Helping farmers put real health on our plates

Farm animals antibiotics data raises post-Brexit trade fears

Source: The Guardian

Use of antibiotics on farms in US and Canada about five times the UK level, says report…

The overuse of antibiotics on farm animals is rife in some of the key countries with which the UK is hoping to strike a post-Brexit trade deal, a new report shows, raising fears that future deals will jeopardise public health and British farming.

The US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada all allow farmers to feed antibiotics routinely to livestock to make them grow faster, and in the US and Canada farm antibiotic use is about five times the level in the UK, data compiled by the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics shows.

Meat produced in this way is cheaper, because the animals grow faster and can be kept in overcrowded conditions. But the meat is soon to be banned in the EU, for safety and public health reasons.

Read full article: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/01/farm-animals-antibiotics-data-raises-post-brexit-trade-fears

Landmark Agriculture Bill becomes law

Legislation that will unleash the potential of agriculture has passed into UK law as of 11 November.

The Agriculture Bill sets out how farmers and land managers in England will be rewarded in the future with public money for “public goods” – such as better air and water quality, thriving wildlife, soil health, or measures to reduce flooding and tackle the effects of climate change, under the Environmental Land Management scheme. These incentives will provide a powerful vehicle for achieving the goals of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan and our commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Read full article: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/landmark-agriculture-bill-becomes-law

Genome editing (hopefully) simplified

WHAg Window – giving a view from our perspective…..

In a recent article we outlined concerns about genome editing. Since then we have been asked to give a simple guide to what it actually is. Well…deep breath and fingers crossed, and referring to far more knowledgeable people than I am, here is a shot it.

First of all, should it be called genome editing or gene editing? Are they the same thing?

Yes, to most intents and purposes, they refer to the same things. The term “genome editing” is scientifically more correct but “gene editing” is more popularly used. Colleagues at Beyond GM use “genome editing” to describe the method or technology and “gene edited” (as in plants, animals etc) to describe the product or outcome but let’s not get too pedantic.

Ok, so what is it?

Whichever of these terms you use is a catch-all, umbrella name for is a suite of new genetic engineering techniques that can be, or might be or can potentially be, used in plant and animal breeding, in human medical and animal veterinary treatments. It can be used to create heritable traits or non-heritable changes.

Catch-all? What’s included?

The term covers an array of geeky sounding names which hide behind funny sounding acronyms and initials. These include ODM (oligonucleotide directed mutagenesis), ZFN (zinc finger nucleases), TALEN (transcription activator-like effector nucleases and, the one becoming the most widely used, CRISPR (clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats).

Other technological developments are being included in the “catch-all” – or possibly hidden under the umbrella – the whole time but for the sake of brevity, simplicity and sanity, the one I’ll focus on now, and the one you will have come across most often, is known as CRISPR-Cas.

Is it a GMO?

No and yes. No, because it is a technological process and a GMO (a genetically modified organism) is the end product of a technological process known as genetic engineering. But, yes, because genome editing (whichever method used) is a genetic engineering process and any resulting product is a GMO.

You’ve heard that it’s not genetic engineering

“Gene editing is not genetic engineering” has become a favoured line of its protagonists. I nearly wrote “lie” there because that line is tantamount to one, or is the result of misinformation and/or ignorance. All honest and transparent genetic engineers and researchers in the field, will own up to the fact that genome editing is a process of genetic engineering. In 2016, in a major ruling, the European Court of Justice concluded that it is and that it is within the scope of EU laws on genetic engineering and GMOs.

The technical stuff - can’t avoid the technical stuff any longer

Here’s bit of background which may be useful, thanks to colleague, Janet Cotter, for this. If you feel you are losing the will to live, scroll down and see if things are more digestible later.

  • Genetic material is a fundamental part of every organism and is made up of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ribonucleic acid).

  • In plants, animals and humans, genetic material is stored mainly in the genome, which occurs in the nucleus of almost all cells.

  • The genome is made up of DNA. Part of this DNA makes up our genes, which produce proteins.

  • It’s these proteins that perform many of the functions of a cell. Other DNA in the genome regulates the genes, telling them when and where to switch on and off.

  • RNA is a different type of genetic material. It used to be thought of as just an intermediary between DNA and proteins, but recent discoveries have found it can perform a large number of functions, such as (alongside DNA) regulating genes, silencing genes and repairing DNA.

  • It’s largely these recent discoveries about the roles of RNA that have demonstrated the many reactions and interactions between elements that occur in cells to make them function, all of which are controlled by complex regulatory networks.

So, where is genome editing in all of this?

Genome editing is where a small cut is made in the DNA.

You may have heard the metaphor likening it to the “cut and paste” function on a computer/word processor. Well, it’s not really like that. That’s part of the pro-narrative that bedevils this issue.

You may have also heard the term “molecular scissors”, which is supposed to elicit images of home dress making, a sort of 21st century cut and sew pattern book. It’s not really like that either.

“Cut and paste”, “cut and edit” – what does it all mean?

Right, to quit the imagery; first of all, the “molecular scissors” are enzymes (which are small proteins also called nucleases). These enzymes create a cut in the DNA after they have been guided to the targeted point by an artificial protein or artificial stretch of RNA.

The mythical “paste” part of the edit then occurs either by organism’s own system repairing the cut or by inserting a template of artificial DNA or RNA which directs the repair.  

