4 Reasons Why Going Vegan Is Great for Some, But Bad for Others
By Denise Minger
Debate about whether veganism is a healthy diet for humans or a fast track to deficiency has been raging since time immemorial (or at the very least, since the advent of Facebook comment sections).
The controversy is fueled by ardent claims from both sides of the fence: long-term vegans reporting good health (and insisting anyone who struggles must be "doing it wrong") and ex-vegs recounting their gradual or rapid decline (in some cases, convinced the day will come when "successful" vegans confess it was all a ruse).
Luckily, science is nudging us closer to an understanding of why people respond differently to low- or no-animal-food diets—with a great deal of the answer rooted in genetics and gut health. No matter how nutritionally adequate a vegan diet looks on paper, metabolic variation can determine whether someone thrives or flounders when going meat-free and beyond.
1. Vitamin A Conversion
Vitamin A is a true rock star in the nutrient world. It helps maintain vision, supports the immune system, promotes healthy skin, assists in normal growth and development and is vital for reproductive function—just to name a few of its many jobs (1).
Contrary to popular belief, plant foods don't contain true vitamin A (known as retinol); instead, they contain vitamin A precursors, the most famous being beta-carotene. In the intestine, beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A by the enzyme beta-carotene-15,15′-monoxygenase (BCMO1)—a process that, when running smoothly, lets us make retinol from plant foods like carrots and sweet potatoes.
(Animal foods, by contrast, supply vitamin A in the form of retinoids, which don't require BCMO1 conversion).
Here's the bad news. Several gene mutations can slash BCMO1 activity and thwart carotenoid conversion, rendering plant foods inadequate as vitamin A sources. For example, two frequent polymorphisms in the BCMO1 gene (R267S and A379V) can collectively reduce beta-carotene conversion by 69 percent (2). A less common mutation (T170M) can reduce conversion by about 90 percent in people who carry two copies (3).
In all, about 45 percent of the population carry polymorphisms that make them "low responders" to beta-carotene (4).
Worse, a host of non-genetic factors can lower carotenoid conversion and absorption as well—including low thyroid function, compromised gut health, alcoholism, liver disease and zinc deficiency (5, 6, 7). If any of these get thrown into the poor-genetic-converter mix, the ability to produce retinol from plant foods can dwindle even further.
So, why isn't such a widespread issue causing mass epidemics of vitamin A deficiency? Simple: in the Western world, carotenoids provide less than 30 percent of people's vitamin A intake, whereas animal foods provide more than 70 (8). An omnivorous BCMO1 mutant can generally skate by on vitamin A from animal sources, blissfully unaware of the carotenoid battle waging within.
But for those who eschew animal products, the effects of a dysfunctional BCMO1 gene will be obvious—and eventually detrimental. When poor converters go vegan, they can eat carrots until they're orange in the face (literally!) without actually obtaining enough vitamin A for optimal health. Carotenoid levels simply rise (hypercarotenemia), while vitamin A status nosedives (hypovitaminosis A), leading to deficiency amidst seemingly adequate intake (3).
Even for low-converting vegetarians, the vitamin A content of dairy and eggs (which don't hold a candle to meat products like liver—the vitamin A King of Kings) might not be enough to stave off deficiency, especially if absorption issues are also at play.
Not surprisingly, the consequences of inadequate vitamin A mirror the problems reported by some vegans and vegetarians. Thyroid dysfunction, night blindness and other vision issues, impaired immunity (more colds and infections) and problems with tooth enamel can all result from poor vitamin A status (9, 10, 11, 12).
Meanwhile, vegans with normal BCMO1 function—and who dine on plenty of carotenoid-rich fare—can generally produce enough vitamin A from plant foods to stay healthy.
Bottom Line: People who are efficient carotenoid converters can generally get enough vitamin A on vegan diets, but poor converters can become deficient even when their intake meets recommended levels.
2. Gut Microbiome and Vitamin K2
Our gut microbiomes—the collection of organisms residing in the colon—perform a dizzying number of duties, ranging from nutrient synthesis to fiber fermentation to toxin neutralization (13).
