Posts Tagged ‘food’

by Vanessa Zainzinger

Wireless sensors are ubiquitous, providing a steady stream of information on anything from our physical activity to changes occurring in the world’s oceans. Now, scientists have developed a tiny form of the data-gathering tool, designed for an area that has so far escaped its reach: our teeth.

The 2-millimeter-by-2-millimeter devices (pictured) are made up of a film of polymers that detects chemicals in its environment. Sandwiched between two square-shaped gold rings that act as antennas, the sensor can transmit information on what’s going on—or what’s being chewed on—in our mouth to a digital device, such as a smartphone. The type of compound the inner layer detects—salt, for example, or ethanol—determines the spectrum and intensity of the radiofrequency waves that the sensor transmits. Because the sensor uses the ambient radio-frequency signals that are already around us, it doesn’t need a power supply.

The researchers tested their invention on people drinking alcohol, gargling mouthwash, or eating soup. In each case, the sensor was able to detect what the person was consuming by picking up on nutrients.

The devices could help health care and clinical researchers find links between dietary intake and health and, in the long run, allow each of us to keep track of how what we consume is affecting our bodies.

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/03/tiny-sensor-your-tooth-could-help-keep-you-healthy

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By Elizabeth Bernstein

You’re feeling depressed. What have you been eating?

Psychiatrists and therapists don’t often ask this question. But a growing body of research over the past decade shows that a healthy diet—high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and unprocessed lean red meat—can prevent depression. And an unhealthy diet—high in processed and refined foods—increases the risk for the disease in everyone, including children and teens.

Now recent studies show that a healthy diet may not only prevent depression, but could effectively treat it once it’s started.

Researchers, led by epidemiologist Felice Jacka of Australia’s Deakin University, looked at whether improving the diets of people with major depression would help improve their mood. They chose 67 people with depression for the study, some of whom were already being treated with antidepressants, some with psychotherapy, and some with both. Half of these people were given nutritional counseling from a dietitian, who helped them eat healthier. Half were given one-on-one social support—they were paired with someone to chat or play cards with—which is known to help people with depression.

After 12 weeks, the people who improved their diets showed significantly happier moods than those who received social support. And the people who improved their diets the most improved the most. The study was published in January 2017 in BMC Medicine. A second, larger study drew similar conclusions and showed that the boost in mood lasted six months. It was led by researchers at the University of South Australia and published in December 2017 in Nutritional Neuroscience.

And later this month in Los Angeles at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting, researchers from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago will present results from their research that shows that elderly adults who eat vegetables, fruits and whole grains are less likely to develop depression over time.

The findings are spurring the rise of a new field: nutritional psychiatry. Dr. Jacka helped to found the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research in 2013. It held its first conference last summer. She’s also launched Deakin University’s Food & Mood Centre, which is dedicated to researching and developing nutrition-based strategies for brain disorders.

The annual American Psychiatric Association conference has started including presentations on nutrition and psychiatry, including one last year by chef David Bouley on foods that support the peripheral nervous system. And some medical schools, including Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, are starting to teach psychiatry residents about the importance of diet on mental health.

Depression has many causes—it may be genetic, triggered by a specific event or situation, such as loneliness, or brought on by lifestyle choices. But it’s really about an unhealthy brain, and too often people forget this. “When we think of cardiac health, we think of strengthening an organ, the heart,” says Drew Ramsey, a psychiatrist in New York, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia and author of “Eat Complete.” “We need to start thinking of strengthening another organ, the brain, when we think of mental health.”

A bad diet makes depression worse, failing to provide the brain with the variety of nutrients it needs, Dr. Ramsey says. And processed or deep-fried foods often contain trans fats that promote inflammation, believed to be a cause of depression. To give people evidenced-based information, Dr. Ramsey created an e-course called “Eat to Beat Depression.”

A bad diet also affects our microbiome—the trillions of micro-organisms that live in our gut. They make molecules that can alter the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter found in the brain, says Lisa Mosconi, a neuroscientist, nutritionist and associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. The good and bad bacteria in our gut have complex ways to communicate with our brain and change our mood, she says. We need to maximize the good bacteria and minimize the bad.

So what should we eat? The research points to a Mediterranean-style diet made up primarily of fruits and vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, yogurt and cheese, legumes, nuts, seafood, whole grains and small portions of red meat. The complexity of this diet will provide the nutrition our brain needs, regulate our inflammatory response and support the good bacteria in our gut, says Dr. Mosconi, author of “Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power.”

