between amino acids in circulation and insulin action is affected by the availability or the use of fat instead of carbohydrates as a fuel source, suggesting that skeletal muscle atrophy might be compounded by obesity. Her team is now investigating whether glycine could be useful as a dietary supplement in elderly adults and whether amino acids are biomarkers of metabolic dysfunction or play a causal role in its development.
Improving the efficiency of animal protein production
One way to increase the global animal protein supply is to increase the efficiency with which dietary protein consumed by farm animals is converted into tissue or milk proteins. Animals utilize dietary protein through a proteolytic pathway that sequentially hydrolyzes protein macromolecules into small peptides and amino acids that are used to synthesize high-quality proteins.
However, the efficiency with which animals produce protein is low. Some of the amino acid content of dietary protein is lost through protein degradation in the intestinal mucosa (instead of in the gut, where amino acids can be reabsorbed). In livestock, amino acid catabolism by intestinal bacteria is high, protein synthesis in skeletal muscle is low, and non-essential amino acids (NEAA) are not included in dietary protein.
Guoyao Wu of Texas A&M University has shown in swine that NEAA synthesis from an EAA-only diet is inadequate for maximal growth of just-weaned animals: over 90% of newly synthesized NEAAs are degraded in the animals' small intestines and are not taken up for protein synthesis in tissue. Wu has formulated an "optimal" protein diet that contains adequate proportions and amounts of all amino acids, which has helped lactating sows to increase milk production by 17%–26%. Wu therefore proposed modifying the long-standing "ideal protein" concept, which ignored NEAAs in the diet, to now include these amino acids in animal dietary protein, arguing that this change would improve the efficiency of livestock feed.
The mTOR pathway is a key cell signaling pathway in protein synthesis. It is activated by amino acids such as arginine in skeletal muscle and lactating tissue. Wu has found that dietary arginine supplementation in breeding sows can increase litter birth rates by 20% and double the size of litters. In his view, improvements in farm animal productivity are essential to produce high-quality animal protein to satisfy growing demand and offset resource scarcity.
Micronutrient-fortified plant-based proteins as a nutrition source
Most people depend on cereal grains for more than half of their caloric intake. But cereal grains have a low concentration of vital amino acids and are "incomplete" because they do not contain every amino acid. Dennis Miller of Cornell University described how to overcome these shortfalls in protein quality. Each protein source has a different composition of amino acids. Protein complementarity, practiced for centuries, combines proteins from different sources—whole wheat and beef, for instance—to yield a higher quality protein source than can be obtained from either food individually. Protein quality can also be enhanced through plant breeding, which uses genetic diversity to selectively cultivate variants with desired traits.
Micronutrient biofortification has been used with repeated success, first in the production of iodized salt in the 1920s and later in the production of folic acid-enriched foods in the 1990s. Miller described his own work, undertaken with HarvestPlus, a global alliance of research institutions that develops staple food crops to enhance mineral and vitamin content.
One project aimed to determine whether iron in a newly developed biofortified variant of the common bean is bioavailable for hemoglobin synthesis. After 5 weeks, pigs fed the high-iron bean had a significantly increased total body hemoglobin iron content over those fed the standard bean, suggesting that biofortified beans could increase the intake of bioavailable iron in human populations that consume beans as a dietary staple. While acknowledging that micronutrient biofortification might not be a silver bullet, Miller argued for its validity as an approach to improve nutrition.
Jean Steiner, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Jessica Fanzo, Columbia University
Josip Simunovic, North Carolina State University
- Improving the sustainability of forage-based animal productivity systems and reducing their environmental footprint can increase resilience to vagaries of climate, market, and government policy.
- Biodiversity has a huge impact on nutritional quality and health outcomes, especially in rural communities.
- An aseptic processing and sterilizing technique that processes muscle foods under flow conditions rapidly and volumetrically (as opposed to sterilizing canned food) without compromising taste and nutritional value will improve animal protein availability and consumption.
Building a robust cattle production system to withstand climate, resource, and market variability
The beef cattle production system in most parts of the world, including in the Southern Great Plains of the U.S., depends on crop, pasture, and native grasslands for forage. The system is increasingly vulnerable to variability in climate, dynamic markets, and changing agricultural, energy, and environmental policies. Jean Steiner of the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave an overview of a series of research projects undertaken by a multi-institutional collaboration to strengthen the resilience of the beef cattle production system.
