50 Sheds of Grey – Mega Farms and Animal Welfare Are Not Black and White Issues

Further to yesterday’s blog post here, I was asked for my views on this article in the Telegraph by companion animal vet Pete Wedderburn. Given my propensity to use 17 words when three will do (I blame PhD training…) it was easier to blog about it than reply via Twitter.

TelegraphTo be fair to Dr Wedderburn, his article does note the importance of economies of scale and potential for targeted veterinary care on large operations; and it’s absolutely true that we, as consumers, demand affordable food. The average Briton spends only 8.2% of their income on food. Given how much we should value the nutritional advantages provided by meat, milk and eggs for growth, development and health, I have no issue with the suggestion that we should pay more (if needed) for higher welfare animal products.

Yet that’s where the argument gets difficult, and in the case of the Telegraph article, moves away from logic, science and economics towards anthropomorphism, emotion and the supposition that we can assess animal welfare based on human experience. If there was an emotive language quotient for the article, it went up significantly in the anti-mega-farm section.

Unpalatable (pun intended) a truth as it may be, we do not apply to the same standards to animals that we intend to eat (cows, pig, chickens) as to companion animals (it’s somewhat amusing that the Telegraph article was published within the “Pets” section), or indeed to animals that we consider to be pests (rats, mice, insects etc). Do many of us worry about the living conditions of house spiders or wasps, aside how we can kill them when they become a menace? No. Activist groups claim that this is speciesism, but I’d contend that it’s simply a factor of being human. We cannot have our bacon and eat it – if we apply the same standards to pets and farm animals (eliminating the “double standard” cited in the article) then perhaps by extension, just as we wouldn’t tuck into a steak from our pet labrador, we should cease to eat farm animals.

The ultimate irony is that, if asked, none of us would be happy to be killed and eaten. Slaughter is an inevitable truth of meat production, regardless of the conditions in which the animal is reared – if we cannot reconcile ourselves to the fact that we, as humans, would not be happy with that outcome, can we really assume that we can speak for animals’ preferences in any other circumstance?

“Animal welfare is a significant one [issue]: intensively kept farm animals never experience the open air, and never see blue skies” Being outside in the sunshine is undeniably lovely. However, we’re in the midst of the ill-named British “summer”. The rain is driving down and the Hereford cattle in the field I drove past five minutes ago were sheltering under a tree, ironically, voluntarily choosing to be in far closer quarters than cattle housed in a shed. We need to move away from the pervasive but false image of perpetual blue skies and sunshine. Would I personally wish to exist within the human equivalent of a battery cage? Of course not. Yet neither would I wish to be outside in pouring rain and cold wind. It’s all about balance. Do I know what a cow, chicken or pig prefers? No. We need further research to elucidate animal preferences and, *if* required, to amend our farming systems.

Animal health is another concern: with thousands of animals living so closely together, the risk of rapid spread of contagious disease must be higher.” At face value – true. However, as with so many rhetorical statements, this bears further examination. The risk is higher. Not the incidence, nor the mortality or impact on the animals, the risk. We can have a significant increase in risk that still makes little difference to the likelihood of an event happening. Take, for example, the announcement that processed meat increases the risk of colon cancer by 18%. Immediate media reaction? “Bacon will totally kill you!” Actual change in relative risk for the average person? An increase from 5 people out of every 100 contracting colon cancer, to 6 people out of every 100. Using blanket statements about increased risk, without backing them with any science or relative risk metrics (i.e. the likelihood of an incident actually occurring) is meaningless, yet an effective fear-mongering tool. If any farm (regardless of size) has excellent health plans in place, employs effective veterinary supervision and treatment and has appropriate biosecurity and isolation for sick animals, there is no reason to suggest that disease X will spread unchecked. Why did the UK government mandate for poultry to be housed when the risk of avian influenza was high? Because it’s spread by contact with wild birds and poultry, in precisely the supposedly healthy conditions proposed by the Telegraph article.

The supposition that “…if something does go wrong, it can go wrong on a massive scale, affecting thousands of animals at one time” is again correct – with one significant caveat. Relative risk again comes into play – why would a ventilation system be more likely to fail on a large operation than a small operation? A risk may exist, but again, it’s the relative risk (ignored by the Telegraph article) that is more important. To use a human example, if the power supply fails to a large hospital, we would assume that they would have more back-up systems in place than in a small cottage hospital. Why should Dr Wedderburn assume that large farms do not have operating procedures and practices in place to deal with disaster situations? In the USA last year, 35,000 cattle died during a two-day snowstorm, the majority not housed, but in open fields. Being able to control the environment and feed supply is a major advantage of housed systems – assuming the worst case scenario is business as usual is misleading at best.

Animal welfare is a useful tool with which to bash specific farming operations, because it carries a certain intangibility. What does good animal welfare really mean? How is it assessed? Are healthy animals automatically “happy” or in a good welfare state? Perhaps it’s time to revisit and challenge the rhetoric. Given that high-producing livestock should, by definition, be healthy, does that mean that we can use milk or meat yield as an indicator of welfare? Not necessarily. If we have to reduce the use of critically-important antibiotics, will animal welfare suffer? Not if we use other husbandry measures to prevent the disease from occurring in the first place (see figure below). Is a cow who is genetically programmed to produce 40 kg of milk per day automatically more stressed than one who is only programmed to produce 20 kg of milk? Few people would suggest that a woman capable of producing copious quantities of breast milk is more stressed than one producing a small amount, yet we try to apply this logic to livestock.

