Oxtale Blog

“Binarizing” food fails us all

2nd May 2019

‘Binarizing’ is our new thing. There’s no longer any ‘grey’, ‘sometimes’, or ‘depends on the circumstances’. Everything must be one thing or the other. You must be a Remainer or Leaver, a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’, and your attitudes towards race, religion, economics, diet, animals and who should win the Great British Bake Off are revealed by that one simple choice.

Food has not escaped. All foods are now ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for us.

Currently, all animal products are officially ‘bad’. They give us cancer, heart attacks and strokes; why Macmillan Cancer Support even jumped on the bandwagon and held a sponsored ‘Meat Free March‘.

Farm animals also use all our water, damn ’em, hence various water companies have been advocating cutting back on meat, seemingly convinced by NGO Waterwise that it’s the right on thing to do (cue hasty retractions from Welsh Water among others).

And farm animals are destroying the planet by ‘belching toxic methane into our environment contributing up to 51% of greenhouse gas emissions’ according to a number of pressure groups who shall remain nameless simply because I don’t want to give them any more publicity on top of the ill-gotten profile they’ve already secured through their abuse of science.

But life is simply not that simple.

We can satisfy our yearnings for animals to be roaming free in wildflower meadows but that doesn’t feed many people, increases costs (making some foods unobtainable), and has a higher carbon cost per kg of food produced.

We can adopt highly intensive farming as it’s usually the most cost-effective and carbon-efficient, producing more calories and protein per unit of input than any other option. But while food should be affordable, does making it too cheap lead to over-consumption and waste? These systems need to be well-managed too or environmental or animal welfare challenges can arise, for example has the feed been produced from sustainable sources, how is the waste managed to avoid pollution and what is the water footprint? Some people are also intuitively uncomfortable with what they see as the ‘commoditisation’ of animals on more intensive farms, so will widescale adoption of these systems risk hastening any move towards vegan diets….?

…which leads us to plant-based. We can switch to a vegan diet but that’s not the best use of land, losing food production from vast tracts of the world that cannot grow human-edible food. Animal production incurs an element of waste as feed is converted into food, but increasing crop production without animals to eat by-products or produce manure is wasteful too. Cropping is not without its toll on wildlife, and bear in mind that small scale livestock farming provides essential daily income and nutrition to millions in developing countries.

We can stop eating beef, lamb and dairy to lower the evil methane eructations that are allegedly warming the planet (despite consensus that rising methane levels are not coming from agriculture) but much of this production is actually in wetter areas of the country where rainfall cuts water footprint dramatically and land can’t be used for much else – certainly not growing avocados. It would be harder to consume nutrients such as amino acid lysine, calcium and B vitamins in adequate amounts without cattle and sheep making it available for us – plus these animals are superb at recycling plant matter back into soil carbon and nutrients via their giant fermenting vat rumens, supporting rich biodiverse species in the process.

We could reduce pork and chicken, the world’s two most intensively farmed animal species, thus addressing widely expressed concerns about ‘factory farming’ and welfare, but these are by far the most efficient converters of feed into meat hence the recommendations from the UK government’s Committee on Climate Change for swapping beef and lamb for intensively produced chicken and pork.

It’s a mind-blowing and truly wicked problem, and one which has no perfect solution.

The conclusion? We will only find the optimum (not perfect) path by putting aside ideological entrenchment on single issues and looking at the whole problem in its entirely.

We need to abandon our binary ‘good’ and ‘bad’ labelling by system or input or purported impact on health when eating completely unrealistic quantities, and instead analyse the outcomes; all systems and all types of farming can generate a range of outcomes – some good and some bad – and these are affected enormously by how and where the farming happens and the quantities and balance of the resulting food eaten.

And finally, we need to accept there are different ways of achieving the best results – being prescriptive about the methods may satisfy pressure groups, but focusing instead on the end results fosters much-needed innovation and ensures we are focusing on what really matters.

Why we need “SAGEMA” – a “RUMA” for climate change…

3rd February 2019

Not long ago, here in the UK, livestock farming was being lambasted on an almost daily basis over antibiotics.