Steiner explained that a major goal of this project is to reduce the environmental footprint of beef-grazing systems by reducing the emissions of potent greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane. N2O is increased by the application of nitrogen fertilizer to crops on forage land. Steiner is building a database to improve our knowledge of how to manage agroecosystem fertilization and reduce N2O emissions. Her team is analyzing fertilizer management practices to find ways to minimize losses through N2O emissions (rate, timing, and type of fertilization) and collecting information about background emissions from unfertilized prairie land.
Methane emissions from cattle depend on the quality of forage (including the types of species consumed) and the type of livestock (cow, calf, heifer, etc.). The team is using grazing lands as open laboratories, tagging cattle with GPS collars to identify their grazing patterns and preferences to develop emissions-reducing steps in the production cycle. Efforts are also underway to improve the quality of vegetation, increase soil carbon sequestration, and understand how agronomic management strategies impact water quantity and quality, which is particularly important in regions prone to drought.
Evidence linking biodiversity and nutritional quality
Biodiversity describes genetic diversity within and between species and the relationships between species and their ecosystems. The evidence connecting biodiversity to improved dietary quality is still being compiled. Jessica Fanzo of Columbia University reviewed published data describing a role for biodiversity in nutrition and health. She began with a study associating improved dietary diversity (defined by the number of different foods consumed over a reference period) with a reduction in stunting in children, which is one measure of a nutritional outcome.
According to Fanzo, more studies are now documenting the nutritional composition of local species, including the studies led by keynote speaker Barbara Burlingame. These compositional studies indicate that species diversity does not always translate into dietary diversity and quality. Although many different grain crops are grown in West Africa, for example, local nutritional content is mostly limited to carbohydrates and a few micronutrients, and most of the crops grown have the same nutritional composition.
Local biodiversity is particularly important for nutritional quality in rural communities, according to one meta-analysis that only examined populations living in highly biodiverse areas. But according to another study, many such communities do not capitalize on their knowledge of wild foods. Fanzo explained that using such knowledge can improve nutritional security: another study found that the addition or removal of individual wild foods can result in starkly different nutritional outcomes (compositions in daily diet) in rural areas.
Fanzo also discussed the politics and cost burden of biodiversity. She argued that biodiversity should be conserved, but its "custodians" (the farmers) must be protected from poverty and loss of local nutritional quality. The latter often occurs when indigenous foods enter the mainstream and are marked for export rather than for local consumption.
Improving technologies for industrial muscle-food preservation
One challenge faced by the industry that processes so-called muscle foods—hot dogs, salami, hams—is the limited shelf life and potential for spoilage during distribution and storage of raw frozen and thermally processed "fully cooked" meats. Canned and sterilized muscle foods are shelf-stable at ambient temperatures, but are rapidly losing market share because of their low sensory quality: they "smell and taste bad," as Josip Simunovic of North Carolina State University put it.
The sterilization process for canned solid food—that is, the requirement to deliver lethal over-cooking at temperatures that can kill pathogens such as Salmonella and Escherichia coli—results in over-processing of everything surrounding the so-called cold spot at the center of the canned product. Overcooking results in loss of sensory quality, destroys valuable nutrients, wastes energy, and limits the maximum package size (products in large cans are the most damaged).
Simunovic has developed a new aseptic processing technique to more rapidly and uniformly heat meat products. In contrast to canning, in which products are sterilized within the package, his method sterilizes food products under continuous flow (as a continuously flowing liquid substance as opposed to a solid lump), and then combines rapidly cooled products with separately sterilized packaging under aseptic conditions. The thermal technology used for sterilization is a focused microwave energy that creates uniform heat distribution under flow. This technology has been refined in the last decade and can be used on large, industrial volumes and non-homogeneous products involving different textures and consistencies.
Prabhu Pingali, Cornell University
Irvin Widders, Michigan State University
- Chronic malnutrition in India could be alleviated by increasing household access to food by improving income, increasing the food supply, and changing behavior and food distribution.
- Dietary protein quality has been improved in rural Guatemala by encouraging consumption of legume varieties developed to increase crop yield. Quality seeds and information about crop management strategies are distributed with the help of local, trusted government entities.
