Ethical Eating – The Climate

We’ve come to the last of my three considerations for ethical eating, eating with a climate conscious. Much as we have been discovering throughout this set of themed posts, there is no ‘easy’ answer to this. The climate is a complex system that is definitely heating up, but the best way to mitigate these changes is not so obvious.

It’s common to hear about two main challenges here: the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that come from our agriculture, and the GHG emissions that come from our food transport.

Agricultural GHGs

This has been a huge topic within agricultural science lately, and it never fails to make people giggle because it’s all about farts and burps, and as someone who has regularly been farted and burped on by cattle in my life, I’m aware of their abilities in this area. There’s a fairly old (2007!) article about this in the Guardian which I think lays out the issues well, and then almost the exact same article was run in 2010.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of United Nations, worldwide, the agricultural sector accounts for 18% of our global greenhouse gas emissions (FAO). This is unequally split between methane emissions (35% of global emissions), CO2 (only 9% of global emissions) and Nitrous Oxide (a whopping 65% of global emissions). Check out their comprehensive infographic here.

The methane comes mostly from the digestive process of our livestock (from 2001-2010 they emitted 40% of the agricultural GHGs) and this is what the Guardian articles were getting at when suggesting we should eat less animal products. This is not just meat, but dairy products are a big emitter here. (Seems like dairy just can’t catch a break, and seeing as it certainly makes me emit methane . . . well, less said about that the better I suppose).

There are attempts to mitigate livestock emissions, most often through changing their diet (Boadi, 2004; Beuchemin et al 2007; Several PhDs I know), as the fermentation process inside the gut which produces methane is heavily influenced by the microbiota in there too.

De Vries & De Boer (2009) reviewed the entire life cycle of various products and ranked the production of 1kg of each animal product in terms of their global warming potential. Their ranks end up being:

  • Beef, most global warming potential
  • Pork
  • Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Milk, least global warming potential

However, they are quick to point out the difficulty of comparing all these different life cycles. All the same it’s very convincing evidence that at the very least we need to be drastically reducing our meat consumption.

But what about other produce . . .

Food Miles

Weber & Matthews (2008) have an open access paper looking again at the life cycles of food, but they also investigated transport. Their abstract is really good from a science communication point of view, finishing with a succinct and relateable statement that even non-experts can understand:

Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.

How can this be the case? Well as the paper details, transport is only a small part of the overall chain. Edward-Jones et al (2008) have a critical review of the ‘buy local’ ethos and point out that without taking into account the whole life cycle (for which information can be limited), you can’t comment on whether local grown is better (in GHG terms) than imported food. But can it really be better for my Braeburn apples to come from New Zealand than England? Gonzalez et al (2011) conducted a study in Sweden investigating this and the culprit is the amount of heat these non-seasonal and non-native products need to grow. Better to grow them in season in their native ranges and fly them over.

Eating Ethically

With all of these posts I think there’s a common theme, which isn’t going to surprise anyone. We need to eat less meat, waste less food, and buy from sustainable sources. The ethics of buying from the right communities is the part that I find the most difficult, but I also know I lack the food-based skills I need to waste less food.

So here are some resources to get me, and maybe you, started:

Have you got any others I should know about?

The Best of Scottish Farming

It was the Royal Highland Show last week, which is always a highlight of my calendar. It’s great to see so many lovely looking beasties, as well as chat to a few people about agriculture. Among the stars were the Valais blacknose, my colleague Alex’s favourite sheep – like cuddly toys they are!

A teddy bear pretending to be a sheep
They are just teddy bears with animatronics, honest

Interestingly, io9 had an article about local foods and whether or not eating only locally is possible. I ate a lot of local food at the show, and brought home a limited run of Edinburgh gin and some Fudge Kitchen fudge. Now much as I’m enjoying them, it’s probably not wise to live off of them. (Although Athena is weirdly keen on the fudge . . .) Buying locally is not always easy, but is such a good way to support your local farmers.

I’m a terrible cook and my version of healthy eating is only eating half a Kitchen Fudge in one session, so I have absolutely no words of wisdom here, only to highlight yet again the complexity of feeding the growing world.

On fudge. And gin.

Could Deoxyribonucleic Acid Be in Your Food?

