Farmers and ranchers share land for healthier food and less waste
The livestock trucks arrived all night. One after the other they backed up to the wood chute leading to a dusty corral and loosed their cargo — 580 head of cattle by the time the last truck pulled away at 3pm the next afternoon. Dan Probert, astride his horse, guided the cows to paddocks of pristine grassland stretching alongside the snow-peaked Wallowa Mountains. They’d spend the summer here grazing bunchgrass and clovers and biscuitroot. The scuffle of their hooves and nibbles of their teeth would mimic the elk, antelope and bison that are thought to have historically roamed this portion of northeastern Oregon’s Zumwalt Prairie, helping grasses grow and restoring health to the soil.
The cows weren’t Probert’s, although the fifth-generation rancher and one other member of the Carman Ranch Direct grass-fed beef collective also raise their own herds here for part of every year. But in spring, when the prairie is in bloom, Probert receives cattle from several other ranchers. As the grasses wither in October, the cows move on to graze fertile pastures throughout the Columbia Basin, which stretches across several Pacific Northwest states; some overwinter on a vegetable farm in central Washington, feeding on corn leaves and pea vines left behind after harvest.
Sharing land and other resources among farmers isn’t new. But research shows it may be increasingly relevant in a time of climatic upheaval, potentially influencing “farmers to adopt environmentally friendly practices and agricultural innovation,” according to a 2021 paper in the Journal of Economic Surveys. Farmers might share knowledge about reducing pesticide use, says Heather Frambach, a supply chain consultant who works with farmers in California and elsewhere. As a group they may better qualify for grants to monitor soil and water quality.
Most research around such practices applies to cooperatives, whose owner-members equally share governance and profits. But a collective like Carman Ranch’s — spearheaded by fourth-generation rancher Cory Carman, who purchases beef from eight other ranchers to sell under one “regeneratively” certified brand — shows when producers band together, they can achieve eco-benefits that would be elusive if they worked alone.
Vitamins and minerals in soil pass into plants through their roots, then into cattle as they graze, then back around as the cows walk around pooping.
Carman knows from experience. Taking over her family's land in 2003, she started selling grass-fed beef “because I really wanted to figure out how to not participate in the feedlot world, to have a healthier product. I didn't know how we were going to survive,” she says. Part of her land sits on a degraded portion of Zumwalt Prairie replete with invasive grasses; working to restore it, she thought, “What good does it do to kill myself trying to make this ranch more functional? If you want to make a difference, change has to be more than single entrepreneurs on single pieces of land. It has to happen at a community level.” The seeds of her collective were sown.
Raising 100 percent grass-fed beef requires land that’s got something for cows to graze in every season — which most collective members can’t access individually. So, they move cattle around their various parcels. It’s practical, but it also restores nutrient flows “to the way they used to move, from lowlands and canyons during the winter to higher-up places as the weather gets hot,” Carman says. Meaning, vitamins and minerals in soil pass into plants through their roots, then into cattle as they graze, then back around as the cows walk around pooping.
Cory Carman sells grass-fed beef, which requires land that’s got something for cows to graze in every season.
Courtesy Cory Carman
Each collective member has individual ecological goals: Carman brought in pigs to root out invasive grasses and help natives flourish. Probert also heads a more conventional grain-finished beef collective with 100 members, and their combined 6.5 million ranchland acres were eligible for a grant supporting climate-friendly practices, which compels them to improve soil and water health and biodiversity and make their product “as environmentally friendly as possible,” Probert says. The Washington veg farmer reduced tilling and pesticide use thanks to the ecoservices of visiting cows. Similarly, a conventional hay farmer near Carman has reduced his reliance on fertilizer by letting cattle graze the cover crops he plants on 80 acres.
Additionally, the collective must meet the regenerative standards promised on their label — another way in which they work together to achieve ecological goals. Says David LeZaks, formerly a senior fellow at finance-focused ecology nonprofit Croatan Institute, it’s hard for individual farmers to access monetary assistance. “But it's easier to get financing flowing when you increase the scale with cooperatives or collectives,” he says. “This supports producers in ways that can lead to better outcomes on the landscape.”
New, smaller scale farmers might gain the most from collective and cooperative models.
For example, it can help them minimize waste by using more of an animal, something our frugal ancestors excelled at. Small-scale beef producers normally throw out hides; Thousand Hills’ 50 regenerative beef producers together have enough to sell to Timberland to make carbon-neutral leather. In another example, working collectively resulted in the support of more diverse farms: Meadowlark Community Mill in Wisconsin went from working with one wheat grower, to sourcing from several organic wheat growers marketing flour under one premium brand.
