Tag Archives: industrial agriculture

What we used to eat

FishingThe subtitle of Paul Greenberg’s wonderful book, Four Fish, is “The Future of the Last Wild Food.” In discussing the history and future of salmon, tuna, bass, and cod, the author also remarks on other wild foods our ancestors used to eat.

How did early humans choose the animals they were going to tame and eat? An examination of middens [a collection of waste products – like a garbage dump — that provides archaeologists with clues to everyday life] at Neolithic European dwellings reveals that humans used to eat from a fairly wide buffet of wild game. In varying amounts, the meats they consumed consisted of red deer, boar, cow, roe deer, horse, goat, antelope, elk, chamois, bison, reindeer, fox, badger, cat, marten, bear, wolf, dog, otter, lynx, weasel, mouse, rat, rabbit, beaver, and marmot.

That’s quite a variety.

This diet didn’t last, however. “By the time of Christ, we were down to four basic kinds of mammals in our fire pits: sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle.”

Greenberg goes on to list the variety of birds humans once consumed.

When it came to birds, there was a similarly broad choice available. Pigeon, snipe, woodcock, pheasant, grouse, dozens of different ducks, grebe, various wading birds, and many more.

What birds do we eat today? Chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese. Read more


Links of interest: Antibiotic resistance

Rising Plague (Brad Spellberg)

Children and chickens in peruBefore getting to the numerous recent news items on antibiotic resistance and urinary tract infections, let me quote from Dr. Brad Spellberg’s Rising Plague: The Global Threat from Deadly Bacteria and Our Dwindling Arsenal to Fight Them. (In the following, “community-acquired” means an infection that begins outside a hospital, and fluoroquinolones are commonly used broad-spectrum antibiotics. Emphasis added.)

[R]esistance of E. coli to fluoroquinolone antibiotics (such as ciprofloxacin) is making it increasingly difficult to treat urinary tract infections with oral antibiotics. Unfortunately E. coli are by far the most common cause of urinary tract infections, accounting for 80 percent or more of them. As the resistance to fluoroquinolones begins to approach 50 percent in community strains of E. coli, it is possible that tens of thousands of women per year will have to be hospitalized to receive intravenous antibiotics just to treat urinary tract infections! How close are we to this nightmare scenario? A recent international study has reported that up to 30 percent of E. coli isolates [separated pure strains of bacteria] from urinary tract infections are now resistant to fluoroquinolones. That compares to less than 5 percent only a decade earlier. Although the resistance rates are lower for community-acquired infections as compared to hospital-acquired infections, the resistance rate among community-acquired E. coli infections has still risen fiftyfold in just the last decade. It is expected that a continued increase is going to occur in the coming decade, which means we may reach 50 percent resistance of community-acquired E. coli to fluoroquinolones within the next ten to twenty years.

Drug-resistant urinary infections (NHS)

A study in Hong Kong concludes that antibiotic resistance may arise from the overuse of antibiotics in food-producing animals. When researchers examined bacteria resistant to the antibiotic gentamicin, 84% of human samples and 75% of animal samples had an identical gene for antibiotic resistance.

The study, published in the Journal of Medical Microbiology, asserts that “Consumers may acquire antibiotic-resistant bacteria from contaminated food,” and ”Good personal and food hygiene are the best ways to prevent this.”

The National Health Service draws a different conclusion:

This was a small study, which found that resistance to the antibiotic gentamicin was granted by the same gene sampled from both animals and humans. However, it did not look at the possible routes by which this resistance may be transmitted between animals and humans. For example, it could not say whether consuming animals with antibiotic-resistant E. coli in their guts is a possible route of transmission.

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Overuse of antibiotics: A remote study (part 2)

conolophus-pallidus-iguana-galapagosThe controversy about the overuse of antibiotics in raising livestock (see the last post) is background for an interesting scientific study that took place in the Galapagos. It looked at the spread of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria among animals that were totally removed from antibiotics.

Would antibiotic resistance become widespread in the absence of antibiotics?

The immediate motivation for the research was two contradictory studies. In a wooded area of northwest England, researchers had found that wildlife developed antibiotic resistance even though they had not been exposed to antibiotics. This would argue against the idea that antibiotic use in animals should be restricted, since it suggests that antibiotic resistance would develop anyway.

Another study, however, found that wildlife in a remote area of Finland had an almost complete absence of antibiotic resistance. This would argue that resistance could be reduced by restricting antibiotics.

So which was it? How could you design an experiment that controlled possibly confounding factors, such as climate, animal interaction, and human interference?

