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.

What Happens When We Don’t Like the Science?

Recently I’ve seen some criticism relating to Dr. Temple Grandin from a few people who are opposed to her ideas on animal welfare – namely that we need to listen to the consumer and understand what they think and want. It doesn’t seem like rocket science, does it? Ignore your consumers wishes and pretty soon you don’t have a market.

Just show consumers the science, not the emotion…” seems to be the battlecry. “If somebody hasn’t published a peer-reviewed paper on it, they shouldn’t be allowed to say it!” Except it’s not as simple as that, is it? Just look at the furore over LFTB (lean finely-textured beef or so-called “pink slime”). A safe, technologically-sound, scientifically-approved product that, once it was labeled pink slime, was utterly undesirable to the consumer. Never mind that they were still happy to eat Twinkies, Slim-fast (just what is that pink powder?) or kelp juice (green slime?), the perception was out there that LFTB was gross, and no matter how much science was quoted, bang, out of beef products it went.

We can talk about science all we like, but sometimes that just isn’t going to get the message across. I can’t imagine that any consumer who goes into a battery chicken (caged layer) house or sees a photo of a pig in a gestation crate says “Wow, what a beautifully efficient and scientific system!” That response becomes even less likely when all they see is a photo of it on Facebook.

So what happens when the science doesn’t play nicely into our perceptions and beliefs? When about social science papers that show that consumers evaluate foods based on emotion, not science? Or survey data that shows that we can take consumers to a farm and explain agriculture…but that it doesn’t change the preconceived ideas that 75% of them already held?* Do we ignore the inconvenient science because we don’t like the answers? Keep banging the same drum and hope that we can maintain the status quo?

Here’s a thought. Rather than looking at agriculture through your own eyes, try and see it through the eyes of somebody else. Part of Dr. Grandin’s success can be attributed to that fact that, because of her autism, she can empathize with animals in handling systems. Isn’t time we followed her example and tried to think outside the cattle chute?

*SHS Foodthink (2012). Building Trust in What We Eat. Available here: http://shsfoodthink.com/white-papers/

Who Needs Scientists? Just Let Mother Nature Design Your Greek Yogurt.

Chobani.jpgHow you get to 100 calories matters. Most companies use artificial sweeteners. We think Mother Nature is sweet enough”. Clever marketing from the greek yogurt company Chobani, simultaneously disparaging alternative brands, and playing the ultimate caring, sharing, natural card with the mention of “Mother Nature”. However, earlier this week, Chobani’s #howmatters hashtag set the twitter feeds alight after their new “witty” tagline on the underside of yogurt lids was posted (below).

howmattersThe wording plays beautifully into what is fast becoming a universal fear of science intruding on our food supply – we want real food; food like our grandparents ate; food from traditional breeds and heirloom varieties – providing it doesn’t take us over 2,000 cal per day or increase our cholesterol levels. Rightly or wrongly, many people blame processed foods with hidden sugars and added chemical preservatives for many health issues in developed countries – the epitome of a #firstworldproblem, given that the corresponding #thirdworldproblem is hunger and malnutrition.

However, this time the twitter anger wasn’t from rampaging mommy bloggers, or infuriated activists, but scientists. After all, without science, would Chobani have a product? Yogurt was first developed in ancient times, but the modern pasteurized, long-shelf-life, greek yogurt is rather different to the cultured milk our ancestors would have enjoyed.

FAGEI have a 100-calorie greek yogurt from a rival brand in my fridge, so let’s examine the ingredients (left). Simply pasteurized skimmed milk and live active yogurt cultures (note, no added sweeteners). Louis Pasteur, a 19th century French scientist developed pasteurization (in addition to his discoveries relating to vaccines and microbial fermentation); biologists developed methods to identify and classify the bacteria that ferment milk into yogurt; and food scientists experimented with the exact mixture of bacteria to produce the desired flavor, texture and color of yogurt,  as well as developing the range of other processes needed to make the yogurt safe, appealing and shelf-stable.

