June 24, 2024

As new science is promoting the idea that “food is medicine,” will discoveries in how diet affects human health change how farming is done?

That question was explored in a recent webinar by Patrick Stover, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Advancing Health Through Agriculture (IHA) at Texas A&M University. At a presentation for the World Health Organization, Stover noted that agriculture is now asked to do much more than in the past.

“Agriculture is expected to do more than just provide food and fiber today. Food is expected to contribute to the health of people and the environment while doing it in an economically affordable way,” he said. “In the future, we will not only need to produce more food, but we’ll need do it in a way that doesn’t contribute to human illness.”

Stover noted that the population of the planet is expected to grow by two billion more people by 2050. He also said that chronic disease in developed countries is rising by 50 percent with many Americans having diabetes or pre-diabetic conditions.

“We have to create a food system that addresses human hunger and also supports human health,” he said.

To consider how to do this, it’s important to look back at how the current food system was created.

“During the Great Depression, there was hunger and famine, both in the U.S. and globally. During World War II, we started to recognize the importance of nutrition for our troops and the effects of malnourishment on people, so we made the decision that hunger and a lack of food was unacceptable,” he said. “We made changes so hunger was not due to a lack of production, but access.”

Much in the same way, agriculture is now challenged to address the issue of human and environmental health while still keeping food affordable.

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Stover said the answer might be in a concept called “precision nutrition.”

As scientists began mapping the human genome, it was discovered that individual DNA strands react differently to stimulus, diet, and environment, Stover explained. This suggested that changes in inputs, like food, stress, and exercise can potentially prevent disease. It is suggested that targeted nutrition may prevent disease in the future.

Stover likened it to a health initiative undertaken in the United States in the 1960s regarding folic acid. Science at that time linked a deficiency in folic acid to neural tube defects in babies that resulting in certain spots on the spine not closing during a baby’s formation and causing paralysis later in life.

“We discovered a lack of folic acid in some cases was causing the defects and so we passed an initiative that created and labeled folic-enriched products,” he said.

In 1998, mandatory folic enrichment of cereal grain products in the U.S. was believed to reduce the instances of neural tube defects by 72 percent. In addition, 35 other countries have also mandated folic enrichment in their food supplies.

By essentially feeding the entire U.S. population more folic acid, scientists said they were able to address the deficiency in a sub population of women who would become pregnant and potentially have babies with neural tube defects.

“This idea of ‘food as medicine’ is being carried forward and has some interesting implications for nutrition in the future,” he said. “Folic acid was a simple technology, but today, with the technology we have, we can make our food whatever we want it to be.”

Stover said committees and scientists are studying how specific genetic markers that influence health may be helped by improved, targeted nutrition, especially in minority populations. While the science is still being explored, Stover said he has faith that the future of agriculture will meet all of the new demands.

“When we look at the Green Revolution that allowed us to feed more people at less cost, we were able to address the challenges then and we can do it again,” he concluded.

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