Another example shows how these collaborations can foster greater equity, among other benefits: The Federation of Southern Cooperatives has a mission to support Black farmers as they build community health. It owns several hundred forest acres in Alabama, where it teaches members to steward their own forest land and use it to grow food — one member coop raises goats to graze forest debris and produce milk. Adding the combined acres of member forest land to the Federation’s, the group qualified for a federal conservation grant that will keep this resource available for food production, and community environmental and mental health benefits. “That's the value-add of the collective land-owner structure,” says Dãnia Davy, director of land retention and advocacy.
New, smaller scale farmers might gain the most from collective and cooperative models, says Jordan Treakle, national program coordinator of the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC). Many of them enter farming specifically to raise healthy food in healthy ways — with organic production, or livestock for soil fertility. With land, equipment and labor prohibitively expensive, farming collectively allows shared costs and risk that buy farmers the time necessary to “build soil fertility and become competitive” in the marketplace, Treakle says. Just keeping them in business is an eco-win; when small farms fail, they tend to get sold for development or absorbed into less-diversified operations, so the effects of their success can “reverberate through the entire local economy.”
Frambach, the supply chain consultant, has been experimenting with what she calls “collaborative crop planning,” where she helps farmers strategize what they’ll plant as a group. “A lot of them grow based on what they hear their neighbor is going to do, and that causes really poor outcomes,” she says. “Nobody replanted cauliflower after the [atmospheric rivers in California] this year and now there's a huge shortage of cauliflower.” A group plan can avoid the under-planting that causes farmers to lose out on revenue.
It helps avoid overplanted crops, too, which small farmers might have to plow under or compost. Larger farmers, conversely, can sell surplus produce into the upcycling market — to Matriark Foods, for example, which turns it into value-add products like pasta sauce for companies like Sysco that supply institutional kitchens at colleges and hospitals. Frambach and Anna Hammond, Matriark’s CEO, want to collectivize smaller farmers so that they can sell to the likes of Matriark and “not lose an incredible amount of income,” Hammond says.
Ultimately, farming is fraught with challenges and even collectivizing doesn’t guarantee that farms will stay in business. But with agriculture accounting for almost 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, there's an “urgent” need to shift farming practices to more environmentally sustainable models, as well as a “demand in the marketplace for it,” says NFFC’s Treakle. “The growth of cooperative and collective farming can be a huge, huge boon for the ecological integrity of the system.”
From infections with no symptoms to why men are more likely to be hospitalized in the ICU and die of COVID-19, new research shows that your genes play a significant role
Early in the pandemic, genetic research focused on the virus because it was readily available. Plus, the virus contains only 30,000 bases in a dozen functional genes, so it's relatively easy and affordable to sequence. Additionally, the rapid mutation of the virus and its ability to escape antibody control fueled waves of different variants and provided a reason to follow viral genetics.
In comparison, there are many more genes of the human immune system and cellular functions that affect viral replication, with about 3.2 billion base pairs. Human studies require samples from large numbers of people, the analysis of each sample is vastly more complex, and sophisticated computer analysis often is required to make sense of the raw data. All of this takes time and large amounts of money, but important findings are beginning to emerge.
About half the people exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, never develop symptoms of this disease, or their symptoms are so mild they often go unnoticed. One piece of understanding the phenomena came when researchers showed that exposure to OC43, a common coronavirus that results in symptoms of a cold, generates immune system T cells that also help protect against SARS-CoV-2.
Jill Hollenbach, an immunologist at the University of California at San Francisco, sought to identify the gene behind that immune protection. Most COVID-19 genetic studies are done with the most seriously ill patients because they are hospitalized and thus available. “But 99 percent of people who get it will never see the inside of a hospital for COVID-19,” she says. “They are home, they are not interacting with the health care system.”
Early in the pandemic, when most labs were shut down, she tapped into the National Bone Marrow Donor Program database. It contains detailed information on donor human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), key genes in the immune system that must match up between donor and recipient for successful transplants of marrow or organs. Each HLA can contain alleles, slight molecular differences in the DNA of the HLA, which can affect its function. Potential HLA combinations can number in the tens of thousands across the world, says Hollenbach, but each person has a smaller number of those possible variants.
