A Conversation about Arizona, the Nutrition State: Shane Burgess

By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau Communication Director: This is now my third conversation article I’ve had with Shane Burgess, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the University of Arizona. Each time I thoroughly enjoy these conversations, the insights they inspire and the takeaways gathered. I was motivated to solicit Dean Burgess again since more than once he’s identified Arizona as the “Nutrition State,” most recently at the first-ever Arizona Agribusiness Roundtable hosted by the Arizona Department of Agriculture last December.

Very few states in America can claim to be a “Nutrition State.” One of them is Arizona, and it begins with one of the state’s most abundant resources: the sun.

But, the first time I heard Dean Burgess label Arizona the “Nutrition State” was nearly a year ago during a two-day conference in Tucson on the Mediterranean Diet. I was actually honored to be one of the presenters. I was asked to highlight Arizona agriculture’s diversity and bounty and heartily reveal how each area of the typical Mediterranean Diet can actually be satisfied here in our southwest desert – yes, even the fish.

Woven in this revelation, more critically, is the future of Arizona agriculture and its role in sustaining a nation’s food, fiber and fuel production and how profound the entire nation’s agriculture productivity is to national security and global geopolitics.

This conversation then attempts to peer into the future of agriculture, certainly Arizona’s agriculture.

Arizona Agriculture: In a recent presentation you said we were in a transforming time in the future of Arizona agriculture. Why and can you expand on this point?

Burgess: I think we are experiencing a confluence of scientific, technological, societal and environmental factors that are together both potential future and real current problems for U.S. agriculture in general; at the same time, though, there are some real opportunities for the next iteration of Arizona agriculture. This all makes for a very complex calculus for which, because it is also unique in our history, we have no existing “off-the-shelf” solutions. Specifically, we are seeing increased public awareness of natural resource use; challenging weather patterns (both in variability and absolute factors); fundamental changes in our domestic and local markets; fundamental changes in how global trade works (and I use the word “works” broadly); and a recognition of the role that food, fiber and fuel production plays in both our national security and global geopolitics. We heard about all these things, and more, at the inaugural Arizona Agribusiness Roundtable jointly held by the Agribusiness and Water Council of Arizona and Arizona Department of Agriculture on December 1, 2015. The bottom line, I think, is that we’ll need to come up with some “adaptive” solutions.

Certainly opportunities for the private sector come with attendant risk by definition, —but when in Arizona’s history haven’t they? I think the purpose of the public sector (i.e. Arizona’s Department of Agriculture and Arizona’s three universities--and especially the Land Grant one) in supporting the private sector are to actively do all that they can to mitigate that risk. They can provide technical and technological solutions to problems from production through the supply chain; help with marketing; provide well-educated employees, and work to support the private sector as it works on the underlying political solutions to challenges.

This all requires real and coordinated leadership as a community with a shared overall purpose. I think we have great leaders in all of our public and private sectors right now to do the things we need to do. It’s not going to be easy and that is one reason why I think that the Arizona Agribusiness Roundtable meeting and other such efforts are so important. The roundtable provided a benchmark and foundation from which to take actions as a community all working together for the benefit of Arizona’s and the nation’s economy and security.

Arizona Agriculture: Also as you said, Arizona has been producing income – new money – from water and the sun for a long time, as far back as the Hohokam. And, as a result explain more why we’re a primary production state. Also, we’re proud to explain Arizona agriculture as a $17.1 billion economic contributor to our state. But I get the sense that you think we somewhat limit our view and pride with this number. Why?

Burgess: The terms primary production and secondary production are based in biological and then ecosystems science and are applied in economics also. An economy’s primary sector makes direct use of natural resources: agriculture, forestry, fishing and mining. Economists say that the secondary sector produces manufactured goods, and the tertiary sector produces services. From our perspective it’s about creating new wealth in, verses cycling money within, an economy. You can create new dollars from the sun, dig them out of the ground or print them; the last is illegal if you are not the federal government. Regardless, the secondary and tertiary simply cannot happen without the primary and so to make the point I lump the secondary and tertiary together.

One of the things that I am extremely frustrated with is when people take a primary sector’s output value and compare it head-to-head with that of the secondary and tertiary added together. We’ve seen this in Arizona and California this last twelve months when it comes to water: “agriculture uses X percent of our water and only produces a tiny fraction of that as a percent of our GDP.” I think that is a very naïve and limited way to look at a complex economic system that is sensitively dependent on primary (foundational) production.

