About jlbollinger

JL Bollinger consults on projects covering urban resiliency, smallholder agricultural and global health. She received her BA from Tufts University in International Relations and Spanish, with a concentration on Europe and the former Soviet Union, and her MS in Sustainability Management from Columbia University.

The densest and the most popular.

Faced with the challenge of constantly doing more with less, the agribusiness has consistently championed the tools, practices and seed varieties that churn out higher crop yields, year over year. While this does provide more total cereal crops to an ever expanding global population, recent studies have pointed to the fact that this ‘sustainable intensification’ has sacrificed the overall nutritional content of these crops in order to produce higher yielding varieties, most notably in India. In fact, eating additional grains of poor nutrient content, likely further exacerbates the double-sided health challenges of obesity and malnutrition in LDCs.

Lisa Curtis, the Founder of Kuli Kuli, experienced this effect first hand while volunteering with the Peace Corps in Niger a few years ago. There, although calorically intaking enough food, she felt exhausted and malnourished after only a few months in the field. In her local village, traditional healers told her about moringa leaves that can be added as a meal supplement, and were known to fight diseases, respiratory illnesses, as well as ear and dental infections. Now, back in California, her company Kuli Kuli works with business cooperatives in West Africa to import and sell this leafy vegetable in powder and cold-pressed bar form in the U.S.

What does it take to start a ‘superfood’ trend?
These days it seems like everyone is posting their green smoothies and kale salads on Instagram. A previous article appeared in Bon Appétit magazine listing the ‘trendiest vegetables over the past fifty years’:

  1. Avocado (1969)
  2. Beets (1982)
  3. Sundried Tomatoes (1985)
  4. Arugula (1990)
  5. Asparagus (1993)
  6. Portobello Mushrooms (1995)
  7. Heirloom Tomatoes (2006)
  8. Brussel Sprouts (2010)
  9. Heirloom Carrots (2011)
  10. Kale (2012)

It was interesting to go through this list and match up my own eating habits with when each of these food items came into fashion (I feel like I definitely was very into my tween vegetarian phase right when Portobello mushrooms became an acceptable steak replacement). By far the most successful has been the avocado, originally introduced to the U.S. market by Italian communities in the 1920s, only then known as an alligator pear. Initially, Joel Denker notes in his book, The World on a Plate, that marketing the avocado was an enormous challenge both because it couldn’t be canned (which was extremely popular after WWII), and it’s texture was so markedly different from all other fruits. With a name change and an advertising campaign pitching the avocado as the main ingredient in upscale salads, along with lobster and grapefruit – the avocado quickly moved up the ranks to become a ‘luxury’ food item.

Balancing Demand
Occasionally, when a food becomes extremely popular, it can be hard to strike the right balance for demand. For example, in Ethiopia, teff is a staple food crop with nutritional benefits over other grains, but the sale of the raw product is currently banned to control demand. Teff-based products, known as injera (risen bread, pasta, biscuits), have garnered increasing popularity in the U.S. because of their gluten-free status, making them an ideal quinoa substitute, and since teff seeds are smaller they require less fuel to cook. Teff is a good example of a crop with denser nutritional value and lower yields (1.4 tons per hectare in Ethiopia instead of 3.2 tons per hectare being the global average for wheat). Increasing global demand for injera products from companies like Mama Fresh, and eventually teff in raw form when approved by the government, will contribute to rising local prices in Ethiopia, where many people rely on the product for its nutritional value.

We asked Lisa Curtis at Kuli Kuli if moringa faced any similar challenges as more and more people learned of its benefits. She explained that moringa grows like a weed in tropical regions and is extremely drought resistant. Although it would not compete with grains, it could potentially offer a more localized, sustainable alternative to micronutrient powders currently used to treat malnutrition as well as offer a new source of microcredit for cooperatives and small businesses. Recent studies published by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have found a correlation to increased moringa consumption and a reduction of glucose levels in diabetic patients when taken with a calorie-controlled diet and even noted that it can potentially help stop the spreading of cancerous human lung cells.

