Posts

Microparticles That Could Alleviate Global Malnutrition
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), iron deficiency is the most common consequence of poor nutrition worldwide. Every year, 2 million children die globally from malnutrition. Efforts to refortify foods date back to the early 20th century, but the technology to stabilize those nutrients in different foods has progressed slowly. In a breakthrough method of encapsulating micronutrients, researchers at MIT have discovered a way to refortify common foods by using biocompatible polymers that have shown in efficacy trials to prevent degradation while being stored or cooked. The new method would allow for better nutrient delivery and absorption. If there were microparticles that could alleviate global malnutrition, such a development, if scaled up, could provide many developing countries with more nutritious food and prevent malnutrition-related diseases that primarily affect children and pregnant women.

Micronutrient Malnutrition

Malnutrition primarily affects those living in developing countries and the malnourished often represent 30 percent of their population. Malnutrition presents itself in a variety of ways, but most notably through anemia, cognitive impairments and blindness. Roughly 2 billion people live in low-resource areas where infectious diseases compound the effects of malnutrition. The lack of micronutrients is a quiet and prolonged killer and can cause premature death and loss of economic activity. There is also a direct correlation between those with the least education and most iron-deficient in these countries.

WHO has worked to tackle the causes of malnutrition using solutions such as promoting dietary diversification with enhanced iron absorption and supplementation, noting that solutions must meet the local population needs. Since many of these communities lack more than one vital micronutrient, efforts to supplement the diet can address multiple deficiencies, such as lack of folate, vitamins A and B12. Part of their plan includes programs that aim to eradicate infectious diseases that contribute to anemia, including schistosomiasis, hookworm, HIV, malaria and tuberculosis. Doing so would help end the cycle of poverty that many communities face due to disease and malnutrition.

Microparticles That Could Alleviate Global Malnutrition

The lead authors of the MIT study are Aaron Anselmo and Xian Xu, as well as graduate student Simone Buerkli from ETH Zurich. In the study, they claim to have developed a new way of refortifying foods using a biocompatible polymer microparticle. What is most notable about this new technology for supplementing foods is that the encapsulated micronutrients will not degrade during cooking or storage. Researchers selected the polymer BMC out of the 50 different polymers they tested, after trying them on laboratory rats and later on women. The same polymer is already classified in the United States as a dietary supplement safe for consumption. The next step for the researchers is to advance clinical trials in developing countries with local participants.

The researchers were able to encapsulate 11 different micronutrients using polymer BMC, such as vitamins A, C, B2, zinc, niacin, biotin and iron. They were able to successfully encapsulate combinations of up to four micronutrients at a time. Even after boiling encapsulated micronutrients for hours in a lab, they remained unharmed. Researchers also found that the new microparticles remained stable after experiencing exposure to oxidizing chemicals in fruits and vegetables as well as ultraviolet light. The polymers become soluble in acidic conditions (such as the stomach) and the micronutrients released. An initial trial did not yield a high absorption rate, so researchers boosted the iron sulfate from 3 to 18 percent and were successfully able to achieve high absorption rates, which was on par with typical iron sulfate. This trial added encapsulate iron to flour and used it to bake bread.

History and Limitations of Food Fortification

In its Guidelines on Food Fortification with Micronutrients in 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the WHO noted that the most common deficiencies were in iodine, vitamin A and iron, representing 0.8 million deaths annually. Developed nations typically do not experience these levels of malnutrition because they have access to a variety of foods that are rich in micronutrients, such as meat and dairy products. Underdeveloped countries consume mostly monocultures of cereals, tubers and roots. Prior to the 1980s, developed countries focused their efforts on protein-energy malnutrition. While protein-based foods did help to improve nutrition, it was the addition of iodine to foods in the 1990s that helped prevent degenerative characteristics such as brain damage and mental retardation in childhood.