My colleague Arjan, who’s much wittier than I am, suggested the label go something like this:

Product may contain trace amounts of DNA; DNA has been linked with cancers and other disorders; There is a high probability pregnant mothers will pass DNA to their unborn children

It’s almost too good to be true, and certainly a gift for any science communication blogger out there . . . can it be?

80% of Americans support mandatory labelling of food containing DNA. 

My colleague Arjan, who’s much wittier than I am, suggested the label go something like this:

Product may contain trace amounts of DNA; DNA has been linked with cancers and other disorders; There is a high probability pregnant mothers will pass DNA to their unborn children

The Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University has a project called the Food Demand Survey which surveys Americans regarding their attitudes and sentiments to their food. Before we’re even going to address this claim about DNA, let’s think about the methodology.

The information comes from Volume 2: Issue 9 (January 2015) of their self-published online reports. So the first point to make is that this methodology is not peer reviewed. However we can glean some of the methodology from Lusk and Murray (2014). The survey has been running since May 2013 and goes out each month online to survey at least 1000 people, but no word on what their response rate is like. Each month they add an ad hoc question which doesn’t follow the basic survey layout and the DNA result comes out of the question.

So the question this month was:

Do you support or oppose the following government policies?

  • A tax on sugared sodas (39% Supported)
  • A ban on the sale of marijuana (47% Supported)
  • A ban on the sale of food products made with transfat (56% Supported)
  • A ban on the sale of raw, unpasteurised milk (59% Supported)
  • Calorie limits for school lunches (64% Supported)
  • Mandatory calorie labels on restaurant menus (69% Supported)
  • Mandatory labels on foods containing DNA (80% Supported)
  • Mandatory labels on food produced with genetic engineering (82% Supported)
  • A requirement that school lunches contain two servings of fruit and veg (84% Supported)
  • Mandatory country of origin labels for meat (87% Supported)

Really, without further methodology questions all we can really say is more of these particular Americans (a number we know is less than 1000) want mandatory labelling on foods containing DNA than a tax on sugared sodas. Without sample size data we have no idea whether that difference is significant or not (although if they surveyed 100 people, and 80% want DNA labelling, then that is significantly different from a random 50:50 distribution).

But here’s the thing: regardless of methodology, the idea that there are any people in a survey that aims to be informative who are concerned about DNA being in their food is very concerning indeed.

In the title of this post, I used an old journalistic trick by using DNA’s more formal name which is long, hard to pronounce and contains the scary ‘acid’ word. It’s the kind of question that we’d laugh about if it caught out our most hated politician. But the survey appeared to ask about DNA. I can only conclude this is a sample of people who have never even watched Jurassic Park, never mind the one respondent who said they’d read the bible as an agricultural text (this led me to the best site ever – Biblical Research Reports: Farming).

DNA has been one of the most amazing discoveries in science, and has been so completely misunderstood by the respondents of this survey that it’s unbelievable. And yet these consumers, by the same survey, place the highest value on the safety and nutrition of their food. Instead of laughing at them, it’s my role as a self-professed science communicator to give them the tools and understanding to interpret the information they need to achieve those values.

In America, it’s just a particularly obese mountain to climb.

We’re Number One! We’re Number One!

Some great news this week – the joint SRUC and University of Edinburgh submission to the UK’s Research Excellence Framework was ranked as number one (in research power) in the UK for agriculture and veterinary sciences. There’s a lot of very happy and excited people here this morning let me say.

Check out the press release here!

And now have a picture of a kitten 🙂

Sponsored by Samsung, Naturally
Athena Had No 4* Ranked Papers, But Neither Did I . . .

FoodInc – The Documentary Problem

I have mentioned a few times that I am a big fan of film, but that doesn’t always extend to documentaries. Why is this? Well I have an instinctive distrust of documentaries – I would not consider them a good source of information. In fact this was why I made my post on the Blackfish documentary. Much as I enjoyed it as a story, I wasn’t convinced it used the facts and science to the best possible way it did.