Currently, the term superfood has no legal or medicinal definition. A simple Google search defines superfoods as “nutrient powerhouses that pack large doses of antioxidants, polyphenols, vitamins, and minerals. Eating them may reduce the risk of chronic disease, and prolong life, and people who eat more of them are healthier and thinner than those who don’t.” In a recent article, Metrics for land-scarce agriculture, the authors suggest that rather than simply looking at yield gap analyses, and year over year yield increases when considering land use management, it would be more meaningful to develop a “nutritional yield” measuring the number of adults who would be able to obtain 100% of their recommended dietary reference intake (DRI) of different nutrients for one year from a food item produced annually on one hectare. Only then would it be possible to take a closer look at the desired crop mix and proper land use management to maintain the food system.

reposted from: http://www.theskidiva.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/superfood.jpg

Backing up the world’s seed collection

reposted from lisacreativedesigns.com

When we think of food security, we think of farming intensification and greater resource management. In Aleppo, the capital city in Syria, as rebels began looting and razing ancient artifacts this past spring, a new definition emerged. There, the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) began developing its own emergency operation to safeguard their collection of 150,000 different seed populations (known as accessions) for wheat, barley, lentil and faba beans.

Why are genebanks important?
Rice, wheat and maize (corn) provide more than 50 percent of the world’s plant derived calories. Maintaining and understanding genetic materials and their corresponding phenotypes is essential to food security on our planet. Through cross-breeding various wild species of seeds, scientists can develop new, more resilient seed accessions, better able to withstand environmental and pest stresses. As an example, in the 1970s, grassy stunt virus disease threatened almost all tropical rice varieties in Asia, and caused significant crop loss. Scientists were able to successfully cross-breed a resilient rice seed, oryza nivara – but only after testing 6,000 different accessions. Dr. Susan McCouch, Director of the McCouch Rice Lab at Cornell University explains in her article, Agriculture, Feeding the Future, that, “high-yielding seeds will be the cornerstone for sustainable, intensified food production”.

Management of agricultural biodiversity is not a new field. In fact, it was often undertaken at the household level to ensure survival. Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian botanist during the early 1900s, is often credited as the grandfather in conservation and utilization of plant genetic resources. Crop germplasm collection began during the 1970s, around that time there were 54 facilities dedicated to seed storage and maintenance. Currently, CGIAR oversees 11 regional collections, and researchers are working to “back up” seed traits to Svalbard, deemed a “doomsday vault” enclosed in a temperature controlled mountain in Norway.

The ICARDA headquarters have been in Syria since 1977, when the location was chosen because of ongoing civil wars at the time in Lebanon, the original location. Past civil wars have caused gene banks to disappear from Afghanistan, Burundi, Rwanda and the Solomon Islands, and they can also be at risk to natural disasters like floods, or simply power outages. These organizations believe that a complete collection of seeds is necessary to support forward-looking agricultural programs, such as, Seeds for Needs, an effort to crowdsource information from 8,000 farmers to understand which varieties respond best in certain geographies.

At DivSeek Genesys, researchers are working to amass an online catalog of crop traits in an effort to improve crop diversity and resilience, globally. They believe that shared knowledge can improve crop performance and allow for faster response to disease and pest outbreaks – and in turn, reduce food insecurity and malnutrition.

Before the conflict escalated in Syria, the staff at the center duplicated 26,000 seed accessions and transported them to alternative storage facilities in Turkey and Lebanon. To date, the rebels involved in the takeover have continued to maintain the center to preserve the biodiversity within the region. While this could be a partial solution to more resilient agriculture, it poses even larger questions for the field of agricultural engineering.

ICT + Ag extension

Last week I attended a conference on information and communications technology (ICT) and the opportunity it presents to improve smallholder agriculture in the development context. Gathered vendors offered a variety of ideas surrounding mobile credit service access and educational ag extension programs, intended to increase overall crop yields, market productivity and profitability. By far the most interesting discussion centered around an afternoon panel on the future of ag extension and the value of human interaction and the element of trust in decision models.

