Science Policy For All

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Posts Tagged ‘agriculture

Science Policy Around the Web – May 9, 2017

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By: Emily Petrus, PhD

By Robert A. Rohde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Please Pass the Crickets!

Most people know that eating beef is bad for the environment. A new study from the University of Edinburgh and Scotland’s rural college quantifies the impact human carnivores could have if we switched half of our current meat intake to insects such as crickets and mealworms. Cattle require huge swaths of pasture and produce enormous amounts of greenhouse gases such as methane. Methane is released during normal digestive processes, and methane and other greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide are released from manure.

The idea of switching from a plate of steak to a bowl of mealworms may be too much for most Westerners, so what’s the human meat lover to do? Luckily, the study suggested that switching harmful beef for chicken or imitation meat (such as tofu) can yield large environmental benefits, because poultry and soy plants both require less land and produce less greenhouse gasses than cattle. The study also concluded that “meat in a dish”, or lab grown meat, was not more sustainable than chicken or eggs.

Although meat might not be replaced by insects any time soon for humans, we can still begin to incorporate insects into the farming discussion. Currently cattle raised for human consumption are fed diets of hay, soy, grain and other surprising items. These cattle need high levels of protein, which is one reason why mad cow disease became so prevalent – uneaten parts of cows were fed to other cows, which made them sick. Insects could help solve the protein gap for cattle, which was supported by a general survey of farmers, agricultural stakeholders and the public in Belgium.

Our eating practices affect the environment; moving towards a sustainable agricultural system is a commendable goal. Every person can decide for themselves how far they’re willing to go along the food chain to achieve a smaller carbon footprint. (ScienceDaily)

Vision Loss

Letting the Blind See Again

Vision loss is devastating – vision is the most relied upon source of sensory input for humans.  This can occur from an accident or genetic/physiological disorders. Retinitis pigmentosa causes a degeneration of the retina, and affects about 100,000 people in the US. Currently there is no cure, but clinical trials are exploring treatments to slow the process using gene therapy, dietary changes, or other drugs.

A new synthetic, soft tissue retina has been invented by a graduate student at Oxford University.  This artificial retina is biodegradable and uses synthetic but biological tissues to mimic the human retina.  The material composition is less likely to trigger an adverse reaction in the body and are less invasive than current retina transplants made of hard metal materials. Restrepo-Schild developed a bilayer of water droplets which respond to light with electrical impulses. The signals translate to cells at the back of the eye just like healthy retinal cells should. The new retina prototype has yet to be tested in animals to see if it translates well to humans.

Another way to restore vision is gaining traction: xenotransplants (transplants from animals to humans). Just last year a Chinese boy’s vision was restored after a corneal transplant from a pig. Pigs are good candidates for human transplantation because they are anatomically and physiologically similar, and they are ethically more desirable sources than non-human primates. Although pigs are not immunologically similar to humans, the eye transplants are unlikely to be rejected by the recipient because this part of the body is immune-privileged.

Restoring vision is an important and admirable task. Scientists and clinicians have multiple avenues to explore to help people regain their sight. (ScienceDaily)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

May 9, 2017 at 9:43 am

Science Policy Around the Web – October 16, 2015

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By: Sylvina Raver, Ph.D.

Photo source:

Nutrition Policy

How agriculture controls nutrition guidelines

Every five years, the nutritional recommendations that help Americans make healthy dietary choices are revised to reflect the current state of nutritional and health science. Although only 4% of Americans adhere to these Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), DGAs have a huge impact. For example, physicians routinely use them to advise patients on how to stay healthy. DGAs also affect billions of dollars in government spending as they inform meal content for military personnel, those helped through the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and US children who are served public school lunches.

