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Reasons to Be Thankful — 8 Food and Farm 'Good News' Stories

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Sometimes gratitude feels like a stretch. Foxys_forest_manufacture / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Karen Perry Stillerman

Sometimes gratitude feels like a stretch, and this fall has been one of those times. We're in the home stretch of a difficult year. Bad news abounds, and even the holiday that many of us will celebrate this week is complicated — a day of thanks that also evokes loss and grief for many Native people, along with expressions of resilience. With Thanksgiving approaching, I went looking for hopeful stories, scanning the news of food and agriculture for signs of progress and promise.


And though I'm sure I've only scratched the surface, I actually found quite a lot. Here's a roundup of good news food and farming stories.

And happy Thanksgiving.

1. The story of the first Thanksgiving feast is being retold — more truthfully.

The Thanksgiving story most of us were taught as children was … well, it was a lie. It papered over a genocide that included the systematic destruction of indigenous food systems that had kept Native American peoples nourished for centuries (and which are healthier and more sustainable than modern diets). But a story in Time this week explores how and why teachers across the country are (at last) updating the Thanksgiving curriculum from false feel-good stories and cultural appropriation to helping students grapple with a difficult history. In an NPR feature this past weekend, teachers shared their stories, including this one from a kindergarten teacher in Colorado: "I spend the whole month of November talking about the different Native American groups. I make it a point to tell them and show them books and videos that are current and have Native American representation so they don't think they were just in history. And then the week before Thanksgiving, we talk about how the colonists came over. And I call them colonists instead of pilgrims." We have a lot more work to do, but that's a start.

2. Farmers are agitating — and organizing — for the climate.

As 2019's crazy Midwest weather made clear, climate change is here and it's bad news for farmers and our food system. A spate of recent news articles has focused on ways farmers can build resilience and become part of the climate solution. Now, as more and more farmers recognize the dangers of more frequent floods and droughts, they're speaking up, with thousands organizing behind the Green New Deal and one fifth-generation Iowa farmer educating presidential candidates on the issue as they traipse through the state on the campaign trail.

3. Some big food companies are also calling for climate action.

If you heard that a coalition of huge multinational companies was weighing in on President Trump's decision to initiate the process of pulling the U.S. out of the Paris agreement on climate change, you might not expect them to be taking him to task for it. But that's what Unilever, Mars, Danone and Nestle — major players in the food industry that came together in 2018 as the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance — did last month. See their press release on the need to stay in the Paris agreement, and also their climate policy principles, which include "partnering with farms to reduce emissions and promote regenerative soil health management."


4. States are banning a dangerous pesticide in the face of EPA inaction … and it's about time.

I've followed the saga of the brain-damaging insecticide chlorpyrifos since the Trump EPA's disturbing about-face on a national ban in 2017. This year, states started taking matters into their own hands to protect children from chlorpyrifos residues on fruits and other common foods and farmworkers from exposure in the field. Following a 2018 ban in Hawaii and another in New York in early 2019, this fall California became the third state to act to protect public health.

5. Soil-protecting, pollution-preventing solutions are gaining ground.

Cover crops are a powerful tool for building healthy, living soil that is resilient to extreme weather, thwarts pests and weeds with fewer chemicals, prevents fertilizer runoff into water and stores carbon. As we reported on this blog earlier this year, adoption of cover crops on U.S. farms grew by 50 percent over five years, from 10 million acres in 2012 to 15 million acres in 2017. Led by Iowa (which saw a whopping 156% jump), every state in the Midwest increased its cover crop plantings, and seven states saw at least a doubling of acreage in cover crops. Moreover, more farmers may soon get insurance discounts for planting them, if a three-year, $3 million Iowa demonstration project shows they reduce farmers' risk.

6. New research shows how farmers can grow crops under solar panels for a win-win.

The emerging field of "agrivoltaics" can help farmers boost revenue, generate clean energy and use less water. In a study published in September, researchers in Arizona showed all those benefits for cherry tomatoes grown in agrivoltaic systems in that hot, dry and sunny state. Dual-use solar systems also seem to work with leafy greens, which benefit from the cooling shade of the panels. Now, cranberry growers in Massachusetts are now experimenting with the system, which — if it's successful — could make everyone's "favorite" holiday condiment more sustainable (no matter how you like it prepared).

7. Obesity rates are falling for young children enrolled in a federal nutrition program.

In recent years, public health practitioners have fought an uphill battle to counter rising childhood obesity, which impacts nearly 1 in 5 children and costs an estimated $14 billion in direct medical expenses each year. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows promising declines in obesity among young children ages two to four whose families are enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (commonly known as WIC). These declines, which occurred across 41 states and territories, may be a reflection of program changes back in 2009 that brought WIC food packages into closer alignment with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, but it's likely that other concurrent efforts happening at federal, state and local levels helped.

8. Food can help revitalize communities — both in cities and in rural areas.

With a new book, author Mark Winne argues for the power of "good food" to spark community development. In Food Town USA (see also a book review in slideshow form), Winne points to seven cities and towns across the country — from Sitka, Alaska to Jacksonville, Florida — where local entrepreneurs and activists are reshaping food landscapes for the better, addressing racial inequities, climate challenges and urban decay. And it's not just cities that can benefit from local food system development. A recent New York Times story puts a spotlight on rural areas that have lost grocery stores, documenting how residents have launched cooperative markets and other creative solutions to bring back fresh food and a sense of community for their neighbors.

Now, pass the cranberry sauce …

Karen Perry Stillerman is a senior communication strategist and senior analyst in the Food & Environment Program at UCS.

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Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Niq Steele / Getty Images

By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.