Can Fast Food be Sustainable?

Chipotle’s ambitious initiative to embrace and invest in the future of food through its $100 million Cultivate Next venture fund demonstrates a forward-thinking approach to the customer experience and increases access to real food.

“Our decision to double our commitment to our Cultivate Next venture fund is a clear indicator that we are investing in the right companies that we can learn from and utilize to improve the human experience of our restaurant teams, farmers, and suppliers,” said Curt Garner, Chief Customer and Technology Officer, Chipotle. Garner continues:

“The parallel growth of Chipotle and our partners will continue to further our mission to Cultivate a Better World by increasing access to real food.”

Technologies in play

The significant investments in the fund include Hyphen. The Hyphen robot represents a joint venture between Chipotle and Hyphen, aiming to revolutionize how Chipotle prepares its bowls and salads. These menu items, which form a large chunk of Chipotle’s online orders, are assembled with the help of an automated system that accurately dispenses ingredients into dishes as they move along a lower conveyor belt.

This innovative approach is designed to boost order preparation speed and precision, freeing staff members to dedicate more time to customer interactions and other essential duties. Currently under evaluation, this technological enhancement seeks to refine Chipotle’s digital service capabilities and elevate the overall dining experience for its customers.

Another fund component is an investment in GreenField Robotics, which is revolutionizing farming practices with its innovative approach to regenerative agriculture. The company leverages artificial intelligence, robotics, and sophisticated sensors, to deploy autonomous robots that manage weeds in crop fields without harmful chemicals.

These robots are designed to operate day and night, navigating between rows of crops to target and remove weeds precisely, thus significantly reducing the reliance on traditional herbicides. This method supports the health of the soil and the ecosystem and presents a sustainable and cost-effective alternative to conventional farming methods.

Nitricity is another component of the innovation investment. Nitricity is a company that produces nitrogen fertilizers through a sustainable and innovative process. This process involves creating “artificial lightning” to break down nitrogen from the air, which is then combined with rainwater to form nitrate, a natural fertilizer. This method is inspired by the natural process where lightning breaks atmospheric nitrogen into nitrates that nourish the soil.

Nitricity’s approach aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with traditional nitrogen fertilizer production methods, such as the Haber-Bosch process, which is energy-intensive and relies heavily on fossil fuels. The investment aligns with Chipotle’s sustainability goals and commitment to enhancing food integrity throughout its supply chain.

By incorporating Nitricity’s climate-smart fertilizer into its agricultural practices, Chipotle aims to support more sustainable and environmentally friendly farming practices.

The Meati Foods investment enhances Chipotle’s menu with sustainable plant-based protein options that are aligned with its Food with Integrity standards. Using a fermentation-based process, Meati develops alternative proteins derived from mushroom roots, specifically mycelium. This method results in products that mimic chicken and steak in texture, flavor, high protein, high fiber, and no cholesterol.

Cultivated indoors, Meati Foods ensures its products are grown clean and free from common agricultural contaminants. Through the “Eat Meati” brand, the company is committed to offering nutritious, whole-food options that are environmentally friendly.

Zero Acre Farms is a food company focused on healthy, sustainable oils and fats that is on a mission to end the food industry’s dependence on vegetable oils. The company has introduced a new category of healthy oils and fats made by fermentation that are more environmentally friendly. Chipotle is in the early trials of testing Zero Acre Farms at its Cultivate Center test kitchen in Irvine, California.

Industry Players Invest in Fast Food’s Future

Several other fast-food companies invest significantly in food innovations, leveraging technology to address global challenges such as food security, affordability, and safety. These companies are exploring various technologies, including artificial intelligence, robotics, sustainable packaging, plant-based alternatives, and blockchain for supply chain transparency.

Here’s a list of notable players alongside Chipotle that are actively investing in the future of food:

  • McDonald’s is incorporating AI learning into its operations, making strides in the alternative packaging space, providing plant-based options, and investing in improved supply chain technologies—all ways that they are investing in and prioritizing health and sustainability.
  • KFC is experimenting with 3D bioprinting technology to create lab-grown chicken nuggets to offer more sustainable and ethical meat options.
  • Domino’s Pizza uses drones and autonomous vehicles to reduce delivery times and costs.
  • Burger King focuses on sustainability through initiatives like reducing greenhouse gas emissions and offering plant-based burger options like the Impossible Whopper, made from soy leghemoglobin, the same ingredient in the Impossible Burger, to cater to a broader range of dietary preferences.
  • Starbucks invests in sustainable practices, including efforts to reduce waste and water use. It is also exploring plant-based menu items to provide more environmentally friendly and healthier options.
  • Wendy’s utilizes food safety and quality assurance technology, implementing advanced tracking and monitoring systems in its supply chain.
  • Taco Bell is innovating its menu to include vegetarian and low-impact food options, aiming to make the fast-food industry more inclusive and sustainable.

Impact of Innovations on Food System

Why should we care about the investments these companies are making? The impact spreads far beyond the decision of “what’s for lunch today” and will untimely touch our children’s and their children’s lives.

Food Security: Innovations, especially in plant-based proteins and lab-grown meats, can significantly contribute to food security by providing alternative sources of nutrition, ensuring a stable food supply in the face of growing global demand and environmental challenges.

Affordability: Automation and AI in food preparation and delivery can lower operational costs, potentially making food more affordable for consumers. These companies can offer competitive pricing while maintaining quality by optimizing supply chains and reducing waste through better inventory management.

Safety: Technological advancements such as blockchain for transparent supply chains and AI for monitoring food quality can enhance food safety. These technologies allow for better tracking of ingredients from farm to table, ensuring that food meets health standards and reducing the risk of contamination and foodborne illnesses.

Answering a Call-to-Action by Consumers

These investments also answer a call from consumers, who, in recent years, have put the majority of the onus on food companies to lead the way for positive change. Today’s consumers are increasingly conscious of their food choices’ health, environmental, and social impacts. This heightened awareness drives demand for healthier, more sustainable, affordable food options. Consequently, consumers rely on food companies to make significant investments and changes to meet these expectations.

Consumers are seeking convenient, nutritious options tailored to various dietary needs, such as low-calorie, low-fat, plant-based, and allergen-free options. They expect food companies to innovate to reduce the use of artificial ingredients, preservatives, and high sugars and fats without compromising taste or affordability.

There’s also a growing demand for food produced in an environmentally friendly and ethically responsible manner. Consumers are looking for companies that invest in sustainable agriculture practices, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, minimize water usage, and ensure animal welfare. They are also increasingly interested in local sourcing and reducing food miles. Moreover, sustainable packaging solutions to reduce plastic waste are critical to consumer choices.

While consumers strongly desire healthier and more sustainable food options, they also demand affordability. The challenge for food companies is to balance the cost of implementing innovative and sustainable practices with the need to keep prices accessible to a broad audience. This requires efficient production and distribution practices and, sometimes, rethinking entire supply chains to maintain competitive pricing.

To build and maintain consumer trust, food companies must be transparent about their practices, including sourcing, ingredient lists, nutritional information, and environmental impacts. Technology, such as blockchain, often facilitates this transparency by tracing the journey of food from farm to table, assuring consumers of the quality and safety of their food.

In response to these consumer expectations, food companies increasingly invest in research and development to create new products that meet these criteria. Companies like Chipotle are adopting innovative technologies to improve food production efficiency, exploring alternative ingredients to make their products healthier and more sustainable, and reevaluating their supply chains to increase transparency and reduce environmental impact.

These investments are not only a response to consumer demand but also an acknowledgment of food companies’ role in addressing global challenges like climate change, health issues, and food security. By aligning their strategies with consumer expectations, food companies can ensure long-term viability and contribute to a more sustainable and healthy food system.

Why are foods with sugar & fat so irresistible?

You know those moments when you’re faced with a gooey chocolate chip cookie or a crispy slice of bacon, and it feels like your brain is staging a full-blown rebellion against your dieting efforts? Well, it turns out there’s some fascinating science behind why these irresistible foods have a hypnotic hold over us.

Picture your brain as a bustling city with a network of roads. Now, imagine the flow of traffic on these roads is the signals sent by your gut, specifically, the vagus nerve. This nerve is like the messenger between your tummy and your brain, and its job is to tell your brain what’s going on in your belly.

For the longest time, scientists were like detectives trying to crack the case of why we’re so drawn to unhealthy foods. They were on a mission to discover the secret behind our food cravings. But the real puzzle was this: why do our brains go crazy over fats and sugars, especially when they team up in delightful duos like donuts or cookies?

What does new research reveal?

In the February 2024 issue of the Monell Chemical Senses Center‘s Cell Metabolism Journal, a team of scientists unraveled this culinary enigma. They discovered that it all starts in our gut, not in our taste buds.

You see, there are dedicated pathways in our vagus nerve for various things, including a pathway for fats and another for sugars, that act like separate lanes on that culinary highway we talked about. When you munch on something fatty, the fat pathway lights up like a neon sign in Las Vegas, and when you indulge in something sweet, the sugar pathway does a little happy dance.

Now, here’s where it gets even more interesting. Imagine these pathways as two separate party invitations: one for fats and another for sugars. When you’re at a party, you’re having fun, right? Well, our brain is no different. It enjoys these food parties, too. But here’s the kicker – when you combine fats and sugars, it’s like sending out a double invitation to the brain’s ultimate party central.

These two pathways join forces, and your brain responds with a surge of dopamine, the pleasure chemical, making you want more of that irresistible combo.

So, what does all of this mean for your eating habits? Well, your brain can be secretly wired to seek out these high-fat, high-sugar combos, even when you’re consciously trying stay away from these foods.

 

It’s like your gut has a sneaky food agenda, and it’s operating undercover.

But don’t despair! There’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon. The scientists behind this discovery believe that understanding this gut-brain connection could lead to some pretty cool strategies and treatments. By tinkering with these pathways, we might have a shot at making healthier food choices, even in the face of those devilishly tempting treats.

So, the next time you find yourself eyeing that mouthwatering chocolate cake, remember: it’s not just about will power; it’s a brain party happening on a microscopic level. And while the battle between your taste buds and your brain rages on, science is on the case, working to help you make healthier choices without sacrificing all the delicious fun.

Issues with overindulging

Overindulging in foods rich in sugar and unhealthy fats can have serious health consequences. One of the most immediate risks is weight gain, as these foods are often calorie-dense.

Weight gain can contribute to obesity, a significant risk factor for various health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.

Liver health can be compromised by high sugar intake, particularly fructose found in common sweeteners like table sugar and high fructose corn syrup. This can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which may progress to more severe liver problems.

Mental health can also be impacted, as sugar and fat-rich diets can cause mood swings, irritability, and even symptoms of depression.

Inflammation is another concern associated with these diets, contributing to conditions like arthritis, autoimmune diseases, and a heightened risk of certain cancers.

Dental health is affected by excess sugar consumption, as it provides a breeding ground for bacteria in the mouth that produce acids, leading to tooth decay and gum disease.

Additionally, excessive sugar intake can disrupt the balance of gut bacteria, potentially leading to digestive problems.

Tips to combat The Urge

While the scientific discoveries about our brain’s response to fats and sugars are fascinating, you don’t have to surrender to your cravings. Here are some practical tips to help you combat the effects of these food temptations:

Be Mindful of Portions

  • Instead of completely avoiding your favorite treats, practice portion control. Enjoy a small piece of that chocolate or a single bite of your favorite high-fat snack. Savor the flavor without going overboard.

Diversify Your Diet

  • Make sure your meals are balanced and include a variety of foods. Incorporate plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats into your daily meals. This can help reduce the intensity of your cravings for high-fat, high-sugar items.

Stay Hydrated

  • Sometimes, thirst can be mistaken for hunger. Before reaching for that sugary or fatty snack, have a glass of water. Staying hydrated can help reduce cravings.

Plan Your Indulgences

  • Designate specific times or days when you’ll allow yourself to enjoy your favorite treats. Knowing that you have a treat coming up can make it easier to resist spontaneous cravings.

Keep Temptations Out of Sight

  • If you have a weakness for certain foods, try not to keep them readily accessible at home or in your workspace. Out of sight, out of mind!

Get Moving

  • Exercise can boost your mood and reduce cravings. So, when you’re hit with a craving, take a brisk walk or do a quick workout to distract your mind.

Mindful Eating

  • Pay attention to what you’re eating and savor every bite. Eating mindfully can help you enjoy your meals more fully and prevent overindulgence.

Healthy Alternatives

  • Seek out healthier alternatives to satisfy your cravings. For example, if you’re craving something sweet, opt for fresh fruit or a small piece of dark chocolate. If you’re craving something savory, try air-popped popcorn instead of chips.

Seek Support

  • If you find it challenging to control your cravings, consider seeking support from a registered dietitian, therapist, or support group. They can provide strategies and encouragement tailored to your specific needs.

Remember, you’re not alone in facing these cravings, and it’s entirely possible to make healthier choices without depriving yourself completely. By incorporating these tips and staying mindful of your eating habits, you can combat the effects of the brain’s love for fats and sugars while still enjoying the pleasures of good food. It’s all about finding that tasty balance!

Could Ozempic Ignite Food’s Healthier Future?

Today, the weight loss drugs highlight a consumer movement against processed and ultra-processed foods. These foods have added ingredients such as sugar, salt, unhealthy fats, and artificial colors that provide no nutritional value…except great taste.

Eaten as an indulgence, they are not terrible. But, unfortunately, many people indulge in these treats as a dietary staple.

The Search for Nutrition

Consumers today are looking for nutritious foods. Foods that not only treat existing diseases but prevent ones from appearing. Foods that help you manage your health and help you age gracefully, with ‘food as medicine’  the sought-after goal.

Innova Market Insights identified nutritional value and balanced nutrition, along with naturalness are important for consumers.

Ingredients containing protein, Omega-3, fiber, vitamins, prebiotics, probiotics, and even esoteric mushrooms such as ashwagandha and lion’s mane are high in demand. Mintel also identified a changing attitude toward extending life in good health.

How GLP-1 Drugs Affect Our Diet

Further fueling demand for a healthier, more nutritious diet are among those taking a new class of prescription drugs: GLP-1 agonists. These medications, like Ozempic and Wegovy, help lower blood sugar levels and promote weight loss.

Morgan Stanley’s research survey of 300 patients taking a GLP-1 agonist found that these drugs reduced their daily appetite by 20-30 percent. They lost their appetite for candy, sugary drinks, and baked goods, creating room for adding healthy foods to their diet.

Especially as those on the GLP-1 drugs are not that hungry and might not meet the full 2,000-calorie minimal daily requirement, it is essential that what they do eat in a day provides their full complement of minerals and vitamins.

As the obesity epidemic continues to rise, so will the associated health issues such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and fatty liver disease.

Today, about 69 percent, or 178 million adults, are either overweight or obese. Adult obesity is at 42.4 percent and is expected to climb to 50 percent in just six years.

GLP-1 drugs seem to hold the answer to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Morgan Stanley estimated that 7 percent of the U.S. population will be take GLP-1 medications by 2035. This equates to a potential $44 billion market by 2030.

Will Food Sales Decline? 

Grocers and consumer products companies worry about the future if more and more people are cutting 20-30% of their calories out of their diet.

In the fall of 2023, Walmart announced that it had seen a slight drop in food demand due to appetite-suppressing medications. It might be too soon to tell given that there is such a small percentage of the population on these weight loss programs, but as the numbers increase, how will CPG companies prepare?

However, CPG companies and grocers can benefit from this trend; consumers don’t have to be hurt by purchasing less food. Of course, if everyone ate more fruits and vegetables and fewer cookies, then obesity would not be an issue.

At D2D, we have written about changing one’s diet, but it is hard. What you eat is what you crave. Can anything be done to meet our nutritional needs while sating our  tastebuds?

How about a Healthy Oreo?

There are over 14 unique Oreos to choose from, with ‘Double Stuff’ being our favorite, mostly because it is reminiscent of our childhood.

But sadly, there is no benefit to eating these every day. Despite their great taste, they have no nutritional value, 12 grams of sugar, and 150 calories for just two cookies. They would be considered an indulgence and not a ‘food’.

What if the Oreo had the same basic ingredients but with added health benefits?

What if the creamy filling included Omega 3s for heart health, and fiber in the cookie for lowering cholesterol, aiding gut health, and reducing the risk of heart disease? Some vitamins like D3 could be added as an extra immune benefit. Instead of sugar, there could be stevia to keep the taste.

The mouthfeel and taste that any saturated fat provides could be replaced by an alternative fat from a plant oil called Epogee.

To be fair, in 2021, Mondelez did try to launch the Oreo Zero in China. Instead of sugar, they used sucrose and glucose, which gave a different taste from the original Oreo. They chose China because those consumers like less sugar in their snacks. Needless to say, it was not a success. Some of you readers might remember the backlash against the ‘New Coke’ in 1985. A change in the 99-year formula was a complete flop because Coca-Cola lovers liked the ‘Real Thing’.

How can CPG Companies Benefit? 

But are CPG companies ready to make such big changes? Already, many are starting to address their concerns about the potential for declining food consumption.

According to Food Dive, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have introduced small cans in response to consumers cutting back on sugar. Also, snack companies have created 100-calorie small snacks. Some have reduced salt and others have reformulated their products for added nutrition. But is it the right answer?

CPG companies have a range of opportunities to create healthier products. These changes can have meaningful impacts on consumer health.

How can the pharmaceutical industry influence the snack industry?

Healthier Product Formulations:

  • CPG companies can reformulate existing snacks to align with healthier profiles. For instance, reducing added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium content.
  • Whole grains, fiber, and protein can be added in to create more satisfying and nutritious snacks.
  • CPG companies can focus on nutrient-dense options that provide sustained energy.

Functional Ingredients:

  • Incorporating functional ingredients like prebiotics, probiotics, Omega-3, turmeric, and additional antioxidants can enhance the nutritional value of snacks.
  • GLP-1 users may want to seek snacks that support gut health and overall well-being.

Portion Control and Mindful Snacking:

  • Ozempic’s appetite-suppressing effects may encourage consumers to eat smaller portions.
  • CPG companies can develop snack packs with smaller, healthier portions, promoting mindful eating.
  • GLP-1’s impact on cravings could lead to decreased consumption of empty-calorie snacks (e.g., sugary treats).

Marketing Strategies:

  • Highlighting diabetes-friendly, weight-conscious, or blood sugar-friendly snacks can resonate with GLP-1 users.
  • Transparent labeling and clear health benefits can attract health-conscious consumers.

Collaboration with Healthcare Professionals:

  • CPG companies can collaborate with healthcare providers to educate consumers about healthier snack choices.
  • Ozempic users may appreciate guidance on suitable snacks to complement their treatment.

Are we what we eat? A Netflix film thinks so…

Netflix’s “You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment,” directed by the acclaimed Louie Psihoyos, presents a look at the effects of diet on health through the unique lens of an 8-week ‘controlled’ study by Stanford University. The documentary series, released in January 2024, unfolds the intriguing findings from an experiment involving 22 sets of genetically identical twins.

The overarching message of the series is that ‘meat is bad for you, and plants are good for you’, as is seemingly made evident by Dr. Christopher D. Gardner, Ph.D., the study’s author and principal investigator. However, a closer examination of the study uncovers limitations and concerns.

The study’s premise was straightforward: each twin was assigned a different diet—one vegan, one omnivore—both seemingly balanced and nutritious. Initially, the twins received pre-prepared meals to ensure dietary adherence, followed by a transition to self-prepared meals for practical application. Commentators then chime in to provide additional insights based on their expertise, including NYC Mayor Eric Adams, Senator Cory Booker, Dr. Michael Greger, and Marion Nestle.

Considering Overall Health

We agree that a diet rich in fresh produce and limited in red meat is certainly the way to go!

But before you jump into all vegan diet, consider some of the drawbacks and how to manage them.  This film entices you to become a vegan because the twin that eliminated meat showed significant outcomes: a 10% to 15% decrease in LDL cholesterol, a 25% reduction in insulin levels, and a 3% weight loss—all achieved through whole, plant-based foods without any animal products. Conversely, those on the omnivore diet showed no significant health benefits.

While the vegan group experienced positive changes in their LDL cholesterol (the bad one) and weight loss, they also had negative changes in HDL cholesterol (the good one) and triglycerides (bad fat).  High triglycerides may contribute to the hardening of the arteries or thickening of the artery wall, therefore, contributing to heart disease.

Furthermore, the oversight of potential risks associated with Vitamin B12 deficiency in the documentary is a significant concern. Vegetarians need to take a B12 supplement to make sure they have enough of this crucial nutrient for their overall health, particularly for the proper functioning of our nervous system and the production of red blood cells.

Additionally, the documentary‘s observation that the weight loss in the vegan group primarily consisted of muscle loss raises concerns about the impact of unbalanced weight loss strategies.

Losing muscle mass during weight loss is generally undesirable because muscle tissue plays a crucial role in metabolism, physical strength, and overall well-being.

Muscles help burn calories and support daily activities, and their loss can lead to a decrease in metabolic rate, making it harder to maintain a healthy weight.

Another noteworthy concern is its feasibility as a long-term diet. Most participants in this study reported lower dietary satisfaction with a vegan diet suggests that long-term adherence to such a diet may be challenging for many individuals. This aspect challenges the feasibility and practicality of adopting a vegan lifestyle for a substantial portion of the population.

If you’re interested in adopting a better way of eating that eschews the potential bias, the study’s limitations, potential deficiency risks, and the challenges associated with long-term dietary adherence, consider The Mediterranean Diet. This tried and true eating style has the most peer-reviewed research showing its positive effects towards living a long and healthful life.

And should you want your diet to factor in particular health concerns, consider researching epigenetics. This is the study of how your behaviors and your environment can cause changes in how your body reads your DNA.

Ideological Issues

There are plenty of healthy vegans, so that is not the issue.  It seems as though those affiliated with the documentary is using diet to make a political stance on meat.

This becomes evident when we consider the affiliations of Dr. Gardner one of the study authors, who is connected to Beyond Meat, a prominent producer of plant-based meat alternatives. While financial conflicts of interest were disclosed in the study, there is also a strong conviction in promoting a plant-based diet.

The film also focuses on animal welfare concerns associated with meat production but fails to address issues related to growing our food.  Every single bite we take has its own, including labor issues, pesticide concerns, and water usage, to name a few.

By solely emphasizing animal rights, the documentary neglects broader ethical and environmental considerations in our food system that span to crops and plant-based diet foodstuffs as well.  This documentary falls into the same category as so many others.

Not The First…and Certainly Not The Last

Consumers are often drawn to exciting and visually compelling documentaries about food, especially when they promise groundbreaking revelations about nutrition and health.

