Golden Rice Study Investigation Update; Next Steps for GMO Research

by Kira Wohland

Isagani Serrano/International Rice Research Institute

Isagani Serrano/International Rice Research Institute

A university investigation into the ethics of research done on beta-carotene-rich Golden Rice has concluded. The investigation was prompted by allegations that a study conducted in China by Tufts researcher Dr. Guangwen Tang and colleagues failed to follow some portions of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) protocols regarding human subjects research.

According to a spokesperson for the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA), a review of the research protocols found “insufficient evidence of appropriate reviews and approvals in China,” as well as “concerns with the informed consent process.” Importantly, investigators found no evidence to suggest that the integrity of the data collected during the Golden Rice study was in any way unsound.

The study, which aimed to test the ability of genetically engineered Golden Rice to deliver vitamin A to children, was published in August 2012 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Researchers found that a single serving of Golden Rice could provide more than 50 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A in these children.

Vitamin A deficiency is estimated to affect nearly one in three children under the age of five worldwide. If left untreated, vitamin A deficiency can result in blindness and even death. An estimated 670,000 deaths in children can be attributed to vitamin A deficiency annually. These staggering statistics make clear the importance of finding an efficient and sustainable way to treat vitamin A deficiency. Golden Rice is one proposed method, which, if implemented on a large scale, has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives and drastically improve the health of children in poor and developing nations.

The public health implications of Golden Rice are clear, but not everyone is convinced that it should be grown and used as humanitarian tool. Some groups argue that nutrition efforts should focus on growing more foods that are naturally rich in vitamin A and beta-carotene, while others generally oppose the use of genetically engineered crops in the food supply.

Concerns are not just about Golden Rice; genetically engineered crops in general are met with much skepticism, making research difficult and sometimes impossible. The topic remains controversial despite the majority of studies demonstrating that GMOs do not pose a safety risk. Dr. Jeff Blumberg, a professor at Friedman and director of the Antioxidants Laboratory at the HNRCA notes that the development of genetically engineered crops is an iterative process: “Can you make something bad or dangerous? Of course, and then those indicating potential for an adverse reaction are dropped and R&D continues on efficacy.  I don’t think that people realize that [genetically-engineered foods] are evaluated and tested for safety”.” Just as is true of drug development and pharmaceuticals, GMOs undergo extensive testing before they are deemed safe for consumers.

In the case of the Golden Rice study, a clear distinction must be made when considering the impact of this study and the subsequent investigation. “There is a difference between whether there is a violation of a rule and whether harm was done,” Dr. Blumberg points out.

While no harm was done by researchers in the Golden Rice study, a breach of IRB guidelines did occur. According to a spokesperson for the HNRCA, this controversy led Tufts to modify its IRB protocols, particularly those dealing with research conducted outside the United States. The revised guidelines will ensure that research done in different cultural contexts is reviewed more carefully to avoid miscommunications or oversights.

Dr. Tang’s lab at the HNRCA, the Carotenoids and Health Laboratory, will close in April 2014 for reasons unrelated to the Golden Rice study.

Kira Wohland is a second year student in the dual MS/MPH program, studying biochemical and molecular nutrition and health communication. Her academic interests include child development, school nutrition, and cognition. When she isn’t at Friedman, you can find her serving guests at Lineage in Brookline, baking way too many cookies, or dominating her fantasy football league. To learn more, visit our Meet Our Writers page.

Are omega-3 fatty acids old news? By Katie Fesler

Omega-3 fatty acids have garnered a lot of positive press over the years. They’ve been said to improve diseases ranging from heart disease to rheumatoid arthritis. However, research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has challenged the assumptions about this supposed nutrition powerhouse.

Researchers were interested in the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on heart disease related deaths, heart attacks, strokes, and sudden deaths. In this systematic review, published in September, findings from 20 randomized clinical trials evaluating omega-3 fatty-acid supplementation outcomes were pooled. Only studies with at least 1-year follow up made the cut.  They found no clear association between increased omega-3 fatty acid intake and improved outcome for heart and stroke related disease and mortality.

Source: National Pharmacy Technician Association

Source: National Pharmacy Technician Association

Does this mean you can tune out the doctor’s advice to increase cold-water fish consumption?

Maybe. However, there are probably too many questions about the results from this meta-analysis to disobey doctor’s orders just yet.

Are the study’s results true for all omega-3 fatty acids?

