Friday, May 31, 2024

The U.S. and Europe are considering bird flu vaccinations for high-risk citizens; preparations are underway

Countries are considering bird flu vaccinations for
high-risk of exposure professions. (Adobe Stock photo)
As avian flu travels around the globe, infecting birds, wildlife, cows and people, some countries are considering vaccines for citizens in high-risk professions. Julie Steenhuysen and Jennifer Rigby of Reuters report, "The United States and Europe are taking steps to acquire or manufacture H5N1 bird flu vaccines that could be used to protect at-risk poultry and dairy workers, veterinarians and lab technicians . . .  moves influenza experts say could curb the threat of a pandemic."

The U.S. is "moving bulk vaccine from CSL Seqirus that closely matches the current virus into finished shots that could provide 4.8 million doses of vaccine," Steenhuysen and Rigby write. "European health officials told Reuters they were in talks to acquire CSL's pre-pandemic vaccine." Canada and the United Kingdom are also meeting with their vaccine suppliers to plan for pre-pandemic vaccines.

The newest strain of bird flu, also called H5N1, belonging to clade, was detected in late 2020 and "caused unprecedented numbers of deaths among wild birds and domestic poultry and has begun infecting many mammal species," Reuters reports. "In March, U.S. officials reported the first outbreak of the virus in dairy cattle. . . .The Food and Drug Administration has estimated that 20% of the U.S. milk supply shows signs of the virus, indicating a wider spread is likely."

As more humans are exposed to H5N1, the chance that it may mutate and be able to spread more aggressively in human populations increases. Matthew Miller, co-director of the Canadian Pandemic Preparedness Hub at McMaster University, told Reuters, "All of our efforts need to be focused on preventing those events from happening. Once we have widespread human infections, we're in big trouble."

Reuters reports. "Dr. Richard Webby, a St. Jude Children's Research Hospital virologist who studies flu in animals and birds for the World Health Organization, said the situation in dairy cattle merits vaccine use." He told Reuters, "If we look at the exposure levels that some of these farmers are getting, it's high."

Reporting tips: PFAS drinking water rule offers a wealth of opportunities for local stories and angles

PFAS are found throughout the
environment. (Adobe Stock photo)
The Environmental Protection Agency's new rule limiting polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as "forever chemicals," in U.S. drinking water supplies opens the door to local reporting opportunities, writes Joseph A. Davis of The Society of Environmental Journalists. "The new PFAS drinking water rule is a big deal — and also a great local story for environmental journalists."

Why is limiting PFAS important? These chemicals can cause devastating health issues for humans, partially because they build up in the body over time. Despite their toxicity, they have been used in countless household goods, from electronics to frying pans. Using common-sense labels, they could also be called "everywhere chemicals." Davis writes, "There are many routes of human exposure — from french fry wrappers to high-end rain jackets. Even playing with the baby on the carpet. What matters is human exposure: how much over what length of time."

To get a local story going, find out your area's PFAS backstory. "People started getting worried about PFAS back in 2016, when PFAS chemicals were found in private wells around Bennington, Vermont, caused by waste from a nearby plant. The concern spread. Other communities across the country found PFAS in their water, too," Davis reports. While Vermont went on to set its own PFAS limits, the EPA took a long time to unravel the PFAS problem. The agency's new rule was announced in April 2024.

For forever chemical stories in your neck of the woods, Davis has several suggestions, a few of which are lightly edited below.
  • Find the utility provider for your area's drinking water and get its latest 'consumer confidence report.' It will tell you if PFAS has been tested for/detected in your water. Look under 'detected unregulated contaminants.'
  • Check other local media, testing services and state/county health departments to see if any private wells have had PFAS detected in their water.
  • Explore any known sources of PFAS pollution in your area, especially manufacturing plants.
  • Are there any airports or aircraft firefighting operations in your area that may have used PFAS-containing foam? What happens to their runoff? Check with well owners in the vicinity about any pollution.
  • If your utility's water contains PFAS, ask what it will do to correct the problem. Ask what it would cost to remove PFAS and whether it would have to raise water rates. Sometimes, changing water sources is a cheaper solution.
Read the full article here for more on PFAS history and ideas for reporting angles.

Faced with ballooning grocery bills, many Americans have switched from national to private-label brands

Americans are still trying to find ways to combat
grocery store sticker shock. (Adobe Stock photo)
As Americans continue to battle their ever-increasing grocery store bills, some are cutting brand-name products and picking up lower-priced store brands, which are surging in popularity. "U.S. consumers are trying many tactics to cut their food spending: eating out less, buying less groceries and ditching name brands," report Jesse Newman and Stephanie Stamm of The Wall Street Journal. "That is boosting lower-cost store brands, which last year claimed 22 cents out of every dollar spent in grocery stores — the largest share ever for so-called private-label products."

