People and Nature: Thriving Together in the African Grasslands

The Plight of the Pastoralists

Imagine an African landscape where wildlife, cattle, people, and native grasslands thrive together in harmony. North of Mt. Kenya and stretching toward the southern border of Ethiopia is an area called the Northern Rangelands of Kenya. This expansive, beautiful landscape is occupied by 26 indigenous tribes, mostly pastoralist communities who rely on cattle grazing on the grasslands for their livelihoods.

It was also once one of the most abundant wildlife areas on the continent, teeming with scores of black rhinos; however, poaching reduced the rhino population in Kenya from over 20,000 individuals in the 1960s to just over 500 in the 1980s.

The Start of Northern Rangelands Trust

My first trip to the Northern Rangelands came in 2017 while the area was in the grips of a long drought. It was desperate times with armed conflicts taking place between rival tribes trying to secure enough land to graze. Population growth and cultural traditions of managing cattle as a walking bank account led to dramatic growth in livestock numbers and overgrazing of the grassland. I had never seen a grassland in such tough condition and, given the circumstances, I was not overly optimistic on the prospects for renewal.

At the time, plans were being laid by the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), with support from The Nature Conservancy (TNC), to create a new business model with market incentives for pastoralists who follow a planned grazing approach with the goal of improved grassland condition.

I questioned how the program would work given the simple fact that tribes who did improve their local grassland condition based on an adaptive management plan of grazing and rest, would simply attract other pastoralists from neighboring tribes to opportunistically graze off their good efforts when needed.

A Hopeful Return

Just recently, I returned to the same areas I visited in 2017. Following a period of above average rainfall, the grassland was in amazing condition, demonstrating the inherent resilience of the landscape. To the eye, it was a night and day difference. The team I had met with three years ago had made great progress, starting a new business model and partnership between the pastoralists and NRT called LivestockWORKS.

This program allows pastoralists to enter their livestock in a program designed to offer better market returns for the cattle. Pastoralists access the program by investing $10 per head, which is then matched by an investment of $20 per head by NRT. Their cattle are microchipped to maintain identity and then managed in a program involving adaptive planned grazing, access to veterinary services and better cattle genetics.

The fees invested also pay for NRT to provide grazing consultants to the community of pastoralists as well as funding the removal of invasive species, which overtake the grasslands in degraded areas. The fees also help manage plots to produce and harvest perennial grass seeds for reseeding of degraded areas.

These projects provide additional sources of employment for community members and it was encouraging to witness the dividends of their hard work when aided by the recent timely rains.

Another significant benefit of enrolling in the program is the opportunity to have access to grasslands on wildlife conservancies and private ranches closer to the market. The opportunity to add weight to their cattle immediately before harvest creates a more certain profit and is starting to reverse the long-held traditions of acquiring and managing more cattle as a sign of prosperity.

Now, some pastoralists are beginning to selectively cull their herds and add back individuals with the genetic potential to maximize the benefits of the new planned grazing program. As a result, the pastoralists can be confident to receive higher profits by participating in the LivestockWORKS program.

Benefiting Pastoralists and Beyond

It is often surprising for tourists visiting the wildlife conservancies to see cattle foraging areas thought to be reserved only for wildlife. When properly managed, the timely presence of cattle grazing actually improves the rangeland condition for wildlife, owing to the fact that cattle will forage different grassland species than a cape buffalo or rhino, benefitting all. NRT has invested in a sophisticated and effective security program, which has nearly eliminated the poaching issues in the area. With a healthy grassland and greater security wildlife numbers are increasing and tourism to the region is growing.

After several years of collaborative efforts between NRT, TNC, Soils for the Future and Native Energy to build a science baseline and develop effective monitoring, NRT is eligible to start earning carbon credits for the soil carbon sequestration activities their grassland restoration efforts are beginning to deliver.

The proceeds from this new revenue source will be reinvested in the improved management activities, with the hope of growing the number of tribes and community lands which can benefit from this new community-based conservation approach.