These documentaries can be engaging, emotionally charged, and persuasive, making them highly effective in shaping public opinion. However, it’s important for consumers to recognize that these films are often crafted with a specific agenda or perspective in mind and overlook some core components.

While documentaries can provide valuable insights into various aspects of our food system, they should not be the sole source of information when it comes to making important dietary decisions. Here’s why consumers should exercise caution and seek factual resources for nutrition information:

To make informed decisions about nutrition, consumers should seek out a variety of reputable, evidence-based resources. These can include peer-reviewed scientific journals, registered dietitians or nutritionists, government health agencies, and academic institutions specializing in nutrition and health research.

By consulting a range of sources and critically evaluating information, consumers can make dietary choices that are based on a well-rounded understanding of nutrition rather than being swayed solely by the excitement of a compelling documentary.

A Sea of Shadows: Uncovering Illegal Fishing Boats

Growing up in northern New England, we were spoiled with abundant fresh, local seafood. It wasn’t until I moved away that I realized how good I had it eating freshly caught fish. The United States imports 70-80% of its seafood, mostly from China, Thailand, Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Ecuador.   

My new reality was pulling out my phone at the seafood counter in my grocery store to find out where the catch originated. But with confusing adjectives, like “line caught,” “wild,” “farmed,” “no antibiotic-free,” “pole caught,” and “sustainable,”… I ended up just sticking with salmon farmed in Norway, where I knew the standard was high.

Turns out, I had every reason to be overly cautious. A study released in the January 2024 issue of Nature reports that 75% of global fishing vessels are untraceable. Research jointly conducted by Global Fishing Watch, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Duke University, UC Santa Barbara, and SkyTruth, gave concrete insights into this murky world of “dark vessels”. These stealthy ships roam the seas, plundering marine resources without a trace.

Understanding Dark Vessel Fishing

Dark vessel fishing ships operate well beyond the reach of regulation and oversight, hence the name ‘dark’.  Their impropriety threatens the delicate balance of marine ecosystems across the globe, not to mention posing a significant concern to global food security, economic stability, and the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on the ocean for sustenance.

The fishing industry has experienced a slowdown in recent years. Prolonged COVID shutdowns and overfishing in previous decades, as well as an increase in on-land and shore-based aquaculture operations, have contributed to decreased demand. Despite this, seafood remains a $250 billion market, with an estimated loss due to illegal fishing as high as $23.5 billion.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) activity continues to proliferate, prompted by an increasing demand for fish. As long as there are fish to capture, these stealthy ships will attempt to reap profits by exploiting fishing grounds beyond the reach of authorities.

IUU fishing vessels use a variety of tactics to evade detection, from turning off or manipulating their automatic identification system (AIS) transponders to operating in remote and poorly monitored ocean regions. The result is a cat-and-mouse game between authorities and illicit operators, with significant implications for marine biodiversity and the sustainability of global fisheries.

“A new industrial revolution has been emerging in our seas undetected—until now. On land, we have detailed maps of almost every road and building on the planet.

In contrast, growth in our ocean has been largely hidden from public view.”

 

          David Kroodsma, study author, Global Fishing Watch

Identifying Dark Vessels

The study, conducted by an international team of researchers, analyzed satellite data and harnessed the power of artificial intelligence to track the movements of dark vessel fishing boats to identify hotspots of illegal fishing activity and gain a deeper understanding of the factors driving these activities.

The study’s findings paint a troubling picture of the prevalence of dark vessel fishing across various regions of the world, even in marine protected areas like the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Their study also found more than 25 percent of transport and energy vessels are considered “dark.”

“Historically, vessel activity has been poorly documented, limiting our understanding of how the world’s largest public resource—the ocean—is being used.

By combining space technology with state-of-the-art machine learning, we mapped undisclosed industrial activity at sea on a scale never done before.”

 

          Fernando Paolo, study author, Global Fishing Watch

Collecting and analyzing the incomprehensible amount of data (2 thousand terabytes worth) needed to find this specific information was no small feat. Thankfully, these brilliant researchers mined disparate sets of public data to pinpoint exact locations of fishing vessels, both traceable and non-traceable.

They started with amassing satellite images of coastal waters worldwide from the European Space Agency from 2017 to 2021. They then created proprietary automated technology to identify which of those vessels were fishing boats. Next, the researchers compared images of the ships with public records disclosing their AIS location to determine which vessels did not broadcast their whereabouts.

Armed with this information, they create a “heat map” to show legal and illegal fishing activity across the globe:

Targeting Dark Vessel Locations

One of the key insights revealed by the research is the concentration of dark vessel fishing activity in some geographic regions.

Despite public AIS records indicating a somewhat distributed sprawl across most continents, these researchers prove that most illegal activity occurs in Asia.

The study identified several regions in Asia as the primary hotspots of IUU activity, notably Southeast and East Asia.

These regions are characterized by complex maritime disputes, porous borders, a vast array of fish species, and limited law enforcement presence to oversee farmed aquaculture practices, environmental protections, water toxicity, and many other factors.

“Publicly available data wrongly suggests that Asia and Europe have similar amounts of fishing within their borders, but our mapping reveals that Asia dominates — for every 10 fishing vessels we found on the water, seven were in Asia while only one was in Europe.

By revealing dark vessels, we have created the most comprehensive public picture of global industrial fishing available.”

 

Jennifer Raynor, study author, University of Wisconsin-Madison

This lethal combination creates fertile ground for dark vessel operators to carry out an unconscionable number of illicit activities, especially in specific hotbeds of IUU activity:

Korean Peninsula

In East Asia, the waters off the Korean Peninsula have become premier battlegrounds in the fight against IUU fishing, with crustaceans, shellfish, and finfish populating the waters.

Also of note, South Korea is the largest global consumer of seafood. Surprisingly, 65% of their seafood is imported, despite their seemingly abundant waters.

Bay of Bengal

Similarly, the Bay of Bengal off the coast of South Asia’s Bangladesh and Myanmar, has emerged as a hotspot of illegal fishing activity, where 100% of all fishing activity is not tracked.

And to make matters worse, some fishers off of these shores use poison to catch the area’s abundance of finfish and shrimp. This not only damages the health of those who consume the poisoned products, but it also endangers the largest mangrove forest ecosystem in the world.

Strengthening Global Cooperation & Enforcement Efforts

This study can serve as a loud and clear warning sign for all of us. Addressing the scourge of dark vessel fishing requires international cooperation, significant investment in monitoring and onsite enforcement, and promoting sustainable fishing practices are all essential components of a comprehensive strategy to combat IUU fishing.

Though daunting, this undertaking would help recover an estimated global economic loss due to illegal fishing as high as $23.5 billion annually. Not to mention the restoration of vulnerable coastal communities and local economies suffering from devastating poverty and food insecurity.

Furthermore, this methodology can be easily adapted to tackle other global issues, like climate change. Mapping all vessels can improve estimates of oceanic carbon emissions and track marine degradation.

“Previously, this type of satellite monitoring was only available to those who could pay for it. Now it is freely available to all nations.

This study marks the beginning of a new era in ocean management and transparency.”

 

          David Kroodsma, study author, Global Fishing Watch

Much can be learned from this team of researchers in terms of determination to source discreet data sets around the globe, innovative implementation of artificial intelligence, and cross-organization cooperation. If we follow suit, we can find new ways to shine a light on these activities and hold those responsible for their crimes.

What We Can Do Today

We can empower ourselves right away by realizing the trickle-down effect of our everyday purchase decisions. If we don’t buy fish products sourced from countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, and other areas of the world with rampant dark vessels, fewer IUU ships will bother fishing in less lucrative territories.

As for discrete locations, if you prefer wild-caught, stick with fish caught in the northern shores of Europe. For farmed, consider fish from reputable countries like Norway, Scotland, Canada, and Chile.

Organizations focused on sustainable seafood can provide practical, research-based recommendations, too. Seafood Watch creates helpful guides to better navigate our grocery aisles and stick to more sustainable species and acceptable countries of origin (here’s the Watch’s guide for shrimp). You can also keep an eye out for the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue “MSC” label to stick with sustainable fish species.

Still can’t find the country of origin for the fish you want? Ask someone, whether it’s the associate behind the seafood counter, customer service at the grocery store, or the waiter who must ask the chef. If many of us ask this question wherever we purchase seafood, more industry players will be compelled to start readily providing these details.

Food Security: A Critical Element of Global Conflict

Psychologists tell us we all have the same instinct. When threatened, our first instinct is to flee – just get away from the problem. Walk away from the bully. Leave the bar when the debate over the “greatest quarterback of all time” gets too heated.  Go to the other end of the table when that in-law starts on the all-too-familiar political rant at the family reunion dinner. (And in my family, just get out of town until the grand jury is no longer in session.)

And around the world, the issue is much more serious. For millions of people worldwide, the option has become more drastic —

Simply pack up everything you can carry and head for the border.

Recent migration trends

The United Nations in 2020 estimated there were 281 million emigrants worldwide, or roughly 3.6 percent of the entire global population. The flow of people occurs around the world – Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America – no area is immune.

In the United States, authorities last year admitted over 820,000 migrants, up from 797,800 in the previous year.  Border officials report the flow of all immigrants into the United States – euphemistically referred to as “encounters with authorities” — was more like 2.8 million, up from 2.7 million in 2022.

Immigration has been a key factor in U.S. growth and development, certainly. “Migrant stock” – meaning those living in the country now but born in another country – in 2015 was estimated at more than 46 million – or more than 14 percent of our entire population.

The United States added 1.6 million to our population last year, bringing us to 334.9 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Of that increase, more than two-thirds came from international migration. With a U.S. birth rate of just 12 births per 1,000 people, migrants drive our nation’s population growth.

Conflict ignites flight…or fight

The flood of people seeking to flee their home countries attracts widespread attention.

For instance, in 2023, 1.55 million people fled Sudan to nearby countries such as Ethiopia, Egypt and Chad because of a war between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces. Since the war began, over 6 million have fled Ukraine for parts of Europe. And so do a comparable flood of stories about armed conflict around the world. The two phenomena may have more in common than the headlines reveal.

Those same psychologists who explain our propensity for “flight” also point to another human characteristic – the “fight or flight” syndrome. What happens when it’s simply impossible to flee a bad situation? What happens when you simply can’t run to a new home, a new town, or a new country? And what are the reasons so many places around the world seem to have taken the “fight” option?

There are no easy answers to those questions.

The sheer scale of the problem is immediately daunting. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) currently follows more than 20 active global conflicts, spanning the entire globe, plus major lingering arenas of conflict in places like the Middle East, India and Pakistan, and large parts of Africa.

Some are long-standing territorial disputes, some the latest front in a continuing history of corruption and political instability.  The specific combination of contributing factors may vary from each situation to another. However, it is possible to see some of the broad categories of causes of open conflict. Think of the situation in just a few key areas:

Open and hidden aggression

As the long-running battle in Ukraine makes clear, sometimes conflict can be triggered by outside forces – one country or outside entity intent on seizing control, economic resources, or other perceived national interests. The aggression can be an open invasion, as in the case of Ukraine, or through continuing acts of terrorism designed to produce the same results.

Many regional conflicts are rooted in a continuing pattern of terroristic acts, with proxy agents providing a thin veneer of deniability among nations. This kind of aggression usually has been bubbling for generations and maintains perpetual full employment in diplomatic circles.

The vicious circle of poverty, food security & hunger-related disease  

When people can’t afford or are denied access to the nutritious food they need, their health suffers dramatically.  Poor, oppressed, starving people have nothing to lose by taking up arms, especially if flight is made dangerous or impossible. The “Arab Spring” of the 2010s sprung in part from the rising cost and increasing lack of food.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that levels of malnourished populations have been rising steadily since 2014 around the world, reaching 8.9 percent of the world’s population prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Between 2018 and 2019 alone, the number of hungry people expanded by 10 million.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the ranks of the global malnourished have increased by over 150 million since then.  If people will take up arms over a tank of gasoline, imagine what they will do to ensure food for their families.

The incidence of natural disasters

Floods, drought, high temperatures, hurricanes and typhoons, earthquakes – all destroy homes, communities, and lives. But some catastrophes can also fuel food insecurity or social unrest, destroying local agricultural productivity and the food supply chain.

Significant damage to the natural resource base can be a strong influence on the willingness of people to relocate – or to fight for those resources possessed by others. The conflict may be between nations, or within one, as the situation in Somalia has made clear. Civil war can be just as vicious as international conflict.

Breakdown in social order & institutions

Modern society is rooted in the presence of certain basic institutions and systems: efficient and effective government administration, a fair and impartial legal system, a stable financial system, some form of functioning, transparent market system to establish prices and value, and fundamental human services such as safe water, power and personal protection.

Criminality and especially criminal violence must be controlled. When any of those critical elements of society fail or are called into question, the foundation of social stability is threatened. When corruption and incompetence reach critical levels, strikes, street demonstrations, political resistance –and conflict – become increasingly appealing options – and the source of many civil wars plaguing nations on the CFR list.

Taking a closer look

Ask Venezuela for details, if you want – or any country plagued by government failure to protect its citizens and internal terrorist attacks. You can learn more about Venezuela’s conflict-ridden system below; Somalia and Gaza & West Bank are also listed to serve as tragic examples of designated conflict areas, too.

               

Can We Eat to Improve the Climate?

Growing, harvesting, processing, and transporting our food takes about 17% of all the fossil fuel used in the United States. With the ambitious goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, consumers are searching for foods that require fewer fossil fuels. Is this realistic?

Quantifying Energy Used for Food

We recently read How the World Really Works, the most recent book by Vaclav Smil, a distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. Smil has published 47 books and more than 500 papers on the research in energy environmental and population change, food production, history of technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy. Bill Gates considers him one of his favorite authors.

In his latest book, Professor Smil explored the improvements the world has made since the early 1800s. He explains “In two centuries the human labor to produce a kilogram of American wheat was reduced from 10 minutes to less than two seconds.” He also talks about the importance of fossil fuels and the world could not provide enough food to feed all of us without them.

Smil also delves into food production and its associated energy use. In fact, he had the patience to calculate how much energy it takes to make a loaf of sourdough bread, raise a chicken, grow a tomato, and eat seafood. He averaged out an itemized estimate using production numbers around the globe.

This sounds like a painstakingly long and detailed effort, with considerations for crop and livestock cultivation; facilities management; processing, production and packaging; and all distribution required along the way. But the results were interesting and surprising!

Bread’s Energy Journey 

Sourdough bread is a staple around the world.

The energy it takes to plant, grow, and harvest wheat is crucial in its production. After the wheat is harvested, it is trucked or goes by rail to the mill to be made into flour.

The initial stages of sourdough preparation require the activation and maintenance of the starter culture, which demands consistent temperature control.

Additionally, mixing, kneading, baking and the use of ovens and other kitchen appliances all contribute to energy consumption.

The energy required throughout this journey for a 2.2 pound loaf of sourdough bread is just about 8 ounces of diesel fuel.

Crude for Chickens

Raising chickens involves a fascinating blend of traditional agricultural practices and modern energy considerations.

To maximize production, it is critical to maintain a suitable environment for the birds. They must be fed the right mixture of grains, minerals, and vitamins.

The utilization of electricity for consistent temperature control, ventilation, and lighting, especially in large-scale operations, underscores the intrinsic relationship between energy usage and the well-being of the birds.

Once the chicken is fully grown the birds are transported to the processing facility which turns them into breasts, thighs, and other cuts for the grocery store.

The entire energy for 2.2 pounds of processed chicken is about 11 ounces of diesel.

Holy Tomato!

Tomatoes can require many factors and sources of energy, depending on whether they are grown indoors or out.

Photosynthesis uses the sun’s energy to grow tomatoes outdoors for over eight months. Yet for the 35% of global tomatoes grown indoors, the energy inputs are significantly more because of the substantial energy required to provide heat, light, and nutrients, not to mention the energy needed to make the greenhouse itself.

But even tomatoes grown outdoors require crude oil to make the plastic clips, wedges, sheets, and gutter arrangements for successfully growing a tomato crop.

The energy utilized in production encompasses diverse inputs, from solar energy and traditional machinery to electricity and embodied energy, making its energy calculation highly complex.

The answer for this beloved fruit is not simple, but Smil calculated that, growing 2.2 pounds of tomatoes uses about 21.9 fluid ounces of diesel fuel, on average.

Fuel for Farmed Salmon 

On average, the energy consumption for seafood production is relatively high.

It takes approximately 23.6 ounces of diesel per 2.2 pound serving, just slightly more than the energy needed for tomatoes.

For example, salmon, a popular seafood choice, is predominantly farmed, which involves significant energy expenditure for fish feed production, transportation to farms, and ultimately to consumers.

Unless sourced locally from specific regions like Chile, Norway, Scotland, or Western Canada, considerable energy is expended in the entire process from farm to table.

Of course, one can imagine the amount of fuel used to catch, freeze, and transport wild-caught fish. Professor Smil suggests that opting for sardines, which are rich in omega-3s and have lower environmental impacts, can be a more sustainable choice.

Is Energy Estimation Possible?

We were shocked when we found out that raising 2.2 pounds of chicken required just a third of the energy needed to cultivate the same weight of tomatoes. This proves that our food system is much more complicated than it appears.

We wrote about climate conscious eating and pointed out that it is not just about the energy used, we have to also consider water.  To grow just one ounce of nuts takes anywhere from 3.2 gallons to a whopping 28.7 gallons for almonds.

Farming takes multiple kinds of energy. Human energy – plain old hard work and effort.  Solar energy – sunlight for photosynthesis.  Wind – for pollination.  And just as important, fossil fuel energy, including diesel and gasoline for farm machinery, plant equipment, and transportation.

Used appropriately, energy increases productivity and distribution across our food system, therefore increasing profitability for farmers. Without that energy, the whole system collapses.

End of story, turn out the lights, dinner is over.

“Our food is partly made not just of oil, but also of coal that was used to produce the coke required for smelting the iron needed for field, transportation, and food processing machinery; of natural gas that serves as both feedstock and fuel for the synthesis of nitrogenous fertilizers; and of the electricity generated by the combustion of fossil fuels that is indispensable for crop processing, taking care of animals, and food and feed storage and preparation.”

– Prof. Vaclav Smil

The complexities of our food system are vast. As we push our cart through the grocery aisle, how do we really know whether the food we eat is farmed sustainably and uses energy and water responsibly? Are you curious?

  1. Would you pay more to know exactly how much energy and water was used to make the food you are eating?
  2. Would you like to see it on a label?
  3. Would it affect your food choice?

Can dairy & meat help fight cancer?

Dietary nutrients play a crucial role in providing your body with energy, building blocks, and regulatory molecules. How all these nutrients work together is not always clearly understood; however, this recent research from the University of Chicago and Emory University shows a nutrient found in meat can help your immune system fight cancer.

What is TVA?

TVA, or trans-vaccenic acid, is a long-chain fatty acid found in meat and dairy from grazing animals, like cows and sheep. Published in the journal Nature, the research focused on the impact of TVA on CD8+ T cells, a critical component of the immune system responsible for infiltrating tumors and destroying cancer cells.

The study found that higher levels of TVA in the blood correlated with a better response to immunotherapy treatments, suggesting TVA’s potential as a nutritional supplement in cancer therapy.

Dr. Jing Chen, the study’s senior author, emphasized the importance of understanding how nutrients and metabolites from food influence health and disease. Chen’s lab and postdoctoral fellows Hao Fan and Siyuan Xia assembled a library of 235 bioactive molecules derived from food and screened them for their ability to activate anti-tumor immunity in CD8+ T cells.

This is when researchers discovered something pretty interesting about the natural fat called TVA, found in beef, dairy, and even human breast milk. Notably, our bodies don’t make it, but when we consume it, most of it sticks around in our bloodstream. This fat seems to have a knack for switching off a specific part in our cells that is usually turned on by other fats we get from our diet. When TVA flips this switch, it sets off a chain reaction that helps our body cells grow and stay alive.

What’s really exciting is that when scientists gave mice a special diet with extra TVA, their tumors grew much slower, and their immune systems got better at invading and attacking these tumors. This could be great news for cancer treatments. In fact, in early tests with people who were getting advanced cancer therapy, those with more TVA in their blood seemed to respond better to the treatment.

This could mean that TVA might one day be used to help our immune system fight cancer more effectively, although there’s still a lot to learn.

What we do know is that this research could change the way we think about certain fats in our diets and their role in keeping us healthy.

Key Findings on TVA

Boosting Cancer Treatment with TVA:

  • People with higher levels of TVA in their blood responded better to a type of cancer treatment called immunotherapy, suggesting that TVA might be applicable in helping cancer treatments work better.

Activating Important Immune Cells:

  • The researchers looked at many different molecules from food to see which could help the immune system fight cancer. They found that TVA is good at activating a specific type of immune cell called CD8+ T cells. These cells are essential because they help hunt down and destroy cancer cells.

Reducing Tumor Growth in Mice:

  • In experiments with mice, the ones that ate food with more TVA had smaller and slower-growing tumors, especially for melanoma and colon cancer. This shows that TVA might help slow down or reduce the growth of some types of cancer.

How TVA Works at the Molecular Level:

  • The study used advanced scientific methods to figure out exactly how TVA works. They discovered that TVA turns off a certain receptor on the cell surface, which is usually activated by other types of fatty acids from the gut. By doing this, TVA starts a chain reaction in the cells that’s important for cell growth and survival.

Making Immune Cells More Effective:

  • TVA changes the way genes work in CD8+ T cells, making these cells better at getting into tumors and fighting them. In experiments, when this specific receptor was removed from these cells, they weren’t as good at fighting tumors anymore, which shows how important TVA’s role is.

Real-World Evidence from Cancer Patients:

  • When they looked at blood samples from people getting a type of cancer treatment called CAR-T therapy for lymphoma, they found that those with higher levels of TVA responded better to the treatment. Also, in lab tests, TVA helped make a cancer drug more effective at killing leukemia cells.

Sources of TVA

The findings from the University of Chicago study on TVA and its impact on the immune response to cancer offer intriguing insights into the complex relationship between diet and health. However, translating these findings into practical lifestyle and dietary changes requires careful consideration.

TVA has some potentially substantial health benefits, suggesting that specific components of these foods could have beneficial health properties, which challenges the blanket notion that all aspects of dairy and meat are detrimental to health.

Despite its potential benefits, it’s crucial to remember that the study does not endorse excessive consumption of red meat and dairy. Most dietary guidelines advocate for a balanced diet that includes a variety of food sources. If you’re considering increasing your intake of dairy and meat to incorporate more TVA, it should be done in moderation and as part of a balanced diet.

