Healing ourselves, and healing our world

Many of us have heard the adage, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” At TEDMED, we embrace this philosophy; every year, we convene extraordinary people and ideas from across different disciplines who are all united in shaping a healthier future for our planet and its 7 billion people. And, at TEDMED 2016, we are honored to feature such committed, passionate citizens in our program.

One such actor is TEDMED Hive Innovator and EpiBiome CEO, Nick Conley. According to Nick, he founded EpiBiome in response to multi-drug-resistant “superbugs” that threaten to reverse the last one-hundred years of surgical advances if new antibiotics are not discovered, due to the risk of post-operative infection that is too high to justify all but the most necessary surgical procedures. In search for a substitute for antibiotic treatment, EpiBiome has taken to the sewer to explore bacteriophages – viruses that infect and destroy specific bacteria ­– as a natural and effective alternative. According to Nick, phages outnumber bacteria 10:1 and kill half the bacteria on the planet every two days. Importantly, some phages have already received “Generally Recognized as Safe” status from the FDA for use on food intended for human consumption.

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Image provided by Kinnos.

Meanwhile, TEDMED Hive Innovator Kevin Tyan, along with his co-founders at Kinnos, has taken a different approach to fighting infection. Recognizing the urgent need to improve decontamination in response to the Ebola epidemic, Kevin and his co-founders realized that regular bleach disinfectant wasn’t enough to protect health workers. Although bleach has been recommended by the World Health Organization as the best and most cost efficient disinfectant for surfaces contaminated by infectious disease, its effectiveness is limited by its transparency and the fact that it’s easy to miss spots and leave gaps in coverage. It also bounces off waterproof surfaces, much like rain bounces off an umbrella.

For Kevin, this was a challenge begging to be tackled head on. He and his co-founders created Highlight ­– a patent-pending powdered additive that colorizes disinfectants. This makes it easier to visualize, ensure full coverage, and adhere to surfaces. The color is only temporary, however, and fades once decontamination is complete.

Another TEDMED speaker who is not only deeply committed to protecting our health, but also that of our planet, is Gunhild Stordalen, Founder and President of the EAT Foundation. Gunhild believes that many of our major global health and environmental challenges are inextricably linked to food: what we eat, how our food is produced, and all that is wasted. With the knowledge that there is no single solution to this problem, the EAT Foundation works toward stimulating interdisciplinary research and catalyzing action across sectors to enable us to feed a growing global population with healthy food, from a healthy planet.

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Image provided by Caitlin Doughty.

Mortician and TEDMED speaker Caitlin Doughty is also deeply concerned about the health of our planet – particularly, the environmental risks of current burial practices. According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Southern California, traditional burials – where an embalmed body in a wooden coffin is sometimes placed in a concrete or metal vault ­– require more than 30 million board feet of hardwood, 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete and over 800,000 gallons of carcinogenic formaldehyde embalming fluid every year. Caitlin’s proposed solution? Eco-friendly death and burial practices, such as water cremation and natural composting. To that end, in 2012, Caitlin founded Undertaking LA, a progressive funeral home that provides alternative, green burial options.

Though they are taking wildly different approaches, these speakers and innovators are committed to a common goal – healing our world. We are inspired by their work, and are excited to see them speak at TEDMED 2016. We hope you’ll join us there.

Creating sustainable, delicious meat alternatives

By guest contributor and TEDMED 2015 Speaker Patrick O. Brown, MD, PhD of TEDMED Hive Organization, Impossible Foods

The horse was a brilliant transportation technology until we developed the automobile. The typewriter was a wonder in its time until we invented the personal computer. The carrier pigeon was the state-of-the art in mobile communication, until radio communication was invented. Now it’s the cow’s turn to be replaced by better technology.

Cows, and the other animals we cultivate for food, have, for millennia, been our state-of-the-art technology for turning plants into meat. But we need to do better, and we can.

Cattle Farm - An inefficient source of meatAccording to a recent estimate by the International Livestock Research Institute, 45% of Earth’s dry land — a land area greater than North and South America, Australia and Europe combined — is currently being used to support livestock production. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, animal farming uses and pollutes more water than any other industry and generates as much greenhouse gas emissions as the entire global transportation system. And it is the major driver of deforestation and an unprecedented collapse of wildlife populations around the world.

The world is on a headlong quest to produce ever-greater quantities of meat in the belief that we need a growing supply to feed the world. We don’t. The plant crops harvested in 2015 contained more than enough of every essential nutrient to meet the nutritional needs not only of our current population but the 9 billion people who will share the planet in 2050.