Agricultural extension, or ag extension, consists of a chain of workers sharing and disseminating new scientific research and best practices on crop management, in an effort to bring about the best yields relative to annual forecasts. Ag extension workers regularly help smallholder farmers make important decisions on fertilizer application, seed selection, soil management, timing of planting, as well as post-harvest production issues, such as grain storage and price procurement. Advances in ICT connectivity, and access to data and stronger climate models, greatly expands the amount of knowledge ag extension workers and farmers have available through their mobile phones, allowing them to potentially better manage their network of farms. With the abundance of data and information available, it is important to understand the value that humans add in distilling relevant data sources and applications to provide sound agronomic advice.

Kentaro Toyama, author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, highlighted the role of trust in this decision process, especially with the explosion of technological solutions on today’s market. He offered the example of both travel and insurance agents, and how their role had greatly diminished over the last decade as people have relied more heavily on data aggregating websites to make cost-effective purchasing decisions. Does the incremental value add of trust through human interaction reduce to marginal significance in smallholder agricultural development? A participant reminded us that a decade ago, most consumers were hesitant to store credit card information online.

Today, a large percentage of the population uses internet payments and savings mechanisms in good confidence that their money is well safeguarded. In Africa, and other developing regions, mobile money is one of the most important forms of currency.

Agriculture has been around for millennia, but still the notion of “precision agriculture” remains fraught with risks and uncertainties for a variety of reasons. While applications and big data can offer both farmers and ag extension workers patterns and algorithms to better contextualize past issues and inform decision making – humans remain an irreplaceable factor in the overall decision making process because of the importance of non-data elements in agricultural performance – the same way an entrusted doctor can offer more value than WebMD.  As time continues to build our confidence and trust in data driven decision modeling, when evaluating forecasting and crop growth, the best applications on improving ag extension services will continue to account for the human factor rather than try to prove it obsolete.

While it remains unknown what eventually causes developing, agrarian societies to make the leap to developed, post-industrial economies; it would be myopic to believe that ICT applications can single-handedly solve this problem through ag extension services. In an interesting conversation between Tyler Cowen and Jeff Sachs, where Professor Sachs highlights the importance of geographical contextualization in agricultural development, stating, “you cannot simply take, most of the time, something that worked here and plant it here”. Sachs points to the double miracle of the Green Revolution, where Mexican seeds worked in Indian growing conditions to significantly improve crop yields, but this success was largely contingent upon a year of experimentation by Norman Borlaug.

Consider the cricket

Cricket pizza at Tulsa State Fair – reposted from truefoodiesoundbites.blogspot.com

Over the past few years, there has been a growing appetite for edible insects, with a greater number of restaurants serving chili-spiced grasshoppers and cricket-covered pizza. Much of the attention follows the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) 2013 report highlighting the importance of insect protein in the future of food security and reducing malnutrition. Nicolas Pena Parra even dreamed up the Locust Farm, as a means of providing nutrition to refugee families living in Dadaab, Kenya lacking access to protein-rich plants or livestock.

There are a multitude of environmental benefits supporting entomophagy, or the practice of eating bugs. Bitwater Farms, located in Sacramento, California, champions the protein power found in crickets as an alternative to livestock and fish feed. Sean McDonald and his team developed Bitwater Farms in response to the environmental stresses caused by a rapidly expanding population. Current estimates project that protein production must double by 2050 to satisfy growing needs and adjust to changing tastes and wealth levels. The World Health Organization (WHO) points out that upgrades in refrigeration and cold chain technologies combined with rising urbanization makes safe meat a popular menu item. While this increased demand can be achieved through livestock production, this stands to drive up greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 39 percent. Even today, livestock production consumes 30% of crops, 8% of freshwater resources and 18% of GHG emissions. Globally, this adds up to an enormous amount of resources.

