SEGH Articles

The Joy's of PhD research in two countries

06 October 2014
Edward’s project aim is to improve the accuracy and spatial resolution of dietary mineral supply estimates in Malawi and to investigate the potential of agricultural solutions to mitigate dietary mineral deficiencies. He has been conducting fieldwork in Malawi during 2012-14.

Humans require 22 mineral elements for their wellbeing including calcium (Ca), iron (Fe), magnesium (Mg), selenium (Se) and zinc (Zn). The biological functions of elements include bone structure (Ca and Mg) and, as constituents of proteins, immune response (Se and Zn) and oxygen transport (Fe and Zn). Adequate quantities of these elements in diets is thus necessary for food security; inadequate intakes, or poor absorption in the gut due to e.g. diarrhoea, can lead to ‘hidden hunger’. It’s termed ‘hidden’ because the physical effects are not obvious, unlike the symptoms of protein or energy undernourishment, and because it is often hard to quantify the prevalence of such malnourishment in populations.

Malawi hasn’t witnessed widespread famine since 2005, although certain regions are prone to food shortages due to both drought and flooding. But it may be that hidden hunger is widespread and that deficiencies of certain minerals and vitamins are a major health burden. There is evidence to suggest this is the case, for example with Se deficiency (Gibson 2011; Eick 2009; Hurst 2013) and Zn deficiency (Gibson 1998; Siyame 2013); but there is no data at the national level.

Malawi is predominantly a subsistence economy in which households grow their own food. The dietary supply of elements is thus dependent on which crops households choose to grow and what those crops contain. Element concentrations in crops depend on the availability of elements in the soil: for example, in low-pH soils Se is predominantly found in forms unavailable for plant uptake, whereas in soils with pH >6.5 Se is generally soluble, mobile and readily available for plant uptake.  There are limited data on crop composition in Malawi so we worked to fill this gap, collecting over 600 crop samples representing 97 food items for multi-element analysis by ICP-MS (Joy et al. submitted). We found that soil type affects crop composition, with maize and leafy vegetables from calcareous soils having greater Ca, Cu, Fe, Mg and Se concentrations than those grown on non-calcareous soils. Maize also had greater Zn in samples from calcareous soils, whereas leafy vegetables had greater Zn from non-calcareous soils.

To find out what crops households are growing and what foods they are eating, the Malawi Household Survey (World Bank and Malawi Government) has proved a valuable resource. In this survey, >12,500 households were asked what foods they consumed over the last seven days. We are working to match this data to our composition data to generate dietary mineral supply estimates by region and soil type. One of our early findings is the critical importance of small fish in meeting Ca, Se and Zn requirements. Most fish production is from Lake Malawi, a Rift Valley lake that runs much of the length of the country. It’s sometimes known as the Calendar Lake as it’s roughly 365 mile long and 52 miles wide. Fish are sundried before traders take them inland. Although fish is a vital source of minerals in the diet, households require some cash to purchase them. It will be very interesting to see the relationship between household income and consumption of fish. 

Dried fish at a market in the capital city, Lilongwe


The FAO and World Bank have just published a book called ‘Analyzing Food Security Using Household Survey Data’ ( and at the recent Micronutrient Forum held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I found that other research groups including IFPRI are doing similar work to us. It’s great to see the hard work now contributing to scientific knowledge as we write up, publish and present our findings.

Edward presenting the team’s work at Mzuzu University in northern Malawi


The last couple of years have been a steep learning curve: a faulty radiator can write off your engine; laptop battery life is everything; and you may need to hire guards to keep monkeys off your maize trials! These have been valuable lessons as I plan to continue similar research in Ethiopia starting in September. Overall it has been a pleasure living in Malawi, a country endowed with some very beautiful landscapes and incredibly friendly folk – it’s not uncommon on sampling trips to be invited into farmers’ houses for roast pumpkin and peanuts. And the Malawi Ministries of Agriculture and Health have been very supportive of the work. Hopefully the outputs will be useful to them, for example in developing fertiliser policies and targeting nutrition strategies.


by Edward Joy, PhD researcher University of Nottingham-BGS


Eick F, Maleta K, Govasmark E, Duttaroy AK, Bjune AG (2009) Food intake of selenium and sulphur amino acids in tuberculosis patients and healthy adults in Malawi. Int J Tuberc Lung Dis 13: 1313–1315

Gibson RS, Bailey KB, Ampong Romano AB, Thomson CD (2011) Plasma selenium concentrations in pregnant women in two countries with contrasting soil selenium levels. J Trace Elem Med Bio 25:230–235