I am no expert in film, but I have spent a lot of my life consuming media and creating media to some extent. I’m a regular on TV Tropes. But it was this video by Every Frame a Painting (a great YouTube channel if you like film theory) that made me able to iterate what it is about FoodInc that makes me uncomfortable. Documentaries use the language of film to create an argument, and I think we have been trained not to argue with the language of film. Do you remember the uproar of Inception’s ending, was it real, was it not? Film critics talk about how the viewer is given no token to tell them where there is a dream and where there is reality in the film – which is unusual, because as audiences we are used to being told what to believe. The language of movies tells us to accept what is happening on the screen – this is suspension of disbelief. If you’re in a superhero movie, you don’t complain about the destruction of property unless it is egregious or you’re making a point.

Documentaries give us emotional reactions to facts – and when I see people bring them up as something to support their arguments, it sets my teeth on edge.

FoodInc is beautifully slick. That opening sequence is so stylish and borrows so much from the language of traditional films it might seem like an odd choice for a documentary. It uses music reminiscent of a psychological thriller. All of these are cues that a piece of fictional film would use to tell you to be afraid of what you’re about to see. It’s a great piece of film making, but it’s not a component of a rational, scientific argument.

It uses amazing infographics and zooms in and out of the labels, tying the identity of the stories to the situation you are used to being in every day – the supermarket. The message is that you should be afraid of this thing in your very own supermarket, like you should be afraid of the axe murderer undoubtedly waiting right behind you in the horror film.

Early on in the documentary there is a very powerful shot of a chicken in the foreground, prone, struggling to breathe, and the others behind it, out of focus. It’s like something from a Western movie, very stylised, not quite Sergio Leone but really striking – and so striking because the rest of that segment is very ‘documentary’, people talking to cameras, very traditional cinematography, and then suddenly this shot. It’s memorable.

The film works in chapters, each one snappily titled. This kind of style is now pretty well used in these kind of documentary cum educational programs, Crash Course comes to mind. The information is held in small, easily digestible chunks – really just a number of short acts strung together, each act with a different message, like each act has a different part of the story to tell.

For me as a scientist, watching something about an industry I am familiar with, FoodInc gives me a strange feeling. To see my industry treated with the language and style of a film, puts me on edge, even though I agree with a lot of its messages. We are much too disconnected with our food.

But documentaries are chiefly enjoyable because they use the language of film to tell us a story, not to teach us.

The final message – buy from companies that treat workers, animals and the environment with respect – is powerful and important. But let’s not forget this film wasn’t Oscar nominated for its message, but the way it tells it.

And fundamentally, this is why I prefer not to use documentaries as evidence in an argument.

When Bill Gates Pops Round For Tea

This post was going to be different, but I can’t resist sharing this story.

On Tuesday morning we received the usual “VIP Guest is coming round, make sure the place is clean” email, and summarily ignored it as we usually do. The gossip going round was that it was someone from the Gates Foundation.

So at lunch time, when these two maroon cars pull up outside the front door and a very recognisable gentleman walks through door accompanied by a flurry of dining researchers suddenly leaping to update Facebook/Twitter/Reddit/etc.

It was only Bill Gates popping round for coffee.

Oor Billy, as his good friends at the Easter Bush Research Consortium passed within ten feet of me, and then I possibly hung around outside the board room while he listened to the important people talk. The Gates Foundation is currently very interested in research, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where we have a lot of research links. They’re currently funding through the Program for Emerging Agricultural Research Leaders (PEARL) grant, the final proposals for which go in November. He visited our beef farm which is a world class methane emission centre, and while we were all greatly tempted to shoulder our way in there with some animal welfare grant proposals, the body guards were quite formidable. I still see this as a fabulous opportunity for animal welfare research, we’re so integrated, not only within SRUC, but the Easter Bush Research Consortium as a whole, that no one discipline of agricultural research is separated from the rest. While we have a lot of inter-team friendly ribbing, I don’t think we could make half the advances in animal welfare we have without the input from both the farming systems teams and the animal breeding teams.

The big take home story from this (aside from the unbelievably awesome fact that I was within ten feet of Bill Gates, the man whose hand has guided this century) is that agricultural research is earning the respect and serious funding it deserves.

It’s not so long ago that agricultural research was thought of as a ‘finished science’, that we knew everything, and there was no funding left there. My colleagues still clearly remember this. And now people are realising how we need to invest in agriculture to create a sustainable future. This is why both us at SRUC and the University of Edinburgh are interested in moving forward with closer relations, it’s why we’re taking part in international projects like the MOOC.