Taken altogether, it stands as a remarkable restoration example. While the program is still early in its implementation, it shows the potential of wise management anchored by a new business model where wildlife, tourism, tribal pastoralists, and cattle grazing together can make a more resilient landscape, improving both livelihoods and nature.

Valuing Conservation in the Economy

The Northern Rangelands Trust area may be one of the more extreme examples I have witnessed on the vital importance of restoring degraded lands, but it is not unique regarding the nature of the opportunity. Globally, the estimated value of ecosystem service losses due to land degradation is $6.9 to $10.6 trillion per year.

Equipped with the right knowledge and market incentives, we can create a new conservation-oriented economy based on the life-giving value of nature.

Personalized Nutrition & Our Unique Health Needs

We live in a world where we can submit a cheek swab to find our long-lost ancestors, test us for genetic predispositions and diseases, have customized supplements and vitamins delivered monthly to our door, and even have beauty boxes curated based on our skin type. Despite this, we also live in a time where chronic illness plagues millions of Americans. Can we prevent these diseases by targeting our individual health concerns? Personalized Nutrition may be one way to tackle this issue.

Taking Nutrition Personally

If you’ve ever taken a DNA test to find out which diseases you may genetically be more susceptible to, the results can be daunting. However, we can find relief and control of our health through epigenetics. The study of epigenetics shows how our diet and lifestyle can influence which genes are unlocked, keeping unwanted genetic predispositions at bay if we eat, sleep, and exercise well and have strong, positive relationships. Therefore, our inherited DNA doesn’t have to be our destiny. And personalized nutrition may be a way to help us take control of our well-being and longevity.

We have become increasingly aware that “healthy” does not mean the same thing to everyone. When I eat a high-carbohydrate meal before a run, I feel weighed down and groggy. But if I have fruit, I feel powered up and energetic. However, my husband must eat high-carb meals prior to a rigorous workout since his body needs those calories as an immediate fuel source. Personalized Nutrition is based on the simple truth that each person’s body responds differently to nutrients, vitamins and minerals.

Research provided by iSelect Fund illustrates chronic disease as a very real and growing health problem afflicting millions of Americans. Research institutions like the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute all highlight this growing challenge. With up to 20% of cancer-related deaths correlated to poor nutrition, and 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. suffering from obesity, there has never been a more dire need to focus on our individual nutrition.


Scientific Wellness: A Basis for Personal Nutrition

Nathan Price, Institute for System Biology, addresses personalized nutrition in a clinical setting. He focuses on how our body processes and reacts to nutrition and its complex molecular intricacies. His research shows that nutrition contributes to at least 50% of our health, while genetics only accounts for 30%.

Price and other experts in the field are creating “scientific wellness” programs. These programs use massive databases to quantify wellness and predict the needs of the participants to combat the link between chronic illness and nutrition. Below are some emerging companies in the personalized nutrition space – each one based on a different set of analytics. They either measure your gut health, your DNA, your blood, and/or your personal wellness via questionnaire. Some even track your daily activity levels.

The burgeoning Personalized Nutrition space is due for continued growth as databases mature and results are achieved. Click here to download image.

What Do The Different Modalities Provide?

DNA/Cheek Swab. Each human is made up of a unique set of 23 chromosomes, otherwise known as your DNA. By swabbing your cheek, you provide a DNA sample that has information about everything, from your nutrient levels, hormones, food sensitivities, and allergies. These measurements can indicate disruption in digestion, cardiometabolic health, energy levels, sleep patterns, and much more. While DNA is considered a static measurement, unlike your weight or cholesterol levels, it is a jumping off point for a nutritional plan.

Blood Sample. Often measured in conjunction with your DNA, blood tests can measure a number of biomarkers like vitamin and mineral levels, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels and key nutrient levels that can be leading identifiers in determining your risks of chronic illnesses—like diabetes or kidney disorders.

