One vegan does not a movement make – less than 3,000 omnivores confirmed to have been “converted” by #Veganuary

Burger grass-fed.jpg

Would a cheeseburger have tempted you away from #Veganuary?

Well, the official numbers have been published for #Veganuary, the 2018 attempt to entice people away from meat and towards the heady delights of almond juice and bean curd. The campaign has been cited as a magnificent success by such impartial publications as Plant Based News (has that been the guest publication on Have I Got News for You yet?) with 62% of survey respondents (who were not previously vegan) stating that they intend to continue with a vegan lifestyle.

On the face of it, that does sound impressive, admittedly slightly less so given that it means 38% of participants presumably thought “Sod that Veganuary lark, I’m off for a bacon sandwich with cheesy chips.”

Yet here’s the rub. Despite the claims of success, the survey was only sent to 50% of participants. That’s slightly odd given that, presumably, the majority signed up online with a valid email address. There was then a 14% response rate to the survey. That means that overall, only 7% of peoplea who undertook Veganuary actually completed the survey.

Let’s assume that those who replied and confirmed that they were going to continue a vegan lifestyle were a random sample of the Veganuary population. This is a bit of a stretch, as anybody who’d not enjoyed Veganuary and was happily chomping down on a bacon sandwich would be considerably less motivated to reply than somebody who thought it was the best thing since sliced tofu. The stretch is underlined by the fact that 99% of respondents would recommend Veganuary to others – so basically a sub-section of happy campers. However, we’ll give it benefit of the doubt.

40% of people who completed the survey had previously identified themselves as omnivores (compared to 16% pescatarian, 33% vegetarian and 11% vegan). If we extend that statistic out to all the people who undertook Veganuary (168,500 people), then 67,400 peopleb – just less than the population of Stafford in the West Midlands – were originally omnivores. So, if the assumptions made earlier hold true, 7% of those previously-known-as-omnivores replied to the survey (4,718 peoplec) and of those, 62% aimed to stay vegan.

So 2,925d omnivores have confirmed that they will remain vegan – are the rest enjoying a cheeseburger for lunch? Who knows. However, human nature being what it is, the “converted” number may be even smaller in a few months time.

Are vegan numbers increasing? Yes. Is it a massive trend? No. A fad prevalent in westernised society? Maybe. In 2016, 17.86 million babies were born in China. That’s 48,932 born per day, many of whom will choose to emulate the western diet. So, in just one day, 15.7-fold more babies are born in a country where meat and dairy consumption are predicted to increase over coming decades, than the number people who we know have actually pledged to stay vegan (having previously been omnivorous) after Veganuary. Was Veganuary a storm in a tea cup? Yes – with milk…and a cheese sandwich on the side.

a 50% x 14%
b 168,500 people x 40%
c 67,400 people x 7%
d 4,718 people x 62%

Many thanks to @davidbarrettvet for the conversation that suggested this blog post.

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Is your dinner more intelligent than a baby…and should you care?

Daisy the pig

If Daisy the pig can recognise herself in a mirror, does that mean she shouldn’t be turned into bacon?

In the wake of a seriously busy #Februdairy, where activist rhetoric was thrown around like confetti at a summer wedding (my personal favourite activist claim – milking cows just promotes patriarchal societies in which females are treated like objects…), this little gem just arrived in my Twitter messages.

It’s a interesting little animation, probably aimed at giving food for thought (groan…), with the premise that if the animals that we eat for dinner (pigs, octopi, etc) are more intelligent than something that we wouldn’t eat (a human infant*), then should we be thinking twice about eating them?

There’s just one fatal flaw in this analogy – most livestock species are precocial. That means that when they’re born, they can quickly get up, feed and, if necessary, run away from predators. Not surprisingly, that can be essential for herbivorous prey animals in the wild. Animals that are not precocial are altricial – young are relatively undeveloped and helpless when born and tend to be hidden away in nests until they’ve gained maturity (e.g. mice).

Humans fall between these two extremes – gestation length is relatively long compared to other mammals, which favours increased foetal development and a higher birthweight, but human infants have smaller brains (29% of adult size compared to 40-45% in African apes) and have extremely immature motor skills. A significant amount of brain growth and development therefore occurs between birth and adulthood. Can an infant take the top off a child-proof medicine container? No. Can an adult? Absolutely. Does that mean that human infants lack intelligence? Not in the slightest. They just haven’t formed all the necessary brain and motor connections yet.

