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A deadly epidemic of diet-related chronic illness stalks the United States, preying on those with the least resources at the highest rate. In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, why are so many people dying from diet-related illnesses? How can Texas farmers and ranchers continue to thrive in a perpetual cycle of drought, flood and extreme temperatures? 

The challenges to human, environmental and economic health embedded in the food system are vast and multifaceted. New ideas, technologies and research resources are needed to create a flourishing food economy for Texas and beyond.  

Dr. Patrick Stover is bringing his decades of experience in nutrition and human health to Texas A&M AgriLife’s new Institute for Advancing Health Through Agriculture.

Cue Texas A&M AgriLife, which is leading the charge to use agriculture to solve the challenges facing our nation’s diet-related chronic disease epidemic and the health of our environment and economy. Its newest institute seeks to accelerate the organization’s efforts.

The Institute for Advancing Health Through Agriculture (IHA) is the world’s first research institute to combine precision nutrition strategies and responsive agriculture research that can save lives and lower health care costs in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner. Through research, it will reconnect people and agriculture and ensure a future of healthy communities as well as a vibrant agriculture economy. 

“We are continuing the legacy of Dr. Norman Borlaug,” said Dr. Patrick Stover, vice chancellor of Texas A&M AgriLife, dean for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research. “Borlaug was a great man who believed that science could end hunger. His goal was to feed the world. This next part of his legacy will be to nourish the world in a way that supports human, environmental and economic health. The bar has been raised.” 

Folate for the Win 

Stover conceived this vision over many years, having built his substantial career at the intersection of nutrition and human health—a field he stumbled upon coincidentally. In the final days of his Ph.D. studies in biochemistry at the Medical College of Virginia, he met Dr. Barry Shane, a faculty member from the University of California, Berkeley, who was studying nutrition. The researchers began comparing big ideas at a conference, and Stover followed Shane to California for a post-doctoral project that became his professional bedrock.  

“If there was ever a place with the opportunity to restore the connection between people and their food and between agriculture and chronic disease, it’s Texas and Texas A&M AgriLife.”
-Dr. Patrick Stover

He and colleagues began studying the role of the metabolism of certain nutrients in women with a family history of spina bifida. This birth defect occurs when a baby’s spine and spinal cord do not develop completely, leading to lifelong complications and, often, premature death. The research indicated that an inability to properly metabolize B vitamins increased the likelihood of some women to have babies with neural tube defects, including spina bifida. The proposed solution was fortifying commonly consumed foods with folic acid, a synthetic B vitamin, even though most of the population did not have a dietary folate deficiency.  

When these fortified foods became mainstream in the U.S. in the late 90s, spina bifida rates rapidly decreased. “This was different from any other fortification program,” Stover said. “We were using food as medicine even though most people didn’t need it.” The solution has worked wonders. “Folic acid fortification saves 1,326 babies from neural tube defects every year, with direct medical expense savings of $508 million per year. In every country that has rolled out a folic acid fortification program, spina bifida rates have fallen dramatically,” he added.  

His groundbreaking work led Stover to serve on many panels with the Food and Drug Administration and World Health Organization, while he also taught and conducted research on these topics at Cornell University for 23 years. As the director of its Division of Nutritional Sciences, he studied biochemical, genetic and epigenetic mechanisms that underlie the relationships between nutrition and various illnesses. A well-respected scholar in the field, Stover is also an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences. 

Stover wants to remake the future of food with an emphasis on health—for people, the land and producers’ bottom lines.

Bigger in Texas 

In 2018, Stover brought his leadership and research talents to Texas A&M University. Why make the move? He visualized the complex challenges ahead in agriculture and nutrition, and, faced with the enormity of the problems he wanted to solve, he realized Texas A&M AgriLife was the best-equipped place to launch a new vision.  

“Several factors appealed to me,” he said. A combination of migration and natural increase have made Texas the country's fastest growing state. Texas also has one of the highest burdens of diet-related disease, and it’s especially concentrated in underserved communities. Agriculture is critical to the Texas economy, now and far into the future. Texas A&M houses one of the largest colleges of agriculture in the country, and the future of Texas agriculture is robust. Still, there is an increasing disconnect between people and their food due to urbanization.  

“If there was ever a place with the opportunity to restore the connection between people and their food and between agriculture and chronic disease, it’s Texas and Texas A&M AgriLife,” Stover said. 

Stover wants to remake the future of food with an emphasis on health—for people, the land and producers’ bottom lines. He’s also determined to connect science and action by improving the translation of findings to decision-makers, producers, communities and individuals.  

From Cotton to Carbon 

In the mid-20th century, producing enough food was essential to combating hunger worldwide. The resulting food system was therefore abundant, affordable and high in caloric density. While this system proved successful in its intended mission, the unintended consequences are obesity and related health conditions. Treating diet-related chronic diseases now costs Americans trillions of dollars annually.  

