By Kali Holloway
The cliche about the American diet being mostly meat and potatoes has seemed less true over recent years, with vegetarianism going mainstream and veganism gaining popularity. But old dietary habits die hard—possibly because of their clogged arteries. A new study finds there's been a reversal in meat-eating declines, with the last year seeing Americans piling their plates higher with meat than they have in nearly 40 years. That's not so great news for Americans' health and potentially devastating for the planet.
Rabobank, a global research firm, found that between 2014 and 2015, there was a 5 percent increase in meat consumption. The agency reports the rise was the "largest increase in U.S. meat consumption since the food scares of the 1970s." According to MarketWatch, that means on average, Americans last year ate more than 3.7 pounds of beef, pork or chicken each week—or about 193 pounds a year. That's up from 184 pounds in 2012. Globally, we are not, as Americans like to proclaim with all things, number one in eating meat. But we are very close.
But we may yet grab the brass ring! Vox points out that the fall-off in meat consumption America has seen for years was less due to healthy eating initiatives than to supermarket pricing. Writer Eliza Barclay notes that in the meat-lean years between 2005 and 2014, "ranchers and farmers trimmed their herds because of the recession, historically high feed costs and drought in the Great Plains. Meanwhile, domestic disease outbreaks like porcine epidemic diarrhea virus or PEDv, meant that tens of thousands of hogs never made it to market." Now that that's all been sorted and meat's relatively cheap again, Rabobank predicts meat production in the U.S. will increase 2.5 percent per year. At least until 2018, when we'll hit the meat-eating heights previously observed in the mid-aughts.
Vegetarianism has come a long way in terms of mainstream acceptance—as has veganism, though to a far lesser degree—but the number of Americans who describe themselves as either hasn't exactly exploded. Though estimates vary somewhat, most surveys peg the number of adults in the U.S. who describe themselves as vegetarian or vegan somewhere between nearly 3 percent to 5 percent. (If you live in a vegetarian-friendly city—a designation based on the number of vegan and veggie restaurants—such as Portland, New York City, Austin, Seattle or San Francisco, the number probably seems higher and in your area, that's because it likely is).
While the percentage of vegans has grown but remains small, the number of vegetarians has pretty much remained unchanged for a decade. There's likely a number of reasons why the diets haven't taken hold with more Americans. Some this just comes down to culture: People grow up eating meat, their families and circle groups are meat eaters, they enjoy eating meat, and they haven't really considered cutting meat out. There are also a significant number of vegans and vegetarians who go back to eating meat—a whopping 84 percent. Lifestyle changes can be hard for some former meat eaters; one survey found ex-veggies and vegans said it was too difficult to maintain a "pure" diet. Environment (say, living with a meat eater), convenience and health concerns all played a role. The point is, vegetariansim simply isn't for everybody. A mass conversion isn't going to happen.
But there's a price to say for our meat adherence. By now it's fairly well-known that meat production has dramatic consequences for the environment. Meat and dairy are major contributors to our global carbon footprint and add to the concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. As Think Progress notes, "a single four-ounce hamburger requir[es] around 450 gallons of water to produce." The site also points to a 2015 study that found "meat-associated land use changes are probably the leading cause of modern species extinctions." There's more bad news where that came from, per Think Progress:
According to a report released earlier this year by Environment America, an environmental advocacy group, five big meat companies—Tyson, JBS, Cargill, Smithfield and Perdue—produce a combined 162 million tons of manure every year. Combine that with the amount of fertilizer needed to grow the feed grain that sustains large-scale animal feeding operations and it's easy to see how the waste from our industrial meat complex can literally seep into our waterways, causing everything from local water pollution to massive dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. Another Environment America report found that Tyson, one of the biggest meat producers in the world, is responsible for dumping more toxic pollution into waterways than companies like ExxonMobil or Dow Chemical.
So, while Americans are eating more chicken, which is slightly less damaging ecologically and widely regarded as healthier than beef, there are still grave problems with our meat intake overall.
Laura Wellesley is a research associate at Chatham House, who focuses on food security and climate change. In a recent Washington Post editorial, she notes that both Americans and Europeans consume quantities of meat that are "unsustainable, both for our planet and for our health." While Wellesley doesn't suggest that everyone needs to become vegetarian, she does propose cutting back on meat. She also believes governments should take steps to promote those reductions, mostly through dietary guidelines, taxing the most eco-unfriendly foods and educational programs. Wellesley believes proactivity by Western governments would be hugely symbolic in motivating a sea change around meat production and consumption.
"A government that is silent on excessive, unsustainable meat eating is sending a message to carry on as normal," Wellesley writes. "But a government that introduces a forward-looking policy of reduced consumption—promoting a healthier and more sustainable eating pattern—signals that overconsumption is something we should all really care about."
This article was reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
This Saturday, June 6, marks National Trails Day, an annual celebration of the remarkable recreational, scenic and hiking trails that crisscross parks nationwide. The event, which started in 1993, honors the National Trail System and calls for volunteers to help with trail maintenance in parks across the country.
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The Navajo Nation covers the corners of three different states. Google Maps
Growing Contribution<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzM3NDY5Ny9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjM4MTgyM30.IuQTKQs1stvYYKD6vaVTrqAyoBsUG0BhDvlhxsyKwPA/img.png?width=980" id="02a05" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2841f82b1785df5d5ed7bf64d3bb882b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
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DAN medical experts explained the difference between normal lungs, on the left, and "very serious lungs caused by COVID-19," on the right. Matias Nochetto / Divers Alert Network (DAN)
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