Overall, yesterday was an exciting day for us. And I’m definitely going to be exaggerating how close I was to Bill Gates when I’m telling this story in the pub!

Badger Fortnight – The Cull

This week on Badger Fortnight we turn our attention to the rogue of the tale, the humble badger.

Did you ever read the Redwall books as a child? If the story of Bovine TB was told Redwall style, I imagine the badger would be a travelling bard, handy with a bow, flirting with the bovine ladies at the bar, upsetting the status quo and just generally causing a fuss.

Badgers biggest problem in this story is that they are a host for Bovine TB. When they catch TB and it becomes an active infection the disease develops and they become weak and emaciated but rarely actually die from the disease. They can transmit this infection back to cattle out in the fields, again through aerosol droplets.

Badgers are group living animals which are highly territorial. They live underground in setts which are protected by law in the UK. For this reason, Defra’s randomised culling trials needed special permission. You cannot simply go and shoot badgers in the UK.

The culling trial was supposed to be the humane solution to the problem of the spread of bovine TB. As you may have seen in some other posts of mine, I have no welfare problems with humane culling (although I may not like it from an ethical standpoint).

In this post I’m going to briefly go over the final Defra reports on the culling trial and discuss why I would consider it to be an abject failure.


Humaneness of the Badger Cull

The Humaneness Monitoring protocol for the cull (Version 0.4) states that:

“Killing techniques that are instantaneous without imposing any stress on the animal are universally accepted as being the ideal and having a low welfare cost. Welfare costs are assessed in two dimensions: duration and intensity of suffering.”


I’m fairly content with this definition. If the process doesn’t stress the animal and the death is fast, I consider that to be a ‘good’ death. The protocol itself states how they recorded the whether or not the cull was humane. They investigated:

  • Time from being shot to death
  • How many badgers escaped after being shot at?
  • What do badgers do after being shot at?
  • Where on the badger are the wounds located?
  • How injured are the shot badgers?
  • Is there a relationship between time till death and type of injury?
  • Is there a difference in the wound type between shootings observed by researchers and unobserved shootings?

This protocol also features the cutest little wound plot you ever did see.


Taken from the Humaneness Report Protocol, 2014, Version 0.4
Taken from the Humaneness Report Protocol, 2014, Version 0.4


These are the objectives the independent panel used to decide whether or not the badger cull was considered humane. But of course the cull had another objective too.


Population Control

The cull’s purpose was of course to control the badger population in the region. The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency 2014 Report into the efficacy of the cull (Version 1) describes how the AHVLA judged the success of the cull on a population control level.

Their aim, stated at the very start, was to reduce the badger population in the Gloucestershire area and Somerset area by at least 70%. Pretty early in this report you’ll notice the words ‘cage trapping’ being used. And if you’ll scroll up just a few paragraphs you’ll notice the humaneness protocol mentioned nothing about cage trapping.

Yes, the cull, in the end, did allow for cage trapping followed by shooting. Does being confined in a small area, unfamiliar to you, for up to a day, before a human approaches and shoots you sound like a stress free death? There’s a reason ‘like an animal in a trap’ is a saying.

Moving swiftly on . . . the AHVLA sampled the number of badgers in the area using hair traps – by placing little pieces of barbed wire near setts and badger runs they collected badger hair and DNA sampled that hair to build up a profile of how many badgers were in the area. They then compared the DNA of culled badgers to their profile.

They also investigated sett disturbance by monitoring the setts and placing, in a slightly Nancy Drew esque fashion, sticks outside the setts and noting which ones were disturbed. This method was not very reliable and they stopped using it because it was estimating that the cull had taken out over 100% of the badgers in the area, even though the observers were clearly seeing badger activity.

So they stuck with DNA sampling.

Now as you may have heard, it’s important for the cull to take out at least 70% of the badgers or the disturbance in the population will simply lead to badgers redistributing within the air and increased disease transmission. The cull had to take out a large proportion of the badgers to be successful.

Now read on . . .