“Food is not ‘one size feeds all.’”
-Dr. Patrick Stover

As a research accelerator, the institute will unite experts from across disciplines to help the U.S. pivot from producing the most calories to producing the most nutrition and the most value to the land and producers.   

One way the IHA will advance the field is through improved food products. A few recent successes include an enhanced variety of spinach that requires far less fertilizer, a modified sorghum variety with a higher micronutrient content for human food and animal feed, and, most impressively, a previously inedible cotton byproduct that can now be a highly nutritious food source. 

Cotton is an important crop in Texas, which produces more than 8 million bales annually. Once the fiber is harvested, the cottonseed byproduct is typically ground into a relatively low-cost feed supplement for cattle and poultry. Cottonseed contains a compound called gossypol that is toxic to humans; however, thanks to a slight gene manipulation, AgriLife researchers have created an ultra-low gossypol cotton variety that is edible for humans. Texas cotton growers can now grow traditional cotton or this higher value variety that can be marketed to food distributors. This research could provide producers a new revenue stream and consumers a novel healthy food product. 

Texas A&M AgriLife Research plant biotechnologist Dr. Keerti Rathore and his team have created an ultra-low gossypol cotton variety that is edible for humans.

One use of the modified cottonseed product is a hummus-type dip. “I’ve had it, and it’s delicious,” Stover assured. This product is significant, as it utilizes a crop already under production without increasing production costs. Working with growers to provide new opportunities like this one will be an essential part of the institute’s economic health goal, while the institute will also collaborate with growers to improve their environment through agriculture.  

“Climate extremes make it harder to farm, and climate change presents a real threat to Texas agriculture,” Stover said. “But agriculture can be part of the solution. We have to bring science to bear in this area.”  

Stover wants to reduce producer uncertainty by partnering with industries that can underwrite soil health practices that store carbon below ground and make a difference for the environment. “We can reduce agriculture’s footprint through new technologies while using agriculture to reduce the footprint of other industries, potentially through the use of carbon offsets and carbon markets,” he said.   

Office Hours with Dr. Stover 

Where did you grow up?

In a rural community in the Brandywine Valley in southeast Pennsylvania, surrounded by farmland with abundant farmers markets featuring Amish family produce, dairy and meats. 

What’s your favorite food?

German food is my favorite to cook, especially spaetzle and sauerkraut, but I love to eat all types of food. I’m not picky! 

What do you do for fun?

I enjoy fishing for bass and trout, running half-marathons, entertaining friends and colleagues, and collecting landscape art and antiques. 

Read any good books lately?

I have been reading a lot of Texas history since we moved here. The last book I read was “The Time it Never Rained” by Elmer Kelton. 

Favorite flavor of Blue Bell?

There’s no better ice cream than vanilla bean. You can’t top that! 

Every Texan, Every Day 

New tools and technologies to drive transformation and innovation are critical, but there is an additional challenge in making new research accessible to the broadest audience possible. 

“Chancellor Sharp’s mandate for the IHA was to make agriculture and food relevant in the lives of every Texan, every single day,” Stover said. “We want to help people in both rural and urban environments make science-informed decisions.”  

In a separate but parallel initiative, a future research synthesis center will serve as a place where policymakers can ask questions related to connections among food, agriculture, the environment and the economy. Research specialists will gather and combine existing data on any topic pertaining to diet and health or economic and environmental policy by performing systematic reviews, and then interpret the data for a non-science audience. “We want to be a non-biased source of comprehensive scientific information for decision-makers,” Stover said.  

Working within Texas communities will also be part of the institute’s mission. There are three distinct food traditions in Texas: African American, Hispanic and European. Each has different nutritional challenges. “You are what you eat, yes, that’s partially true. But you are also what your mother ate and what your ancestors ate,” Stover said, noting that there are complex factors far beyond personal choice that impact nutrition, including geography, genetics and epigenetics. “Food is not ‘one size feeds all.’”

As part of its outreach efforts, the institute will deploy mobile health vans to perform community-based research and improve health habits in urban and underserved communities. These “labs on wheels” will house tools like body composition scanners and blood pressure monitors and may partner with local farmers markets to deliver healthy food to residents. Equipped with information about healthy living, the vans will also generate research data by surveying citizens about their current food habits. For many Texans, they will be the institute’s first touchpoint and the first connection residents have with agriculture. 

While efforts like these won’t tell people what to eat, they will provide the tools, technology and information for individuals to make healthier decisions based on the context of their unique situations. 

“What are people eating now? How can we make it better?” Stover mused. “As the field of precision nutrition advances, we want to work within cultural contexts to improve food systems.” This goal extends beyond Texas’ borders. Stover has a vision for the institute to be “an authoritative source on these topics...a national resource for other land-grant universities to collaborate and nucleate activity that drives the agenda of agriculture as the solution to human, environmental and economic health.”  

Because in the end, it’s all about the people. “We can have the best science in the world, but it won’t matter if we can’t reach the people,” he said. 

To learn more about partnering with the IHA, contact Allyson Tjoelker '02, assistant vice president for development, at the bottom of this page.