Langford CIA decreaseEmotion is a far more effective tool to lead conversations about controversial issues than science – perhaps its time to take the bull by the horns and get in touch with our touchy-feely side to communicate as the activists do. Ultimately we need to reassure consumers that, as with all issues, there’s no ideal or one-size-fits-all farming system, just a million shades (sheds!) of grey.

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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.

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.

Big, Small, Local, Artisan… Why We Need to Kick the Food and Farming Label Habit

coffe-water-and-brownieLet’s think about marketing labels. The coffee I’m currently drinking is a new premium blend with fruity notes and hints of lemongrass, the tasting notes so extensive that I was tempted to swill it around and pretend it was a glass of vintage Malbec before the first sip (except I knew I’d end up with a caffeinated tsunami flooding my Mac). The walls of this coffee shop are plastered with buzzwords including “delicious”, “lovers” and  “changing lives”. Everything is carefully stage-managed to make me feel that I’ve wisely invested my £2.50 on a cup of branded coffee. Is this coffee more caffeine-laden than the equivalent free-cup-with-a-loyalty-card from Waitrose? Can I detect the top notes of passion fruit? Does it use less water than freeze-dried instant coffee? Will I leap tall buildings with a single bound after drinking it? Absolutely not. Yet the marketing involved makes me feel good about my choice of coffee chain and beverage, without providing any factual information to facilitate my decision.

Like it or not, marketing labels are ubiquitous, exclusive and bipolar. Black and white. Yes or no. Good or bad. Even in the scientific world, where we’re renowned for caveats and “Under this specific set of conditions we saw a significant difference in X although that can’t always extrapolate to Y….” answers to questions, media coverage of scientific research is becoming binomial. Food X will kill you. Eat food Y and you won’t get cancer. Shades of grey have ceased to exist.

Back in September 2016, Jayson Lusk published an excellent piece in the NY Times explaining the importance of technology use on modern, large-scale farms. The only issue (for me) was the title: “Why Industrial Farms Are Good for the Environment”. The supposition being, of course, that we have to dispel the myth that “industrial” farms are environmentally-undesirable. Yet using terms like “industrial” have deeper connotations – if a large farm is industrial, is a small farm artisan? If a dairy herd containing 100 cows is a “factory farm” (regardless of familial ownership or management), is the one that contains 99 cows a small, vibrant, local business? Is a farmer who is passionate about pasture management, reducing nutrient run-off and promoting biodiversity a saviour of the planet, regardless of whether he/she produces enough beef to feed one family or 5,000 families (approximately 1,700 cow herd) per year? There are as many farming systems worldwide as there are farmers – trying to apply broad categories (“big vs. small” “factory vs. humane” “grass-fed vs. grain-fed”) tells us absolutely nothing about the management practices, animal welfare, environmental sustainability and social responsibility of a particular farm.

Perhaps it’s time to take a evidence-based approach. The consumer absolutely has a right to choose products from agricultural systems that they prefer, yet this needs to be provided via factual, quantifiable information rather than marketing buzzwords. Being told that a piece of pork pie is “artisan” or that Supermarket X’s beef mince costs 20 p/kg less does not facilitate informed decision-making.

If we assume that all other factors (including price) relating to food purchase are equal:

  • Eggs from Farm X are ranked 9.5/10 on supporting the local community
  • Eggs from Farm Y have an animal welfare rating 10% higher than average
  • Eggs from Farm Z eggs have a carbon footprint 25% lower than average

I wonder how many consumers choosing eggs based on measurable performance outcomes would be supporting a different production system than the one that they perceive to be best? We (as an agricultural industry as well as in the role that we all play as consumers) need factual information on labels rather than marketing buzzwords.

We would also have a better understanding of the issues that really are important to the consumer. I was recently asked whether I was concerned about antibiotic use in livestock. The obvious answer was “Yes”… yet my main concern was the challenge of eliminating the use of medically-important antibiotics (while maintaining access to veterinary antibiotics that have no impact on human medicine), reducing antimicrobial resistance and improving the health and welfare of global livestock populations through alternative technologies and management practices. Not surprisingly, my answer didn’t fit with the assumed “I’m concerned because everybody knows that farmers massively overuse antibiotics as a panacea for poor management” rationale.

Recent data from a global charity suggests that almost 90% of Indian consumers are deeply concerned about cattle health and welfare on dairy farms. Great. Does this mean they’d pay more for milk to improve dairy cow welfare? That they were given factual information about dairy production? That they understand the relative environmental impacts, cattle health issues and social impacts of various dairy systems? All unlikely. We face a number of challenges within agriculture – notably the need to produce enough safe, affordable food to feed the growing population, whilst using fewer resources and with a lower environmental impact. We cannot and should not expect to make informed decisions on food choices based on marketing buzzwords – it’s time to stop differentiating on farm size or system and examine real farm impacts.

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.