You Are What You Eat

Nutrition scientist Jeffrey Blumberg says the path to controlling chronic diseases ends at the intersection of diet and technology.


Blumberg 

By 2050 our planet will be home to a whopping 2 billion people ages 60 years or older—up from 900 million in 2015—and nutrition is poised to be one of the key factors in curbing their chronic diseases.

“Nutrition is incredibly important to aging successfully. We can’t afford to have 50 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease,” says Jeffrey Blumberg, senior scientist, Antioxidants Research Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. “We don’t always know which nutrients play a role in prevention, but as we learn, that’s going to become very important. And I would argue newly formulated foods—functional foods, medical foods and dietary supplements—will be the tools we use to address it.”

A future of personalized nutrition targeted to a person’s precise genetic makeup isn’t a sci-fi fantasy or a solution that will become possible only hundreds of years from now. It’s a future Blumberg says is approaching far more quickly, propelled by demands from larger segments of the population to stay healthy and active far longer. It’s not yet clear whether that scenario includes a home kitchen that can 3-D print a personalized, nutritionally complete biscuit, or dinner made from 4 ounces of lab-grown beef, but it’s a future Blumberg says is inevitably heading our way.

He’s well-positioned to make that kind of prediction. Blumberg has published more than 300 scientific articles and has served in prestigious roles on committees that range from the Food and Drug Administration’s Dietary Supplement Task Force and the Food Advisory Committee, to the World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Consultation on the Development of Nutritional Guidelines for the Elderly. And in 2016, Blumberg was recognized by Thomson Reuters as one of the “World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds.”

Bringing Farms to Cities

Jeffrey Blumberg
Personalized nutrition isn’t the only change Blumberg foresees. As megacities with populations that reach 25 to 30 million become more common, urban agriculture is likely to gain ground.

“Farms aren’t going to be out in the countryside with trains and semi-trucks hauling food into the cities,” says Blumberg. “The logistics and pollution of transporting food for 30 million people is inconceivable. We’ll have to have urban agriculture.”

That means food production in the form of hydroponics, food grown in old shipping containers, rooftop gardens, and plenty of vertical farming, with buildings composed of floors dedicated to food production, says Blumberg. And don’t discount the role of technology, he adds.

“It’s not too hard to imagine fields being manned by huge combines run by artificial intelligence,” says Blumberg. “Plowing, harvesting, planting will be done with intelligent machines, or certain types of food preparations will move to robotic control.”

Consumer Comfort Levels with Technology
But there’s a larger threat looming that might accelerate the biggest differences, Blumberg contends: climate change challenges. Finding solutions for a food production system capable of feeding a burgeoning population—one expected to climb to nearly 10 billion by 2050—will quickly become imperative.

Already, the nutritional content of crops is declining, from tea to broccoli and tomatoes to important grains like wheat, rice, and corn. At the same time, extreme weather events increasingly are impacting crop yields. Less food that is also less nutritious is a worrisome combination, says Blumberg. It will need to be addressed through plant breeding and engineering, and farmers will be forced to shift traditional growing regions.

“The biggest hurdle isn’t the technology, though there are still some major hurdles to make [food] feasible, economical, safe, tasty, and looking like we want it to look,” he says. “The biggest hurdle is consumers. They don’t like GMO, artificial flavors or colors. They want ‘all natural.’ They’re going to have to change their minds or get comfortable with the idea that we’ll need technology to feed 10 billion people.”


San Diego-based journalist Clare Leschin-Hoar covers seafood, sustainability, and food trends for a number of national outlets including Cooking Light, Sunset, EatingWell, NPR, and The Guardian.