Crickets are rich in protein, making them a possible livestock food alternative, as well as being a less water-intensive solution to our own diets, and recently referred to as the “gateway bug” in edible insects. Bitwater compares the amino acid profile of a cricket to that of soy, describing their bugs as being high in omega fatty acids, iron, zinc and other micronutrients. Cricket metabolism relies on ambient energy and they consume considerably less water than other livestock. The main challenge is in producing crickets at a commercially viable level without losing any of these benefits.

A recent study by Michael Lundy detailed the inefficiencies in scaling the operation. In his research, Lundy found that in order to grow crickets to a harvestable size, they needed to be fed processed food waste at an industrial scale. When fed minimally processed municipal food waste, comprised mostly of straw, the crickets did not survive.  Therefore, to be commercially viable, crickets would need to consume the same grain-based diet that they had originally intended to supplant.

Lundy’s study is hopeful that crickets could still increase overall portions of protein delivered through their higher feed conversion. Additionally, he points out that crickets can be raised on organic side streams [wasted food], which we have in abundance (1.3 billion tons per year). His study highlights that in California alone, humans throw out about 2.2 million tons of dry food that crickets could convert to approximately 210,000 tons of dietary protein in the food supply. To put this number in perspective, dietary guidelines encourage women intake 46 grams of protein per day, or about 36 pounds of protein in a year. The conversion of California dry food waste could cover the protein supply of 11 million people for a year. Lundy also suggests the eating black solider flies, which offer similar protein content as crickets, but can sustain off lower quality organic side streams.

Historically speaking, eating bugs is not new. Pliny spoke of the Roman aristocrats feasting on beetle larvae reared on flour and wine. St. John the Baptist is thought to have survived on locusts and honey while living in the desert. In the US, shrimp and lobster are considered delicacies often demanding high market price at upscale restaurants. Although these crustaceans stem from the same arthropod family, in western culture they are perceived as cleaner and safer.

Virginia Emery compares the growth of the commercial insect industry to that of the commercial mushroom sector, which can also garner the negative perception of being unsanitary. These insects are grown in clean rooms with mostly organic feed, which makes sense since bugs are the primary target of pesticide design. While the FDA, CDC and USDA continue to strengthen policies to safely bring bugs to market, it is important note that there is already an acceptable level of bug fragments permitted in your food. These regulating bodies are particularly interested in understanding the potential allergen effects posed by edible insects, especially considering their relation to shellfish. Agencies speculate that the crickets could be safer than their livestock counterparts, which are susceptible to swine flu and other forms of infections that can cause human ailments, but also come with their own unique set of diseases.

Eating forces us to re-evaluate what we are consuming, as it becomes a part of us through the digestion process. If the cricket industry grows, will we find ourselves seeking module-free crickets, similar to the premium paid for cage-free chicken? Will insect-support groups demand fair treatment? The complete cycle of consuming a black soldier fly that lives off our own low quality waste, could potentially lead to more widespread thinking and greater awareness regarding the nature, quantity and rationale of low quality waste produced.

Dunne & Raby’s United Micro Kingdoms



Dunne & Raby’s: Digitarians visiting one of Bioland’s more extreme attractions

I first learned of Dunne & Raby in 2011, during their MoMA exhibition, Between Reality and the Impossible, exploring urban foraging and the concept of synthetic digestive systems to accommodate rising food insecurity. I instantly became fascinated by their futuristic and evolving examination of heterotopias and the dystopian earth. Two years ago their team created a “design fiction”, or fictional scenario fabricated to frame questions surrounding our current social values and decisions. Their project, entitled, United Micro Kingdoms, depicts four “super shires” within the United Kingdom, each extrapolating today’s buzzworthy topics and innovations to a fantastical degree, with a special emphasis on the relevance of transportation to social and economic development. Initially, each theme excites the viewer by presenting imaginative possibilities – but then the dark undertones of opportunistic exploitation, repetition and misery set in.