Coprophagial iguanas

The researchers chose to study a species of iguanas (Conolophus pallidus) on an isolated island (Santa Fe) in the Galapagos . Unlike the English countryside, the island was uninhabited by humans, though tourists made daytime excursions to a restricted area. It offered an example of what life was like in a pre-antibiotic era. This tropical island, which was near the equator, was also unlike the remote area of Finland, where winters were long and cold, the population density of animals was low, and there was limited interaction among animal species.

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Overuse of antibiotics: Follow the money (part 1)

sleeping-pigUnlike climate change, where there’s a large contingent of denialists who spread doubt about the scientific evidence, no one denies that antibiotic resistance is a problem. There is controversy, however, on the question of just how much the widespread use of antibiotics contributes to the problem.

The mechanism is not in dispute: If you expose bacteria to antibiotics, they will mutate to become resistant. But “overuse” of antibiotics is not the only thing that creates antibiotic resistance. Is there irrefutable scientific evidence that the overuse of antibiotics in raising livestock, for example, is harmful to human health? It’s not easy to prove direct cause and effect. If you feed a pig a steady diet of antibiotics, can you irrefutably prove that this results in the illness or death of someone who later eats that pig?

Follow the money

The speed with which we address the increasingly urgent problem of antibiotic resistance will depend on financial interests, not just scientific evidence or common sense. Just as with climate change, we can follow the money to identify the opponents. Who has a financial interest in convincing the public — and in turn politicians — that the overuse of antibiotics is not a problem?

It’s not the medical profession, which understands that overprescribing antibiotics contributes to the increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria. The financial interests of doctors are a little complex here. Unfortunately, because the public is not well educated about the subject, doctors find they need to satisfy the demands of their patients by offering prescriptions. Otherwise patients would simply take their business elsewhere. It takes time for doctors to educate their patients, and today’s doctors are very short of time. This is not sufficient grounds, however, to say that doctors have a financial incentive to overprescribe. Although doctors practicing today have no personal memory of the pre-antibiotic era, they are certainly among the first to appreciate that practicing medicine would become a nightmare without antibiotics.

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Links of interest: Organic food

Organic vegetable gardenOrganic Foods Slideshow: To Buy or Not to Buy Organic (WebMD)

A slide show with advice on when to buy organic and when it’s OK to use conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. Peaches, apples, peppers, strawberries, pears, grapes, broccoli, and more..

Organic: What it means on different products (Los Angeles Times)

Is the extra dollar worth it? Organic and conventional food may have similar nutritional value, but then there’s the environment to consider. “What we do to our environment, we are also doing to ourselves.” A good discussion of pesticides, dairy and meat, cosmetics and personal care products, processed food, cotton and coffee. Very informative.

Benefits of organic food questioned yet again (GMO Pundit)

Evidence from human studies suggests that children who consume organic fruits and vegetables and adults who consume organic cereal may significantly reduce their pesticide exposure compared with groups consuming conventional diets, although the levels of pesticide exposures in both groups is within accepted safety standards. There is no evidence of any other benefits of consuming organic food based on human dietary studies. Finally, although rates of bacterial contamination did not differ significantly between organic and conventionally grown meats, eggs, and milk, the antibiotic resistance of bacteria cultured from conventional meats, eggs, and milk was significantly greater than for organic products.

Is Organic Food Marketing Hype? (Newsweek)

Six experts disagree. “In eight countries which have looked at this issue, in every case they have concluded there is no health benefit of eating organic food compared with conventional food.” On the other hand: “Organic animals eat a diet free of excrement … [and] organic is free of antibiotics.”

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Do houseflies spread antibiotic resistance?

HouseflyThere was a one-day Congressional hearing last week on antibiotic resistance and industrial agriculture. Members of congress were looking for evidence that would link agricultural use of antibiotics to human illness. One Republican specifically asked for research done in the US, implying European studies would not be good enough. Medical experts from the CDC and NIH were evidently unable to cite an American study.

It’s almost impossible to connect the bacteria in a specific individual with an animal that received an antibiotic. But there’s certainly a case to made for the use of antibiotics in agriculture and the spread of antibiotic resistance. And that’s based on research done right here in the US.

A poultry house and its 30,000 flies

Chicken houses are very attractive to flies. A Danish study estimated that, over a six-week period, as many as 30,000 flies may enter a poultry house. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (Baltimore, MD) just released a study on antibiotic resistant bacteria found in houseflies who make their home on industrialized chicken farms.

The study collected houseflies and poultry litter from chicken farms in an area of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia. Poultry litter is the absorbent material on the floor of a chicken farm. By the time it’s been used, it consists primarily of chicken manure, which is rich in bacteria.