As Inside Tracker calls it, a blood test is a “selfie from the inside.” Blood can show a trend toward normalcy or if values are out of the clinically normal range. Interventions can then be made through nutritional recommendations and changes. This measurement, unlike DNA samples, is ever-changing and can be a good read on progress as it relates to dietary improvements.

Stool Sample. Stool primarily investigates your gastrointestinal (GI) condition, including your gut microbiome. A stool culture will check for the presence of abnormal bacteria and digestive enzyme levels.

Stool samples reveal the amount of beneficial bacteria in the GI tract, which can help diagnose intestinal dysfunction without invasive procedures. Other markers present in stool tests can identify pathogens that may indicate issues with immune function and overall intestinal health.

Any abnormal microorganisms present in the stool culture are likely causing stress to the GI tract. Research has shown that the relationship between the GI tract and neurological, hepatic and immune function is highly correlated. For instance, if your stool culture results showed excessive yeast production, a major concern is “brain fog”, a condition that occurs when excess yeast byproducts pass through the blood-brain barrier and alters your neurological function, causing learning challenges and behavioral problems.

D2D’s Personal Experiences

To better understand how these personalized nutrition programs work and given our interest in both soil microbiomes and gut microbiomes, Hillary and I decided to try DayTwo to gain some first-hand experience. We sent in our sample, then downloaded the DayTwo app on our phones and our personalized results were populated. They displayed the results of how complete meals, or the combination of foods we eat in one sitting, affect our personal health.

I found the app extremely user-friendly, and that the program was informative for my dietary decisions. Hillary, on the other hand, was more interested in an in-depth report on the types of foods best and worst for her body and how these foods will affect her energy levels and digestion, which DayTwo doesn’t really provide. But, upon request, DayTwo sent Hillary her unique microbiome report, which was full of super-helpful information on her gut’s microbiotic profile.

Lucy tried the Vitagene DNA Health Testing kit, which used saliva as a sample. Lucy said the results were interesting…at first. The Vitagene results reported her genetics as they pertain to skin, diet, exercise, and general genetic traits, such as the ability to hold onto certain micronutrients. The report even gave her a 5-day recommended meal plan that included a lot of Greek yogurt, which she assumed is because of her increased likelihood of low calcium levels. It also included a recommended supplement plan she could purchase from Vitagene.

But the information in the report also showed some inconsistencies and flawed information. For instance, Lucy read that she had the unwanted obesity gene, so she did a bit of research on the particular gene and found that it had nothing to do with obesity, but signaled potential brain disorders – not a great gene, either. So she looked up another gene that Vitagene indicated made her prone to muscle soreness, only to find out the gene actually expresses itself as diabetes. Lucy stopped reading and looking up genes. Her takeaway? If one is truly interested in a genetic profile, stay away from these ‘over the internet’ tests and go see a doctor who specializes in genetics.

Challenges to Personalized Nutrition

While this is a budding and important field for our health, it is not an exact science. Because the cost of DNA sequencing has dropped from the thousands to the hundreds of dollars, it is cheaper and easier than ever. Yet the challenge lies in what to do with all this information.

Millions of samples need to be correlated and analyzed to find out the optimal health standard and how it differs among individuals. Also, our diet’s effect on epigenetics leads us to questions about the role ancestry plays in health and how our genes work together. Complications like these make it difficult for these companies to stay at the forefront, let alone even stay afloat, as evidenced by uBiome’s bankrupty in September 2019.

We also need to recognize that blood and stool samples reflect results in just one moment in time. Because the results can sometimes take weeks, the data might be irrelevant by the time you received your customized nutrition plan. The DNA saliva sample is more a comparison of your DNA matched with what foods are good for you to eat. But again, the database needs to be in the billions to exactly correlate which foods go with which DNA.