As you know, I am fond of Russian orthodox Christian and evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s 1973 statement that, "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution." Our economies and politics are part of our biology. It follows that of course the primary sector is smaller in dollar terms—it is supposed to be in a functioning economy and political system! Small doesn’t mean unimportant and small doesn’t mean low inputs. Should you do without your brain even though it is only 2% of your total body mass and uses more energy inputs than any other organ? The human brain is the foundation for everything we do including our social systems (including building functioning economies and political systems).

If you want historic examples compare the evolution of the economies and political systems within the Americas (north, central and south); take the underlying causes of the “Arab Spring”, the Syrian civil war, China’s economy and political system and North Korea’s problems.

So many of the technologies that we use today come from answering the hardest challenges we have ever faced as a species—how do we take our natural resources and harness other species’ biology to make our lives better? We wouldn’t have civilization, politics, writing, math, business, medicine, even cell phones, anything we know today, without our answers to this question. Today’s medical biotechnologies are a direct result of technologies developed for food production.

To answer your question in short, Arizona is a destination state and all the reasons that people have for coming here and investing here are based around Arizona’s historical and future rational use of its natural resources.

Arizona Agriculture: This leads me to ask you why you say you see Arizona’s “brand” as a “nutrition,” rather than “agriculture” state. Explain, please.

Burgess: When you take a look at what contemporary science considers our optimal diet for physical function and our ability to think and learn (often described as a Mediterranean or Okinawan diet) it looks a lot like what is produced by Arizona agriculture.

Imagine we were to stop food imports to Arizona and so we could only eat what we produce here; how would we feel about that and how healthy would we be? We come out pretty well (arguably better off than many of us are today). Now try this for some of the “big mid-western agriculture states”—not so enticing.

Not only is this about what products Arizona produces but what market segments it delivers into. For example (and with apologies to those I miss), if you are like me and care about sustainable optimal production with lower water use and minimized pesticide application you can get transgenic (GMO) crops; if you want to have certified organic food you can get that; if you want “local” you can get that; you can chose grass-fed or grain-fed; if you want “heart-healthy,” that’s no problem. If dairy is your thing—no problem. If you want salad at Christmas dinner—sure, have at it at bargain prices with negligible “carbon miles.” If you want some great wine or beer, you can get that. We even have exceptional aquaculture production. Of course this will require some actual cooking and families eating together.

Obviously I am not actually suggesting or advocating we carry out this experiment; it’s simply one way to visualize the amazing diversity of primary production this state has. We are not the biggest ag state by any means, but there are few that can boast what we can deliver to a table and to lower health care costs.

Arizona Agriculture: Keeping our constraints in mind, including residential and industrial development in the state and regulation, what’s our potential as a “nutrition” state? If we have such great potential in this state with our agriculture, what should be our various roles in the industry to move our future in an exciting way?

Burgess: I’m not best placed to answer this first question; I think my colleagues in the production side are. However, I believe that our potential is in our government, university and private sectors working closely together.  It is limited only by our ability to take problems and see them as opportunities that need an innovative solutions. I actually don’t see residential and industrial development in the state as a constraint per se—regulation is another matter altogether and one that should be tackled with innovative solutions.

To me, you only have innovation if you have the product of three I’s: Inspiration X Invention X Implementation. I think we need innovative thinking in three big areas: technological, economic and political. I think that the first two are easiest but the third is hardest, most important and greatly affect our ability to do the first two optimally.

I think that our biggest risk to fulfilling our potential for innovation lies in not having the leadership capacity that knows why we need to invest, what we should invest in, how to do so and in whom to invest. I believe that leadership is the key in our universities, our representative organizations (like the Farm Bureau), and our serving government agencies, our political leaders both elected and appointed and, mostly, ourselves individually.

In terms of our different and complementary roles: the universities should be great sources of invention but are less well-positioned for, but still can contribute to, inspiration and implementation. The exception is the University of Arizona’s CALS Cooperative Extension System, which is designed to be more balanced across the three. The state government agencies have a role in implementation and they can facilitate invention through investment. The federal government, through its Agricultural Research Service should be strong in invention and implementation and its competitive funding process should support all three areas. The Feds also have the biggest role in implementation (or in limiting it).  Inspiration and implementation are primarily the domain of the private sector—market competition drives both. The private sector has the lowest risk tolerance but the public is funded to mitigate this risk and we should use that to its fullest extent.  Primary political activism, to be credible, simply must be led by the private sector, especially through its representative organizations.

Arizona Agriculture: Talk about the importance of meat protein and developing countries and its correlation with test scores.

