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Why we should be supporting better food – not just a matter of “opinion”.

June 3, 2011

   /əˈpɪnyən/ Show Spelled[uh-pin-yuhn] Show IPA
a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty.
a personal view, attitude, or appraisal.
the formal expression of a professional judgment: to ask for a second Medical opinion.

My family call me “Princess Opinia” on account of my being “opinionated”. They use this in a derogatory form, which I’m often offended by. I don’t see the things I share with them as opinion (as per definitions 1 and 2), rather information rationalised based on the best scientific sources, that I find concerning (ok I can maybe accept definition 3 – but who should/would really derogate a professional/doctor?). I guess this comes from being a scientist. We don’t (or shouldn’t) “believe”. Rather we “find” (and determine the errors and uncertainties associated with that finding).

Anyway, I’m a little off point, what I wanted to do was share a little bit of found evidence towards my “opinion” on the need to support better farming methods.

Today the BBC published this news article on a new strain of “super bug” MRSA found in Cows in the UK. They cite the likely causes of this development as overuse of antibiotics, prompted by the high production rates farmers must now achieve to make their products economically viable.

My mum is concerned for the dairy farmers, Jon is concerned that there will be no milk for his cornflakes, I am concerned for the cows. Now it seems human health may be impacted too. To clarify, due to pasteurisation this impact would not come directly from milk, but more a risk from the infection spreading as it has done in many UK hospitals.

I struggle to see who is winning with this current state of affairs, except those saving a few pennies (and of course the companies who make the profit). I’m no economist, so it would be interesting for someone to really work through what the real cost to consumers/farmers would be for better farming – once you take in to account the various skewings on the basics of supply and demand by the retailers etc. You can get lost at this point and this is where you dissolve in to opinions about the state of capitalism, consumerist culture, feeding the hungry, over-population, genetic modification, globalisation etc etc. I’m not going to comment on those issues, but bad things are afoot it seems and clearly something has to be done, for the farmers, for the animals and for our health – that is no mere “opinion”.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. marianne evers permalink
    June 4, 2011 4:09 pm

    Keep at it sweetheart.As long as you believe in what you are doing and practise what you preach you are ok. x x

  2. June 5, 2011 5:43 am

    Hello. Thank you so much for the good article to share together. We salute the happy life experience.

  3. Hepe permalink
    June 5, 2011 7:29 am


    It’s OK to be opinionated (and a Princess), and thank goodness there are still plenty of wise medical professional practitioners who would question their colleagues. An opinion can begin a hypothosis surely, the starting point for scientific investigation , so most of us will be OK with opinions, perhaps its how you give opinions that matters “don’t shoot the messenger” etc.

    You rightly question why science doesn’t give us an answer to many of our concerns for truth in the World, science is fact isn’t it, surely its beyond ‘opinion’? Unfortunately science and scientists are people too (oh yes they are) and they have pressures put upon them both personal and societal. If you are a scientist working on a research subject that to be frank most people are not concerned about or can even understand, you can be true to yourself. If, on the other hand you are seeking absolute truth in matters affecting people’s lifestyle and livelihood, you will be under considerable pressure at times to admit to opinion.

    To the subject: In my opinion as a layman, there is no question that human health is being affected by these ‘food factory’ manipulations, but surely there might be both a negative effect and a positive one. The disquiet in scientific life is that it often has to cope with these types of duplicity (paradox) and fit its findings into real life. If you don’t do that, then some scientists will be free to detatch the ‘purity’ of their science from the effect upon us all. That’s a bit like the Mafia saying “it’s not personal it’s just business”, you still die.

    It is science that discovered how antibiotics work to kill infection, we thank scientists for that. It is the administration of science that uses these same antibiotics to maximise the production of food, both in animals and in crops. There may be consumers, down to their last Penny, Rupee or Cent who only get by through the (unfortunate) utilisation of good science.

    I admire and welcome your concern with the healthy food chain, the manipulation of it and the part played in it by your fellow scientists. But, the problem with messages is that some people don’t like them and resist them, truthfully scientific though they may be. If the findings are valid, don’t consign them to the public bin because of presentation, find a way to deliver the message even if you have to select a ‘messenger’ such as Al Gore or Sting instead of a scientist.

    So the message is ‘stop messing with the food chain even if it does provide more food’, how would we present that message so that the positive side of the ‘messing’ for those millions who benefit is overwhelmed by the negative side revealed by science? Scientists cannot detach themselves from reality and are subject to the same daily grind as everyone else, that is their salvation when their findings are unpalatable. It is as difficult for scientists to face the stark future for food production as everyone else, so their message must get through for everyone’s benefit.

    I look forward to seeing the take up on this site of yours and to discuss many aspects of food production, soil health and direction for farming in the future.

  4. Hepe permalink
    June 5, 2011 11:45 am

    Sorry guys, I opened this site through an email link and missed the greater gourmet intent. I mistakenly thought it was going to be more of an interest in foodstuffs production quality, not the niceties of presentation and consumption.