Yet people love, and demand, meat; it is both unfair and unrealistic to ask people to change the diets they love. Fortunately, the problem isn’t that people love meat – it’s how we produce it. And that’s a solvable problem.

We simply need to replace the inefficient, unsustainable animal-based technology we’ve used for thousands of years with a better, more efficient and more sustainable way to transform plants into the meat and dairy foods the world loves.

Five years ago, I founded Impossible Foods, assembling a mission-driven and supremely talented research & development team to take on this challenge. They’ve been developing the know-how and inventing technology for transforming simple nutrients from plants into uncompromisingly delicious, nutritious, affordable and sustainable meats and dairy foods. Our first product, the Impossible Burger, will be available to consumers this summer.

A lifecycle analysis shows that producing an Impossible Burger requires less than 1/12th the land and 1/9th the water and emits only a quarter of the greenhouse gasses, compared to producing the same meat from a cow.

The cow is not getting any better at turning plants into meat and it never will. But with an entirely new approach, we are getting better at it every day, and we’ll keep getting better. And we won’t stop until we’ve made all the foods we currently get from animals — chicken, fish, milk, eggs — directly from plants.

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Pat Brown of Impossible FoodsIn his TEDMED 2015 talk, renowned geneticist and founder of Impossible Foods Pat Brown explains how he uses biochemistry to trick plants into producing the same protein as meat – all while tasting just as delicious – in his quest to eliminate the need for animal harvesting.

Rethinking New Diseases: Q&A with Sonia Shah

Sonia Shah, an investigative science journalist and historian, challenges conventional understandings about the real causes of pandemics. We caught up with her to ask a few more questions.

Why does this talk matter now?

The way we understand the origins of new diseases shapes our response to them—responses that will become increasingly relevant in this age of emerging and re-emerging pathogens, from Ebola to cholera. This talk is based on my forthcoming book—“Pandemic: tracking contagion from cholera to Ebola and beyond.”

Sonia Shah at TEDMED 2014

Sonia Shah at TEDMED 2014

What kind of meaningful or surprising connections did you make at TEDMED?

I met the comedian Tig Notaro, whom I’ve admired for a long time. We shared a table at a book signing—I did not expect that! I’m a science journalist!

How can we learn more about your latest work?

My book comes out in February 2016, and it’s available for pre-order now. I’ve also collaborated with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to create an app called “Mapping Cholera,” which provides an interactive visualization and narrative about the 1832 cholera outbreak in New York City, which I spoke about in my talk, and the 2010 cholera outbreak in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. And you can find more updates at soniashah.com, too.

Building Health: Q&A with Robin Guenther

In her TEDMED 2014 talk, expert in sustainable healthcare design and long-time advocate for healthier healing environments Robin Guenther explored the unusual connections between health and environmental design.  We asked her a few questions to learn more.

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What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

For the past couple of decades, I have been developing a body of thinking – I’ve spoken and written a lot for healthcare audiences.  I wanted the chance to “step outside,” focus my ideas, and make a direct appeal for accelerating the transformation of healthcare practice and built environments.

Why does your talk matter now? What impact do you hope it will have?

For me, the immediacy of climate change threats, the persuasive science of toxic chemicals and health, and the rise of interest in healthier workplaces are all coming together to drive a fundamental transformation of healthcare delivery.  I want everyone in healthcare to understand that their practices do have consequences, but they have the power to drive practices that prioritize health and “heal” both people and ecosystems. At 20% of the GDP, healthcare has both enormous upstream leverage and downstream influence to create a tipping point for prioritizing health.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

I want to be remembered as being fearless about self-reflection.  It’s difficult to face the fact that healthcare is an industrial system that creates waste, dismal work environments and a load of externalized harm, but it is, nonetheless, true. I believe that only by seeing the system clearly, connecting healthcare practices with their environmental and health consequences, can we transform both healthcare and larger societal practices. I want people to believe that I played even just a minor supporting role in building a world where “health is the aim.”

Is there anything you wish you could have included in your talk?

The quest for “building health” is a global one. I wish I could have shown some examples of amazing work that is taking place globally, transforming systems of care and the buildings that support care delivery.  Of note is the Sambhavna Clinic, in Bhopal, India, that cares for multiple generations of Bhopal chemical disaster survivors and grows medicinal herbs and foods on site.  Another example is the amazing work of the UK National Health Service in transforming care delivery to focus on integrated health in communities.

What action items would you recommend to your viewers?

Join the Healthier Hospitals Initiative or Global Green and Healthy Hospitals Network.  Select a practice that your organization or place of work engages in,  and research its environmental and health costs.  Does it have externalized negative impacts? If so, change it in order to move beyond those impacts, and share your story!