Applying These Findings

The study contributes in a meaningful way to the evolving understanding of meat and dairy in our diet. While overconsumption, particularly of processed meats and high-fat dairy products, has been linked to various health issues, this research indicates that certain components of meat and dairy can have meaningful health benefits. It underscores the need for a nuanced view of these food groups, focusing on quality, quantity, and the overall dietary pattern.

A well-rounded diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats is still the cornerstone of good nutrition. The potential benefits of one specific nutrient, like TVA, don’t negate the importance of a diversified diet. There are bioactive compounds in many fruits, vegetables, and legumes that are important for your health.

The study hints at the possibility of plant-derived fatty acids having similar beneficial effects. Those following a vegetarian or more plant-based diet might look into research on plant-based fatty acids and their impact on health—keeping in mind the bioavailability of fatty acids in plants vs. animal proteins.

And for those with specific health concerns, such as high cholesterol or heart disease, consulting with a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian before making significant dietary changes is advisable.

Digging In: Regenerative Ranching


Little Belt Cattle Company is a family-owned and operated working cattle ranch and premium beef company founded by two former special operations veterans, Greg Putnam and Tim Sheehy. Together, they have built a local sustainable supply chain of the highest quality grass-fed and grain-finished premium beef that is raised, finished, and processed in Montana.

Greg talks to us about the challenges and excitement of taking care of approximately 8,000 head of cattle. He speaks to the hard work and dedication of multi-generation ranches, as well as similarities between the military and cattle ranching.

How to live to 100…and beyond

The concept and research surrounding Blue Zones originated years ago from the work of Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and explorer, along with a team of demographers and researchers. The journey to identify and understand these unique areas began with a demographic and geographic study of regions with unusually high numbers of centenarians and low rates of chronic diseases.

Origins of these Demographic Studies

The concept can be traced back to the early 2000s when demographers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain identified a region in Sardinia, Italy with an unusually high number of people living to 100 and beyond, called centenarians. They marked these areas with blue ink on a map, which led to the term “Blue Zone.” Dan Buettner, in collaboration with National Geographic and with funding from the National Institute on Aging, took the concept further. He assembled a team of scientists and researchers identify other areas in the world with similar characteristics.

Through this extensive fieldwork, data analysis, and interviews, Buettner and his team identified additional regions that met their criteria for longevity hotspots. These included Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Ikaria, Greece in addition to the initial region in Sardinia. The team focused on areas with high longevity rates, low incidence of heart disease and other chronic illnesses, and a high proportion of healthy elderly individuals.

Buettner’s work and the concept of Blue Zones were popularized through a National Geographic cover story in 2005 titled “Secrets of a Long Life.” He went on to author several books on the topic, including “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest,” where he detailed the lifestyles, diets, and practices of people living in these zones.

As you can imagine given this intriguing research, Blue Zones sparked a significant interest in longevity studies. Buettner and his team continued their work, turning the focus towards applying the lessons from Blue Zones to communities and cities around the world.

Key Contributions and Impact

The research in the documentary highlighted the importance of lifestyle factors, such as diet, physical activity, social engagement, and stress management, in promoting longevity and reducing the risk of chronic diseases. Buettner and his organization have worked on initiatives to help transform cities and communities in the United States, applying principles from the Blue Zones to improve public health and wellness.

The research on Blue Zones represents a groundbreaking approach to understanding longevity, emphasizing the role of environmental and lifestyle factors in shaping health outcomes. As we often write and research about here at Dirt to Dinner, it is about both mind and body health.

How can I live to be a Centenarian?

These centenarians didn’t just start these habits at age 80, this lifestyle has been an integral part of their entire life. Improving our health now in all these aspects of daily living will affect our health as we age.

Dietary Practices: Foundation of Health and Longevity

  • A diverse range of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, forms the bedrock of daily nutrition
  • Meat is consumed in significantly smaller quantities, often as a small side or a special occasion dish, rather than a daily staple
  • Emphasis is placed on eating foods that are local and seasonal, thus ensuring that meals are fresh and nutrient-rich
  • Concepts like “Hara Hachi Bu” in Okinawa, advocates for eating until one is 80% full, exemplify mindfulness in eating habits

Seamless Integration of Physical Activity

  • Unlike the structured exercise routines common in many cultures, physical activity in Blue Zones is seamlessly woven into daily life and includes walking, gardening, and performing household and occupational tasks that require physical exertion
  • These activities are adaptable and can be sustained throughout life, suitable for a wide range of ages and physical capabilities

Work-Life and Family Balance: A Harmonious Blend

  • There is a cultural disposition towards maintaining a healthy balance between work, family, and leisure, contributing to overall well-being
  • Strong familial ties and active participation in community life centers around multi-generational living and community-centric lifestyles
  • These cultures place a lower emphasis on work-related stress and prioritize leisure and rest, including practices like napping and socializing

Reduced Dependence on Technology and Digital Media

  • Populations in Blue Zone areas prefer real-world interactions
  • Residents talk to each other in person, thus fosters deeper personal connections and community involvement

The Vital Role of Social Networks and Community

  • Strong social ties, encompassing family, friends, and broader community networks provide both emotional support and practical assistance
  • Regular social events, be it communal meals, religious ceremonies, or local festivities, are central to maintaining and strengthening community bonds
  • The depth and quality of these social connections play a significant role in emotional well-being, fostering a sense of belonging, happiness, and security

How to Start Today

The examination of Blue Zones in the recent documentary offers profound insights into the symbiotic relationship between lifestyle, environment, diet, physical activity, and social connections in fostering longevity.

By understanding and integrating these principles, individuals, and communities worldwide can adopt practices that not only extend lifespan, but also significantly enhance the quality of life during those years.

Achieving this delicate balance can seem overwhelming and near impossible. Take it in chunks. Work on one or two things at a time.

  • Get your diet in a good place and work on adopting a Mediterranean-type diet.
  • Follow that up with good physical activity but allow yourself time for rest and recharging with loved ones.
  • Work-life balance in our modern culture is always a struggle, something that many of the Blue Zones don’t face to the same degree as those in metro areas, for example, or those who have demanding roles; just be cognizant of where you spend your mental energy.
  • Do you control your use of technology? Reduce your phone and social media use. Call up or visit with a friend or family member rather than texting them.  Even Instagram and Facebook are not really warm connection points. They take you out of the present, and can often cause unneeded stress.

Top Food Trends to Watch in 2024

Each year, consumer market intelligence platform Mintel reports on the trends in the food and drink industry for the year ahead. These trends are not only indicative of changing tastes but also reflect the growing importance of health, technological innovation, and sustainability in the industry.

Trend #1: Processed Food Transparency

In recent years, consumers have become more health-conscious and informed about the foods they consume. Here are some of the reasons why:

Consumer Awareness

High-quality productions on various streaming platforms, like The Blue Zone and You Are What You Eat, and popular, research-backed books like “Outlive” help to conveniently and effectively educate consumers on health.

Accessible media like these compel consumers to make healthy choices that limit the potential dangers of ultra-processed foods that contain additives, preservatives, and high levels of sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats.

Ingredient Scrutiny

Consumers are scrutinizing food labels for ingredients, looking for transparency and labels with fewer items. They want to understand what’s in their food and how it’s made.

For example, if a granola bar touts “three main ingredients: almonds, peanut butter and chia seeds,” they don’t want to then see a list of 20 additives on the back of the label.

Clean Label Movement

The trend aligns with the broader “clean label” movement, where consumers have a concern about processed foods and seek products with less than four artificial or unfamiliar ingredients, mimicking what they might use in their own kitchens.

Brand Considerations

Brands can respond by providing clear and transparent information about their products’ ingredients and processing methods, emphasizing aspects that enhance nutrition, reduce contaminants, or improve sustainability. They may also reformulate products to meet evolving consumer preferences. Consider this question:

How can food manufacturers and brands effectively communicate the level of processing in their products to consumers who are increasingly concerned about this aspect?

Trend #2: Climate Concerns, but Comfort Endures

Sustainability Expectations

Consumers are increasingly concerned about the environment and expect food and drink companies to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability. This includes reducing carbon footprints, using eco-friendly packaging, and supporting ethical sourcing practices.

But Comfort Remains Priority

Despite these sustainability concerns, consumers still prioritize comfort when it comes to food and drink. In times of crisis, people turn to familiar and comforting foods for solace.

Brand Considerations

Brands must strike a balance by creating products that are eco-friendly, satisfying, affordable, and convenient. This can include a variety of plant-based foods, locally sourced foods, whole grains and legumes that require less intensive growing inputs, or foods with sustainable packaging.

Also, brands that can provide clear, verified sustainability claims on their products are likely to gain favor with consumers who are becoming more discerning about greenwashing and false eco-friendly claims. Consider this question:

How much more are consumers willing to pay for sustainable, lesser-processed food products? Or does price sensitivity continue to dominate purchasing decisions?

Trend #3: Age, Reframed

Changing Attitudes

The trend reflects changing societal attitudes toward aging. In the past, aging was often stigmatized, and certain life stages, such as menopause, were considered taboo topics.

Healthy Aging

The concept of extending the period of life spent in good health, is becoming a priority. Consumers, particularly Generation X, are embracing a new approach to healthy aging. They seek ways to extend their healthy years, focusing on wellness and quality of life.

Brand Considerations

Brands can cater to this demographic by offering products and services that support healthy aging.

They also have an opportunity to educate and support consumers as they navigate different life stages, providing information and products on nutrition, exercise, mental health, and overall well-being.

Consider this question:

What innovative approaches can brands take to promote and support healthy aging, especially among Generation X, and what role does nutrition play in this endeavor?

Trend #4: Optimized Diets

Technology Integration

Technology is playing an increasingly integral role in the food and drink industry. Artificial intelligence, in particular, is transforming the way consumers plan meals, shop for groceries, and prepare food.

AI Meal Planning

AI-driven meal planning apps can generate recipes based on dietary preferences, available ingredients, and nutritional goals. This simplifies the meal planning process for consumers.

Efficiency and Convenience

Emerging tech solutions, such as automated shopping lists and personalized alerts, are making meal preparation more efficient. Consumers are adopting these technologies to streamline their daily routines. An example here?

Retailer Engagement

Retailers are engaging consumers with real-time shopping assistance through AI-driven push notifications, helping shoppers find products and ingredients while in stores or online.

Brand Considerations

They are utilizing AI to analyze consumer feedback and data to inspire the development of new products. AI can identify trends and preferences, leading to the creation of innovative and convenient food and drink items. Consider these questions:

In the era of optimized eating, what emerging technologies and applications are poised to revolutionize meal planning, shopping, and cooking, and how can consumers leverage these tools effectively?

And what role will data-driven insights and analytics play in helping businesses stay ahead of these trends, adapt to changing consumer preferences, and make informed decisions?

Charting a Flavorful Path Forward

As we embark on this dynamic journey into the year ahead, let us savor the excitement of culinary innovation and the potential for a more conscious, convenient, and delicious dining experience.

These trends are not mere predictions; they are guideposts for a future where our plates are filled with flavors that are not only tantalizing but also aligned with our evolving values and aspirations.

Here are some of the larger, interrelated questions that keeps us at Dirt to Dinner up at night that we are eager to explore further as 2024 unfurls:

  • Are there any regulatory changes or policies on the horizon that might impact the food and drink industry in North America in 2024, especially in relation to sustainability and labeling?
  • Are there specific sectors within food and drink that are expected to experience more pronounced shifts due to these trends, and how can businesses in those sectors prepare for these changes?
  • Which brands are successfully implementing these trends into their products, and what lessons can we learn learn from them?

These questions represent critical aspects of the evolving food and drink landscape that we plan on keeping a close eye on here at Dirt to Dinner. Addressing them will be essential for industry players, policymakers, and consumers as they navigate the culinary journey in 2024 and beyond. Brands that can navigate these trends effectively are likely to connect with consumers and stay competitive in the evolving North American market.

What questions are we missing here? Send your comments and queries to: connect@dirt-to-dinner.com

Ag Scorecard Sets Stage for Lively 2024

Dirt to Dinner took a look at just a few of the major issues and events of the past year. We’re exploring not only what happened in food & ag across the globe, but also those who gained and those who suffered from these events. Ultimately, why we all should care about our ever-evolving food system.

Without further ado, here are the top food & ag issues we faced in 2023:

Global Food Scorecard

The Farm Bill, a comprehensive package of legislation governs food production, rural economic support, and supplemental nutrition, creates the blueprint for our national food system. It was slated for review in 2023, but passage was detrimentally delayed due to inter-party disagreements on multiple fronts, mostly related to spending levels. Action has been promised for the neglected Farm Bill in 2024.

Despite continuing conflict, the Ukraine war remains a critical component of our global food system and a major source of foodstuffs for the Middle East, Africa, parts of Europe and other destinations. But armed conflicts around the world continue to threaten disruptions to the global flow of commodities and food. Conflicts around the globe continue to expand, with little reason to expect a clear resolution anytime soon. Ukrainian farmers have shown a remarkable resiliency and capacity to maintain both the production and trade important to our global food system.

Drought & natural disasters in the western United States and other parts of the world compromised crop levels, often significantly. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted a record 28 major weather events in the United States alone, causing $93 billion in damage. The year began with over 46 percent of the contiguous U.S. officially in drought. Hot, dry conditions in key global production areas cut stocks of wheat and other crops, with significant price gyrations.

A virulent strain of avian flu spreads rapidly and causes high death rates among many forms of poultry. The outbreak that began in 2022 continued into 2023, leading to losses in chicken, turkey and other poultry flocks estimated at 21.5 million birds. That’s down from almost 57 million in 2022, but more than enough to send price shock waves across grocery shelves almost everywhere. Research continues on the threat to human health posed by this virus, with the Centers for Disease Control advising us to watch for flu-like symptoms nonetheless.

Labor shortages plague all segments of our food chain. Reports of rising concern about a serious lack of willing labor recurred throughout 2023, as farmers, suppliers, food manufacturers, retailers and even food-service providers faced sometimes serious staff shortages. Part of the problem: increasing reluctance to do field work when other less-physically demanding opportunities were available, and immigration remains a political hot potato.

Regarding inflationary pressures, consumers say enough is enough. Food price increases have cooled a bit – dropping to a mere 5.8 percent, from 2022 levels around 10 percent and 2023 peak of 10.1 percent. But consumers have shown increasing cost-consciousness that pressures food manufacturers to seek cost-control improvements.

The pipeline from dirt to dinner is getting back to normal, but there’s more to be done. COVID triggered massive disruption across the global food chain, and efforts to realign the chain to reflect a return to more normal environment continued across 2023. The transportation element of the chain remains particualry vulnerable, as volatile energy prices, development of new biofuels, changes in technology continue to roil the entire food sector.

Sustainability Scorecard

The sheer scale of the problem makes it tough to achieve the kind of progress we would like to see with food waste reduction. Efforts to reduce food waste across the entire food chain marked some notable anecdotal progress in 2023, but it remains difficult to assess the degree of progress toward ambitious targets set by various companies and governmental agencies. The big lesson from 2023: cutting the estimated 30-40 percent of food wasted across the modern food chain is an on-going effort, not a program or campaign.

Renewable energy sources like biofuels and clean energy made significant headway in 2023. Ethanol remained the Big Dog in U.S. production of biofuels, but renewable diesel and other products showed noteworthy increases in production capacity in 2023. Biofuels for aviation uses helped drive growth in the sustainable aviation fuel market to an estimated $1.1 billion in 2023 – and a projected $16.8 billion by 2030.

Practical consumer considerations slow environmental aspirations demanding green packaging. Prior to COVID, the widespread focus on environmental protection embraced the idea of “green packaging” – packaging made in an environmentally responsible manner, often from renewable materials. In 2023, support for the concept remained significant – as high as 39 percent by one report. But market analysis during the year showed a significant shift in purchasing priorities, with practical matters such as price and convenience eclipsing environmental ambitions.

The continued evolution in carbon pricing still complicates the carbon market development. As debate on climate change continued to swirl in 2023, more and more articles sought to explain the importance of carbon markets as an essential tool in combatting greenhouse gas emissions. Such markets establish the price of carbon, enabling carbon producers to purchase carbon credits from those capable of reducing, capturing or avoiding carbon dioxide. Monetizing carbon is supposed to help fund efforts to improve carbon control – in industry, and on the farm. Carbon pricing remains a complex and controversial approach to environmental protection – and an unavoidable issue for continuing debate in 2024.

Nutrition Scorecard

The role of technology in personal nutrition, such as apps for diet tracking, personalized nutrition based on genetic testing, and AI in designing diet plans grew by tremendous leaps and bounds in 2023. Winners in this arena include tech companies, as well as consumers benefiting from personalized nutrition and diet planning. Companies in the health industry and consumers wary of AI for its access to personalized information miss the opportunity for developing tailored dietary approaches to individual needs.

The impact of climate change on nutrition also took the spotlight in 2023. Several studies explored how climate change affects the nutritional content of food, with rising CO2 levels potentially lowering protein, mineral, and vitamin contents in crops. Companies developing solutions to maintain or improve the nutritional quality of crops are keeping us ahead of the game, which is especially important for those populations in regions where food’s nutritional quality is most affected, leading to increased risk of nutritional deficiencies.

Complications emerged in the further development of alternative protein products as an environmentally-responsible food choice. After several years of eager anticipation and enthusiasm for alternative meats, the industry in 2023 faced up to the realities of developing and winning widespread acceptance of a new and novel food product. Some ambitious enterprises fell by the economic wayside, as recognized leaders in the field continued to work on bringing prices in line with inflation – weary consumer willingness to pay – not to mention the rising costs of capital to entrepreneurial start-ups.

Demand for organic foods helped drive noteworthy growth in global organic foods, despite the headwinds of high food price inflation. The global organic food market approached an amazing $295 billion in 2023, up by more than $35 billion in one year alone, and $68 billion from 2021. Industry officials cite growing health-consciousness around the world as the driving factor behind such growth.

Transcript: Digging into Biofuels


Transcript from January 11, 2024 podcast

Lucy Stitzer:

Welcome back to Dirt to Dinner’s Digging In podcast.

This is Lucy Stitzer and today we’re digging into renewable fuels and the Biden Climate Initiative, which aims to be carbon neutral by 2050. This includes all petroleum that fuels motor vehicles. The standard is to replace the billions of gallons of fuel the United States uses each year with bio with biofuels. Currently, the US uses about 35 billion gallons of ethanol biodiesel, renewable diesel and in limited form sustainable aviation fuel.

Today’s guest is Colin Murphy who is the Deputy Director at the Policy Institute for Energy Environment and the economy at the University of California Davis. In this podcast, he explains the importance of biofuels and how we are going to get to net zero by 2050. Welcome, Colin Murphy.

Colin Murphy:

I am the Deputy Director for the Policy Institute for Energy Environment and Economy at UC Davis and I also co-lead the Low Carbon Fuel Policy Research Initiative. We’re big fans of excessively long wordy titles here at UC Davis, and really what that means, most of my job for the last several years has been to lead our research and engagement efforts around fuel policy.

The main thing we work on is the Low Carbon Fuel standard, which is a policy that was first adopted by California and British Columbia in 2010. Oregon implemented their own in 2016, Washington did theirs last year. So it’s a policy structure that has been very effective in the places that have had it at reducing the amount of petroleum that we consume for transportation. It’s seen as one of the gold-standard fuel policies out there. Certainly not the kind of thing where you’d want it to be the only policy you’re using a transportation, it needs to work with things like electric vehicle policies and policies to switch to renewable electricity and sort of a broad economy-wide portfolio.

But it’s an important part of that portfolio. And so we do research on it. We publish papers like any other academic, but we also spend a lot of our time working with regulators and other policymakers to help understand the topic and help guide them as they make decisions about how they want their jurisdiction to do this. So we have interest from a number of states all over the country who are thinking about, or at some step in the process of adopting a low carbon fuel standard as well as a number of other countries.

Canada just adopted essentially a low carbon fuel standard at the federal level in addition to the one in British Columbia. Brazil has one. It’s limited to liquid fuels only, but they have a very similar policy as well, and a number of other nations are considering it. So yeah, my life for most of the last 10 years has really been largely focused on low carbon fuel standards. But we’re also, we do work on the federal renewable fuel standard, which is a different kind of policy doing increasing amount of work in Europe where they have their own approach to decarbonizing fuels. And we’re really just trying to think about that and make sure we have policy that’s informed by the best science we can.

Lucy Stitzer:

So you’ve been a consultant for the renewable fuel standard for the national one for our country as well as Europe, and then you’re helping Canada and then a variety of different states who are trying to implement their own standards as well?

Colin Murphy:

Yeah, yeah. Not really a consultant so much. We’re an academic research group, so our mission is public benefit and to help also train people. We have grad students coming through and working with us. But yeah, we do research and policy engagement, working with policy makers to help them make good decisions at a wide variety of jurisdictions, mostly in California because it’s obviously where we are and university, it’s California, but we work with jurisdictions all over the world.

Lucy Stitzer:

Well, that’s pretty exciting.

Colin Murphy:

It certainly doesn’t give me a lot of opportunities to be bored.

Lucy Stitzer:

No, I would think not. Well, let’s just talk about the renewable fuel standard and just talk about the United States as a whole in the 2050 green energy, I guess, mandate by Biden indicated that we needed carbon-free electricity by 2035 and carbon free overall by 2050. And so I’m curious about what part biofuels will play in this, and when we think about fuel, I just want to clarify that when I think of fuel, I think we’re talking mostly about cars, trucks, airplanes, and not necessarily to go back on the grid. I think that’s a different subject, but we could certainly talk about what goes back on the grid. But just as far as most of this conversation goes is mostly about, I’ll call it motor fuel, and the UX today uses, yeah, vehicles uses about, I’m thinking, yeah, 135 billion gallons of fuel. And the renewable fuel today is about 37 billion gallons. So am I correct in thinking that there’s just a huge ramp up for the next 25 or so years and to do that?

Colin Murphy:

So there’s definitely going to need to be a huge ramp up, but for most vehicles, so most of that fuel that the US uses is used to fuel on-road vehicles, cars, trucks, buses, stuff like that. And most of it, about 50 or 60%, I’d have to go back and look at the numbers to be sure, is light duty vehicles, passenger cars, cars, trucks, SUVs, things like that.

For the light duty vehicles, battery electric vehicles are almost certainly going to be the main technology that we are using in a world where we have successfully reduced emissions. They have the best combination of low cost, high performance flexibility and everything you need to do that. Very large parts of the medium heavy duty vehicle sector, so these are commercial vehicles, trucks, vans, buses, stuff like that. Most of them can also go onto batteries as well. And in most cases, batteries, because they’re much more efficient at converting energy into motion than an internal combustion engine.

