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.

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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.