Food For Thought

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | June 23, 2010 10:21 am

As we continue to talk about energy, we’ll be exploring its relationship with the food we eat. Food and energy are inextricably linked, but all too often, their connections are overlooked. But before we begin considering average daily per capita intake for humans and how that relates to production and availability, it’s necessary to consider that an adequate amount of food is a vastly different topic from nutrition.

The US National Research Council has set Recommended Daily Allowances for what we consume, which includes vitamins, minerals, and trace elements. In affluent countries like ours, it’s relatively easy to obtain what we need, but micronutrient deficiencies occur at very high numbers globally. Micronutrients are necessary to make hormones, enzymes, and ensure proper growth and development. So deficiencies can lead to mental impairment, blindness, compromised immunity, infant mortality, hearing loss, and more. Billions around the world are now at risk. In Feeding the World, Vaclav Smil writes “the eradication of micronutrient deficiencies could exceed the impact of the global elimination of smallpox.”

How to get there–or at least, move in that direction? We can either provide the necessary foods to those who do not currently have regular access to them and/or make supplements readily available. The good news is that many scientists  and others have been working hard to achieve this. But we have a long way to go.

So as we press on exploring these topics, keep in mind that quantity alone is not enough when considering world food production.


Comments (9)

  1. Pete

    Excellent point. Abundance doesn’t always equate with neccesary. Someone already brought this up on your facebook wall, but even in this countries many are living lifestyles where they do not get the nutrients they need to. Fast food and excessive alcohol. So everyone struggles on different countries. Worth discussing I think.

  2. Yes, I should have been clearer. In this post, I am mainly talking about general accessibility to vital micronutrients in the US, as compared to say, parts of Ecuador, Bolivia, or Central Africa. But I agree, it’s worth discussing why we eat the way we do in the US, the impacts, and what we’re missing.

  3. I never really considered it like that. I always focused on what crops are best for the climate,environment, technology. Once again proving that no country can lead an isolated non trading existence in this world.
    I should think that distribution and education will the biggest hurdles even if those nutrients are imported.

  4. Guy

    Poor nutrition and poverty are definitely related. There was a study done that showed that children who have poor nutrition don’t do as well in math and science as others kids do.

  5. I always focused on what crops are best for the climate,environment, technology.

    Most of us are used to thinking of it this way, which is why I began with this particular post when discussing food.

    There was a study done that showed that children who have poor nutrition don’t do as well in math and science as others kids do.

    Yes there have been many.

  6. William Furr

    This reminds me of reading about one of the most cost effective potential public health interventions worldwide: iodizing salt.

    Also, it’s amazing that micronutrient deficiencies are still a problem 12,000 years after the start of agriculture.

  7. Soul

    I personally don’t think that supplements can replace a quality diet. And I believe a basic question that is debated heatedly – I’ve discovered – is, what makes a quality diet? Are we designed to be plant eaters as vegans argue, meat eaters as low carb followers believe – maybe somewhere in the middle?

    I’m personally a believer in the low carb/ paleo camp. Not only is the paleo diet bests for what our genes are designed for – producing foods found in the paleo diet are better for the environment compared to our current grain based eating habits.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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