Gibson RS, Huddle JM (1998) Suboptimal zinc status in pregnant Malawian women: its association with low intakes of poorly available zinc, frequent reproductive cycling, and malaria. Am J Clin Nutr 67:702–709

Hurst R, Siyame EWP, Young SD, Chilimba ADC, Joy EJM, Black CR, Ander EL, Watts MJ, Chilima B, Gondwe J, Kang’ombe D, Stein AJ, Fairweather-Tait SJ, Gibson RS, Kalimbira AA, Broadley MR (2013) Soil-type influences human selenium status and underlies widespread selenium deficiency risks in Malawi. Sci Rep 3: 1425. DOI: 10.1038/srep01425

Siyame EWP, Hurst R, Wawer AA, Young SD, Broadley MR, Chilimba ADC, Ander EL, Watts MJ, Chilima B, Gondwe J, Kang'ombe D, Kalimbira A, Fairweather-Tait SJ, Bailey KB, Gibson RS (2013) A high prevalence of zinc- but not iron-deficiency among women in rural Malawi: a cross-sectional study. Int J Vitam Nutr Res 83: 176–187

Joy, EJM, Broadley, MR, Young, SD, Black CR, Chilimba, ADC, Ander, EL, Barlow, TS and Watts, MJ*. (2014). A spatially refined food composition table for Malawi, Science Total Environment, (in press)



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Latest on-line papers from the SEGH journal: Environmental Geochemistry and Health

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    Geophagy, the intentional consumption of earth materials, has been recorded in humans and other animals. It has been hypothesized that geophagy is an adaptive behavior, and that clay minerals commonly found in eaten soil can provide protection from toxins and/or supplement micronutrients. To test these hypotheses, we monitored chimpanzee geophagy using camera traps in four permanent sites at the Budongo Forest Reserve, Uganda, from October 2015–October 2016. We also collected plants, and soil chimpanzees were observed eating. We analyzed 10 plant and 45 soil samples to characterize geophagic behavior and geophagic soil and determine (1) whether micronutrients are available from the soil under physiological conditions and if iron is bioavailable, (2) the concentration of phenolic compounds in plants, and (3) if consumed soils are able to adsorb these phenolics. Chimpanzees ate soil and drank clay-infused water containing 1:1 and 2:1 clay minerals and > 30% sand. Under physiological conditions, the soils released calcium, iron, and magnesium. In vitro Caco-2 experiments found that five times more iron was bioavailable from three of four soil samples found at the base of trees. Plant samples contained approximately 60 μg/mg gallic acid equivalent. Soil from one site contained 10 times more 2:1 clay minerals, which were better at removing phenolics present in their diet. We suggest that geophagy may provide bioavailable iron and protection from phenolics, which have increased in plants over the last 20 years. In summary, geophagy within the Sonso community is multifunctional and may be an important self-medicative behavior.

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    Plants that have grown for many years in the special environmental conditions prevailing in mining areas are naturally screened and show strong capacity to adapt to their environment. The present study investigated the enrichment characteristics of U and other heavy metals (As, Cu, Pb, Mn, Mo, Zn, Cd, Co, and Ni) in the soil–plant system in Xiazhuang uranium mine. Four dominant plants (Castanopsis carlesii, Rhus chinensis, Liriodendron chinense, and Sapium discolor) and soil samples were collected from the mined areas, unmined areas, and background areas away from the ore field. U, As, Cu, Pb, Mn, Mo, Zn, Cd, Co, and Ni concentrations were analyzed by ICP-MS. The results demonstrate that (1) The highest concentrations of U (4.1–206.9 mg/kg) and Pb (43.3–126.0 mg/kg) with the geoaccumulation index (Igeo) greater than 1 show that they are the main soil pollutants in the research area. (2) The biological accumulation coefficient (LBAC) values for Cd, Mn, and Cu are greater than zero in S. discolor, L. chinense, and C. carlesii and these three plants indicate that they can be used for remediation of the soil in the ore field. (3) R. chinensis inhibits the accumulation of heavy metals and shows sensitive pigment responses to the accumulation of U in the leaves. L. chinense has the strongest enrichment effect on heavy metals but exhibits weak biochemical responses under U stress. C. carlesii demonstrates strong adaptation to U and can maintain healthy pigment characteristics in case of high U enrichment. (4) S. discolor, L. chinense, C. carlesii and R. chinensis have strong tolerance to U toxicity and different biochemical responses.

  • Distribution, sources and health risk assessment of contaminations in water of urban park: A case study in Northeast China 2019-12-01


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