Can a good diet replace medicine or therapy? Not for everyone. But people at risk for depression should pay attention to the food they eat. “It really doesn’t matter if you need Prozac or not. We know that your brain needs nutrients,” Dr. Ramsey says. A healthy diet may work even when other treatments fail. And at the very least, it can serve as a supplemental treatment—one with no bad side effects, unlike antidepressants—that also has a giant upside. It can prevent other health problems, such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

Loretta Go, a 60-year-old mortgage consultant in Ballwin, Mo., suffered from depression for decades. She tried multiple antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy, but found little relief from symptoms including insomnia, crying jags and feelings of hopelessness. About five years ago, after her doctor wanted to prescribe yet another antidepressant, she refused the medicine and decided to look for alternative treatments.

Ms. Go began researching depression and learned about the importance of diet. When she read that cashews were effective in reducing depression symptoms, she ordered 100 pounds, stored them in the freezer, and started putting them in all her meals.

She also ditched processed and fried foods, sugar and diet sodas. In their place, she started to eat primarily vegetables and fruits, eggs, turkey and a lot of tofu. She bought a Vitamix blender and started making a smoothie with greens for breakfast each morning.

Within a few months, Ms. Go says she noticed a difference in her mood. She stopped crying all the time. Her insomnia went away and she had more energy. She also began enjoying activities again that she had given up when she was depressed, such as browsing in bookstores and volunteering at the animal shelter.

Ms. Go’s depression has never come back. “This works so well,” she says. “How come nobody else talks about this?”

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-food-that-helps-battle-depression-1522678367


by Diana Kwon

Findings from a randomized, controlled trial finds that reducing food intake decreases metabolism and reduces oxidative damage to tissues and cells.

Studies in various animals, including rodents and monkeys, have reported that caloric restriction can extend their lifespans. Findings from a two-year, randomized, controlled trial with human participants, published last week (March 22) in Cell Metabolism, suggest that cutting down on calories may also be able to prolong the lives of people.

To investigate the effects of reducing food intake, Leanne Redman, an endocrinologist at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University, and her colleagues enrolled 53 healthy men and women between the ages of 21 and 50 and split them into two groups—one group reduced their caloric intake by 15 percent over two years, and the other remained on a regular diet.

The team found that the people who ate a restricted diet lost an average of around 9 kilograms and experienced a 10-percent drop in their resting metabolic rates. When the researchers examined the participants’ blood, they also found a reduction in markers of oxidative stress in those who cut down on calories. “After two years, the lower rate of metabolism and level of calorie restriction was linked to a reduction in oxidative damage to cells and tissues,” Redman tells Wired.

“[I]f by-products of metabolism accelerate aging processes, calorie restriction sustained over several years may help to decrease risk for chronic disease and prolong life,” Redman says in a statement.

This study was part of a larger, multi-center investigation of caloric restriction in humans, the Comprehensive Assessment of Long-Term Effects of Reducing Intake of Energy (CALERIE) trial. Luigi Fontana, an internist who ran a CALERIE investigation at Washington University in St. Louis, says that a slower metabolism and reduced oxidative stress will not necessarily lead to a longer life. “You can have a low resting metabolic rate because you’re dying of starvation,” he tells Wired. “Does that make it a biomarker of longevity? No. You can be calorie restricted by eating half a hamburger and a few fries each day but will you live longer? No, you will die of malnutrition.”

https://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/52141/title/Caloric-Restriction-Slows-Signs-of-Aging-in-Humans/

By Kelsey Gee in Chicago and Julie Wernau in New York

America has built up a glut of cheese so big that every person in the country would need to eat an extra 3 pounds this year to work it off.

And it isn’t just cheese. The growing stacks of cheddar, which can be kept frozen for years, and other cheeses such as feta, which can be stored for only a couple of months, are just the tip of a surplus of U.S. agricultural products that is swamping markets for grains, meat and milk.

Supplies of cheese, meat and poultry started building as farmers decided to expand their herds and flocks two years ago when prices were high and export markets were hot. Abundant stockpiles of grain made it less risky by pushing down feed costs. But the steady climb in the dollar has deterred major foreign buyers, causing supplies to back up in the U.S. just as production is surging to records. That is sending prices for many goods to their lowest levels in years.

“Farmers have had every reason to expand because of strong global demand,” said Shayle Shagam, livestock analyst with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “But now we have a lot of products looking for a home in a smaller number of places.”

The USDA said last week that stockpiles of soybeans could fall by almost a quarter this year as export demand picks up. Its outlook for other commodity markets wasn’t as bright. Stockpiles of wheat and corn are expected to grow further. Output of red meat and poultry are forecast to climb 3.1% from last year to 97.6 billion pounds, as farmers continue to expand their operations and grow animals to heavier weights, thanks to the cheap grain prices.

The glut of cheese starts with farmers such as Carla Wardin, a 38-year-old who owns the Evergreen Dairy in St. John, Mich., with her husband, Kris. They expanded from 250 to 400 cows and bought a new barn in 2014 when milk prices were soaring. Nobody is making any money now, she said, but producers respond the same way whether prices are low or high.

“You do the exact same thing,” she said. “You milk more cows.”