While national brands still dominate the U.S. sales market, store brands made by companies such as TreeHouse Foods for Walmart and Kroger "are gaining ground, raising pressure on big food companies that have pushed their prices higher," Newman and Stamm write. "Sixty-five percent of shoppers say they choose private label over national brands because of store brands’ lower price, according to a Food Industry Association survey."

Over time, store brands have improved in quality, with some retailers expanding brand offerings. "Walmart, which owns the Great Value brand, is introducing a line of premium food called Bettergoods this year, with many items priced below $5," the Journal reports. "In many cases, retailers’ goal now isn’t just to emulate national brands, but to beat them, analysts said."

As inflation continues to reduce U.S. consumer spending power, the industry is leaning on store brands to increase sales. "More than half of retailers expect private-label goods to be their top driver of growth this year, according to a survey by NielsenIQ. Grocers that primarily offer store brands, such as Trader Joe’s and Aldi, are seeing more foot traffic in recent months," Newman and Stamm write. "Consumers’ views on private labels are improving, with millennials and Gen Z leading the pack, according to NIQ."

Climate change has creatures and plants moving or expanding territories, including mangroves in Georgia

A salt marsh on Sapelo Island, McIntosh County, Georgia.
(Adobe Stock photo)

As the planet warms, flora and fauna are on the move. Sometimes, when animals or plants enter new territory, nothing much changes. Far more often, these moves can cause undesirable consequences. A few movers are shared below, but more can be found here and here.

As temperatures increase along the Gulf Coast, mangroves have spread into the idyllic beauty of Georgia's salt marshes, writes Dan Chapman for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "Mangroves? The tropical plant that shrouds the coastlines of Florida, the Caribbean, and Central America in shadowy, impenetrable greenery? . . . Yup. Mangroves aren't bad. Ironically, one of their major benefits is keeping at bay one of the more insidious effects of a warming world by buffering coasts from ever-rising seas. . . . Mangroves, though, aren't necessarily good either. Georgia's famously beautiful salt marshes. . . could be replaced with mangroves. And the already fragile ecosystem that nourishes migratory birds, fish, crabs, and other animals could be at risk."

Black-legged ticks are moving to climates that have not previously been hospitable to the Lyme-disease-spreading insect. "It's true that the ticks that pass along Lyme disease — which afflicts more than 475,000 Americans each year — are expanding their geographical range, and climate change is one reason why," reports Jeffrey Kluger of Time magazine. Dr. Vishnu Laalitha Surapaneni, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School, told him: "We're observing that the tick is moving more into Canada, and higher temperatures do appear to be a key factor. We also see Lyme disease cases in Norway, as well as in the Arctic."

Bumblebees are heading to cooler zones. "There are over 250 species of bumblebees, and they are some of our planet's most important pollinators — without them, we wouldn't have many of our vegetables, fruits, legumes, and other crops," reports the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a global non-profit helping animals and people thrive together. "But due to climate change, rising temperatures are forcing bumblebee populations further north to cooler climates. These temperature changes are also causing spring flowers to bloom earlier than normal, leaving less time for the bees to pollinate them."

Opinion: Helping rural communities means 'intentional targeting and sensitivity' to rural challenges and needs

Preparation before and after financial awards can help
rural areas have a brighter future. (Adobe Stock photo)
The Biden administration aims to send billions of dollars to help rural America, but before that money can be meaningful for smaller towns, a particular backdrop of preparation and execution needs to be established, writes Tony Pipa in his opinion for The New York Times. "Above all, implementation matters. These investment opportunities will be meaningless unless they reach rural America. For that to happen, federal and local officials and many people in between will need to focus on intentional targeting and sensitivity to the challenges that rural places face."

Part of that focus means understanding how smaller towns function and providing a path to increase their investment access and management capacity. Pipa adds, "Many rural governments are led by unpaid elected officials, and few rural city halls have staffs to work on planning, project development and grant writing. . . .A critical first step will be to make sure that local communities have the staff and access to the expertise and administrative capacity necessary. . . .As the Biden administration makes major investments in creating technical assistance centers in communities across the country, rural places must get to participate and benefit."