It is hard to say. Fatty acids are diverse; they fit into more categories than the well-known saturated, unsaturated, and trans fats. In fact, even the omega-3 fatty acid category can be broken down into smaller categories: ALA, EPA, and DHA. While they share many functions, there are small differences in how each of these omega-3 fatty acids works in the body. Therefore, it is possible that one type of omega-3 fatty acid has no effect on heart diseases and strokes, while another has a significant effect. The study did not look at each variety individually.

Would it make a difference when omega-3 fatty acid therapy began?

There have been many studies to examine the impacts of omega-3 on heart and stroke health. Each study began increasing an individual’s omega-3 fatty acid intake at different times; in some cases before onset of any health issues and, in others, immediately following a heart attack or several years after a stroke. These studies indicate that the sooner the increased consumption begins the bigger impact it has. It’s possible, however, that more decisive conclusions could have been drawn had the JAMA analysis looked at studies in which therapy began at similar stages of health or disease.

Is there a difference between omega-3 fatty acids from food and from supplements?

This certainly is a concern, and the researchers knew this. The systematic review looked at omega-3 intake from foods separately from intake from supplements. It found the same results in each group. In food or pill form, it makes no measurable difference to an individual’s risk of heart disease related deaths, heart attacks, strokes, and sudden deaths.

What about the other diseases and conditions omega-3 fatty acids may benefit?

Omega-3 fatty acids are not just associated with improved heart health. They are important to brain development and learning. There is evidence that increased consumption of these fatty acids may slow the effects of aging on the brain. There have even been studies linking omega-3 intake to reduced pain associated with diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. However, this study did not address these conditions.

Were there enough similarities in the studies to ensure valid results?

Systematic reviews are no stranger to this question.  On the one hand, they are useful for pooling results from multiple, equivalent studies. The combination creates a larger sample size, and increases the results’ reliability. However, critics frequently point out that it can be difficult to find studies that are close enough in design and execution to draw meaningful conclusions. This is certainly an area of concern for this review. In some cases, researchers were able to compensate for differences among the studies. However, not all differences can be accounted for and could have contributed to the study’s novel findings.

Questions about the health benefits of omega -3 fatty acids are not new. Countless studies have looked at their effects on heart, brain, and overall health. It may be too soon to discount them completely. However, it is important that future research look into the many concerns raised before a final verdict can be reached. In the meantime, discuss any decisions about omega-3 fatty acid supplements – as with all supplements – with your doctor.

Katie Fesler is a first-year Nutrition Communications student with a personal interest in staying heart healthy.

Meat and masculinity By Sheryl Lynn Carvajal

There are many things that come to mind when we hear the words “masculine” and “feminine.”  Different things are socially assigned to be one way or the other; magazines like Vogue and Glamour and romantic comedies (often dubbed “chick flicks”) are generally viewed as “girly.” On the other hand, contact sports and action movies are commonly perceived as “manly.”

We can now add another item to the list: food.  According to a study conducted by Hank Rothgerber of Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY, men associate eating meat with masculinity.  This study, which is published in the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity, was among the first to delve deeper into the question of why there seem to be fewer vegetarian men than women.

Source: Sodahead.com

Source: Sodahead.com

In Rothgerber’s two-part study, he asked 125 undergraduate males and females about their meat-eating habits, and 89 students about their justification for eating meat.  Results showed that the males had more direct rationalization for meat consumption; one student said that animals “just taste too good not to eat them.”  Some also said that humans were just meant to eat meat, and that that is why we are here on earth. In an interview with NBC News, Rothgerber said, “There is a group of manly men who swear off what they call chick food, and they seek a Double Whopper to declare their manhood.”

The female participants had a different perspective on the matter.  More females followed vegetarian diets, and they had more indirect and apologetic motives for their lower meat consumption.  Many cited the notion of poor treatment of animals in food production, and did not believe that femininity and masculinity play a role in eating behaviors.

Source: Harlow Star

Source: Harlow Star

Interestingly, the participants’ responses were not directly influenced by health concerns.  The males said that they eat meat because they view it as masculine, yet there was little discussion of their views on the health implications from their chosen diet.  Similarly, the females did not state that they adopted vegetarian diets because of the benefits of eating non-meat food sources and consuming less red meat.  It is interesting to see what may drive males and females to behave differently, especially in their eating habits.

However, there were some limitations in this study design.  There were only 125 participants, and they were all from the same undergraduate university, therefore this was not a representative sample.  There are several other reasons why people decide whether or not to adopt vegetarian diets, such as cultural or religious considerations.  Rothgerber could have also been biased in his study design; in the same NBC News interview mentioned earlier, he discusses the harmful effects of farm animal production on the environment, as well as on the body.