Apparently, animals were being ‘pumped’ full of the stuff – we were literally shovelling these precious medicines down the throats of livestock of all shapes and sizes. Furthermore, this was single-handedly causing the crisis of drug resistant infections in humans.

Or so the media reports and activist groups claimed.

Science had very little daylight in these arguments. Careful juxtaposition of figures about antibiotic use in animals next to facts about drug resistant infections in humans hinted at completely unsubstantiated links. Cries that 80% of antibiotics are used in livestock, with much of this as subtherapeutic doses for growth promotion, lazily omitted any geographical context or clarification. Then antibiotic use got confused with the risk of antibiotic residues in food and antibiotic resistance, leading to celebrities like Moby claiming that 75% of global antibiotic resistance comes from animals. Er, no.

The problem with all this hot air is it was actually counterproductive for a long long time. The livestock industry got itself into such a position of entrenched resistance it wouldn’t entertain that maybe there were some issues that needed addressing.

Wind this forward several years and the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) Alliance, which I am proud to work with, has helped turn this around.

By pushing back against misinformation while taking responsibility where it was needed, RUMA supported the industry in ditching the siege mentality and giving it the space to look at what did need to change.  It helped draw lines between fact and fiction, supported the development of plans to target unnecessary or inappropriate use of antibiotics, and facilitated what has so far been a 40% reduction in five years. Of added help were the experiences of the poultry meat sector, which had made its enlightened move to do this several years earlier.

The industry has now planted a flag on the areas it need to address, clarified the science on the areas it is being incorrectly blamed for (eg, the majority of human healthcare issues with AMR are coming from medical not animal use of antibiotics, but we are part of the equation), and has joined in a more constructive One Health approach with the human healthcare sector and (shortly) the environmental sector.

Longer term, engagement on this issue has ended up being wholly productive. While the UK started from a considerably better place than many countries, we still had many weak spots of unnecessary or even inappropriate use. Addressing these has meant scrutiny of practices and changes to improve the underlying health of animals, biosecurity, infrastructure and management. We now have sector-specific plans in place and are on track to have halved use overall by 2020 with animal health and welfare the worthy beneficiary.

What does this have to do with climate change, you might ask? It strikes me that we are now in almost exactly the same position regarding greenhouse gases as we were with antibiotics several years ago.

The signs are that

a) it is incredibly hard to find accurate facts, with claims lacking rigour and consistency pushed by one side being met with equally skewed figures on the other

b) livestock is becoming the popular whipping boy for the issue to the exclusion of almost every other cause, and

c) the flack is leading to a siege mentality which is becoming completely counterproductive.

And as with antibiotics, if we are to make progress we will d) need to work together and find a range of truly sustainable solutions that accommodate trade-offs, unintended consequences and the vagaries of human behaviour.

So I propose this. Having seen this fascinating post on a New Zealand dairy farmer’s engagement on the issue today, I think UK farming as a whole (because tillage and manures for arable farming are part of the equation) should create a Sustainable Agricultural Gas Emissions Mitigation Alliance (SAGEMA, if you will) to start getting science back in the debate while being open and honest about the issues and failings that need addressing.

And maybe, like RUMA can, in five years’ time we will be able to look back from a far more comfortable and reputationally sustainable position.

Picture: cows at the Ellinbank Dairy Research Centre in Victoria, Australia, wear backpacks that measure their methane output. Credit Eddie Jim/Fairfax Syndication




‘Method of Production’ labelling is the REAL risk to welfare

11th March 2018

Let’s get one thing straight. A label on a food product should be accurate, meaningful and representative of what it claims. After all, it’s a communication tool to help consumers.

And that’s what’s so wrong with ‘method of production’ labelling proposals so beloved at the moment by a consortium of animal welfare campaign groups.

They are currently homing in on Defra’s proposal for “The future for food, farming and the environment”, out for consultation until 8 May.  And they can scent blood. Because not only does the consultation ask about the accuracy of food labelling, but the issue is being rather successfully positioned at the moment as a pet topic of Secretary of State Michael Gove.

The consortium wants mandatory ‘method of production labelling’ which will tell people whether those animals have been outside or stayed in during their life or production cycle.

And what’s the problem with that? Surveys show people value animals having outside access and relate to many intrinsic pleasures such as interaction with nature or feeling the sun on your skin. A conversation with an uninformed member of the public will more often than not reveal the same sentiment.

