Nobel Conference: Paul B. Thompson

“What Is Good Food? An Argument with My Wife”

Paul B. Thompson, Ph.D., W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics, Michigan State University, East Lansing

Paul Thompson is a philosopher who spoke on on the topic of food ethics. His talk was an examination of how the framework through which we view agriculture shapes the ethical questions we ask. Much of this lecture was highly visible (with some fairly unorthodox use of slide) or told through stories that are not captured well in tweets. As before, below is my summary of the lecture in tweets. The full lecture, including the Q&A afterward with all the invited speakers, is available on YouTube.

  • Title now “Conversation with My Wife.” Said wife is a local food activist (and attending the lecture), practical experience rather than philosophy.
  • Breaking down what it means for food to be safe: pure, fresh, wholesome. These may conflict (e.g., wrt additives).
  • “Good” food may be safe, healthful, tasty, legal, respectful, just, fair, hospitable, sustainable. Interactions complicated.
  • Industrial philosophy of agriculture: approach ethical questions as in any other segment of industrial economy.
  • Values of industrial philosophy: efficiency and shouldering own costs. Utilitarian perspective.
  • Efficiency provides a benefit to poor, who spend more of income on food. Has social costs to be weighed against efficiency.
  • Lower costs due to pesticides are not more efficient until the (highly valued) rights of workers and consumers are met.
  • Consumers must demand justice (safety, fair wages) in order for it to be part of the efficiency equation.
  • Industrial philosophy useful, but agriculture has historically had its own philosophy and values.
  • Discussion of how Egyptian vs. Greek geography influenced forms of governance and agricultural philosophies.
  • Jefferson felt family farmers were the best citizens (as opposed to the owners of capital) because the land tied them in place.
  • Agrarian philosophy is one of creating an environment that elicits the behavior and moral identity desired.
  • Tradition and reciprocity, community identity highly valued in agrarian philosophy.
  • Agrarian philosophy may still be relevant in rural areas. Smaller farms produce more community investment.

Nobel Conference: Linda Bartoshuk

“Variation in sensation and affect: We live in ‘different taste worlds’”

Linda Bartoshuk, Ph.D., Presidential Endowed Professor of Community Dentistry and Behavioral Science, University of Florida, Gainesville

Linda Bartoshuk’s lecture was all about supertasters, and it started with a short (optional) questionnaire and a test to find out whether we were supertasters, nontasters or somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. I’m dull. As before, below is my summary of the lecture in tweets. The full lecture, including the Q&A afterward with all the invited speakers, is available on YouTube.

  • Five senses is an oversimplification based on collapsing many types of somatic sensation.
  • Traditional tongue map bogus. Based on a mistranslation of a thesis.
  • Flavor is a combination of retronasal olfaction (flavor forced up from the mouth) and taste.
  • Brain can sense difference from nasal odor sources and retronasal sources, sniff vs. chew. Treated differently.
  • Can’t taste or smell fats, only impurities in the fat. Fat molecules too large.
  • Tongues of supertasters have 4-12 times as many fungiform papillae as normal tasters.
  • Supertasters match normals on relative ratings of sweetness but rate twice the sweetness on an external intensity scale.
  • Supertasters experience greater reaction to capsaicin, greater oral pain, more intense mouth feel from food.
  • Adding a taste sensation (sweet, salt) intensifies perception of flavor. Supertasters experience more flavor.
  • Supertasters experience less cardiovascular disease, have lower BMI. Fat becomes cloying.
  • Supertasters drink less; alcohol is bitter. They also eat fewer veggies; experience higher risk of colon cancer.
  • None of the differential health risks discussed are large, merely present.
  • Bitter is a poison-detection system. Taste nerve vulnerable to simple ear infection. “I wouldn’t have designed it that way.”
  • Ear infections can also damage fat sensation, leading to weight gain.
  • Among sample of male supertasters with a history of otitis media, two were not overweight or obese. Large effect.
  • Supertasters have extreme food likes and dislikes. Now testing to see whether they have more extreme preferences in general.
  • Currently a project going on to determine which volatiles make tomatoes the most palatable by inclusion or exclusion.
  • Umami originally a marketing campaign for MSG. Are glutamate receptors on the tongue, but not a basic taste.
  • Protein breaks down in digestive tract, binds to glutamate receptors in stomach & produces conditioned food preference.
  • Can use a novel food as a “scapegoat” to avoid conditioned food aversion to normal diet in kids receiving chemo.
  • About 25 genes for bitter taste. All are on a continuum, but a supertaster for bitter is for sweet, salt, sour as well.
  • Fake fat is foiled by our conditioned food responses. If it isn’t real fat, we stop responding to it.