And because they don’t have as many moving parts of an internal combustion engine, their operational costs are a lot lower. So in most cases, it’s actually cheaper. Even today for some vehicle classes, it’s actually cheaper to own and operate an electric vehicle over its full lifespan than it’s internal combustion engine. And batteries are still going to keep getting cheaper over the next 10 years. So most of that 135 billion gallons of fuel is going to be replaced by electricity.

And so we definitely do not have to figure out where we’re going to get 135 billion gallons a year of liquid fuel, which is great because we don’t have the slightest clue where we get 135 billion gallons a year of liquid fuel. So even as important as EVs are, they can’t do everything by themselves. And there’s two real limitations. One is that they’re just some parts of the transportation system where batteries do not have the characteristics to really be a good fit.

The big one is aviation, especially long haul aviation, anything near going more than 500 miles, maybe a thousand miles, batteries just don’t look like they have a trajectory to get to enough energy density where they can satisfy that need. There are also a few specialized applications. Some of the very long haul freight trucks, maybe batteries are not a great fit there. Places people live in really remote areas or really mountainous areas, maybe batteries aren’t the best fit there. So there’s a few other niches of the transportation system besides aircraft that are likely to need something else, probably a liquid fuel for a long time.

Lucy Stitzer:

What about anything on the waterways, barges? They transport a lot of food.

Colin Murphy:

You’re absolutely right. That’s another one where we currently think liquid fuels are likely to be the issue. It’s possible in those hydrogen or renewable natural gas could end up being the fuel there. But for those, yes, liquid fuels may be switching to ammonia or methanol instead of the current kind of heavy oils, or you can make synthetic oils. The thing is waterways, they’re relatively small fraction of the total fuel pool. So even though we definitely have to find a solution for them, it’s not as pressing or scary a problem as is with aviation.

The other thing is with most boats, they have more space and they have looser technical requirements. So with an aircraft, because of the need to be extremely safe with an aircraft and be able to handle a wide range of temperature fluctuations because they fly up very high where it’s pretty cold, the number of potential technical solutions that work in aircraft is a lot more limited than it is in shipping. So while shipping is absolutely something that we have to think of and liquid fuels look like they’re probably going to be the solution there, it’s not, at least to me, not quite as scary or challenging a problem as aircraft.

Lucy Stitzer:

Well, definitely. I mean, your air, you’re in the air and if something goes wrong, there’s

Colin Murphy:

Pull over and wait for someone to bring you another can of gas.

Lucy Stitzer:

Yeah, exactly. And what about trains?

Colin Murphy:

Trains, again, in terms of total magnitude, they’re relatively small. For a lot of trains, you can use electricity and just have a cable overhead or running next to the track. That’s the way a lot of the rail in Europe works is they’re electric and there’s cables running along the track and they get their electricity that way. For trains, hydrogen is a potentially good idea. Hydrogen has a great energy density by mass. So energy for every kilogram of weight is pretty high, but has a lousy energy density by volume.

But with trains, you can put a car full of hydrogen going right behind the train to fuel it to go for thousands of miles, and that doesn’t really affect the train’s functioning all that much. So hydrogen’s one of the ones where I think it’s uniquely well-suited to work in rail applications, possibly maritime, but there’s a little bit more space constraint on the water. So yeah, there’s certainly options there. But again, because the technical requirements are a lot looser than they are for per aircraft, we’re not quite as certain that it has to be a liquid fuel, whereas with aircraft, it’s probably going to have to be a liquid. Right.

Lucy Stitzer:

Yes, I would agree. And then you have the weight and the balance, and as you said, the temperature fluctuation. So there’s a lot with aircraft. So you’ve run through all the different vehicles. So that would bring the 135 billion gallons of fuel that we use today. Would you anticipate that it would come down to fewer, all that? Yeah.

Colin Murphy:

So aircraft, the US consumes about 40 to I think 42, 45, somewhere in their billion gallons a year of jet fuel, excluding military applications. We don’t have great data on that for obvious reasons. With some of the aircraft, like short range lights, 500 miles, maybe a thousand miles probably could go to battery electrics or hydrogen fuel cells. So some of that 40 billion gallons probably could get switched out for or something other than liquid fuel.

But then the needs of shipping, so back of the envelope, probably 40 or 50 billion gallons a year of total demand for liquid fuels over the long run is probably what we’re looking at. And that’s still a lot, but at the very least, it’s not so far out of the realm of what we’ve produced from things other than petroleum that we can at least put together a coherent story about how we might piece together a portfolio that works.

Lucy Stitzer:

So you’re saying we could take out about a hundred or 90 billion out of the petroleum business and we can replace most of that with actually what we’re doing today, our renewable fuel usage is about 37 billion today. And you’re saying we only need about 40? So

Colin Murphy:

Yeah, now from

Lucy Stitzer:

Going to be a big ramp up,

Colin Murphy:

I mean, so of the 37 billion that we’re, yeah, of the 37 billion we’re producing, a lot of that is ethanol, which has a lower energy density. So you have to go and take a few billion gallons off that number to reflect the fact that ethanol is not as energy dense. But yeah, we’re looking at an order of assuming we can take all this fuel and push it to the sectors that need it, that don’t have any other options, doubling the amount may be tripling at most.

There’s a lot of uncertainty here with how quickly is air travel going to keep growing? It’s been the fastest growing form of transportation over the last several decades. So are we going to try to reign in the amount of growth in fuel consumption for air travel or are we going to say no air travel has value. Let’s give people this opportunity to experience the world in a really meaningful and important way.

So we’re going to find a way to make enough fuel to keep supporting, giving more people access to it. And that’s a values question as much as it’s an analytics question. But yeah, we’re looking at something where doubling, probably tripling at most, should be able to give us enough fuel to have a transportation system that provides equal or more total access to mobility than it does today. And the other thing to point out is that there are a number of options for producing liquid fuels that aren’t biofuels.

They’re still kind of in their infancy, but there’s been a lot of interest in a process called electrically derived fuels. And in these, you take electricity, you use the power to break apart carbon dioxide, which you can either capture from the air or capture from an industrial source. We’re going to need a lot of carbon capture under any climate plan that’s going to work, use electricity to break the CO2 apart into carbon monoxide. And then you combine the carbon monoxide with hydrogen, which again you make with electricity using electricity to split water apart into hydrogen and oxygen, combine those together and you can assemble them into liquid fuels using a process called Fischer–Tropsch synthesis. And this is something that’s been done for many decades. It’s not terribly efficient.

Lucy Stitzer:

You can use Fischer–Tropsch for everything. It seems like you could use it for biofuels, you can use it for biodiesel, renewable diesel. I mean, it seems like Fischer–Tropsch is the gold standard for converting any type of matter into a fuel.

Colin Murphy:

Yeah, yeah. I mean the process with biomass is you basically break the biomass down into carbon monoxide and hydrogen and then catalytic assemble those into whatever you want. So as long as you have the carbon and the hydrogen coming from somewhere, you can make a liquid fuel. And in this case, we’re using carbon out of CO2 and hydrogen from water. Previously we’d gotten them out of biomass. The thing is, it’s not terribly efficient.

So right now, if you’re trying to do a fisher to synthesis using this process, you’re losing at least half, sometimes more, like even 60% of the energy you put in to things like waste heat and making unwanted chemicals. The chemical process to synthesize this stuff is not perfectly specific. It makes a lot of different things, only some of which are the molecules you actually want. So we’re pretty confident that we can improve that efficiency somewhat.

We can get the energy losses below 50%, definitely maybe down into the 40% level. And so that at least makes it a lot more tractable for us to be able to make several billion gallons, maybe even 10 or 20 billion gallons a year of liquid fuels out of this  Fischer–Tropsch synthesis process. Now, the problem with it is it requires a whole lot of electricity at a time when we are trying to rapidly retire the fossil fuel plants off of our grid because they are what is emitting most of the carbon from the US and from most industrialized economies.

So while we’re trying to go in and retire fossil plants and build enough renewable or other non emitting energy to replace them, if you add on this very large demand to also make a whole bunch of transportation fuel, that really increases the degree of difficulty in terms of getting the electrical grid in turned over. So eels are one of the things where they have the best argument for being a large scale supply of very low carbon fuels in the 2040s probably.

But for the next 10 years, while we’re still getting so much of our electricity off of fossil fuels, it doesn’t really make any sense to burn fossil fuels and then use it to make an EFU when you’re losing half the energy to waste or useless byproducts. So there’s sort of a technology where we need to deploy a few of these facilities at commercial scale in order to start letting the technology mature to get experience with it and to figure out how we’re going to make it more efficient, but it’s not going to be able to provide us a lot of really significant volume at the carbon tendencies. We need until probably at least 10 more like 15 years from now.

Lucy Stitzer:

So like the Fischer–Tropsch technology, we have 2.0.

Colin Murphy:

Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I mean, it has been used in many cases for many decades, but the problem has always been it hasn’t been very efficient. And part of the low efficiency is that lack of selectivity that it makes a lot of different chemicals and not always the ones that you’re looking for or ones that are particularly useful. It’s the kind of problem that humans are usually reasonably good at solving. We’re good at optimizing technological systems, but you have to go and build it to full scale and give people years of experience running these things to figure out, oh, if I tweak this thing here and add a little heat exchanger there or change the chemical composition in this other place, then I can keep incrementally improving the efficiency. So it’s this weird spot where we need to build a few of these facilities at full commercial scale to have that opportunity, but we also need to be careful not to sort of too much of it in the short term because it’s not going to have a very good carbon intensity for a number of years until the grid is much, much cleaner.

Lucy Stitzer:

Really, the biofield market is going to continue to ramp up until 2035, maybe 2040 until we get and solve some of these issues and then also Fischer–Tropsch. And so we really still need corn and soybeans for the next foreseeable future.

Colin Murphy:

So I think that’s the most likely outcome as well. So most of the volume of biofuels used in the US has been determined and driven by the federal policy, the renewable fuel standard, certainly all the corn ethanol, the amount of corn ethanol that the US makes is essentially the amount of corn ethanol that the RFS incentivizes. They don’t go much beyond that level. And the same thing has largely happened with the soybean based diesel substitutes that are growing pretty rapidly right now. And the industry is asking the government to keep expanding the size of the RFS to let them continue growing.

And if you look at the targets that the EPA put out earlier this year, it looks like they’re starting to say it might be time to tap the brakes and not continue this level of growth because they recognize the potential problems that you get into, particularly with land competition as you get to two larger and larger amounts of biofuels.

But the issue is that for both corn and soybeans, biofuels are only part of what they make. So you have about 15 billion gallons a year right now of corn ethanol that’s being produced, and the corn that goes into an ethanol refinery, what the ethanol refinery does, it takes the starch out and makes ethanol out of the starch. But all of the protein, the fiber, most of the other nutrients, and even some of the starch doesn’t convert. Everything gets left behind and gets sold as annual feed called distiller greens.

Most of what would happen, what would’ve happened to that corn if it hadn’t been used for ethanol is it would’ve gone to the animal feed market anyway. So you lose the starch part of the ethanol and that no longer goes to feed the animals. But all of the yeast that ferment the ethanol and grow in the starch, the sort of spend yeast gets added into this diller grain. So you take this corn that would’ve gone a hundred percent annual feed, and instead you have kind of a slightly smaller volume of a higher protein version of animal feed.

All this is to say, at least in the case of corn, we make 15 billion gallons of ethanol. I think it uses about 30% of our corn crop, but it’s not like that 30% of the corn crop goes away, that 30% of the corn crop is still going into annual feed and not having a terribly large impact on the net acreage not a zero impact. It absolutely does have zero impact, and it does cause some land exchange, but it’s not like that 30% is gone and completely out of the food system just comes into the food system in a different way.

Lucy Stitzer:

So I think if you could just explain the four different types just so people can understand what we’re talking about a little bit.

Colin Murphy:

So like you said, ethanol’s kind of the simple one. The way we predominantly make it now is we pull starch out of something in the US it’s pretty much all corn in Brazil or other countries that have a sugar cane industry. The sugar cane is another great way to make ethanol. And then you ferment, you break starch down into sugars, and then you ferment the sugars into alcohols. Essentially the same process you make used for making beer, wine, or spirits just done on an industrial scale. And it wouldn’t taste very good if you tried to drink it directly. And ethanol is currently in the US blended into all gasoline at about a 10% level. That’s what we’ve been doing since the mid two thousands. The having some ethanol gasoline helps the gasoline burn cleaner. You need about six or 7% to really get that clean burning, the oxygen effect.

Beyond that, you’re just trying to reduce the amount of petroleum you use and replace with something that’s lower carbon than petroleum. And there has been a lot of controversy over corn ethanol, whether it is actually lower carbon. There was a very famous study that came out last year, guy named Tyler Lark was the lead author on it, and he made the argument that the RFS was actually ultimately worse, made the corn ethanol worse than petroleum. So I don’t think his methods were quite right. Part of it. The problem with biofuels is a lot of the impact and a lot of greenhouse stuff comes from what we call indirect land use change. And this is where because you have fuel producers now starting to consume agricultural products that historically has only gone into feeding people or animals or a really small number of other industrial uses.

Now the demand for these industrial, these agricultural commodities goes up and somewhere someone in the world is going to have to make more of the stuff to replace what went into fuels. And some of that replacement comes from plowing more land and bringing more land into cultivation. And there’s a big carbon impact from plowing more land. So the LARC paper said because of I luck, the renewable fuel standard and the corn ethanol was worse than the petroleum, there has been a lot of back and forth, there’s several back and forth in terms of open comment letters published by various groups of researchers on that topic. So a lot of methodological uncertainty over that. Beyond that, even if you believe the LARC paper, I think the appropriate take home message from it is maybe we shouldn’t have gone from 15 billion gallons of ethanol we did. And you can’t really unring that bell, even if you sort of stopped and said, well, any land that was cleared, we’ll return to natural form, the carbon’s lost and takes many decades to recover.

And we don’t have that sort of time. So the question I think now is what’s most useful? What’s the way to get the best use out of it? So the other thing with ethanol is there’s a process that some companies have been developed and are looking to commercialize right now where you can convert ethanol into aviation fuel. It’s not entirely unlike the Fischer–Tropsch synthesis we discussed earlier. And it’s small molecule, I’m sorry, it’s a small molecule that you can catalytic assemble into other bigger molecules like the ones that we used to fly planes on. So that might be one of the ways eventually as more EVs take over the on-road space, there’s not going to enough gasoline to blend the ethanol into, and there is some opportunity for us to increase the amount of ethanol we use. Most cars are on road, they can handle 15% ethanol without any problem.

And that would be a way to, again, push petroleum out of the system quicker, or you could turn the ethanol into jet fuel and use it to push petroleum out system that way. And that’s some of the stuff that we’re researching right now for the diesel substitutes. There’s biodiesel and renewable diesel. So biodiesel is made by a process called fatty acid methyl ester, or it’s a relatively simple low energy process to convert. Vegetable oils could be used cooking oil, could be soybean oil or any vegetable oil. You sort of heat it to a medium temperature, add some chemicals, and you can convert it to this biodiesel biodiesel. You can run it into written into most existing diesel engines up to about 20%. If you go over that, you have to start modifying the engine a bit to handle it. Plus, in cold weather, biodiesel starts to, just like most vegetable oils will start to get kind of thick and sludgy and gel up.

So most of the time, biodiesel is blended into regular diesel at a 5% or 7% level, and it’s fine. Doesn’t really cause a lot of problems that way. But because of these infrastructure issues, because of the cold weather performance and the need to only blend to a certain level, it’s not really what people are focused on right now. There’s not a lot of growth in the biodiesel space. Most producers have turned to renewable diesel. They can add some more hydrogen, and if they add a bit more hydrogen, you get a bit more of a coming out like SAF or jet fuel. So you can sort of choose whether you’re going to emphasize the production of renewable diesel or emphasize the production of SAF of renewable jet fuel. To date, most of the policies in the US have made it more beneficial for them to make renewable diesel. So that’s what they do. But with the SAF tax credit under the IRA, it’s likely we’re going to see a lot of the producers starting to tweak their process a bit to push more of their total product out through the SaaS pathways and a little bit less through the diesel pathways. Right.

Lucy Stitzer:

Well, plus the airlines have committed to a higher SAAF percentage.

Colin Murphy:

In the US it’s mostly voluntary commitments and incentives. The Saban challenge, which was the target that was put forth by the Biden administration but didn’t have a whole lot of regulatory teeth behind it, at least not yet, but there’s the SAAF tax credit that’s actually going to make a pretty big difference. Now, there’s a lot of controversy, surprisingly enough in this space controversy around the SAF tax credit and how exactly you’re going to define it. Most of that, again, comes down to this indirect land use change issue. So the way that the tax credit was set forth by Congress was if you’ll have to be at least 50% cleaner than petroleum and you get an additional bonus for every percentage point below 50, they’re able to get. So if you make it even cleaner, you get a larger and larger per gallon incentive.

Lucy Stitzer:

So you go around $1.25. The issue with that is to determine whether you get $1.25 or $1.50 or $1.75 is don’t you have to go back to the farm to determine how they’re growing the corn and determine what type of agriculture they’re using, whether they’re using cover crops or not. And that bodes a whole other series of questions of how do you verify how much carbon they’re sequestering through their growing methods.

Colin Murphy:

That is a big part of it. So we have good tools in the field of lifecycle analysis to understand how much fertilizer and how much diesel and how much electricity is used. For every ton of corn that comes off the field, it’s a lot more complex to understand how the use of a cover crop would affect soil carbon. We know with very high confidence that you can improve the amount of solid carbon retained in the soil by using things like cover crops or compost or possibly biochar or changing the types of crops or the harvest patterns or tilling the soil less. We know there’s a lot of things that can improve it, but soil is a really complex and dynamic system. So knowing that at least pushing that certain things move the needle in the correct direction is one thing, but being able to quantify it and say how many tons per acre are actually being saved?

There is another level of complexity altogether. And then on soil carbon, you also have the issue of permanence. So a farmer can make choices to use cover crops or use compost or switch to no-till agriculture and build up a lot of solid carbon in their soil. But if in five years or 10 years they decide to switch and need to start tilling the soil again, that carbon goes away. And if they received incentives to build up carbon and then in the future they till it and they lose it, all that money is kind of wasted. What they’re being paid for is permanent sequestration of carbon, and it’s not permanent at that point. Or if they sell their land to somebody else, then whoever else has it in the future, they could do the tillage and lose it. So this permanence or reversion risk is one of the things that really makes a lot of the regenerative agriculture policies, incentives so complex on top of the fact that there’s still a lot of uncertainty, and we’re still not able to effectively quantify it without doing a lot of really expensive and time consuming measurement that is probably just too expensive to really allow the farmer to receive much of an incentive, enough incentive for them to want to change their behavior.

So it’s the kind of thing we’re working on, and I think that we’ll keep getting better at it, but there’s a lot of uncertainty around soil carbon. The other big issue is that indirect land use change. The thing with indirect land use change is there’s really no way to develop a sensor that can measure it directly. Because what happens is because somebody is using more soybean oil in the US to make renewable diesel or saf, somebody else in the world might be slashing and burning rainforest in Southeast Asia to do a palm plantation, to grow palm oil, to sell to somebody on their side of the world because the lack of soybean oil coming out of the US has now changed international commodity flows. So there’s really no way for us to very precisely know how much indirect land use change every ton of soybean oil causes.

The only way you can really try to quantify it is through a model. What our models, the uncertainty is very large, and there’s a bunch of places in the model where you have to make these assumptions that are ultimately they’re subjective. There’s no objectively right or wrong way to make it. There’s only a bunch of different subjective ways. For example, when you go soybeans, you get soybean oil and soybean meal. We know how much fertilizer it took to grow the soybeans, so we know how many tons of carbon or grams of carbon were emitted in order to produce this ton of soybeans. But how much of that carbon is the responsibility of the soybean meal versus how much of it is the responsibility of the soybean oil? There’s a lot of different ways to do that. You can look at the mass, you can look at the energy content, you can look at the economic value.

None of them are objectively right or wrong, but they’ll all give you very different answers. And so that’s one of the problems with the model and with modeling eye luck, it’s the only way to assess indirect land use change, but you’re never going to get one definitively correct answer out of it. And so what’s happening with the SAF tax credit is a lot of the producers are asking the Department of Treasury, the ones that have to make the decision because a tax credit, and they’re obviously, they’re not biofuel analysts by nature at Department of Treasury, but they’re asking treasury, okay, well, let’s use this one particular model. And the US uses this model called greet to do lifecycle analysis. It is this fantastically complex model that’s been being developed for 20 years now, and it’s dozens of papers behind it. But in the current version of Greek, they include one IUC estimate based off of a different model.

And this estimate happens to be extremely friendly towards things like corn and soybeans. And so the industry’s saying, well, look, Greek’s the gold standard. This is the thing that they’ve decided to put in for their best guess. So let’s just use that and use that model with that estimate of eye look in order to determine whether we are 50% cleaner than petroleum, and if we are how much far below to figure out the per gallon range. Whereas a lot of other environmental saying, well know you don’t want to use one model. You have to use multiple models and look at the average or look at the range of options that comes out when you make these subjective decisions in different ways. That gives you a better sense of what the actual impact is not to use one of them. And if you do that, then in more justified and reasonable and certainly risk averse way than a lot of the soybean oil fuels or the corn ethanol alcohol to jet fuels wouldn’t be eligible for these credits.

I also recently gave a talk and published a blog post, which is available through our website if you go to lowcarbonfuel.uc.edu under presentations. I gave a talk over the summer talking about this and sort of why you can’t trust any one single model and why you have to go and look at the ensemble of various approaches out there. And even looking at going through the, if we know that we’re, whatever number we pick is probably not going to be right or it’s going to be too high or too low, we need to think about the risks of whether it’s better to overshoot our IUC estimate or to undershoot our ILAC estimate. And when you start thinking through all the various risk factors, it is much, much safer for us to overestimate IUC to take conservative approach and consume maybe less biofuels than would be theoretically optimal because it keeps us away from the more scary and irreversible risks than to error on the other side. So is there a

Lucy Stitzer:

Chance then that the US farmers or any farmer won’t be able to qualify then for selling their corn into the ethanol market?

Colin Murphy:

Well, no, this wouldn’t change the RFS, so this is just whether there would be the option to get an additional credit for producing jet fuel. But yeah, the existing markets aren’t going to change. They’re going to continue the trajectory set by the RFS volume.

Lucy Stitzer:

This is just for SAF, this is, so there’s a possibility then that us farmers wouldn’t be able to sell into the a f market, the ethanol market, but they could sell into the regular ethanol market.