She teamed up with the COVID-19 Citizen Science Study a smartphone-based study to track COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes, to ask persons in the bone marrow donor registry about COVID-19. The study enlisted more than 30,000 volunteers. Those volunteers already had their HLAs annotated by the registry, and 1,428 tested positive for the virus.
Analyzing five key HLAs, she found an allele in the gene HLA-B*15:01 that was significantly overrepresented in people who didn’t have any symptoms. The effect was even stronger if a person had inherited the allele from both parents; these persons were “more than eight times more likely to remain asymptomatic than persons who did not carry the genetic variant,” she says. Altogether this HLA was present in about 10 percent of the general European population but double that percentage in the asymptomatic group. Hollenbach and her colleagues were able confirm this in other different groups of patients.
What made the allele so potent against SARS-CoV-2? Part of the answer came from x-ray crystallography. A key element was the molecular shape of parts of the cold virus OC43 and SARS-CoV-2. They were virtually identical, and the allele could bind very tightly to them, present their molecular antigens to T cells, and generate an extremely potent T cell response to the viruses. And “for whatever reasons that generated a lot of memory T cells that are going to stick around for a long time,” says Hollenbach. “This T cell response is very early in infection and ramps up very quickly, even before the antibody response.”
Understanding the genetics of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is important because it provides clues into the conditions of T cells and antigens that support a response without any symptoms, she says. “It gives us an opportunity to think about whether this might be a vaccine design strategy.”
A researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Virology in Hamburg Germany, Guelsah Gabriel, was drawn to a question at the other end of the COVID-19 spectrum: why men more likely to be hospitalized and die from the infection. It wasn't that men were any more likely to be exposed to the virus but more likely, how their immune system reacted to it
Several studies had noted that testosterone levels were significantly lower in men hospitalized with COVID-19. And, in general, the lower the testosterone, the worse the prognosis. A year after recovery, about 30 percent of men still had lower than normal levels of testosterone, a condition known as hypogonadism. Most of the men also had elevated levels of estradiol, a female hormone (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34402750/).
Every cell has a sex, expressing receptors for male and female hormones on their surface. Hormones docking with these receptors affect the cells' internal function and the signals they send to other cells. The number and role of these receptors varies from tissue to tissue.
Gabriel began her search by examining whole exome sequences, the protein-coding part of the genome, for key enzymes involved in the metabolism of sex hormones. The research team quickly zeroed in on CYP19A1, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. The gene that produces this enzyme has a number of different alleles, the molecular variants that affect the enzyme's rate of metabolizing the sex hormones. One genetic variant, CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), is typically found in 6.2 percent of all people, both men and women, but remarkably, they found it in 68.7 percent of men who were hospitalized with COVID-19.
Lungs are the tissue most affected in COVID-19 disease. Gabriel wondered if the virus might be affecting expression of their target gene in the lung so that it produces more of the enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. Studying cells in a petri dish, they saw no change in gene expression when they infected cells of lung tissue with influenza and the original SARS-CoV viruses that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002. But exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, increased gene expression up to 40-fold, Gabriel says.
Did the same thing happen in humans? Autopsy examination of patients in three different cites found that “CYP19A1 was abundantly expressed in the lungs of COVID-19 males but not those who died of other respiratory infections,” says Gabriel. This increased enzyme production led likely to higher levels of estradiol in the lungs of men, which “is highly inflammatory, damages the tissue, and can result in fibrosis or scarring that inhibits lung function and repair long after the virus itself has disappeared.” Somehow the virus had acquired the capacity to upregulate expression of CYP19A1.
Only two COVID-19 positive females showed increased expression of this gene. The menopause status of these women, or whether they were on hormone replacement therapy was not known. That could be important because female hormones have a protective effect for cardiovascular disease, which women often lose after going through menopause, especially if they don’t start hormone replacement therapy. That sex-specific protection might also extend to COVID-19 and merits further study.
The team was able to confirm their findings in golden hamsters, the animal model of choice for studying COVID-19. Testosterone levels in male animals dropped 5-fold three days after infection and began to recover as viral levels declined. CYP19A1 transcription increased up to 15-fold in the lungs of the male but not the females. The study authors wrote, “Virus replication in the male lungs was negatively associated with testosterone levels.”
The medical community studying COVID-19 has slowly come to recognize the importance of adipose tissue, or fat cells. They are known to express abundant levels of CYP19A1 and play a significant role as metabolic tissue in COVID-19. Gabriel adds, “One of the key findings of our study is that upon SARS-CoV-2 infection, the lung suddenly turns into a metabolic organ by highly expressing” CYP19A1.