Coming Out

No, not me. I am, from what the data says, unusually heterosexual, and any queerness I might choose to share doesn’t involve just my information. So, no, I’m not talking about me. It is National Coming Out Day, however, and a couple of people are doing it up right.

Jen is, at Blag Hag:

Oh, it was awkward, and it was heartbreaking – but mostly because that’s how all crushes are to a 13 year old girl. I was just lucky that I never thought it was sinful or wrong. I wasn’t religious, and I was delightfully oblivious to the people who thought my feelings were disgusting.

But it still wasn’t easy. There was something overwhelmingly horrible knowing the odds are against you – that, if you’re rounding up, maybe 10% of people would also be interested in the same sex. I couldn’t get my friend out of my mind, but I knew the odds of her feeling the same way were slim to none. It’s terrible liking someone without them liking you back, but it seems just a tad more terrible when you know there’s literally nothing you can do about it. No amount of persuasion will change their biology.

Do read the comments at Blag Hag. I love the number of people who are saying they already knew, and only partly because I also thought Jen was already out. There have been plenty of offhand, light references on the blog and on Twitter to finding women attractive, and I’m tickled to see how many people never considered that Jen would somehow have to be “just joking” about it. Some days, I like people.

Elizabeth is reflecting on being out as well, over at Sex in the Public Square:

And this brings me to a reflection on another difficulty of being out. Outness is partly a matter of context. In what circumstances at work does it become appropriate for me to make reference to other lovers? Relatively infrequently. But just recently a colleage to whom I’m not especially out asked me about weekend plans. As it happens I had a date with a woman I care deeply about. I said “I have a date.” She asked no further questions, and so the conversation died there. I was ready to explain further, but she did not inquire and quite probably assumed that I either was making reference to going out with a friend or that I was referring to a date with Will.

While coming out is a continual process, ceremonial days like National Coming Out Day are useful because they provide a context for self disclosure. They also provide a ritual moment for reminding others that our lives may not be as clear and simple as they appear on the surface.

For all those who are not at all out, it is important that the rest of us show ourselves openly to help dispel stereotypes and to strengthen the system of mutual support that outness can provide.

It also makes me quite happy that most of the people I know who fall under the broad heading of GLBTQ (where Q = queer of some sort) are already generally out. A friend of a friend referred to today as “Happy ‘Yeah we know dude’ day.” Today was a day for affirmation for most of them, rather than a day of added risk or longing for what it would be unwise to actually do. One person I’m proud to call a friend used the day to come out as bisexual to her Catholic family.

All that is progress, but it isn’t enough. I live in a very liberal city, with lots of artists and academics for friends. I hang out with people who make a point of trying to question received wisdom about the social order. Even here, I know of one situation in which two of my friends don’t feel comfortable being out. The prominent heterosexuality of the place is such that even identifying the location would out those people.

Then we get outside the city and outside my generation. I see a teenager who can’t understand why “so gay” is an insult but still uses it as one, all but guaranteeing that her friends will at least hesitate before coming out to her. I see a woman several years into her retirement, who moved across the country with her “roommate” and whose parents will likely die within the next year or two without ever having discussed her sexuality (if they allow themselves to know about it). Then there are all the people who are not safe or who don’t feel safe, just because of their sexuality, practiced–or merely experienced–in private.

Kelley expresses how this feels better than I can at Watching the Wheels:

I do know that I will love this man and stand by him as long as I am able. And I know that whatever the future brings we will work through it together.

Today I’m not telling my parents any of this. I wish that I could. It feels so wrong to be so happy and to not share it with two of the people that mean the most to me in this world. One of my sisters is sure I will be disowned. I don’t know with any degree of confidence that she’s wrong. Today I’m not ready to find out.

But I think it’s worth the risk, to share this part of my life with them. Maybe next year I’ll be ready. And maybe next year my fears will be proven wrong. Maybe I’ll be accepted, my happiness will be accepted. Maybe, but maybe not today.

For them (and for you, because in hiding is a scary, toxic place to be), come out today, if you can. If you can afford to take those risks, for yourself and for others, tell the world who you are. Come on out.

Nobel Conference: Bina Agarwal

“Can We Make Food Good for All?”

Bina Agarwal, Ph.D., professor of economics and director, Institute of Economic Growth, University of Delhi, India

Bina Agarwal spoke to us about solving the problems of making food good for the world’s poorest. If you only watch one lecture, I recommend you make it this one. It is the least easily captured in notes, and it contained the best use of slides of any of the talks. As before, below is my summary of the lecture in tweets. Note that Dr. Agarwal used “collectivities” in the place of “collectives” to differentiate them from the Soviet-style agricultural collectives. The full lecture, including the Q&A afterward with all the invited speakers, is available on YouTube.