Burgess: I quote scientific work from Hulett; Bwibo et al., specifically; neurophysiology especially around neurotransmission and signaling in general as well as our scientific understanding of human brain evolutionary biology.

An easy-to-remember take away is that animal-derived foods (meat and milk) have been shown to improve cognitive function in children heretofore eating only a vegetarian diet without any animal-derived food, by improved performance in math, English, science and the arts school up to 45% over 5 school terms.

I want to explicitly say, however, that eating a vegetarian diet without any animal-derived food does not mean that kids will do poorly in school. But simply, because we evolved as omnivores our physiology means that it is much harder to get optimal human nutrition for optimal cognitive functional development without eating animal-derived foods. It is possible, but in relative terms very expensive, to provide optimal nutrition on a vegetarian diet without any animal-derived food components. In countries where significant numbers of people cannot afford animal-derived foods (which coincidentally is where the majority of the world’s population lives) these people also cannot afford optimal nutrition on a vegetarian diet without any animal-derived food. There is a reason why humans en-masse naturally chose to purchase animal-derived food as they take their first steps out of the poverty cycle. There is a reason that countries that plan to have strong economies and a vibrant “middle class”, economies built on innovation, include animal production as a central component to their development plans.

Arizona Agriculture: Our agriculture moves to the national security issue too. Dive into this a bit.

Burgess: My brief thoughts on this topic are based on what I see in our world today and what I have seen as I have traveled in countries where the majority of the world’s population lives and where the population does not have food security. A nation that relies on another for its food cannot be secure in the long term. A nation without the systems needed for its people to get enough of the safe and nutritious food, that they want to buy at reasonable price, will not have political stability. Inclusive economies and stable political systems can only be built by food secure people with good cognitive function.

Food and/or facilitating food security is a cheaper and far more effective weapon than bullets. I am not advocating one without the other; but who has enough friends and who couldn’t do with fewer enemies? No parent, in no country, wants to lose their children in a foreign land or to a flawed ideology. Food is central to every single culture and religion and food provides intersections amongst all.  What better way to make friends than sharing food? Food has the added value of enabling successful education and thus the growth of economies. These economies can become politically stable trading partners. Interdependent stable trading partners, whose economies depend on each other, think twice before aggression. The biggest recruiter of terrorists is not religion or ideology, but lack of even a very short-term future at the individual level and this is often plays out as poor food security.

Arizona Agriculture: You said that you were extremely disappointed and concerned with the 2015 USDA nutrition guidelines, in addition to their un-mandated focus on sustainability, you said that in particular that the export committee of your peer scientists has let down the American and world public. Can you explain more?

Burgess: The USDA dietary guidelines (“my plate”) for Americans affect the diet of tens of millions of our citizens, as well as food labeling, education, and research priorities. They affect what our children will be fed in schools. They affect food marketing and public perception and our health care costs.

I, and many other scientists, believe that the scientific committee did not use standard methods for most of its analyses. To quote Dr. Fiona Godlee, editor-in-chief of the British Medical Journal (one of the world’s preeminent medical journals), “The least we would expect is that they (the guidelines) be based on the best available science. Instead the committee has abandoned standard methodology...”. The committee largely stayed with what is now obsolete advice that doesn’t reflect current, relevant, science that was published well within the time frame that the committee was charged with analyzing. They are continuing to recommend a high carb diet that is now commonly known to be a central cause of obesity. At least they did recommend decreasing processed sugar intake.

Our best science, published long enough ago that the committee not only could have accessed it but was charged explicitly to do so, has shown that meat-eating is not actually bad for you per se (not really a total shocker as we evolved as omnivores). It also shows that dairy products will not actually clog up your arteries and contribute to heart disease. The particular saturated fats in cheese, butter, and full-fat milk will not raise the cholesterol in your blood; these dairy products can actually be actively good for heart health. Twelve separate studies found people eating full-fat dairy products to be leaner than those who don't—“it’s the carbs that get you” (well really it is the bio-accessible calories). The science shows that eggs are not a “heart attack waiting to pounce on you from their shell in the ‘fridge” but, provided you are otherwise healthy, egg consumption as part of a balanced diet has no ill consequences whatsoever. In fact, and as the vast majority of mothers worldwide know, and those especially in food insecure countries prove daily, eggs and dairy products are an exceptional source of nutrition for growing lean, smart and active human beings.

My view as a professional scientist is that the members of the committee, as professional scientists, exhibited poor judgment in the least and that they have severely damaged the trust in what for decades has been a valued U.S. government-provided resource, not only for this country but worldwide.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Arizona Agriculture

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