Colin Murphy:

Yeah, that would be it. And so I think the worry is if you adopt too lax of a policy and bring too many biofuels in the system, then you could really start getting a lot of land conversion. And I don’t think there’s necessarily a problem from the food versus fuel standpoint. I mean, that would increase food prices, but probably not a huge amount. It’s more the carbon impact that if we’re going to go and expand agriculture a lot, there’s a huge carbon impact from doing that. You have to do it to feed people. Okay. Feeding people is obviously a priority. We need to do that. So if we have to have some carbon impact and expand land to keep feeding people, that’s one thing. But if we shouldn’t be doing things that have huge carbon impact in the name of, reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, which is really the goal of these biofuel policies. So that’s where we’re sort of getting hung up on, and we’re waiting for treasury to make the decision and see what they ultimately do. But if they choose to take the really lax approach on I luck and let these incentives be given out to a lot of farmers, there’s a chance you could get enough total growth here that you’ll start converting a lot of land globally and the carbon benefits could be pretty bad or they wouldn’t be a benefit at that point.

Lucy Stitzer:

Right. As it pertain to the land use.

Colin Murphy:

Yeah.

Lucy Stitzer:

Portion of the conversation. So let’s circle back to the original actually purpose of this conversation is really, as we do increase renewable fuels with all the ones that we’ve talked about, is there enough land and will there be a food versus fuel debate, putting aside the land use changes and putting aside the regulations and the great standards and all of that, just is there enough land and will there be enough food?

Colin Murphy:

So absolutely there’s enough land. Like we just said before, we jumped ahead a little bit. But the worry here is that we will be producing more corn and soybeans than would be good for the climate. And again, if we have to produce it to feed people, yes, that’s the choice we make, and that’s the right choice. But yeah, so we’re not worried that there’s going to be an absolute lack of land, nor really an absolute lack of food in any way. Are there risks that biofuel policy could increase the price of food? Yes, there are to date, outside of a couple of transient spikes, often around the drought we had in the early 20 teens, we haven’t seen a really massive increase in food prices as a result of fuel policy. It is definitely there, but in a lot of cases, having alternative supplies of fuel means you are less vulnerable to price fluctuations in petroleum.

So yes, there is some increase in the inflation applied to food prices, but less inflation applied to gasoline prices. I’m not enough of an economist to have a really well-informed opinion on the whole, is it better or worse than not having a biofuel policy? But nothing I’ve seen makes us seem like it’s terribly bad. Beyond that, we know that climate change is going to be incredibly bad for a lot of things, including for the food production system because many, many parts of the world that are highly fertile right now won’t be due to higher temperatures and changing rainfall patterns. So as long as the fuels that we’re making are actually lower carbon than the petroleum, they’re displacing. And that has not always been the case. There’s absolutely been several examples where we produce large amounts of fuels that are worse than the petroleum displaced, but many of them are at least lower carbon. And as long as that’s the case, then the value of reducing greenhouse gas emissions probably does more to help secure the long-term food supply from the effects of climate change than it does to hurt it.

Lucy Stitzer:

So it’s not like we’re only growing corn and soybeans only for fuel.

Colin Murphy:

Yes, absolutely. And that’s part of the reason why it’s so hard to analyze the greenhouse gas impacts of biofuels because almost every input has that dual purpose. And so one of the other things that we’ve been seeing is because we had a biofuel policy through the RFF that really until the last five years or so was almost entirely ethanol, really, renewable diesel wasn’t a big thing until five, six years ago because of this policy. We were actually starting to see more growers in the Midwest go from rotations where they do alternate corn and soy every other year, and soy helps add nitrogen because of nitrogen fixing plants. And then also by having different species of plant, you sort of provide a bit of a break in the pathogen cycles, so you need maybe a little bit less herbicide or less additives to controlled diseases for a while.

We’re starting to see more growers going from corn soil rotation to continuous corn because you had this demand for corn biofuels. Well, now with renewable diesel coming online and demanding a lot of soybean oil because that’s the cheapest oil that you can grow really in the western hemisphere, you’re now seeing people go back to corn soy rotations, and that has some additional benefits in terms of slightly reducing the amount of nitrogen fertilizer they need, and slightly reducing the amount of herbicides and other pathogen, chemical pathogen control measures that they have to use. These are, I’m sure, likely to be much smaller than just the big impacts of are these fuels, in fact clean up the petroleum? But they do make a difference. And so the fact that we’re seeing soy growth, there’s some benefits in terms of agronomy there.

Lucy Stitzer:

Well, thank you very much. This has been fascinating and certainly provides a lot of clarity around the renewable fuels conversation.

Colin Murphy:

Yeah, certainly. Happy to help. This is a really complex topic and one that’s going to become increasingly important in the next few years. So very happy to help you and your listeners start to learn more about it. And again, there’s a lot of data and resources available at our website at low carbon fuel dot uc davis.edu.

Lucy Stitzer:

Great. Well, thank you very much.

How Beliefs Affect Our Nutrition

There is a fascinating interplay between the power of belief and its profound impact on our corporeal health and nutrition. From the intriguing ability of belief to shape our perception of food to its remarkable sway over our hormonal responses, the connections between what we think, what we eat, and how it affects our bodies are powerful.

“What is becoming more and more clear is that expectations and predictions have a very strong influence on basic experiences, on how we feel and what we perceive. Doing anything that you believe will help you feel better will probably help you feel better.

– Dr. Leonie Koban, Ph.D., Neuroscience and Affective Sciences, Lyon Neuroscience Research Center

What is the Belief Effect?

The Belief Effect occurs when patients’ expectations and beliefs play a substantial role in determining their health outcomes. It mimics the brain’s capacity to produce real physiological responses in the absence of any active treatment or intervention.

Faith and attitudes can influence the release of neurotransmitters, hormones, and immune system responses, all of which can affect the body’s functioning.

Scientific Evidence

Numerous studies have detailed the intricate relationship between belief, nutrition, and health, shedding light on how our cognitive processes can significantly impact our well-being. How else does the Belief Effect play a pivotal role in shaping our nutritional choices and health outcomes?

How Your Beliefs Shape Nutritional Health

The Ghrelin Response

In a study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers examined the influence of expectation on ghrelin, the hunger hormone.

Participants were given identical milkshakes, but they were told that one was a “decadent indulgence” and the other a “sensible, low-calorie choice.”

Remarkably, those who believed they were consuming the indulgent shake showed a more significant increase in ghrelin levels or an increase in the feeling of hunger or being unsatisfied with the meal, even though both shakes had the same nutritional content, those who had the “sensishake” felt less hungry, or had a lower ghrelin level.

The Flavor Perception

A study published in Appetite investigated the relationship between beliefs about food healthiness and taste perception. Participants were presented with identical food items but were led to believe that one was healthier than the other.

The results showed that individuals who believed the food was healthier rated it as more flavorful, demonstrating the influence of belief on taste perception. The person’s belief or how she/he interprets (inter-presents or internally represents) directly governs the biological response or behavior.

Another remarkable study involved a woman who suffered from split personalities. At her baseline personality, her blood glucose levels were normal. However, the moment she believed she was diabetic, her entire physiology changed to become that of a diabetic, including elevated blood glucose levels.

Diet & Nutrition

Belief in the effectiveness of a specific diet can have a profound impact on dietary adherence and outcomes. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) explored the influence of belief on weight loss.

Participants who had strong beliefs in the efficacy of a particular diet were more likely to adhere to it and achieve better weight loss results compared to those with less conviction. (This is one I personally need to subscribe to—I typically last about a week on a new dietary regimen before getting off track.)

The belief effect extends to nutrient absorption, as well. Studies have shown that believing you are consuming a nutrient-rich meal can enhance your body’s ability to absorb those nutrients. Your faith in the nutritional value of a meal can impact how efficiently your body extracts vitamins and minerals.

Metabolic Response

Our metabolic response to various foods can be influenced by our beliefs in their healthiness. A study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine investigated the effect of belief on post-meal metabolic markers. Participants who believed they were consuming a healthy meal exhibited more favorable metabolic responses, including improved insulin sensitivity, compared to those who believed the meal was unhealthy. Incredible what the mind can do!

There’s also a dedicated podcast on the connections between neuroscience and human behavior: The Huberman Lab podcast, hosted by neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman, explores topics related to the impact of beliefs on health.

In a recent episode, Dr. Huberman emphasized the vital importance of understanding how belief affects our overall well-being. In this episode on mindset and health, Dr. Huberman explores the impact of diet, is actually a combined product of what you are doing, what you are thinking about, your stress, your anxiety—the interconnectedness of your mental and physical self.

Belief Effect Extends Far beyond Nutrition

Let’s briefly examine just some of the ways the Belief Effect impacts overall health.

Pain Management: Studies have shown that individuals who believe they are taking a potent pain reliever but are actually ingesting a placebo often experience reduced pain perception. This demonstrates the brain’s ability to release endorphins and modulate pain signals based on belief alone.

Mental Health: Faith in the effectiveness of psychotherapy or medication can significantly improve mental health outcomes. Positive expectations can lead to reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Immune Function: Belief can influence immune responses, affecting the body’s ability to fight off infections and diseases. Optimistic beliefs and positive attitudes have been linked to improved immune function.

Cardiovascular Health: Belief in the benefits of lifestyle changes, such as exercise and dietary improvements, can lead to better cardiovascular outcomes, including lowered blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

These studies provide robust evidence supporting the notion that belief can significantly influence nutrition and health outcomes. Recognizing the power of belief in shaping our dietary choices and metabolic responses underscores the importance of a holistic approach to health that includes both physical and psychological factors.

Wine Market Remains Robust in 2023

The popularity of wine today – and throughout recorded history – has never been in doubt. Water occupies a special and ubiquitous place in the beverage world, obviously. Collectively, we may drink more tea and coffee than wine, and beer certainly has to be considered among the most popular alcoholic drinks.

But even with a long list of beverage options available to us, wine retains a certain cachet – of good taste, sophistication, education, and much more that sets wine apart – and to many, above all other available beverage choices.

Many of us enjoy a glass or two – at home with dinner, in nice restaurants to commemorate occasions large and small, to mark celebrations at the holidays or any of life’s milestones.

Wine is the common bond at social events and friendly get-togethers. It’s a near-universal part of diets and lifestyle across virtually every country on earth.

Wine weaves its way through our history in all sorts of ways. The production of alcoholic beverages dates back more than 9,000 years, surpassing the 5,000 or so years of actual recorded history.

Evidence of mead-making – one of the earliest forms of wine, made from water, honey, and sometimes fruits and spices – can be traced back almost 4,000 years – as much as 14 centuries before the construction of Egypt’s Great Pyramid. It was possible it was even carried in animal skins but the first evidence was in clay jars and amphorae.

The Global Wine Market: Big & Bold

We’ve come a long way from those early days of animal skins in the beverage industry. Today, the global wine industry is a $340 billion enterprise, and Americans can be proud of doing their fair share to keep the industry not just alive but healthy, too. And we have lovely glass bottles to admire while we drink.

We spend about $50 billion yearly on over 840 million gallons of various types of wine. Industry experts say we will remain thirsty, too – with the industry growing to about $456 billion before the end of the decade.

The rest of the world does its part, too.

Wine industry experts estimate 2022 global wine production at roughly 260 million hectoliters – or roughly 6,869,000,000 gallons. That’s down from a peak of 295 million hectoliters in 2018, but the long-term production trend remains fairly stable in the 26-265 million hectoliter range.

Heat and dry conditions in some major wine-producing countries have contributed to declining productivity. But wine aficionados also report good quality in 2022. We’re in no danger of running out of wine, folks.

France and Italy once again jockey for the top spot in the production derby. However, 29 countries around the globe merit recognition as significant wine producers.

But let’s make our look at wine a bit more personal. What do all those numbers mean for the average consumer?

The world produces enough wine to provide every adult (over the age of 15, anyway) with about 1.1 gallons. But certain countries lead the way in per-person consumption – with European nations capturing eight of the top ten spots on the per-person wine consumption list. Only Australia and Argentina are the other two.

The United States clocks in at a respectable number 16 on the per-person consumption roster – but thanks to our large total population win the top spot in overall global wine consumption. That is, individually, we may not drink as much wine as residents of some European countries, but we make up for it collectively. Go, team!

Wine Varieties

The different types of wines produced around the world boggle the average person’s mind. In simplest terms, wine can be either red or white – and everything in between.

But after that, it all starts to get complicated – very complicated.

The most popular types of wines can be summarized in some simple graphics, courtesy of Wine Folly.

But if you want to better appreciate why the wine industry has grown to have a value of almost a third of a trillion dollars, consider a more sophisticated and complex picture of the types of wines available to the discerning oenophile.

There is something for every taste, for every preference, and for every budget.

For instance, a 73-year-old bottle of French burgundy sold at a 2018 Sotheby’s auction for $558,000. A ‘good’ bottle of red table wine can be purchased for about 10 Euros (or $11).

For a deeper dive into the amazingly diverse world of wine, visit sites such as WineCountry.com for an excellent overview and learning guide.

Wine’s Health Considerations

The apostle Paul offered some sage advice to his colleague Timothy in the first century AD. Don’t drink only water. Take a little wine for your stomach’s sake and for your frequent infirmities.

Wine advocates love the apostle’s endorsement and cite the health benefits of responsible wine consumption. But they also acknowledge that too much of anything is no doubt dangerous. It may be sugary drinks, candy, junk food and fried foods, or any of a long list of food and beverage choices available to consumers worldwide. And wine is no exception.

Health experts caution against over-consumption and the serious adverse effects on long-term health that come with it. Some advocate total avoidance of alcoholic beverages as the best insurance against such risks. Others favor simple moderation based on certain health benefits associated with moderate consumption.

In particular, they note the antioxidants in wine can reduce bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol, with resulting benefits to cardiovascular health. Used in moderation, some health officials also say, wine may have mental health benefits, reducing the risk of depression.

But again, the key is moderation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines recommend one drink per day for men and two per day for women – with a “drink” of wine defined as five fluid ounces.

Speaking of wine, did you know…

  • Beer may be the preferred alcoholic beverage for males (with wine second choice), but for women the favorite is wine.
  • Red wine is the preferred wine choice overallAnd according to 2019 National Wine Day, red wine lovers are more likely to be introverted, to love dogs more than cats, be fans of jazz music, describe themselves as adventurous and spend more per bottle of wine.
  • White wine lovers are more likely to be night owls, to be extroverted, prefer cats, listen to jazz, describe themselves as curious perfectionists and spend less per bottle.
  • Statista reports that almost 7.3 million hectares globally are devoted to vineyards. Wheat – the most widely planted crop worldwide – claims 217 million hectares.

D2D Digs into the Future of Biofuels


We’re excited to dig into biofuels with Colin Murphy, Deputy Director of the Policy Institute for Energy, Environment, and the Economy, and co-director of the ITS-Davis Low Carbon Fuel Policy Research Initiative. During our podcast, we discuss advancements in the space and the massive effect biofuels will have on all points along the supply chain, including our food system.

Prior to joining the Policy Institute, Colin was a Science Policy Fellow with the California Council on Science and Technology, and an advocate for sustainable transportation and energy policy with the NextGen Policy Center, where he helped extend California’s climate programs through 2030.

Colin has a B.S. in Biological Systems Engineering from UC Davis, a M.S. in Science, Technology and Public Policy from the Rochester Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in Transportation Technology and Policy from UC Davis.

To read the transcript for this podcast, please click here.

Will reducing beef save our planet?

Are cows really a major cause of climate change? Wealthy nations are not pushing people to switch to a plant-based diet. Will that really work to reduce emissions? What would an all-plant diet for 8 billion people do for the environment? Not to mention that we need 30% of our diet in protein. We investigated this two years ago when Epicurious decided not to include meat recipes and we thought we would post it again given the recent COP28 initiatives.

Every day we choose what to eat. This never used to be a big deal. But today food has become synonymous with politics. I get it. My sister’s family and mine are a close-knit bunch who have mixed views on eating meat. Among our group of children, we have two vegans, two vegetarians, and four meat-eaters.

We love each other a lot and we don’t ask vegans to cook steaks, or the meat lovers to make only plant-based dishes. Instead, we work together to make sure there is enough food for everyone’s plate. Then, we spend our time caring about each other as people, not poking about what we are eating. It is a matter of respect and support for everyone’s choice.

What’s the beef with the UN FAO’s stance on red meat?

At the recent COP28 Climate Summit in Dubai, the United Nation’s Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) stated that developed nations will need to reduce red meat and dairy production to avert a global health crisis.

I have casual conversations with friends and acquaintances who are diligently participating in ‘Meatless Mondays’ or even skipping red meat altogether because they think they are doing a good deed for the climate.

“According to a new roadmap from the world’s peak food security body, wealthy countries will need to cut back meat and dairy consumption to hit health and environmental targets.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN roadmap outlines a way to feed the world over the next 25 years without increasing the emissions and land clearing that drive climate change and biodiversity loss.”

So, is this true? If we significantly reduced beef and dairy output, would we also significantly reduce emissions? Here is a better question: what if everyone knew that meat can be part of a broader climate solution instead of a climate problem?

We want to give you a more nuanced, data-driven perspective so you can come to your own conclusion.

Cows solving climate change?

Raised in Minnesota, I can tell you there is no more beautiful sight than the grasslands. In the late ‘60s, my bedroom window overlooked a wetland prairie. Whether you think of them as prairies, pampas, steppes, or savannas, about one-third of our global land is open grasslands…tall grasses blowing in the wind, full of deer, elk, songbirds, wildflowers, and cattle.

In a recent post, The Nature Conservancy highlighted a metanalysis, “Reducing Climate Impacts of Beef Production”, showing that ranchers, particularly in the U.S. and Brazil, who own both grasslands and beef can cut emissions by 50%.

As a 1,000-acre rancher in South Carolina told one of us at D2D, “I am really a grass farmer.” When cattle roam freely, their hooves dig up the earth, seeds drop in from neighboring plants, manure adds fertilizer, and the grasslands thrive. The open land thrives because it is a carbon sink.

As Meredith Ellis, a cattle rancher from Texas told us, “our ranch is sequestering 2,500 tons of carbon (after enteric emissions) each year – equivalent to taking 551 cars off the road.

Grass-fed and feedlot finished?

Did you know that about 95% of all cattle start their lives on grass and then finish the last third of life in the feedlot? Many argue that once cattle are in the feedlot, they contribute to the atmospheric methane, but it is actually the opposite: grass-fed cattle emit approximately 20% more methane because it takes them about a year longer to reach market weight.

Because of the tremendous environmental benefits of grassland, we are not saying that all cows should be raised in a feedlot, but to point out that corn-fed cattle simply produce less methane.

Additionally, many animal nutrition companies are currently researching for the ‘holy grail’ in animal feed to further reduce the release of methane anywhere from 3% to 50%. The reason? More belching occurs when cattle eat the roughage in the grass versus a highly nutritious and tailored feedlot diet. It is when the roughage breaks down that methane is produced.

Moooving over for dairy to digest methane

Dairy farmers also find ways to contribute to a more sustainable environment, too. The dairy industry has benefited from anaerobic methane digesters for years. Dairy farms collect the cow manure and plow it into rubber-lined ponds right next to the barns.

Each of these coverings looks like a dome and helps capture methane. And then, to make a long story short, methane is used as electricity for the farm or sold back on the grid.

These farms have cheap electricity and are greenhouse gas (GHG)-negative because they use methane rather than fossil fuels. In fact, California has committed to a 40% reduction of dairy methane emissions by 2030 just by using digesters alone.

Just to give you an idea of the importance of animal feed, let’s take a look at India…

They have 56 million dairy cows, more than the E.U., Brazil, U.S., and Russia — combined. Of course, they don’t eat their cows; they just use them for dairy products.

Because their feed and milking systems are not as sophisticated, a cow only produces 2,600 pounds of milk a year versus the U.S.’s 21,000 pounds per cow, on average.

Therefore, India needs eight more cows to give the same amount of milk as one U.S. cow. And at 6 million head, China’s dairy cows have a similar production rate as India.

That is a lot more methane!

What if we don’t eat beef at all?

Lean meats and plants are critical for our health. (Have you had your 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables today?) But the nutrients that meat provides are critical, too. What would happen if all we had to choose from were only plants and grains? To find out what an animal-free country would look like, Robin White and Mary Beth Hall of the Department of Animal and Poultry Science at Virginia Tech and U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, studied the impact of a vegetarian country on U.S. emissions, economics, and nutrition.

In short, White and Hall found a reduction in emissions of 2.6%, or 28% of agricultural emissions. They explain that there would be 23% more food but deficiencies in U.S. nutritional requirements of minerals, vitamins, and fatty acids. For example, eating a lean 8-oz. piece of steak provides you with 45 grams of protein, versus eating a cup of black beans with only about 15 grams. You get more protein with fewer calories.

There would also be an economic impact. What do we tell the ranchers, farmers, feeders, processors, marketers, and more who have invested billions of dollars creating protein for human health, not to mention the trickle-down effects on local economies?

Cows are carbon neutral. Really!

Despite popular thinking, the reality is that cows are neutral carbon emitters! How? Over time, they do not emit more carbon than they eat. It is undisputed that plants pull carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air and then combine it with water and sunlight to make carbohydrates and oxygen. The plants use carbohydrates as fuel for growth and emit oxygen into the air as a byproduct. Very handy for us as we need that to breathe.

When a cow eats a plant, it consumes carbohydrates – which contain carbon. It swallows the plant into their four-chambered stomach. The first chamber is massive and holds enough food to fill your bathtub – about 50 gallons. After the plant enters their stomach, they bring it back up to chew some more – “chewing their cud.” The food then goes back down to the stomach to be digested by the microbes, called methanogens.

This is when they belch a portion as methane which is then released into the atmosphere. This methane is the culprit, as it is 28 times more potent as a GHG than CO2.

The good news is that it only lasts for about eight to ten years before it converts into one part CO2 and two parts H2O via hydroxyl oxidation.

Here is where it gets interesting: according to Frank Mitloehner, Ph.D., Professor and Air Quality Specialist at the University of California, Davis:

“If you are not adding additional cattle or cows to the earth, then there will be no additional methane and no additional global warming.”

As long as more cows are not introduced on the planet, then no additional CO2 is added. For the past ten years, global cattle population has been steady at around 1 billion, yet the average annual presence of methane has steadily increased. Dr. Mitloehner continues, saying “We in agriculture have to do our part but must not be singled out as the 800-pound gorilla we are not.”

Sources for chart: noaa.gov, U.S. Department of Agriculture; USDA Foreign Agricultural Service; ID 263979.

Putting this in perspective

So where does agriculture stand in relationship to global GHG contribution? According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it is about 12%.

