Livestock provide food, income, education, cultural status…and hope.

African farmland

I took the photo above while travelling in South Africa last year. Whenever I’m faced with the inevitable “But we can just grow corn and soy to feed humans!” anti-livestock rhetoric (as seen in The Guardian this past week), I’m reminded of this picture. It shows tiny rural homes on the edge of a major road, upon which the majority of people walk to work, dodging the traffic as they go. The land is rocky, steep and lacks nutrients, the soil only capable of producing fibrous grasses that can’t be eaten by people. Yet, another few hundred yards down the road, we came across a goat.

African goat (straighter)

For many people in low-income countries, a goat is a lifeline. A source of food that improves the nutrition and health of young children, pregnant women and elderly people. A source of income to allow children to attend school and have a future career, rather than working to support their family before the age of 10. A source of security that allows for improved mental health, female independence and cultural status. Last week I spoke at a Cheltenham Science Festival panel entitled “Should we all become vegan?” It’s easy to suggest that many of us in the developed world could eat less meat. However, the myriad benefits provided by livestock to people in low-income regions should not be foregone on the grounds of foodie ideology bestowed by those of us living in developed regions.

I’m pleased to see Prue Leith, Jenny Eclair, Bob Geldof, Jonathan Dimbleby and others lending their support to Send a Cow’s #UnheardVoices campaign. Let’s recognise livestock’s role in giving hope to those who need it most – and make those voices heard.

Advertisements

One vegan does not a movement make – less than 3,000 omnivores confirmed to have been “converted” by #Veganuary

Burger grass-fed.jpg

Would a cheeseburger have tempted you away from #Veganuary?

Well, the official numbers have been published for #Veganuary, the 2018 attempt to entice people away from meat and towards the heady delights of almond juice and bean curd. The campaign has been cited as a magnificent success by such impartial publications as Plant Based News (has that been the guest publication on Have I Got News for You yet?) with 62% of survey respondents (who were not previously vegan) stating that they intend to continue with a vegan lifestyle.

On the face of it, that does sound impressive, admittedly slightly less so given that it means 38% of participants presumably thought “Sod that Veganuary lark, I’m off for a bacon sandwich with cheesy chips.”

Yet here’s the rub. Despite the claims of success, the survey was only sent to 50% of participants. That’s slightly odd given that, presumably, the majority signed up online with a valid email address. There was then a 14% response rate to the survey. That means that overall, only 7% of peoplea who undertook Veganuary actually completed the survey.

Let’s assume that those who replied and confirmed that they were going to continue a vegan lifestyle were a random sample of the Veganuary population. This is a bit of a stretch, as anybody who’d not enjoyed Veganuary and was happily chomping down on a bacon sandwich would be considerably less motivated to reply than somebody who thought it was the best thing since sliced tofu. The stretch is underlined by the fact that 99% of respondents would recommend Veganuary to others – so basically a sub-section of happy campers. However, we’ll give it benefit of the doubt.

40% of people who completed the survey had previously identified themselves as omnivores (compared to 16% pescatarian, 33% vegetarian and 11% vegan). If we extend that statistic out to all the people who undertook Veganuary (168,500 people), then 67,400 peopleb – just less than the population of Stafford in the West Midlands – were originally omnivores. So, if the assumptions made earlier hold true, 7% of those previously-known-as-omnivores replied to the survey (4,718 peoplec) and of those, 62% aimed to stay vegan.

So 2,925d omnivores have confirmed that they will remain vegan – are the rest enjoying a cheeseburger for lunch? Who knows. However, human nature being what it is, the “converted” number may be even smaller in a few months time.

Are vegan numbers increasing? Yes. Is it a massive trend? No. A fad prevalent in westernised society? Maybe. In 2016, 17.86 million babies were born in China. That’s 48,932 born per day, many of whom will choose to emulate the western diet. So, in just one day, 15.7-fold more babies are born in a country where meat and dairy consumption are predicted to increase over coming decades, than the number people who we know have actually pledged to stay vegan (having previously been omnivorous) after Veganuary. Was Veganuary a storm in a tea cup? Yes – with milk…and a cheese sandwich on the side.

a 50% x 14%
b 168,500 people x 40%
c 67,400 people x 7%
d 4,718 people x 62%

Many thanks to @davidbarrettvet for the conversation that suggested this blog post.

