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.

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How Long is Long-Term? Are We in Danger of Sacrificing Food Security to Satisfy GMO Paranoia?

FrankenfoodsMy Twitter feed is being taken over by two things: 1) arguments and 2) comments that are going to cause arguments. Almost every tweet appears to draw a contrary comment – I’m tempted to post “Elephants have four legs and one trunk” just to see how many people reply “No, there’s an elephant in South Africa called Minnie who only has three legs but has two trunks…”

The latest discussions (debates? arguments? long drawn-out 140-character battles?) have related to the safety of GMOs. Without exception, the argument from the nay-sayers comes down to “We don’t know what the long-term effects are, so we should ban them until we can conclude that they’re safe.”

In other words, we’re trying to prove a negative – show me that there’s no adverse effects whatsoever and I’ll believe it’s ok. Utterly impossible. Can you be absolutely sure that the screen you’re reading this on isn’t causing constant, minute but irreparable damage to your eyes? Water, that essential nutrient without which humans, animals and plants would die, can kill through drowning or intoxication. Even oxygen, without which brain cells are irretrievably damaged in just 10 minutes,  causes seizures and death when inhaled at high pressures. Should we ban these, just in case?

Perhaps we should take a long-term approach to all new technologies. iPhones were only introduced seven years ago, yet many of us spend considerable amounts of time typing on them, or holding them to our ears when they’re not in our pockets – what health-damaging consequences could these shiny new toys confer? What about the now-ubiquitous hand sanitizer? Once only the province of hospitals and germophobes, it’s now sloshed around by the gallon. Touted to kill 99.9% of harmful bacteria – what harm could those chemicals be doing to our fragile physiology?

I’ve yet to meet anybody who, when scheduled for quadruple bypass surgery, demanded that the surgeon only used techniques developed in 1964; or a type I diabetes sufferer who would only use insulin produced from pigs, as it was originally in 1923. When I was treated for breast cancer, I jumped at the chance to be part of a clinical trial involving a new monoclonal antibody treatment, regardless of the very slight risk of heart damage. In medicine, we seem happy to trust that science has the answers – not surprisingly, we prefer to survive today and take our changes with side-effects tomorrow.

With regards to food however, the opposite appears to be the case. The first commercial GMO (the Flavr Savr tomato) was introduced in 1994, GM corn and soy were commercialized in 1996, and not one death or disease has been attributed to any of these crops. Yet the “what are the long-term effects?” concern still persists. So how long-term is long enough? 10 years? 20? 50? Should we keep researching and testing these crops for another 80+ years before allowing them onto the market around the year 2100?

If your answer is yes, just pause for a moment and ask your parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents what life was like during the Great Depression in the USA, or World War II in Europe. Consider what life was like when food was scarce or rationed, when, for example, a British adult was only allowed to buy 4 oz of bacon, 8 oz ground beef, 2 oz each of butter and cheese, 1 fresh egg and 3 pints of milk per week. Those quantities of meat and cheese would only be enough to make two modern bacon cheeseburgers.

By 2050, the global population is predicted to be over 9 billion people. I don’t relish the idea of explaining to my grandchildren that they live with food scarcity, civil unrest (food shortages are one of the major causes of conflict) and malnutrition because public paranoia regarding GMOs meant that a major tool for helping us to improve food production was removed from use. In the developed world we have the luxury of choosing between conventional, natural, local, organic and many other production systems. However, we’re in danger of forgetting that not everybody has the same economic, physical or political freedom to choose. If you gave a basket of food to a family in sub-Saharan Africa subsisting on the equivalent of $30 per week, would they refuse it on the basis that the quinoa wasn’t from Whole Foods, the meat wasn’t organic and the tofu wasn’t labeled GMO-free?

When we have sufficient food being supplied to everybody in the world to allow them to be healthy and productive, we can then start refining the food system. Until then, the emphasis should be on finding solutions to world hunger, not forcing food system paranoia onto those who don’t have a choice.

Is Our Modern, Chemical-Laden, Twinkie-Guzzling Lifestyle Killing Us?

Burger4How often do we hear that we’re so much more unhealthy than our ancestors? That our modern chemical-laden diet is responsible for the fact that in 2010, the top three causes of death were heart disease, cancer and chronic airways disease? That if we only ate like our ancestors did (if you can’t pronounce it, it shouldn’t be in your food…) we’d have the secret to eternal life?

Let’s take a trip back to 1900 – the US contained 70 million US inhabitants, McKinley was president, and the first Hershey bar was introduced. Life was so much simpler without those pesky whipper-snapper millenials on social media and everybody lived till they were 95, passing with a smile on their face surrounded by their 17 children…or did they?

It’s a beautiful image – and an absolute fallacy. Life expectancy at birth in 1900 was 47.3 years. To put that into context, Michelle Obama, Keanu Reeves and Elle McPherson would already be dead, and Julia Roberts, Matt LeBlanc and Will Ferrell would be enjoying their final days of celebrity life. The low life expectancy was skewed by the high rates of infant mortality in 1900 – premature birth was the #11 most-common cause of death and up to 10% of infants died before their first birthday. Any child that made it past 5 years old had a pretty good chance of surviving – as long as disease didn’t set in – the top three killers in 1900 were pneumonia/flu, tuberculosis and heart disease.