The process of updating DGAs involves compiling the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), a panel of scientific experts who distill thousands of scientific studies into an advisory report, with comments from the public and input from federal agencies. For the first time, the 2015 DGAC report recommended that sustainability of food sources be considered in the final 2015 DGAs. Sustainable diets are defined by the United Nations as those with “low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and healthy life for present and future generations,” and the recommendation to consider sustainability is within the statutory bounds of the DGAC as defined in 1990. Proponents of the sustainability language emphasize the importance of considering the environmental impact of food production, and argue that nutrition is influenced by agricultural practices; for example, wild-caught fish or grass-fed beef is generally more nutritious than farm-raised fish or corn-fed beef. Opponents argue that sustainability is beyond the scope of the DGAC and accuses the committee of writing the recommendations from a political perspective rather than a scientific one.

Unsurprisingly, considering the extent of government funding that is influenced by the DGAs, the 2015 DGA revision process has come under constant attack by the agricultural industry. On Wednesday October 7, during a meeting of the House Committee on Agriculture, chaired by Representative Mike Conaway of Texas, Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack conceded that the 2015 DGAs were not “…the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability” as a “matter of scope,” and that sustainability would not be a factor in the 2015 DGAs. The sustainability debate will likely resume in 2020 when the DGAs are next revised.  (James Hamblin, The Atlantic; Kathleen Merrigan et al., Science; Sandra Hassink & Steven Stack, The Hill)

Scientific Funding

Neuroscientist team calls for a National Brain Observatory

A team of six influential neuroscientists has proposed the creation of a national network of neurotechnology centers that they’re calling the National Brain Observatory. The same group of scientists, dubbed “the Kavli six” due to their affiliation with The Kavli Foundation, is credited with drafting a proposal to map the activity of the living brain that would become President Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative announced in Spring 2013. The first round of BRAIN funding was awarded mostly to individual labs or multi-lab research teams. In an opinion article published October 15 in the journal Neuron, the Kavli six call for the next step in the BRAIN initiative: a coordinated effort to synergize the discoveries made by the multiple individual laboratories funded by BRAIN. The scientists believe that the technological challenges facing neuroscience necessitate large investments in advanced technologies that are beyond the scope of any individual lab or research institution, similar to the national telescopes and particle accelerators used in the fields of astronomy and physics.

The goal of the National Brain Observatory proposal would be to expand shared access to four types of expensive technologies required to map the brain’s structure and activity: 1) large scale electron microscopes, capable of magnifying objects by more than 10 million times; 2) fabrication facilities to develop nanosized electrode systems capable of recording the activity of large networks of neurons with minimal damage to brain tissue; 3) new optical and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) facilities to monitor the dynamics of neural circuits in real time; and 4) advanced electronic storage and computational data mining to collect and analyze vast amounts of data.

The Kavli six suggests that such technologies could arise from existing Department of Energy (DOE) National Labs around the country, such as Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, or they could be housed in newly created facilities. The group argues that the experimental challenges being undertaken by the BRAIN Initiative, and by the neuroscience field at large, can only be surmounted through “highly coordinated, multi-investigator, cross-disciplinary efforts” such that a National Brain Observatory would permit. (Emily Underwood, ScienceInsider)

Genetic Testing

The crowdsourcing site that wants to pool our genomes

Two geneticists have launched a new crowdsourcing science project to collect the genetic data generated by direct-to-consumer (DTC) companies like and The project, called DNA.LAND, is a non-profit website created by Drs. Yaniv Erlich and Joe Pickrell and is affiliated with the New York Genome Center of Columbia University. DNA.LAND urges potential users to “Know your genome; Help science,” and the platform is designed to give participants ancestry and relationship data, as well as help to fill in missing sequences of DNA overlooked by DTC companies through a method called imputation. Although some of these functions are already provided by DTC companies, these companies compare users’ genetic information within individual company databases, and customers may miss out on connecting with relatives who have had their genetic information sequenced elsewhere. DNA.LAND compiles genetic information from multiple DTC companies, thus creating a dataset that is beyond the scope of anything amassed to date. To the extent to which users consent, scientists can then use this vast pool of genetic data to tackle research questions that require very large sample sizes. The project’s founders also envision linking DNA.LAND data with that from other sources, such as from activity tracking devices like Fitbits, or from social media activity that might indicate someone’s sleep patterns or mood fluctuations.

