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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University December 4, 2006 | Vol. 36 No. 13
CLF: Celebrating First Decade of Food Production Science

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future began quite modestly, fueled by a $50,000 private donation and run by a two-person staff for its first two years of operation.

The center's mission and goals, however, were anything but modest — protecting the health of the biosphere and ensuring our ability to sustain life for future generations on this planet.

Founded in the spring of 1996, CLF became the first academic-based center at a school of public health in the United States focused on food production and its impact on the environment and human health. As the world's population and consumer demand soared, the center's founders saw an urgent need to improve human health, prevent disease and help preserve the Earth's finite resources.

Specifically, the center, an affiliate of the School of Public Health, wanted to bring scientific scrutiny to bear on such issues as the spread of Western dietary habits, the environmental impact of run-off from farms, livestock production methods and the use of man-made agents (pesticides, antibiotics, etc.) in food production.

To celebrate its first decade of food systems science, the Center for a Livable Future will host a full-day symposium on Wednesday, Dec. 6, to be held in the School of Public Health's Feinstone Hall.

Michael Klag, dean of what is now the Bloomberg School of Public Health, will kick off the ceremonies at 10 a.m., and Robert Lawrence, the center's founding director and professor of environmental health sciences, will give an introductory talk. Dean Emeritus Alfred Sommer will deliver the symposium's keynote address, a talk titled "Science to Policy: The Need for Both Evidence and Advocacy."

The symposium — Charting a Course to Sustainability Through Research, Education and Service — will feature five panel talks: Farming, Eating and Living for the Future; Industrial Animal Production — Public Health Implications; Industrial Agriculture — Ecological Implications; Dietary Choices and Food Systems; and Reducing Our Ecological Footprint.

Lawrence said that the symposium will serve to summarize and celebrate the center's research accomplishments to date and set the stage for future groundbreaking work.

"We feel this center has firmly put food systems on the public health map," Lawrence said. "Food systems are critically important and should be of concern to all. I feel our main accomplishment is that we have significantly advanced understanding of the fact that public health should be much more involved in agriculture."

The Center for a Livable Future effectively began with the efforts of activist Henry Spira, who 15 years earlier had played a key role in the founding of the Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing. In March 1996, Spira arranged a meeting with Sommer, then dean, to discuss the treatment of industrial farm animals. Out of this conversation arose a more comprehensive look into the interconnectedness of diet, health, food production, the environment, equity and population.

A month later, Lawrence wrote a letter and faxed a copy to Spira to tell him of the school's plans to create an interdisciplinary center to look into such issues. With hard copies of the letter still sitting on his desk to be mailed to other parties, Lawrence received a call from an activist friend of Spira's, who offered a gift of appreciated stock to help found the center.

"We hadn't even asked for money," he said. "Basically put, that is how the center got started."

From the outset, the center sought to engage in three principal activities: research, educational outreach and community action. It quickly set out to mobilize a community of scientists, nutritionists, public health specialists, energy experts, political scientists, economists, environmentalists, animal rights activists and others to examine current food manufacture and dietary habits and then translate that scientific data into workable strategies and policies that could help preserve the Earth for future generations.

Polly Walker, the center's associate director and a research associate in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences, said that while the center's creation was greeted with enthusiasm, its early growth was slow and future uncertain.

"It wasn't a shoo-in, certainly," said Walker, who joined CLF shortly after its creation. "In some sense, the response to our creation was actually surprising. While some individuals were immediately drawn to the name and the ideas, many at Hopkins were dubious."

Walker said the center's first major milestone came in 1998, when a sizable gift from a private donor allowed for the creation of the Innovation Grants program. The purpose of the grants, available to researchers both at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere, was to encourage visionary work that focuses on how to achieve a livable future, such as using resources equitably and sustainably. CLF awards as many as 10 research grants annually in amounts up to $20,000 for one year of support.

Walker said the grant program immediately brought in more faculty and students and allowed the center to expand its efforts.

"The money for research in this area is hard to come by, so the Innovation Grants program provided a mechanism to support this sort of research related to food systems and attracted people interested in these," Walker said.

To date, dozens of grants have been awarded through both the Innovation Grants program and directed research to support such studies as those examining the use of antibiotics in chicken feed, the nutritional transition in China as its population shifts to a more Westernized high-meat diet, and the public health and environmental impacts of industrial animal production methods.

There is mounting evidence, Lawrence said, that the use of antibiotics in chicken feed allows disease-causing bacteria in humans to develop a resistance to these same antibiotics. The Spira/Grace Project started at the center in 1998 and has been a catalyst for supporting research and grass-roots efforts in this area.

In the case of Hurricane Floyd, the massive floods washed out many manure-holding lagoons from hog farms located on North Carolina's coastal plain, creating an overflow of waste that eventually found its way to nearby rivers and coastal waters. The result was a 350-square-mile dead zone, devoid of oxygen and of life, in the nation's second-largest marine estuary.

In 2002, the center helped unveil Meatless Monday, a national health campaign to help prevent four of the leading causes of death in America. Research has found that diets high in saturated fat, found mainly in meat and high-fat dairy products, increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and stroke.

The work of CLF was expanded in 2004 into three main program areas: farming, eating and living for the future.

Today, CLF supports predoctoral fellows, awards grants to faculty and students, and funds directed research. Its educational outreach includes developing courses, generating resource materials and conducting congressional briefings.

Now in its third year, the Predoctoral Fellowship Program supports students at JHU who are committed to discovery or application of knowledge about the environmental, economic, social and health impacts of industrial animal production in the United States and abroad.

Last year, the center established a School of Public Health course titled Nutritional Health, Food Production and the Environment, a three-credit distance-education course taught by Lawrence and Walker.

As to what lies ahead for the center, Lawrence said that in many ways the work of the center is just getting started. As industrialized food practices are resistant to change, more research needs to be done to shed light on its impact on human health.

"Food systems are so complex," he said. "What we are doing is one piece of a larger effort, but a very important piece because we are linking current food production practices to human health. What keeps the center motivated, to expand and increase its efforts, is the dramatic increase in public awareness of the environmental and health impacts of industrial agriculture, coupled with the paradox of 1 billion overweight and obese people in high-income countries and an equal number of hungry people in low- income countries."


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