William O. Baker

Rockefeller University 75th Anniversary Symposium

March 8, 1976


A recurring theme of my associates on this panel in our preparation is the complexity of applying science and technology for human good and the satisfaction of human needs. A lifetime of many of us devoted to that objective causes me to agree with them in depth. Nevertheless, we are moved also by how far our efforts to deal with this complexity have carried us. They have carried us forward most especially in engineering and physical science, for instance in the field of communications and transport, as Dr. Davis has cited, although advances in the conversion of energy, the techniques of warfare, the exploration of space, and numerous other examples could also be given.

Likewise in the biomedical sciences, to see such effects one need only look at the prolongation of life—life expectancy at birth—at once a cause of worldwide instabilities, such as Lord Ashby has elsewhere warned us of, and at the same time an easing of the life. Conditions of scores of millions of human beings. In the last 25 years alone in the yet-developing countries, average life has. been extended from 42 to 52 years, with infant mortality going down from 180 to around 120 per thousand births.

But in spite of these dramatic advances in easing. the human condition, this part in our discussion is based on the postulate that systems engineering (that is, engineering for the purposeful stabilization of ecosystems such as those Lord Ashby describes in natural balance) has been little applied in bioengineering. Specifically, vast opportunities are seen in the technology of food and nutrition, which must in turn be achieved from a more systematic scientific knowledge of food systems than is now available.

We are barely beginning to adjust, in gathering appropriate information, to even the atmospherics and hydraulics of crop culture. That beginning must be supplemented by sensing temperature, light, moisture and nutrient conditions, coupled with work in plant genetics. Thereby, our basic yields will continue the gains of the last couple of decades. Indeed, the yield per acre of grains could rise by one-half if, by some of the newer microbial or chemical schemes, we could bring their nitrogen capture up to a quarter of that regularly done by legumes. Overall in developing areas, yield would have to grow by 3.5% per year to meet food demands already felt in the past decade. While growth did hit 1.91U per year recently, climatic changes threaten this gain. If indeed, as is asserted, less than 218 million metric tons of grain (of the world production of 1.2 billion) are produced in the United States, there is still ample worldwide opportunity for improved adaptation to growing conditions. But the world will need 100 million tons more of cereals to withstand hunger. Indeed, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization projects a world deficit of 8.5 million tons by 1985.

But these familiar notions of improving yields and spreading knowledge of cultivation are not the main thrusts of my reminder to this sophisticated audience Rather, I am suggesting particularly that there are vast opportunities in science and engineering, in the immediate and long-range future, first to produce the right, unharmful foods, and secondly not to waste appalling fractions of those we do produce. Economic analysis as well as biomedical evaluation suggest that if these paths could be developed, profound advances in the total world ecology and economy could result.

Concerning the right. foods, evidence ranging from the epidemiology of cancer to the extraordinary studies in Mexico and elsewhere of mental retardation from malnutrition calls for a systematics of food-selection principles—a  grasp of socio-bio-habituation, perhaps not seriously examined since Biblical times. The situation also urgently demands a similar psychological, sociological, biological examination of food waste during harvest, transport, distribution, preparation and eventual consumption.

In the physical sciences, we can describe the propagation of a pulse of radiant energy through nearly every medium and, since Newton’s time, the movement of an object being propelled. it is not too much to seek some engineering parameters of the bio-energetic transport of edible matter beyond the estimate that the world produces about 2600 calories per capita (3200 in developed countries). Yet distribution of these foodstuffs is so erratic that at least 460 million people are believed to be malnourished. This is in spite of the need for only about 2300 calories per person, with actual production in even the poor countries often averaging about this level!

Studies by the U.S. Army Natick Laboratory, monitored in the past quarter century by panels of specialists from the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, have indicated the still vague outlines of how to create and measure food systems. Unlike the ardent “archaeologists” of Tucson, Arizona, who are now systematically measuring the waste, especially food waste, by the people of that city (about 1/2 food is wasted) military systems with which Natick has been concerned are closed enough to permit measurement of the disposition of a variety of basic foods. Their ability to support life on the one hand, and their acceptability and preference qualities on the other, have been at least crudely characterized.

Natick Laboratory is one of the few in the world that maintains operations research in a systems analysis office for food activity. Thus within the past year or so, studies have been completed, such as that of P. Brandler and co-workers, on “The Basic Level of Feeding: A comparison of Military and Comparable Civilian Food Utilization.” Similar studies by Brandler have involved “The Development of Alternative Food Cost Indexes” and “Patterns of Food Utilization in the DOD, Volume I.” The work of Bustead, Byrne and Davis involves some of the closed systems mentioned, including a recently completed study, “An Evaluation of Food Service Systems at Fort Myer, Bolling Air Force Base, and Fort Benjamin Harrison.” An even more extensive investigation has involved work of M. M. Davis, “A Nutritional Evaluation of the Experimental Food Service System at Travis Air Force Base, California” and “A Work Analysis of Food Service Personnel at Travis Air Force Base, California.” A whole series of similar studies at that locale has provided a microcosmic view of the effective technical parameters and their scientific basis in the amiable and efficient feeding of important (and often hungry!) segments of a population.