There's ample evidence that our gut microbiomes are flexible, with bacterial populations shifting in response to diet, age and environment (13, 14). But a great deal of our resident microbes are also inherited or otherwise established from a young age.
For instance, higher levels of Bifidobacteria are associated with the gene for lactase persistence (indicating a genetic component to the microbiome), and babies born vaginally scoop up their first bundle of microbes in the birth canal—leading to bacterial compositions that differ over the long-term from C-section babies (15, 16).
In addition, trauma to the microbiome—such as a bacterial wipeout from antibiotics, chemotherapy or certain illnesses—can cause permanent changes to a once-healthy community of gut critters. There's some evidence that certain bacterial populations never return to their former glory after antibiotic exposure, stabilizing instead at less abundant levels (17, 18, 19, 20, 21).
In other words, despite an overall adaptability of the gut microbiome, we might be "stuck" with certain features due to circumstances beyond our control.
So, why does this matter for vegans?
Our gut microbiome plays a huge role in how we respond to different foods and synthesize specific nutrients and some microbial communities may be more veg-friendly than others.
For example, certain gut bacteria are needed for synthesizing vitamin K2(menaquinone), a nutrient with unique benefits for skeletal health (including teeth), insulin sensitivity and cardiovascular health, as well as prostate and liver cancer prevention (22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30). The main K2-producers include certain Bacteroides species, Prevotella species, Escheria coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae, as well as some gram-positive, anaerobic, non-sporing microbes (31).
Unlike vitamin K1, which is abundant in leafy greens, vitamin K2 is found almost exclusively in animal foods—the main exception being a fermented soybean product called natto, which has a taste that can be euphemistically described as "acquired" (32).
Studies have demonstrated that full-spectrum antibiotic usage dramatically lowers levels of vitamin K2 in the body by obliterating the bacteria responsible for K2 synthesis (33). And one intervention trial found that when participants were put on a high-plant, low-meat (less than two ounces daily) diet, the main determinant of their fecal K2 levels was the proportion of Prevotella, Bacteroides and Escheria/Shigellaspecies in their gut (34).
So, if someone's microbiome is short on vitamin-K2-producing bacteria—whether from genetic factors, environment or antibiotic usage—and animal foods are removed from the equation, then vitamin K2 levels can sink to tragic levels. Although research on the topic is scant, this could feasibly rob vegans (and some vegetarians) of the many gifts K2 bestows—potentially contributing to dental problems, a greater risk of bone fractures and reduced protection against diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.
Conversely, people with robust, K2-synthesizing microbiomes (or who otherwise identify as natto gourmands) might be able to obtain enough of this vitamin on a vegan diet.
Bottom Line: Vegans without enough bacteria for synthesizing vitamin K2 can face problems related to inadequate intake, including a higher risk of dental issues and chronic disease.
3. Amylase and Starch Tolerance
Although there are certainly exceptions, meat-free diets tend to be higher in carbohydrates than fully omnivorous ones (35, 36, 37). In fact, some of the most famous plant-based diets hover around the 80 percent carb mark (coming mostly from starchy grains, legumes and tubers), including the Pritikin Program, the Dean Ornish Program, the McDougall Program and Caldwell Esselstyn's diet for heart disease reversal (38, 39, 40, 41).
While these diets have an impressive track record on the whole—Esselstyn's program, for instance, effectively slashed cardiac events in those who diligently adhered—some people report less savory results after switching to high-starch vegan diets (42). Why the dramatic difference in response?
The answer may, again, be lurking in our genes—and also in our spit.
Human saliva contains alpha-amylase, an enzyme that lops starch molecules into simple sugars via hydrolysis. Depending on how many copies of the amylase-coding gene (AMY1) we carry, along with lifestyle factors like stress and circadian rhythms, amylase levels can range from "barely detectable" to 50 percent of the total protein in our saliva (43).
In general, people from starch-centric cultures (like the Japanese) tend to carry more AMY1 copies (and have higher levels of salivary amylase) than people from populations that historically relied more on fat and protein, pointing to a role of selective pressure (44). In other words, AMY1 patterns appear linked to the traditional diets of our ancestors.