America’s dairy farmers are expected to produce 212.4 billion pounds of milk this year, the most in history. Much of it is being sold to cheesemakers who are socking away their output, waiting for demand and prices to rise.

The drop in dairy prices this year poses a new test for the industry, which since the 2012 Farm Bill hasn’t had the cushion of U.S. government stockpiling products to support prices.

Commercial cold-storage freezers held a record-breaking 1.19 billion pounds of cheese at the end of March, the latest month for which data is available, up 11% from the same time last year.

Americans eat an average of 36 pounds of cheese a year apiece, but it isn’t enough to keep up. Prices for block cheddar cheese fell to a six-year low of $1.27 a pound Thursday at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange; they have since risen one cent in the spot market.

Scott Meister, a third-generation cheesemaker who owns Meister Cheese Company LLC in Muscoda, Wis., said his company invested millions of dollars to expand its cheese plant in 2014, when prices were above $2 a pound and the company couldn’t keep up with demand. He had planned to dedicate the extra capacity for the production of specialty cheeses such as habanero jack, but is now using that space to boost output of standard cheddar in a bid to soften the blow of lower prices by selling more.

The glut of cheese and other products marks a dramatic turnaround for the animal agricultural sector, which just a few years ago was battling drought and disease that pinched supplies and sent prices at grocery stores to record highs.

Commodities markets frequently swing from boom to bust because of the long lead time for ramping up new supply. Decisions to expand herds of beef and dairy cattle have to be made far in advance, reflecting a cow’s nine-month pregnancy and the year or more it takes for a calf to mature.

“In all commodities, the pendulum swings hard in both directions,” said Justin Reiter, who operates a farm with his dad and brother in Bernard, Iowa, where they grow corn and feed cattle. His family invested $800,000 in a new barn for cattle in 2013, when supplies were tight and the market was starting to pick up steam.

“Now that the chickens have come home to roost, prices have gotten pretty bad,” he said.

C.J. Morton, who handles business development for Iowa-based Des Moines Cold Storage, said the company is preparing by investing $16 million in a new warehouse in the region to store commodities such as pig feet, beef and other proteins.

“If we were more full, it would be impossible to move around” the existing storage space, he said.

The excess supply should mean relief for shoppers. Retail prices for cheese were down 4.3% in April from a year earlier, according to market-research firm IRI. USDA projects consumer beef prices will fall as much as 2% this year, while pork prices could decline by 0.5%.

The industry needs consumers to take advantage of that.

“Someone is going to eat all of this meat and dairy,” said Mr. Shagam, with the USDA. “How much room do you have in your stomach?”

http://www.wsj.com/articles/a-cheese-glut-is-overtaking-america-1463477403

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While researching the brain’s learning and memory system, scientists at Johns Hopkins say they stumbled upon a new type of nerve cell that seems to control feeding behaviors in mice. The finding, they report, adds significant detail to the way brains tell animals when to stop eating and, if confirmed in humans, could lead to new tools for fighting obesity. Details of the study were published by the journal Science today.

“When the type of brain cell we discovered fires and sends off signals, our laboratory mice stop eating soon after,” says Richard Huganir, Ph.D., director of the Department of Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “The signals seem to tell the mice they’ve had enough.”

Huganir says his team’s discovery grew out of studies of the proteins that strengthen and weaken the intersections, or synapses, between brain cells. These are an important target of research because synapse strength, particularly among cells in the hippocampus and cortex of the brain, is important in learning and memory.

In a search for details about synapse strength, Huganir and graduate student Olof Lagerlöf, M.D., focused on the enzyme OGT — a biological catalyst involved in many bodily functions, including insulin use and sugar chemistry. The enzyme’s job is to add a molecule called N-acetylglucosamine (GlcNAc), a derivative of glucose, to proteins, a phenomenon first discovered in 1984 by Gerald Hart, Ph.D., director of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Department of Biological Chemistry and co-leader of the current study. By adding GlcNAc molecules, OGT alters the proteins’ behavior.

To learn about OGT’s role in the brain, Lagerlöf deleted the gene that codes for it from the primary nerve cells of the hippocampus and cortex in adult mice. Even before he looked directly at the impact of the deletion in the rodents’ brains, Lagerlöf reports, he noticed that the mice doubled in weight in just three weeks. It turned out that fat buildup, not muscle mass, was responsible.

When the team monitored the feeding patterns of the mice, they found that those missing OGT ate the same number of meals — on average, 18 a day — as their normal littermates but tarried over the food longer and ate more calories at each meal. When their food intake was restricted to that of a normal lab diet, they no longer gained extra weight, suggesting that the absence of OGT interfered with the animals’ ability to sense when they were full.

“These mice don’t understand that they’ve had enough food, so they keep eating,” says Lagerlöf.

