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.

Advertisements

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.

Environmental Working Group Proves that “You Can’t Fix Stupid” Proverb is Entirely True.

Would you replace your hamburger with a soy burger?

Ah, the power of a report from an earnest non-governmental organization, out to save the consumer from themselves. Destined to be selectively quoted for the next 20 years and to prove once and for all that, as the comedian Ron White would say: “You can’t fix stupid”.

Released this week, the Environmental Working Group’s report, claimed not only that everybody should eat less meat, but that “Meat, eggs and dairy products that are certified organic, humane and/or grass-fed are generally the least environmentally damaging…Overall, these products are the least harmful, most ethical choices.” This is a surprisingly intuitive conclusion in that it utterly contradicts the body of scientific knowledge to date, and as the report doesn’t contain any data on anything other than conventional production systems, let alone ethics.

The requisite environmental activist components are there: stylized pastoral scene on the cover and such a liberal sprinkling of emotive words such as “confined” and “polluting” it seems like an ice-cream sundae assembled by a small child with a sugar addiction. It’s even been peer-reviewed by “experts” (as you may have gathered, when reading this post, words in quote marks should be accompanied by an ironic raised eyebrow).

So who are the experts? An RN who teaches “culinary skills and management”, an Assistant Scientist interested in “access to sustainably produced and healthy food”, another whose program aims to “address the environmental and public health impacts of industrial agriculture and promote more sustainable alternatives”. Methodology reviewers were the aforementioned Assistant Scientist, an expert in tropical forests and the daughter of the founder of the Small Planet Institute. What’s the link here? An interest in “sustainability” – which in this case means community-supported agriculture, local food, and nutrition. Where are the experts in livestock production? Who checked with animal and meat scientists, industry professionals, extension agents, nutritionists or processors who can verify that the assumptions made within the report are correct?

It’s a bona-fide report with colorful graphs, acknowledgements, a whole separate report on the methodology (which guarantees nobody will read it) and data! As we all know, data is powerful. According to their “calculations”, lamb has the greatest impact, generating 39.3 kg (86.4 lbs) of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) for each kilo eaten, and beef has the second-highest emissions, generating 27.1 kilos (59.6 lbs) of CO2e per kilo consumed. Cheese generates the third-highest emissions, 13.5 kilos (29.7 lbs) of CO2e per kilo eaten. Everybody knows that data doesn’t lie. Cold hard numbers are based on science. Yet just as I can replace ground beef with tofu and make something that looks like a burger, yet tastes like… soy, so has the EWG have used poor-quality data and erroneous assumptions to create a vegetarian ideology that is a poor substitute for real science.

They claim that if everyone in the U.S. chose a vegetarian diet, it would reduce US carbon emissions by 4.5%.  This is an impressive achievement since the Environmental Protection Agency cites livestock production (including dairy, eggs and horses) in the US as accounting for 3.12% of total emissions. Who knows where that extra 1.4 percent comes from?

The animal component of the report shows a lamentable lack of basic livestock production knowledge. In the beef example, the cow-calf and stocker operations are based on a lot feeding system in Nebraska rather than rangeland production and by-product/forage feeding. All the animals raised are steers (what on earth happens to the heifers?) and there appear to be no bulls in the system, not to mention the lack of dairy calves entering the feedlot and cull beef or dairy cows entering the production chain. Crucially there is no data on herd dynamics, bodyweights, growth rates, and total time required for animals to reach slaughter weight – the most important factors that affect the carbon footprint of a unit of beef.

The lamb system does contain rams as well as ewes, but there is no data relating to the flock, and most crucially, to the lambing rate. US farm flocks average 1.5 to 2.5 lambs per ewe per year whereas range flocks average 1.0-1.5 lambs per ewe. If we compare this to the US average for beef according to the most recent USDA/NAHMS report of 87% of cows producing a live calf, that means we need roughly twice as many beef cows to produce offspring as we do ewes, even considering the fact that lamb produce slightly less meat per carcass on a percentage basis (for a more realistic estimate of meat yields than those quoted in the EWG report, the University of KY have a nice extension publication on the subject).

So here it is, the issue that every single life cycle assessment involving animals and executed by LCA engineers to date misses – the fact that for every day an animal is alive, it needs a certain amount of energy and protein (and therefore feed, land, fertilizers, fossil fuels etc) simply to stay alive. This is called the maintenance requirement and it’s exactly the same principle that leads to that nifty “The average woman requires 2,000 calories, the average man requires 2,500 calories” credo that’s on almost every nutritional label. It doesn’t take a giant deductive leap to realize that if a certain amount of feed is needed to maintain an animal, there’s going to be a certain amount of waste too – which means manure and greenhouse gases. Breeding animals in meat production are the biggest contributors to the total carbon footprint precisely because they consume resources and emit greenhouse gases each day, yet only end up in the human food chain after a number of years, if at all.

If I’m making a bun for my tofu burger, it’s more efficient to cook it in an oven that can produce two or three buns rather than one. Exactly the same analogy applies to breeding herds – a larger breeding herd with reduced reproductive efficiency (i.e. fewer offspring per female), means more resources and a greater carbon footprint per unit of milk or meat. Lamb’s carbon footprint would be expected to be approximately half to two-thirds that of beef given the greater reproductive efficiency, yet the EWG’s estimation has lamb at 44% higher – a clear reflection of the invalidity of their results.

Comparing the carbon footprint of different meat products is an elegantly futile competition in which nobody wins. According to their “data” beef is a better choice than lamb, chicken is better than pork. Yet who fancies chicken Wellington for dinner? Or egg pot pie? Or a pea McMuffin? The idea that we should be happy, saving the world on a diet of tofu and lentils is somewhat ironic given their propensity to produce increased methane from the human gastro-intestinal tract.

Are all 311 million people in the US going to rush to the grocery store and fulfill the EWG’s somewhat desperate cry for Meatless Mondays? Until all human activity can be put into context and the effect of driving to work vs. buying French wine vs. eating an 18-oz T-bone vs. having a third child can be compared objectively, this report is simply another one-week-wonder, destined to be quoted in every vegetarian manifesto and vegan twitter post (presumably vegans don’t tweet, as that would be exploiting birds?) but forgotten as soon as Katherine Middleton wears a new dress on a royal visit or yet another politician demonstrates their indirect support for the pork industry by increasing Google searches for “wiener”.

For a little light relief, here’s Ron White’s take on “Stupid” (please do not watch if easily offended)