Regardless of the intentions of this study, as a member of the Friedman School of Nutrition, it has become increasingly evident to me just how powerful food can be.  We celebrate holidays that are centered around it.  It brings families and communities together.  Food even has an affect on our psychological well-being.  So next time you are around a man that is insistent on operating his grill and consuming copious amounts of meat while refusing to eat a salad, you now know that there may be some forces of nature or nurture behind it.

Sher Carvajal is a first year Nutrition Communication student who enjoyed the Florida sunshine a little too much over Christmas break before coming back to cold and snowy Boston.  She loved seeing friends and family and hopes everyone had an amazing New Years! J

Can Processed Food Be Good For You- A Debate on Whole vs. Processed Foods

By Sarah Gold

The whole-foods movement is moving full speed ahead. According to a recent International Food Information Council (IFIC) survey, 43% of Americans have negative perceptions of processed foods and only 61% of consumers believe there is a benefit to modern food processing. Many dietitians, health professionals, and scientists have been pushing whole foods for years, instructing consumers that processed food = bad and whole foods = good.  Americans are told to shop the perimeter of the grocery store, but is it really possible to do so and get all of the nutrients one needs? Are all processed foods created equal? Can we lump everything that doesn’t come straight from the ground, a tree, or bush into one category?

Last week, I attended the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ (AND) — formerly known as the American Dietetic Association– Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE) and sat in on a discussion about the role of processed foods in Americans’ diets. As a whole-foods advocate, the debate certainly gave me something to think about.

What is a processed food?

Here is a simple definition: processing is any deliberate change that occurs to a food before consumption. The challenge with this definition is that it encompasses any level of processing from pasteurization, freezing, and canning to creating an entire meal from a mixture of lab-created ingredients. In reality, there is a continuum of processed foods, which is an important distinction to make.

In an attempt to unbundle all processed foods, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) recently developed a scale defining different levels of processing. Researchers then applied data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to understand which types of processed foods Americans are eating and what nutrients they derive from these foods.

IFIC defines 5 levels of processing:

  1. Minimally processed: bagged salads, roasted nuts, milk, chicken and beef
  2. Foods processed for preservation and freshness: canned tuna, frozen fruits, milk, and 100% juice
  3. Combined foods: tomato sauce, spice mixes, and dressings
  4. Ready-to-eat  (RTE) foods: cereal, flavored oatmeal, nut butters, cheese, carbonated beverages, granola, lunchmeats, candy, and bread
  5. Foods packaged to stay fresh: prepared deli foods, and frozen meals

What nutrients do processed foods contribute to the American Diet?

Though consumers have negative perceptions of processed foods, they still eat an abundance of them.  Why the disconnect?

“This is a very confusing aspect of the debate,” says Victor Fulgoni III, PhD of Nutrition impact and speaker at the FNCE session.  “Some of the discontent is fueled by some that want only local and fresh foods to be consumed. While this is a very laudable goal it is just not possible for most of Americans for either time or economic constraints,” adds Fulgoni.

Sadly, only about 300 calories per day come from minimally processed foods in the American diet, according to the data presented by Fulgoni at FNCE. Not surprisingly ready-to-eat (RTE) foods make up the largest portion of calories consumed (about 600 calories) and the top RTE foods consumed include soda, candy, potato chips, and juice drinks. This did not include food eaten at restaurants.

Processed foods contribute more dietary saturated fat, sugar, and sodium than minimally processed foods. However, they also provide the largest source of fiber, B vitamins, folate, iron, and potassium for many Americans. According to the study, most American’s would not meet the daily recommendations for essential vitamins and minerals without processed foods.

Do processed foods have a place in the Americans diet?

“How many of you have gone out to a wheat field, picked a grain of wheat and eaten it?” Fulgoni asked at the discussion. Though extreme, this question is a reminder that food processing is a necessary step to make foods accessible, palatable, and convenient.

Derek Yach, Senior Vice President of Global Health Policy at PepsiCo and former Executive Director of Noncommunicible Diseases and Mental Health at the World Health Organization, recently published an article in the Huffington Post on food access and availability. He noted that if everyone followed the dietary guidelines and filled half their plate with fresh fruits and vegetables, there wouldn’t be enough produce to go around. To address poor nutrition he suggests that food manufacturers focus on “incorporating whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds into food products and maintaining their nutritional value during manufacturing, packaging, and distribution.”