Because the hippocampus and cortex are not known to directly regulate feeding behaviors in rodents or other mammals, the researchers looked for changes elsewhere in the brain, particularly in the hypothalamus, which is known to control body temperature, feeding, sleep and metabolism. There, they found OGT missing from a small subset of nerve cells within a cluster of neurons called the paraventricular nucleus.

Lagerlöf says these cells already were known to send and receive multiple signals related to appetite and food intake. When he looked for changes in the levels of those factors that might be traced to the absence of OGT, he found that most of them were not affected, and the activity of the appetite signals that many other research groups have focused on didn’t seem to be causing the weight gain, he adds.

Next, the team examined the chemical and biological activity of the OGT-negative cells. By measuring the background electrical activity in nonfiring brain cells, the researchers estimated the number of incoming synapses on the cells and found that they were three times as few, compared to normal cells.

“That result suggests that, in these cells, OGT helps maintain synapses,” says Huganir. “The number of synapses on these cells was so low that they probably aren’t receiving enough input to fire. In turn, that suggests that these cells are responsible for sending the message to stop eating.”

To verify this idea, the researchers genetically manipulated the cells in the paraventricular nucleus so that they would add blue light-sensitive proteins to their membranes. When they stimulated the cells with a beam of blue light, the cells fired and sent signals to other parts of the brain, and the mice decreased the amount they ate in a day by about 25 percent.

Finally, because glucose is needed to produce GlcNAc, they thought that glucose levels, which increase after meals, might affect the activity of OGT. Indeed, they found that if they added glucose to nerve cells in petri dishes, the level of proteins with the GlcNAc addition increased in proportion to the amount of glucose in the dishes. And when they looked at cells in the paraventricular nucleus of mice that hadn’t eaten in a while, they saw low levels of GlcNAc-decorated proteins.

“There are still many things about this system that we don’t know,” says Lagerlöf, “but we think that glucose works with OGT in these cells to control ‘portion size’ for the mice. We believe we have found a new receiver of information that directly affects brain activity and feeding behavior, and if our findings bear out in other animals, including people, they may advance the search for drugs or other means of controlling appetites.”

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-03/jhm-pcc031416.php


Hundred of miles about Earth, orbiting satellites are becoming a bold new weapon in the age-old fight against drought, disease and death.

By Ariel Sabar
SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE

In early October, after the main rainy season, Ethiopia’s central Rift Valley is a study in green. Fields of wheat and barley lie like shimmering quilts over the highland ridges. Across the valley floor below, beneath low-flying clouds, farmers wade through fields of African cereal, plucking weeds and primping the land for harvest

It is hard to look at such lushness and equate Ethiopia with famine. The f-word, as some people call it, as though the mere mention were a curse, has haunted the country since hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians died three decades ago in the crisis that inspired Live Aid, “We Are the World” and other spectacles of Western charity. The word was on no one’s lips this year. Almost as soon as I’d landed in Addis Ababa, people told me that 2014 had been a relatively good year for Ethiopia’s 70 million subsistence farmers.

But Gabriel Senay wasn’t so sure. A scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, he’d designed a system that uses NASA satellites to detect unusual spikes in land temperature. These anomalies can signal crop failure, and Senay’s algorithms were now plotting these hot zones along a strip of the Rift Valley normally thought of as a breadbasket. Was something amiss? Something aid workers hadn’t noticed?

Senay had come to Ethiopia to find out—to “ground-truth” his years of painstaking research. At the top of a long list of people eager for results were officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development, who had made a substantial investment in his work. The United States is the largest donor of food aid to the world, splitting $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion a year among some 60 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Ethiopia usually gets the biggest slice, but it’s a large pie, and to make sure aid gets to the neediest, USAID spends $25 million a year on scientific forecasts of where hunger will strike next.

Senay’s innovations, some officials felt, had the potential to take those forecasts to a new level, by spotting the faintest first footsteps of famine almost anywhere in the world. And the earlier officials heard those footsteps, the faster they would be able to mobilize forces against one of humanity’s oldest and cruelest scourges.

In the paved and wired developed world, it’s hard to imagine a food emergency staying secret for long. But in countries with bad roads, spotty phone service and shaky political regimes, isolated food shortfalls can metastasize into full-blown humanitarian crises before the world notices. That was in many ways the case in Ethiopia in 1984, when the failure of rains in the northern highlands was aggravated by a guerrilla war along what is now the Eritrean border.

Senay, who grew up in Ethiopian farm country, the youngest of 11 children, was then an undergraduate at the country’s leading agricultural college. But the famine had felt remote even to him. The victims were hundreds of miles to the north, and there was little talk of it on campus. Students could eat injera—the sour pancake that is a staple of Ethiopian meals—just once a week, but Senay recalls no other hardships. His parents were similarly spared; the drought had somehow skipped over their rainy plateau.

That you could live in one part of a country and be oblivious to mass starvation in another: Senay would think about that a lot later.