There is no doubt that methane is a powerful GHG that we want to keep out of the atmosphere. But it does not all come from animals. According to NASA, the methane sources can be broken out as follows: 30% wetlands, including ponds, lakes, rivers; 30% related to oil, gas, and coal extraction; 20% by agriculture, including livestock, waste management, and rice cultivation; 20% wildfires, biomass burning, permafrost, termites, dams, and the ocean. Here are more detailed breakdowns:

Freedom to Choose

We are already so divided as a country on a variety of political and social issues. Why are we doing this with food and our climate? Yes, cattle emit methane. That is a fact. It is also true that humans have creatively adapted to a life of comfort and health for thousands of years. Let’s use methane reduction for cattle as a lesson in innovation to make our food and our planet better. Let the science speak for itself and not let emotions get carried away.

I quickly recall my family and I debating issues at the dinner table, but at the end of the day, we respect each other’s thinking. We are environmentalists. We are fierce advocates of sustainable food, innovation, and making the world a better place while also being pragmatic about protecting humans and animals. And we also realize how incredibly fortunate we are to choose what we eat each and every day.

Ag careers grow beyond the farm

Do what you love to do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.

So what is it you love to do?

  • Being in the great outdoors, enjoying all Mother Nature has to offer.
  • Peering into a test tube, unlocking the secrets science has to offer.
  • Interacting with other people, to accomplish important things.
  • Building and producing things with your own hands and imagination.
  • Helping people learn valuable lessons that make life better and more fulfilling.
  • Nurturing and caring for others.
  • Providing a safe, secure and healthy home for those you love.
    …Or something completely different?

In today’s world, it can be almost anything. We all want to do what we love. We want to do something not just enjoyable, but meaningful, too – something that matters not just to us individually, but to the world around us as well.

That drive to combine self-fulfillment with the betterment of the world around us defines a characteristic of the emerging generation of the American workforce.

For the young people seeking not just a job but also a lasting, rewarding career, the task of finding a way of making a living doing what you love may seem daunting.

Just finding any job can be tough. Finding the job may seem like a real challenge.

Where are those opportunities to be found? At Dirt to Dinner, we are perhaps a bit biased. But in our efforts to tell stories from all along the chain from dirt to dinner, we’ve been amazed at the world of opportunities within our food and agriculture system.

Our amazing food system has something to offer for virtually every type of persona and personality – not just jobs, but lasting opportunities for personal and professional satisfaction and reward.

Anyone who believes the food sector can’t compete with the glamor and prestige of other sectors of our economy in offering rewarding careers is simply and sadly mistaken.

Want to do something you love in the work you do. Think long and hard about what the food and agriculture sector has to offer.

You don’t have to run with the herd

Jobs in food and agriculture have real appeal for lots of younger people today, especially those with solid roots in the middle America and Middle American values.

Part of the interest seems linked to a recognition among those with rural roots of the importance of maintaining a vibrant, productive food sector. They see every day just how critical our food system is to feed a hungry world, and provide the economic vitality that keeps rural America alive and well. Food and agriculture are part of their DNA already.

But the appeal doesn’t end there. It’s not just young people from rural areas who see a future in the sector.

The interest extends to people defined less by geographic origins than personality type. That’s where the food and agriculture sector has its real strength. There’s a rewarding career opportunity for virtually every personality type – multiple avenues to finding exactly the thing you love to do.

What is your personality?

The textbook definition of personality is deceptively simple. It’s the characteristic way a person thinks, feels and behaves.

Each of us is an individual – a unique person, with our own likes, dislikes, sources of joy and fulfillment, and aspirations. But we nonetheless fall into types of personalities. Most of us have seen the concept up close and personal at some point in our lives.

It might have been high school, or a job application, or any of dozens of pathways to something like the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. Tests like this help identify personality types and organize them into logical groupings.

Whatever labels we choose to apply to our diversity of personality types, the ability of the food and agriculture sector to accommodate them becomes very apparent very quickly.

Consider just a few of the possibilities…

The Scientist And Discoverer

So you really like science. You love the challenge of figuring things out, and using your skills to create new things. The world needs what you have to offer – and no one more so than people who eat.

Scientists play an essential role in finding new and better ways to produce not just more food but also healthier and more nutritious food. They hold the key to finding new and better plant varieties, more resistant to pests and helping renew the soil, or animals that grow faster, with less need for feed and water.

They formulate better food and feed ingredients, and more diverse sources of the proteins, oils, sweeteners and other essential components of a heathy diet. The list of potential areas of discovery and development is virtually endless, but here are just a few to get you started:

The Innovator and Inventor

This personality type sees things that others don’t see, and brings new ideas to life. They look for ways to do things better, and they see the potential within new technologies and modern science.

Creating new tools for an evolving global food system demands exactly this mindset and the skills that come with it. Different ways of making the same food. New farm equipment offering greater control in applying fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Remote control equipment. New food processing tools and systems. Better integration of computer controls and automation. The potential for rewarding careers – and an improved food system – are practically limitless. Consider this just a couple of options:

The Teacher and Educator

All the knowledge in the world may be useless unless it is shared. Making smart decisions about our food demands the right information, delivered effectively. It may be in educating people about healthy diets and nutrition, or food storage and preparation. It may focus on helping people understand where their food comes from, and how it is produced.

This important career helps build the consumer understanding and support for producers and others across the food chain from dirt to dinner.

The Marketer and Communicator

Today’s food system offers the widest variety of food choices in history. So how do consumers make smart decisions about what to buy and consume? Marketers and communicators fill this need – not just by hawking a particular brand or product but just as important by providing a steady stream of valuable information about the food products on our shelves.

What are the product’s nutritional content? How do they promote health and well-being? Do they meet our expectations for fair treatment of suppliers, sustainable environmental practices and other socially responsible considerations? They use the latest communication tools and technologies – such as social media – to create new channels for reaching larger, more diverse audiences. These marketing roles you commonly see across all industries, including:

The Business Manager

Guiding the activities of a successful enterprise can be a satisfying and rewarding career path. Few if any enterprises can match the challenges and satisfactions that come from managing a modern farm. Agronomy, logistics, supply chain management, finance, labor – all demand skill and attention.

Others in the food chain also must have the same business acumen. Transportation, storage and warehousing, basic ingredient processing, food manufacturing and delivery, retailing – all demand superior management skills. All the way from corporate headquarters, to processing, to the farm itself. Here are a few to think about:

The Naturalist

Admit it. Some of us simply want to avoid being cooped up in a small cubicle, cramped office – or even indoors, if we can avoid. Being out and in touch with the natural world is what we love. It’s a defining characteristic of most farmers and ranchers. But it’s not limited to them.

Consider the role of an agronomist in dealing with producers regularly. Or as an environmental technician or expert. Or a naturalist who cares deeply about sustainability. The list of potential jobs and careers grows even longer when you consider your other interests, such as gardening, animals and photography.

The Mechanic and Operator

Many of us prefer the real and immediate to the theoretical and abstract. We love the satisfaction that comes from using our heads and our hands to make things work the way they should. We thrive on the results our efforts help produce.

Our food system desperately needs that mindset and skill set. Labor remains one of our food system’s greatest challenges – simply having enough people to do the daily chores demanded of farming or ranching, of maintaining valuable equipment and systems, and being on hand to solve problems and deal with potential emergencies. Or equipment supplier, or any of the dozens of suppliers who interact daily with producers.

The need for reliable, competent mechanics and operators is real – and so are the job and career openings in this critical area.

The Numbers Person

Some people see the magic of numbers all around them. Whether used in as an analytical tool, or in an essential accounting and bookkeeping system, or in scientific research, mathematical and related skills are essential to every segment of the food chain.

A fascination with numbers doesn’t have to be channeled solely into rocket science, or any other single discipline. Our food and agriculture system needs that passion, too, across all sectors and in all business lines., including:

The Cyber Star

Ask anyone across the food chain what their most important tools are, and you may be surprised to find “good data and solid analysis” near the top of the list. We live in an age that demands smart decisions in every aspect of our lives. The food and agriculture sector is no different.

Collecting and organizing data is the first challenge. Turning data into knowledge and insight is just as important. Every segment of the food chain must do both, and people with the computer and cyber skills to put the two halves together have enormous career opportunities in agriculture.

Careers in this space offer more than some of the highest salaries available in the marketplace. Many of those working in this area also point to something beyond compensation. They point to the personal satisfaction that comes from knowing they are doing something important to the world around them. They aren’t helping sell more eye make-up or the latest equivalent of the old hula hoop. They are helping to feed a hungry world.

At the Front Lines

These are only a few examples of the exceptional range of job and career opportunities in our modern food system. To see an even more robust survey of food-related jobs and careers, start with a look at just one source of detailed career help for anyone interested in making our food system their preferred career track, like LoveToKnow’s ag careers page and the USDA’s presentation, too.

In recognition of the job and career opportunities available across agriculture, the Future Farmers of America have created AgExplorer – a career resource dedicated to helping young people identify the employment possibilities and prepare for careers not just in farming and but across the entire food and agriculture sector.

AgExplorer details more than 200 career focus areas, with careful attention to the marriage of computer science and technology to the world of food and agriculture. AgExploer helps students learn about the career opportunities as provides practical, real-world assistance in planning and preparing to find and secure the job and career they will love. That job and career may be in production agriculture, computer systems, environmental science, food manufacturing and sales, biotechnology services – the list goes on and on and on.

Show Me the Money

The range of salaries paid across the food and agricultural sector is predictably broad.

But specific jobs can come with much more attractive compensation levels.

Job sites like indeed.com and careeraddict.com report on some of the highest paying jobs in agriculture in 2023 – including estimates of salaries for farm managers and food scientists in the $61,000-72,000 range, and veterinarians and ag economists making well into six figures annually.

Transcript: Digging into RMPs

Transcript from November 29, 2023 podcast

Hello, everybody. Garland West here with another Digging In episode, where we try to take a little bit deeper dive into subjects involving our food and the incredible system that produces it.

Today we have a really fun topic for you and one that I bet tells you some things you didn’t know before. We all know how important research is to our food system. We use sound science to open all sorts of doors, better plants and better animals through improved nutrition, better genetics, better production techniques. The list goes on and on and on. Scientists work every day to unlock more value in the commodities and the staples we’ve relied upon for literally hundreds of years. We get better, more nutritious food and innovative new uses that meet real market needs, and we get smarter consumers to boot. Our food system does more than ever before to provide a steady stream of the data and the information that comes from data so we can all make better, smarter food decisions.

None of that happens by chance. It doesn’t fall out of the blue like manna from heaven. It takes money and lots of it. It takes work by thousands of researchers all pointed toward finding answers to some of the toughest issues we still wrestle with in our food system. It takes a concerted effort to get the word out to people. Today we want to tell you a little about the role played by producers in making all that happen. Not the government, not fancy think tanks, not big business or big universities. All those folks play an important role, but we often overlook what hardworking, financially challenged farmers do to drive research and better consumer understanding of our food.

Today we’re going to talk to two people at the front lines of that effort. Bob Parker and Ryan Lepicier have spent years guiding what’s called a research marketing and promotion organization, or RMP, which are producer funded organizations that take farmer dollars and channel them into highly valuable research and public education. Bob and Ryan head the National Peanut Board based in Atlanta, and for more than a dozen years, have work to turn the commitment of peanut producers across the United States into something really, really important Today, we’ll ask them to tell us a bit about RMPs and especially what the peanut Board has been doing to help in peanut research and promotion.

Bob & Ryan, thank you for joining us at Dirt to Dinner. Digging in, you have a friendly audience here. Peanuts are one of my favorite stacks, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich may be my ultimate comfort food, but in a world hungry for protein and with farmers needing every market opportunity they can find, there’s more at stake here than snacks. Let’s start with the basics. Tell us what an RMP is and why the work groups like yours is so important to the interests of consumers everywhere.

Bob Parker:

An RMP is a research marketing and promotion board. It’s an organization created by the producers of a commodity where they come together and they vote whether to establish an official research marketing and promotion organization with their producer dollars. And the goal is to increase demand through promotion and marketing. And the other goal is to improve efficiency and production through production research.

Garland West:

Well, how many of these organizations are there? I know I’m familiar with the National Peanut Board, but how many of these organizations exist across US? Agriculture?

Bob Parker:

How many stars are in the sky?

Garland West:

Good answer.

Bob Parker:

I counted up at least 25, and it ranges all over the board from beef, pork and egg fluid milk. There’s even a paper and packaging board that was created by the paper industry to generically promote the use of paper. And they do an exceptional job with saying, send a personal note, someone that’s very effective. There’s the mushroom board, there’s cotton, there’s even a honey board, there’s multiple avocado boards. Oh my goodness. Three or four avocado boards, Mexican avocados and avocados and mango board, which is mostly imported. So importers help pay an assessment. They help pay for the funding of these boards.

Garland West:

Is there some Christmas organization? How do you coordinate all of these activities? Or are they totally independent of each other?

Bob Parker:

Well, we’re all under oversight from the agricultural marketing Service of USDA. We’re all, we’re an instrument of the United States Department of Agriculture, if that makes any sense. So we were authorized by 1996 Act of Congress that allowed producers to come together and vote whether to assess themselves a certain amount per unit of sale. In our case, $3 and 55 cents a ton to fund our program. And that’s how most of these boards were created, but some were created through their own act.

Garland West:

Sorry to interrupt, but you said something that really got my attention as a taxpayer. It sounds to me like these organizations are self-funded. This is not taxpayer money.

Bob Parker:

There’s not a penny that goes to fund our operations from taxpayers. In fact, I would argue that we benefit taxpayers by our production research and increasing awareness of the benefits of consuming peanuts, for example. And because of our support for production research, we’ve lowered the cost of production to the point that the price of a serving a peanut butter or snack peanuts today is only 19 cents per serving. So the consumer I think, benefits from our work through lower cost to buy our products.

Garland West:

Is there any kind of measure, how do you go about assessing the effectiveness of the money you spend? Is there any kind of economic projection about every dollar you spend generating X number of something?

Bob Parker:

USDA requires that we do a return on investment analysis every five years. And with that analysis as an econometric analysis, the economist looks at where we focus our efforts and spending and then looks at the impact that our efforts had on those specific areas and calculates a return. And our last return on investment analysis was performed in 2019 and showed over a $9 return to the farmer for every dollar invested by Farmers

Garland West:

Nine to one.

Bob Parker:

Yeah. Did

Garland West:

I hear you correctly on that? Yes. So if I test a buck, I get $9 in return.

Bob Parker:

That’s right.

Garland West:

That’s pretty good return. That’s better than what I get at my local bank by a long shot. Well, you talk about research and you talk about marketing and promotion. Can you give me an example or a couple of examples in each of those areas? What kind of research do you support?

Bob Parker:

We support research in several areas. So we do production research and we also support food allergy research in the production research arena. It’s bottom driven, I would say. What we do is we have so many dollars that we’re required by our charter to spend on production research, and we will allocate this money to each state based on its percentage of the production of US peanuts. We’ll ask the states to seek proposals from their research community and bring those proposals to our board for approval. So the farmers on the ground, the state organizations who know better than anyone what they need and what their issues and problems are actually submit to us how to spend their allocation of the research dollars. On top of that, we also spend money, additional research funds on areas such as genomic research. So how can we improve the genetics of conventionally farmed peanuts without having to resort to transgenic peanuts? Because right now there’s consumer resistance, manufacturer resistance, and so we’ve funded substantial amounts of research along with other industry organizations in mapping the genome of the peanut and then putting that knowledge to use through genetic markers. So breeders now, instead of making a cross by trial and error and hoping it took and actually do a DNA test and see if the trait that they were seeking to introduce into another plant actually took. And then I’ll let Ryan talk about some of our food allergy research because I’ve been doing all the talking so far.

Ryan Lepicier:

I think it’s interesting in the simplest terms, I think of research marketing and promotion programs as a self-help tax that producers impose upon themselves to help solve problems. Like in our case with peanuts in the late 1990s, we saw consumption way down. And remember the nineties were a time of low fat everything, and of course peanuts have healthy fats. So the industry got together around this idea of let’s create one of these research marketing and promotion programs so that we can help to solve some problems that the industry is facing. And one of those was the need to communicate about nutrition to the consumer, about the fact that peanuts are healthy, about the fact that peanuts contain heart healthy fats and protein and things that we need to have healthy lives. On the allergy front, I think this is one of the most interesting stories about the peanut board.

Ryan Lepicier:

How did a bunch of peanut farmers get onto this issue of peanut allergy? When the board first formed in the early two thousands, they got this giant truck that went around the country to state fairs and festivals, and it had a stage that was on the back of the truck and this giant peanut popped up and there were chef demos and performers. And as they took this truck around the country from time to time, someone would come up to them and say something like, how does it feel to grow something that kills people? And they kind of scratch their heads and they’re like, Hmm, this is happening more than once. We’re getting negative comments here and there. What’s going on with peanut allergy? We better learn about this. We better get smart about this. And so they formed a scientific advisory counsel of some of the world’s top experts to advise them, and they ended up getting connected with this guy, Dr.

Ryan Lepicier:

Gideon lack, a researcher in London who had spoken about his theory that children in western societies like uk, the United States, Australia, we’re not getting peanut in the diet early yet. He knew from his work that kids in Israel got a peanut snack called Bumba when they were teething age. And so he was looking for funding to do a study about that very issue, and the board gave him some money. And that study was published and it showed indeed that kids in Israel were fed this peanut containing food early, and the prevalence of peanut allergy was much, much lower in Israel. So fast forward, he puts together this larger study, it’s called the LEAP study. And the LEAP study took over 500 kids and put them into two different groups. One group of kids, all the kids were at high risk of peanut allergy, meaning they had eczema or egg allergy already.

Ryan Lepicier:

And half the kids got peanut between four and six months and half the kids did not get peanut. And when the study was completed after many, many years, it turned out that you could reduce the prevalence of peanut allergy in the peanut eating group by 86%. So those kids by age five. So those kids that got peanut early in the LEAP study, say that again, I want to make sure That’s really impressive set of numbers there up to the Yeah, so the LEAP study took hundreds of kids and put them into two different groups. All these kids had egg allergy or eczema. That’s a risk factor for developing peanut allergy. Half the kids got peanuts between four and six months of age. The other half the kids got no peanut food. Fast forward, the kids are five years old, the study ends and the kids that got peanut early, they had a reduction peanut allergy by 86%.

Garland West:

Wow, that’s really impressive.

Ryan Lepicier:

So when you talk about research and promotion programs and how farmers are making a difference, they’re not only helping themselves, right? They’re helping society at large by funding nutrition research by funding allergy research. In this case a landmark study that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine that has changed the way that we feed our children. The dietary guidelines for Americans now say that kids should get all foods in the first year of life including allergenic foods like peanuts.

Garland West:

You’re telling me that the peanut industry, the peanut producer in particular, has funded this kind of important research work. Are we talking about tens of thousands of dollars of research, hundreds of thousands of dollars of research or million dollars of research,

Ryan Lepicier:

Try nearly $40 million in research education funding on the food allergy front,

Garland West:

Paid by peanut producers in America,

Ryan Lepicier:

Paid by peanut farmers in America.

Bob Parker:

Absolutely.

Garland West:

That’s

Bob Parker:

Very, that many could have gone for other things, but we felt like it was important to address that issue.

Garland West:

Absolutely, absolutely. I’ve also heard rumors that you get involved in some very interesting kind of marketing promotion activities, trying to organize this little podcast. For example, the travel schedule you guys have, the people of the peanut board are on the road nonstop telling the peanut story. How much time do you spend on the road trying to tell that story?

Ryan Lepicier:

Well, we have a great team here at the National Peanut Board of both staff members and partners like from our marketing agency or consultants that we bring in to help us with the work. And we keep everyone really busy. But the good news is that we are able to cover a lot of ground with a pretty modest budget. So we’re looking at consumer marketing really in two or three big buckets. So the first bucket would be consumer marketing, talking to consumers directly about the benefits of peanuts. And then we have a whole segment of our marketing work that’s focused on business development. How do we encourage new uses for peanuts, innovative new uses for peanuts? How do we encourage food service operators to use peanuts in their operation? And then a third thrust of our consumer work is really about reputation management. How do we defend the reputation of the peanut?

Ryan Lepicier:

So the allergy work would sort of fall under that bucket. How do we work to make a difference to improve the lives of people who suffer from peanut allergy? Of course, we’re working to eradicate peanut allergy, right? That’s the holy grail for us as we want to see peanut butter, I’m sorry. We want to see peanut allergy gone, right? We want it out of the picture, but there’s a lot that we can do in the interim to improve the lives of people who have peanut allergy. So for instance, we’ve funded research on oral immunotherapy that’s using the peanut or peanut protein to desensitize an individual with peanut allergies so that they have what’s called bite protection. The accidentally consume peanut. They’re not going to have a severe reaction. They’re not going to be peanut eaters eating PB and J every day, but they can consume peanut and live their lives without that nagging constant fear in the back of their heads that if I accidentally eat something with peanut, I could die.

Ryan Lepicier:

So those are really three areas of work. Of course, to me, and I’m a marketer at heart, is the consumer work is just so much fun. And that’s really because consumer marketing has changed at the speed of light and it continues to change at the speed of light. For many, many, many, many, many years, it was print, tv, radio out of home, and those marketing tools are still in the marketer toolbox, but we have so many amazing tools we can use now that provide us with data to help us improve what we’re doing on the next round. So I think our key platform now is TikTok and the National Peanut Board doesn’t even have a TikTok account. That’s not how you market on TikTok. So the fun thing about TikTok is being able to work with influencers or content creators have a following to help leverage their voices to tell the peanut story, right? We’re not telling it directly from the peanut board. We’re partnering with people who have followers who care about what they say and then using them to tell the peanut story.

Garland West:

Well, you’re dealing with somebody who has a very strong bias. I’m an old geezer who grew up on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. One of my favorite snack foods is peanuts. We’ve got jars of peanuts all around our house, half consumed from where I leave them, wherever I wander around the house. And then as I’ve grown older, I’ve recognized that in a world that needs more and more protein, especially plant proteins, this is a wonder crop. I mean, this is an incredible product that could help the world meet its growing need for more protein, better our consumers generally understanding that. Is the awareness of this as a, I won’t call it a miracle food, but it is a super food. Is the consumer aware of that? Is there growing evidence that consumers recognize what peanuts can offer?

Bob Parker:

If you went by consumption numbers per capita? I would answer yes. They’re aware that peanuts and peanut butter are a healthy choice for plant-based protein. As we’ve seen per capita consumption rates hit all time records during the pandemic at 7.8 pounds per capita in 2021. It fell back slightly to 7.7 and 22 and held at 7.7 in 23. We do, those numbers are updated at the end of July each year. So we’re holding our,

Garland West:

But still respect,

Bob Parker:

We’re holding our ground. We would love to see an 8.08 pounds per capita consumption number one day. And that’s a difficult thing to attain because peanuts are a very, very mature market in the United States. Ryan mentioned over 90% of pantries already have at least one jar of peanut butter in them. So how do we get people to consume more peanuts?