It’s unrealistic to think that everyone in America can eat fresh and local food year round. In many parts of the country, the dead of winter means canned tomatoes and frozen vegetables, which are processed foods. Foods like canned tuna and beans; some cereals; whole-wheat pasta and tomato sauce; and nut butters are nutritious options for many people looking for convenience.

The challenge lies in shifting the public’s choices of processed foods, particularly in the RTE category.  Nutrition and agriculture professionals need to find innovative ways to educate consumers about which processed foods to choose. Fulgoni suggests a need to, “develop a way to operatialize the term nutrient density, especially for foods that contain both nutrients to encourage and nutrients to limit.” It’s unrealistic to eliminate all processed foods from most people’s diets, but encouraging consumers to choose the granola bar over the candy bar can be feasible.

Another solution is to improve accessibility of healthier processed foods, particularly in places where whole foods are not readily available. This is already happening.  Elementary schools are replacing chips and candy in the vending machines with trail mix and granola. And if elementary schools can do it, shouldn’t the only school of nutrition in the country provide granola bars and yogurt instead of 600-calorie muffins and ramen noodles? Food companies are prioritizing the “closer-to-the-whole” movement and are developing products based on whole ingredients. Healthful RTE foods exist.

It’s also important to find a better balance between the nutrients to encourage and the nutrients to reduce. As food and beverage companies prioritize health and wellness, nutrition professionals should encourage them to develop new foods that are lower in sodium, sugar, and saturated fat but also include the vitamins and minerals we need. A reduced fat twinkie fortified with fiber and vitamins is not the answer. But, demonizing all processed foods is also not productive.  Instead, finding new ways to process foods such as whole grains into more convenient, shelf-stable, and accessible forms, while retaining nutritional value is a better use of our time.

 Sarah is a second year student completing a dual degree in Nutrition Communication and the Didactic Program in Dietetics. When not writing for school, the Sprout, or her internship, Sarah enjoys running, teaching spin, and testing out new recipes to share with friends and family! Read more from Sarah at her personal blog: www.foodandfitnessfriend.com

How High Fructose Corn Syrup Became Obesity’s Fall Guy

by Meghan Johnson

The correlation between the rise in consumption of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and the rise in obesity rates in the United States has often been misinterpreted to mean that high fructose corn syrup is uniquely causing obesity.  While it’s tempting to want to blame America’s weight problem on a single ingredient (especially when it has no real nutritional value), we must look to science before we can make such accusations.

What is high fructose corn syrup?

HFCS is a chemically altered sweetener that has become increasingly popular in the US over the past 40 years. The sweetener is used in place of other sugars due to its ability to make high fiber foods more palatable, inhibit microbial spoilage by reducing water activity, and extend shelf life through moisture control. Its manufacturers claim foods taste fresher because HFCS protects the firm texture of canned fruits and reduces freezer burn in frozen fruits.  Because of its preservation characteristics, HFCS is commonly found in processed foods such as bread, cereal, granola bars, lunchmeat, yogurt, and condiments as well as soda.

Does HFCS encourage weight gain more than other added sugars?

The main case against the sweetener is that its sugar composition affects the body differently than natural sugars from cane, beets or honey. Compositionally, HFCS is nearly identical to table sugar (sucrose), which is made up of equal parts fructose and glucose molecules. Glucose is one of the simplest forms of sugar and is a component of all dietary sugars. Fructose is also a simple sugar, found in fruits and honey.

Advocates for HFCS argue that both sugar and HFCS are metabolized the same way in the body, and therefore one is no more harmful than the other. Those on the other side of the argument insist that HFCS is metabolically different than sugar and causes excess fat storage, leading to obesity.

What does Science say?

There is some scientific evidence supporting the idea that glucose and fructose (especially the kind found in HFCS) are metabolized differently . However, the studies were conducted on lab animals and can’t be generalized to humans.

Most notably, Princeton scientist Bart Hoebel’s study found differences in the uptake pathways (the way the fructose molecules are absorbed.) Without glucose regulation, the fructose molecule can be absorbed into the body’s cells and cause unlimited energy production. Excess energy, or calories, is stored as adipose tissue, or fat. Another difference was identified in the sugars’ stopping molecules. In glucose metabolism, stopping molecules halt further energy production when enough energy has been made.  Hoebel’s work suggests that the stopping molecules are not activated for the fructose molecule found in HFCS.  Once again, these results were only seen in rats.