To try and compare the “intelligence” of a human infant with a fully-grown pig, octopus or sheep and draw any meaningful conclusion about whether or not we should eat the “intelligent” animal is an utterly futile comparison. Not quite apples to oranges, but close – after all, even the smartest apple can’t recognise itself in a mirror – or can it?

*Note that infanticide and cannibalism is practiced by some primates.

 

50 Sheds of Grey – Mega Farms and Animal Welfare Are Not Black and White Issues

Further to yesterday’s blog post here, I was asked for my views on this article in the Telegraph by companion animal vet Pete Wedderburn. Given my propensity to use 17 words when three will do (I blame PhD training…) it was easier to blog about it than reply via Twitter.

TelegraphTo be fair to Dr Wedderburn, his article does note the importance of economies of scale and potential for targeted veterinary care on large operations; and it’s absolutely true that we, as consumers, demand affordable food. The average Briton spends only 8.2% of their income on food. Given how much we should value the nutritional advantages provided by meat, milk and eggs for growth, development and health, I have no issue with the suggestion that we should pay more (if needed) for higher welfare animal products.

Yet that’s where the argument gets difficult, and in the case of the Telegraph article, moves away from logic, science and economics towards anthropomorphism, emotion and the supposition that we can assess animal welfare based on human experience. If there was an emotive language quotient for the article, it went up significantly in the anti-mega-farm section.

Unpalatable (pun intended) a truth as it may be, we do not apply to the same standards to animals that we intend to eat (cows, pig, chickens) as to companion animals (it’s somewhat amusing that the Telegraph article was published within the “Pets” section), or indeed to animals that we consider to be pests (rats, mice, insects etc). Do many of us worry about the living conditions of house spiders or wasps, aside how we can kill them when they become a menace? No. Activist groups claim that this is speciesism, but I’d contend that it’s simply a factor of being human. We cannot have our bacon and eat it – if we apply the same standards to pets and farm animals (eliminating the “double standard” cited in the article) then perhaps by extension, just as we wouldn’t tuck into a steak from our pet labrador, we should cease to eat farm animals.

The ultimate irony is that, if asked, none of us would be happy to be killed and eaten. Slaughter is an inevitable truth of meat production, regardless of the conditions in which the animal is reared – if we cannot reconcile ourselves to the fact that we, as humans, would not be happy with that outcome, can we really assume that we can speak for animals’ preferences in any other circumstance?

“Animal welfare is a significant one [issue]: intensively kept farm animals never experience the open air, and never see blue skies” Being outside in the sunshine is undeniably lovely. However, we’re in the midst of the ill-named British “summer”. The rain is driving down and the Hereford cattle in the field I drove past five minutes ago were sheltering under a tree, ironically, voluntarily choosing to be in far closer quarters than cattle housed in a shed. We need to move away from the pervasive but false image of perpetual blue skies and sunshine. Would I personally wish to exist within the human equivalent of a battery cage? Of course not. Yet neither would I wish to be outside in pouring rain and cold wind. It’s all about balance. Do I know what a cow, chicken or pig prefers? No. We need further research to elucidate animal preferences and, *if* required, to amend our farming systems.

Animal health is another concern: with thousands of animals living so closely together, the risk of rapid spread of contagious disease must be higher.” At face value – true. However, as with so many rhetorical statements, this bears further examination. The risk is higher. Not the incidence, nor the mortality or impact on the animals, the risk. We can have a significant increase in risk that still makes little difference to the likelihood of an event happening. Take, for example, the announcement that processed meat increases the risk of colon cancer by 18%. Immediate media reaction? “Bacon will totally kill you!” Actual change in relative risk for the average person? An increase from 5 people out of every 100 contracting colon cancer, to 6 people out of every 100. Using blanket statements about increased risk, without backing them with any science or relative risk metrics (i.e. the likelihood of an incident actually occurring) is meaningless, yet an effective fear-mongering tool. If any farm (regardless of size) has excellent health plans in place, employs effective veterinary supervision and treatment and has appropriate biosecurity and isolation for sick animals, there is no reason to suggest that disease X will spread unchecked. Why did the UK government mandate for poultry to be housed when the risk of avian influenza was high? Because it’s spread by contact with wild birds and poultry, in precisely the supposedly healthy conditions proposed by the Telegraph article.