Garland West:

How do you get food manufacturers to make more products in which peanuts are a component? I mean, how much of your time do you spend dealing with food manufacturers to try to sell the wonders of peanuts?

Bob Parker:

Well, we’re doing the best thing we can do, I think on that end is keep the cost of peanuts affordable to the manufacturer so that it is a really high powered but low cost ingredient. And when you look at the cost wholesale cost of peanuts today, even though it’s up a little bit recently, it’s still half of what it was 30 years ago when adjusted for inflation half.

Garland West:

Wow.

Ryan Lepicier:

One thing that’s encouraging to me is that in 2023, peanut butter reached a record high all time record high consumption of 4.4 pounds per capita. So here’s this staple food that’s been around forever that people still love and are continuing to buy. And the opportunity there for manufacturers is to leverage the popularity of peanut butter, of the flavor, the nostalgia into new products. And we see that all the time. Peanut butter and jelly flavored coffee creamer, for instance, was one that I saw recently. So manufacturers know that there’s something special about peanut butter. They know that there is something special to the consumer in terms of nostalgia. But I do think, to answer your earlier question, that consumers do recognize the wholesomeness and goodness of peanuts as both a food and as an agricultural crop. But at the end of the day, it’s all about they love the way the peanut butter tastes. They like the way that they feel when they eat it. They love the nostalgia of eating in shell peanuts like you get at a baseball game. These are emotional ties that people have to the food that our farmers grow.

Garland West:

Very, the very definition of comfort food,

Ryan Lepicier:

Yes, peanuts and peanut butter are the very definition of comfort food, and it’s pretty amazing to work promoting a product that so many people have an emotional connection to. It makes marketing so much easier.

Garland West:

Let me serve up a softball question to you. What could our government do to help spread the word about peanuts above and beyond what you’re doing? What could they do to help people understand the important benefits of peanuts as a source? Not just of tasty, pleasant comfort food, but something that’s really good for them? Is there something the government can do that they’re not doing? Now?

Ryan Lepicier:

I don’t know that we want to talk about what the government can do since we’re a quasi-governmental agency.

Garland West:

I wanted to give you the chance, so now I’ve done it. We can edit that out, don’t worry. One thing that I wanted to circle back on, I keep coming back to this nine to one ratio, which just boggles my mind. You say you have to have periodic assessments by your producers to sort evaluate the work that you’re doing and judge it. What’s your track record and support among peanut producers? Do they like what you’re doing? Are they supportive of it? Are there pockets of support that are stronger than others, or is it kind of a universal support across all the growing areas?

Bob Parker:

We have a referendum every five years, and since I’ve been here, we’ve had referendums in 2014 and 2019, we will have another referendum in 2024, and our support from producers has increased in each of the last two referendums to well over 90% affirmative for continuation.

Garland West:

Over 90% more than nine out of 10?

Bob Parker:

Yes.

Garland West:

Okay. How does that compare with some of these other RMP organizations now? Do you seem to have stronger grower support than some of the others, or is that pretty much a typical rating?

Bob Parker:

I think our support is stronger, frankly. One board recently got voted down by its producers and failed to get a majority vote.
So some industries have opposition from within and from external groups. Some of the animal boards have opposition from animal rights groups that have spent a lot of money targeting these boards, which is to me a vote of confidence because that means obviously that animal rights groups think that RMPs are effective in marketing and increasing demand and consumption for meat, so they wouldn’t bother to attack them.

Ryan Lepicier:

I think what we have Garland, I think what we have going for us as a peanut industry is that we’re a pretty tight-knit industry. We’re a much smaller crop than say corn or soybeans, but we’re delivering results where it matters to the producer, right? We are funding research that’s helping solve problems on the farm. We were part of the funding for the genomics initiative, which unlocked the genome of the peanut, which our scientists are now using to create varieties that help solve problems that producers face on the farm. And then we’ve already talked about food allergy, but we’re made great, great progress on peanut allergy and people can see what we’re doing and they can say the peanut board is doing some really unique work that’s really helping to solve some problems that we have, but let’s keep it going.

Garland West:

Well, between the two of you, you’ve got decades of practical frontline experience in this. So I’m going to put you on the spot here and say, I want you to apply those decades of experience, put on your Johnny Carson Carac, the magnificent hat, and tell me what’s going to happen to you, your organization and organizations like yours in the years ahead. How are you going to be called upon to do something more and different than you’re currently being asked to do? Do you have any projections in that

Bob Parker:

Area? I’m sure that, and I’m going to tee this up for Ryan, 10 years ago, the way we marketed to consumers was totally different than the way we market to consumers today. We were doing print advertisements, was our main method of promoting to consumers, and we shifted totally to online and digital. And the risk with that is that our producers may not see our ads in a magazine because we’re not advertising or we’re not promoting where maybe our producers are. But what lies ahead, I think in five years, 10 years will be totally different from the way we’re marketing and promoting today. And now I’ll hand it off to Ryan to talk

Garland West:

About, Hey Ryan, you’re on the spot there. Tell everybody about your new job.

Ryan Lepicier:

Well, I agree with Bob that, and I mentioned this earlier, that marketing changes at the speed of light As a marketer in 2024, you can’t employ the same tactics that you did every year for the last five years. You’ve got to be abreast of what’s coming down the pipeline. Where are the consumers you’re trying to reach? And you’ve got to be on those platforms. I think the exciting thing for marketers though is that we are going to see a revolution in the way that data is used to reach our audiences. And we’re just at the tip of the iceberg with generative artificial intelligence. But I’m super excited to see where that goes. But I also think, not just in marketing, but one of our challenges is that as our yields increase because of the productivity on the farm increasing, we’re growing a million more tons of peanuts today than we were 10 years ago.

Ryan Lepicier:

And the trajectory is that in 10 more years, we’ll be growing in other million tons taking us to approximately 4 million tons. So what are we going to do with all of those peanuts? We can use them in the domestic market as edible food. We can crush them for oil, we can export them. But I think we’ve got to think seriously in our industry about what are some new uses for peanuts, non-edible uses? And Bob has laid the groundwork for exploring can we produce a peanut that has a higher oil content than the peanuts that we eat that could be used to be crushed as oil. So they would basically, the path would be from the farm to the oil refinery. We’re importing peanut oil that we eat, yet we are growing more peanuts. So it seems like there’s an opportunity there to unlock a potential new use. I think it’s been well publicized that a major oil company is exploring peanuts for biofuels. So what opportunities are there for biofuels? As you mentioned earlier, that peanuts are a crop that’s sustainable to grow. It’s affordable and as a food, it’s delicious. But there are other properties of the peanut, like the oil that make them valuable to market segments that we’re just now starting to explore and tap into.

Garland West:

Wow.

Bob Parker:

There’s also been some research on using certain types of peanuts in a chicken ration for layers and for meat chickens that’s showing some real promise enhanced nutritional profiles of eggs and possibly meat, which could increase demand for peanuts if that takes hold.

Garland West:

So peanuts playing a role beyond their own, beyond them being a source of protein. They’re also potentially something that could improve the production of other forms of protein that the world needs. Really interesting stuff. How in the world do you maintain connections with the producers? I mean, peanut peanuts are produced across the entire southern tier of the United States. How do you go about making sure that you stay in touch with the producers that support you? Especially when you talk about the distance between the traditional marketing tools and the experience of producers increasingly in a modern age. How do you maintain contact with your producers?

Bob Parker:

One thing is a biweekly newsletter that goes out to the industry as a whole and then a quarterly print magazine that goes out to the industry as a whole that talks about really interesting issues around peanuts and highlight some of our work that we’re doing. We certainly have an obligation to make producers aware of our work so that they want, we have an obligation to make producers aware of the work we’re doing, so they’ll feel like they’re getting a benefit from the assessment that they’re paying in to fund our programs.

Garland West:

How much time do you spend actually walking peanut fields? How much do you go out there and get dirt between your toes?

Bob Parker:

Living in Atlanta, it’s not easy to get out into peanut fields. I try to get out as much as I can, but it’s difficult to be everywhere else. We have to be and do that. But we do try to go to every state meeting. We have 12 board members. We have 11 primary producing states that have a board seat and we have a large seat. We’ll have someone at every one of their meetings. And Ryan or I try to go to as many as we can, but if we can’t make it, one of our staff members will be there and we’ll talk about our work.

Garland West:

Well, if you’ve got over a 90% approval rating, it sounds like you’re doing something right?

Bob Parker:

Yeah, I think so. But we can’t take that for granted either.

Garland West:

Alright. Well, this is another

Ryan Lepicier:

Powerful way that we’re able to keep in touch with producers Garland, is through the relationships we have with grower leaders in the industry. So for instance, we’re members of the American Peanut Council, our trade association for the US peanut industry. And many of the states will send a delegation of peanut producers who are leaders in their state. And when those leaders know what you’re doing and they value the work that you’re doing, they’re talking about it to growers in their area. So it kind of helps us to maintain those relationships that we have.

Bob Parker:

We have 24, 25 peanut industry organizations, and I’m probably leaving some out when I try to count them up. And so trying to get alignment is extremely important. And once a year we have a marketing summit where we bring in, we cover the cost of travel for the state executives from each major peanut producing state, and their board chairs and other industry organizations are invited as well. This week we head to Chicago for that meeting and we unveil our marketing plan for the upcoming year at that meeting. And we try to get alignment. We say, here’s what we’re doing. Our resources are there for you. All you have to do is ask and we’ll share our resources so that we, hopefully we’ll get them to also focus in the same direction that we are. And that’s something that Ryan has led and hatched some years ago, and I think it’s been very effective in creating industry alignment and coercion or cohesiveness. It’s been very important in developing industry alignment and cohesion.

Garland West:

Excellent. Ryan, you want to add anything to that? Don’t have to.

Ryan Lepicier:

I don’t think so. Bob said it. Well,

Garland West:

You have been very, very generous with your time. This has been very educational. I think that the listeners to digging in will find it of interest. I’d like to thank you for your time and give you one last chance to deliver the magic message at the end of the podcast. If you want consumers to know one thing about peanuts and the National Peanut Board, what would you like them to know?

Bob Parker:

Peanuts are healthy. They’re incredibly, peanuts are healthy. They taste amazingly, start over. Peanuts are healthy. They’re good for you with any and nutrients and healthy fats. They taste great and they’re sustainable like no other nut.

Garland West:

Very

Ryan Lepicier:

Nice. Since Bob covered the functional benefits of peanuts, I’ll talk a little bit about the other thing that I love about peanuts, and that’s our peanut farmers. Our peanut farmers are amazing in many cases. In most cases, running multi-generational family businesses. And if anybody thinks being a farmer is easy, they’ve got another thing coming. Our farmers put a lot at risk every year when they grow the crops that they bring to market for the consumer. And fortunately, I think many of them take great pride in doing that work and are willing to take the risks that come their way.

And it’s very exciting to see some of the things that young farmers are bringing to the table. Their dad, their grandparents, their moms may have been farmers, but these young farmers are a new generation and they’re bringing the same but a little bit different level of excitement and approach to making sure that their business is sustainable for their children.

Garland West:

Wow, that’s very, very good. You’re telling me that they’re tasty, they’re nutritious, they’re sustainable environmentally, and they’re sustainable in terms of perpetuating the family farm that’s made our American Ag system what it’s today. That’s a pretty good summary of an industry. Bob & Ryan, that’s a great note to end on.

Thank you again for being with us on Dirt to Dinner’s, Digging In podcast. I might add a personal note of congratulations to both men, Bob, for a remarkable career in service to peanut farmers in the entire peanut industry and agriculture in general for that matter. And Ryan for his recent selection to follow Bob as the peanut board’s next president and CEO. Guys, thanks for a job very, very well done.

I’m Garland West reminding you to visit us at www dirttodinnedev.wpenginepowered.com. I’ll promise we’ll make it fun and informative.

Digging into RMPs: National Peanut Board

Because of our ever-evolving food system, we get better, more nutritious food and innovative new uses that meet real market needs, and we get smarter consumers to boot. It takes work by thousands of researchers all pointed toward finding answers to some of the toughest issues we continue to wrestle with every day. And it takes a concerted effort to get the word out to people.

But who’s in charge of this endeavor? Not the government, not fancy think tanks, not big business or big universities. All those folks play important roles, but we often overlook what hardworking, financially challenged farmers who drive the demand to improve consumer understanding of our food.

In this episode of Digging In, we’re turning to the peanut industry to provide a stellar example of organizations that work behind the scenes for its farmers. The National Peanut Board, a research, marketing and promotion organization (“RMP”) for U.S. peanut farmers, is headed up by Bob Parker, current CEO; and Ryan Lepicier, current Chief Marketing Officer and next CEO. RMPs like this organization help improve our food system to provide a steady stream of information so we can all make better, smarter food decisions.

Click here for a transcript of this podcast.

Here are our guests in this episode:

Bob Parker joined the National Peanut Board, a farmer-funded research, marketing and promotion organization based in Atlanta, Georgia, as its president and CEO in 2012. At the National Peanut Board, he has focused on the mission of improving the economic condition of America’s peanut farmers and their families. Those efforts have centered around promoting the increased consumption of U.S.-grown peanuts domestically and internationally, addressing barriers to consumption such as peanut allergy and supporting production research to make peanut farmers more productive, efficient and sustainable.

The 2023 peanut crop is the 47th of Parker’s professional career, although he has been around peanuts his entire life. He has a broad range of experience in peanuts and agriculture, both domestically and internationally, from growing, processing, public policy and marketing. Parker is a graduate of the University of Georgia with a degree in agricultural economics.

Ryan Lepicier serves as senior vice president and chief marketing officer at the National Peanut Board with a passion for fueling peanut demand and consumption. He will begin his role as NPB president and CEO on January 1, 2024. He and his team are working to make peanuts the most relevant nut among millennial consumers by ensuring people are thinking about peanuts differently, talking about peanuts positively, engaging with peanuts more often, and buying more peanuts.

Lepicier has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and communication from the University of Oregon and an MBA from Auburn University. He likes his peanut butter straight from the jar on a spoon. Crunchy, please.

Haricots Verts with Ginger & Pecans

A Bright, New Twist on Green Beans

Lisa Fielding, D2D’s contributing chef, recommends Team D2D and all our readers to immediately exchange that tired green bean casserole for this bright, complex dish that triumphs over its soggy cousin. And we couldn’t agree more.

Consider this as a worthy accompaniment to your Thanksgiving turkey, or as a bed under a grilled salmon filet. No matter how you prepare it, you won’t be disappointed.

Want to dig deeper into this recipe to learn how foods like these are a part of our bigger food system? We’ve got something for everyone!

Haricots Verts in Browned Butter with Caramelized Ginger & Pecans

Serves 8

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. haricot verts, trimmed and washed
  • 1 inch knob of fresh ginger peeled and cut into thin matchsticks
  • 1/3 cup pecan pieces toasted in a skillet for 2 minutes
  • 1 stick salted high quality butter

Instructions:

  • Prepare an ice bath. Either steam or blanch haricot verts until tender but still snap when broken in two. Steam will take around 3 minutes. Blanching in boiling water around 90 seconds. Place in ice bath to stop the cooking process.
  • Melt butter in a skillet over a low heat. You don’t want to the butter to brown quickly. Toss in ginger and cook over low heat until matchsticks turn golden and crispy. Butter will brown simultaneously.
  • Remove haricot verts from ice bath and toss in a kitchen towel until completely dry. Toss with ginger butter and pecans. Platter and serve.

Hungry for more knowledge?

Click on the posts below to sate your curiosity about where our food comes from. And click here for more of our tried-and-true recipes. Bon appetit!

The Ultimate Cocktail Cookie

Calling All Mad Party Hosts!

Lisa Fielding, D2D’s contributing chef, has been making Dorie Greenspan’s famous savory cocktail cookies for years and have typically followed her recipes to the letter. And why not? She’s amazing.

As Lisa says, “The cookies are essentially a shortbread batter elevated with sweet and savory ingredients that produce the most tantalizing bouchée which, after just one bite will transport you to a state of food nirvana.”

But never satisfied to leave well enough alone, Lisa was curious what would happen if she adapted the recipe to include apricots to the savory recipe and add a whole egg instead of egg yolks to plump up the cookie and bind it better when baked through.

Turns out she was right on all counts. This sweet and savory version will add a patina of sophistication to your next cocktail party.

Want to dig deeper into this recipe to learn how foods like these are a part of our bigger food system? We’ve got something for everyone!

The Ultimate Cocktail Cookie

Yields 3 dozen cookies

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup whole almonds
  • 1/2 cup whole dried apricots, softened in boiling water for ten minutes and then chopped
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped rosemary
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour (additional flour for rolling and cutting)
  • 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (1 ounce)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 sticks cold unsalted butter, diced
  • 1 egg

Instructions:

  • Preheat the oven to 350°.
  • Add the whole almonds to a food processor and pulse to the consistency of grainy flour. Add the rosemary and sugar and pulse until completely combined. Now add the chopped apricots and pulse until they are well integrated. Add the flour and pulse into a fine grainy mixture.
  • Now add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the egg and pulse until large clumps of dough form.
  • Flour your work surface. Transfer the dough and press into a disc. Lightly flour the disc and with a rolling pin very gently roll into a larger circle until the dough is 1/2″ thick.
  • Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Using a 1 1/2-inch round cookie cutter, stamp out cookies as close together as possible. Arrange the cookies about 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheet.
  • Bake the cookies for about 20 minutes, until lightly golden; you may need to spin the sheet half way through if your oven cooks unevenly. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for 3 minutes, then transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.

Pro tip: Want to make this ahead?
The rolled-out cookie dough can be wrapped in plastic and kept frozen for 2 weeks. Then bake cookies as instructed above.

Hungry for more knowledge?

Click on the posts below to sate your curiosity about where our food comes from. And click here for more of our tried-and-true recipes. Bon appetit!

Classic Cheesecloth Turkey

A Traditional Turkey, but Elevated…

This roasted turkey is the go-to recipe for D2D’s contributing chef, Lisa Fielding…and for good reason. And she follows this beautiful bird up with her extraordinary pumpkin pie cheesecake.

Scroll down for instructions and enjoy 🙂

Want to dig deeper into this recipe to learn how foods like these are a part of our bigger food system? We’ve got something for everyone!

Lisa’s Classic Cheesecloth Turkey

Ingredients

  • 1 turkey (14 to 16 pounds)
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 3 tablespoons minced fresh thyme
  • 3 tablespoons minced fresh sage
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 celery ribs, quartered
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, quartered
  • 1 cup butter, cubed
  • 2 cups white wine

Gravy

  • 2 to 3 cups chicken broth
  • 5 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 325°. Remove giblets from turkey; cover and refrigerate for gravy. Pat turkey dry; place breast side up on a rack in a roasting pan. In a small bowl, combine softened butter, thyme and sage. With fingers, carefully loosen skin from turkey breast; rub butter mixture under skin. Sprinkle salt and pepper over turkey and inside cavity; fill cavity with celery, onion and carrot.
  • In a large saucepan, melt cubed butter; stir in wine. Saturate a four-layered 17-in. square of cheesecloth in butter mixture; drape over turkey. Bake turkey, uncovered, 3 hours; baste with wine mixture every 30 minutes, keeping cheesecloth moist at all times.
  • Remove and discard cheesecloth. Bake turkey until a thermometer inserted in the thigh reads 170°-175°, basting occasionally with pan drippings, 45 minutes to 1-1/4 hours longer. (Cover loosely with foil if turkey browns too quickly.)
  • Remove turkey to a serving platter; cover and let stand 20 minutes before carving. Discard vegetables from cavity. Pour drippings and loosened brown bits into a measuring cup. Skim fat, reserving 1/3 cup. Add enough broth to remaining drippings to measure 4 cups.
  • In a saucepan, melt a few tablespoons butter and add flour to make a roux. Cook for one minute and add broth all at once whisking until incorporated. Simmer for five minutes stirring constantly until thickened. Use this as your gravy.

Hungry for more knowledge? Click on the posts below to sate your curiosity about where our food comes from. And click here for more of our tried-and-true recipes. Bon appetit!

Lisa’s Pumpkin Pie Cheesecake

Pumpkin Pie + Cheesecake = Heaven

Dirt to Dinner’s contributing chef, Lisa Fielding, depends on this Pumpkin Pie Cheesecake to keep the Thanksgiving vibes going strong after her delicious cheesecloth turkey has been gobbled up.

Consider pairing this cheesecake with a fun and festive cocktail to make the day even more scrumptious.

Scroll down for instructions and enjoy 🙂

Want to dig deeper into this recipe to learn how foods like these are a part of our bigger food system? We’ve got something for everyone!

Lisa’s Pumpkin Pie Cheesecake Recipe

Ingredients

Graham cracker crust:

  • 1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs (12 full sheets of grahams processed in the food processor until very fine)
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • 6 tbsp salted butter melted

Pumpkin cheesecake filling:

  • 24 oz cream cheese room temperature (three, 8 oz packages)
  • 1 cup light brown sugar packed
  • 1 cup pumpkin puree
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp sea salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
  • ½ cup sour cream room temperature
  • 3 large eggs room temperature
  • 3 Tbps flour

Instructions

  • Butter and flour the sides of a 9” spring form pan. Line the outside, bottom of the pan completely with heavy-duty foil so no water can leak into the pan from the water bath. Set aside.
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Make the graham cracker crust:

  • In a large bowl, combine graham cracker crumbs, sugar and cinnamon. Add melted butter and stir until combined.
  • Pour the crust mixture into the prepared springform, pressing it down into the bottom of the dish and halfway up the sides.
  • Bake in preheated oven for 5 minutes, then remove the crust from the oven and set aside to slightly cool.

Make the pumpkin cheesecake filling:

  • While the crust is baking make the filling.
  • In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl with a handheld mixer, beat together the cream cheese and brown sugar until light and fluffy and there are no lumps.
  • Add pumpkin puree, vanilla, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, sea salt and sour cream and beat until just combined.
  • Add eggs, one at a time and beat after each addition.
  • Gently stir in flour.

Prepare a water bath:

  • Find a large pan (baking pan, cast iron skillet, fry pan, etc) that will fit your springform pan and put it in the preheated oven. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil.

Bake:

  • Pour the filling over the baked and slightly cooled crust.Place the springform pan in the large pan in the preheated oven. Slowly fill the large pan with boiling water until it is halfway up the sides of the cheesecake pan.
  • Bake in the water bath for 50-55 minutes or until the top and edges are set but not browned and the pumpkin cheesecake is only very slightly jiggly. You can test it by inserting a knife or cake tester in the center of the cake and if it comes out clean you know it is done. However, this can cause the pumpkin cheesecake to crack so I don’t really recommend it (but it’s better than a soupy cheesecake if you’re unsure).
  • Remove the cheesecake from the water bath and set on a wire cooling rack to cool to room temperature. Once at room temperature, transfer the cheesecake to the refrigerator to chill overnight.