The other side of Science

Dr. John White is a leading researcher cited on the Corn Refiner’s Association website (the main agency advocating for the continued use of HFCS and makers of the “Sweet Surprise” commercials).  Dr. White finds three main problems with the current studies trying to link HFCS to obesity in humans. They include:

1. The studies were conducted using rats. Rats are not humans and you cannot draw conclusions from findings that have not been proven to hold true with humans. Our metabolic pathways are fundamentally different.

2. The level of fructose given to the rats far exceeds what any typical human would consume. When fructose is given without glucose, it behaves differently and humans never consume those quantities of straight fructose. Hoebel allowed his rats unlimited consumption of the sweetener so that the rats were getting about 3,000 calories per day of straight fructose (when translated to humans).

3. Sucrose was only used as a control in some of the study’s arms. The study’s findings are not valid if the same controls were not used across all arms of the study.

Lastly, the case for HFCS’s link to obesity violates one of the foundational concepts of science; that correlation does not equal causation. Just because two things are moving together, increasing or decreasing at the same rate over time, we cannot make assumptions that one thing is causing the change in the other.

There is little evidence to show that high-fructose corn syrup is, uniquely, causing Americans to become fat. Metabolically, HFCS does not really appear to be very different from other added sugars. According to Dr. White, “All of these caloric sweeteners contain fructose in about a 1:1 ratio, and what would surprise people is that once these sweeteners reach the blood stream, they are all equivalent. If you substitute one for another, you get metabolic equivalence. They deliver the same sugars to the blood streams in the same concentrations.”

What does this mean for me?

The important take-away is that eating any sugar or nutrient in excess will lead to weight gain. Dr. White said, “The only link between HFCS and obesity is that if you overeat HFCS, just like any nutritional component, you stand the chance of gaining weight. Added sugars will contribute to obesity if they’re over consumed.” The connection between HFCS and weight gain is simply that Americans are eating more across all categories, including added sugars, and that more and more products are popping up with added sugars in them to lengthen shelf life or enhance taste.

To avoid consuming HFCS until more conclusive evidence is found, consume minimally or unprocessed foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains (watch out for breads!), and plenty of lean protein such as legumes, eggs or lean animal protein. HFCS has already been removed from many products to meet consumer demand but if you’re unsure if what you’re eating contains the sweetener, just flip over the box and check the ingredient label.

Meghan Johnson is a first-year FPAN student with a specialization in Health & Nutrition Communication. She relocated to Boston from Washington DC and is doing her best to acclimate to the lingo, the bitter winds, and clam chowder.

The New American Farming Movement, and Why It’s Here to Stay

by Marisol Pierce-Quinonez and Jeff Hake

The burgeoning new farming movement in the US is characterized by a bevy of young farmers, craftspeople, homesteaders and combinations thereof.  It has been labeled by some as a trendy flash in the pan, little more than a path for hipsters that “don’t know what to do with their lives.” Critics declare that the frivolity of youth combined with twentysomethings’ inability to grow up makes for a horrible match with the laborious commitment required of farmers.  Indeed, it is fair to wonder if the current farming fixation will die out in a year or two in favor of the Next Big Thing, given that these sort of movements have a reputation for dissolving.  While it is difficult to imagine the movement’s heightened level of media attention as a permanent feature, an analysis of historical ebbs and flows can reveal to us what will happen to the current wave of food and farming fanaticism.  By this measure, your CSA next door is likely there to stay.

An agrarian spirit comes and goes

America has a strong agrarian tradition with roots in the principles of its founding fathers.  Thomas Jefferson, a farmer himself, famously believed that a nation of self-sufficient small farmers was the purest route to a functioning democracy.  This belief was carried out in future American policies through the Homestead Act, a law that granted 160 acres to individuals willing to farm it, and the Morrill Act, a law that established public funding for agricultural research.  Early agricultural policy was aimed at developing farms’ production power, but as the economic might of the manufacturing industry began to eclipse agriculture in the late 19th century, policy aimed at agricultural development lost popularity and the number of farmers began to drop.

The number of farmers and farmworkers in the US has continued to drop over the course of the 20th century, from 41% in 1900 to under 2% by 2007.  Meanwhile, farmers’ average age has risen close to that of retirement, with the fastest growing age group being those 65 and older. However, periodic surges have occurred that have thrown the curve and brought agriculture and gardening back into the public consciousness.