To combat micronutrient malnutrition, WHO promotes greater access to a variety of quality foods for all affected groups. In addition to a more diverse diet, they strategize to create policies and programs with governments and organizations to educate the public on good nutrition, diversify food production and deliverability, implement measures to guarantee food safety and provide supplementation. Having the support of the food industry has been essential since the beginning of the 20th century to include these guidelines in their production of food. Salt iodization in the 1920s expanded from developed countries to nearly the entire world. However, a number of challenges have remained for the refortification of foods.

For example, early on in the fight against malnutrition, a lack of quality evaluation programs on the efficacy of food refortification left nutritionists wondering if the empirical improvements for certain populations were due to supplementation or a combination of socioeconomic facts and public health improvements. Analyzing the data with a comprehensive efficacy trial became the norm in an effort to better gauge the efficacy of their efforts. Other issues remain such as interactions of nutrients, the stability of polymers, correct levels of nutrients, physical properties of ingredients and how well customers receive the food. For instance, in large amounts, calcium inhibits iron absorption while vitamin C has the opposite effect in refortified foods.

Implications of the Study

The MIT study, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, modeled its research on the success of refortifying food with iodized salt from the past, incorporating micronutrients into a diet that would not require people to change their consumption habits. According to researchers, the next phase will be to replicate the study in a developing country with malnutrition to see if the microparticles can feasibly enter residents’ diets. They are seeking approval from the WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives. If successful, they will scale up manufacturing of the nutrient additive in the form of a powdered micronutrient.

The initiative could lead to a significant decline in global cases of nutrient deficiencies thereby reducing the effects of anaemia and other preventable diseases due to a poor immune system. By no means would it represent the first technological advance in refortifying foods and increasing access to nutrition, but the addition of microparticles that could alleviate global malnutrition may help many developing nations end a cycle of poverty that disease has perpetuated for generations, increasing their health and productivity in the process.

– Caleb Cummings
Photo: Flickr

MIT's J-PAL LabOn a busy street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an unassuming brick building houses the North American headquarters of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). Inside MIT’s J-PAL Lab, researchers analyze the results of randomly-designed experiments and the generalizability of their findings. Their test subjects? Social programs.

J-PAL and its Research

Anti-poverty work can take many forms: vocational training, credit access, education and the list goes on. Programs of various types can be valuable and worth funding, but because donors and organizations have limited amounts of funding, the relevant question is often not whether to support anti-poverty work, but how to support it. What programs are making the biggest difference? Where will a donation do the most good?

J-PAL co-founder Abhijit Banerjee puts it best in an interview with The Wire: “you have to basically focus on: where is the lever? That’s what we do, try to help find the lever, and then if you push the lever you go fast. But what [policy-makers] do is often… just hit everything and then some things hit the lever, some things hit the wall.” The strategy of “hitting anything” is certainly not useless, but to maximize impact, a person should concentrate on the mechanisms that maximize impact. J-PAL’s work is in locating the policy levers that will make a difference and encouraging policy-makers to use them.

MIT professors Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Sendhil Mullainathan founded J-PAL in 2003 and it has grown quickly. As of 2019, J-PAL has a network of 181 affiliated professors around the world. A truly global organization, J-PAL has offices in Capetown, South Africa; Paris, France; Santiago, Chile; New Delhi, India; and Jakarta, India. J-PAL’s work focuses on researching the results of different cases of anti-poverty action to evaluate what is most effective and advise policymakers accordingly, and educating people about how and when to evaluate social programs.

J-PAL’s Approach

At its base, J-PAL’s approach is simple. Any case of policy-making has results, and by tracking actions and results in a large number of cases, one can determine which are successful and which are not, and therefore which to support in order to produce a maximum impact. Using this data, one can also attempt to predict the policies whose results could potentially be reproduced elsewhere. J-PAL’s methods also emphasize focusing on the mechanisms behind policies and not on specific details of a single scenario. Particular details vary from case to case, but human behavior does show certain patterns; in similar circumstances, policies that have worked before can work again.