When scientists compared the antibiotic resistant bacteria found in both flies and litter, they found striking similarities. The bacteria from both sources had very similar resistance characteristics and very similar resistance genes. “Resistance characteristics” refers to exactly which antibiotics can no longer destroy the bacteria. Characteristics of the mechanism of resistance can now be identified on the genes themselves.

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Pig dignity: Animal welfare in Europe

baby-pigsThe European Parliament, the governing body of the EU (European Union), met last week to consider (among many other things) a new animal welfare action plan. Last December animal welfare became a core value for the EU, right up there with opposing discrimination, promoting gender equality, and protecting human health and welfare. The new animal welfare treaty states that EU members “shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals.” How civilized.

BBC News has a lengthy discussion of the implications of the treaty for animal experimentation. And here’s the complete Animal Welfare Action Plan, which was presented on April 19.

Seeking to capitalize on animal welfare sentiment during an election campaign, the UK’s Labour Party announced: “And we will maintain our proud record on improving animal welfare, including the ban on fox hunting.” How British.

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Daily Dose: Celebrity health; Livestock antibiotics; Transplants

The body as machine

Female robot companion

Source: The Daily Mail

Inventor spends Christmas with his perfect woman – a £30,000 custom-made fembot (The Daily Mail)
“Inventor Le Trung spent Christmas Day with the most important woman in his life – his robot Aiko. … Her touch sensitive body knows the difference between being stroked gently or tickled. … ‘Aiko is always helpful and never complains. She is the perfect woman to have around at Christmas.’ ”

Celebrity health advice

Celebrity markerting of pharmaceuticals

Source: PLoS Medicine

Are celebrities crossing the line on medical advice? (USA Today)
“Many doctors say they’re troubled by stars who cross the line from sharing their stories to championing questionable or even dangerous medical advice. … Actress Suzanne Somers– already well-known for her diet books and ThighMaster products — in October released her 18th book, Knockout, which experts describe as a catalogue of unproven or long-debunked alternative cancer ‘cures.’ … [Celebrities] ‘can spread misinformation much faster than the average person with a wacky theory. … Correcting that misinformation — even with a mountain of evidence — can be a challenge. … ‘It’s much easier to scare people than to unscare them.’ ”

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After health care reform, will Big Insurance be the enemy of Big Food?

Fast food

Source: eHow

Michael Pollan has a great editorial in today’s New York Times on Big Insurance and Big Food. Could health care reform motivate the insurance industry to lobby for healthier food? The argument goes like this.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three-quarters of health care dollars are spent on preventable chronic diseases. Smoking is an obvious culprit, but many (if not most) chronic diseases – diabetes, heart disease, cancer – have a connection to poor diet. We eat too few fruits and vegetables and too much sugar, salt, refined carbohydrates, and saturated fat.

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Health Culture Daily Dose #15

In today’s Dose:

Health care reform
(A public option plan emerges from HELP committee; Arguments for the public option from the Urban Institute; Obama stands Harry & Louise on their heads)

Health news
(Should Steve Jobs use his celebrity status for pancreatic cancer awareness and funding?)

Industrialized agriculture
(Labeling organic food: What can you believe?; Food, Inc. available in more theaters)

Health care reform

  • The latest health care reform proposal to emerge from the Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) committee includes a public option. The plan is called the Community Health Insurance Option (CHIO). Here’s a one-page summary (PDF) of details from the website of Senator Chris Dodd.

The CHIO would be administered by the Department of Health and Human Services. It would follow the same rules that apply to private, for-profit insurance companies. Rates would be no more than local average private rates, but could be less. Doctor and other health care provider participation is optional. Physicians had been concerned that they would be required to participate. Now that this is clear, we’ll soon see if the medical profession gets behind this plan.

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Health Culture Daily Dose #6

In today’s Dose:

Health care reform
(Congressionional Budget Office numbers; Why Maggie Mahar isn’t worried; Kevin MD, Daniel Callahan)

Foodborne illness
(Cookie dough)

Industrialized agriculture
(Food Inc.)

The risk society
(Jodi Picoult novels)

Health care reform

  • A recent Ezra Klein Klein column in the Washington Post discussed the bad news this week from the Congressional Budget Office. Health care reform will cost $1.6 trillion over 10 years, not the $1 trillion the Senate HELP committee was targeting, and that’s with one-third of the uninsured still without coverage.

[H]ealth reform has just gotten harder. The hope that we could expand the current system while holding costs down appears to have been just that: a hope. … The question now becomes whether we want health-care reform that achieves less of what we say the system needs, or more. Doing less would be cruel to those who have laid their hopes upon health reform. But doing more will be very, very hard.

