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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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.

Got Ebola? Just Take Some Vitamin C.

Ebola

It appears that the lunatics are taking over the asylum. This is another post about “things that irritate me” – just a short rant this time about bad science and fear-mongering. The current irritant is the Alliance for Natural Health (ANH; as publicized by the Organic Consumers Association), which claims that Ebola can be prevented and treated naturally, but that these remedies are being (gasp!) “ignored by doctors and the government”.

If you’re really concerned that you may catch Ebola, the easiest way to avoid it is not to have intimate contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids; but never fear, if you do, the ANH have a list of “proven” natural remedies that will stop Ebola dead in its tracks. For example, Ebola is selenium-dependant, making people who’re already selenium-deficient more vulnerable to the disease, so if you just load up with mega-doses of selenium, you’ll be fine. Equally, both silver and vitamin C are antiviral, so add these to your selenium cocktail and you won’t just be fine, you’ll be invincible!

There’s just one problem – none of these miracle remedies have actually been tested against Ebola, which ANH claim is because of government/big drug conspiracies. It’s true that increasing your intake of selenium and vitamins C, D and E should boost your immune system to a degree, but you can’t then have a long smooch with somebody who’s infected with Ebola and expect to be immune. More importantly, given the ANH’s claims of natural “treatment”, there is zero evidence that any of these purported remedies provide a cure.

Most worrying of all is the final tagline: “Alert! Write to both FDA and Congress. Ask them to review natural treatments for Ebola without the lengthy drug approval process“. This lengthy drug approval process exists to ensure that drugs are safe, efficacious and do not cause unexpected or severe side-effects. It costs drug companies millions of dollars to get a single drug to market through this process, which is required for every new drug in order to protect our health. Furthermore, “natural” chemicals are not safe or effective simply because they exist in nature. Arsenic, cyanide and mercury are all inherently natural, as are deadly nightshade and death cap mushrooms. The “action alert” above is an example of bad science and fear-mongering at its worst – a dangerous remedy that will do nothing to halt the spread of the disease – and will probably hasten the patient’s death in the process.

Farm Better and Feed the World…. Without Farmers?

Where's the beef...without ranchers?

Where’s the beef…without ranchers?

The New York Times is putting on a “Food for Tomorrow: Farm Better. Eat Better. Feed the World” conference in NY next month. This is a great idea – we all need to think more about our food choices and how we’re going to produce enough food to supply the population in 40 years time, when we’re predicted to have another 2-3 billion mouths to feed.

So just as a debate on the future of healthcare would include presentations from doctors and surgeons; or a discussion about how education could be improved would showcase teachers and lecturers; this conference is going to feature farmers, meat processors and animal and crop scientists, right?

No. Firstly, we have Michael Pollan, author and journalism professor, famous for the suggestion that if you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t eat it. Looks like quinoa, gnocchi and beignets are off the lunch menu? When participating in a recent radio panel discussion with Mr. Pollan it was frightening to note how uninformed he appeared to be about the realities of livestock production versus the activist rhetoric (or indeed, the common courtesies of polite conversation).

Secondly, Danielle Nierenberg. I had the pleasure of being on a panel in Washington DC with Ms Nierenberg when she was still on-staff at HSUS. She was vehemently against the use of technology in livestock production and claimed that all housed or confined cattle were kept in filthy disease-ridden conditions. She further claimed that, contrary to the World Health Organization’s information on the topic, bird flu did not exist in small backyard poultry flocks in Asia and that biosecurity in large poultry operations was responsible for its spread.

Thirdly, a spokesman from the Union of Concerned Scientists. A pseudo-scientific organization that is opposed to so-called industrial agriculture, GMOs, antibiotic use in agriculture, agribusiness, the USDA nutrition guidelines…. the list goes on.

Amongst the remaining 14 speakers, there is a self-proclaimed activist, a chef, a politician, 3 reporters, 2 academics, and finally, two representatives from the retail sector – Panera Bread (known most recently for their “EZ-chicken” campaign which was rescinded after outrage amongst agricultural advocates) and Walmart. The sole representative of the farming community is an organic dairy producer with a herd of 85 Ayrshire cows from Wales.

I’m not suggesting that none of these people have valid opinions on how food should be produced – as consumers, we all do. However, the fact that conventional food producers and processors aren’t involved in the discussion makes me wonder whether this is simply an opportunity for those who most often criticize the current food system to shake each other’s hands, nod happily in agreement and make proclamations about how things “should be”, without discussing the practicality or feasibility of these solutions with those who farm the land and raise livestock every single day.

Almost inevitably, the conclusions coming out of this conference will be that you should reduce consumption of processed and conventionally-produced foods, and that if you are going to eat a small amount of meat, it should be organically-raised. That’s a beautiful shiny picture – I wonder what it will mean to the single mother trying to feed four children on a $10,000 salary; or the livestock producer who simply cannot make a living producing organic cattle?

Starvation isn’t sustainable for anybody – to feed the world in 2050 we need real solutions that improve crop and animal performance while reducing resource use. Solutions that are provided by farmers and ranchers working together with geneticists, nutritionists, consultants, veterinarians, crop scientists, soil scientists and meat scientists to improve the productivity of their farm.

To bastardize the old saying: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime; give a man a panel of 17 food “experts” and you’ll feed him for…..?” Cynically, I’d suggest the answer may be less than one meal.

Pesticides, Hormones and Drugs, Oh My!

“Product A is healthier than Product B

“Product C is ethically produced”

“Product D is better for the planet than Product E”

But what if it’s not? What if claims are based on one single paper out of 1,000 published papers?

What if the next human health claim “Product F contains increased concentrations of fatty acids that improve heart health and prevent cancer” is true… but the fatty acid concentrations are so low that you’d need to eat 500 lb of the food product per day to have a significant human health effect?

My all-time favorite food advertisement is posted below. It’s an amazing concept, beautifully-drawn, thought-provoking… and it says nothing. Yet if you buy any other milk, aren’t you feeding your children, grandchildren or partner with pesticides, hormones and drugs?

Marketing is awesome. Mis-marketing does nothing but confuse the consumer, the policy-maker and the retailer.

Organic Valley Advert c. 2009