My beef is this. Outdoor access has the potential to contribute to good welfare, but it does not make good welfare – and in fact can mask poor welfare.  While the stated aim of campaigners is transparency for the consumer, the ambition is to create an easy proxy for welfare. And that is wrong.

Take this example.

Almost all cows in the UK are housed for at least 5-6 months of the winter. Some cow housing can be poor simply because it’s outdated, has bad infrastructure to handle slurry and waste, or uses cubicle beds which are just too small for today’s bigger-framed cow. The issues with this type of housing are well documented in science. It can cause lameness, mastitis and lesions where the cow rubs continually against struts and poorly positioned barriers. So allowing those cows outside for 6-7 months of the year provides a welcome respite and opportunities to remedy these issues.

Consider newer state-of-the-art housing. It has comfort cubicles, a dry and airy environment, rubber flooring and plenty of space and light. When the cows are turned out there is rarely any change in their health as they accumulate no issues during the housing period. Furthermore, they show less inclination to go out when offered the choice.

Now imagine the cows in the first scenario are turned out for 6-7 months each year, and in the second, for just 1-2 months. What is the determinant of better health and welfare – the length of the period the cows go out, or the quality of their housing?

It’s not straightforward. Being outside can offer a level of behavioural enrichment that’s hard to match where cows are housed continually. But behavioural enrichment is not, as many welfare campaign groups seem to suggest, all that matters. Welfare is about a good life, so pleasure, enjoyment and contentment. But it’s also about freedom from pain, hunger, thirst and fear. And it’s about company of one’s own kind (hey all you owners of single dogs, cats and horses out there….!).

Cows on extended grazing systems can suffer from the extreme effects of the weather such as heat stress in summer and exposure in winter – as we have found recently. They are at greater risk of exposure to parasites and some pathogens, and can fail to take in enough feed to maintain their weight. Cows in housing can have a greater risk of lameness, mastitis and lesions as outlined in the example above – and can also lack behavioural stimulation. While good management can mitigate almost all risks in either, poor management can also exacerbate them.

This conundrum extends beyond dairy cows. Free range eggs have enjoyed a surge in demand but science says barn or caged eggs may provide better health and welfare. Bird flu is also an ongoing threat to free range flocks, and pigs in outdoor systems can suffer greater mortality. Admittedly, there’s no greater indicator of poor health than death.

This tells me we are measuring apples to try and get pears, and we need to go back to the drawing board. To know the quality of health and welfare, we need to measure how healthy and happy an animal is. To know the level of outdoor access (which is a closer proxy for a ‘naturalness’ than it is welfare), we need to measure how long they spend outdoors. When the consortium, Labelling Matters, states “scientific research shows that certain intensive production systems are intrinsically incapable of delivering high welfare outcomes”, I say: “maybe”… but neither should we assume outdoor access is intrinsically capable of delivering them.

So here’s a proposal.

Let’s get rid of all the crap, meaningless labelling where fake farm names are used. Let’s not suggest through words or pictures that animals go outside if they don’t. But let’s also stop using terms like ‘intensive’ and ‘factory farming’, which are just as misleading as ‘grass-fed’ or ‘farm fresh’.

Where the legal minimum is met, let’s just not label it. No quality label means legal UK minimum for all foods, whether homegrown or imported. Simple.

Let’s call food British when it is genuinely from the UK. Not Irish, or slaughtered in the UK, but reared and milked or laying or slaughtered in the UK.

Let’s make sure Red Tractor is above legal minimum if we are going to use it. And producers who don’t meet the standard get barred from the scheme.

Then where we can separate the supply chain and charge the extra costs of doing so, let’s firstly have a health and welfare assessment label that looks wholly at outcome measures for how healthy, happy and enriched the animal is. Alongside that – and only alongside that otherwise it will be as misleading as ‘farm fresh’ – have a label declaring the amount of outside access that animal has had.

We have the intelligence, we have the measures. Let’s now inject some sense into this debate.