J-PAL and its affiliated professors have performed over 900 evaluations and have developed a selection of case studies and other teaching resources to educate people about the analysis of social programs. Every year, J-PAL runs Evaluating Social Programs, a five-day course for policymakers, researchers and nonprofit workers that covers the basics of organizing scientifically sound evaluations and interpreting their results. Close to 50 people attended the 2018 course, which took place at MIT. J-PAL has also made the content of the course available online for free through the online education platform edX, allowing people around the globe to learn from J-PAL’s work. The case studies discussed in the course are also available on J-PAL’s website.

Moving Forward

MIT’s J-PAL Lab has encouraged the scaling up of policies ranging from remedial education in India, deworming in Kenya and community block grants in Indonesia. It also continues to study policy and advocate for effective social policies. The training that it provides for policy-makers allows them to maximize their impact in an economically efficient way. As J-PAL continues to grow, its affiliates will continue to find those levers.

– Meredith Charney
Photo: Flickr

Food_AidAs humanitarian crises grow across the world, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is increasing food aid with one simple solution: bag redesigns.

Before getting into the solution, it is imperative to diagnose the problem first.

The world currently faces six qualified food emergencies, as stated by the World Food Program. Between civil wars and the environmental effects of the recent El Nino, civilians in Syria, Iraq, southern Africa, Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen are all in dire need of food assistance. If lives are to be saved, agencies like USAID must increase food aid.

USAID is considered to be one of the world’s most significant food aid donors. Yearly, it donates around $1.5 billion in rice, sorghum and wheat to countries in need all around the world. These shipments are ordered to port in one of three chosen locations: Djibouti, Ethiopia or South Africa. However, under law, this food aid must be bought within the U.S. and half of all aid must be transported via U.S. ships. Realistically, this process takes around four to six months to ship. This donation process can be tedious and, in emergency situations when food is needed in less than a week (like the Haitian earthquake), deadly.

Not only this, but it is estimated that one percent of food donation cargo spoils along the way. While the percentage appears insignificant, the repercussions are fierce. One percent of USAID’s food donation is equivalent to 10,000 tons of food, costing up to $15 million. And so, when one percent spoils, an estimated 200,000 families will go hungry for an entire month. For some, one percent is the difference between life and death.

Alongside the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USAID sought out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to tackle this mission last year. MIT researchers will assess how food aid is packaged in present-day and then research alternative packaging systems that will both delay the food aid’s expiration and decrease the cost of making the package. Should they find an alternative, USAID and MIT could be responsible for increasing food aid around the world.

MIT is currently testing bags that will avoid water damage and slow insect infestation, two leading causes of food aid spoiling. Currently, these newly design bags are carrying $1.7 million worth of food aid to Djibouti and South Africa. Only time will tell if USAID and MIT have found success in the redesigns. Regardless, for 200,000 families, the world of food aid is growing a little brighter.

Brenna Yowell

Photo: Flickr

White House Launches Global Climate Resilience Service
Launched by the White House Office of Science and Technology in October 2016, the Resilience Dialogues is an online consultation service that connects community leaders with experts around the world. Their goal? To help one another build climate resilience service.

“Start a dialogue.”

Those are some of the first words that greet visitors of the Resilience Dialogues webpage. They’re also the name of the game — that is, a global conversation and info-sharing platform that proffers the who’s, what’s and how’s of strategic climate resilience.

The Resilience Dialogues defines resilience as the “capacity of individuals, communities and systems to anticipate, prepare for, and adapt to changing conditions, recover from threats, and thrive in the future.” A tall order, to be sure, but one that will become all the more necessary as coastlines and inland alike grows more vulnerable to the hazards of global warming.

By 2080, according to the World Bank, the occurrence of drought could potentially grow by more than 20 percent. That means the amount of people affected by drought would increase proportionally by 9 to 17 percent come 2030, and by 50 to a whopping 90 percent by the time 2080 comes around.