The supposition that “…if something does go wrong, it can go wrong on a massive scale, affecting thousands of animals at one time” is again correct – with one significant caveat. Relative risk again comes into play – why would a ventilation system be more likely to fail on a large operation than a small operation? A risk may exist, but again, it’s the relative risk (ignored by the Telegraph article) that is more important. To use a human example, if the power supply fails to a large hospital, we would assume that they would have more back-up systems in place than in a small cottage hospital. Why should Dr Wedderburn assume that large farms do not have operating procedures and practices in place to deal with disaster situations? In the USA last year, 35,000 cattle died during a two-day snowstorm, the majority not housed, but in open fields. Being able to control the environment and feed supply is a major advantage of housed systems – assuming the worst case scenario is business as usual is misleading at best.

Animal welfare is a useful tool with which to bash specific farming operations, because it carries a certain intangibility. What does good animal welfare really mean? How is it assessed? Are healthy animals automatically “happy” or in a good welfare state? Perhaps it’s time to revisit and challenge the rhetoric. Given that high-producing livestock should, by definition, be healthy, does that mean that we can use milk or meat yield as an indicator of welfare? Not necessarily. If we have to reduce the use of critically-important antibiotics, will animal welfare suffer? Not if we use other husbandry measures to prevent the disease from occurring in the first place (see figure below). Is a cow who is genetically programmed to produce 40 kg of milk per day automatically more stressed than one who is only programmed to produce 20 kg of milk? Few people would suggest that a woman capable of producing copious quantities of breast milk is more stressed than one producing a small amount, yet we try to apply this logic to livestock.

Langford CIA decreaseEmotion is a far more effective tool to lead conversations about controversial issues than science – perhaps its time to take the bull by the horns and get in touch with our touchy-feely side to communicate as the activists do. Ultimately we need to reassure consumers that, as with all issues, there’s no ideal or one-size-fits-all farming system, just a million shades (sheds!) of grey.

From The Archers to Antibiotic Resistance – Has BBC Radio 4 Lost the Plot?

ResistanceAfter some excellent commentaries on future food production and Brexit on Farming Today last week, it seems that, not content with domestic violence, miscarriage and admitting women to the Ambridge cricket team (the horror of it!) on The Archers, BBC Radio 4 has dived into modern agricultural issues with a vengeance. However, their latest venture has all the balance and perspective of Nigel Farage faced with a chicken vindaloo and a team of migrant NHS workers.

Developed through the Wellcome Trust Experimental Stories Unit and written by Val McDermid, well-known for her crime novels, “Resistance” describes the impact of an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant swine erysipelas, which passes swiftly from contaminated sausages at a music festival to the general public exhibiting dreaded “purple spots” and collapsing at the supermarket checkout.

Alas, having listened to the first two episodes with more than a passing interest (after all, antibiotic resistance is a huge issue for our industry, both from an animal and human health perspective), it’s clear that an aluminium helmet and a “meat is murder” sign may be required listening accessories. The main protagonist is a slightly holier-than-thou vegetarian who was turned away from meat by the animal rights activists with whom she worked on a story and is currently scratching around to find freelance work after her editors became afraid of “real investigative journalism.”

Cue a cliched storyline, lined up in true pantomime fashion with neon signs alerting the listener to every plot development. The contaminated meat is traced back to a “factory” farm in an urban location, with pigs kept in “tiny pens with no room to lie down or turn around.” A specialist (non-local) vet throws antibiotics at the animals and a surly, secretive, Eastern-European-accented farm manager doesn’t seem keen on a journalist sniffing around.

The  racial stereotyping is unfortunate given how much UK agriculture relies on workers from Europe and beyond, and the farm portrayed as secretive, polluting water and soil, and utterly lacking transparency. By contrast, organic systems with “humanely-farmed” animals, and “well-scrubbed, rare breed pigs” are the dramatic ideal. Yet in real life, farm assurance schemes such as Red Tractor (which covers >80% of UK pork) ensure that pigs are kept in environments that provide sufficient space; are given suitable, healthy feed; and that waste is managed to prevent water or soil contamination. Does that mean that every pig farm is perfect? No. So does it mean that poor husbandry, environmental pollution and rampant overuse of pharmaceutical drugs is the norm? Absolutely not.