A pre-mortem could have helped Oxfam

15th February 2018

One can’t help but feel for Oxfam’s 5,000+ employees and 20,000+ volunteers worldwide. A violation of trust – where several employees of Oxfam were alleged to be regularly paying local prostitutes, some of them teenagers, for sex, while working in Haiti after the earthquake of 2010 – is unpeeling the organisation like an onion. The media keep looking for more fault, and finding it. And now the blameless involved in the daily workings of Oxfam, whether implementing projects, administering its workings or volunteering in shops or on the ground where needed, are placed in the unacceptable position of having to defend Oxfam.

The ramifications are already engraved on the wall. Trust has been lost, and overt virtue-signalling will result in withdrawal of government funding, mass exodus of celebrities and haemorrhaging of donors. Leaving the (presumably) vast majority of projects that are executed professionally and ethically exactly…where?

The blame lies with the perpetrators first and foremost of course. But is it feasible to think that in all the charities worldwide, there isn’t either some malpractice from the occasional bad apple, or that good people won’t sometimes do bad things when worn down by years of compassion fatigue or temptation?

What about the regulation provided by the Charities Commission? Having observed a certain toothlessness in its workings with animal welfare charities, who seem to suffer from ‘mission drift’, the watchdog has already been criticised for failing to respond to complaints about Oxfam raised in 2015.

But from a communications perspective, the blame for today’s media headlines can only lie with the Oxfam board and top level of management. It made the mistake of treating the issue as if it was an internal matter, seeming to take a ‘least said soonest mended’ approach, where it hoped the removal of the people involved would show the problem had been dealt with. That could be have been enough, but as we know now, it wasn’t.

I recently read of an interesting concept called the ‘Pre-mortem’  in Daniel Kahneman’s excellent book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. When nearing a group or committee decision, doubts are increasingly suppressed and doubters treated as disloyal. This can lead to overconfidence in the wisdom of the decision with those having valid concerns unable to have a voice. The pre-mortem asks the decision-makers to project a year into the future, when the initiative transpires to have been a total disaster, and take 5-10 minutes to write a brief history of that disaster. As Kahneman says, the main virtue of the pre-morten is it legitimises doubt. Furthermore, he explains, it encourages even the supporters of the decision to search for previously unconsidered threats.

One can only speculate the discussion around the Oxfam boardroom table about the travesties uncovered in Haiti when they emerged. When faced with the potential of a trying, difficult and risky episode from baring all, or dealing with it quietly, was the easier and more attractive option taken? Did the board genuinely think it was not a matter worthy of external scrutiny? Did someone express a concern that this problem needed to be ‘outed’, publicly and cleanly, and action which the public and authorities would deem proportionate be taken?  One would hope so, but that voice, if it existed, was not heeded.

Whatever happened, two lessons emerge for me. First, be the first to get news out there, especially if it’s as damaging as this. By simply getting into this situation in the first place, there is no no-risk course of action. All you can seek to do is minimise damage by controlling the message, its timing and delivery.

Second, listen to those voices. Has the downside of your chosen course been fully explored? A little more pre-mortem may prevent the need for a traumatic post-mortem.


RUMA: the art of active issues management

6th November 2017

With exceptional pride, I attended the second conference held by the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) Alliance on 27 October. For the past two years, I have had the privilege of working closely with RUMA to tackle the crisis the farming industry has been facing over its reputation on antibiotics use.  And it’s not been easy.

At the heart of managing every crisis is genuine, sustainable change, and while farming had definitely attracted far more than its fair share of blame in the UK for growing concerns over antibiotic resistance, you can’t demonstrate the facts unless you have a story to tell – and evidence to prove it.

So we set out to develop this story, to find out where the industry really was in terms of responsible use, to build trust with its most important stakeholders, and to show the issue of antibiotic use was being treated with the utmost seriousness.

It was clear last week we had achieved this. In spades. Not only had reductions in sales of antibiotics blown a governmental target apart, but we had achieved the impossible – got a leading farmer and vet from eight different livestock sectors together to form a crack Task Force that would identify, consult and agree antibiotic use targets or the next three years with universal industry support.

The lessons from this beautiful piece of issues management? Stick to your guns. Do what’s right. And prove you’ve done it.

With the very welcome permission of Veterinary Record, I leave you with this editorial.

Vet Record editorial leader 061117 RUMA conference