On the flip side of the coin, the World Bank also estimates that flooding is set to spike within the same time period. Those exposed to river floods will amount to around 4 to 15 percent in 2030, before jumping to 12 to 29 percent by 2080.

The Resilience Dialogues is a collaborative means of beating back the tide of climate variability, giving stakeholders an opportunity to connect and share sector-based, place-specific data on likely risks, serviceable products and other technical resources.

Backers come from the private and public sector in equal measure, ranging from MIT’s Climate CoLab, which created and hosts the beta, to the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange, which will play a crucial role in recruiting experts and coordinating leadership.

The service builds on previous White House actions on climate resilience, including the similarly designed U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit, their public-private Climate Services for Resilience Development partnership and their Partnership for Resilience and Preparedness (PREP).

The global scope of the Resilience Dialogues, however, echoes the new directions of the National Climate Assessment (NCA), which will include a chapter of international content for the first time in its next report.

On paper, the Resilience Dialogues reflects the shift of both national and global institutions’ climate change responses towards integrative and participatory solutions. If successful, the initiative could potentially chart a course for future U.S. government-sponsored endeavors in the sphere of climate resilience — one that empowers and inspires local decision makers.

Josephine Gurch

Photo: Flickr

MIT-Yale_Partnership
In the United States, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Yale University partnered by conducting an experiment using the concept of the “big push” theory in relation to extreme poverty.

With positive results, the ivy league universities can improve the experiment, helping more people around the world suffering from extreme poverty.

Originally, the big push theory was an economic term coined by Paul Rosenstein-Rodan in 1943.

In relation to the economy, Rosenstein-Rodan proposed, “That even the simplest activity requires a network of other activities and that individual firms cannot organize such a large network, so the state or some other giant agency must step in.”

The MIT-Yale partnership used the basic concept of the big push to conduct their experiment.

Between 2007-2014, 10,000 households in Peru, Pakistan, India, Honduras, Ghana and Ethiopia were given the graduation program, a resourceful package that included a stipend for food and money, income in the form of bees or chickens, health care, advice for saving money and regular visits to reinforce the skills and accountability.

The goal was to give these families the initial “push” and a sense of stability so they could carry on positive habits even after the experiment concluded.

“The results show that three years after the intervention, hunger is down, consumption is up, and income is up,” says Abhijit Banerjee, the Ford Professor of International Economics at MIT, and a co-author of the paper detailing the findings.

With positive results, governments around the world are considering giving the program a try.

In regards to the original big push theory, MIT and Yale University can further improve their experiment with more partnerships including other U.S. universities.

With more partnerships, the experiment can gain more funds and a larger pool of volunteers.

For many college students, especially ones majoring or interested in the nonprofit sector, being part of this type of experiment would give them real-world experience and a once in a lifetime opportunity. In this way, students can play a part in helping end extreme poverty by 2030.

With the original MIT-Yale partnership, there was hope for people who believe extreme poverty is not savable. Now, a larger network can be created to make further impacts, turning the “big push” into a “big leap” toward the end of extreme poverty.

Alexandra Korman

Sources: MIT News, The Boston Globe, The Economist
Photo: Flickr

desalination
By 2050, it is estimated that the world’s demand for water will have increased by 55 percent. Many countries are expected to face water crises worse than any in recorded history. The hunt is on for solutions that will make clean water accessible to everyone, especially those in areas with few resources. One such solution is the groundwater desalination system. Invented by Jain Irrigation Systems and a team from MIT, the system’s potential is promising and recently received the USAID Desal Prize.

In many countries, the challenge lies not in the quantity of water but in its quality. Groundwater is water that has been trapped underground for years. It is fairly easy to access through traditional wells and pumps, but it is usually not pure. The biggest challenge is brackish groundwater, or water that has just enough salt in it to make it unsuitable for irrigation and drinking. Since about 70 percent of all water use occurs in food production, finding a way to make groundwater pure enough for irrigation purposes would be a major coup in the field of water management.