Hungry for more knowledge? Click on the posts below to sate your curiosity about where our food comes from. And click here for more of our tried-and-true recipes. Bon appetit!

Can a diet mimic Ozempic’s results?

In the realm of health and wellness, a remarkable medication named Ozempic has dramatically transformed the lives of many individuals struggling with type 2 diabetes and obesity.

What is Ozempic, anyway?

Ozempic, containing the active ingredient semaglutide, made waves in the healthcare community initially in 2017 when the FDA approved it for managing blood sugar levels in conjunction with diet and exercise. But it has become a cultural tsunami this past year (especially on social media) as more non-diabetics have been seeking its myriad health-related benefits.

The benefits are now appreciated by both patients and healthcare professionals. This injectable medication works by mimicking the glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) hormone, which plays a pivotal role in regulating blood sugars, slowing stomach emptying, curbing appetite, and improving heart problems (possibly preventing heart attack and stroke).

However, while medications like this are sometimes necessary, many individuals could achieve similar health outcomes by focusing on a strategic diet, emphasizing foods that naturally regulate blood sugar levels, reduce hunger, and promote weight loss. By eating the right foods, you can still have the “I’m full” effect of Ozempic and the benefits of getting the proper nutrients for your lifestyle.

As the adage goes, “Let food be thy medicine.

Harnessing the Power of Low-Glycemic Foods

Understanding the glycemic index (GI) of foods is paramount. Low-GI foods facilitate gradual blood sugar increases, mimicking Ozempic’s blood glucose-stabilizing effect. Integrating these foods into your diet means you’re investing in a spectrum of benefits that support your metabolic health.

Whole grains are a cornerstone here. Options like quinoa, barley, and steel-cut oats should be regulars on your grocery list. Consider servings of about a half-cup of cooked grains at mealtimes enough to reap the benefits without excessive calorie intake.

Incorporating legumes is also wise; foods like lentils, chickpeas, and various beans not only stabilize blood sugar but are also rich in proteins and micronutrients. A standard portion would be approximately a half-cup cooked, balancing blood sugar management and satiety.

Fruits, while often sweet, can also be low-GI superstars. Berries, cherries, and apples come with the added bonus of vital antioxidants and vitamins. A typical serving could be one small apple or a cup of berries, perfect for a snack or dessert without causing a sugar spike.

Integrating these foods into your daily meals, in addition to having a half-cup of cooked quinoa or incorporating legumes into your salads, can contribute to the slow and steady absorption of carbohydrates, akin to the metabolic balance that Ozempic promotes.

The Satiating Effect of Dietary Fiber

If you’re aiming to naturally replicate the appetite-reducing effect of Ozempic, dietary fiber is your ally. High-fiber foods add bulk to your diet and slow digestion, which can fend off hunger pangs.

Vegetables like leafy greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and carrots — and fruits like pears and apples — are high in fiber.  Whole grains and legumes also join this list, offering twice the benefits with their low GI and high fiber content.

Consuming these not only helps with digestion but also keeps you full longer, reducing the likelihood of overeating. Adults should aim for at least 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day, spread across all meals. In practical terms, this could be about two cups of mixed leafy vegetables, a medium-sized pear, or a half-cup of cooked, high-fiber grains like barley.

Don’t forget about seeds such as chia or flaxseeds, either. Just one tablespoon can provide about 5 to 6 grams of fiber. These are easy to sprinkle over salads and yogurts, or incorporated into baked goods, allowing for a fiber boost without a significant increase in food volume.

One of my favorite daily high-fiber meals is creating a colorful salad loaded with leafy greens, chopped carrots, and sprinkled with a handful of beans. Try this out and you’ll be introducing a meal into your routine that keeps you fuller for longer, potentially reducing overall calorie intake, much like the weight management benefit observed with Ozempic use.

Proteins & Fats: Allies in Weight Management

Proteins and healthy fats, while fundamental for various bodily functions, also play a direct role in weight management, metabolic regulation and satiety. Lean proteins like chicken breast, fish, and tofu should be staples in your diet. A 3- to 4-ounce serving of these proteins at meals — roughly the size of your palm — is generally adequate to support muscle maintenance, especially important as you lose weight. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, mackerel, and walnuts, improve insulin sensitivity, an effect beneficial for type 2 diabetes management.

Healthy fats, also found in foods like avocados, nuts, and olives, contribute to a meal’s overall GI, slowing digestion and helping to moderate blood sugar levels. A quarter of an avocado, a tablespoon of olive oil in cooking, or a small handful of nuts is sufficient. They not only enhance your meal’s nutritional profile but also add flavors that taste good.

Meanwhile, lean proteins like chicken breast, turkey, and tofu help preserve muscle mass, essential for maintaining a healthy metabolism. Balancing your meal with a good protein source and perhaps a dash of healthy fats, like cooking with olive oil or topping your salad with sliced almonds, can help you feel full and maintain consistent energy levels, two things associated with Ozempic.

The Power of Hydration

Proper hydration is an often overlooked aspect of metabolic health. Aim for at least 64 ounces of water a day, depending on your physical activity. Regular water intake is crucial for overall bodily functions, including maintaining optimal blood sugar levels.

Hydration’s role in health is so foundational that it complements any approach aiming to improve metabolic stability. Adding a slice of cucumber or lemon can make the same old water taste better, ensuring you meet your hydration goals.

Crafting a Balanced Diet: Practical Tips

Bringing all these elements together requires balance and moderation.

  • Start your day with a breakfast rich in proteins and low-GI foods; think a bowl of steel-cut oats topped with chia seeds and berries, or a spinach and mushroom omelet cooked with olive oil. These options set the tone for your metabolic responses throughout the day.
  • For lunch and dinner, half your plate should be vegetables, a quarter protein, and a quarter low-GI carbohydrates. This could be a mixed greens salad with grilled chicken and quinoa or a serving of chili using lean turkey and an array of beans.
  • Snacks should also be nutrient-dense. Yogurts, nuts, seeds, and fresh fruits are your go-to items. These ensure you’re not just filling up but nourishing your body, supporting the microbiome, and maintaining blood sugar levels.

Concluding Bite

While Ozempic represents a medical advancement, our daily food choices are just as impactful. Understanding and harnessing the power of nutrition can help sustain health and wellness, often achieving the benefits provided by such medications.

Of course, these dietary strategies don’t replace professional medical advice. Instead, they should encourage a conversation with your healthcare provider about integrating holistic approaches into your health regimen, tailoring them to your individual needs, and, perhaps, letting your meals function as medicine.

Tiny plastics pose huge problems

Small pieces of plastic, now termed microplastics have infiltrated all ecosystems, posing a severe threat to wildlife…and now us. New research has shown that microplastics — especially its microscopic offspring, nanoplastics — might accumulate within our bodies, too.

Microscopic Fibers with Massive Implications

Microplastic particles measure less than 5mm in size, or smaller than the width of a pencil eraser.

How do these plastics find their way inside us? I’ve never been caught in a hailstorm of plastic beads (and you probably haven’t either). Unfortunately, what we’re talking about here is something smaller…way smaller.

We’re talking about nanoplastics. Fibers that are smaller than 1 micrometer (1 μm), or the length of a tiny bacterium, or 1/50 the width of a strand of human hair. 

Despite its seemingly inconsequential size, nanoplastics pose significant risks.

These barely detectable yet ever-present fibers can pass through biological barriers, like blood and organ lining and, over time, accumulate within the body.

Where Do The Fibers Come From?

Microplastics, including nanoplastics, are ubiquitous because they’re durable and resist decomposition. They are primarily generated through the breakdown of oversized plastic items and fabrics, microbeads in personal care products, and a host of other industrial processes.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) held a seminar based on reporting from the government of Sweden that found synthetic textiles as the single greatest contributor to engineered microplastics in the ocean, accounting for 35% of total microplastic volume

Polyester, nylon, and acrylic – common fabrics used to make 60% of the world’s clothes — are all considered synthetic.

Unfortunately, our typical shopping habits are mostly to blame here, with synthetic fabrics and toiletries making up almost 40% of the total microplastic volume.

These plastic-based fibers shed microplastics every step along the way, from its production, to wearing and laundering, and even during its eventual disposal, mostly in landfills. In fact, a 2016 study found that each laundering of a fleece jacket releases an average of 1.7 grams of microfibers, which can end up in the ocean. Nylon, polyester and acrylic clothes all shed microfibers when washed.

Tires are next in line as significant sources of microplastics, followed by city dust. While you’ll find a greater concentration of microplastics around densely populated areas with heavy traffic, industrial activity, and busy commerce, these tiny particulates are adept at world travel.

In fact, scientists recorded 365 microplastic particles per square meter falling daily from the sky in the remote Pyrenees Mountains in southern France.

The Path from Environment to Food

One of the most alarming aspects of microplastic contamination is its presence in what we eat. Microplastics have been found in a wide range of whole foods, including seafood, fruits, vegetables, honey, and bottled drinking water.

Microplastic entry into our food system mostly happens through these channels:

  • Ingestion by animals and seafood that we eventually eat (“trophic transfer”)
  • Soil and plants absorbing degraded fibers from synthetic mulches and films (plastic bags, for example)
  • Airborne fibers that, once settled, are ingested or absorbed by trophic transfer
  • Food processing and packaging along all points, from the industrial food and drink facilities, to chopping on our polyethylene cutting boards at home

Health Risks from Ingesting Plastics

Several studies have pointed out the adverse effects in various parts of our bodies, including:

“Our research shows that we are ingesting microplastics at the levels consistent with harmful effects on cells, which are in many cases the initiating event for health effects.”

–        Evangelos Danopoulos, Hull York Medical School, U.K.

Microplastic Release using Microwaves

A recent and particularly frightening study from University of Nebraska demonstrates microwaving’s effect on plastics, compounding concerns found in previous studies.

The issue comes down to the structure of plastic during production. Simply put, particles look and behave like cooked spaghetti. You know how cooked spaghetti clumps together when cooling down, but then starts releasing strands when reheated? Those little spaghetti-like plastic structures are released into our foods when plastic gets hot in the same way.

But what about plastic containers that read “microwave-safe”? Perhaps they’re not so safe after all. This study found that heat from the microwave can cause plastic containers to break down, releasing small plastic particles into the food or beverage being heated. And not just a few particles: some containers could release as many as 4 million microplastic and 2 billion nanoplastic particles from only one square centimeter of plastic area within three minutes of microwave heating.

But it doesn’t stop at microwaves:

  • Cooking food in plastic containers or using plastic utensils in hot foods can also release microplastics and nanoplastics
  • Refrigeration and room-temperature storage for over six months can also release millions to billions of microplastics and nanoplastics
  • Polyethylene food pouches commonly used for kids’ applesauce, yogurts, and smoothies, released more particles than polypropylene plastics, often used for refrigerated storage containers and restaurant take-out orders

Separately, the researchers also found that microplastics released from plastic containers caused the death of 77% of human embryonic kidney cells. However, more research needs to be done on this to be conclusive, as this was a first-time in-vitro (i.e. test tube) study.

What Can We Do?

Yes, this information is scary, but don’t fear…we have an incredible food system providing us all with fresh and affordable food choices every day. And plastics do have their place in this system: they reduce food waste by keeping items fresher longer, avoiding cross contamination, and keeping food prices low.

The most important thing you can do to help offset plastics’ negative effects? Plain and simple: eat a balanced diet. Consuming a variety of fresh produce, lean proteins, and healthy fats is the most efficient way to promote healthy digestion, flush toxins from organs, boost cellular activity, and initiate an effective immune response. And, coincidentally, fresher food choices usually have less plastic packaging than their shelf-stable counterparts. 

And here are some other things to implement into your daily life.

  • Avoid microwaving plastic by using microwave-safe glass or ceramic containers instead
  • Consider a time-restricted eating schedule that provides your body with a daily rest from digestion so your organs can operate better and with less inflammation
  • Eat foods high in antioxidants, chlorella, and selenium. These nutrients bind to toxins for removal from your digestive system.
  • Limit premade meals packaged with plastic and that require heating in their container(microwave foods in glass containers instead of plastic ones)
  • Curb consumption of bivalves like oysters, clams, and mussels. When eating these shellfish, you also consume their digestive systems, which harbor more plastics than foods from anywhere else.
  • Reduce plastic use by selecting safer materials, like glass or stainless steel
  • Bring a reusable cup when going to the coffee shop, the gym, work, etc.
  • Filter your tap water to reduce your exposure to microplastics. And don’t drink water from plastic water bottles
  • Reduce canned food purchases since they have thin plastic linings and hold food for extended periods of time

Digging in: Mintel Food Trends Expert

Lynn Dornblaser is a seasoned expert with over 35 years of valuable product trend knowledge and experience at Mintel since 1998. She brings a unique perspective to her work, applying it to tailored client research and engaging in extensive public speaking engagements.

She has been recognized and quoted by esteemed U.S. news organizations, like The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Times, and CNN. Lynn has also had the honor of serving as a keynote lecturer and speaker for numerous industry groups and sales forums.

Prior to joining Mintel, Lynn’s expertise in new product trends was showcased as the editor and editorial director of New Product News at various trade magazine publishing companies.

Like Your Food? Thank a Trucker

When the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) last month reported food price inflation of only 3.7 percent, few seemed to notice. That figure is almost double the food inflation rate since the early 1990s but still way below the numbers posted following the COVID-19 pandemic and the enormous disruption to the food system that followed.

As the Washington Post observed, “Overall, inflation is trending in the right direction.”

In the Covid era, food manufacturers and retailers had a single over-riding priority: Do whatever it takes to keep the pipeline of food as full as possible. Find whatever supplies of the food products consumers wanted and expected of the most modern and efficient food system in human history. Pay whatever needed to be paid to secure those products and see them delivered. Maintaining supply became the universal mantra.

Without a doubt, our food system did a magnificent job of rising to the challenges posed by the Covid era – and the demands of the public. Spot shortages and supply disruptions captured a lot of attention, but by and large, they remained the exception far more than the rule and an inconvenience more than a threat to consumer well-being.

A Sign of the Times

But rising to the challenge came with a cost: food inflation at record or near-record levels. Consumers seemed more than willing to ante up for the food we all want – at least for a while. We’re now seeing early signs that willingness to pay more and more for our food is giving way to a new consumer attitude – one of cost-consciousness that is leading more and more food manufacturers and retailers to shift gears.

Consumers are showing increasing resistance to inexorable food price increases. More and more of us are turning to store brands… price shopping across suppliers… taking more advantage of sales and promotions… simply choosing to look at less-expensive meal alternatives…and more. Some disgruntled food shoppers have even resorted to – gasp – doing without.

In simple terms, price has become an increasingly important consideration for consumers.

A May 2022 study by Ernst & Young found that nearly three of every five consumers say price is their foremost purchase consideration. Two of three consumers say it will become the most critical consideration in the next three years.

The food sector seems to have taken this shift in attitude to heart. They are asking hard questions of suppliers, seeking to bring more pricing discipline to all aspects of their operations. Food manufacturers and retailers report spending more and more time examining opportunities for cost-reducing innovations and making smart investments in new technologies that enhance productivity.

But the single factor of unpredictability most often cited in Dirt to Dinner: the human element. And the portion of our food system most vulnerable to this unpredictability: transportation, and in particular, the trucking industry.

Trucking’s Consequential Labor Issues

Managers and operators across the food chain have reported a widespread lack of the people needed to do many of the fundamental manual tasks demanded by the entire food chain. Work crews are needed to do the hard, often back-breaking work of harvesting and initial transportation of commodities and food products. Farm managers complain bitterly of a lack of willing workers to do the daily arduous tasks that come with daily farm and ranch life, especially in dairy. Even farm-service suppliers report shortages of mechanics, service technicians, and others vital to maintaining routine farm and ranch operations.

No labor shortage provides greater cause for concern than the trucking sector.

The statistics can be mind-numbing. According to the American Trucking Association (ATA), trucks move about 73 percent – yes, almost three-quarters – of the nation’s freight. That’s about 11.5 billion tons. Nearly 14 million trucks are on the road today, traveling over 327 billion miles.

The U.S. Department of Transportation reports over 750,000 active U.S. carriers. More than 95 percent of those operate ten or fewer trucks. The industry employs 8.4 million individuals as drivers or in support roles, with about 1.4 million actual drivers.

As impressive as the trucking industry statistics may be, they don’t explain the cause for concern from the food industry. 

Trucks provide the common element across the entire food chain, providing the connective glue that brings food from dirt to dinner. Trucks bring farm inputs, transport commodities, animals, and ingredients from farm to collection points to food plants and production facilities. They carry finished food products to distributors and retailers and increasingly, to home delivery. A half-dozen trucks – or more – may be involved in the journey from dirt to dinner. When trucking services fail at any link in the chain, the likely result is system disruption – and supply interruption, and higher costs.

During the Covid pandemic, reports of a shortage of truck drivers were common. Food industry and transportation experts contacted by Dirt to Dinner report common problems with securing reliable truck services and cite this uncertainty as a significant factor behind the food sector’s efforts to secure contractual commitments from larger, proven, reliable suppliers.

Managers at large food companies report delays in service delivery and the growing issue of simple communications. “More and more of the drivers simply don’t speak English,” as one logistic manager explained. “You can imagine the problems that can create.”

Driver Shortage…or Driver Retention?

Those comments point to the debate within transportation circles about the existence of a “driver shortage.” Some prefer to call it a “driver retention” problem.

According to this point of view, the real problem is the simple unwillingness of people to accept the harsh demands of the profession. Extended periods of time away from home, constant travel, unfamiliar food, long spells of downtime, and boredom in strange locales have proven unattractive to prospective truckers. Even those anxious to find work and attracted to the ‘open road and personal freedom’ of trucking seem to become disillusioned and move on to work that offers something closer to the quality of life they seek – time at home, with family and friends, especially.

The industry has no choice but to adapt to these changing worker expectations, according to trucking industry figures. It begins with economics – meaning more pay. BLS reports an 2020 average truck driver salary of $48,710, rising to $49,920 in May 2022.

The agency agrees with food industry executives that demand for professional heavy and tractor-trailer drives will continue to grow, at a projected 4 percent per year through 2032. That works out to roughly 241,000 openings per year.

Observers of the trucking industry acknowledge the aggressive and creative efforts of the industry to improve driver conditions and adapt to changing expectations of potential drivers. They also note the special effort being made to attract more women to the profession – and more married driver teams.

But they also emphasize the need to move quickly – or see the recovery of our overall economy (and our food sector) sputter.

The Ins & Outs of Mushroom Products

Mushrooms have been enjoyed for ages, not just because they’re delicious, but also for their amazing health perks! Recent studies have shown that mushrooms are packed with essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, and special compounds that are great for your overall health.

As people become more curious about these advantages, mushroom supplements have popped up as a handy way to tap into their potential, making it easier to reap the benefits without relying solely on eating them.

Nutritional Benefits of Mushrooms

We at Dirt to Dinner have tried a variety of mushroom powders and supplements. We love sources that have proven cognitive and immune benefits but we always want to know that our sources are the best.

Mushrooms are a natural source of essential nutrients such as B vitamins (riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid), minerals (potassium, copper, selenium), and dietary fiber. They also contain unique bioactive compounds such as flavonoids, β-glucans, ergosterol (a precursor of vitamin D), and various polyphenols. These compounds have been linked to immune system modulation, antioxidant activity, and potential anti-inflammatory effects.

Mushroom varieties like Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) and Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) have been extensively studied for their health-promoting properties. Shiitake, for instance, contains lentinan, a polysaccharide with immunomodulatory effects. Reishi mushrooms are known for their triterpenoids, which exhibit potential antitumor and anti-inflammatory activities.

Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) is another medicinal mushroom with a unique appearance, resembling cascading white icicles. Beyond its culinary uses, Lion’s Mane has gained attention for its potential health benefits, particularly in the realm of cognitive health and neurological well-being. It contains bioactive compounds, including erinacines and hericenones, that have shown neuroprotective effects and the ability to support brain health.

Lions Mane can also stimulate Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), which contributes to nerve cell maintenance and repair. It can help form new neurons, combat cognitive decline, and enhance memory and attention—truly incredible cognitive benefits!

Mushroom Supplements & Benefits

Back in February of this year, market reports had some exciting news. The global functional mushroom market, which covers everything from mushroom-based foods and drinks to supplements, was valued at a whopping $50.3 billion! And guess what? It’s still on the rise!

Now, let’s talk about the real heroes here – mushroom supplements. They’re all the rage! There are lots of brands out there crafting these powerhouse formulations, making it super easy to bring the magic of mushrooms into your daily routine. They come in all sorts of forms like powders, extracts, capsules, and tinctures. It’s like a mushroom smorgasbord. 

These supplement folks make a big deal about specific compounds like β-glucans, polysaccharides, or triterpenoids because they’re like the secret sauce behind the potential health perks. But here’s the real question: how can we be sure we’re getting a top-notch product? Is it just about the formulation or are there other considerations?

Here are some key factors to consider when assessing supplement quality and ensuring the authenticity:

Ingredient Transparency:

  • Reputable manufacturers should clearly list the mushroom species used and the active compounds present in their products. Generic terms like “mushroom extract” or “mushroom blend” without specifying the species should be approached with caution.
  • Each mushroom species has a scientific name that consists of two parts: the genus and the species. For example, Lion’s Mane’s scientific name is Hericium erinaceus. Verify that the scientific names of the mushrooms are provided on the label to ensure accurate identification.
  • Country origin should also be listed on their label, as some regions are known for producing high-quality mushrooms due to optimal growing conditions and cultivation practices- those include Japan, the U.S., Canada, Korea, Netherlands, Poland, and Germany.

Testing for Active Compounds:

  • High-quality, reputable supplements undergo testing to verify the presence and concentration of specific bioactive compounds, such as beta-glucans or triterpenoids, which contribute to the mushroom’s health benefits.
  • The label should indicate the concentration or standardized amount of these compounds. Avoid anything with “proprietary blends” as they may hide specific ingredients.

Third-Party Verification:

  • There are three main third-party verifiers,  The United States Pharmacopeia (USP), The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), and ConsumerLab. Be sure to research the brand to ensure it has obtained certifications from one of these independent organizations that ensure potency, authenticity and quality.
  • If you’re still uncertain about a product’s authenticity, consider consulting healthcare professionals or experts who specialize in herbal or nutritional supplements. They can provide guidance based on their expertise and knowledge.

What do the Experts Say?