United Micro Kingdom: Compass (Dunne & Raby)

Within the UK, four micro kingdoms exist; Digitarians, Communo-Nuclearists, Bioliberals, and Anarcho-Evolutionists. The Digitarians, which Dunne & Raby cite as “the most dystopian, yet familiar of all the micro kingdoms”, pursue technology and big data to ensure transparency and an efficient economy governed only by algorithms. Their digicars heavily hint at combinations of Google’s self-driving cars with Uber’s seamless GPS connectivity to swiftly move goods and services, described as having the minimal level of comfort and pleasure found when packed into an overcrowded elevator. The concept reminds me of Ideo’s Automobility project, offering portable workstations through their Work on Wheels (WOW) design.

The Communo-Nuclearists embody a no-growth society with limitless nuclear power while living in constant fear of [I think, nuclear] attack or accident. For this reason, their communistic and centralized society is supported upon a moving train where they are “voluntary prisoners of pleasure, free from the pressures of daily survival”. The Anarcho-Evolutionists believe “humans should modify themselves to exist within the limits of the planet rather than modifying the planet to meet their ever growing needs”. This concept seemed to have the most crossover with the 2010 MoMa presentation, with an emphasis on DIY biohacking and added elements of self-government and social Darwinism.

My personal favorite, the Bioliberals, relish biotechnology and the opportunities it has created. Driving around in organic loaves of bread, this society “enhances nature to meet growing human needs – but people also adjust their needs to match available resources”. The population is categorically farmers, cooks and gardeners, of food – as well as products. After considering the other social microcosms presented, either the slower pace or the possibility of enjoyment within the Bioliberal world really resonates. Either that or this description of their cars, “the resulting cars are bulky, messy, smelly and made out of artificial lab-grown skin, bone and muscles, not literally, but in abstracted forms”…


Dunne & Raby’s Bioliberal Car

While I highly enjoyed entertaining the ideas presented within the United Micro Kingdoms, each kingdom was ultimately bereft of any art, culture or religion. I wonder if the negative undertones that come through in each representation are heightened because of the emphasis on the mechanical, robotic and essentially, non-human, nature of these societies. Perhaps in Dunne & Raby’s exploration of societal extremes, they are actually saying more about the value of concepts omitted.

Packing for Mars? Bring your gardening gloves.

pod to table (reposted from giantfreakinrobot.com)

As New York City continues to explore vertical farming and applications allowing everyone to gps and crowdsource their compost needs, we are left to wonder if this is really the future of farming. As cities expand, will we be picking apples on our walk to the elevator and will all our produce be grown under simulated sunlight? Plants grow in deserts and under enormous pressure at the depths of the ocean floor, without a flicker of the suns’ rays – yet still manage to unleash a necessary energy source in creatures. As we consider the limitations of our Earth, and book our one way ticket to Mars, should we be packing our shovels and seeds? Is Monsanto already there? Does the future hold the romantic possibility of paying a premium for ‘farm to table’ or will we till right through the fourth agricultural revolution, leaving behind the plot of land for a test tube?

Last fall, in a study led by G.W. Wieger Wamelink, biologists created simulated lunar and martian soils extrapolated from mineral compositions [rocks] collected in outer space. Sand-like soils, called regoliths, comprised both samples, containing all the essential nutrients with the exception of reactive nitrogen, a necessary ingredient for almost all plant growth. On our planet, reactive nitrogen comes from organic matter, including humans, and occasionally from lightning or volcanic activity. While a lack of reactive nitrogen can be solved through nitrogen fixing species [soybean, clover crop] other major issues with the extraterrestrial soil remained, including the existence of metals, such as aluminum, which disturbs plant growth, and a lack of liquid water. Although liquid water is not present on the Moon, it may be available in small quantities on Mars. This study relies on the concept that plant growth can occur using the ice found at both locations.

If you too are picturing a small prairie cottage on the red planet, borrowing some eggs from Richard Branson, and a quaint garden framed by the setting Earth, it is important to remember that on the warmest days at the equator, Mars is about seventy degrees Fahrenheit. This can quickly drop to negative one hundred at night. While scientists were able to successfully grow tomatoes, reflexed stone crop, wheat, cress and green manure species seed mustard in simulated settings – the future of farming might taste very different.