One of these periods was during the early 20th century, when World Wars I and II called for contributions from all Americans, including those on the homefront. World War I saw the cautious birth of the War Gardens movement, and the successful implementation of these gardens of service lead to a national-scale revival of the movement just 12 days after America entered the Second World War in 1941. Rebranded as Victory Gardens, these plots and small farms grew about 40% of the vegetable needs of the US in 1944. However, this massive effort was a patriotic response to crisis, and with the end of the war, the gardens became unanchored and slowly declined. Although a few Victory Gardens remain today (including one here in Boston), the post-war economic and technological boom increased the industrialization of agriculture and America no longer needed an army of patriotic farmers and gardeners.

In the late 1960s and 70s, farming again took the role of cause as many young people dropped out of mainstream society to join farming communes and intentional communities. The idea of forsaking society in favor of a simpler life was not a new idea[i], but in this instance fuel shortages, continuing wars, the corporatization of the American way of life, and a general dissatisfaction with the options available in cities and suburbs pushed young people to the countryside to pick up a pitchfork. Communes attempted to be self-sustaining and to live off the grid.  However, when interpersonal relationships soured or convictions faltered, the communities often failed. Several of these attempts live on today[ii] but still more hippie farmers left their attempts at utopian ideals and reengaged with mainstream society.

Critics of the modern farming movement often point to the dissolution of hippie homesteading and the disappearance of victory gardens as evidence that the modern iteration of back-to-the-landism is fleeting.  However, there are a few marked contrasts that distinguish the today’s movement beyond a mere reaction to crisis. Instead, it has strived to learn from the missteps of the past and now bases itself on the principles of sustainability. This is understood as the triple-bottom line of “people, profits and planet”. A sustainable world means one should not only look out for the health and well-being of ourselves and our environment, but that one should strive to make a living at it at the same time.

Transforming economy…

Much of the new farmer movement has intended to create profitable farms. Mission-driven farms have sprung up as a part of the modern movement as well, but even many of these are focused on education of the public or of those who wish to become farmers (the Friedman School’s own New Entry Sustainable Farming Project is a perfect example of this). Farming has become an option for young people who are interested in becoming stewards of the land while also earning a living.

It should not be surprising that people are attempting to build a career in farming:  present economic conditions are ugly and show little sign of recovery. The national unemployment rate rose as high as 10.6% in January 2010 and is currently hovering at 9.5%.  The unemployment rate for youth aged 16 to 19 is even worse, at 23.9% as of February. In the past a decent education offered a clear path to career success, but GOOD Magazine published a report last fall detailing the plight of well-educated young Americans who are finding that Master and Doctoral degrees are sometimes little more than a Ponzi scheme of escalating investment.[iii]

 

By choosing both pitchfork and spreadsheet as their tools, young farmers are finding that they can not only fend for themselves, if modestly, but that their actions can have a transformative effect on the local economy. Two of the most common marketing outlets for small-scale farmers today are farmers’ markets and community-support agriculture harvest share programs (CSAs). The number of markets in the US has steadily risen from 1,755 in 1994 to over 6,100 last year, and there are now over 4,200 CSA farms in the US. These outlets for selling farm fresh and sustainably grown foods allow communities to keep dollars circulating internally. In addition, the raw product of these farms feeds into the work of neighboring artisans and processors, who add value to products and create diverse, complete and independent local economies. And beyond what could be viewed as tenuous or small-scale relationships, organizations like Red Tomato and the Real Food Challenge are working with the growing network of small- and mid-scale farms to optimize distribution networks and to incite institutions like schools and hospitals to source food from local growers and processors.

 

…and transforming agricultural practice…

 

Of course, today’s young farmers recognize that earning a living and supporting local economies is an important goal, but environmental concerns still enter in to daily farm operations. We are now at a critical point that some describe as “peak everything”, where the resource drivers of the global economy are approaching their finite capacities. Modern industrial agriculture is powered by and structured around cheap supplies of oil, phosphorus, nitrogen and water. The underlying objective of most new farmers in the US today is to maximize productivity of limited acreage while reducing the amount of inputs, such as fertilizers and fuel for machinery, brought onto the farm.

