Written by Dorai Raz
When I chose to add a minor in food systems to my degree in Society and Environment, I thought it would be a great way to stay as closely connected to the nutritional studies field as I could. Initially, I didn’t think farming and food justice were really areas of study I would be interested in, since most of my classes were focused on nutrition in developing countries and human food practices, but I soon learned otherwise. Seeing as this minor required a certain amount of hours of work in the food systems field, I immediately began to think of how I could connect it with nutritional and scientific studies. Having heard a lot about research work opportunities throughout my time in academia, I was hoping to gain skills and a deeper understanding of what it really means to participate in such research studies. As some of you are surely familiar, finding and securing an opportunity to be part of research projects can be very challenging, and in my particular case, it took a lot of effort and time to land one.
During what was proving to be a somewhat fruitless search for an interesting research project I could join, I became captivated by Professor Lia Fernald’s’ class on “Nutrition In Developing Countries” and her incredible wealth of knowledge on the subject of public health nutrition. After asking Professor Fernald if she knew of any research opportunities, she was nice enough to connect me with her fellow, Katie Fiorella, who is currently a faculty member in Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences, obtaining a Masters in Public Health, and Food Systems co-lead at Cornell University. Katie graciously allowed me to become a part of an on-going research project focused on unappreciated and underutilized wild and indigenous fish species. There are some unique and rather small fish species found around the world that are part of the dietary intake of many fisherman and indigenous peoples, however, the contribution of those particular species to population nutrition are often under-reported. This research project aimed to gather more comprehensive data and information about the nutrient composition of those fish, with a focus on small-scale fisheries in order to further explore how they contribute to global nutrition.
When I first began working with Katie, she wanted me to learn how to use the data analysis program STATA, but after toying with it for a while I realized I needed more guidance on how to use it than Katie was able to provide, so we quickly agreed to change my role in the project. I began to organize and sort through existing data that was already abstracted, with the goal of making it easier to use, and subsequently I entered that data into the STATA program. Later on, I began abstracting new data from literature reviews specifically related to amino acid composition. Spending lots of time abstracting data, I improved my ability to work with Excel, analyze data, and significantly added to my knowledge on the nutritional composition of these unique fish. In addition, I learned about the specific nutrients that are most abundantly found in those fish species, and which of those species suffered the most from pollutant contamination. In a study of 84 rural households in Bangladesh, Roos et al highlighted the importance that fish play in the Bangladeshi diet, and how they are the primary animal derived food source for rural poverty-stricken households. Notably, Roos et al discussed how these small (only 25 cm in length) fish contributed significantly to the vitamin A and calcium intake of these particular Bangladeshis. The authors also concluded that these fish could be successfully added to the existing carp culture with no negative effects as a way to further increase vitamin A intake in rural Bangladeshi households (J. Nutr. 133: 4021S, 2003). I refer to this example in particular because it very accurately demonstrates the detailed information I learned regarding specific nutrients found in these small fish, and how numerous established studies have uncovered the very important role they play in the nutrition and essential vitamin intake of vulnerable communities. Above is an image of the Amblypharyngodon mola or Mola carplet, one of the SIS (small indigenous species) fish found by Roos et al. to have very high vitamin A content, >1500 in RE/100g raw edible parts.
Unfortunately, globalization has led to extreme overfishing of our seas and oceans, and what seem to be ever increasing amounts of pollution that have impacted access to clean foods. Fish like the Mola carplet above could help mitigate the wider repercussions of such problems that disproportionately affect developing countries and vulnerable indigenous populations. I believe the goal of this research project seeks is to collect, analyze and study data of unique SIS fish species nutritional value, and discover ways they could be helpful in solving the nutritional deficiencies of many vulnerable groups around the world. This project also has the potential to enlighten us on methods to prevent overfishing and promote biodiversity in our food system. It has been a very rewarding experience working on this project, and I hope to be involved in many more research studies aimed at finding ways to improve the global food system.