Here's why this matters: amylase production strongly influences how we metabolize starchy foods—and whether those foods send our blood sugar on a gravity-defying rollercoaster or on a more leisurely undulation. When people with low amylase consume starch (especially refined forms), they experience steeper, longer-lasting blood sugar spikes compared to folks with naturally high amylase levels (45).
Not surprisingly, low amylase producers have a heightened risk of metabolic syndrome and obesity when eating standard high-starch diets (46).
What does this mean for vegetarians and vegans?
Although the amylase issue is relevant to anyone with a mouth, plant-based diets centered on grains, legumes and tubers (like the aforementioned Pritikin, Ornish, McDougall and Esselstyn programs) are likely to bring any latent carb intolerance to the fore.
For low amylase producers, radically upping starch intake could have devastating consequences—potentially leading to poor blood sugar regulation, low satiation and weight gain. But for someone with the metabolic machinery to crank out plenty of amylase, handling a high-carb, plant-based diet might be a piece of cake.
Bottom Line: Salivary amylase levels influence how well (or how poorly) different people do on starchy vegan or vegetarian diets.
4. PEMT Activity and Choline
Although it hasn't received as much media airtime as some other nutrients-du-jour (like omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D), it's no less important—choline deficiency is a major player in fatty liver disease, a skyrocketing problem in Westernized nations (48). Choline deficiency can also increase the risk of neurological conditions, heart disease and developmental problems in children (49).
In general, the most choline-abundant foods are animal products—with egg yolks and liver dominating the charts, and other meats and seafood also containing decent amounts. A wide variety of plant foods contain much more modest levels of choline (50).
Our bodies can also produce choline internally with the enzyme phosphatidylethanolamine-N-methyltransferase (PEMT), which methylates a molecule of phosphatidylethanolamine (PE) into a molecule of phosphatidylcholine (PC) (51).
In many cases, the small amounts of choline offered by plant foods, combined with the choline synthesized through the PEMT pathway, can be enough to collectively meet our choline needs—no eggs or meat required.
But for vegans, it's not always smooth sailing on the choline front.
First, despite efforts to establish adequate intake (AI) levels for choline, people's individual requirements can vary tremendously—and what looks like enough choline on paper can still lead to deficiency. One trial found that 23 percent of male participants developed symptoms of choline deficiency when consuming the "adequate intake" of 550 mg per day (52).
Second, not everyone's bodies are equally productive choline factories. Due to estrogen's role in boosting PEMT activity, postmenopausal women (who have lower estrogen levels and stymied choline-synthesizing abilities) need to eat more choline than women who are still in their reproductive years (52).
And even more significantly, common mutations in folate pathways or in the PEMT gene can make low-choline diets downright hazardous (56). One study found that women carrying a MTHFD1 G1958A polymorphism (related to folate) were 15 times more susceptible to developing organ dysfunction on a low-choline diet (57).
Additional research shows that the rs12325817 polymorphism in the PEMT gene—found in about 75 percent of the population—significantly raises choline requirements, and people with the rs7946 polymorphism might need more choline in order to prevent fatty liver disease (58).
Although further research is needed, there's also some evidence that the rs12676 polymorphism in the choline dehydrogenase (CHDH) gene makes people more susceptible to choline deficiency—meaning they need a higher dietary intake to stay healthy (59).
So, what does this mean for people who drop high-choline animal foods from their diet?
If someone has normal choline requirements and a fortunate assortment of genes, it's possible to stay choline-replete on a vegan diet (and certainly as a vegetarian who eats eggs).
But for new or soon-to-be mothers, men or postmenopausal women with lower estrogen levels, as well as people with one of the many gene mutations that inflate choline requirements, plants alone might not supply enough of this critical nutrient. In those cases, going vegan could be the harbinger of muscle damage, cognitive problems, heart disease and increased buildup of fat in the liver.
Bottom Line: Variations in PEMT activity and individual choline requirements can determine whether someone can (or can't) get enough choline on a vegan diet.