We may prefer to forget that in our civilian population we have equally large, effectively contained, similar segments. For example, in 1975, 19 million individuals used food stamps issued under auspices of a single federal department, HEW. Thus about 9% of our population received food as a public bounty, with little technical or sociological knowledge of whether it was well or poorly provided. There is, indeed, strong evidence of extensive waste through purchase of costly and ineffective “nutrients,” and other examples contrary to the public interest.

We must seek a new coalition of the physical and engineering sciences with the biosciences in constructing a socioeconomic food technology. In the case of food preservation, experiments at the Natick Laboratory on sterilization by radiation have for a decade demonstrated excellent and economic results for a variety of meats, fruits, and vegetables sensitive to various biochemical changes. Dehydration, time-temperature interchanges in preparation, above all packaging to control diffusion and oxygen exchange, and reduction of nitrite preservatives in meats are proper examples of opportunities for major scientific applications to establish this new food and nutrition economy.

Studies at the same laboratory also reach over into important animal assays, whose correlation with human reactions are evermore needed. Thus, use of dehydrated food for rats seems to cause an abnormal serum lipid-protein pattern, and a calorie-dense diet seems to elevate total liver lipids and cholesterol. However, moderate exercise, systematically applied, lowered these values to normal in the case of the calorie-dense diet. We cite but a few of these factors, which of course are thoughtfully studied in so many university laboratories, to emphasize that there is no national or international system for the regular and effective exchange of new findings with industry and government agencies. Thus even the most appealing and seemingly efficient food preparation and marketing are attended by a host of bio-scientific uncertainties, which should at least be recognized in more than diet and cholesterol-scare fads.

What we must now pursue is a broad characterization of our national and international food usage so that we can,. at least in the next decades, appeal to humanity’s essential rationality with knowledge, with engineering data. These must display, on the one hand, the true costs in energy, matter, and environment of the proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and vitamins which we and other societies consume. On the other hand, we must reveal as much as possible the physiological and psychological effects of these substances, particularly in relation to the epidemiology of cancer, of obesity, and other disease vectors. We should equally emphatically reveal whatever affirmatives there are in the old cliché, “You are what you eat.”

Doubtless, we shall not resolve the great cholesterol controversy, the great vitamin C polemic, the lipid liability, but this is not the point at all, except inversely. These issues have indeed absorbed far too much of the scientific and technical effort that ought to be organized to form a basis for efficient food production and usage. We should build a technology base that compares with that underlying supplies of energy, clothing, even shelter, transport, communication, and national security of the modern era.

The supermarket is indeed a great invention, but its socioeconomic effects on diet and food utilization are virtually unknown. Maybe elementary and high school training in the use of the supermarket, including arithmetic and other parameters such as language and labeling, is as important as training in history and composition. For instance, what effect does its colorful display have on the fluctuations in per-capita food consumption, which in 1975 went down to the lowest level in seven years? And what caused the highest food consumption in 1972, 103.8% of the 1967 average? M eat consumption fell 4% last year and now, according to the Agriculture Department Economic Research Service, is expected to rise considerably. Is this good or bad for the general public health and well-being? Potato per-capita consumption is expected to decline in 1976. Sugar consumption fell 8% last year, presumably because of prices, which have also caused a similar decline in coffee consumption since 1962. What kinds of physiological and behavioral effects do these fluctuations represent in a free-market society? In the last month or so, the price of cattle, eggs, apples and lemons has declined while that of corn, soybeans and potatoes has risen. Is the average marketing scale an adequate guide for the appropriate biology of food and nutrition?

Indeed, will supposedly free-market economics, coupled with superficial, perhaps child-dominated preferences, spread around the world in a new economy of nutrition? Nine developing countries, themselves producing food at a higher rate of increase than the U.S., nevertheless imported U.S. farm products, moving from $56 million in 1955 to $2.5 billion in 1973. Because we do not understand the bio- and behavioral engineering of food consumption, it is hard to know what such major world shifts mean as rough, unrefined, native crops and other natural components of the diet of developing countries are replaced by the bland and specialized cereals, soyas, and other major commodities of export and mass agriculture.

Proper encouragement of food production in the developing countries also needs this kind of technical insight. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development increased funding for agriculture from $484 million between 1961 and 1965 to $3.6 billion between 1971 and 1974. But only a few traces of systems evaluation of these programs are so far evident, such as the International Corn Research Network. Since corn is the predominant food for calories and protein in South America and Africa, and is produced as a major food in 126 countries, exceeded in worldwide importance only by rice, it is helpful that at least some genetic and biochemical attention is being given to corn culture. However, only in 1974 were systematic tests of now varieties undertaken. Our point is that, under present circumstances, the physiological impact may take many years or even generations to ascertain. We know that about twice as much corn or sorghum protein as animal protein seems to be required to get equivalent values, but we are really not confident of those values. Two new corn genes developed at Purdue in 1963 contain the two needed additional amino acids, and recent corn derived there from has a protein value for human nutrition estimated to be about as high as that of dairy products. But this pushes us quickly to question what the right level is and how it should be balanced with other foods and with human preferences.