  • Cooking in mother’s kitchen was a sacred, meditative act. Required bathing and silence.
  • Hindu scriptures divide food into three categories. Satvik (pure and health promoting), Rajasik (over-stimulating), Tamasik (decaying).
  • What food is “good” varies by culture, but the poor cannot always afford nutritious food, much less “good” food.
  • About 1B people undernourished in 2009. Challenge will grow with population, even without climate change.
  • Nutrition/food security challenges: production (who), distribution, preparation, and consumption.
  • Biofeul production in food exporting countries, like U.S. have implications for security of importing regions.
  • Farming labor force is declining worldwide and becoming more female. Biases thus have a large impact on agriculture.
  • Forest lands declining. They are an important source of supplementary food items, particularly for the poorest.
  • Climate change expected to have the most dramatic (negative) impact on the cereal crops of Africa and South Asia.
  • Entitlement to food is not equally distributed either nationally or internationally. Much starvation due to entitlement issues.
  • Clean cooking fuel is a limited resource. Biofuels (firewood, crop waste, animal dung) are not clean.
  • Unclean fuels disproportionally affect cooks (women) and the children who play near them: r espiratory distress, cancer.
  • Even with clean, abundant food, the challenge of junk is ever present, particularly as the rich West is emulated.
  • Community-managed irrigation less sexy than big dams, but taking hold in India. May be more sustainable.
  • Small farmers (mostly women) don’t have political or investment power. Autonomous collectives may be the solution.
  • Small collectives increase skill sets, knowledge bases and economic resources, decrease social isolation.
  • In de-collectivized post-Soviet areas, large percentages of farms voluntarily remained in collectives. Saw many benefits.
  • Collectives have methods to check free-riding. Show higher productivity than single-family farms.
  • Collectives have also made food available cheaply to poor in areas, enhancing community food security.
  • Collectives in India also increasing women’s status. Some evidence for decreasing domestic violence.
  • Degraded forest land has been given to local Indian communities to protect. Forest land now increasing.
  • Clean stoves a good step toward clean fuel, but don’t solve all problems (dependence on forests, etc.). Need to make processed biogasses.
  • Local solutions good, but don’t alleviate international responsibilities: R&D, border issues, understanding interdependence.
  • Women and poor not just main victims of food crisis. Also essential part of the solution.
  • Not good data on utility of microloan programs. Pooled, rotating investment resources in collectives work well, however.
  • Title to land, even not enough land to support you, provides a fallback and bargaining power for more.

Nobel Conference: Jeffrey M. Friedman

“Leptin and the Biologic Basis of Obesity”

Jeffrey M. Friedman, M.D., Ph.D., Marilyn M. Simpson Professor and HHMI investigator, Laboratory of Molecular Genetics, and director, Starr Center for Human Genetics, The Rockefeller University, New York, N.Y.

Jeffrey Friedman provided the third lecture, which was essentially and introduction to why our cultural thinking on obesity is generally okay as far as it goes but doesn’t go nearly far enough. It also addressed the idea that our emotional reaction to fat, as a culture, is completely out of line with the facts behind fat. As before, below is my summary of the lecture in tweets. The full lecture, including the Q&A afterward with all the invited speakers, is available on YouTube.

Yes, obese people eat more and exercise less, but why?
Everyone has a set of convictions about obesity. Very little interest in hearing science-based answers.
Willpower as an explanation of differences in weight is most often favored by the lean.
Maintenance of weight under a variety of conditions suggests an inherent mechanism for balancing food intake and usage.
Mechanism will impose a basic drive in opposition to higher cognitive functions, no matter our desires.
Natural selection can act very powerfully over the short term. Recent increases in obesity not necessarily environmental.
BMI distributions don’t have to change much to see large *categorical* (overweight, obese) differences.
Obesity estimated to be as heritable as height.
Leptin a hormone that provides negative feedback between fat tissue and hypothalamus (my simplification).
Fat tissue is an endocrine organ. Lack of leptin causes a starvation response: extreme energy conservation.
Obesity appears to be a hormone-resistance syndrome, like Type II diabetes.
Adding much more leptin to the system can affect some patients, dosage required too high to be practical.
About 1/3 of obese sensitive to lower doses of added leptin.
May be use for leptin on conjunction with leptin sensitizers (short-term plus long-term agents). Still in trials. [Friedman noted potential conflict of interest in that he consults for the company developing the regimen.]
Studying signaling pathways in presence and absence of leptin to determine where weight is controlled.
10% of morbid obesity due to single-gene defects. More from multi-gene and gene-environment interactions.
We have a good grasp of the physiological cycle. Still working on neurological processing.
Metabolic, sensory, and cognitive factors affect likelihood of feeding behavior, but do not control directly.
Work on obesity has provided a framework for studying physiological/psychological systems.
Time to provide better advice to obese than “Eat less; exercise more,” which is millennia old.
Still things to do to protect health in the presence of obesity: exercise, eat well, stay at the leaner end of you weight range.
Vilification of the obese seems to be largely due to the human need to feel in control–or more than animals.
Good food choices? You don’t care what you eat when you think you’re starving.
Scientific debate ongoing over whether all calories are created equal with respect to long-term hunger signaling.