Overcoming India's malnutrition problem
Despite its recent economic boom and thriving, burgeoning middle class, India still faces high rates of poverty, hunger, and malnutrition. Prabhu Pingali of Cornell University argued, however, that an opportunity exists for an agricultural renaissance, based on government investment in rural agricultural infrastructure, innovations in genomics and biofortification, ease of information dissemination through cellular technologies, increased enrollment in safety net programs, and growth of women's organizations in rural communities.
Pingali has assembled a framework that draws together research by his group and others on household access to food and food-sharing practices. Interventions are focused on improving household and individual nutrition; for example, one project works to convince heads of household to change food allotment practices. Based on his observations in rural India, Pingali is focused on improving the nutrition and health of women of childbearing age and on reducing stunting and malnutrition in children under 2 years old.
The project, which began in fall 2013, operates in three sites, with each serving as a test for a different intervention. The goal at the first site is to promote household income and increase the local supply of food and micronutrients through social programs. The researchers are looking for ways to improve local labor dynamics, market opportunities, and other aspects of farming productivity. At the second site, researchers are trying to improve access to clean water and sanitation by, for example, helping to develop village-level water purification plants. A major reason for child malnutrition in rural areas, especially of female children, is inequitable distribution of food within families, with boys and men fed before women and girls. At the third site, researchers are therefore attempting to drive positive behavioral change and empower women by working through local women's organizations.
Improving the nutritional quality of diets through grain legumes
Grain legumes such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas are multifunctional staple crops that are "nutrient dense," with high protein content, complex carbohydrates, iron, zinc, vitamin B, and other micronutrients. These are among the most affordable crops for nutritional value and are viewed as "women's crops" for their sustenance of women's livelihoods in many parts of the world.
The productivity of these crops in many areas in the developing world is pitifully low, however. Irvin Widders of Michigan State University is working at the Legume Innovation Lab to close the yield gap—the difference between the genetic yield potential and the actual yield on farms. The team looks at many aspects of crop yield, from molecular genetics to crop management strategies that aim to improve nutrition quality and marketing approaches.
Through USAID's Feed the Future program, Widders is working to reduce undernutrition in Guatemala, where 80% of children in rural areas are stunted and a majority of the population lives in poverty. Collaborating with the country's Ministries of Agriculture and Health, Widders aims to increase bean production on farms and consumption of beans by children and women of childbearing age. Interventions aim to improve access to quality seeds of bean varieties with enhanced yield potential; to improve integrated crop management practices, such as crop rotation; to implement simple steps, such as disseminating sacks for long-term, non-wasteful storage; to promote seed exchanges; and to improve local understanding and appreciation of beans as a nutritious, ancestral crop.
Another project is looking at the impact on child health of regular consumption of pulses by examining gut microbial flora, intestinal nutrient absorption, and immune function. It also examines whether the benefits of pulse consumption extend to better child growth and reduced incidence of diarrheal disease.
Michael Morrissey, Oregon State University
Gabor Forgacs, University of Missouri–Columbia
Geoffrey von Maltzahn, Flagship Ventures
Mark Post, Maastricht University, Netherlands
Charles Schasteen, DuPont Nutrition & Health Protein Solutions
- Improved knowledge of raw soy whey components and better separation technology has allowed much previously wasted process material to be reclaimed to create useful and healthy soy protein products.
- New technologies, combined with genome, proteome, and microbiome research, are catalyzing start-up companies focused on global problems in nutrition and health.
- Beef produced in the lab from stem cells via regenerative techniques could provide an alternative to current non-sustainable protein production practices.
Reclaiming healthy, sustainable products from soy protein waste streams
The end of the conference featured a panel chaired by Michael Morrissey of Oregon State University. The panelists discussed new methods for producing protein, which are intended to create sustainable alternatives to animal protein in response to a scarcity of natural resources required for its production. Soy protein, the most energy efficient and accessible form of plant-based high-quality protein, will play an important role in regions with huge projected population growth and limited infrastructure to produce animal protein. When soybeans are processed to create protein ingredients, the starting material used by the food industry in commercial products is a form known as defatted soy flake. The isolated soy protein production process is wasteful, however, and produces products from only 46% of the starting soy flake
Charles Schasteen of DuPont Nutrition & Health Protein Solutions has formulated a process to mitigate this waste. The feed material, raw soy whey, is 2% solids and 98% water. The process concentrates and separates this starting material into individual components, such as soy whey protein, soy whey sugars, soy whey minerals, and water, each of which is usable at the end of the process. Soy whey protein has several traits—unprecedented solubility across a range of pH, low viscosity, and high emulsification—that make it a viable replacement for dairy proteins. Soy whey protein forms a more stable foam than egg white, for example, and is a healthier alternative to chemical-based emulsifiers. These new protein products for use as food ingredients and in beauty and personal care products are targeted for prototype availability later in 2014.