 

This calls for a spirit of innovation that has become ample reason for both the interest in farming among young people and why it will sustain itself. For educated and underprivileged young Americans alike, what jobs that are available to them often lack creative and intellectual outlet and the rewards for creativity are few or unseen. Agriculture, while rife with failures and hard times, also offers visible, palatable returns to intellectual input. Craftsmanship and decades of experience and knowledge are also required on conventional farms, but among the new generation of farms and farmers, knowledge can be considered the single most important input[iv]. The returns to this input are both visceral and esoteric, as a farmer gets to see the literal fruits of his labor feeding hungry people. And this may be the most fundamental reason why more young people are embracing agrarianism: pride in work. Today’s new generation of farmers embraces this pride as readily as the previous one. More than that, they are quietly leading the way to a healthier, stronger and more prosperous global food system.

 

…to transform how the world is fed?

Beyond creating gainful and rewarding employment, the new agricultural movement has an important mission, and in this it perhaps cannot afford to fail. Faced with depleted non-renewable resources, hunger, economic failure, and wildly unstable political regimes, the leadership of the next generation of farmers is vital. In practice, of course, much is yet to be done to assure their ascension.  Tom Philpott notes that the revival of the mid-sized farm is required in order for the impact of sustainable agriculture to be felt on a meaningful scale, and, while the importance and needs of young farmers are beginning to be recognized by US federal policy, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack acknowledges that “we need to be even more creative than we’ve been to create strategies so that young people can access operations of all sizes.”Among these strategies would likely be a restructuring of farm subsidy programs, as Mark Bittman and others have suggested, and changing how the less-endowed gain access to prime farmland.

 

It’s true that the new farming movement has a superficial likeness to other resurgences of interest in farming and gardening over the past century. However, the world, and the agriculture that feeds it, is at a crossroads. Finding no jobs awaiting them and little value in the status quo that continues to push the globe down a path of imminent disaster, the youngest working generation of Americans are looking to agriculture as both an outlet for their energy and intelligence and as a vital part of the solution to the problems around them. As these problems continue to mount, the young farmers of today may be viewed not as starry-eyed ideologues who will grow up soon enough, but instead as farmer-citizens, leaders for a sustainable future.


[i] Communes have existed in this country for centuries.  For instance, a notable uptick occurred in the late 19th century in response to industrialization after the American Civil War and the town of Hopedale, MA was originally founded on Christian and socialist ideologies in 1842), but the burgeoning back-to-the-land movement inspired the creation of rural utopian communities all across the country.

[ii] Maine provides excellent examples of sustained agrarian lifestyles. In 1952, after 20 years of homesteading in the Green Mountains of Vermont, Helen and Scott Nearing, a collective bedrock of the back-to-the-land movement, moved to Harborside, Maine and established what would become The Good Life Center. In 1968, Eliot Coleman, purchased 60 acres from the Nearings and set out to be an organic farmer. Today, he and his wife, Barbara Damrosch, run a highly successful year-round organic farm on the naturally rocky shallow soils of coastal Maine. Coleman’s example and his seminal writings, Four Season Harvest and The New Organic Grower, have become an inspiration to a nation of market farmers. In addition, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association was founded in 1971 and is the “largest and oldest state organic organization in the country”. It currently provides support and services to a quickly growing amount of organic farmers and other farmers who wish to incorporate organic practices throughout the state. Farmers elsewhere in the country, like Fred Kirschenmann in North Dakota and Joel Salatin in Virginia, show by example and by education how sustainable and organic practices can be applied on a large scale and at a profit.

[iii] A recent New York Times op-ed sagely warns of the many dangers of a neglected class of young, educated Americans, equating it to similar conditions in the now-revolting countries of North Africa and the Middle East.

[iv] A report recently published by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food describes this new breed of agriculture as “knowledge-based”, which enables it to be passed from farmer to farmer without need for farm-level transportation or regular capital investment. However, the report also has a more important point: this new breed of agriculture, given many names but here called “agroecology”, can in fact grow enough nutritious food to feed the world into the foreseeable future, and even produce higher yields than conventional agriculture.

 

Mari is a third year AFE/UEP student who frequently avoids her work by drawing pictures.  She also blogs about the intersection of food systems and city living at www.projectstofinish.com

Jeff Hake is in his last semester of the Agriculture, Food and the Environment program at the Friedman School, so long as everything goes according to plan. He really likes tea, breakfast and farms, and spends a lot of time thinking about each of those things everyday. He also blogs at gardenglow.tumblr.com

Name That Belt – The South Labeled the “Diabetes Belt”

by Allison Knott

The Southern U.S. and Appalachian regions have received disappointing news in the past month.  The area was deemed the most physically inactive in the United States, and then given a new label: the “diabetes belt.”  The diabetes belt is similar in geographic area to the stroke belt – a label to define an area of the country with a high rate of stroke mortality.

