Ethical Eating Month – Cheesecake . . . wait?

Why no Ethical Eating post this week? Well we had our exam board for the MSc and so it’s been crazy busy. Instead, let me offer you my Cranachan Cheesecake recipe as an apology.

Cranachan is an old Scottish dessert, an easy, summery mix of fruit, oats, cream and whiskey. For this cheesecake version, you will need:

  • 300g digestive biscuits
  • 150g melted butter
  • 1/2 cup of rolled oats
  • 1 punnet strawberries
  • 1 punnet raspberries
  • 450g cream cheese (I used half and half philly and mascarpone)
  • 150g caster sugar
  • 1 tbsp bourbon (I used Jack Daniels)
  • 4 eggs
  • Springform pan

Preheat the oven to 180C and butter the pan.

Crush the digestive biscuits up and and mix with oats and melted butter, press down into the pan and cover with sliced strawberries and raspberries. Put in the fridge to chill while you prepare the cheese filling.

Add the cream cheese, sugar, bourbon and eggs and mix, being very careful not to overbeat. Fill the pan over the fruit layer and pop in the oven for 45 minutes (or until the cheesecake element only slightly wobbles)

Leave until cool.

A few things: Why use bourbon and not an expensive Scottish whiskey? Well bourbon, especially Jack, has the vanilla flavours, the honey flavours and the extra sweetness that puts you in mind of cranachan, but you could use a good whiskey if you have one on hand. You might want to add a dash of vanilla flavouring in that case.

Serve with tea and Great British Bake Off!

Ethical eating?
Ethical eating?
Ethical eating?
Ethical eating?
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Ethical Eating Month – Introduction

For someone who works in an agricultural college, I struggle with how to eat ethically. As we know, ethics are a personal thing, and my ethics may not be yours. My version of ethical eating is one that provides a good quality of life for the animals I eat, provides a good industry and quality of life for the people involved in the food chain, and minimises my carbon footprint.

So how do I try and eat ethically with these three goals? Well it’s surprisingly hard. In part this is because I am a deeply lazy person and the lure of pre-processed and delightfully packaged meals is hugely appealing, even if it as detrimental to my waistline as it is my world. In part, it’s because I’m also a hedonist (and I believe most people are). I don’t derive much joy from cooking and would rather skip the process entirely, and I get a lot of joy from the taste and smell and process of eating meat.  And in part because I’m a single person household, preparing food ahead of time is not always easy, and I do end up wasting food.

I’m an awful person.

You might have seen in the news further discussion of the price of milk in the UK, especially as Morrison’s has announced they will sell a milk brand ‘for farmers‘, that will pay them what the milk is worth. There was also Monbiot’s latest Guardian column about the difficulty of treating the obesity epidemic. I thought there was a curious parallel in these two stories. In the first, Sean Rickard, former National Farmer’s Union chief economist said:

“I think it’s unrealistic for anyone [receiving £28,000 per annum from the tax payer] to expect us just to pay them whatever price they think is needed to cover their cost of production.”

In the second, after Monbiot details the scientific evidence behind why obesity is so difficult to control, Guardian commenter ScottMa says:

“But for the majority it is entirely controllable. <ore [sic] difficult for some than others due to genes, maybe, but by no means impossible.

Monbiot has just absolved the overweight without a medical cause of all responsibility for their situation. Why does the Left have such a problem with that concept? Always someone else’s fault, everyone’s a victim.”

 

I have got to stop reading Guardian comments. But I think both of these comments share a few elements. Firstly, a great lack of sympathy for the people actually affected by the problems, and secondly, that food really does go hand in hand with opinion.

So many of us have been lectured at by bystanders, well-meaning family members, that one person in work, that we instinctively get riled about food discussions. Just this week I was saying that the ‘One Hour After a Coke’ Infographic that was going around had me rabidly proclaiming Coke as a health drink before I checked myself. We just don’t like being told about food.

I’m not going to tell you about food, but I am going to devote this month to the ethics of my eating, and giving myself time to refresh my understanding of my evidence. Welcome then to Ethical Eating Month, and I hope I don’t enrage you as much as food posts enrage me . . . .

Bon appetit!

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.

Why Science Probably Hates You

There was a great article on Gawker recently about the Food Babe blog, calling out her bad science.

Now I’ve never come across the Food Babe blog, as a scientist working in agriculture I don’t think our circles mix. The article is really interesting though. I do follow It’s Okay To Be Smart, though, and Joe posted a really interesting question in his reblog of the article.

Anyway, I shared the above article on my personal Facebook page yesterday, and one of my friends left a comment that really made me think. By calling her out, by trashing her ideas and shining light on her unscientific fearmongering, are we actually helping her? To paraphrase my friend Scott, by using scientific expertise as a bullying tactic and by spreading this story around in the Name of Science™, could this be the best PR she could ask for? Does this play into her hands, The Food Babe vs. The Establishment?