The Great Rift Valley splits Ethiopia into nearly equal parts, running in a ragged diagonal from the wastelands of the Danakil Depression in the northeast to the crocodile haunts of Lake Turkana in the southwest. About midway along its length, a few hours’ drive south of Addis, it bisects a verdant highland of cereal fields.

Senay, who is 49, sat in the front seat of our Land Cruiser, wearing a baseball cap lettered, in cursive, “Life is Good.” Behind us were two other vehicles, shuttling half a dozen American and Ethiopian scientists excited enough by Senay’s research to want to see its potential firsthand. We caravanned through the gritty city of Adama and over the Awash River, weaving through cavalcades of donkeys and sheep.

Up along the green slopes of the Arsi highlands, Senay looked over his strangely hued maps. The pages were stippled with red and orange dots, each a square kilometer, where satellites 438 miles overhead had sensed a kind of fever on the land.

From the back seat, Curt Reynolds, a burly crop analyst with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, who advises USAID (and is not known to sugar-coat his opinions), asked whether recent rains had cooled those fevers, making some of Senay’s assessments moot. “There are still pixels that are really hurting,” Senay insisted.

We turned off the main road, jouncing along a muddy track to a local agricultural bureau. Huseen Muhammad Galatoo, a grave-looking man who was the bureau’s lead agronomist, led us into a musty office. A faded poster on one wall said, “Coffee: Ethiopia’s Gift to the World.”

Galatoo told us that several Arsi districts were facing their worst year in decades. A failure of the spring belg rains and a late start to the summer kiremt rains had left some 76,000 animals dead and 271,000 people—10 percent of the local population—in need of emergency food aid.

“Previously, the livestock used to survive somehow,” Galatoo said, through an interpreter. “But now there is literally nothing on the ground.”

In the face of such doleful news, Senay wasn’t in the mood for self-congratulation. But the truth was, he’d nailed it. He’d shown that satellites could spot crop failure—and its effects on livestock and people—as never before, at unprecedented scale and sensitivity. “The [current] early warning system didn’t fully capture this,” Alemu Asfaw, an Ethiopian economist who helps USAID forecast food crises, said in the car afterwards, shaking his head. “There had been reports of erratic rainfall. But no one expected it to be that bad.” No one, that is, but Senay, whose work, Reynolds said, could be “a game changer for us.”

Satellites have come a long way since Russia’s Sputnik 1—a beachball-size sphere with four chopstick-like radio antennas—entered orbit, and history, in 1957. Today, some 1,200 artificial satellites orbit Earth. Most are still in traditional lines of work: bouncing phone calls and television signals across the globe, beaming GPS coordinates, monitoring weather, spying. A smaller number watch over the planet’s wide-angle afflictions, like deforestation, melting glaciers and urban sprawl. But only recently have scientists sicced satellites on harder-to-detect, but no less perilous threats to people’s basic needs and rights.

Senay is on the leading edge of this effort, focusing on hunger and disease—ills whose solutions once seemed resolutely earthbound. Nomads searching for water, villagers battling malaria, farmers aching for rain: When they look to the heavens for help, Senay wants satellites looking back.

He was born in the northwest Ethiopian town of Dangila, in a house without electricity or plumbing. To cross the local river with his family’s 30 cattle, little Gabriel clung to the tail of an ox, which towed him to the grazing lands on the other side. High marks in school—and a father who demanded achievement, who called Gabriel “doctor” while the boy was still in diapers—propelled him to Ethiopia’s Haramaya University and then to the West, for graduate studies in hydrology and agricultural engineering.

Not long after earning a PhD at Ohio State University, he landed a job that felt more like a mission—turning American satellites into defenders of Africa’s downtrodden. His office, in the South Dakota countryside 18 miles northeast of Sioux Falls, is home to the Earth Resources Observation and Science Center, a low building, ringed by rows of tinted windows, looking a bit like a spaceship that emergency-landed in some hapless farmer’s corn and soybean spread. Run by the U.S. Geological Survey, it’s where the planet gets a daily diagnostic exam. Giant antennas and parabolic dishes ingest thousands of satellite images a day, keeping an eye on the pulse of the planet’s waters, the pigment of its land and the musculature of its mountains.

Senay was soon living the American dream, with a wife, two kids and mini­van in a Midwestern suburb. But satellites were his bridge home, closing the distance between here and there, now and then. “I came to know more about Ethiopia in South Dakota when looking at it from satellites than I did growing up,” he told me. As torrents of data flow through his calamity-spotting algorithms, he says, “I imagine the poor farmer in Ethiopia. I imagine a guy struggling to farm who never got a chance to get educated, and that kind of gives me energy and some bravery.”