We know there are limitations to science, and as Timothy Morck, President and Founder at Spectrum Nutrition LLC told us, we should look for companies that conduct follow-up testing. The true test of success with a personalized nutrition service is its long-term service. How do the results look three months from now, and again six months from now? Be sure the information is consistently analyzed to adapt your program to maximize your results.

“As a call to action to the scientists in this space, we must build a cause and effect database, not an association database. We must show consumers who use our products, and thus our recommendations, that we have tangible outcomes. Get some real data through real evidence.”

-Timothy Morck, President and Founder at Spectrum Nutrition LLC

Starting any diet has its considerations. If you’re looking for a first step to better your overall health, the American Heart Association provides a wealth of fundamental recommendations beneficial to everyone. And, if and when you’re ready to take the next step to a personalized nutrition program, be sure to consult your physician first.

Epigenetics: Can We Control our Health?

Genetic testing is great. But it has also given into the fear of inheriting a disease-causing gene. I have debated the test myself. Will my health decisions be different based on the results of the test? My parents and grandparents all died prematurely. Both of my parents passed away from cancer: my mother and her mother of colon cancer, and my father of melanoma complications. Both my grandfathers died fairly early from heart disease. Am I at risk, too? What do the statistics say?

We are not victims of our DNA

Looking at the four leading health issues affecting us today, all can be influenced by how you choose to live your life.

  • Cancer: There’s close to a 40% chance of getting cancer, but only 5-10% of cancers are from an inherited genetic mutation
  • Alzheimer’s: About 10% of people over the age of 65, and 30% of those over 85 get Alzheimer’s, yet only 1% of Alzheimer’s patients get the disease from a deterministic gene
  • Diabetes: 4% of the population lives with diabetes. Type 1 and 2 are known to be both genetic and environmental, and diet can overrule the genetic, especially with type 2
  • Heart Disease: Almost 50% of people have some type of heart disease, which has several genetic implications. However the American Heart Association has a checklist called Life’s Simple 7, which can reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke so you can be proactive about your heart health.

When I heard about Epigenetics, I thought – perfect, if I eat a healthy diet, exercise, and sleep well, I will be safe. “Well, not so fast” said some of my research. While epigenetics is a promising field, there is still much to learn. However, there are still some key takeaways from scientific research on how our lifestyle can affect our DNA.

What is Epigenetics?

Epigenetics is the study of how your lifestyle can affect how your genes are expressed. ‘Epi’ literally means ‘above’ or ‘on top of’ genetics. Epigenetics has shown that our DNA is affected by the nutrients and chemicals in our food, as well as the cortisol of stress, the endorphins of exercise, and the happiness of love. Let’s focus on food and its influence on our genes.

Our DNA is not our destiny and we can certainly influence it to a large degree by our diet. There are countless studies that show certain foods positively or negatively influence our DNA.

Comparing identical twins is a great example of how the environment can affect one’s health. Even though their DNA is the same, their lifestyle can alter how their genes express themselves. Think of two different people playing the same piano piece. The notes are the same, but the sound, tune, and enjoyment can be completely different.

This was true for my stepmother’s father and uncle who were identical twins – obviously with the same DNA. Both Paul and Uncle Art have/had a gene that made them prone to heart disease. In 1998, they both had open-heart surgery. Afterwards, Paul has continued to take care of himself with diet and exercise. He also has a lot of love in his life with two adoring daughters, grandchildren, and a girlfriend (after his wife passed away). Art, on the other hand, was not quite as zealous about a healthy lifestyle. Uncle Art died in 2010. Meanwhile, Paul is steadily smiling, living, and dating his girlfriend at 101 years old!

How does DNA expression work?

Nessa Cary explains in her book, The Epigenetics Revolution, that “our DNA is smothered in special proteins and small chemicals. Adding or removing them to the DNA can change the gene expression, the function of these cells and the very nature of the cells themselves.”