Nobel Conference: Cary Fowler

“Food Security in a Frightening and Finite World.”

Cary Fowler, Ph.D., executive director, Global Crop Diversity Trust, Rome, Italy

Cary Fowler offered the second lecture of the conference, speaking to us about sustaining genetic diversity in crop plants as a means of providing some security against the challenges of a growing population and changing climate on a local and global scale. He also gave us a nice introduction to the seed bank in Svalbard, Norway. As before, below is my summary of the lecture in tweets. The full lecture, including the Q&A afterward with all the invited speakers, is available on YouTube.

  • But first, a shout-out to the ASL interpreter. :)
  • Due to green revolution, we are the first generation to take abundance of food for granted.
  • Africa is an exception to production growth, just reaching 1960s levels.
  • Production increases have come due to much greater expenditure of resources: land, water, fertilizer, pesticides, etc.
  • Land use increases stopped being as important to agriculture growth in 80s. Water usage is unsustainable. Drawing on aquifers.
  • Water rights may lead to increased international conflict as food needs increase.
  • When Kuwait recognizes Peak Oil (as they do now), the impact on food production must be considered.
  • Natural gas is a requirement for current nitrogenous fertilizers.
  • Climate change will change growing seasons and patterns.
  • Hot summers have traditionally decreased production ~25%. Those will be the good years with projected climate change.
  • “We are living through less than 1/2 of 1% of the history of agriculture, but I can promise you it will be the most interesting.”
  • Most people think of biodiversity as a Rousseau painting: exotics. More important is diversity within species.
  • Maintaining diversity determines whether we survive climate change, or just the next pest or disease.
  • Flooding in Philippines hit their seed bank, causing the extinction of several species. We will lose more seed banks.
  • Loss of more seed banks, with the additional diversity, is a completely predictable event.
  • Svalbard seed bank is far from human and weather dangers. Naturally frozen as well.
  • “Doctor, are you telling me the genetic diversity in this seed bank is the world’s most important natural resource?” “I think so.” “And that Svalbard is the best place for it?” “I believe it is.” “Then how can we refuse?” [Norwegian government's response]
  • The most drought-resistant crop in Addis Ababa contains a neurotoxin. Starve or become paralyzed?
  • [From Ben's Twitter stream] “If you can’t go down to the supermarket because you have no money and there is no supermarket…”
  • Collecting seeds allows the crop to be bred to reduce toxins without losing drought resistance.
  • “If you want to be bored and depressed [by the situation], you don’t have to do anything. It will come naturally.”
  • “But these problems can be solved. You can help solve them, and it’s fun.”
  • We also need to find and preserve the wild relatives of our crop plants.
  • Subsistence farmers maintain much of the world’s crop diversity, but they are also the most vulnerable, and they’re not curators.
  • Fruit diversity threatened by Russian law that may force development of land growing plants that don’t grow well from seed.
  • Most national seed banks are of poor quality. “You wouldn’t want to store your kid’s lunch in them.”

Nobel Conference: Marion Nestle

“Food Politics: Personal Responsibility vs. Social Responsibility.”

Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, and professor of sociology, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, New York University (blog: Food Politics, Twitter)

Marion Nestle (not Nestlé) provided the first lecture of the conference, focusing on the forces that shape our food choices, including the forces that shape the business of agriculture and food marketing. Below is my summary of the lecture in tweets. The full lecture, including the Q&A afterward with all the invited speakers, is available on YouTube.