Is your dinner more intelligent than a baby…and should you care?

Daisy the pig

If Daisy the pig can recognise herself in a mirror, does that mean she shouldn’t be turned into bacon?

In the wake of a seriously busy #Februdairy, where activist rhetoric was thrown around like confetti at a summer wedding (my personal favourite activist claim – milking cows just promotes patriarchal societies in which females are treated like objects…), this little gem just arrived in my Twitter messages.

It’s a interesting little animation, probably aimed at giving food for thought (groan…), with the premise that if the animals that we eat for dinner (pigs, octopi, etc) are more intelligent than something that we wouldn’t eat (a human infant*), then should we be thinking twice about eating them?

There’s just one fatal flaw in this analogy – most livestock species are precocial. That means that when they’re born, they can quickly get up, feed and, if necessary, run away from predators. Not surprisingly, that can be essential for herbivorous prey animals in the wild. Animals that are not precocial are altricial – young are relatively undeveloped and helpless when born and tend to be hidden away in nests until they’ve gained maturity (e.g. mice).

Humans fall between these two extremes – gestation length is relatively long compared to other mammals, which favours increased foetal development and a higher birthweight, but human infants have smaller brains (29% of adult size compared to 40-45% in African apes) and have extremely immature motor skills. A significant amount of brain growth and development therefore occurs between birth and adulthood. Can an infant take the top off a child-proof medicine container? No. Can an adult? Absolutely. Does that mean that human infants lack intelligence? Not in the slightest. They just haven’t formed all the necessary brain and motor connections yet.

To try and compare the “intelligence” of a human infant with a fully-grown pig, octopus or sheep and draw any meaningful conclusion about whether or not we should eat the “intelligent” animal is an utterly futile comparison. Not quite apples to oranges, but close – after all, even the smartest apple can’t recognise itself in a mirror – or can it?

*Note that infanticide and cannibalism is practiced by some primates.

 

It’s #Februdairy!

Moo heard 2Two weeks ago, I sat in the audience for the Semex conference and heard two different presenters talking about the increasing market for plant-based foods and the myths, mistruths and misconceptions that abound about dairy farming. As a scientist, I know that we need five pieces of positive information to negate every piece of negative information. Lo and behold, #Februdairy was born!

Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 13.41.25It’s a simple concept, a campaign to celebrate all things that are wonderful about dairy – from cows to cheese, young farmers to yogurt.

So let’s post as many positive dairy tweets (especially those with pics and videos) as we can during February. Facebook and Instagram posts work well too. Anything that you can do to keep the campaign going would be wonderful, even it’s just occasional retweets.

If you’d like to tag your posts using or you can, but please don’t feel you need to. There are some useful guidelines about engaging on social media here, here and here. Feel free to reach out to me too if you would like any more information @Bovidiva.

Unfortunately, there are some rather vile people out there too.  Please remember that we all need to support each other and that you can disengage from social media at any time. Don’t ever feel like you are alone in this (or in the industry as a whole) the Farming Community Network and the YANA Project are great resources if any of us need help or someone to talk to.

Together, lets show the world what a wonderful industry we have and celebrate dairy with #Februdairy!

Activists tell me that I deserved to get aggressive breast cancer at 25 – it’s karma.

I like to think that we live in a society where, as a whole, we are more tolerant than we were 50 or 100 years ago. Discriminating against people because of their race or gender is unacceptable, diversity is celebrated, and the idea of criticising somebody because of their religious beliefs is abhorrent to most of us.

Yet, over the past two weeks, I, and many of my friends and colleagues in the dairy industry, have been called rapists, murderers, liars and fakes. Total strangers have sent messages containing the most offensive swear words in the English language – and then been surprised when we don’t want to have a conversation about dairy farming with them. Just yesterday, somebody laughed about my breast cancer history – another said it was karma for eating meat and dairy products.

Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 13.35.52

I would never wish cancer on anybody – the day that I was diagnosed was the worst of my life. I find it utterly abhorrent that some activists are using words like “rape” and “holocaust” to try and denigrate dairy and meat production. Trying to compare food production with these horrible crimes both dismisses and demeans the emotional and physical pain suffered by millions of people.

Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 13.37.33We should not criticise anybody’s choice of food, diet or lifestyle – it’s wonderful that we all are free to make the choices that suit our beliefs and philosophies. If you don’t eat or enjoy dairy – that’s entirely your choice and it’s great that you have alternative foods that certainly weren’t around when I was a vegan 25 years ago!

Tomorrow marks the start of #Februdairy – 28 days of positive social media posts celebrating everything to do with dairy. I shall post more details tomorrow, but please, if you enjoy dairy foods, think about posting something to celebrate our dairy farmers, the cows (plus goats and sheep!) that provide us with dairy products, and that fact that we have so many delicious milks, cheeses, yogurts, butters and ice-creams to enjoy.

Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 13.41.25

How to Argue with Vegans – A Cut-Out-and-Keep Chart (new and improved!)

I will never criticise anybody for being vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, flexitarian or any other diet. Always put popcorn on top of tomato soup (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it…) or fancy a pickled onion and herring cocktail for breakfast? No problem, we’re all entitled to choose the foods that suit our lifestyle.

Although I often promote dairy and meat production, I would never demand that somebody eat a steak or a cheese sandwich – it’s entirely their choice. Yet, with the rise of social media, a growing proportion of people feel entitled to criticise other’s diets, to the point where logic, science and civilised debate are lost in a rampant outpouring of emotive language and misinformation.

Having been engaged in countless online conversations with vegans, it appears that a handbook must exist, as the debate follows an identical pattern. The same inevitably tedious questions posed and claims made, often without any regard for the responses from the other side. In case you decide to argue with a vegan, I therefore present you with my updated handy flow-chart for how the conversation may go. Note that I do not intend to mock and I’m sure that there are many vegans who are both eloquent and well-informed, but, if you are vegan, perhaps consider whether you always rely on these rather asinine claims, without broadening your argument?

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 17.39.03For example, is suggesting that we shouldn’t drink milk past-weaning because other animals do not, either upheld by science (no, it’s not) or a sensible criticism? After all, humans also wear expensive anoraks, use iPads and write books on the intricacies of rugby – should we forgo these activities because they are exclusive to homo sapiens?

It’s absolutely true that some people cannot digest lactose. Furthermore, a proportion of the population have adverse reactions to gluten, some people have life-threatening allergies to strawberries, others break out in a rash after eating scallops. Does that mean that we should all remove these foods from our diets in somewhat misguided sympathy? No.

It should be obvious that using overly emotive language or suggesting that farmers are guilty of obscene acts with farm animals detracts from your message. Nobody takes Boris Johnson seriously when he makes outrageous claims or shows utter disregard for cultural and social norms – why should anybody embrace a lifestyle choice where the messaging suggests that eating cheese is equivalent to drinking breastmilk or implies that artificial insemination of cattle is morally, physically and emotionally equivalent to serious sexual assault in humans?

I don’t converse with vegans in order to try and change their opinions, but to show all the others who are listening in the background that it’s possible to have congenial, polite and scientific debate on these topics without resorting to insults, foul language or suggestions that the opponent should “get their fist out of a cow’s rectum”.

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 15.12.35

I stopped engaging in a recent Twitter conversation when a vegan posted a screenshot of my Twitter bio and claimed that, as a breast cancer survivor, I was foolish to consume a “hormone cocktail” (milk). I may be biased, but using cancer, still a life sentence for far too many, as a tool for trying to promote veganism, utterly lacks the human compassion that the same person claimed should be extended to farm animals.

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 14.45.04

Let’s get real. If artificial insemination, housing cattle, removing the calf from the cow and all the other practices that are apparently abhorrent to vegans were outlawed, would those opposed to meat and dairy production on the grounds of exploitation and slaughter be appeased? No.

So, here’s the challenge to angry vegans. Blow away the smoke, mirrors and pseudo-animal welfare outrage, and ask the real question: Are you prepared to let animals be killed in order to enjoy meat? If the answer is yes, then move on, there’s nothing for you to tweet about here.

How Many Vegans Does it Take to Change a Dairy Industry? It Depends How We Look at the Numbers

Jerseys in parlourThe Advertising Standards Authority in the UK have just ruled that it’s permissible for vegan campaigners to use emotive terminology to describe dairy production, on the grounds that the claims made do represent dairy farming methods.  Thus, phrases such as “mothers, still bloody from birth, searched and called frantically for their babies” are sanctioned as legitimate, despite the anthropomorphic language and lack of sound scientific evidence for loss- or grief-type emotions in dairy cows.

