Ingredients for a More Just and Sustainable Food Future

Nicole Tichenor Blackstone examines the environmental, health, economic, and social impact of what’s on the table

Making our food systems better for people and the planet is a big task. That’s why computational modeling—organizing vast amounts of information and analyzing it—is central to the research led by Assistant Professor Nicole Tichenor Blackstone, N12, NG16, and her colleagues at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

Blackstone’s firsthand experience more than a decade ago with a food bank serving people in northeast Kansas inspires her research. The irony of high rates of poverty and food insecurity among those living in the heart of America’s farmlands made a deep impression on her. “I encountered fundamentally unjust and unsustainable systems at the local level and became interested in how we can create a different food future using evidence-based policy,” she said. 

Today Blackstone is in the vanguard of research on both the supply and the demand sides of food systems. We need equity in each, she said, in order to create genuine sustainability encompassing environmental, health, economic, and social outcomes.

Cellular Agriculture 

Food systems account for about 30 percent of global greenhouse gases created by human activity. Cellular agriculture, or cell ag, offers the tantalizing prospect of producing meat directly from cells, avoiding the need for farm animals and their substantial demands for feed, water, and other resources. 

Blackstone, who was among the first faculty affiliated with the interdisciplinary Tufts University Center for Cellular Agriculture, likens the process to brewing beer. Instead of grain and hops fermenting in vats, cells grow in a nutrient-rich broth under precisely controlled conditions. Blackstone is analyzing the best ingredients for that broth. An unexpected, yet key, finding of Blackstone’s analysis is that tiny amounts of certain components can have a huge impact on sustainability.

Related research is comparing the overall environmental impact of cell-cultivated meats with conventionally produced products. To date, cell-cultivated chicken has been sold at two U.S. restaurants, but Blackstone said “the billion-dollar question” is whether the industry can grow to provide a bigger portion of the nation’s meat.

Blackstone also hopes to study the social implications of widespread adoption of cellular agriculture and its impact on individuals and communities like those she worked with in Kansas. 

Forced Labor and Food Systems 

Working with the University of Nottingham in England, Blackstone and other Tufts colleagues gathered data and developed new metrics to measure labor exploitation in U.S. food systems. Forced labor, which is labor that is coerced (explicitly or implicitly) and involuntary, is often thought to be rare in the U.S.  However, the team found that the greatest probability of forced labor in the supply chain came from production or processing on U.S. soil.

The team is now integrating those findings into a new model to see how shifts in overall diet might change that. “Exploitative labor has been part of U.S. food production since the very beginning,” said Blackstone. “It’s a big structural problem that requires big policy responses.” 

The work is part of the Friedman School’s LASTING Project (Leading A Sustainability Transition in Nutrition Globally) that aims to produce evidence-based recommendations, methods, and metrics for sustainability assessment of dietary patterns. A core piece of this work is developing the LASTING model, which simulates the impacts of dietary changes on health, environmental, economic, and social outcomes. 

Food as Medicine 

One of Blackstone’s newest projects is applying the LASTING model to simulate the impacts of dietary changes through Recipe4Health (R4H), a food as medicine program that aims to improve health outcomes in low-income communities in Alameda County, California. 

The R4H program combines fruit and vegetable prescriptions, wellness components such as nutrition education, and sourcing of foods from regenerative farms. Regenerative agriculture incorporates not only organic practices but also proactive measures to nurture soil health. Potential benefits include reduced carbon emissions and increased production long term. 

In Blackstone’s lab, doctoral candidate Kyra Battaglia is leading research that will model the projected environmental and health impacts and cost savings of implementing R4H throughout California.

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