Scientists Discover Why Growing Up on a Farm Helps Protect You from Allergies

The idea that children growing up on farms may be less likely to develop allergies and asthma is not new. People have made anecdotal observations about the healthiness of farm kids relative to their urban counterparts for years. But a new study from VIB (a Belgium-based life sciences institute) is the first to find a causal relationship between farm life and allergy resistance. The discovery could potentially lead to the development of an asthma vaccine, the researchers claim.

The key, it turns out, is a special kind of dust. Testing on mice, researchers at VIB found that exposure to "farm dust" helps build resistance to other dust-based allergies—including house dust mite allergy, the most common cause for allergies in humans—as well as asthma. The study, published in the journal Science, also found that a specific protein, called A20, was at the heart of farm kids' increased allergy resistance. 

A20 is a protective protein in the mucous membrane of the lungs which reduces the body’s response to allergens. Breathing in farm dust, scientists found, causes the lungs to produce more A20. This, in turn, reduces allergic reactions to other kinds of dust. The scientists assessed 2000 children growing up on farms, and found that most of them were protected from allergies.

Unfortunately for city dwellers prone to sneezing and wheezing, just going to a farm and breathing deeply won’t alleviate allergies; the resistance is created while the lungs are still developing. But don’t despair just yet. While much more research is still needed, Hamida Hammad, one of the researchers on the study, says, “Discovering how farm dust provides this type of protection has certainly put us on the right track towards developing an asthma vaccine and new allergy therapies. However, several years of research are required still before they will be available to patients.

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Greg Baker, AFP/Getty Images
How You Act at Starbucks Might Reflect Your Ancestors' Farming Style
Greg Baker, AFP/Getty Images
Greg Baker, AFP/Getty Images

What you do in Starbucks may be linked to more than just your personal coffee preferences. As Science reports, a new study on coffee-shop behavior in different parts of China indicates that farming practices that date back generations still influence how people behave in public. It found that in regions where agriculture traditionally focused on wheat, people were much more likely to be sitting alone at coffee shops compared to people in areas where rice was the dominant crop.

The study, in Science Advances, sounds kind of crazy at first: What my great-grandfather farmed has nothing to do with how I drink my latte, surely. But the design of the study, which involved observing almost 9000 people at 256 coffee shops in six different Chinese cities, is a surprisingly clever way for scientists to observe cultural differences in the real world, researchers who weren't involved in the study told Science.

The study's authors, from the University of Chicago’s business school, Beijing Normal University, and the University of Virginia, wanted to know if the cultural differences of farming wheat and rice persisted through non-farming generations. Rice paddies require twice as much labor as a crop like wheat, as well as massive irrigation systems that would require cooperation between multiple farmers to build and operate. Thomas Talhelm, the study’s lead author, has previously proposed what he calls the "rice theory of culture." That is, the cooperation between neighbors necessary to grow rice led to an interdependent culture that is more collectivist and community-oriented, compared to cultures that grow wheat (like the U.S.), which have developed to be more focused on the individual.

What does this have to do with coffee? The researchers examined how people behave in public in northern China, a wheat-growing region, compared with southern China, a rice-growing region, as a way to examine how cultural differences that arose from agricultural practices still persist in urban life. Across local coffee shops and big chains like Starbucks, they observed that on weekdays, an average 10 percent more people in northern Chinese coffee shops were drinking their coffee alone compared to southern Chinese coffee shops. That number varied by day of the week and time of day, though the researchers didn’t explore why. (Possibly, people just don’t hang out with their friends much in the middle of a Monday morning.) On weekends, the difference was slightly smaller—5 percent—but still significant.

The difference held even when controlling for the type of coffee shop (international chain or local shop), age demographics of the area, and the percentage of workers in the city who are self-employed (and thus, more likely to do their work in a coffee shop).

To further study how regional differences affect behavior, the researchers decided to rearrange some chairs. They went to Starbucks and pushed chairs together in a way that would inconvenience people trying to walk through the cafe, then waited to see how many people would push the chairs out of their way. They found that in a sample of 700 Starbucks customers that were subjected to what they call “the chair trap,” people in wheat-growing areas were more likely to move the chairs out of their way (an individualistic move) while those in rice-growing areas were more likely to adapt themselves to the situation, squeezing their bodies through the tight space without disturbing the chair setup (a collectivist move).

"The fact that these differences appeared among mostly middle-class city people suggests that rice-wheat differences are still alive and well in modern China," the researchers write. This included in Hong Kong, which is located in a rice-growing region but is both wealthier and, due to its time as a British colony, has more Western influence than mainland Chinese cities. In general, the southern cities studied were denser and more developed than Beijing and Shenyang in the north, according to the researchers, and yet economic growth and urbanization didn't seem to make the culture more individualistic.

The researchers have proposed doing a similar study in India, a country that also features a split in wheat- and rice-growing regions. Since China's north-south split means that rice-growing and wheat-growing cities feature significantly different climates, it may be useful to see whether the difference holds in cities in India that share the same climate but have different crops.

[h/t Science]

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David McNew/Getty Images
How Colorful Stripes of Wildflowers Could Reduce the Need for Pesticides
David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images

The UK is emerging as a global leader in the effort to reduce our dependency on pesticides. In November 2017, the nation moved to restrict a class of pesticide that’s deadly to bees, and now 15 farms across the country are testing a natural supplement to the chemicals. As The Guardian reports, colorful strips of wildflowers have been planted among crops as a way to combat pests.

The floral stripes add vibrant pops of color to the farmland, but they’re not there for show. By planting wildflowers in the fields, farmers hope to attract predatory insects like hoverflies, parasitic wasps, and ground beetles. These are exactly the type of bugs farmers want flocking to their property: They don’t eat crops and instead prey on the insects that do. With more natural predators to control pest populations, farmers may be able to reduce their use of harmful pesticides.

The wildflower strategy isn’t entirely new. Farmers already knew that planting borders of wildflowers around their fields is an effective way to lure in good insects, but this method still leaves the center of their farms vulnerable. By dispersing flowers throughout the area, they can broaden the predatory insects’ range.

The 15 farms planted with wildflowers last fall are part of a trial run put together by the Center for Ecology and Hydrology. The organization will monitor the farms for five years to see if the experiment really is a viable alternative to pesticides. In the meantime, farmers will have plenty of room to plant and harvest as usual, with the flower beds only taking up 2 percent of their land. The selected flowers include oxeye daisy, red clover, common knapweed, and wild carrot.

There's a long list of reasons for farmers to phase out chemical pesticides, from the damage they do to local wildlife to the threat they pose to our own health. As lawmakers around the world begin to crack down on them, you can expect to see more natural alternatives gain attention.

[h/t The Guardian]

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