Hold on… heart disease? Surely that’s a consequence of our modern, slothful, twinkie-guzzling lifestyle? Let’s move on to 1950, when most food was still organic, high-fructose corn syrup hadn’t yet been invented and the majority of beef and dairy cattle were grazed on pasture. Top three killers: heart disease, cancer, stroke.

There’s a reason why Mark Twain’s saying “lies, damned lies and statistics” gets quoted so often. In this case, the data is true. However, when we look at the statistics, i.e. the % of people killed by heart disease or cancer, those have indeed gone up. Why? Because very few people die of pneumonia, flu or TB. If we express something on a percentage basis, a decline in one factor means an increase in another. Simple 3rd-grade math. I hate to point out the obvious, but we’re all going to die – and there will always be a cause.

Many enthusiasts for the “Paleo” diet like to suggest that it must be a healthy lifestyle, because the average lifespan for our ancestors was the same as it is now – providing that they didn’t die in accidents, war or from infection. Way to go for those few ancestors who stayed in their cave and didn’t get attacked by a wildebeest! All that actually suggests is that a human body has a genetic potential for life of 75-80 years. Europeans who died from the Black Death in 1348-1350 weren’t genetically programmed to live shorter lives, they were just unlucky enough to run up against the microorganism Yersinia pestis. We can’t eliminate specific causes of death that don’t suit our theory to “show” that one lifestyle is more healthy than other – everything that we do, every single day will have some positive or negative effect on our eventual lifespan.

We’re lucky enough to live in a society where we have effective sanitation, a wide variety of nutritional choices, antibiotics, vaccines, x-rays and prenatal vitamins. In the US, nowadays only 6 babies die per 1,000 births compared to ~100 per 1,000 births in 1900. Average life expectancy is 78.1 years. If I were to follow the activist “correlation = causation” logic I could point out that in the past 114 years we’ve seen the introduction of cell phones; nuclear bombs; GMO-crops; rbST for dairy cattle; implants and antibiotics for beef cattle; and corn-fed beef… so these technologies must make us live longer!! Hooray!! Instead, I’ll just be thankful that I will be giving birth within the next week in a world where we have a safe, effective food supply and that my baby will have a far better chance of surviving than her great-grandparents did. Thank goodness for technology.

Eating Less Meat, May Not Help You To Live Forever…But It’ll Sure Feel Like It

I know Harvard researchers are smart, I really do. Yet I have to question the latest study reporting that eating red meat is associated with premature death. Published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the paper analyzed the relationship between mortality and red meat consumption in a total of 121,342 healthcare professionals and concluded that:

Greater consumption of unprocessed and processed red meats is associated with higher mortality risk… replacement of red meat with alternative healthy dietary components may lower the mortality risk.

As a researcher, I know full well that it’s almost impossible to prove a cause-effect relationship. This is particularly difficult in human studies where other dietary and lifestyle factors have to be accounted for. After all, if you have ketchup on your steak, does the lycopene prevent against prostate cancer? “Associated with” is therefore absolutely the correct terminology for the paper’s authors to use. Alas, in the minds of so many, “associated with” translates to “causes” (especially when it’s a bad news story), and everybody panics accordingly.

The results of this report need to be put into context with our other lifestyle choices. If, as reported, eating unprocessed or processed red meat increases the relative risk of mortality by 13% and 20% respectively, how does that compare to all our other daily activities – driving a car, drinking a glass of wine or eating a candy bar? How do we weigh the risk of consuming a steak or slice of pepperoni pizza against the bottle of Mountain Dew or unwashed raw carrot? After all, during the BSE crisis in the UK, data suggested that the risk of dying from falling out of bed and suffering a fatal head injury was far greater than that from contracting vCJD, yet there was immense consumer concern relating to the perceived dangers of beef consumption.

Relative risk is not a measure that many people understand. Within this study, the absolute mortality risks (i.e. the probability of any one person dying) paint a rather different picture. Out of every 100 men, 1.23 men consuming three servings of unprocessed meat (the equivalent of one 9-oz steak) per week were likely to die, versus 1.30 men eating 6 oz of processed meat (bacon, sausage etc) per day (42 oz per week). Given the small difference in those mortality risks (which were similar for women) yet the huge difference (9 oz vs. 42 oz) in weekly meat consumption, we would be better served by focusing more on other factors (bodyweight, exercise, genetic propensity to specific diseases) that contribute the vast majority of our absolute mortality risk rather than assuming that we can live forever if we only replace a hamburger with a vegetarian meatloaf.

Since this study hit the headlines my Facebook newsfeed predictably been over-run by anecdotes about grandparents who lived to the ripe of age of 101 years while eating bacon and eggs for breakfast, corned-beef hash for lunch and three pork chops (with extra heavy cream in the whipped potatoes) for dinner. Without wishing to be flippant, the one certainty in this life is that we’ll all die at some point – if I restricted my meat intake to the suggested 3 oz per day (or less) I have a sneaking feeling that I might not live forever, but it’d sure feel like it.