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Month: April 2010

The First Go Big Read 2010-2011 Blog Post: DNA after Donation

Go Big Read 2010-2011 has officially started and we are starting with brand-new blog posts. This is the start of many posts on themes like medicine, research, ethics, and social change. Through the year, remember, tell us what you think! Leave us comments and suggestions to get involved!

Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” tells the story of African American woman who had her cells taken from her cervix in 1950 and became the never-ending cell strain known as HeLa. HeLa has been sent to labs and scientists all over the world and been used in research and studies, including the Polio cure. These cells were taken without Henrietta Lacks’s knowledge, partly due to the infancy of “informed consent.”
According to the National Cancer Institute, “informed consent” was started with “The Numbering Code” in 1947 to prevent unethical experiments like those the Nazis had performed during WWII. By the time Henrietta Lacks showed up at the hospital at John Hopkins, the concept of “informed consent” was very new. “Informed consent” has grown a lot since its creation over 60 years ago and has many more specific details that the first outlines. However, according to The New York Times article on what happens to DNA after donation, patients do not feel as “informed” as the idea implies.

The core of the article revolves around patient’s perception and understanding of what scientists do with their cells. Many patients have no problem consenting to have their blood used in different studies, but wish to be made known of the fact. Scientists and researchers are finding themselves in hot water both legally and ethically because the patients who donated their blood, DNA, etc find their samples are being used in studies different than intended. Using such samples in more than one study is not necessarily illegal; most consent forms explain that the samples you are giving will be used in “medical studies and research.”

However, patients and their families feel betrayed when such samples are made available to other scientists, like hundreds of families from Texas who found out their newborns’ blood, which is mandatory to be taken, was being stored and made available to other scientists for their research. Andrea Beleno, the mother of one of these infants, feels duped by the government and labs for not coming clean with her at the start. She explains to The New York Times that she would have given her consent if someone had asked, but it is disappointing and worrisome that no one did. These questions are causing the relationship between donor and researcher to change, forcing scientists to re-evaluate their methods and relationships that have been in place for decades. As the New York Times puts it, these scientists have not been trained to talk to the public.

Fortunately it is not completely bleak; scientists at hospitals like the Children’s Hospital Boston. The Children’s Hospital is trying to a get as complete of DNA holding as possible and therefore is asking for donations from every family that comes in. However, to set the families at ease, they have staff sit down and talk to the families about the process, the samples and what the hospital and other researchers will do with them. At the moment, it seems to be working; researches are getting consent from the patients who feel as though they understand what will happen with their samples. This new trend toward communication may lead to a more “informed” participant of “informed consent.”

Organic Valley co-op supports Clean Energy Jobs Act

Cecil Wright, Vice-President of sustainability and local operations for Organic Valley La Farge wrote on Tuesday, April 20th, 2010 in a letter to the editor of Madison’s The Cap Times that Organic Valley pledges its support of renewable energy provisions within the Clean Energy Jobs Act, currently under consideration in the Wisconsin Legislature.

Wright explains in the article that Organic Valley is a farmer-owned cooperative of 1,652 organic family farms and is strongly interested in the health and sustainability of small-scale family farms and rural communities. She claims that Organic Valley believes that commitment to renewable energy will help the economy grow, decrease dependence on fossil fuels, and create a healthier environment for future generations.

Wisconsin’s Clean Energy Jobs Act includes an Enhanced Renewable Portfolio Standard, which will allow Wisconsin residents to receive 25% of their electricity from renewable energy by the year 2025, with at least 10% of it coming from renewable energy sources locally within the state.  The bill also includes provisions which encourage small-scale renewable energy generation that would support Wisconsin families considering new energy projects such as manure digesters, small wind turbines and solar projects.

For more information about the Clean Energy Jobs Act, visit RENEW Wisconsin’s FAQ page.

A New Partnership?: The USDA and Organic Farms

The USDA is about to change the game for farming in the United States by supporting organic and local farmers. According to a San Francisco Chronicle article, the federal government has recently reworking their structure to support small local and organic farms get their food to a larger population and more impoverished areas. According the article, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan wants to toughen up the USDA organic label and “penetrate ‘food deserts’ in poor neighborhoods” with networking initiatives like “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program.

Food and farming advocates, like Bob Scowcroft from the Santa Cruz Foundation, are happy to see that “food is finally either close to or at the center of the USDA plate.” This shift to support local and organic farming coincides with data that indicates organic food sales have grown “14% to 21% annually over the last decade” but the number of farms is less than 1% of all US agriculture. These new changes to the USDA’s structure could help dramatically increase that number. Despite the optimism there are problems and protests. Big growers are less than thrilled with the changes; it is not the way the USDA has ever worked in their minds. As one Iowa corn/soybean grower puts it “’I’ve farmed for 37 years and worked with the government and everything – and what I’m hearing out here is radically different than what has taken place in the first 36 years of my career.’” This grower, Tim Burrack, explains that conventional farmers feel that organic farms conflict with the agricultural tradition. In their minds, traditional production has always produced good food at a great price.