Cull Success – Numbers

The AHVLA report estimates that in the Gloucestershire area, the highest estimate of the number of badgers culled was 65.3%. And it could have been as low as 28%. In Somerset they removed a maximum of 50.9% of the population and as few as 37% of the population.

All of those numbers are less than the target of 70%, even the maximum estimates.

In Gloucestershire, more setts were active after the culling than before (suggesting that the cull had resulted in increased badger movement, increasing the perceived disease transmission risk). Although this didn’t happen in Somerset.

The AHVLA report concludes with the following verdict:

“From the results presented above we conclude that industry-lead controlled shooting of badgers during the entire culling period (including the initial six week period and the extensions) did not remove at least 70% of the population inside either pilot area. In both areas significantly fewer than 70% were removed by controlled shooting. The combined approach of controlled shooting and cage trapping also did not remove at least 70% of the population inside either pilot area; substantially fewer than 70% were removed in both areas. Populations of badgers were highly likely to persist within both pilot areas following culling.”


Verdict: Fail.



Cull Success – Welfare

The Humaneness Report (2014) found that only 36.1% of the carcasses they post mortemed had the first entry wound in the target location. When the contract shooters were observed this jumped to 42.9% and when they were unobserved it was 31.5%


As you can see from this figure, a proportion of badgers were found some metres away from where they were shot, clearly suggesting functioning behaviours and implying suffering and pain after being shot.

Taken from the Defra report into humaneness.
Taken from the Defra report into humaneness.


The Independent Panel Report’s Conclusion

Professor Munro’s Independent Panel Report (2014) takes both these reports into account when it delivers this damning conclusion:

“We concluded, from the data provided, that controlled shooting alone (or in combination with cage trapping) did not deliver the level of culling set by government. Shooting accuracy varied amongst Contractors and resulted in a number of badgers taking longer than 5 min to die,others being hit but not retrieved, and some possibly being missed altogether. In the context of the pilot culls, we consider that the total number of these events should be less than five per cent of the badgers at which shots were taken. We are confident that this was not achieved.”


In summary, the cull failed to eradicate enough badgers to be worthwhile and it failed to do this in a method that we would consider humane.

The report also makes this  mention of the problems surrounding the humaneness of the cullings:

“Further concern about the accuracy of shooting stems from the following observations:

a. Seven badgers required at least two shots, with one Observed shooting recording six shots fired at a single badger.

b. A further seven badgers (in Category C) may have been missed completely. In one of these cases two shots were fired at two badgers, with both shots being considered misses on the basis of thermal imaging observations and subsequent analysis of thermal imaging recordings.”


So on the two criteria by which the culls were launched, they failed. They are not an option for controlling bovine tuberculosis.


So what happens now?


Tune in next week  . . .

Badger Fortnight: TB

For the next couple of weeks I am dedicating Fluffy Sciences to the noble badger. Why, you ask? Well because the other day I ended up reading Defra’s independent panel report on the UK badger cull and the whole thing made me grumpy.

As someone who works both in animal welfare and in the agricultural industry, with a soft spot in my heart for cattle, I have heard a lot about Bovine TB and badgers in the past few years. I’m going to spend the next few posts telling that story, and where better to start but with Bovine TB itself? After all, without this insidious disease, badgers would be fondly remembered from the Animals of Farthing Wood, or the noble lords in Redwall. Instead they’re synonymous with James May and the word ‘cull’. An interesting turn of events.

So. Bovine TB, the villain in our tale. What are you?

When you’re reading or watching some trashy historical drama and the heroine coughs into her handkerchief, staining it gently with blood, you know she’s not long for this world. Satine, I’m looking at you. That disease is Tuberculosis, or consumption, if you’re still feeling gothic.

It’s a famous disease in science because of Robert Koch, who formulated the well known Koch Postulates, a set of rules to identify the causative pathogen of disease. While still very much remembered, they have been supplanted with other rules better capable of identifying things like parasites and even non-active infections.

  1. The microorganism must be found in abundance in all organisms suffering from the disease, but should not be found in healthy organisms.
  2. The microorganism must be isolated from a diseased organism and grown in pure culture.
  3. The cultured microorganism should cause disease when introduced into a healthy organism.
  4. The microorganism must be reisolated from the inoculated, diseased experimental host and identified as being identical to the original specific causative agent.