I have always thought that reform would be very hard. I knew that conservatives and lobbyists would fight with every weapon at their disposal–and that they wouldn’t mind distorting the truth, which is what they have done by making a mountain out of CBO’s preliminary mark-up of the Senate’s rough draft. …
The headlines are correct in one sense: reform is not “inevitable.” This is not a Greek Drama where the final Act is written in the stars. As I have said all along, the battle will be fierce, and, in the end it will not be pretty.
Those who have been gouging the system will have to be gored. Imagine a slaughterhouse with gobs of fat and pools of blood on the floor. But the White House understands that the alternative is to pour billions of tax-payer dollars into a $1.6 trillion dollar medical-industrial complex that, too often, provides profits for the industry, but no benefits for patients. This administration is too smart to let that happen.

This is an excellent post, especially if you enjoy getting into the nitty-gritty of the economics and politics of health care reform. I came away from it with a sense that Obama and his White House advisors are on top of this issue and doing a good job. The post is followed by extensive comments.
Maggie Mahar has a first rate mind. I highly recommend her book, Money-Driven Medicine: The Real Reason Health Care Costs So Much and the recent documentary of the book, produced by Alex Gibney (director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room).

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What’s wrong with our food?

food-incA new movie, Food, Inc., will be in theaters starting June 12. The film documents how industrialized agriculture has changed the food we eat and explores the impact of this change on health, food safety, and the environment. In the movie’s trailer (see below), a woman eyeing vegetables in a grocery store says “Sometimes you look at a vegetable and say, well, we can get two hamburgers for the same price.” That about sums up the problem with the American diet, a problem directly related to a decrease in health (diabetes, heart disease) and an increase in weight (the so-called “obesity epidemic”).

Here’s the official description of the film:

In Food, Inc., filmmaker Robert Kenner lifts the veil on our nation’s food industry, exposing the highly mechanized underbelly that has been hidden from the American consumer with the consent of our government’s regulatory agencies, USDA and FDA. Our nation’s food supply is now controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers and our own environment. We have bigger-breasted chickens, the perfect pork chop, insecticide-resistant soybean seeds, even tomatoes that won’t go bad, but we also have new strains of E. coli–the harmful bacteria that causes illness for an estimated 73,000 Americans annually. We are riddled with widespread obesity, particularly among children, and an epidemic level of diabetes among adults. … Food, Inc. reveals surprising–and often shocking truths–about what we eat, how it’s produced, who we have become as a nation and where we are going from here.

Kenner, the producer/director, and Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, started talking about a documentary of Fast Food six or seven years ago. By the time the film was funded, both Kenner and Schlosser were heavily influenced by the ideas of Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food .

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Is agriculture bad for your health?

By studying the fossilized bones of long-dead humans, physical anthropologists can determine the course of our species’ evolution. But those fossils, which often include bones deformed by lesions and distinctly unhealthy teeth, also allow anthropologists to speculate on the health and the lifestyles of our distant ancestors.
Individual anthropologists have long speculated that health declined with the invention of agriculture, but that was based on examining remains from isolated locations such as burial sites. A research project called A History of Health in Europe over the Past 10,000 Years has been computerizing a large collection of data from 72 researchers.
Contrary to what we would intuitively expect, fossil evidence confirms the conjecture that human health went into a serious decline with the advent of agriculture. Health continued to decline through the Middle Ages, and it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that it started to improve. By studying these patterns, which are often related to changes in diet, anthropologists hope to apply what they’re learning to the future of human health.

What do fossil remains tell us about the health and daily lives of our ancestors?

Skeletal remains provide a number of clues about human health. Physical trauma and dental health are pretty easy to observe. Variations in height can indicate whether food was adequate for growth during childhood. By analyzing bone specimens, scientists can even determine what people ate. Bones also reveal degenerative joint disease, and some bone changes indicate anemia.
Fossils and other archaeological findings also allow anthropologists to speculate on the number of people living in a settlement as well as the main source of their food and their social and economic status. This provides clues to lifestyle: Were these people rich or poor, urban or rural, and did they engage in farming or hunter-gathering.

Lifestyles of the Dead and Fossilized

Bruegel landscape

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” 1555

Source: Galeria

Pulling together the evidence collected so far, anthropologists observe a marked decline in health about 3000 years ago, at a time when agriculture became widely adopted throughout Europe. (The cultivation of crops was actually “invented” several times and goes back at least 10,000 years.) Evidence includes an increase in skeletal lesions from tuberculosis and leprosy, probably caused by living in close quarters with domesticated livestock and being exposed to the accumulated waste products present in human settlements. When people live close to animals and close to each other, conditions are ideal for contagious diseases caused by viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms. Most ancient cities were periodically devastated by epidemics.

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