Congress can also help by adding flexibility measures to legislation. "The Rural Partnership and Prosperity Act is bipartisan legislation that has been proposed in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and it is now included in the negotiations for the 2024 Farm Bill," Pipa writes. "Such a measure could be a game changer in getting flexible support directly to rural partnerships so they can unlock these opportunities."

There is already evidence of positive change. "The administration has put so-called
navigators in selected communities to help them identify funding opportunities," Pipa notes. "And some agencies like the Forest Service have modified their processes to help communities apply for grants. These advances ought to be more widely adopted across the federal government."

The parts of rural America that are struggling the most didn't get there overnight, and solutions will take time. "The Biden administration has put the initial pieces in place to help many rural places transition to a brighter economic future," Pipa explains. "The president's campaign pitch to rural voters ought to be the opportunity to stay the course. The political rewards may be far in the future, but it's the right thing for rural communities and the country."

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

New Bureau of Land Management rule puts conservation work 'on equal footing' with commercial land uses

Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management via the Montana Free Press

Five years ago, leasing land for conservation purposes wasn't allowed, but leasing it for commercial uses was. A new Bureau of Land Management rule has changed that dynamic. "The BLM adopted a long-awaited rule that aims to put conservation initiatives 'on equal footing' with oil and gas leasing, grazing and other commercial uses of federal land," reports Amanda Eggert of the Montana Free Press. "This shift by the country's largest land manager has been applauded by conservation and environmental organizations and criticized by oil and gas and agricultural groups."

The rule intends to "allow the BLM to lease land for 'restoration' and 'mitigation.' The agency said these leases will help it meet water security, biodiversity and climate objectives," Eggert writes. White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory said in a release, "From the most rugged backcountry spots to popular close-to-home recreation areas, these reforms will help deliver cleaner water, healthier lands, abundant wildlife, and more recreation opportunities for all of us."

The Business for Montana's Outdoors and The Wilderness Society applauded the rules, while the Western Energy Alliance criticized it as government overreach. WEA President Kathleen Sgamma told Eggert, "There are hundreds of millions of acres set aside for wilderness and national parks. . . . But there are also working landscapes all across the West that provide food, fuel and fiber for all Americans." Eggert adds, "She anticipates her group will file a lawsuit to overturn the rule."

Eggert reports, "The BLM manages more than eight million acres in Montana, making it the state's second-largest land manager behind the U.S. Forest Service. . . . The agency received more than 216,000 comments on the proposal during a 90-day public comment period it initiated last spring."

Rural veterinarians have an unusually tough and unpredictable job; the shortage requires multiple solutions

Ongoing U.S. rural vet shortages can threaten U.S.
food supplies. (Adobe Stock photo)
Rural veterinarian's perfect daydream: Cows never slam their bodies into you. Goats don't dig their horns into the back of your legs while you try to draw blood. And bunnies don't die of fright from routine procedures. Most "patients" get a little treat afterward. . . There's even time for lunch.

Rural vet reality: You work 10 out of 14 days and are on call during off-hours. You're treating colicky horses who require IV sedation alongside ungrateful cows with colds. Your back thighs are bruised and sore because Farmer Joe's goats hate blood draws, and you have to explain to your neighbor's 10-year-old daughter that even indoor bunnies can die of fright.

Given the overall toughness of rural veterinarian practice, it's no wonder the nation is experiencing a significant rural vet shortage. "Speak to anyone in the industry, and they will cite everything from poor mental health outcomes, high levels of student debt, long, often unpredictable hours, physical demands, and difficult clients," reports Lewis Kendall of Ambrook Research. "A recent industry survey found that more than 700 counties across all 50 states are experiencing potential large animal veterinarian shortages."

The shortage has multiple causes and requires varied approaches to be effectively addressed. Oklahoma State University's College of Veterinary Medicine is "piloting a new program that it hopes will help better understand the scale of the issue and offer practical solutions," Kendall writes. "Known as the Center for Rural Veterinary Medicine, the program takes a three-pronged approach: academic research, education, and training for student vets specific to rural environments."

Explaining OSU's philosophy, Martin Furr, assistant dean of clinical programs at the College of Veterinary Medicine, told Kendall, "We need to approach this problem of the rural veterinary shortage in the same way: a scholarly approach, understanding the problems, the dynamics, what is going on, and then developing a strategy to fix it. . . . I would hope that this would be a model for how other universities start to think about the problem and develop their own approaches."