The casual listener might be horrified by the implications of antibiotic resistance for human health, but never fear, the drama suggests all will be well as long as your sausage comes from an organic Berkshire pig hand-raised on acorns. However, bacterial resistance to antibiotics occurs naturally and can be maintained or increased by any antibiotic use – in people, livestock or companion animals – not simply by use on conventional farms. Indeed, it’s vital to remember that organic operations are permitted to use antibiotics (as per the Soil Association organic standards), especially if they are the “best way to reduce suffering, save life or restore your animal’s health.” There is no blanket antibiotic prohibition on organic operations, as is often assumed.

Still more rhetoric invades the human health side of the drama – doctors try to dismiss and cover-up the public health implications, antibiotic researchers are hampered by lack of funds (possibly the most crucial but least discussed issue of the entire drama) and “big pharma” is lambasted for being more interested in developing drugs that generate long-term profit (e.g. diabetes or high blood pressure medication) than antibiotics that only need to be used once.

There is an immediate and definite need to develop new antibiotics both for animal and human health, yet if effective new drugs are found they’re unlikely to be distributed widely, but stored in case of an epidemic. Livestock farmers and vets have a huge responsibility in protecting both animal and human health, but so do doctors, food processors and ultimately all of us – simple hygiene measures, including effective hand-washing, are key to preventing the spread of disease.

Both national and global programs have been implemented to quantify, assess and reduce antimicrobial use; veterinary scientists are actively involved in on-farm research and interventions to reduce both antimicrobial use and resistance; and animal health companies (so-called”big pharma”) have joined with food processors, retailers, charitable foundations and human/veterinary medicine associations in taking a One Health approach (incorporating the health of people, animals and their environments) to making sure that antibiotics that are critically important for human medicine are withdrawn from animal use, and that the speed and spread of antibiotic resistance is reduced. Unless the rabid journalist has a serious epiphany in the third episode (to which I have not yet listened) it seems that facts are going to be overwhelmed by fiction as the efforts and advances made by global livestock producers are ignored.

I’m not suggesting that all drama should be absolutely true to life, but when real-life, topical, scientific issues are discussed, surely broadcasting agencies have a responsibility to be factual rather than alarmist? It’s unfortunate that this drama, written by a famous author and advised by a Professor of Microbiology at the University of Warwick, seems to have been developed without input from experts in veterinary science, animal production or on-farm antibiotic use. Furthermore, given the Wellcome Trust’s role as a global medical charity, one would assume that they have a responsibility to provide factual information, especially when their sponsorship must ultimately have been publicly funded. Instead, as with so many sensationalist dramas, it seems the world is going to end and we are the innocent victims of others greed for profit. Better switch to the organic sausage, or better still, the tofu surprise.

If We Can Replace Antibiotics with Homeopathy, then Cheese is the New Miracle Cure!

IMG_1903 cropIn the Guardian this week, HRH Prince Charles proposed homeopathy as a solution to antibiotic resistance, citing his “agro-ecological” farm as an example of one that has cut antibiotic use by using homeopathic treatments.

Given the concern over bacterial resistance to medically-important antibiotics, it is vital that we find alternatives. Yet they also must have a biologically sound mode of action and be proven to be effective. It is difficult to conceive how a solution so dilute that not one molecule of active ingredient remains, where the premise of the mode of action depends on water having a “memory” of the ingredient (as opposed to all the other contaminants within that water), can possibly have any verifiable impact on disease. Indeed, there are no studies to date that show positive, replicable effects of homeopathy compared to conventional treatment.

Personally, I have no issue with any alternative therapy has been shown to be an effective alternative to conventional drugs (note that homeopathy does not fall into this category). When I underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer, I had some reiki sessions. Did I believe that energy was being channeled by the reiki healer and making me better? Honestly, no. Would I have ever considered giving up the chemotherapy? Absolutely not. But the focused breathing and relaxation certainly helped with pre-chemo anxiety. Would taking Rescue Remedy or a similar homeopathic preparation have helped? If I’d believed that it would – yes, probably. But that is biased by the placebo effect – it’s not the same as the treatment being independently effective. One of the claims made for using homeopathic treatments in animals is that they are independent of the placebo effect – they don’t have the expectation that the tincture administered is going to cure their lameness or mastitis. Yet when we assess the results, it’s not the animal who’s reporting the success or failure of the homeopathic treatment, it’s the farmer.