Launching companies for innovation across the nutrient supply chain
Geoffrey von Maltzahn of Flagship Ventures presented innovative ideas and technologies that have driven the launch of companies focused on nutrition and health. In his view, agriculture practiced in its current form is a wasteful endeavor, using over 40% and 75%, respectively, of arable land and fresh water while producing over 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, degrading land, depleting ground water, and leading to habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity.
A start-up called Essentient aims to streamline food production by eliminating the need for arable land and wasteful intermediary steps in cultivation, harvesting, storage, and transportation, turning instead to single-celled photosynthetic organisms engineered to produce and secrete nutrients currently derived from agriculture at "supra-agricultural efficiencies." Early-stage nutrient factories, whose yield has far outstripped that of traditional agriculture, are being pilot-tested in non-arable regions.
Another company, Pronutria, has built a proprietary library of more than a billion protein polymers (amino acid chains) found in the typical Western diet. By comparing known clinically proven amino acid combinations to the library, the company has designed proteins with desired characteristics to treat disease. These proteins can be delivered as prodrugs, which are digested to release a specific combination of amino acids. Some protein candidates are in clinical trials to treat muscle loss. Other candidates are scheduled to begin trials in 2014 for metabolic disease.
Von Maltzahn also described efforts to pioneer a new type of medical treatment involving the human microbiome at a start-up called Seres Health. The company designs "Ecobiotics" to therapeutically adjust microbial ecology for medical benefit. Another start-up, Symbiota, is exploiting knowledge of plant microbiota to improve crop yield, pathogen resistance, and stress resilience.
Stem cell hamburgers and bioprinted steak: lab-made animal protein to replace livestock meat
Conventional beef production is unsustainable. Beef cattle have a poor bioconversion rate—about 15%—from feed or grass input to edible protein output and are a huge environmental burden. Nonetheless, meat production falls short of demand. Mark Post of Maastricht University, a pioneer in stem cell technology tissue engineering, and Gabor Forgacs of University of Missouri–Columbia made the case for lab-derived meat products as an alternative to livestock meat.
To produce meat in the lab, muscle tissue derived from a cow via needle biopsy is used to extract satellite cells—stem cells with proliferative capacity that differentiate into skeletal muscle. A single stem cell can yield up to 1014 cells, which could replace up to 104 kg of conventional meat. A few hundred cells can self-organize into myotubes, which when added to a collagen gel supplemented with basement membrane, organize between two anchor points to form an early form of skeletal muscle tissue. The tension between the two points enhances protein synthesis and maturation. Individual muscle strips grown in this way form the basis of processed meat, and a proof-of-concept hamburger was unveiled in 2013.
Post is improving the efficiency of the process by eliminating the need for culture media and adjusting the biochemical and mechanical structure of the tissue scaffold to enhance tissue viability. His team is also working to make cultured beef that more closely mimics its natural counterpart in taste and composition.
Post's cultured meat can only be used in ground meat products because it is assembled from individually cultured muscle fibers. To produce meat that reflects the geometry and composition of tissue, Forgacs is using bioprinting technology, which lays down bio-ink units—a preparation of multicellular aggregates—with support materials along an architectural template. Structural formation, or "magic" as he put it, happens post-printing, in a process similar to embryonic development in vivo. When the bioprinted material has reached the desired thickness and shape, cells assemble, fuse, and undergo morphogenetic changes resulting in tissue that largely resembles animal meat. Several challenges remain, most notably scaling up the process, reducing cost, and achieving consumer acceptance.
Like the other speakers at the symposium, who are all in pursuit of sustainable sources of protein, Forgacs and Post are keen to overcome these challenges. They believe that the combination of dwindling natural resources and global population growth suggests that alternative protein sources, such as those derived from the lab, might be not a choice but a necessity in the future.