Understanding how the health of individuals located in the United State has been impacted by modern advancements is a difficult yet necessary area to research. More importantly, the difference between complete self-sufficiency and modern agricultural practices will show the changes made between each extreme. Researchers sought to examine the childhood factors that may contribute to the development of diabetes later in life by comparing children from two distinct communities, the Old Order Amish (OOA) and a non-Amish rural community.
Although the children, aged 8-19 years, all engaged in physical activity, the OOA children spent more time doing so2. Researchers found these children engaged in approximately 34 additional minutes of light physical activity and 53 minutes of moderately vigorous physical activity per day2. This additional activity has resulted in OOA children being 3.3 times less likely to develop diabetes later in life when compared to other populations2.
The distinction between OOA and non-Amish populations comes with leniency in the use of modern technological advancements. While Hutterites partake in many of the same everyday practices as OOA, they differ in agricultural practices. Traditional single-family farming and the use of horses for fieldwork are commonplace in OOA communities5. Hutterites, on the other hand, live on larger industrialized and communal farms5.
To further the understanding of the impacts of modern agricultural advancements, researchers wanted to compare OOA and Hutterite communities in Indiana and South Dakota respectively. Specifically, researchers sought to determine the cause of lower rates of childhood asthma in the OOA community. School children in OOA communities experience a 5.2% rate of asthma and a 7.2% rate of allergic sensitization compared to 21.3% and 33.3% in Hutterite children5.
The cause for such drastic rates can be attributed to the exposure rates of common allergens and endotoxins. Allergens from cats, dogs, and dust mites were found in dust collected from 4 out of the 10 Amish farms and 1 out of 10 Hutterite homes. Increased immunity may be responsible for the low rates of childhood asthma in OOA. Endotoxins that are contained in animal manure and dirt were measurable in airborne dust from all 20 OOA and Hutterite homes with the Amish having levels that were 6.8 times higher. Long-term and low-level exposure to endotoxin-producing bacteria at a young age appears to benefit immunity later on.
Benefits of exposure to animals and agriculture at a young age
Exposure to animals and agriculture at a young age has benefits beyond physical health improvements. Cognitive abilities have been shown to improve with increased exposure, but little research has determined how quickly exposure can have an impact. In Sagamihara City, Japan, researchers conducted a cognitive study with children and horses as a way of determining the impact of short-term animal exposure. All children started by resting along a fence line for 10 minutes and performed cognitive tasks before riding or walking a horse4. The children then rode or walked a horse for 10 minutes which was followed by another 5-minute rest period where additional cognitive tasks were performed4. The process was repeated with a 10-minute final resting period.
Walking next to a horse did not produce the same results as riding. 46.3% (or 25 of 54 children) improved in the performance of cognitive tasks after 10 minutes of riding while only 26.9% (or 7 of 26 children) experience an improvement after 10 minutes of walking4. While further studies need to be conducted, these findings indicate short-term and physical engagement with horses has a greater potential to have a positive outcome.
Participating in gardening activities as a child may also have long-term impacts on health as individuals age. The increase in obesity among individuals aged 12 to 19 in the United States has increased from 5 percent in 1980 to nearly 21 percent in 20123.
The change in the incidence of obesity has many contributing factors with childhood exposure to healthy eating practices being a key indicator of developing obesity as an adult. At the University of Florida, a survey was conducted with 1,351 college students who were divided into four groups3:
- Students who gardened while growing up
- Students who garden now
- Students who gardened while growing up and continue to garden
- Students who have never gardened
Of these, 30% gardened as a child and 38% currently garden3. These students reported consuming 2.9 cups of fruits and vegetables daily while non-gardeners only consumed 2.4 cups of fruits and vegetables3. These findings correlated with the belief that hands-on exposure to gardening as a child had a greater impact on food choices as an adult3.
Education important for successful food systems
Urbanization makes gardening difficult, resulting in fewer children understanding where food comes from. Agricultural and environmental education in public schools is being explored with input from classroom observations and studies. This is important as the American Association for the Advancement of Science has identified science education as being the most fundamental technology to be studied by students6.
One such study set out to determine just how much agricultural and food system knowledge of 10- and 11-year old’s in Long Beach, CA. Two out of the 18 students participating in the study were able to use biologically appropriate language when describing the origin of food and plants3. These same children were also surveyed on their basic understanding of crop growth requirements. The lowest mentioned requirements were plant nutrition (6%) and plant protection (17%)6. More alarmingly, no child was able to convey an understanding of food and crop origination outside of the United States6.
In response to public school surveys and observations, programs have been implemented to allow graduate students to work with teachers in the classroom to provide hands-on learning. The benefit is two-fold: the graduate student can obtain teaching experience while the teacher is able to provide an improved learning experience. Project-based learning (PBL) has been shown in previous studies to have a positive effect on a student’s interest in science, the ability to problem-solve, and collaboration skills1.
An example of an in-classroom partnership took place in Iowa in the fall of 2014. The graduate student and teacher created a learning unit on water issues and included PGL-based lessons on water quality testing at a local lake, analysis of media coverage of international water issues, and a functioning watershed model to depict the movement of pollutants across a landscape1. Following these lessons, the students engaged in a role-playing activity where they were to represent different stakeholders. From concerned citizens and farmers to government officials and scientists, each student presented the viewpoints to state education officials and classmate1.
Analysis of the learning unit after its completion found that students who participated in Project-Based Learning were found to have greater levels of attitude, engagement, and confidence in their ability to do science. This same group of students was more eager to answer questions independently and without teacher input1.
The ways of the future and the ways of the past must be synonymous. Modernization and urbanization have separated the space between agriculture production and society. Studies have confirmed that physical activity and self-sufficiency at a young age are paramount to longer and healthier adult years. Although students in urban and suburban schools have little access to agriculture, it is still vital to teaching them the basics of food systems and the benefits of exposure to nature.