So let’s examine a scenario. A farmer has two mildly sick cows (e.g. slightly lame, or unwilling to eat with a raised temperature) within the herd. Both are moved to the hospital pen, given fresh bedding, water and feed plus a homeopathic remedy. Cow A gets better – hoorah for homeopathy!  Cow B doesn’t and has to be treated with antibiotics – boo! Does this mean homeopathy works in 50% of cases? No. There’s no control treatment here, no evidence that Cow A wouldn’t have got better without homeopathy – some diseases just need time, TLC and the cow’s own immune system for recovery. Did the farmer cut antibiotic use? Yes – Cow A didn’t receive it. Yet again there is no evidence that this is due to the homeopathic treatment. How many times have we as humans debated whether to go to the doctor because of a minor ailment, then have found that it’s cleared up without medical treatment? It’s not miraculous, it’s simply our immune systems functioning as they are intended to.

In the absence of controlled experiments that compare homeopathic treatments to both conventional antibiotics and no veterinary treatment (save for good animal husbandry), it is disingenuous to claim that homeopathy is successful in treating bacterial disease or can effectively be used to replace antibiotics. We need to look to veterinarians and scientists when making decisions about animal care and treatment rather than relying on anecdotal data from those with royal connections. After all, HRH Prince Charles may have reduced antibiotic use on his farm, but I can also claim to have reduced antibiotic use in my household through dairy consumption – my toddler has a serious cheese addiction and has never had to take antibiotics. Hoorah – cheese is the new homeopathy!!*

(*obviously I am being sarcastic here for those who missed it, though the extent of cheese consumption and fact that she’s never had antibiotics are both entirely true)

Seeing the Bigger Picture – Why One-Dimensional Panaceas Do Not Solve Sustainability Issues

This week, another paper has been released claiming that we should change to a vegetarian diet in order to “…cut global food emissions by two thirds and save millions of lives“. As ever, media coverage of the paper by Springmann et al. ignored salient points regarding the importance of increasing fruit and vegetable consumption and reducing energy intake in reducing deaths from heart disease, cancer and diabetes; and simply focused on the claim that reducing meat intake would improve health and cut greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The simple message to the consumer? Go vegetarian.

So are GHGs the only important environmental metric? Absolutely not. What about land use? Air quality? Fossil fuel consumption? Water use? Biodiversity? The myopic focus on GHGs as the only arbiter of environmental sustainability completely ignores these factors, yet the results of the current study (and similar papers) are promoted worldwide as a panacea to solve all environmental issues.

Can you imagine a world where we only look at one consequence of our actions? Where our only consideration when buying a car is the colour of its paint? Or the criteria for accepting a new job is whether they have good coffee in the canteen? Surely a ridiculous idea – all of our actions have direct and indirect consequences, some predictable, some entirely unforeseen, and we weigh up these outcomes with every decision that we make – including dietary choice. If we examine a number of the assumptions and recommendations within the current paper, it’s apparent that the negative consequences of the one-dimensional GHG focus may outweigh any benefits gained.

Although a regional approach was used to assess population health impacts, greenhouse gas emissions in the paper were based on reference values for various foods, with the inherent presupposition that all livestock production systems are equally productive and efficient. This is a fatally-flawed assumption. If we take beef as the example: in the USA, 90% of cows have a calf every year, cows first calve at 24 months of age and growing cattle are slaughtered at 15 months of age. By contrast, in Brazil, 60% of cows have a calf every year, cows first calve at 36 months of age and growing cattle are slaughtered at 42 months of age. Both systems are suited to the resources and market available, but have wildly different efficiencies. Consumption of a US-produced steak (16.7 kg CO2/kg) will therefore have a far lesser contribution to the average person’s carbon footprint than a Brazilian steak (62.0 kg CO2/kg).

All food have an environmental impact

Replacing milk, meat and eggs with plant-based foods (legumes, nuts, etc) is entirely possible, yet it does not occur at zero environmental cost. Every single food that we consume has an environmental impact, and although the greenhouse gas emissions associated with a unit of lettuce or beans may be less than pork or beef (asparagus is a notable exception), the land required to produce equivalent energy or protein from plants is significant.