His goal from the outset was to turn satellites into high-tech divining rods, capable of finding water—and mapping its effects—across Africa. Among scientists who study water’s whereabouts, Senay became a kind of rock star. Though nominally a bureaucrat in a remote outpost of a federal agency, he published in academic journals, taught graduate-level university courses and gave talks in places as far-flung as Jordan and Sri Lanka. Before long, people were calling from all over, wanting his algorithms for their own problems. Could he look at whether irrigation in Afghanistan’s river basins was returning to normal after years of drought and war? What about worrisome levels of groundwater extraction in America’s Pacific Northwest? Was he free for the National Water Census?

He’d started small. A man he met on a trip to Ethiopia told him that 5,200 people had died of malaria in three months in a single district in the Amhara region. Senay wondered if satellites could help. He requested malaria case data from clinics across Amhara and then compared them with satellite readings of rainfall, land greenness and ground moisture—all factors in where malaria-carrying mosquitoes breed. And there it was, almost like magic: With satellites, he could predict the location, timing and severity of malaria outbreaks up to three months in advance. “For prevention, early warning is very important for us,” Abere Mihretie, who leads an anti-malaria group in Amhara, told me. With $2.8 million from the National Institutes of Health, Senay and Michael Wimberly, an ecologist at South Dakota State University, built a website that gives Amhara officials enough early warning to order bed nets and medicines and to take preventive steps such as draining standing water and counseling villagers. Mihretie expects the system—which will go live this year—to be a lifesaver, reducing malaria cases by 50 to 70 percent.

Senay had his next epiphany on a work trip to Tanzania in 2005. By the side of the road one day, he noticed cattle crowding a badly degraded water hole. It stirred memories of childhood, when he’d watched cows scour riverbeds for trickles of water. The weakest got stuck in the mud, and Senay and his friends would pull them out. “These were the cows we grew up with, who gave us milk,” he says. “You felt sorry.”

Senay geo-tagged the hole in Tanzania, and began reading about violent conflict among nomadic clans over access to water. One reason for the conflicts, he learned, was that nomads were often unaware of other, nearby holes that weren’t as heavily used and perhaps just as full of water.

Back in South Dakota, Senay found he could see, via satellite, the particular Tanzania hole he’d visited. What’s more, it gave off a distinct “spectral signature,” or light pattern, which he could then use to identify other water holes clear across the African Sahel, from Somalia to Mali. With information about topography, rainfall estimates, temperature, wind speed and humidity, Senay was then able to gauge how full each hole was.

Senay and Jay Angerer, a rangeland ecologist at Texas A&M University, soon won a $1 million grant from NASA to launch a monitoring system. Hosted on a U.S. Geological Survey website, it tracks some 230 water holes across Africa’s Sahel, giving each a daily rating of “good,” “watch,” “alert” or “near dry.” To get word to herders, the system relies on people like Sintayehu Alemayehu, of the aid group Mercy Corps. Alemayehu and his staff meet with nomadic clans at village markets to relay a pair of satellite forecasts—one for water-hole levels, another for pasture conditions. But such liaisons may soon go the way of the switchboard operator. Angerer is seeking funding for a mobile app that would draw on a phone’s GPS to lead herders to water. “Sort of like Yelp,” he told me.

Senay was becoming a savant of the data workaround, of the idea that good enough is sometimes better than perfect. Doppler radar, weather balloons, dense grids of electronic rain gauges simply don’t exist in much of the developing world. Like some MacGyver of the outback, Senay was proving an “exceptionally good detective” in finding serviceable replacements for laboratory-grade data, says Andrew Ward, a prominent hydrologist who was Senay’s dissertation adviser at Ohio State. In remote parts of the world, Ward says, even good-enough data can go a long way toward “helping solve big important issues.”

And no issue was more important to Senay than his homeland’s precarious food supply.

Ethiopia’s poverty rate is falling, and a new generation of leaders has built effective programs to feed the hungry in lean years. But other things have been slower to change: 85 percent of Ethiopians work the land as farmers or herders, most at the subsistence level, and less than 1 percent of agricultural land is irrigated. That leaves Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa, at the mercy of the region’s notoriously fickle rains. No country receives more global food aid.

Famine appears in Ethiopia’s historical record as early as the ninth century and recurs with an almost tidal regularity. The 1973 famine, which killed tens of thousands, led to the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie and the rise of an insurgent Marxist government known as the Derg. The 1984 famine helped topple the Derg.

Famine often has multiple causes: drought, pestilence, economies overdependent on agriculture, antiquated farming methods, geographic isolation, political repression, war. But there was a growing sense in the latter decades of the 20th century that science could play a role in anticipating—and heading off—its worst iterations. The United Nations started a basic early-warning program in the mid-1970s, but only after the 1980s Ethiopian crisis was a more rigorously scientific program born: USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET).