  • “When I started in nutrition, it never occurred to me that agriculture had anything to do with what we eat.”
  • The challenge is not how to feed 8-9 billion people, but to empower 8-9B people to feed themselves.
  • The solutions are social, not technological (empowering women, social and political stability.
  • You don’t have to be a Nobel winner to figure out how to avoid obesity.
  • Food industry can no longer just blame consumer personal responsibility for obesity. People eating less is big problem for industry.
  • Junk food should be a special order. Healthful food should be easy to get–the default.
  • Data slim, but rates of physical activity have changed very little since early 80s. People eating more.
  • More calories available in the food system (not consumed) for every person.
  • Everyone lies about food intake, but data still show 200 calorie daily increase.
  • Farm subsidy program shifted from paying for not growing to paying for growing. Result: corn and food industry competition.
  • Food companies also affected by new Wall Street demands for continual growth of profits. Industry changed in response.
  • Eating out (higher calorie meals) got cheaper due to subsidies. Portion sizes in prepackaged food got bigger.
  • “If there were one thing I could teach everyone in this room, it’s that larger portions have more calories.”
  • It’s been shown experimentally that larger portions = more calories is not intuitively obvious.
  • Larger portions cause people to underestimate calories consumed by a greater amount.
  • Ubiquity: “When did it become okay to eat and drink in bookstores?”
  • Fast food burger on a sweetened bun is highly subsidized ($1). Salad is not ($5).
  • “If you hear people talk about how expensive fruits and vegetables are, it’s because they are.”
  • Indexed price of fruit & vegetables up 40% since 80s. Grain products down 10-15%.
  • Food companies under tremendous pressure, but have generally not responded productively.
  • Ah, health claims. Chocolate cheerios may reduce the chance of heart disease?
  • FDA rolled on First Amendment arguments. Courts friendly to corporate speech claims.
  • American Heart Association only cares about fats, not sugars, in endorsements.
  • POM suing FDA over blocked antioxidant health claims. (First Amendment claim)
  • “Functional foods” the only big marketing category that’s selling these days, despite lack of regulation of claims.
  • Companies will tell you they don’t make health claims in their categories, only claims of “healthier” choices.
  • Health labeling “standards” set by companies. Vast majority of foods don’t meet independent standards set by nutritionists.
  • Smart Choices = less than 25% calories from sugar.
  • A better-for-you product may still not be a *good* choice. Fruit Loops = Smart Choice product.
  • Marketing to children can instill brand loyalty for life.
  • Kids’ marketing identifies “kid” foods, generally highly processed and not things a parent can produce on own.
  • Michelle Obama’s good food campaign has a tiny fraction of the budget for marketing *one* breakfast cereal.
  • Recent Salmonella eggs came out of dirty facility producing 2.3M dozen eggs per week.
  • Food safety laws the legacy of Upton Sinclair in 1906. Still not substantially updated since then.
  • Recent recalls show systemic failure. We know how to produce safe food, but we don’t enforce it.
  • We’ve had a good monitoring process (HACCP) that were developed for the first manned space mission. We don’t use it.
  • Need a single food-safety agency. Not happening. Senate has held food safety bill for 16 months.
  • Schools are slowly experiencing the food revolution. Grassroots activism is making a difference.
  • Buried on page 1206 of the health care reform act is national calorie labeling. Should be entertaining. Food lobby spending has shot up.
  • Sustainability movement is producing return to the victory garden. Everyone votes with their fork for the food industry they want.
  • You could not always walk into a supermarket and find fresh vegetables. This is progress.
  • “The sugar previously known as high fructose corn syrup.”
  • We don’t need to lose 100% of our industrial farming, but industry can get much better & we need diversity.
  • There are no superfoods. Only food. The key is a diverse diet.
  • Credibility of Am. Diatetic Assoc. destroyed by endorsements/partnerships.
  • We still live in a democracy. If there is enough noise, legislators have to listen.

Tweeting the Nobel Conference

Life is still busy. Yesterday and today are the Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN. This is an annual event, coinciding with the announcement of the winners of the year’s Nobel Prizes, pulling together a number of scientists to talk about a particular topic. This year is “Making Food Good.” Next year is “The Brain and Being Human.”

Each scientist gives a lecture, but what follows may be the coolest part: All of the invited scientists then get together for a panel discussion of the lecture, asking questions outside their fields and trying to fit the information they’re hearing into their framework of the topic. The presenting scientist also takes questions from the audience. That audience includes an internet audience, as the lectures are all streamed live.

What the lectures are not, despite the presence of lots of students from the college and from local high schools, is live Tweeted. At least, they weren’t. After missing part of the first lecture due to an accumulation of delays yesterday morning, I checked the conference hashtag, #Nobel46. There was nothing. So I took over.

I’ll blog the lectures later, with additional information, but if you want to follow along in the meantime, that hashtag is your place to be.