We cannot simply remove cattle from the low-quality range and pastureland that they occupy in the majority of grazing regions and assume that we can plant brussels sprouts or soybeans instead. Only a small percentage of pastureland is productive enough to produce human food or fibre crops (8.0% in the USA and 10.8% in the UK). The fact that pastureland would have to be converted to cropland, releasing sequestered carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and increasing the use of fertilisers and irrigation water, was not accounted for in Springmann et al.’s study. Indeed, from where would we source fertilisers for crop production if we significantly cut meat consumption and thus livestock populations? Is an increased reliance on dwindling reserves of inorganic N, P and K really a sustainable solution?

Finally, and most importantly, cattle do not simply exist as a source of milk or meat. In many developing countries, immense cultural significance is placed upon livestock ownership and ruminant animals play a vital role in supplying draught power, capital assets and agricultural enterprise diversification. Should a single mitigating factor for reducing GHG emissions overcome the moral obligation to support and assist subsistence farmers in developing regions? It’s vital that we take a holistic view that encompasses environmental responsibility, economic viability and social acceptability in order to improve food system sustainability rather than simply focusing on one aspect of the problem. Rather than taking a whole-system approach to environmental and human health, the study by Springmann et al. is akin to amputating both legs in order to try and cure arthritis. Short-term pain may be reduced, but long-term suffering is inevitable.

Cutting Meat? Or Just Cutting Corners?

DexterIt is equally interesting, inevitable and lamentable to see that another study has come out claiming that the only way to reduce climate change is to cut meat consumption per person.

Meat consumption appears to be the only human activity subject to continuous “we must cease/reduce this” claims on the basis of environmental impacts. If we compare to other greenhouse gas sources, a considerable proportion come from transportation. Yet rather than insisting that every car-owner cut their annual mileage by 25%, the focus has been on reducing emissions by producing more fuel-efficient vehicles. Similarly, no one has yet claimed that we should reduce household lighting by four hours per day, but the compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL) has become the poster child for improving household energy efficiency.

We have demonstrable proof that beef and dairy producers have improved greenhouse gas emissions (as well as land use, water use, energy efficiency, etc) over time through improved efficiency, and can continue to do so into the future. So why are the gains made by livestock producers dismissed, and reduced meat intakes seen as the only solution? I have an absolute hatred of conspiracy theories, but it is difficult not to see an latent agenda in the preponderance of “Cut meat consumption” papers. Jumping on the bandwagon? Promoting individual dietary opinions as science? Or simply bowing to NGO/media opinions and looking for easy funding and publicity?

As the global population increases to over 9.5 billion people by 2050, with the majority of this growth occurring in the developing world, the demand for milk, meat and eggs is going to increase by 60%. If we are serious about cutting greenhouse gas emissions, it’s time to examine the impacts of all of our actions and concentrate on further efficiency improvements rather than constraining dietary choice.

Does Nature Really “Do Its Thing” on Organic Farms?

Fridge picI am lucky. My fridge is full of food: mostly produced in the UK or Europe; all nutritious, safe and affordable; and almost all produced on conventional farms, with a small amount of organic food (in my case, chocolate). Given that you’re reading this, I’ll hazard a guess that you are lucky too. 795 million other people can’t say the same thing – and feeding all the people on a planet where 1 in 9 don’t currently have enough food is, in my view, our biggest challenge.

The fact that we face this challenge makes me really irritated when celebrity chefs who could make a huge difference, bow instead to popular rhetoric. In his latest blog post, mockney chef and food pundit Jamie Oliver proclaims that “…organic food is natural food, where nature has been allowed to do its thing, and I’m sure most of us will agree that putting natural ingredients into our bodies is only going to be a positive thing.”

