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.

Does Size Matter? Dairy Efficiency Becoming Paramount During Crisis

Media articles relating to agriculture appear to fall into two groups. Those relating to small-scale agriculture are glowing accounts of farmers wearing overalls and straw hats; lovingly taking care of the land and animals according to holistic principles; and selling their produce at the local farmers’ market. By contrast, commentary upon large-scale agriculture invokes images of corporate-controlled factory farms with blatant disregard for animal welfare and local community issues; blithely pumping animal manure into water courses.

To consumers, the majority of whom do not understand agriculture, but have questions about how their food is produced, the choice (as presented by the media) is clear. Small farms must be better for the environment, the economy and the local community. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), we need to sustainably intensify food production over the coming years in order to feed the increasing global population. For many however, the concept of intensification and high-efficiency production systems appears to be contrary to the holistic, small-farm philosophy.

Small cows dominateI will be presenting at the “World Congress on Controversies and Consensus in Bovine Health, Industry & Economics” in Berlin later this week, and have been asked to debate the question “Are hyper-intensive, mega farms more efficient?” If we examine the science, the results are unequivocal.

To use the U.S. dairy industry as an example: over three-quarters (76.7%) of dairy farms have small herds (less than 100 cows) and only 4.2% are large, with more than 500 cows in the herd. Yet the contribution to total milk supply is disproportionate – those 76.7% of herds containing <100 cows produce only 13.7% of U.S. milk, whereas the 4.2% of farms with >500 cows produce 63.0% of U.S. milk. A 17% Large cows dominateincrease in milk yield per cow is exhibited in large herds compared to small herds – does this mean that so-called mega farms are more efficient? Yes. They have a higher output of milk per unit of input. Data from the FAO also shows that as milk yield increases, the carbon footprint (and other resource use impacts) per unit of dairy is reduced.

Yield per cow and herd size (metric)Does this mean that large herds are better? Not necessarily. There’s no measure of animal health, worker conditions, or community support in these data. Yet these issues are size-independent. It’s possible to have poor animal health or worker conditions on a small farm, just as it is on a large farm. I’ve seen some great small operations, but also visited amazing large farms, including a 1,200 cow dairy in SE England where I was extremely impressed to see that they had a hospital pen to segregate sick cows from the rest of the herd, and that it only contained 12 cows. A 1% morbidity rate. How would that compare to the average human workplace, school or city?

Size isn't importantIs there an ideal farm or herd size? A blueprint to lead the global dairy industry during the current crisis? No. Dairy farms vary considerably – it would be foolish to suggest that there is only one sustainable way to produce milk (although this approach is often taken by certain NGO groups). However, one thing is clear. As we approach a global population of 9.5+ billion people in 2015, we need to stop vilifying large farms and worshipping small farms, and instead promote efficient, well-managed, productive farms that can survive the crisis, regardless of size. As the saying goes – it’s not size that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts.

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/

A Christmas Wish – May All Your Cows Be Like Your Best Cow

I love conversations that leave my brain firing on a million cylinders and open my mind to new ideas. I was lucky enough to have three such discussions this past week, one at an organic research farm; another at a 300-cow Jersey operation; and the most recent with three faculty at the University of Oxford with regards to the interactions between animal welfare and livestock sustainability.

Animal welfare is a touchy subject – many people appear to define excellent welfare as only including a narrow range of production systems or practices; and although everybody has their own image of what a “happy” animal looks like, it’s not always easy to identify or describe those systems without anthropomorphizing. Indeed, I’ve become increasingly aware that promoting improved productivity and efficiency as a means to improve sustainability can be misconstrued as encouraging the agricultural equivalent of a owning a Victorian dancing bear or cymbal-playing monkey – a “force the animals to perform, regardless of the cost in terms of animal welfare”-type philosophy (see picture below).

Troll

 

Yet such suggestions entirely miss the point, as any system that is consistently detrimental  to animal welfare is neither productive nor efficient on a long-term basis. We humans don’t perform well if we’re chronically underfed, stressed, sick, or housed in unfavorable environmental conditions – and neither do livestock.

Personally, my agricultural utopia would be one where all livestock operations, regardless of size, location or production system, exhibit both high productivity and excellent animal welfare. Admittedly, this leads to the difficult task of not only defining excellent welfare, but also the metrics and benchmarks by which it can be assessed within each operation. However, there is one overarching metric that can be measured, and improved on any farm or ranch – animal health. By definition, an animal that is chronically sick, lame or in pain cannot be said to be a example of good welfare.

As consumers, we want to know that the animals that provide us with milk, meat and eggs are healthy. Indeed, I imagine that even the most militant vegan opposed to the consumption of animal products would agree that animal health should be paramount. As producers, making sure that livestock are healthy is as ethically important as treating workers well. Plus, healthy animals are easier to manage: they grow faster; they have fewer incidents of  illness or death; and they produce more milk, meat or eggs. These improvements in efficiency and productivity also mean that we need less feed, less land, less water and have a lower carbon footprint per unit of food produced.

Let’s consider lameness in dairy cattle. A major animal welfare issue, it costs between $120 and $216 per incidence (UK costs below)* and is a major cause of cows being culled at or even before the end of their second lactation. Similarly, mastitis has a huge impact on both cow longevity and productivity, and costs the US dairy industry $1.7-2.0 billion per year. If just these two health issues were addressed, how many associated dairy cattle health and welfare issues would be improved; how much could dairy farm profitability be enhanced; and how much would the public image of dairy improve?

Every herd has its best cow – the one who is never lame, doesn’t suffer from mastitis, metritis or ketosis; and gets back in calf easily – all while having a high milk (and components) yield. There is no magic bullet to improve productivity and efficiency –  yet the discussions I’ve had in the past week conclusively demonstrated that that does mean suiting your system to your available resources and, though excellent health, nutrition, breeding and management, allowing every cow to perform like your best cow, every single day. I wish you a Merry Christmas and hope that in 2015, all your cows will be like your best cow.

*Lameness costs £180 pounds per incidence in the UK, or £15,000 per average herd annually. Mastitis costs the UK dairy industry £170 million per year.