Koch identified the agent of TB, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and he received a Nobel Prize for his troubles. Interestingly enough, he received his prize even though for years he’d been convinced that Bovine TB and human TB were not similar, and it was his results that forced him to reevaluate this position.

Fast forward a couple of hundred years and this disease which, at one point, was causing 25% of the deaths in the world was now on the run. Almost all Brits have a peculiar little scar on their left upper arm, the BCG (Bacillus Calmette–Guérin) scar. I have had some Americans quiz me about it and it turns out Americans never had a mass BCG immunisation. You guys missed out on some quality arm punching in school.

If you’ll think back to your school days, you’ll remember a thirteen year old you suspiciously watching a nurse inject you just under the skin on your arm. A few days later they inspect the mark and then decree whether or not you will receive the BCG  vaccination.

It’s often said that if you react to the skin test it means you are already immune to TB, but this isn’t quite true. It means that your body reacted to the TB (in a healthy person this means they got a red blister bigger than 15mm in diameter) which may be because you have a previous vaccination or because your body already has an active TB infection.

Regardless, those who escaped the skin blister get called back for the vaccine. The injection goes between the skin (large ulcerated BCG marks are often an indication of an accidental subcutaneous BCG). As vaccinations go, its quite painful (I remember it being more uncomfortable than three successive rabies vaccinations) and not helped by the traditional teenage sport of punching people in the vaccination spot.

Large keloid scars can form, although latterdays these scars are not so prominent due to improved techniques. I did try to take a picture of mine for you but mine is tiny and barely shows up. The mass BCG vaccination program has recently been suspended in the UK as the disease is now considered very rare. Only at-risk groups are vaccinated now.



Despite the fact that antibiotic resistant TB is on the rise (and that this is frightening) in the UK we manage the disease in humans fairly well. Other countries, such as India, haven’t been as successful as we have in using the BCG vaccinations – and it seems to be that the disease is harder to manage in equatorial regions, for reasons I’ll not speculate about here.

However Bovine TB is caused by the very similar pathogen Mycobacterium bovis, which can cause TB in humans if they drink the unpasteurised milk of an infected animal, or if they inhale aerosol droplets (e.g. cough, spits and sneezes) of a cow.

Being someone who has been coughed, spat and sneezed on by various cows, I’m not particularly worried about this myself, even though Bovine TB can cross the species barrier, TB itself rarely becomes an active infection in the person who has it.

So why do we worry about it in cows? Well we have a strange double standard here. When we test cows, we use a skin test very similar to the one we use in humans. And, like in some humans, there is a reaction to this skin test.

And those cows which react to the skin test must be culled. You’ll remember that only a few paragraphs higher up I mentioned that a reaction doesn’t mean immunity, it just means the animal is reactive. It doesn’t mean there is an active infection, it just means the animal is reactive. Yet we cull those animals specifically to prevent the spread of the disease.

You can sell the meat of the culled animal if you want, because cooking meat kills the Mycobacterium, but you cannot tolerate a TB cow on your farm.

And this isn’t considering false negatives and false positives in the test, as no diagnostic test is perfect.

The fear is that Bovine TB will either infect or reactivate a latent TB infection in people. Because of this fear we cull any cows infected with TB. Defra have also produced what they optimistically call a leaflet (at 21 pages) of ‘What happens if TB is identified in your herd’ which remind me of those Simpsons leaflets ‘So You’ve Ruined Your Life’.


The moment a cow reacts to the skin test the herd is classed as suspect and moving cattle out of and into the herd is restricted. Any reacting animals must be isolated from non-reacting animals and culled. The milk is to be dumped.

The reactor cows are tested post mortem, but even if your reactors show no clinical signs of TB, your herd status is still Officially TB Free Suspended. You will need a clear test (or two clear tests if TB was found in your reacting cows) for your Official TB Free status to be reinstated.

If you have a TB farm you also have restrictions on where you can spread your slurry and on what you can do if your cows die on farm.

It is, in short, a huge hassle, resulting in cow deaths and loss of farm profits, as well as posing a health risk to humans.


It is with these facts that the government turned its attention to badgers, and that, dear readers, we will discuss next week.