If we ignore the nonsensical claim that natural ingredients produce positive results (Really? Let’s examine puffer fish, solanaceae poisoning, dangerous fungi, absinthe, the many consequences of obesity…), let’s simply look at his claim that organic food is natural.  Except, well, it’s not. Agriculture first developed ~12,000 years ago, and ever since then farmers have been doing their best to breed crops and animals that are best suited to their farming system, whether it’s organic or conventional. Want dairy cows that produce high-quality milk from grazing pasture; leaner pork chops; or strawberries that can survive supermarket handling? You’ve got it. All achieved through traditional breeding techniques (otherwise known as “nature doing its thing”): noting that plant or animal A has desirable characteristics and breeding it with plant or animal B to (hopefully) produce better offspring. No scary chemicals, scientists with syringes or genes in test-tubes. Every farm in the world is founded on “nature doing its thing” – not just the organic farms. We can argue whether GMO crops are natural (breeding techniques are simply more refined and specific) or not (scientists playing god…) but that argument becomes redundant in the EU and many other regions, where GMO crops are not approved.

Can organic producers use pesticides? Yes, if they’re compounds approved for organic production (e.g. highly-toxic copper-based fungicides). Can they use antibiotics and wormers? Again yes, if a proven disease problem exists (note that rules differ slightly between the UK and USA). Are organic farmers just merrily sitting back and letting their crops cross-pollinate and reseed, and their bulls run around happily “doing their thing” to whichever cow they come across? No. It’s a beautiful bucolic image to suggest that organic farmers are happily working with Mother Nature whereas conventional farmers have an evil scientist sitting on one shoulder and a big agribusiness corporation on the other, but its simply not true.

According to Mr Oliver, “…the simple fact is that often we don’t actually have to interfere with nature.” The idea of a world where we could feed over 7 billion people without having to actually invest any research dollars into improving food production is lovely, but it’s smoke and mirrors. At the most basic level, what happens if we don’t “interfere” by controlling weeds (whether by chemicals, mechanical tillage or human labour)? Crop yields are reduced, food production goes down and we feed and clothe fewer people. What happens if a cow has problems giving birth? In nature, she dies. On a farm (whether organic or conventional) both she and the calf are saved, providing milk and meat for us to eat. According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, 20% of global animal protein losses are due to diseases for which treatments already exist – we simply need to make them available to every farmer worldwide. Just think how many more people we could feed if we interfered with nature in that way?

Huge amounts of research monies are invested each year to find ways to improve food production on both organic and conventional farms worldwide. Some are highly technical, others are simple, but all are contributing to the goal of feeding the world. Unfortunately, when food pundits jump on the “let’s promote system X” bandwagon as Mr Oliver has done with organic production, using persuasive but false arguments, we lose traction in fulfilling the real goal. Rather than arguing about which foods we can/should be buying, we need to accept that there’s a place for all systems; examine the ways in which all systems can improve soil fertility, animal health and environmental impacts; and make faster progress towards feeding the world while still enjoying our food choices.

Got Ebola? Just Take Some Vitamin C.

Ebola

It appears that the lunatics are taking over the asylum. This is another post about “things that irritate me” – just a short rant this time about bad science and fear-mongering. The current irritant is the Alliance for Natural Health (ANH; as publicized by the Organic Consumers Association), which claims that Ebola can be prevented and treated naturally, but that these remedies are being (gasp!) “ignored by doctors and the government”.

If you’re really concerned that you may catch Ebola, the easiest way to avoid it is not to have intimate contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids; but never fear, if you do, the ANH have a list of “proven” natural remedies that will stop Ebola dead in its tracks. For example, Ebola is selenium-dependant, making people who’re already selenium-deficient more vulnerable to the disease, so if you just load up with mega-doses of selenium, you’ll be fine. Equally, both silver and vitamin C are antiviral, so add these to your selenium cocktail and you won’t just be fine, you’ll be invincible!

There’s just one problem – none of these miracle remedies have actually been tested against Ebola, which ANH claim is because of government/big drug conspiracies. It’s true that increasing your intake of selenium and vitamins C, D and E should boost your immune system to a degree, but you can’t then have a long smooch with somebody who’s infected with Ebola and expect to be immune. More importantly, given the ANH’s claims of natural “treatment”, there is zero evidence that any of these purported remedies provide a cure.

Most worrying of all is the final tagline: “Alert! Write to both FDA and Congress. Ask them to review natural treatments for Ebola without the lengthy drug approval process“. This lengthy drug approval process exists to ensure that drugs are safe, efficacious and do not cause unexpected or severe side-effects. It costs drug companies millions of dollars to get a single drug to market through this process, which is required for every new drug in order to protect our health. Furthermore, “natural” chemicals are not safe or effective simply because they exist in nature. Arsenic, cyanide and mercury are all inherently natural, as are deadly nightshade and death cap mushrooms. The “action alert” above is an example of bad science and fear-mongering at its worst – a dangerous remedy that will do nothing to halt the spread of the disease – and will probably hasten the patient’s death in the process.