Yes, we could make greek yogurt without scientists – after all, the original recipe didn’t originate in a corporate experimental kitchen. But without hundreds of years of scientific input, could we make Greek yogurt that, at 100 calories per serving, is desirable to the consumer and is a safe, affordable source of vitamins, minerals and protein? No. To imply that we could does a huge disservice to food scientists.

It appears that being a modern-day scientist appears to be somewhat equivalent to clubbing baby seals to death. Caring little for human suffering and illness, the cold and clinical scientist rubs his hands together with glee as he removes all nutrients from real food, replacing them with chemicals, additives and genetically-modified ingredients. As a side-line, he develops cocktails of toxic elements, pesticides and embalming fluid and markets them as vaccines. Yes, science is the enemy. Just remember that next time you take an aspirin for a hangover from pasteurized, fermented beverages.

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.

Correlation vs. Causation – The Gluten-Free Example

My gluten-free tweetI’ve just been involved in that most pointless of activities – a Twitter argument. Entirely without value as neither side will admit defeat (or even concede ground) and it’s difficult to make rational, lucid points using words like “hereafter” and “whither” when the 140 character limit turns scientific discussion into a sea of “u r misinformed re: assoc w/glutfree diet” gobbledegook.

This debate was caused by me posting the photo to the left relating to the use of  “gluten-free” as a marketing term associated with supposedly healthier food. However, in the tweet below, the arguer (arguee?) demonstrated the commonly confused correlation vs. causation which appears to be the poster child for populist bandwagon-jumping science.

Coeliac tweetTheir follow-up tweet cited this website, which claims that 55 diseases can be caused by eating gluten, and there’s a link to a peer-reviewed New England Journal of Medicine paper to prove it. Excellent use of scientific literature to support the adoption of a gluten-free diet.

55 diseasesJust one tiny problem… the 55 diseases* listed in the table to the left are indeed associated with cœliac** disease in that people who are cœliac (0.3-0.8% of the population) often also suffer from a range of other conditions. However, this does not mean that anybody suffering from short stature, diarrhea, rheumatoid arthritis or congenital heart disease will have their symptoms relieved by adopting a gluten-free diet. Heck, if it did, we’d all be 6 feet tall and heart-healthy, right?

To put it another way, all penguins are black and white. Does that mean that all black and white objects are penguins? I have utmost sympathy for sufferers of cœliac disease as it must be a very difficult and painful condition. However, when a gluten-free diet is not only promoted being more healthy for the general population, but backed by willful misinterpretation of peer-reviewed data, it’s just another indication that we need better scientific education. Correlation not causation – rinse and repeat.

*Note that these are not all diseases per se, but that was how they were defined by the website 
** An autoimmune disease in which the small intestine is hypersensitive to gluten, leading to difficulty in digesting food. As a Brit, I’m using the English spelling as I find it too grammatically painful to omit the ligature (œ) 

Activism 101 – How to Write Like An Angry Internet “Expert” on GMOs

GMO carrotLast week I had the pleasure of speaking at the Montana Grain Growers Association on the topic of agricultural myths – specifically those relating to the wheat and barley industry. It was a whole new experience for me to replace calving rates with seeding rates; and crossbred cows with hybrid corn; but I was intrigued to see how many similarities existed between the grain industry and the beef industry in terms of the challenges we’re faced with in terms of misconceptions and bad science.

In the beef industry we’re often told that cattle are killing the planet by belching greenhouse gases; steak contains so many hormones that our kids are going to look like Pamela Anderson by the age of 5; and that we routinely mistreat our animals in the name of profitability – none of which are remotely true. However, many of the myths relating to the arable crop industry seem to revolve around genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) – the very mention of which appear to evoke rage, sanctimoniousness and downright insanity in many internet pundits.

Researching the GMO topic gave me so many examples of bad science that I could have spoken for three hours and still have had slides left over – so here, for your edification, is my quick cut-out-and-keep guide to writing like an angry internet GMO “expert”.*

GMOs in capital letters1) Always use capital letters to emphasize the negative. The more capital letters you use, the more powerful your message BECAUSE YOU’RE OBVIOUSLY SHOUTING! Everybody knows that shrieking like a hyena on acid gets your point across, right?

