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.

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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.

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.