She also found evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect the gonads of hamsters, thereby likely depressing circulating levels of sex hormones. The researchers did not have autopsy samples to confirm this in humans, but others have shown that the virus can replicate in those tissues.
A possible treatment
Back in the lab, substituting low and high doses of testosterone in SARS-COV-2 infected male hamsters had opposite effects depending on testosterone dosage used. Gabriel says that hormone levels can vary so much, depending on health status and age and even may change throughout the day, that “it probably is much better to inhibit the enzyme” produced by CYP19A1 than try to balance the hormones.
Results were better with letrozole, a drug approved to treat hypogonadism in males, which reduces estradiol levels. The drug also showed benefit in male hamsters in terms of less severe disease and faster recovery. She says more details need to be worked out in using letrozole to treat COVID-19, but they are talking with hospitals about clinical trials of the drug.
Gabriel has proposed a four hit explanation of how COVID-19 can be so deadly for men: the metabolic quartet. First is the genetic risk factor of CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), then comes SARS-CoV-2 infection that induces even greater expression of this gene and the deleterious increase of estradiol in the lung. Age-related hypogonadism and the heightened inflammation of obesity, known to affect CYP19A1 activity, are contributing factors in this deadly perfect storm of events.
Studying host genetics, says Gabriel, can reveal new mechanisms that yield promising avenues for further study. It’s also uniting different fields of science into a new, collaborative approach they’re calling “infection endocrinology,” she says.
Mammograms are necessary breast cancer checks for women as they reach the recommended screening age between 40 and 50 years. Yet, many find the procedure uncomfortable. “I have large breasts, and to be able to image the full breast, the radiographer had to manipulate my breast within the machine, which took time and was quite uncomfortable,” recalls Angela, who preferred not to disclose her last name.
Breast cancer is the most widespread cancer in the world, affecting 2.3 million women in 2020. Screening exams such as mammograms can help find breast cancer early, leading to timely diagnosis and treatment. If this type of cancer is detected before the disease has spread, the 5-year survival rate is 99 percent. But some women forgo mammograms due to concerns about radiation or painful compression of breasts. Other issues, such as low income and a lack of access to healthcare, can also serve as barriers, especially for underserved populations.
Researchers at the University of Canterbury and startup Tiro Medical in Christchurch, New Zealand are hoping their new device—which doesn’t involve any radiation or compression of the breasts—could increase the accuracy of breast cancer screening, broaden access and encourage more women to get checked. They’re digging into clues from the way buildings move in an earthquake to help detect more cases of this disease.
Earthquake engineering inspires new breast cancer screening tech
What’s underneath a surface affects how it vibrates. Earthquake engineers look at the vibrations of swaying buildings to identify the underlying soil and tissue properties. “As the vibration wave travels, it reflects the stiffness of the material between that wave and the surface,” says Geoff Chase, professor of engineering at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Chase is applying this same concept to breasts. Analyzing the surface motion of the breast as it vibrates could reveal the stiffness of the tissues underneath. Regions of high stiffness could point to cancer, given that cancerous breast tissue can be up to 20 times stiffer than normal tissue. “If in essence every woman’s breast is soft soil, then if you have some granite rocks in there, we’re going to see that on the surface,” explains Chase.
The earthquake-inspired device exceeds the 87 percent sensitivity of a 3D mammogram.
That notion underpins a new breast screening device, the brainchild of Chase. Women lie face down, with their breast being screened inside a circular hole and the nipple resting on a small disc called an actuator. The actuator moves up and down, between one and two millimeters, so there’s a small vibration, “almost like having your phone vibrate on your nipple,” says Jessica Fitzjohn, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Canterbury who collaborated on the device design with Chase.
Cameras surrounding the device take photos of the breast surface motion as it vibrates. The photos are fed into image processing algorithms that convert them into data points. Then, diagnostic algorithms analyze those data points to find any differences in the breast tissue. “We’re looking for that stiffness contrast which could indicate a tumor,” Fitzjohn says.
The device has been tested in a clinical trial of 14 women: one with healthy breasts and 13 with a tumor in one breast. The cohort was small but diverse, varying in age, breast volume and tumor size.