Previously, “a lot of our information used to be from Catholic priests in, like, some little mission in the middle of Mali, and they’d say, ‘My people are starving,’ and you’d kind of go, ‘Based on what?’” Gary Eilerts, a veteran FEWS NET official, told me. Missionaries and local charities could glimpse conditions outside their windows, but had little grasp of the broader severity and scope of suffering. Local political leaders had a clearer picture, but weren’t always keen to share it with the West, and when they did, the West didn’t always trust them.

The United States needed hard, objective data, and FEWS NET was tasked with gathering it. To complement their analyses of food prices and economic trends, FEWS NET scientists did use satellites, to estimate rainfall and monitor land greenness. But then they heard about a guy in small-town South Dakota who looked like he was going one better.

Senay knew that one measure of crop health was the amount of water a field gave off: its rate of “evapotranspiration.” When plants are thriving, water in the soil flows up roots and stems into leaves. Plants convert some of the water to oxygen, in photosynthesis. The rest is “transpired,” or vented, through pores called stomata. In other words, when fields are moist and crops are thriving, they sweat.

Satellites might not be able to see the land sweat, but Senay wondered if they could feel it sweat. That’s because when water in soil or plants evaporates, it cools the land. Conversely, when a lush field takes a tumble—whether from drought, pests or neglect—evapotranspiration declines and the land heats. Once soil dries to the point of hardening and cracking, its temperature is as much as 40 degrees hotter than it was as a well-watered field.

NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites carry infrared sensors that log the temperature of every square kilometer of earth every day. Because those sensors have been active for more than a decade, Senay realized that a well-crafted algorithm could flag plots of land that got suddenly hotter than their historical norm. In farming regions, these hotspots could be bellwethers of trouble for the food supply.

Scientists had studied evapotranspiration with satellites before, but their methods were expensive and time-consuming: Highly paid engineers had to manually interpret each snapshot of land. That’s fine if you’re interested in one tract of land at one point in time.

But what if you wanted every stitch of farmland on earth every day? Senay thought he could get there with a few simplifying assumptions. He knew that when a field was perfectly healthy—and thus at peak sweat—land temperature was a near match for air temperature. Senay also knew that a maximally sick field was a fixed number of degrees hotter than a maximally healthy one, after tweaking for terrain type.

So if he could get air temperature for each square kilometer of earth, he’d know the coldest the land there could be at that time. By adding that fixed number, he’d also know the hottest it could be. All he needed now was ­NASA’s actual reading of land temperature, so he could see where it fell within those theoretical extremes. That ratio told you how sweaty a field was—and thus how healthy.

Senay found good air temperature datasets at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of California, Berkeley. By braiding the data from NASA, NOAA and Berkeley, he could get a computer to make rapid, automated diagnoses of crop conditions anywhere in the world. “It’s data integration at the highest level,” he told me one night, in the lobby of our Addis hotel.

The results might be slightly less precise than the manual method, which factors in extra variables. But the upsides—how much of the world you saw, how fast you saw it, how little it cost—wasn’t lost on his bosses. “Some more academically oriented people reach an impasse: ‘Well, I don’t know that, I can’t assume that, therefore I’ll stop,’” says James Verdin, his project leader at USGS, who was with us in the Rift Valley. “Whereas Gabriel recognizes that the need for an answer is so strong that you need to make your best judgment on what to assume and proceed.” FEWS NET had just one other remote test of crop health: satellites that gauge land greenness. The trouble is that stressed crops can stay green for weeks, before shading brown. Their temperature, on the other hand, ticks up almost immediately. And unlike the green test, which helps only once the growing season is underway, Senay’s could read soil moisture at sowing time.

The Simplified Surface Energy Balance model, as it is called, could thus give officials and aid groups several weeks’ more lead time to act before families would go hungry and livestock would begin to die. Scientists at FEWS NET’s Addis office email their analyses to 320 people across Ethiopia, including government officials, aid workers and university professors.

Biratu Yigezu, acting director general of Ethiopia’s Central Statistical Agency, told me that FEWS NET fills key blanks between the country’s annual door-to-door surveys of farmers. “If there’s a failure during planting stage, or if there’s a problem in the flowering stage, the satellites help, because they’re real time.”

One afternoon in the Rift Valley, we pulled the Land Cruisers alongside fields of slouching corn to speak with a farmer. Tegenu Tolla, who was 35, wore threadbare dress pants with holes at the knees and a soccer jersey bearing the logo of the insurance giant AIG. He lives with his wife and three children on whatever they can grow on their two and a half acre plot.

This year was a bust, Tolla told Senay, who chats with farmers in his native Amharic. “The rains were not there.” So Tolla waited until August, when some rain finally came, and sowed a short-maturing corn with miserly yields. “We will not even be able to get our seeds back,” Tolla said. His cattle had died, and to feed his family, Tolla had been traveling to Adama for day work on construction sites.

We turned onto a lumpy dirt road, into a field where many of the teff stalks had grown just one head instead of the usual six. (Teff is the fine grain used to make injera.) Gazing at the dusty, hard-packed soil, Senay had one word: “desertification.”