One In Five Children Who Contract Diphtheria Die – Are Anti-Vaccination Activists Dangerous, Or Simply Misinformed?

vaccine1I had the pleasure of speaking in the plenary session at the 2014 AAVLD/USAHA Annual Meeting this week, where, among other topics, we discussed risk. One of the other panelists made the best point that I’ve heard in a long time – activists hate denominators.

Think about the last few scare stories you’ve seen – there’s no doubt that it is frightening to read that 3,000 people die from food poisoning each year, or that, to date, 4,546 people have died from Ebola (one in the USA). Yet if we put this into context, one person out of 315 million in the USA dying from Ebola is a tiny tiny fraction, and a correspondingly tiny risk.

Activists hate denominators because they provide us with context, a way to assess whether we’re really in danger. Statistically speaking, you’re  more likely to die from a traffic accident (one in 71 deaths), flu (one in 1,642 deaths), or syphilis (one in 55,866 deaths) than Ebola (one in 2,515,458 deaths). Which brings me to my current favorite activist, anti-vaccine zealot and proponent of “well-researched” bad science, Modern Alternative Mama (MAM). Thus week, she’s been promoting what she optimistically calls a “risk:benefit analysis” of the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) vaccine.

Interestingly, she appears to consider all vaccine risks equal: death is no more of a minor inconvenience than redness at an injection site, and she earnestly notes that there is “no known benefit to getting diphtheria“. That sentence alone causes the mind to boggle. On a positive note, she does use valid CDC data, reporting that there were 3,169 adverse effects attributed to DTaP in 2011, which she claims is an underestimate of up to 9-fold.

So let’s run the numbers. Each year, approximately 3.95 million babies are born, of which 82.5% are given the DTaP vaccine. Between birth and 6 years of age, 5 doses of DTaP are recommended, so each year, 5 x 3.95 million x 82.5% = 16,293,750 doses are given (note that babies will have three each in that year, but older children (18 months and 4-6 years) will also receive a dose). Let’s give MAM the benefit of the doubt and assume adverse vaccine events are actually 5x the cited CDC number, at 15,845 events. The CDC classifies 10% of these events as “serious”, which equals 1,585 serious events per year.

So what is your child’s chance of having a serious reaction to the DTaP vaccine? 1,585/16,293,750 = 0.0000973, or one in 10,277 children will have a serious reaction to DTaP.

By contrast, we could take our chances in not vaccinating and hope that our child doesn’t contract diphtheria, which carries a risk of death of up to 20% in children under five years old. That means one in five children who contract diphtheria will die.

Given MAM’s antagonism towards vaccines, it’s not altogether surprising that she concludes “Although diphtheria is serious, it appears that the risk from the vaccine is much greater.” Yet let’s be realistic about this. One in 10,277 children will have a serious reaction to DTaP (serious reactions does not mean death, although that is one possible outcome) versus one in five children who will die after contracting diphtheria.

Admittedly that’s assuming that all unvaccinated children will get diphtheria. They won’t, but even if only 5% do, the risk is still overwhelmingly lower in the vaccine category (one in 10,277 suffering a serious reaction to the vaccine vs. one in 100 dying from diphtheria).

The site carries a disclaimer that writers are neither education professionals nor providing medical advice, yet the suggestion (by the author herself) that this is a well-researched, scientific post will no doubt cause some parents to congratulate themselves on their choice to not vaccinate.

This pseudoscientific scaremongering is dangerous, potentially lethal. All parents are concerned for their children’s health and welfare, but propounding nonsensical “risk:benefit analyses” that do not consider the denominator but simply the total adverse effects does not allow any parent to make a rational and well-considered decision. If my child is the one in 10,277 who suffers a serious DTaP vaccine reaction, I’m unlikely to care whether she is one of few or many, but at least I can make the decision whether or not to vaccinate (my answer is an overwhelming “yes”) based on risk. We all want our babies to grow up healthy and happy – in this case, it’s time to be a mainstream vaccinating Mama, rather than a “modern alternative” one.