Take Home Message
So, what can we conclude from all this? When the right genetic (and microbial) elements are in place, vegan diets—supplemented with the requisite vitamin B12—have a greater chance of meeting a person's nutritional needs. But when issues with vitamin A conversion, gut microbiome makeup, amylase levels or choline requirements enter the picture, the odds of thriving as a vegan start to plummet.
This isn't to say there aren't vegans who really did "do it wrong" (case in point, a diet of potato chips and Pepsi qualifies as vegan), who used their diet to mask an eating disorder or who faced other circumstances that doomed their success from the start.
But science is increasingly supporting the idea that individual variation drives the human response to different diets. Some people are simply better equipped to glean what they need from plant foods—or produce what they need with the fabulous mechanics of the human body.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Authority Nutrition.
By Dirk Lorenzen
2021 begins as a year of Mars. Although our red planetary neighbor isn't as prominent as it was last autumn, it is still noticeable with its characteristic reddish color in the evening sky until the end of April. In early March, Mars shines close to the star cluster Pleiades in the constellation Taurus.
A Landing Like a James Bond Movie<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyOTIwMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MDU5MDQ2Nn0.aLE-s5r9YhoJs40XbavhUwUXdY97iykXqo0OO0S5eso/img.jpg?width=980" id="19fa1" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c758d3cd0d3e11fbd5290bb95da86396" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="700" data-height="394" />
NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover (shown in artist's illustration) is the most sophisticated rover NASA has ever sent to Mars. Ingenuity, a technology experiment, will be the first aircraft to attempt controlled flight on another planet. Perseverance will arrive at Mars' Jezero Crater with Ingenuity attached to its belly. NASA<p>The highlight of this year's Mars exploration is the landing of the NASA rover "Perseverance" on February 18. Once the spacecraft enters the atmosphere it will be slowed down by friction. The heat shield will surpass 1,000 degrees Celsius. Later, parachutes will deploy to slow it down even more. Roughly two kilometers above the planet's surface, a sky crane comes into play. Four thrusters keep the crane properly oriented.</p><p><span></span>The rover is connected to the crane by nylon tethers. Upon approach of Mars' surface, the sky crane will lower Perseverance down about 7 meters. Once the rover has touched down, the tethers are cut and the sky crane flies off to land somewhere else on the surface.</p><p>Entry, descent and landing takes just seven minutes – the so-called seven minutes of terror. The flight team can't interact with the spacecraft on Mars. Experts have to sit and watch what's happening more than 200 million kilometers away. Radio signals from the spacecraft need about 11 minutes to travel in one direction. When the control center in Pasadena, California receives the message that entry has begun, Perseverance will already be on the ground. There is only one chance for a smooth landing. Any error could mean the mission is lost. The audacious sky crane maneuver would be a great feat in any action movie. But NASA knows how to do it – the Curiosity rover landed with a sky crane in 2012.</p>
Life on Mars?<p>Scientists want to use Perseverance to explore whether there is or ever has been life on Mars. Today the planet is a hostile environment – dry and cold with no magnetic field shielding the harsh radiation from space. Life as we know it can't survive on the Martian surface right now. But billions of years ago, Mars was hotter and wetter and had a shield against radiation. So it is at least plausible that simple microbes developed there. Maybe they live in the soil now, one or two meters below the surface. Perseverance will collect samples to find out. A future mission by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will pick up the samples and return them to Earth. But this won't happen before 2030.</p>
The Long Wait for James Webb<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyOTIxMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2OTM1MDUzNX0.0Jmw-vIz6zuOa7eNsVX2oVzc0L6AFp05cAs4QbzdK6c/img.jpg?width=980" id="9cf3e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d46a2f73a4a2e32a9775087750c92431" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="700" data-height="394" />