    Kindly forgive the intensity of my previous comment, probably not appropriate to this aspect of food, I was replying more to the belief that there is something seriously wrong with food and its production chain, guess I will have to look for that interest elsewhere?

    • June 6, 2011 10:50 am

      My blog is hopefully on the way to becoming a combination of both these facets you mention, amongst others. I enjoy cooking and eating, they are my passions and a step away from my day-to-day work, but as an environmental scientist you never lose the wider perspective. I don’t like the weight of the worry that the choices I make when I eat are having negative impacts on the environment, people and animals. And whilst the blog is a day-to-day cooking and eating diary, it’s also a medium where I hope to communicate with friends and like-minded folk about the scientifically founded concerns I have about food and any “solutions” I find which could help mediate these. Hopefully I can achieve this without being too overbearing and offering evidence in a well informed, unbiased manner, but still opening the doors for interpretation. Whilst the problems are evident, what this means for society and how we solve these is of course, up for debate.

      I think as scientists we are obliged to share our findings with the wider community (especially as it is often them who fund our research!) and you are 100% correct that we must make this message accessible to the people who our research affects. This continually-in-development but somewhat immature blog is one of many ways I hope to give back, by engaging people with similar passions and exposing them to the science which underlies. Whilst some scientists are guilty of burying their heads in their pigeonholed topic of research, I feel privileged (although sometimes also plagued) by my inability to forget the bigger environmental picture around everything I research and everything I do in my life. Environmental issues are naturally interdisciplinary and any proposed solutions must surely be considered in the same way – hence my alluding to the socio-economic arguments which would certainly play a part in deciding how we farm better for the future. In my opinion (based on a synthesis of currently available scientific and socio-economic knowledge 😉 ), solving environmental problems whilst maintaining the best socio-economic standards is a ridiculously difficult balancing act. One in which technological advances will have to play a large part. An “environmentalist” who derides all technological solutions as heresy is as short sighted as the socio-economist who says that we cannot implement environmentally sustainable measures because they are bad for business or piss people off. Neither solves the inevitable problem and eventually everyone loses. An example I guess would be to consider something like deforestation or energy production. Are we better off removing vast areas of natural ecosystem like the Amazon to provide more natural food than we are clearing less land and using genetically modified high yielding varietals? I’m not sure. Are we better off using nuclear power because in the short term it could be more effective in reducing carbon emissions than yet-to-be-refined renewable technology? Again I’m not sure. Close to my own research is another example, should we geo-engineer the oceans to absorb more carbon if science can show its possible? These problems can only be accurately assessed and solutions found through an interdisciplinary use of science and a willingness to find the best environmental-social-economic solution with that science constantly in mind.

      Still, whilst I (more than many fellow scientists), appreciate the nature of the problems we face and am well aware that we cannot (and should not!) starve people to “save the trees” as many hippy types would have it, the point of my little “opinion” based rant (besides trying to enlighten my family to my scientific mind a little) was that we shouldn’t allow our feelings, beliefs, personal grudges and/or ill-supported “opinions” to cloud our minds so much that we forget the severity of the problems we face. Human impact on the environment is inevitable. And with upwards of 6 billion of us mainly desiring the western consumerist lifestyle often at the expense of our fellow humans, animals and the environment, well rounded solutions which please everyone will be increasingly difficult to come by. The single most important thing, I think, is that while we explore the muddy waters of opinion, theory, media bias and suggestion looking for reconciliation to social, economic and environmental issues, we must continually turn back to and not lose sight of the unbiased and factual approach science offers. It’s a tough job but someone (hopefully including me) will have to do it.

      The intensity of your comment is not forgiven, as forgiveness is not needed. Your comments are welcomed. A good friend often reminds me that “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything” and it will certainly take a lot of intensity and dedication to see the world (humans and the natural environment included) through the problems we currently face without disaster. Sometimes writing this blog I feel like I’m writing in to thin air, it’s ok if no one is listening as I enjoy writing down my thoughts purely as a means to process the world around me, but to get feedback from people and discuss issues close to my heart is the most rewarding part. Whether it’s a comment on the texture of a banana cake or an in-depth thought experiment about the economic validity of free-range organic farming, I’m always pleased when my email inbox shows a comment!

      I should probably post more of my scientific thinking on here. I recently wrote an article on vegetarianism, after Ben and I spent a month with this diet, but I decided against publication for fear of retribution, factual as the basis for my calculations and discussion were. Just another example of the difficult situation we face reconciling so many diverse issues! Please keep reading, if on a certain day you don’t find scientifically enlightening content, you may at least find something tasty which you can be certain won’t involve any more environmental guilt than can be avoided! Failing that I have an email address and am always keen to discuss the latest in the on going saga of the environment.

      I look forward to more interesting discussions 🙂


  5. Hepe permalink
    June 6, 2011 3:12 pm

    An interim reply:

    Amidst the stunned silence of most of the contributors; I hear you. I have to draw breath, retreat and consider a worthy continuance. At my age I shall suggest that it will be wisdom, though I doubt you will accept that. I shall stare thoughtfully into the middle distance, chew reflectively on something (perhaps an organic poached egg if I can find one?) and decide how to begin.

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