Excellent animal welfare should be the cornerstone of every livestock production system, including the non-tangible and therefore difficult to measure emotional side of animal welfare, yet using these types of emotive phrases does not really appear to be advancing the vegan cause. As quoted in the Times article, 540,000 people in Britain enjoy a vegan diet at present, up from 150,000 in 2006.

That’s a considerable number, approximately equal to the population of Manchester (City, not Greater Manchester) or the number of people in the UK who are aged 90+, yet as a percentage of the total British population, less than one percent (0.82% to be exact) choose a vegan diet. Is the proportion increasing? Yes. The equivalent percentage in 2006 was 0.25%, yet even at today’s figures, 99.18% of the British population are non-vegans. Are there any other situations where we would consider than less than 1% of the population to have a significant influence? Possibly not.

Bad news bias factory farm

Given that it takes five pieces of positive information to negate the impact of one piece of negative information, it’s more crucial than ever to get simple, factual, attractive messages out to the general public about dairy farming. Rather than campaigning against emotive activist claims, we need to reach out to the 99.18% of people who have not removed animal products from their diet and reassure them that they’re making appropriate food choices for themselves and their children.

How Now, Old Cow? Do “Slaughter-Free” Dairy Farms Come at an Unsustainable Cost?

As consumers, we’re more like sheep than we’d like to admit – that is, if sheep were tempted to buy food based on “free from” marketing. Gluten-free, fat-free, lactose-free, dairy-free and GMO-free labels are already firmly stamped on many of the foods we buy in shops and restaurants, and are associated with an invisible yet potent, virtuous halo. After all, if a slice of cake is gluten-free, it must be positively healthy.

The latest marketing wheeze appears to be “slaughter-free” dairy production – a 30 cow herd in Rutland, described as a bovine spiritual utopia, where calves are not weaned but run with cows as “grazing partners”; male calves (renamed as ”oxen”) are used for draught power rather than reared as beef; and once cows retire from milking, they are literally put out to pasture rather than being culled.

There’s no doubt that this ticks an entire list of ethical boxes – who doesn’t want to imagine that cows live a happy life browsing the buttercups once they’re too old to produce milk? Yet, given the critical need to produce food sustainably (in terms of economic viability, environmental responsibility and social acceptability), it also leads to a number of questions.

While there may well be a niche market of consumers who are prepared to pay £4.50 per litre for slaughter-free milk; in an era when we primarily choose foods based on price, is this endeavour going to achieve long-term economic sustainability?

Food purchases for EU consumers

The environmental impact of dairy production increases with the proportion of non-producing (dry cows, growing heifers or “retired” cows) in the population – keeping retired cows out on pasture would be expected to add a huge quantity of greenhouse gases to the carbon footprint per litre of milk produced. Carbon footprint and resource use per litre is also negatively correlated with milk production – the low yields associated with this type of hand-milking operation would further add to its environmental impact. How do we, as consumers, balance the relative values of animal welfare and planetary health?

FAO LCA 2

In a system where no cattle are slaughtered, but where cows need to have a calf on a regular basis to produce milk, the herd size will increase exponentially over time. In two, five or ten years time, how will the owners reconcile philosophical arguments against slaughter with the difficulty of supplying enough feed to fulfil the requirements of an ever-expanding herd using a fixed quantity of pasture?

Finally, and most importantly, animal welfare should be the cornerstone of any dairy farm. Euthanasia is upsetting, yet is the only option when animals are too sick or injured to survive. As consumers, we need to take responsibility for the fact that slaughter of both healthy animals (for meat) and sick animals (for humane reasons) is an unavoidable, if unpalatable truth. Just as the recent ban on cattle slaughter for beef in India is going to have negative impacts on food security, economic sustainability and environmental impacts, it’s time that we faced up to the reality of food production and stop thinking that we can have our slaughter-free dairy and eat it!

Cattle, Cowgirl Boots And Cancer

581677_10153042743360587_388837289_nLast week I was lucky enough to chat with the fabulous Will Evans, a Welsh cattle and hen farmer on his Rock and Roll Farming podcast.

