On August 6th, at the 2019 Asian Congress of Nutrition in Bali, Sight and Life organized a symposium on the topic of eggs, which represents one of its flagship programs. The session entitled “Achieving Improved Nutrition in a Sustainable Way – The Case of Increased Egg Consumption” gathered experts in the field of nutrition, sustainable business models, environmental sustainability, science and research and was skillfully moderated by Dr Regina Moench-Pfanner (ibn360).
The session made an important case on how crucial it is to go beyond nutrition and to increasingly account for externalities in our way of thinking and in the way we implement programs and projects. This shift in thinking has become necessary in light of pressing global issues such as climate change. Eggs provide a useful example to start unpacking some of these challenges.
The science can no longer be EGG-nored
The days where eggs were blamed for driving up cholesterol levels are thankfully over. Evidence is mounting regarding the benefits of eggs for child nutrition and potential benefits for women during pregnancy and birth outcomes. This power food is at last getting the attention it deserves.
Think of it – there is no food such as the egg. Dr Jeya Henry of the Clinical Nutrition Research Center in Singapore reminded the audience of the astonishing properties of this functional food: “from gelling, to emulsifying, to thickening and foaming properties, eggs’ form of proteins is simply incredible” he adds that “an average egg is roughly 50-60 g in weight. No other food on the planet has almost all the micronutrients and the most significant amino acid patterns packed in such a small quantity”.
Ms Gulshan Ara from icddr,b shared the recent and fascinating results from a trial conducted in Bangladesh where the effect of an egg-based nutritious snack was tested on child growth. Results showed that on average, intervention children became 2.55 cm taller compared to control children. Egg based nutritious snacks contribute to improving both linear growth and cognitive development in children <2 years of age.
Yet, although eggs’ nutritional value is undebatable, it would be presumptuous to assume they are the magic bullet…
Indeed, there is an array of known and unknown externalities that come along the way and must be understood; acknowledged; and addressed.
“Eggs have the potential to be considered in 2020s as a sustainable and irreplaceable animal source food for improved nutrition.” Dr Klaus Kraemer
Environmental consequences of egg production
One of the key obstacles relates to the environmental consequences of the production of eggs, but also animal welfare issues. Using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methods, a recent study by Abín et al, conducted in Spain revealed that natural land transformation, terrestrial ecotoxicity and freshwater ecotoxicity were the top three most notably affected categories and that the highest source of environmental impact was production of hen feed (specifically soybean and palm oil cultivation), but also the breeding of young chicks to replace the exhausted laying hens. Such findings encourage the development of innovative triple duty solutions addressing the environmental externalities, without failing to address the over and under nutrition components.
“It’s time for nutritionists to design and adapt their solutions in the context of the entire supply chain and the environmental consequences of it.” Dr Martin Bloem
Luckily, there are solutions. During the session, one of these solutions was shared by Srujith Lingala from Sight and Life. Through its Eggciting project, Sight and Life is working on making eggs available and affordable to low income households by supporting the introduction of innovative poultry business models in Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, and Malawi.
The Egg Hub
The ‘Egg hub’, one of Sight and Life’s recent innovations, is a centralized unit offering farmers high-quality, affordable inputs, extension services, training and market access. Through aggregation, egg hubs solve the supply-side challenges typically faced by small- and medium-
scale poultry farms. They can help countries with low-yield production systems make the transition to the efficient, high-yield systems that are associated with much lower market prices.
In Malawi, where the egg hub model was tested, initial findings point towards the fact that the egg hub has enabled 60 farmers to receive inputs and produce 4.5 million fresh eggs every year, but also to resell them within their communities. Each farmer makes a net income of USD 922 per year, 2.3 x the minimum wage in Malawi. Innovative farming models such as the egg hub are an effective and sustainable means of improving nutrition and increasing incomes of small and medium scale farmers.
In the present landscape where commitment for nutrition is at its peak and where the climate change debate is ever increasing, economically viable and sustainable solutions are welcomed as the interest to invest in these is significant.