Sarah Wagner spent five years as a large animal veterinarian in rural Virginia before moving into academics, where she is now an assistant dean and a professor of pharmacology at Texas Tech University’s School of Veterinary Medicine. "Wagner has spent a lot of time thinking about the plethora of issues currently plaguing her field," Kendall reports. "She noted that as women make up the vast majority of veterinarians in the U.S., institutional problems like sexism — particularly in rural areas — and the gender pay gap have become increasingly prevalent."

Despite industry organizations working to decrease veterinarians' student debts, rural veterinarian medicine requires grit and dedication that can be tough to find. "Earl Brady, who owns a large animal practice in northern Vermont, told Kendall: "When you’re in school, and you have $300,000 of student debt, you have the option to go work for a small animal clinic and make $120,000 working four days a week with no on-call. Or you go to rural Vermont and start at maybe $85,000 and work 10 days out of a 14-day period and you’re on-call and you’re putting prolapses in in negative degree weather and chasing horses with colic around. It’s kind of a hard sell.”

The rural vet shortage has potential impacts for U.S. food supplies and supply chains. Read Kendall's full article here

More than 100 years of trying hasn't produced a reliable paper bottle. Why is it so challenging?

Inventing a reliable paper bottle has proved 'curiously
complicated.' (Adobe Stock photo)
The search for a non-leaking, carbonation-protecting paper bottle continues. "For more than a century, businesses have struggled to solve a curiously complicated challenge: How to make a paper bottle that doesn't get soggy and keeps drinks fresh. . . . Now they say they are the closest they have ever been," reports Saabira Chaudhuri of The Wall Street Journal. Diageo, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble are "testing paper-bottle designs. . . (to) help their brands stand out on shelves, woo consumers concerned about plastic and cut carbon emissions associated with glass."

Creating a paper bottle has presented companies with a series of obstacles. For instance, they've had to use plastic liners to keep bottles from leaking. Also, paper-only bottles can fail to keep flavors "intact and stop fizzy drinks from going flat," Chaudhuri explains. Even though the public may prefer paper over plastic, "There isn't an all-paper bottle on the market. . . . Consumer-products companies are plowing ahead. . . . [seeking] a paper bottle that is easy to recycle, avoids fossil fuel-based plastic, and ultimately boosts sales."

Companies want to use paper bottles for everything from skin cream to drinks to fabric softeners, but the elusive all-paper container has yet to be invented. Currently, versions of almost-all-paper containers are being made for testing. Chaudhuri reports: "Test batches allow companies to determine the answers to the many unknowns. Will consumers mind if paper shampoo bottles are water-stained? How will paper impact supply chains when the bottles don't keep products fresh for as long as glass and plastic? Will drinkers miss the click of glass bottles when they cheer with them?"

For now, testing batches of almost-all-paper bottles contain a plastic liner, with some companies focusing on reducing the size of the liner. Chaudhuri writes, "Spirits maker Diageo sees paper bottles as a way to use less glass without diminishing the luxury aspect of its brands." Dave L├╝tkenhaus, Diageo's breakthrough innovation director, told Chaudhuri: "It has proved much more challenging than we anticipated to keep a complex liquid like whisky in paper. It's not just cracking one problem; we are trying to crack all these problems as they come along."

Bottle tops aren't made of paper, but companies are working on the challenge, too. "Paboco promised to use paper caps by 2023 but missed its deadline," Chaudhuri explains. "The obstacle: Paper fibers swell in moist conditions, meaning the caps weren't a reliable fit."

Bit by bit, these young adults are working to close methane-leaking orphaned wells

The Youth Climate Initiative is partnering with the Well Done Foundation
to plug orphaned wells. (Donor website photo)
With thousands of orphaned oil and gas wells left unplugged and leaking methane into the air, where does one start to correct the problem? Some teenagers in North Carolina have an answer -- close them down one at a time.

Mateo De La Rocha told his family that he wanted to be a garbage man when he grew up. "In La Paz, Bolivia, his home city at the time, trash piles were everywhere. In De La Rocha's eyes, the local sanitation worker was the only person cleaning up pollution," reports Delger Erdenesanaa of The New York Times. After De La Rocha's family relocated to the U.S., he ended up in an Advance Placement environmental science class. . . . "Where he realized that the methane from these abandoned wells was an issue [where individuals] could potentially make a difference. He invited his classmates Sebastian Ng and Lila Gisondi to join him."
Location of Cuyahoga Valley
National Park in Ohio (Wikipedia)

Being an environmental sanitation worker is a tall order, so the three teens dubbed themselves the "Youth Climate Initiative" and dug into orphaned well problems and possible solutions. "After more research, the trio connected with a nonprofit organization called the Well Done Foundation that plugs orphaned wells," Erdenesanaa writes. "The organization was founded by Curtis Shuck, an oil and gas industry veteran. . . .The students in North Carolina agreed to sponsor the 45th, an orphaned oil well on a horse farm in Ohio, near Cuyahoga Valley National Park."