Unlike most of my media interviews, which are focus entirely on sustainability and have me spouting numbers like data is going out of fashion; this was a huge amount of fun and Will got me admitting to a celebrity crush, the fact that I have to put bacon and cheese on hot cross buns and the fact that, as an undergrad, I was so useless at presentations that even the lecturers felt sorry for me.

So if you fancy listening to a fabulous Welsh accent (Will) and a slightly overexcited Oxford/Shropshire/Montana-hybrid (me) discussing the best types of cheese, beating cancer at 25 and the perils of being a reformed vegan in addition to the best way to ensure future livestock sustainability (hint: there’s no one-size-fits-all), check it out here.

Which Came First? The Chicken Or The Emotive Egg Exposé?

eggs-croppedThe award for the most emotive news story of today must surely go to the Guardian for its latest “comment is free” (i.e. op-ed) article on egg production.The article is rife with the usual motifs regarding the alleged horrors of modern so-called factory farming and pseudo-outrage at the fact that free-range hens don’t appear to exist in a sunlit utopia akin to an avian Club 18-30’s holiday with umbrella drinks on tap and hourly wing-tip massages for every bird. I’d like to try and suggest that it’s entirely coincidental that this article and the associated “exposé” from the animal rights charity Viva was released, not only on Pancake Day but on the day that newspapers report on the need to house free-range birds due to bird flu (which in itself in interesting given that these biosecurity regulations have been in place for some weeks now), but that would be stretching coincidence so far it would reach almost to John O’Groats.

Strangely, it appears that the author is under the impression that laying hens could have a variety of productive and meaningful roles within society if they weren’t doomed to suffer in the purported “squalid hellholes”. As birds are described as “…only existing so their eggs can be taken and sold for profit”, the mind wonders, at least momentarily, to the potential careers that they could instead undertake. Perhaps the NHS crisis could be alleviated by a flock of egg-straordinary hen-care assistants who would soothe fevered brows with a flap of their wings, or the noise at Prime Minister’s Question Time could be augmented by the clucks from Members of Poultry-ment? Yet I digress…

To be fair to the author, most of the facts in the article are at least partially true – regrettably, we don’t have reliable egg-sexing technology yet, so male chicks are euthanised soon after birth. While this isn’t a palatable or pleasant fact, there’s simply no other use for millions of male birds that don’t grow into table chickens as efficiently as their boiler counterparts. Fortunately for the activist groups, the concept of euthanising fluffy chicks hits us hard – after all, what is more vulnerable than a newborn bird?  Yet, given our growing chicken consumption, few of us appear to have the same reservations about a broiler being swiftly dispatched and ending up wrapped in plastic in a supermarket fridge.

Beak-trimming is also difficult to justify to the consumer. Yet research at Bristol University and other academic institutions has shown that hens in non-beak-trimmed flocks suffer serious injuries and a far higher rate of mortality than in conventional flocks. It’s clear that this issue has to be addressed and may be alleviated with appropriate changes in management and hen environment, yet this does not happen overnight nor without a significant economic cost to the producer, which is then passed on to the consumer.

It’s the emotive language that really irks. I do wonder how charities like Viva, PETA, Compassion in World Farming and others would fare if, like the scientific community, they had to submit their reports for peer-review, undergo the rigours of scientific publication and back up claims with citations or original data. Phrases like “…truths the industry don’t want you to know” and “…exploited for as long as they’re profitable until their own day of slaughter comes” are hard for anybody to read, let alone those who aren’t familiar with poultry production.

Yet there’s a huge difference between “truths the industry don’t want you to know” and questions that have never occurred to the majority of people. I know absolutely nothing about the dental industry or the manufacture of small china knick-knacks. Does that mean I’m being kept in the dark about the horrific practices contained within each? Would I believe an article detailing the horrific conditions in which impoverished amalgam filling manufacturing workers are fed on gruel and kept in small cages? It’s possible, but only because I’ve just never been interested enough to google “dental industry”.

Consumers have an increasing interest in how food is produced – it’s up to us an industry to reach out, have the conversation and provide factual information, regardless of whether or not it is palatable to the consumer. Only then can we ensure that a common body of food production knowledge exists such that these “exposés” cease to be shocking and are rightly seen as emotive tosh, expressly designed (to quote the original article) to tug at the heartstrings and convince people not to buy eggs.