The system designed by Jain and MIT uses solar panels to generate electricity that can be used by the system immediately or stored in batteries for overnight operation. The desalination component uses a process called electrodialysis. To pull the salt from the water, two electrodes with opposing charges are aligned opposite each other; the water is run between them. The salt dissolved in the water has a very slight charge, which means the salt particles will be pulled to one electrode or the other. The water is then passed through a series of membranes that filter out larger particles. This method of desalination would not work for extremely saline water, like seawater, but it does a good job on groundwater. Once the groundwater is free of salt, the system treats it with UV light. This kills the bacteria in the water and makes it potable.

Desalination is one of the most energy intensive methods of water reclamation around, but this system is essentially self-sufficient. In field trials, it was found to recover about 90 percent of the water input, almost double the amount that current reverse-osmosis desalination systems typically recover. It has the potential to supply water to between 2,000 and 5,000 people, which is the size of a typical rural Indian village. In trials, it has proven durable and capable of 24-hour operation, something which cannot be said for many prototypes.

With these successes to its name, it is no wonder that researchers are eager to install prototypes for field evaluations in India as early as next year.

– Marina Middleton

Sources: IFL Science, Securing Water for Food 1, Securing Water for Food 2, Jain Irrigation Systems Ltd.
Photo: Inhabitat

water_crisis
If you think back to your days as a kindergartner, you may remember the first time you learned the water cycle. Equipped with a blue crayon, you replicated what your teacher described in a simple picture: rain falls, people drink it, the water evaporates and the whole thing repeats. You learned that water is renewable.

But renewable does not mean unlimited, a fact constantly recognized by the 780 million people who lack access to clean drinking water.

Freshwater, the largest source of our drinking water, makes up only 2.5 percent of the planet’s water. Only 1 percent of freshwater is actually available, as most of it is frozen. This leaves 0.007 percent of the Earth’s water left for an ever-growing population that exceeds 7 billion. This is a water crisis.

“Why can’t we use ocean water?” one might ask. The answer is, well, we can.

Desalination, the removal of salt from saltwater, makes the use of ocean water possible. But breaking the strong bonds that salt forms with water molecules requires a lot of energy, and this energy is expensive.

As Peter Gleick, president of the environmental think-tank Pacific Institute, says, “It can cost from just under $1 to well over $2 to produce one cubic meter (264 gallons) of desalted water from the ocean.”

Considering that 99 percent of water-related illnesses occur in developing countries, desalination is simply an unrealistic option for most who suffer from the water crisis.

But what if there were some way to desalinate without such steep energy requirements?

A team of scientists believe they know how to do so.

Martin Bazant and Daosheng Deng of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a process that they believe will more efficiently and effectively desalinate water. They call it “shock electrodialysis.”

Today, the two cheapest methods of desalination are reverse osmosis and electrodialysis.

Reverse osmosis works by pumping water through a membrane that does not allow salts to pass. Although it requires less energy than older methods, it works too slowly.

Building on reverse osmosis, electrodialysis tried the opposite: pumping salts through an electrified membrane until only pure water is left. This process is significantly cheaper than reverse osmosis but is not without shortcomings. It fails to decontaminate water of dirt and bacteria without additional filtration methods.

Bazant and Deng say that shock electrodialysis can produce clean, bacteria-free drinking water in one step. How? They placed an additional filter made of porous glass near the electrified membrane. Based on Bazant and Deng’s observations, dirt particles and bacteria are unable to fit through the tiny pores in the glass material.

If it turns out that this MIT development can be produced at a low cost on a large scale, shock electrodialysis could provide millions of people with access to drinking water.