Your DNA is the blueprint for your body. Each one of your cells holds this six-foot-long strand tightly wrapped and folded within the nucleus. Think of your DNA as a long ladder – each rung holds ‘letters’ or nucleotides which serve as the bases for the rungs. There are about 23,000 combinations of these rungs – which are the genes (just like the company, 23andMe!).

How a gene expresses itself is based on many factors, but it is the chemical reaction around the DNA and how tightly the DNA is wrapped that regulates the genes in our bodies. These processes are called DNA methylation and histone modification, and they are the two predominant ways our genes are expressed.

DNA methylation is the chemical reaction around a gene. For instance, sometimes there is more – or less – of the methylation chemical. This will either turn the gene off or on – like a light switch. This can be either good or bad, depending on the gene.

Methylation is a naturally-occurring and important event. Each cell has its own function, even though the entire strand of DNA is located in every single cell. In an extreme example, you certainly don’t want the hair gene turned on in your heart gene! Or, take for instance, estrogen. As a young woman, your estrogen gene is turned on to create babies and as an older woman, the estrogen is turned off as now one is now waiting for grandchildren.

But if you don’t have the right methylation, then you are subject to a variety of issues such as heart attack, stroke, dementia, cancer, and others.

The M is the methylation that attaches itself to the cytosine one of the four bases, or ‘letters’ on the DNA ladder.

The other way genes are expressed is histone modification. Very simply, think of this complicated structure as a yo-yo. If the string is wrapped too tightly, then the yo-yo doesn’t move. If it is too loose, then you can’t ‘walk the dog’ or ‘shoot the moon’. Chemical reactions alter the histone wrap in the same way. If the DNA is wrapped too tightly, then the genes cannot be expressed. If it’s too loose, then certain genes you want to remain dormant get activated.

Can you eat your way to good DNA health?

We all benefit from listening to our mothers who have told us to eat our fruits and vegetables. Various studies have shown that a diet with more than 5-7 servings a day will positively alter your gene expression and help to prevent age-related diseases.

Certain chemicals in foods (yes, all foods consist of naturally producing chemicals) can positively affect the genes. The chemicals in the food affect the chemicals around the gene, which then affects its expression.

Here are some examples of foods that positively influence your DNA:

We all know that smoking is detrimental to your health. Scientists in Norway gave 102 male smokers a diet rich in antioxidants such as green java tea, bilberry jam, blackberries, and various berry juices. They found that the gene expression in their blood changed for the better. They had improved DNA repair, removal of dead, pre-cancerous, and virus-infected cells, and their overall immune system was enhanced.

In my search for cancer prevention, I learned that nutrition is second to quitting tobacco as a means to prevent cancer. For instance, green tea can suppress tumor growth by changing the DNA of that tumor.

The vegetables that no one likes as a child – broccoli, brussels sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables – have a sulforaphane compound that helps to restore proper balance surrounding the DNA.

Research has shown it can prevent cancer and heart disease development.

Then I heard about the spice turmeric; which has curcumin as its main compound and is known to reduce inflammation. In addition to cancers, its epigenetic ability has been studied for its relation to neurological disorders, inflammation, and diabetes. It is specifically tied to the Cox-2 gene that makes inflammatory compounds. In addition, it is known to decrease tumors. By taking turmeric for the long-term, one could help ward off breast cancer, colon cancer and Alzheimer’s. Yet, it is a double-edged sword, as too much can be toxic.

The American Diabetes Association held a research symposium to understand the role of epigenetics in diabetes and obesity. There is continuing epigenetic research to understand diabetes. They are not only looking at how diet can influence diabetes in an individual but how environmental influences can pass it to the next generation.

Caution: One size does not fit all

There is still so much we don’t know about our DNA. While all DNA is 99.9% similar to each other, what is different is how we live our lives. The foods we eat determine how we methylate, how our DNA is wrapped around the histone (protein), and all the various chemical reactions that uniquely affect us. But remember, we are all unique and what might work for you might not be beneficial for me.

But what we do know is that a diet full of fruits and vegetables will help inhibit age-related diseases.