The climate here was indeed showing signs of long-term change. Rainfall in the south-central Rift Valley has dropped 15 to 20 percent since the mid-1970s, while the population—the number of mouths to feed—has mushroomed. “If these trends persist,” FEWS NET wrote in a 2012 report, they “could leave millions more Ethiopians exposed to hunger and undernourishment.”

Over the next few days we spiraled down from the highlands into harder-hit maize-growing areas and finally into scrublands north of the Kenyan border, a place of banana plantations and roadside baboons and throngs of cattle, which often marooned our vehicles. At times, the road seemed a province less of autos than of animals and their child handlers. Boys drove battalions of cows and sheep, balanced jerrycans of water on their shoulders and stood atop stick-built platforms in sorghum fields, flailing their arms to scare off crop-devouring queleas, a type of small bird.

Almost everywhere we stopped we found grim alignments between the red and orange dots on Senay’s maps and misery on the ground. Senay was gratified, but in the face of so much suffering, he wanted to do more. Farmers knew their own fields so well that he wondered how to make them players in the early warning system. With a mobile app, he thought, farmers could report on the land beneath their feet: instant ground-truthing that could help scientists sharpen their forecasts.

What farmers lacked was the big picture, and that’s what an app could give back: weather predictions, seasonal forecasts, daily crop prices in nearby markets. Senay already had a name: Satellite Integrated Farm Information, or SIFI. With data straight from farmers, experts in agricultural remote sensing, without ever setting foot on soil, would be a step closer to figuring out exactly how much food farmers could coax from the land.

But soil engulfed us now—it was in our boots, beneath our fingernails—and there was nothing to do but face farmers eye to eye.

“Allah, bless this field,” Senay said to a Muslim man, who’d told us of watching helplessly as drought killed off his corn crop.

“Allah will always bless this field,” the man replied. “We need something more.”

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/predict-famine-before-strikes-180954945/#AH5TUUitTQLjlkuI.99

By MASSIMO BOTTURA

WHEN I THINK ABOUT THE FUTURE of restaurants—what chefs will be cooking in the years to come—the first thing that comes to mind is garbage: day-old bread, potato peels, fish bones, wilted vegetables. We currently produce enough food to feed the world’s 7.3 billion people, and yet 795 million are hungry, according to the United Nations. The reason is waste: a 2013 U.N. report reveals that 550 million tons of food are discarded by distributors, supermarkets and consumers every year. The U.S. and EU have pledged to reduce food waste in the next 10 to 15 years. This is where chefs come in.

This year the 20th anniversary of my restaurant, Osteria Francescana, coincided with the Expo Milano 2015. In an effort to address the expo’s ambitious theme—“Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”—Francescana collaborated with the Catholic charity Caritas Ambrosiana and the culture maven Davide Rampello to turn a renovated theater in the Greco quarter into a think tank and experimental soup kitchen. This collaboration was baptized Refettorio Ambrosiano after Sant’Ambrogio, Milan’s patron saint. The word Refettorio has roots in the Latin word refice, to restore, and Refettorio Ambrosiano runs on salvaged waste and volunteer labor, including stints from the best chefs in the world.

In May, Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park made a sweet pudding from day-old, discarded bread. In June, René Redzepi of Noma turned black bananas into mouth-watering banana bread. In July, Daniel Patterson of Coi produced the quintessential minestrone from a crate of dismal-looking vegetables. Osteria Francescana made weekly broths from vegetable scraps and peelings. The guests were not fine-dining regulars, but a selection of Milan’s homeless community. What surprised us all was just how fabulous salvaged food can become.

Every Refettorio Ambrosiano recipe is an ode to imperfection with revolutionary potential; these dishes could change the way we feed the world, because they can be cooked by anyone, anywhere, on any budget. For families in need, it’s a way to bring dignity back to the table—dignity based not on the quality of ingredients, but on the quality of ideas.

Chefs have greater social responsibility than ever before. Celebrity status has allowed some of us to become ambassadors of culture and advocates for artisans, ethics and change. But have we spent enough time and energy considering the waste that results from our work? Imagine a school where young chefs are taught to be as resourceful with ingredients as they are with ideas. Imagine chefs embracing imperfect, discarded food and treating it with the same reverence they would a rack of lamb or ripe tomato. Imagine changing the perceptions about what is beautiful, nutritious and worthy of being shared.

Cooking is a call to act. At its best it can unite, revive and restore. As populations grow and food supplies are threatened, we are called to educate and spread ideas that will be the motivational force behind the evolution of our kitchens, our communities and our future. Let us begin by turning our waste—in our homes and our restaurants—into food that’s ethical and delicious. Because something salvaged is something gained.

http://www.wsj.com/articles/chef-massimo-bottura-on-why-the-future-of-food-is-in-our-trash-1449506020