– Shehrose Mian

Sources: UNICEF, National Geographic, Scientific American, Technology Review
Photo: Technology Review

Esther_Duflo_JPAL
When policy makers ask about how effective an aid program is, they want to know the answers to the same rational, straight-forward questions critics might ask. If the program is intended to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, for instance, the question might be, “how many contraceptives were bought, distributed, and used effectively with our funds”, or “what is the change in the number of reported cases of HIV/AIDS since our program began?” The answers to these questions are quantities that drive support for or against aid programs.

Since 2003, the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at MIT has been working with governments and relief agencies to make those numbers more reliable and, consequently, more convincing in an effort find out what solutions are truly effective when taking action against poverty.

Founded, in part, by the innovative and brilliant French economist Esther Duflo, J-PAL uses a method known as randomized evaluations to answer critical questions about the effect of poverty relief. Duflo is considered a pioneer in economics, and her ideas are used to better understand causal relationships across her field.

A large reason for the effectiveness of the random evaluation studies employed by J-PAL, are the creative, concise questions used that account for some of the irrationality of human behavior. Humans rarely know exactly why they make the choices they do, so a straight-forward question to that effect rarely produces a useful answer. Duflo has found that while poverty limits one’s opportunity, it does not necessarily limit one’s choices like people that choose to go without food to save up for a television or prefer an expensive private doctor to a free clinic.

Randomized evaluations are not a new method of collecting census data but had not been used, typically, to judge the results of aid programs. They are the standard in determining the results of clinical trials for drugs but are referred to as a Randomized Controlled Trials and are considered the most unbiased and accurate measure of the effects of a new drug.

The method, simply put, randomly chooses participants who will be asked the same questions. These same questions are then asked to at least one other equally sized group chosen by the same random method. The data garnered in this fashion can then be representative of a much larger group and be free of any bias from the researchers.

Over the past ten years, J-PAL has teamed with more than two hundred agencies such as the World Bank, USAID, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UNICEF, and various governments like Sweden and the U.S. In fact, most major aid agencies now either work directly with the poverty action lab or use their methods.

Policy outreach is a major component of the J-PAL mission as policymakers must be aware of the problem before a solution can be found. Their work has been responsible for improving the lives of millions of people every year by conducting rigorous scientific research to find out what works and, just as importantly, what doesn’t work when combating poverty.

– Tyson Watkins

Sources: Tehelka, Poverty Action Lab, Yahoo News
Photo: Telegraph

Viral_MIT_Microfinance
The central problem of many anti-poverty efforts is a failure to actually reach the poor. Often, the programs themselves are faulty or broken. Much of the time, however, the problem is demand-side: The poor don’t trust the aid programs and don’t want to participate.

Two MIT researchers think they have found a solution, however. Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, co-founders of the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), decided to measure an oft-overlooked factor in community development: social influence, or what they call “diffusion centrality.” Using their new metrics, they think they have found a key to motivating demand-side participation in charitable efforts.

In their recent paper, “The Diffusion of Microfinance,” they argue that finding the right “social injection points” is key to successful beneficial programs. They studied microfinance programs in 75 villages in southwestern India for five years, conducting extensive surveys to determine how participation in microfinance flowed along social networks. They paid especially close attention to social pressure points like village leaders, teachers, and business owners. What they found surprised them.

Although some of the typically well-connected socialites were excellent vehicles for transmitting participation in the programs, they were not as good as you would think. Many ranked low on their diffusion centrality index. Even people’s friends—the quintessential source of social pressure—had little effect on participation.

What they did find is that, barring any presumptions about connectedness, individuals who ranked in the 90th percentile of diffusion centrality were the gatekeepers to large-scale participation. When they were the first ones targeted by microfinance efforts, the programs ultimately reached 11% more people—from their perspective, a huge jump in participation.

“I think this work will lead to more innovative research on how social networks can be used more effectively in promoting poverty alleviation programs in poor countries,” says Lori Beaman, a professor of economics at Northwestern University and a J-PAL affiliate. “It significantly moves forward our understanding of how social networks influence people’s decision-making.”

– John Mahon

Sources: MIT, Stanford, New Yorker
Photo: MIT