Results from the trial yielded a sensitivity rate, or the likelihood of correctly detecting breast cancer, of 85 percent. Meanwhile, the device’s specificity rate, or the probability of diagnosing healthy breasts, was 77 percent. By combining and optimizing certain diagnostic algorithms, the device reached between 92 and 100 percent sensitivity and between 80 and 86 percent specificity, which is comparable to the latest 3D mammogram technology. Called tomosynthesis, these 3D mammograms take a number of sharper, clearer and more detailed 3D images compared to the single 2D image of a conventional mammogram, and have a specificity score of 92 percent. Although the earthquake-inspired device’s specificity is lower, it exceeds the 87 percent sensitivity of a 3D mammogram.
The team hopes that cameras with better resolution can help improve the numbers. And with a limited amount of data in the first trial, the researchers are looking into funding for another clinical trial to validate their results on a larger cohort size.
Additionally, during the trial, the device correctly identified one woman’s breast as healthy, while her prior mammogram gave a false positive. The device correctly identified it as being healthy tissue. It was also able to capture the tiniest tumor at 7 millimeters—around a third of an inch or half as long as an aspirin tablet.
Diagnostic findings from the device are immediate.
When using the earthquake-inspired device, women lie face down, with their breast being screened inside circular holes.
University of Canterbury.
But more testing is needed to “prove the device’s ability to pick up small breast cancers less than 10 to 15 millimeters in size, as we know that finding cancers when they are small is the best way of improving outcomes,” says Richard Annand, a radiologist at Pacific Radiology in New Zealand. He explains that mammography already detects most precancerous lesions, so if the device will only be able to find large masses or lumps it won’t be particularly useful. While not directly involved in administering the clinical trial for the device, Annand was a director at the time for Canterbury Breastcare, where the trial occurred.
Meanwhile, Monique Gary, a breast surgical oncologist and medical director of the Grand View Health Cancer program in Pennsylvania, U.S., is excited to see new technologies advancing breast cancer screening and early detection. But she notes that the device may be challenging for “patients who are unable to lay prone, such as pregnant women as well as those who are differently abled, and this machine might exclude them.” She adds that it would also be interesting to explore how breast implants would impact the device’s vibrational frequency.
Diagnostic findings from the device are immediate, with the results available “before you put your clothes back on,” Chase says. The absence of any radiation is another benefit, though Annand considers it a minor edge “as we know the radiation dose used in mammography is minimal, and the advantages of having a mammogram far outweigh the potential risk of radiation.”
The researchers also conducted a separate ergonomic trial with 40 women to assess the device’s comfort, safety and ease of use. Angela was part of that trial and described the experience as “easy, quick, painless and required no manual intervention from an operator.” And if a person is uncomfortable being topless or having their breasts touched by someone else, “this type of device would make them more comfortable and less exposed,” she says.
While mammograms remain “the ‘gold standard’ in breast imaging, particularly screening, physicians need an option that can be used in combination with mammography.
Fitzjohn acknowledges that “at the moment, it’s quite a crude prototype—it’s just a block that you lie on.” The team prioritized function over form initially, but they’re now planning a few design improvements, including more cushioning for the breasts and the surface where the women lie on.
While mammograms remains “the ‘gold standard’ in breast imaging, particularly screening, physicians need an option that is good at excluding breast cancer when used in combination with mammography, has good availability, is easy to use and is affordable. There is the possibility that the device could fill this role,” Annand says.
Indeed, the researchers envision their new breast screening device as complementary to mammograms—a prescreening tool that could make breast cancer checks widely available. As the device is portable and doesn’t require specialized knowledge to operate, it can be used in clinics, pop-up screening facilities and rural communities. “If it was easily accessible, particularly as part of a checkup with a [general practitioner] or done in a practice the patient is familiar with, it may encourage more women to access this service,” Angela says. For those who find regular mammograms uncomfortable or can’t afford them, the earthquake-inspired device may be an option—and an even better one.
Broadening access could prompt more women to go for screenings, particularly younger women at higher risk of getting breast cancer because of a family history of the disease or specific gene mutations. “If we can provide an option for them then we can catch those cancers earlier,” Fitzjohn syas. “By taking screening to people, we’re increasing patient-centric care.”
With the team aiming to lower the device’s cost to somewhere between five and eight times less than mammography equipment, it would also be valuable for low-to-middle-income nations that are challenged to afford the infrastructure for mammograms or may not have enough skilled radiologists.
For Fitzjohn, the ultimate goal is to “increase equity in breast screening and catch cancer early so we have better outcomes for women who are diagnosed with breast cancer.”