The 2007-2008 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey (BRFSS), released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, revealed that the Southern region of the United States is the most physically inactive.  Approximately 29 percent of individuals in this region report no physical activity on a regular basis, outside of what he/she receives at their job.  This is four percentage points higher than the United States average of 25 percent.  The states with the highest rates of inactivity are: Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma.

The same CDC survey also points to a diabetes belt throughout the southern portion of the United States.  Similar to the stroke belt, the diabetes belt consists of multiple states with higher than average rates of diabetes.  However, there are some discrepancies: West Virginia is within the diabetes belt, but not the stroke belt and Indiana is in the diabetes belt, but not the stroke belt.  The states defining the diabetes belt are: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.  The diabetes belt includes 644 counties, each with a higher prevalence of diabetes than the rest of the country, 11.4% and 8.5% respectively.  The physically inactive states overlap with the states in the diabetes belt.  And portions of the diabetes belt overlap with the stroke belt.  Longstanding research indicates that physical inactivity plays an important role in obesity and that obesity is a risk factor for diabetes and stroke.  It makes sense to see that the most physically inactive states would also have a higher prevalence of diabetes and stroke.  Other factors contributing to the increased prevalence include ethnicity, with a higher population of African Americans in the Southern states, as well as an older population.

Many factors play a role in this complex issue.  One is the structure of cities and towns throughout the Southern and Appalachian regions.  As someone who grew up in a small town in Eastern Tennessee, I know all too well the challenges of getting enough physical activity while going about daily living.  Evaluating walk scores of various locations in the South using a website, www.walkscore.com, reveals that the majority of Southern cities and towns do not fare well.  The Walk Score website uses an algorithm to calculate the score based on the ease of living a “car-lite” lifestyle.  It takes into account the distance to amenities according to the address inputted in the website.  You can find more information on the algorithm here.  For comparison, Boston receives a walk score of 97 out of 100 with an average of 82.  My hometown, Cleveland, Tennessee, receives a walk score of 77 out of 100 with an average of 42.

Although the walk-ability of the town is just one factor in the myriad of contributing factors, one thing is sure, the Southern states are suffering from higher rates of obesity, diabetes, stroke and physical inactivity.  Sara Folta, a Friedman professor who works in the John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Obesity Prevention, conducts most of her research for the Strong Women-Healthy Hearts program.  The pilot work for the Strong Women-Healthy Hearts program was conducted in Arkansas, which is on the border of the diabetes belt.  She says Arkansas women face many challenges to eating healthy and getting enough physical activity.  When asked about foods available, Sara reports:

“Healthy foods are fairly readily available, even in very rural communities, but they are completely overshadowed by all the other stuff.  There is a strong culture around food and expectations around social events that make it difficult, even if someone is highly motivated, to make healthier choices.”

The physical activity component is also difficult for many individuals living in the Southern and Appalachian regions.  Through the Strong Women-Healthy Hearts research, Sara says:

“It’s a similar situation with physical activity.  The opportunities are there, but the challenges are enormous.  The women in Arkansas told me that you have to be very motivated, because you have to either wake up very early to get out for a walk before the heat and mosquitoes take over, or else you have to actively seek out a comfortable indoor place.  So, the two main problems seem to be the overall structure of the communities and the prevailing social norms and culture.  Both very much work against the type of lifestyle that would help to prevent diabetes.”

The researchers summarizing the CDC survey in the most recent American Journal of Preventive Medicine recommend “culturally appropriate interventions aimed at decreasing obesity and sedentary lifestyle” in the counties defining the diabetes belt.  What works in Boston will probably not work in Tennessee.  The authors also recommend changes on a policy level and hope that by defining the diabetes belt by counties, the policies will reflect the specific needs within each county.  The authors do cite limitations with the study such as recall and social desirability bias due to the limitations of the CDC Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.  They also indicate a limitation on making causal inferences because the BRFSS is a cross-sectional survey.

Policy changes, social construct adjustments and improving modifiable lifestyle factors are important in improving the overall health status of the Southern United States.  My hope is with renewed attention to this problem through news stories and research, the South will begin to work towards the much needed changes in the near future.

Allison Knott has been a registered dietitian since 2008 and was previously employed in a hospital in Georgia.  She is currently pursuing a master of science in Nutrition Communication.  Her passion is to communicate accurate and sound nutrition information to the general public. She also blogs at choiceshabitslifestyle.com.

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