The Hubble Space Telescope has been orbiting the Earth for more than 30 years. NASA<p>The Hubble Space Telescope's images of planets, nebulae, star clusters and galaxies are legendary. The cosmic eye, launched in 1990, is likely to fail towards the end of this decade. The James Webb Space Telescope will be its successor. It is scheduled to launch on October 31 with a European Ariane 5 rocket from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana.</p><p><span></span>The launch date is about 14 years later than planned when the project began in 1997. At almost $10 billion (€8.2 billion), the telescope is more than ten times as expensive as originally conceived. Its namesake James Webb was the NASA administrator during the height of the Apollo project in the 1960s.</p><p>Astronomers expect completely new insights from James Webb Telescope images, such as how the universe came into being, how it developed and how galaxies, stars and planets are formed. The instrument will observe the earliest childhood of the cosmos and photograph objects that already existed in the universe 200 to 300 million years after the Big Bang. James Webb, as the experts call the telescope for short, may even provide information about possibly inhabited exoplanets – planets like ours orbiting stars other than the Sun. </p>
A Sensitive German Camera<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyOTIxNS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxOTE0MzY3Mn0.o3aPaW5t0MFkEgeJl0HQ1V9lz6WDxKVGXyYWvpfoYyk/img.jpg?width=980" id="6ff49" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="187458ae2291c2aeb3bd36bc1ed777e0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="985" data-height="657" />
The fully assembled James Webb Space Telescope with its sunshield and unitized pallet structures that will fold up around the telescope for launch. NASA<p>The mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope is 6.5 meters in diameter and consists of 18 hexagonal segments. The entire instrument unfolds in 178 steps over a period of several months. Only then – probably in the spring of 2022 – will we see its first images.</p><p>Many communication or reconnaissance satellites only unfold in space. However, not every micrometer is as important as with this telescope. </p><p>NIRSpec, one of the four cameras on board, was built at Airbus in Ottobrunn near Munich. It is made of an unusual material: ceramic. Both the basic structure and the mirrors are made of this very light, hard and extremely temperature-insensitive material. With good reason – the large camera has to withstand a lot in space. It is cooled to around -250 degrees Celsius in order to register the weak infrared or thermal radiation from the depths of space. Plastic or metal bend and lead to blurred images. Ceramic, on the other hand, remains in perfect shape.</p><p>The NIRSpec instrument will examine, among other things, emerging stars and distant galaxies. The ceramic camera is incredibly sensitive – it could register the heat radiation from a burning cigarette on the Moon. Thanks to this precision, astronomers will get completely new insights into the cosmos with the James Webb Telescope and NIRSpec.</p>
No Flight to the Moon but to the ISS<p>It's not very likely that the Orion spacecraft from NASA and ESA will start its maiden voyage to the Moon before the end of 2021. As part of the Artemis-1 mission, it will remain in space for four weeks and will orbit the Moon for a few days. There will be no crew on board for the first flight, but two dummies from the German Aerospace Center, which use thousands of sensors to measure the conditions that human beings would be exposed to. The Orion capsule comes from NASA, while the ESA supplies the service module. The service module, which is being built by Airbus in Bremen, provides propulsion, navigation, altitude control and the supply of air, water and fuel. After problems with an engine test in mid-January, the new NASA large rocket Space Launch System (SLS), with which Orion is supposed to be launched, is unlikely to be operational until early 2022.</p><p><span></span>Matthias Maurer from Saarland is scheduled to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) in October. The flight will be in a Crew Dragon capsule from Cape Canaveral. Maurer will live and work in the orbital outpost for six months. He is currently training to work on numerous scientific experiments. Maurer will be the twelfth German in space.</p><p>So far, Germany has only sent men into space. In mid-March, ESA will start the next application process for astronauts. A few years ago, the private initiative Die Astronautin ("She is an astronaut") showed that there are numerous excellent female applicants.</p>