Filling the egg gap
Public solutions exist as well. Dr Saskia de Pee (Fill the Nutrient Gap, WFP) shared the example of Indonesia where a social safety net program called Bantuan Pangan Non-Tunai (BPNT), that enables poor households to buy 15 kg of rice per month at a very low price, is transitioning to a commodity specific e-voucher. Following a cost of the diet analysis, FNG analyzed which locally available foods should be included in BPNT’s pre-determined local food basket to meet the household members’ recommended nutrient intake in the most cost-effective way. The results showed that the cost of a nutritious diet was approximately 1.2 million IDR/month per household, and the voucher value of 110 000 IDR/month per household (10% of the cost of nutritious diet). Eggs, rice, and green leafy vegetables were identified as the foods able to meet the most nutritional requirements for the lowest cost. Since then, they have been selected for the ‘Nutritious Package’ that was modeled for the BPNT program.
Watch out for unknown EGG-sternalities
What about other readily solutions that are coming to the market, such as JUST Egg and Impossible Burgers? Dr Martin Bloem, Director of the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, warns that “there are many unknown unintended consequences related to the production of these types of alternative forms of meat, particularly in terms of their nutrient composition, their use of antibiotics and water, as well as other chemical properties”. From a nutritional and environmental perspective, these alternative forms of meat need to be critically assessed.
Prioritize and compromise
Whilst animal welfare may be a priority in higher income countries, Environmental Enteric Dysfunction (EED) for instance, is more prevalent in lower resources settings and therefore present a higher priority to address. “At this stage, cages are critical to help reduce contact with feces and other hazards” explains Dr Klaus Kraemer from Sight and Life. “Chicken feces can affect the gut microbiota of children, and the difficulty of avoiding contact of children with feces can lead to chronic inflammation causing the gut to leak whereby the body burns the nutrients instead of using them for growth”. Klaus argues for the need to price externalities and to innovate even further for improved caging to successfully separate chickens from the children. It is our duty as nutritionists not only to help decision makers prioritize actions but to ensure the access of this power food to those who need it the most.
Are eggs EGG-citing?
Last but not least, consumer insights are primordial. Cultural factors play a role in many nutrition practices, including taboos or beliefs around egg consumption. Some of these insights were uncovered by Dr Maria Adrijanti from World Vision Indonesia, who throughout her presentation, made the case of increased egg consumption in Indonesia. The Eggciting project, a collaboration between Sight and Life, World Vision and DSM aims to increase availability, accessibility and consumption of eggs in Indonesia at the household level by addressing bottlenecks in the supply chain and boosting consumer demand. In terms of consumer demand, the project uses a social marketing approach to better understand some key issues including but not limited to: understanding household food purchasing power and decision-making; understanding how eggs are used in the daily diet; examining the awareness, knowledge, attitudes and beliefs around egg consumption; identifying key community influencers, their role and motivations in offering dietary advice, and specifically their view on eggs.
One initial insight regarding the traditional Indonesian diet and Sulawesi diet and egg consumption revealed that there are two kinds of chicken eggs that are popular in Indonesia – the native egg and the ‘broiler’ egg. The former is perceived as more delicious, and fresher compared to the broiler eggs and is usually used as medicine.
Thinking in systems
Daring to think beyond our current actions, daring to imagine the far-reaching and unintended dramatic consequences of our actions can be daunting and uncomfortable. A systems way of thinking isn’t easy for those of us who’ve been programmed to think in siloes, but our attitude of denial is catching up with us. The nutrition community can no longer play deaf towards the ever-increasing global environmental cries and concerns of the planet, which must go hand in hand with what we are trying to achieve. The fight against malnutrition is a complex one, which requires innovative solutions which can address that complexity. Learning from our mistakes isn’t just the cumbersome thing to do, it’s the ethical thing to do. This session was an egg-cellent example of the kinds of conversations we should increasingly be having – conversations that aim to understand the perspectives of the different sectors involved, and whose objective is to not only design new solutions but to adapt and re-adapt existing ones to the current context.
The egg isn’t unbeatable, it’s adaptable
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn” – Alvin Toffler