Misinformation like this needs to be called out. People should not be lied to and made to fear science. But do articles like this help her more than they hurt? How do we continue to battle misinformation without creating martyrs for the misinformed?

I don’t have the answer, but I do have another component of the question I want to ask. Last week, io9, Gawker’s sister site, posted an article titled “Your Pet Rabbit Hates You”. That was the title on the page, the title on Twitter, the key to making people click on the article. It certainly made me click.

The article itself is an interesting piece on tonic immobility, where some species of animals go immobile when placed on their backs. Jones (1986) describes tonic immobility as an unlearned response, e.g. instinctive, where the animal goes catatonic-like state with reduced reaction to external stimuli.  People like to show off tonic immobility, and it does have a place in animal management, but it’s also related to fear, either causing it, or caused by it (Gallup, 1977) – as a side note, I like the fact that one of the more recent studies linking tonic immobility to a personality trait uses Bayesian statistics. Consider my brain melted (Edelaar et al, 2012).

And this is really just the point the io9 article is making – that people who turn their rabbits upside down are subjecting it to unnecessary and unpleasant stress. That’s good for rabbit welfare on the whole, right? It gives people evidence to come to their own conclusions.

But that title, “Your Rabbit Probably Hates You”, immediately pits the article (and ergo the science) against the rabbit caretaker. Against the people whose behaviour your are trying to change for the good of the animal. It’s what I said last week, it’s what I said in the MOOC, it’s what I’ve been saying for ages.

If you want to improve an animal’s welfare, you have to be an ally of their owner. This smug, click-bait style reporting of scientific news innately pits the uninformed audience against the facts. Hungerford and Volk (2005) talk about the importance of empowering people when getting them to change their behaviours regarding the environment. By giving people solutions and tapping into their attention to act, you may find it easier to change their behaviours.

What if, instead of “Your Rabbit Hates You”, people saw “Your Rabbit Will Love You Even More If . . .”

What if, instead of “The Food Babe Blogger is Full of Shit,” people saw: “The Evidence Behind Food Claims”.

Not as clickworthy, possibly, but would it help people change their behaviours?

Could Deoxyribonucleic Acid Be in Your Food?

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.

Safer Food – Part Two

This week I helped out at a training course helping veterinary inspectors understand the EU legislation on the welfare of chickens.

Animal welfare research informs the legislation which goes on to protect the welfare of the animals. This is assessed via welfare quality measures (such as the Welfare Quality® Protocol) by inspectors. Veterinary inspectors need an understanding of the legislation, of the research backing the legislation, of the pressures the industry is under, and the value society places on welfare. This course brought veterinary inspectors together with Competent Authorities, scientists and government representatives to discuss the welfare of broilers and layers, particularly with regards to the new ban on barren cages for layers.

Did you know that the chickens we eat are not the chickens who lay our eggs? We refer to meat chickens as broilers and egg chickens as layers. We have heavily selected for different strains of birds, broilers gain weight very quickly (sometimes too quickly) and layers unsurprisingly produce many eggs. Chicken breeding companies even have their own patented breeds for slightly different production systems. This may seem ‘unnatural’ at first glance but selecting for production is an integral part of agriculture, this is how we domesticated animals in the first place!  One possible method for improving welfare in the future would be to incorporate welfare traits into selection. For example we could ensure a broiler breed is not only selected for good weight gain but also behaviours suited to the broiler management system. While this is just one tool we can use to help welfare, it’s one that could improve the lives of many birds.

If you’re in the UK and interested in keeping chickens you can adopt former layers – check out Little Hen Rescue or the British Hen Welfare Trust for more information.

One aspect of the discussion I found very interesting was how different countries felt the legislation fell in with their current practices. For example, Scotland plans to review beak trimming in 2016, while Denmark never beak trims and Austrian farmers can beak trim but they have to get veterinary dispensation to do so. There are also differences in how countries interpret more ambiguous parts of the legislation, for example Scotland treats enriched cage definitions slightly differently from England and Wales.

One of the EU directives was concerned with housing laying hens in enriched (or furnished) cages. This is essentially the banning of battery cages, which are banned in the EU from 2012. Enriched cages, while still very far from the mental picture one has of a traditional chicken shed, have perches, nesting facilities, and places to scratch and peck. While lighting conditions, beak trimming and social stress still exist, it’s a step in the right direction.

Lastly, there was wide agreement that it was the consumer who drives changes in farm practices. For example, the UK now farms approximately half its eggs from barn or free range systems, a massive change from 20 years ago. I come away with the impression that transparency in the market is necessary. There were many reports of enriched cage builders taking somewhat looser interpretations of the legislations (you’d never imagine there could be disagreement over ‘what is a perch’) and insist to farmers they are producing legislation compliant cages. It’s important that consumers continually ask where their food comes from and to understand how it is produced for the industry to achieve the high standards of health and welfare we would like to see.