The challenge to bioscience and engineering posed by the food and nutrition needs of the world has another remarkable attraction. It is that human pathology can often be directly related to eating. We know of a host of classic examples, from straight starvation, through blindness from vitamin A deficiency, anemia due to a lack of iron and riboflavin and folic acids, goiter from iodine deficiencies, and many others. But in addition there is emerging the huge domain of allergy, overstressed in some centers but nevertheless important in assessing human feeding. Likewise, and of special importance in the developing areas, is the whole realm of toxins from foods that appear innocent but are spoiled or inhabited by unusual pathogens.

Then, of course, there is the contentious issue of  additives, which on the one hand greatly extend food usage and  availability throughout the world but are considerable factors  in the assertion that carcinogens are especially active in food. Food additives may, of course, have wore subtle, possibly allergenic influences. A remarkable possibility of this appears in a recent study by Connors at the University of Pittsburgh, following the early observation of Dr. Benjamin Feingold in  California. Namely, in a controlled study Connors concluded that hyperactive children improved significantly, in the judgment of their teachers, when given a diet free of artificial. flavors and colors. Since there are an estimated five million such cases of hyperactivity in the country, we do not know, what the consequences may be for adult behavior of the social reaction to a hyperactive childhood. The matter is compelling. Of course the experimental diet shifted the total food pattern considerably, since soda pop, frankfurters, and cake mixes, as well as certain breakfast foods and aspirin were proscribed. While the study is quite sensitive and thin in data, it does illustrate our theme that, insofar as biomedical sciences and. research are intended to improve human well-being, this arena of food and nutrition, with its combination of normal and unhealthy effects, requires a new, systematic pursuit.

Further in this regard, understanding food effects in human societies couples closely with many other biomedical variables. Nutritional needs are affected by a person's developmental history, occupation, current medical state, and therapeutic activity, as well as by many social factors, fashions, and doctrines. It has long been known that infections, such as certain gastrointestinal diseases, markedly shift metabolic activity and thus influence nutritional needs in subtle ways.

Finally, the biosciences. provide new pathways to food production, with improved efficiencies that could shift the political stability and indeed the economic strength of many nations. As we have pointed out earlier, the 40 million tons of nitrogen fixed annually by microorganisms attached to the roots of plants, particularly legumes, are about equal to the present world consumption of fertilizer. However, recent discoveries make possible contrived association of nitrogen-fixing microorganisms with the roots of tropical grasses, such as sugar cane, corn, and rice. Also, these findings imply a better use of fixation by microorganisms that are not legume-associated. If microorganism association of grasses and grains could be raised to about half the 84 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare (75 pounds per acre), achieved by legumes in the U.S., the present world grain production would be aided by the equivalent of 30 million tons of nitrogen. This, in turn, is equal to about 112 million tons of high-nitrogen fertilizer, or three times the current world use. This could produce 250 to 300 million tons of grain on acreage already available in the developing countries, although if such fertilizer production were achieved by chemical factories, the capital cost would be about $23 billion.

Likewise, the whole area of photosynthesis is capable of scientific and technical advance involving such matters as carbon dioxide enrichment, genetic changes, and understanding of the photocatalytic energy-transfer process. Similarly, the control of microorganisms, fungi, and various pests would vastly improve the preservation and storage of vital food crops. It is believed that in tropical African countries, storage of grains and legumes for 12 months causes an average spoilage of 50% or more. These principles of systemic, organic technology can also be applied to livestock, which constitute another major food resource and which consume large quantities of crops in the course of their own function. In the United States, in fact, animals provide two-thirds of the protein consumed, about one-third of the energy, and about 80% of the calcium. However, we do not yet apply to their culture the very aspects of nutrition systems engineering that we have urged in earlier comments about human feeding. Serums for livestock-disease control, especially of parasitic and viral diseases, are of high urgency, and improved methods of breeding to obtain a greater number of offspring should also be emphasized,

Altogether, the new institutions and strategies for research and development in the biosciences, which have been proposed or remarked upon by our associates on this panel, would seem to find a place in the advance of the world's food and nutrition. And the feeding of animals, especially human beings, encompasses all aspects of normal growth and life, including interactions with individual abnormalities. Thus it seems possible that this realm of activity, which has traditionally involved a rather specialized and compartmentalized acquisition of knowledge, should be guided toward full systems science and engineering, as has been achieved in the simpler case of the physical sciences. It is possible, considering the way the world of people is made nowadays, that major advances in peace, individual comfort, and cultural growth could come from relief of the pressure and threat of hunger. At the same time, many pathologies, perhaps including even cancers and neurogenic diseases, could also be explained and better controlled by application of systems science and engineering.