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.

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If I Bill, Am I A Shill? Why Travel Funding and Speaker Fees Don’t Equal Industry Bias.

COI tweetA New York Times article published this week questioned the ethics of large companies funding travel for scientists to “promote” technologies or agendas. The quotation marks are there because the gist of the article (and related Twitter debate) is that if scientists have travel costs or speaker fees paid by industry, their scientific expertise and credibility is at best suspect, at worst, massively biased by a conflict of interest (COI).

Obviously I cannot presume to speak on behalf of all scientists, but having done presentations for 8+ years to audiences ranging from rural high schools and county cattlemen’s associations to international corporations, government and the National Academy of Sciences, I’d like to give you my perspective.

I trained as an animal scientist and gained my BSc and PhD in the UK, followed by post-doctoral work at Cornell University. I was an Assistant Professor at Washington State University for 2.75 years, and started my own consultancy business 3.5 years ago. As a consultant I divide my time between animal science research and presentations. My peer-reviewed scientific research is funded by industry. Beef industry associations, dairy industry groups, animal health companies, et al. That does not mean it’s biased, inaccurate or lacks credibility. It simply means that the research that I do is useful to the industry in which I trained and work. Who else would fund a project modelling the environmental impact of the beef industry or the effects of using Jersey rather than Holstein cattle for cheese production, if not the beef and dairy industries?

My presentations are also often funded by industry. Sometimes directly, when a company asks me to give a presentation as part of a conference that they are sponsoring or organising, sometimes indirectly when I’m asked to speak by conference organisers who then seek funding to cover the costs of hosting the conference. In the latter cases I sometimes haven’t known who’s sponsoring my expenses/honorarium until my talk is introduced by the chairperson. Bias? COI? I haven’t even had time to process the fact that I’ve been sponsored by Company X before I’m up on stage, let alone had time to amend my slides/messages.

Travel costs are almost always covered, sometimes an honorarium or speaker fee is also offered. Do I accept speaker fees? Absolutely. It’s part of my job to do a good presentation and be recompensed accordingly; and I have a small daughter who’s constantly growing out of her clothes. However, I’ve done a significant number of talks without a speaker fee attached because I’m interested in attending the conference; because I’d like to visit the region; because I know that the indirect return on investment (networking opportunities, etc) is worth it or simply because I know they cannot afford to pay me. Does that mean those talks were more balanced? Credible? Non-biased? No. As with all my presentations, the data was peer-reviewed science (with citations at the base of each slide), irrespective of the presence or absence of a speaker fee.

Sci travel tweetHowever, accepting speaker fees or travel expenses apparently makes me a less credible expert, because some journalists and food pundits consider that scientists must be biased by their funding sources.

So let’s reverse the questions:

How many journalists can say that they are not influenced by their editor, the paper/media they work for or the fee that they’re paid? That the article published is exactly the same as the first draft that they submitted, unaltered by editorial staff or policy? The only instance in which I ever recall an inviting organisation making changes to my slides was when I gave a webinar to a national dietetic organisation and their educational board had to approve my presentation’s scientific content. I was reluctant to submit my slides in that instance as I did not wish whatever their agenda might be to alter my science-based message.

About four years ago, a journalist demanded to have a “second opinion” to balance a paper I presented at a scientific conference in Australia (again based on peer-reviewed, published science), from a 1st-year masters student studying social sustainability, because the journalist considered that I was “too tied to the livestock industry” for my science to be impartial. Apparently the quotes from the masters student (from non-peer-reviewed anti-animal agriculture activist group reports) were considered to be non-biased, and the journalist’s “too tied” conclusion was based on reading the 140 characters in my Twitter bio. As scientists, we have to back up our hypotheses and conclusions with scientific literature and data. Yet, we’re accused and often condemned without trial based on speculation relating to our relationships with companies or industries with which we work. What happened to journalistic integrity and proof?

How many people would travel across states, countries or continents as part of their job, but refuse travel expenses and fund it themselves, as some seem to be suggesting that scientists should do to prove their credibility? Travel expenses are not benefits, tax-free income nor a huge bag of Scrooge McDuck-esque gold coins tossed to the scientist by “big ag” or “big pharma” with an extortion to go and have fun in the city. In reality, they mean staying in yet another Holiday Inn Express, accounting for every meal, flight and cab ride, and if you lose that $30 receipt for your airport parking, well tough luck, you’re covering that one yourself. Furthermore, why should scientists be expected to work for low or no pay simply to gain credibility, when the idea of being anything but transparent, honest and scientific never even occurred to the vast majority of us?

Most journalists with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work have been straightforward about their intentions and outcomes. However, perhaps it’s time to examine the integrity of those among them who have the ability to influence millions and are the first to seek FOIA data or call “bias”? Or do we have to accept that given that bad news sells papers, we can’t blame them for trying to rake up the dirt? Sadly, given the current follow the money culture in which we live, the fact that I choose to be paid by industry rather than academia is likely to continue to lead to claims of biased research in future, regardless of scientific veracity and peer-review. I’m happy that I can dismiss the claims, knowing that sponsors have never tried to influence, bias or bury my work and will continue to publish in academic journals, acknowledging funding sources.