Two Lunar Eclipses<p>Even if there is no flight to the Moon, sky fans are looking forward to two eclipses this year. On May 26, there will be a lunar eclipse between 9:45 and 12:53 UTC. From 11:10 to 11:28 UTC, the Moon will be completely in the Earth's shadow. It can then only be seen in a copper-red light. This is sunlight that is directed into the Earth's shadow by the Earth's atmosphere – reddish, like the sky at sunset. This eclipse can be observed throughout the Pacific, and will be best viewed in Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Antarctica. In Europe, the Moon will be below the horizon and therefore the eclipse will not be visible.</p><p>This also the case for the partial lunar eclipse on November 19. From 07:18 to 10:47 UTC, the Moon will be partly in the shadow of the Earth. In the middle of the eclipse (around 9:03 UTC) 98% of the Moon will be eclipsed. The spectacle will be best seen in North America, Greenland, East Asia and much of the Pacific, such as Hawaii and New Zealand.</p>
Two Solar Eclipses: One Annular, One Total<p><span>In 2021, the Moon will pass right in front of the sun, twice. On June 10, the moon will be nearly in the furthest point of its elliptical orbit around Earth. So it will be too small to cover the sun completely. In the middle of this eclipse, an annulus of the sun will remain visible. The sun's ring of fire appears between 9:55 and 11:28 UTC for a maximum of four minutes – but it will only be visible in the very sparsely populated areas of northeast Canada, northwestern Greenland, the North Pole and the far east of Siberia.</span></p><p>In the North Atlantic, Europe and large parts of Russia, an eclipse will be seen at least partially. Between 8:12 and 13:11 UTC, the Sun will appear like a cookie that has been bitten into as the Moon covers parts of the bright disk. In some places, the eclipse will last about two hours. In Central Europe, a maximum of one-fifth of the sun will be covered.</p>
Dark Sun Over Antarctica<p>The celestial event of the year will be a total solar eclipse on December 4. In a 400-kilometer-wide strip, the New Moon will cover the sun completely. For a maximum of one minute and 54 seconds, day will turn to night. For that short time, the brightest stars can be seen in the sky and the flaming solar corona can be seen around the dark disc of the Moon.</p><p><span></span>Unfortunately, hardly anyone will get to see this cosmic spectacle because the strip of totality only runs through the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic. From 7:03 to 8:04 UTC the umbra of the Moon moves across the Earth's surface – and perhaps some ships' crews will enjoy the solar corona.</p><p>Only during the few minutes of totality is it possible to look safely at the Sun with the naked eye. During the partial phase or in the case of an annular eclipse, suitable protective goggles are necessary to watch the spectacle. Normal sunglasses are not safe. Looking unprotected into the sun can lead to severe eye damage or even blindness.</p>
Two Giant Planets in Northern Summer and Southern Winter<p>Venus, our other neighboring planet, will be behind the sun on March 26. It is not visible for the first few months of the year. From the end of April through Christmas, it will be visible as an evening star in the sky after sunset. The planet, shrouded in dense clouds, is the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and the Moon. The best visibility will be from September to December.</p><p>The giant planet Jupiter is in its best position of the year on August 20. It then shines in the constellation Capricorn, only disappearing from the evening sky at the beginning of next year. The ringed planet Saturn is also in the constellation Capricorn and can be observed particularly well on August 2. </p><p>Jupiter and Saturn are the stars of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and those of the long winter nights in the Southern Hemisphere. They are in the same area of the sky, almost forming a double star with Jupiter being the brighter of the two.</p>
Shooting Stars in August and December<p>There are certain periods when the Earth crosses the orbital path of a comet and shooting stars are much more likely than on other nights. Many small stones and dust particles are scattered on comet orbits, which light up the Earth's atmosphere for a moment when they enter.</p><p>The Perseids are particularly promising: August 9-13, a few dozen meteors (the technical term for shooting stars) will scurry across the sky per hour. The traces of light will seem to come from the constellation Perseus, near the striking celestial W of Cassiopeia. The Geminids – meteors coming from the constellation Gemini – will be similarly exciting with up to 100 shooting stars per hour, December 10-15.</p>
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Michael Svoboda, Ph.D.
Despite a journey to this moment even more treacherous than expected, Americans now have a fresh opportunity to act, decisively, on climate change.
The authors of the many new books released in just the past few months (or scheduled to be published soon) seem to have anticipated this pivotal moment.
- 10 Best Books On Climate Change, According to Activists - EcoWatch ›
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By Katy Neusteter
The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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