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.

Scare Tactics – Why Do So Many “Public Health Experts” Promote Fear vs. Food?

pork chop 1How many of us are motivated by fear every single day? We’d like to think that we’re lucky enough to live in a society where we don’t feel afraid. In contrast to inhabitants of many war-torn regions we are unlikely to be shot as we drive to work; when we’re sick we have the luxury of modern medical attention (Obamacare not withstanding); and we can buy almost any food we fancy, at any time of year and feel safe in our food choices… or can we?

Food safety is an underlying assumption of dietary choice within the USA. We buy food based on three major factors: taste, price and nutrition. Safety isn’t a defining factor in choosing between the cheese quesadilla, the chef’s salad or the T-bone steak because most of us have rarely experienced significant negative health effects as a consequence of food choice (aside from the annual Thanksgiving food coma).

Yet so many food commentators, self-proclaimed experts (I read Michael Pollan therefore I am…) or bloggers appear to exist for the sole purpose of instilling consumer fear. Take this recent article in Salon – 9 reasons why we should fear eating steak – apparently it’s riddled with antibiotics, full of heavy metals and likely to give us all mad cow disease. I’m not going to turn this blog post into a thesis, so today will simply address one of the issues raised in the article, and examine the others in future posts.

I’m a scientist by training. In my career to date, I’ve learned that the more controversial the topic, the more important it is to base claims on sound data that is peer-reviewed and published in order to gain trust. If I present data that challenges perceptions, the first questions are always “Is this published in a peer-reviewed journal? Who funded it? How do I know it’s correct?” That is not to say that science is the only way to communicate – it’s not. Yet when making claims, it’s important to have science, or at least logical and biologically-feasible arguments, to back them up.

Yet, if we’re asking a question, even if it’s a loaded question that may instill fear or doubt into the reader, apparently scientific foundation is redundant. Could combining coffee and bagels in the same meal cause impotence? Is breast cancer caused by the rise in popularity of household pets sleeping on their owners’ beds? Is your tiredness really the result of too little sleep, or could it be all the chemicals that “big food” uses every single day? Hey, I’m just asking! Not making a claim, not saying that X + Y = Z, just throwing the thoughts out there. But having read them, how many of us now are thinking about our sexual performance, the potential ill-effects of Fluffy the cat, or how we really do seem to be more tired nowadays? (note that these really are examples that I have invented, I know of no scientific foundation for any of them).

Possibly the most damaging line in the Salon article contained no data. No scientific foundation. Just a question:

Could Ractopamine, added to the food supply in 1997 with little public awareness1, be contributing to skyrocketing rates of obesity and hyperactivity in children?

The FDA approved the use of Ractopamine in swine in 1999. It’s added to the diet of finishing pigs, improving feed efficiency and partitioning more feed nutrients into lean meat rather than fat (as demanded by today’s consumer). Effectively it allows us to produce more pork using fewer resources, but it has been linked to behavioral changes in pigs.

Most of us are aware that childhood obesity is a huge issue (pardon the pun). Many of us know children that have been diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). So does Ractopamine cause these? It’s as likely as suggesting that eating alfalfa hay is going to make us lactate like dairy cows.

Maximum residue limits (MRLs) exist to make sure that there are no human physiological effects of veterinary drugs in meat, milk or eggs from treated animals. Regulatory bodies including CODEX assess potential human effects of a drug residue in animal products by multiplying the average residue level in food by the average intake. For example, if the residue level is 2 micrograms per 100 grams and the average person eats 300 grams of that food each day, the intake would be 6 micrograms. This intake is then compared to the acceptable daily intake (ADI) – the quantity that could be eaten every day for a lifetime without human health risk. This is usually the intake that would have a physiological effect, divided by a safety factor of one hundred. The MRL for Ractopamine in meat is 0.25 parts per million (0.00000025 grams per gram) with an ADI of 1.25 micrograms per kg of bodyweight per day.

If we examine the average pork intake for a 10 year old child in the USA (detailed calculation below) we see that they’d have to eat 13.3x more pork than the daily average to even equal the ADI – remember that’s the intake at which we would expect no physiological effect. For Ractopamine to have a physiological effect, the ADI would have to be increased one-hundred-fold. So the average 10-year old child would have to eat 1,330x more than the average child’s intake of pork, equivalent to 35 lbs of pork per day, every single day (the average adult only eats 48 lbs of pork in a year), for Ractopamine to have a health effect. My little nieces adore pork sausages, but they are pushed to eat two (approx 2 oz) in a day, let alone 35 lbs worth!

Still think that we can link Ractopamine use to obesity and ADHD? We can’t prove a negative, but it’s as tenuous a link as suggesting that we could drown in a single drop of water. So why are public health “experts” like Martha Rosenberg using fear tactics to scare us rather than extolling the positive contributions that high-quality animal proteins make to the human diet? Surely there’s no agenda there….is there?

1Note that all the data relating to this is freely-available on the internet – the “little public awareness” line is simply more fear-mongering.

Details of Ractopamine calculation

Let’s examine an average child’s intake. The average 10-year-old boy in the USA weighs 32 kg (71 lbs) and needs 34 grams of protein each day. In the USA, meat contributes about 40% of protein intake and about 21% of that comes from pork. That means, on average, a 10-year-old boy would eat about 12 g of pork per day (2.9 g protein).