The USDA’s changes are not only causing a stir among big growers but small organic farmers. Many of them feel annoyed about organic license suspensions that are due to run-off from neighbors, which they cannot control. In addition, some food sellers do not think the USDA is being clear enough. Alan Lewis of Natural Grocers in Colorado wants the USDA to rework the definition of natural beef. “Natural beef” is considered any beef that is unaltered after slaughter, but does not include any regulations for standards before slaughter. Currently the USDA is looking for a middle ground but Lewis warns that may just confuse consumers. He explains that the USDA needs to rework its policies so that they are clear for growers, buyers and consumers. Regardless, regulations for food and farming are bound to change now that the USDA has taken in interest in the well-being of both organic and conventional farms.

Skloot Review Books Available for Course Instructors

Last week, we announced next year’s Go Big Read Selection, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. We think the book has broad appeal and has the potential to spark many interesting debates. Also, our student, faculty and staff reviewers all thought it was an engaging read.

We have heard course instructor feedback about making review copies available sooner and we have an early shipment available for this purpose. You have two choices for getting a review copy of the book:

1. If you know you will be using the book in your 2010/2011 course, fill out the online request form now . We will immediately send you a review copy via campus mail and set aside books for all the students in your course. If you have TAs, we can provide review copies for them, as well. We’ll also work with Enrollment Management to get the information about the book (free!) onto
your textbook list.

2. If you need to read the book before committing to using it in your course, we’re happy to send you a review copy first. Just email us and let us know your name, campus address, and what course you’re considering using the book for. You have until 7/1/2010 to fill out the form for a fall course.

Please feel free to share this post with colleagues who you think might be interested.

West African farmers enter international organic food market

Thanks to a $2.4 million German-backed FAO program that has helped them meet necessary certification and other requirements, nearly 5,000 West African farmers are able to take advantage of the growing popularity of organic foods in industrialized countries.

The project focuses on all stages of the supply chain from production, harvesting and packaging to certification and marketing.  The vital part of the project pays for the costly certification process in the conversion period and to support better hygienic conditions to comply with high international quality standards.

FAO projects in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal and Sierra Leone helped farmer groups and small exporters overcome the difficult conversion period from conventional to organic agriculture during which they tend to incur higher costs as a result of applying new organic techniques without yet obtaining the higher prices usually associated with the organic label.
Living conditions and food security in these areas have improved because the increased income generated through sale of certified organic products is mainly used for purchasing food and clothing, paying for school fees, and paying for medical expenses.

The project’s impact at the community level has resulted in the creation of jobs for workers involved in the production of certified products as well as supportive services.  The new organic production methods have also been adopted by farmers who are not members of the producer groups and some of them are expressing a desire to join the new organic groups.

Follow this link to read the original article in Africa: the good news.

Food Summit April 23

The Food Summit, on Friday, April 23, will feature a series of lectures and discussions that extend the campus discussion on a wide variety of topics surrounding food, including a keynote address by former Sen. George McGovern, who was instrumental in passing federal school lunch legislation.

Other speakers at the summit will include Madison food writer Michelle Wildgen ’97 and UW faculty experts in biochemistry, food science, nutrition and consumer science.

The Day on Campus: Food Summit will be at Memorial Union, and sessions are free and open to the public. Tickets to the Food Summit luncheon are $25. The Food Summit is co-sponsored by the Wisconsin Alumni Association and the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

Full Schedule and Registration

Wisconsin Alumni Association Press Release

Calorie Count: Coming Soon to a Chain Near You!

According to New York Times article, Calorie Data to Be Posted at Most Chains, the new health care bill carries a new regulation that all restaurant chains with 20 or more outlets must display calorie information on the menu next to each item. The federal government is molding this policy after state regulations that already exist in New York City and California, with Oregon implementing similar restrictions in 2011.
Kelly Brownell from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale says this will help consumers better decide what to eat. These restrictions will be eye-openers because he believes that many people will be shocked to know how many calories are in their meals and before they even get a hold of it. For example, if the new regulations are imposed, any consumer will know that a Big Mac is more the 500 calories and king-sized Snickers bar is 440 before purchasing. The federal government did not have to do much negotiating with this new regulation because, surprisingly, the restaurant industry was on board. The industry had been fighting against such standards for decades but in the past few years, they realized they needed to start promoting healthy meals for their customers. For example, take a look at this Applebee’s ad where they are advertising great meals for under 550 calories. The idea behind these regulations is to let consumers know just how many calories are in that fast food burger or a Snicker’s bar to help them make more informed decisions.

Even if consumers do not change their ways, Brownell, and others, believe that is important that consumers know what they are putting in their bodies. However, if you talk to several free-enterprise advocacy groups, they feel like the government has overstepped their bounds, particularly because studies have shown that calorie information has very little effect on consumer’s choice. In addition, critics claim that calorie information does not convince people to change their eating habits. The primary worry for these groups is that the feds will keep push for more regulations if they do not see a healthier nation.