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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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.

Is Our Modern, Chemical-Laden, Twinkie-Guzzling Lifestyle Killing Us?

Burger4How often do we hear that we’re so much more unhealthy than our ancestors? That our modern chemical-laden diet is responsible for the fact that in 2010, the top three causes of death were heart disease, cancer and chronic airways disease? That if we only ate like our ancestors did (if you can’t pronounce it, it shouldn’t be in your food…) we’d have the secret to eternal life?

Let’s take a trip back to 1900 – the US contained 70 million US inhabitants, McKinley was president, and the first Hershey bar was introduced. Life was so much simpler without those pesky whipper-snapper millenials on social media and everybody lived till they were 95, passing with a smile on their face surrounded by their 17 children…or did they?

It’s a beautiful image – and an absolute fallacy. Life expectancy at birth in 1900 was 47.3 years. To put that into context, Michelle Obama, Keanu Reeves and Elle McPherson would already be dead, and Julia Roberts, Matt LeBlanc and Will Ferrell would be enjoying their final days of celebrity life. The low life expectancy was skewed by the high rates of infant mortality in 1900 – premature birth was the #11 most-common cause of death and up to 10% of infants died before their first birthday. Any child that made it past 5 years old had a pretty good chance of surviving – as long as disease didn’t set in – the top three killers in 1900 were pneumonia/flu, tuberculosis and heart disease.

Hold on… heart disease? Surely that’s a consequence of our modern, slothful, twinkie-guzzling lifestyle? Let’s move on to 1950, when most food was still organic, high-fructose corn syrup hadn’t yet been invented and the majority of beef and dairy cattle were grazed on pasture. Top three killers: heart disease, cancer, stroke.

There’s a reason why Mark Twain’s saying “lies, damned lies and statistics” gets quoted so often. In this case, the data is true. However, when we look at the statistics, i.e. the % of people killed by heart disease or cancer, those have indeed gone up. Why? Because very few people die of pneumonia, flu or TB. If we express something on a percentage basis, a decline in one factor means an increase in another. Simple 3rd-grade math. I hate to point out the obvious, but we’re all going to die – and there will always be a cause.

Many enthusiasts for the “Paleo” diet like to suggest that it must be a healthy lifestyle, because the average lifespan for our ancestors was the same as it is now – providing that they didn’t die in accidents, war or from infection. Way to go for those few ancestors who stayed in their cave and didn’t get attacked by a wildebeest! All that actually suggests is that a human body has a genetic potential for life of 75-80 years. Europeans who died from the Black Death in 1348-1350 weren’t genetically programmed to live shorter lives, they were just unlucky enough to run up against the microorganism Yersinia pestis. We can’t eliminate specific causes of death that don’t suit our theory to “show” that one lifestyle is more healthy than other – everything that we do, every single day will have some positive or negative effect on our eventual lifespan.

We’re lucky enough to live in a society where we have effective sanitation, a wide variety of nutritional choices, antibiotics, vaccines, x-rays and prenatal vitamins. In the US, nowadays only 6 babies die per 1,000 births compared to ~100 per 1,000 births in 1900. Average life expectancy is 78.1 years. If I were to follow the activist “correlation = causation” logic I could point out that in the past 114 years we’ve seen the introduction of cell phones; nuclear bombs; GMO-crops; rbST for dairy cattle; implants and antibiotics for beef cattle; and corn-fed beef… so these technologies must make us live longer!! Hooray!! Instead, I’ll just be thankful that I will be giving birth within the next week in a world where we have a safe, effective food supply and that my baby will have a far better chance of surviving than her great-grandparents did. Thank goodness for technology.

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.