Once the Youth Climate Initiative had a partner and their site, "They raised money in small increments over the course of about three months," Erdenesanaa explains. "The students also persuaded the Reimer Family Climate Crisis Fund, a small family foundation based in Austin, Texas, to match their donations. The $11,000 the students raised will cover approximately 15 percent of the project's total cost. Well Done will cover the rest of the cost through other donations and sponsors."

While one plugged well isn't going to save the environment, for the Youth Climate Initiative, it's a great start. Erdenesanaa adds, "Now that final exams, sports tournaments and prom are out of the way, De La Rocha, Ng and Gisondi plan to raise money to plug a second orphaned well this summer."

To view photos of the students' project as it unfolded, click here.

Flora & Fauna: Considering Waygu cattle; bot swims like a fish; maple syrup debates

Mallie Shuster checks on his Wagyu cow-calf herd.
(Eleven Oaks Farm photo via Lancaster Farming)
Want a better steak or burger? Cattleman Mallie Shuster recommends filling your wallet with cash and choosing a restaurant with Waygu beef. "Shuster remembers how he got the idea to raise Wagyu cattle. He was out to dinner with friends and ordered a cut from this Japanese breed known for producing highly marbled, uniquely flavored beef," reports Dave Lefever for Lancaster Farming. "But it wasn't the flavor that got his attention." It was the price tag. Read how Shuster convinced his father to raise Waygu cattle to add to their company's bottom line.

The cinnamon in morning oatmeal, rolls and any number of baked treats is not true cinnamon. Instead, most cinnamon on U.S. grocery store shelves comes from a cheaper source -- the cassia tree. "Ceylon cinnamon is often called 'true' cinnamon and is native to Sri Lanka. Today, some 80% of Ceylon cinnamon is produced on the island," reports Olivia Peluso of Ambrook Research. "Cassia [cinnamon] is a ground, reddish-brown powder with a strong, spicy-sweet flavor. . . . While the Food and Drug Administration acknowledges them as distinct substances, it doesn't require they be packaged as such."
This clownfish bot looks and swims like a fish as it
collects water research. (Aquaai photo via CNN)

The world's water sources face so many stresses from climate change, multiple pollutants and urbanization that they can't rebalance their ecosystems. Water research offers a path to explore how humans can help these precious resources recover. The technology company Aquaai has developed a fishlike drone to "collect data from underwater environments," reports Amy Gunia of CNN. "Powered by batteries, they are designed to look and swim like fish, with a body and tail that swish from side-to-side as they cruise through the water. With their orange, white, and black neoprene skin, they resemble the clownfish star Nemo."

While Quebec dominates the global maple syrup market, determining which region makes the best-tasting syrup is a stickier dispute with Vermont. "Vermont is about 9,600 square miles and boasts more than six million sugar maple and red maple trees on tap. Quebec is a 595,000-square-mile province. . . hosts a maple syrup cartel. Its 50 million syrup-producing maple trees yield around 72% of the world's supply," reports Vipal Monga of The Wall Street Journal. "Without much argument, Quebec is known as the Saudi Arabia of maple syrup. Vermonter Pat Leclaire isn't particularly impressed. . ." 

As summer farmer's markets and local gardens start to produce luscious fruits and vegetables, consumers can rejoice in all the options but then wonder which ones are the best. Laureate professor in nutrition and dietetics Clare Collins shares in The Conversation her top four plant-based foods to eat.

Tomatoes and pumpkins are packed with nutrition.
(Adobe Stock photo)
"A review of six trials asked people to consume tomato products equivalent to 1-1.5 large tomatoes or 1-1.5 cups of tomato juice daily for about six weeks. . . . Researchers found people who did this had reduced blood levels of triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood that increases heart disease risk), as well as lower total and 'bad' cholesterol levels. . . .These people also had increased levels of 'good cholesterol".

Pumpkin: "Pumpkin is rich in beta-carotene, which is also a carotenoid (plant pigment). It gets converted into vitamin A in the body and is used in the production of antibodies that fight infection. It's also needed to maintain the integrity of cells in eyes, skin, lungs and the gut."

Mushrooms and oats also top Collins's list. Click here to learn what benefits fungi and oats have to offer.