Privacy concerns are obvious. The site’s consent form contains minimal medical and legal jargon to describe guidelines that the founders say should lessen many of the privacy risks, such as not sharing personal identification information or genetic data with third parties without the user’s explicit permission. Still, the form contains the important caveat that the chance of a confidentiality breech is not zero and sharing data of this type carries inherent risks. Indeed, in 2013, Dr. Erlich and colleagues authored a study that revealed that men who have had their full genomes sequenced could be re-identified based on short DNA sequences found on their sex chromosomes.  To help ease users’ privacy concerns, both of DNA.LAND’s Principal Investigators adopt a “skin in the game” philosophy by making their own personal genomes publicly available. They are not alone; by October 15, less than a week after the site went live, nearly 6,000 genomes have already been uploaded. (Ed Yong, The Atlantic; Erika Check Hayden, Nature; Andrea Anderson, GenomeWeb)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

October 16, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – April 3, 2015

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By: Sara Cassidy, M.S., Ph.D.

photo credit: Pangolin via photopin (license)

Animal Conservation Policy

Poaching brings another creature to the brink of extinction

Ever heard of the pangolin? Me neither, but recent media coverage of this critically endangered creature places a spotlight on the impact humans are having on their environment. The pangolin, also known as the spiny anteater, is a nocturnal mammal that lives in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa that subsists on ants and other small insects. Asian pangolins are threatened by loss of habitat, as land is increasing cleared for agricultural and other human use, but are most severely in danger due to poaching. Pangolin meat is prized as a delicacy in China, and its scales composed of keratin are used as a traditional medicine for skin and other disorders. Demand for the animal has increased in the past decade resulting increased illegal shipments disguised as other goods. According to the NY Times, “officials in Uganda said they had seized two tons of pangolin skins packed in boxes identified as communications equipment. In France a few years ago, more than 200 pounds of pangolin scales were discovered buried in bags of dog biscuits.” Because the animals are endangered, most countries have laws against hunting pangolin. However, the laws are either weakly enforced or poachers make enough from the animal carcass to incentivize the activity anyway. There is some question as to how endangered the animals are. Because they are nocturnal and shy, little is known about population levels in the wild. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora has the pangolin categorized in Appendix II; species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the Chinese pangolin as critically endangered and all other species of pangolin as threatened. Some conservation groups are hoping to increase the endangered status of the pangolin and make all trade of the animal illegal. (Erica Goode, NY Times;

Resource Conservation Policy

Record drought forces increased water conservation in California

After a record low snowpack was recorded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on April 1st, the governor of California issued an executive order mandating cities and towns across California to reduce water usage by 25 percent. This conservation amounts to approximately 1.5 million acre-feet of water saved over the next nine months. KQED and NPR compiled an infographic to show just how severe the decline in snowpack has been over the past few years of drought; the water content of the Sierra Nevada range was just 6% of the average in 2015. The impact of the loss of mountain snow will be great. Millions of people depend on the water that melts and flows downstream during the summer and fall months, including the farmers of the agriculture-rich California Central valley. In addition to general water conservation, the governor also ordered millions of acres of lawns throughout the state to be replaced by drought tolerant landscaping and the prohibition of new developments from using potable water for irrigation. Increased conservation and enforcement measures will help, but it is small consolation to the already parched fields that account for the overwhelming majority of produce on US shelves, including 90% of all broccoli and 95% of all celery and garlic; hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland was fallowed or lost in 2014 due to insufficient water supply. Although Americans have yet to really feel the pinch (with the exception of citrus fruit; both drought and disease have been driving up prices in the past couple years), experts predict the price of fresh fruits and vegetables will rise this summer.      (Craig Miller, KQED Science and NPR;; Brian Palmer, Slate)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

April 3, 2015 at 12:20 pm