If Taylor eats 12 g of pork each day at the maximum residue limit of Ractopamine (note that this would be unusually high), he’s consuming 12 g x 0.25/1,000,000 = 0.000003 g Ractopamine. His ADI = 1.25 micrograms x 32 kg bodyweight = 40 micrograms, or 0.00004 grams. That’s 13.3x higher than his intake. So a child could eat 13.3x more pork than average, every single day, and not be expected to have any physiological effects. For ingested Ractopamine to have a physiological effect he would have to eat 100 times that amount – 16 kg, or 35 lbs of pork per day. To put that into context, the average adult eats 48 lbs of pork in a year.

Are We Increasing Resource Use and Taking Beef from the Mouths of Hungry Children?

Bull eatingCan we really afford to lose the sustainability advantages that productivity-enhancing tools provide?

Beta agonists have been a hotly debated topic in the media recently, after it was suggested that the use of Zilmax™ might be related to welfare issues in supplemented cattle (see note 1), and Tyson announced that they would not purchase cattle produced using the feed supplement.

As the global population increases and consumer interest in food production sustainability continues to grow, we know that to maintain the continuous improvements in beef sustainability that we’ve seen over the past half-century, we need to ensure that economic viability, environmental responsibility and social acceptability are all in place. All cattle producers obviously have the choice as to what tools and practices are used within their operation, but what are the big picture environmental and economic implications of removing technology use from beef production? Let’s look at two tools – beta agonists and implants (see note 2 below for an explanation of these tools).

Figure 1. Extra Cattle NeededIn a traditional beef production system using both tools, we’d need 85 million total cattle (see note 3) to maintain the U.S. annual production of 26 billion lbs of beef (see note 4). If we removed beta-agonists from U.S. beef production we’d need an extra 3.5 million total cattle to support beef production; losing access to implants would require an extra 9.9 million cattle; and removing both tools would increase total cattle numbers to 100 million (a 15 million head increase) to maintain the current beef supply (see note 5).

If we need more cattle to maintain beef supply, we use more resources and have a greater carbon footprint.

If we removed beta-agonists, we would need more natural resources to maintain U.S. beef production:

  • More water, equivalent to supplying 1.9 million U.S. households annually (195 billion gallons)
  • More land, equivalent to an area just bigger than Maryland (14.0 thousand sq-miles)
  • More fossil fuels, equivalent to heating 38 thousand U.S. households for a year (3,123 billion BTU)

If we removed implants, we would need more natural resources to maintain U.S. beef production:

  • More water, equivalent to supplying 4.5 million U.S. households annually (457 billion gallons)
  • More land, equivalent to the area of South Carolina (31.6 thousand sq-miles)
  • More fossil fuels, equivalent to heating 45 thousand U.S. households for a year (3,703 billion BTU)

If we removed both beta-agonists and implants, we would need more natural resources to maintain U.S. beef production:

  • More water, equivalent to supplying 7.3 million U.S. households annually (741 billion gallons)
  • More land, equivalent to the area of Louisiana (51.9 thousand sq-miles)
  • More fossil fuels, equivalent to heating 98 thousand U.S. households for a year (8,047 billion BTU)

Water infographic

Land infographicFuel infographicBeef production costs would also increase if these tools weren’t used. Feed costs would increase by 4.0% without beta-agonists, 8.1% without implants and 11.0% without both tools. These costs ultimately would be passed on through every segment of the beef supply chain (including the retailer or food service segment) and ultimately onto the consumer, making beef a less-affordable protein choice.

In a world where one in seven children currently do not have enough food, keeping food affordable is key to improving their health and well-being. If we use productivity-enhancing tools in one single animal, the extra beef produced is sufficient to supply seven schoolchildren with their beef-containing school meals for an entire year. Is that a social sustainability advantage that we can afford to lose?

Although animal welfare is paramount for all beef production stakeholders from the cow-calf operator to the retailer, it is possible that the consumer perception of productivity-enhancing tools  may be harmed by negative comments on media articles relating to Zilmax™. There is no doubt that we will need to use technologies within food production in order to feed the growing global population, yet we need consumer acceptance of both the technologies that we use, and the reasons why we use them, in order to continue to secure market access for U.S. beef.

Consumer acceptance therefore needs to be a key component of our mission to continuously improve beef sustainability. That does not mean giving in to the uninformed whims of those who blithely assert that we could feed the world by returning to the production systems of the 1940’s or ’50s, but does offer an opportunity to reach out, listen to and engage in a dialogue with our friends, family, customers and colleagues about the advantages that technology offers. We have a bright future ahead, but only if we keep the torch alight.

To read more conversation about the use of technologies within beef production (including the real-life experiences of feedyard operators who use these tools) and for facts and figures relating to beef production, please check out the following websites: Feedyard Foodie, Ask a FarmerFacts About Beef, and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.

Footnotes

1) Merck Animal Health have since pledged to conduct a thorough investigation into the issue and have temporarily suspended Zilmax™ sales in the U.S. and Canada.

2) Beta agonists are animal feed ingredients that help cattle maintain their natural muscle-building ability and add about 20-30 pounds of additional lean muscle instead of fat. Implants (sometimes called growth promotants or growth hormones), are placed into the ear and release hormones slowly, helping cattle maintain natural muscle-building ability while also decreasing the amount of fat gained. 

3) Includes beef cows, calves, bulls, replacement animals, stockers and feedlot cattle plus calves and cull cows from the dairy system.

4) Although this is a considerable amount of beef, it’s still not enough to fulfill current demand for beef in the USA and overseas. 

5) This work was presented as a poster at the Joint Annual Meeting of the American Dairy Science Association and American Society of Animal Science in Indianapolis, IN in July 2013. The poster is available for download here