2) Remember that science is the enemy. Yes, it brought us the polio vaccine, organ transplants and the iPhone that’s rapidly giving you repetitive strain injury of the thumbs, but when it comes to food, it’s pure evil. Anybody who has a PhD is less believable than your Great-Aunt Edna’s story about the day she met JFK in Walmart, whereas the opinion of a liberal arts major who cites Wikipedia, Deepak Choprah and Michael Pollan is worth more than rubies.

Emotive language3) Make sure you use emotive language. Your food system of choice is entirely populated by fluffy animals that poop rainbows, fart glitter and graze happily upon plants that are identical to those grown by the pilgrim fathers. By contrast, the dark side has mega-herds of mutated hybrid creatures that snack on household pets unwary enough to wander into their pen; malevolent trees that fling apples at Judy Garland; and man-eating, trash-talking plants last seen in the Little Shop of Horrors.

Allergies 14) Cause-effect statistics are only used by scientists (see #2) and thus poison the virtuous well of truth. Far better to make spurious claims based on nebulous associations. If the claims relate to children, the elderly or other vulnerable populations, so much the better. The Flavor-Savr GMO tomato was introduced in 1994 and childhood allergies have increased 400% since then? Excellent. Despite the fact that the World Health Association has stated that there is no link between GMOs and allergies, the two must (MUST!) be related. Since 1994, we’ve also seen the introduction of Obamacare, the death of Princess Diana, and the Green Bay Packers have won the Super Bowl three times. OMG! GMOs killed Princess Diana!

5) The only exception to #’s 2 and 4, are when a paper published in the Obscure Seattle-based Journal of Bad Science and Tomfoolery funded by the People’s Commission for Proving that GMO’s are Gonna Kill Ya Folks reports that if you force-feed three mice with 75x their body weight of pesticide-resistent plants, the resulting death by lab-worker hand (mouse head, meet bench-top) was caused by GMOs, and happens to agree with your views. Cite it as often as possible and gloss over the fact that the journal editors retracted it based on bad science three weeks after publication. They were obviously manipulated by Big Pharma (see #6).

Frankenfoods6) Any food that contains GMOs is a Frankenfood, guaranteed to turn you into a Herman Munster lookalike riddled with tumors the size of cabbages and to result in certain death. The only reason why most death certificates cite cancer, stroke or heart attack as the cause of death is because the medical profession have been paid off by Big Pharma. Anybody who dies in a car accident was assassinated because they knew too much (see #4, Princess Diana).

7) There are only three types of farmers and ranchers. Large farmers (more than 100 cows or acres) sit in their money-pit all day, cackling and swimming in vaults of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck. Everybody knows they have more money than all the European nations combined; force innocent immigrant workers to apply toxic pesticides whilst only clad in a loincloth made from a flour sack; and are singlehandedly responsible for every incidence of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Midsize farmers (20-100 cows or acres) are utterly at the mercy of Big Pharma/Big Food and have become mindless zombies, planting whatever mutant seed the corporations tell them to. Small farmers (less than 20 cows or acres) are the salt of the earth and will inherit it come the revolution. End of story.

8) Corporations have billion dollar budgets and their CEOs spend all their time partying with tobacco-smoking lobbyists. Lobbying by small organizations is done by worthy volunteers who’re just trying to make the world a better place for your innocent children. For the love of God, won’t somebody think of the children?

9) If all else fails, invoke the name of the evil that must be named….ahem, Monsanto. If you say it three times into a mirror, an ancient agricultural god will appear and wreak vengeance upon the earth. Honestly, I saw it on Oprah.

*Note that being an “expert” does not involve education, higher degrees or being employed within the industry in question. Nowadays you can only be an expert if you are entirely impartial, third-party, and preferably know nothing whatsoever about the system in question. On that basis, I’m off to write a book about Zen Dentistry.