At this point transgenic i.e. “foreign” DNA, bacteria or virus’ can also be inserted.

In all three instances, changes occur to the gene during the repair process.

It is important to note, that this is entirely an “in vitro” (“within glass”) procedure – taking place in a test tube, culture dish, or elsewhere outside a living organism.

An important bit more about the edit repair

There is more information about this process and a nice diagram here.

Unfortunately, I have to introduce a new term here in order to explain what is becoming a policy and political issue in the debate to deregulate genome editing.

The term is site directed nucleases or SDN, and there are three of them called (relatively considerately) SDN 1,2 and 3. This term refers, firstly, to the process of directing the process (the enzyme cut) to a targeting point in the DNA and then to the type of repair mechanism mentioned above.

SDN1, is where the organism repairs itself; SDN2 is where an artificial DNA or RNA template is inserted; and SDN3 is where significant foreign genetic material is inserted with the template to create a transgenic organism.

Unintended and “off-target effects”

All genetic engineering causes disruption to the genome of the targeted organism, that’s the point of it after all. The claim for genome editing is that it is more precise and therefore less disruptive and damaging than earlier genetic engineering, and even than some types of traditional breeding.

However, the evidence is mounting of far more significant unintended and off-target effects than initially thought. Much of this evidence has come to light in medical research but has implications for food safety.

It is notable that genetic engineers and researchers working in the medical field are much less gung-ho, more cautious and more open to regulation of the technology than those in agriculture where the significance of these unintended and off-target effects is regarded as less important.

The GMO or like nature controversy

As I mentioned earlier the European Court of Justice ruled the genome editing is genetic engineering and falls within the scope of the GMO laws.

The essential points about the legal definition of GMOs and the process of producing them is that they and it would not occur (or normally occur) in nature. As we have seen, genome editing takes place entirely outside of natural, living organisms “in glass”. So how can anyone argue that genome editing is anything other than genetic engineering and outside of nature?

It is widely accepted that SDN3’s are GMOs and fall under the GMO regulation. But it is argued, that SDN1 does not involve any insertion of foreign genetic material, relies on the organism’s (plant or animal) own living repair process and results in something that might be found in natural or traditional breeding processes – or it is claimed, is “akin to nature” or “like nature”.

It is further argued, that some applications of SDN2 might also considered in the same way.

You might have a simple response to that claim.

Simplified but not simple

I have tried and I hope made a passable job of explaining this. The links in the article give far more information, as do the websites of Beyond GM and GMWatch. They are on the sceptical side of the debate but there are plenty of information sources on the pro-side. Regrettably, many of them are organisations and bodies who ought to be giving impartial information are amongst them.

We are clear that we believe this is a technology incompatible with a wholistic approach to health. But it might have a role in what some might perceive as “sustainable” farming and food. In which case, a more open, honest, transparent discussion of the technology would be helpful. I hope this attempt at explaining terminology has helped a bit.

Lawrence Woodward

Lawrence Woodward OBE

About the Author:  I’m the chairman of WHAg, founder and director of the Organic Research Centre (ORC), and regularly advise & speak about the principles and methods of organic agriculture. 

“I think, therefore I farm organically” – and wholistically

WHAg Window – giving a view from our perspective…..

You don’t have to be an organic farmer to farm for health but organic farming and biodynamic farming are the only farming systems which are built on a concept of health – in principle and in practice. “Regenerative” isn’t, nor is agroecology, or “agricology”, nor “pasture fed, or “holistic grazing” and nor are the various versions of “nature-friendly farming”.

All of these approaches have things to commend them – some more than others – and the farmers following these methods should be given credit for breaking out of the conventional mould. These approaches are all concerned with some aspect/s of health on which they focus, which is why organic farmers are often – if not always – involved in them.

But they are not systemically built on an underpinning and overarching concept of health which determines how the whole farm is managed from soil, to plant and to livestock and then how the product of that farm is harvested, stored, processed, packaged and sold. All with the aim of securing and enhancing the process of positive health in all of those phases – and in the surrounding ecosystems.

The organic farming vision – ambitious, preposterous and real

This aim is so ambitious that it is almost guaranteed to fail, and in truth there are some poor examples of organic farms in all parts of the world. But there are far more good ones than there are poor ones.

Some might say that this ambitious aim became a preposterous one when organic ideas began to spread and sought to take root in a wide range of ecosystems and social conditions around the world. But organic farming is found thriving in far more countries, in all parts of the world, than not – and in most of them it has been grown from the grassroots by an alliance of farmers and citizen consumers.

Others have argued that this ambitious and preposterous aim became well-nigh impossible when the organic movement began to evolve into an organic sector and became involved in a regulated global market.

And in part they may be right because there are examples of dire regulation which shame the organic vision and concept but there are also good examples, in many parts of the world, where regulated organic production provides consumers with healthy food they can trust, gives farmers a consistent and reliable market and the confidence to seek to farm for health.

Whatever its problems, downsides and challenges no other farming system – conventional or alternative – provides systemic positive health in soils, in plants, in animals, in the food produced, and in the environment and ecosystems in which it is based in a consistent, wide-ranging way across the globe. It is no accident that whenever “sustainability” of farming, or the quality of food, or the value of farming methods for health of soil and livestock are assessed, it is organic farming which is always referenced.

Celebrating organic farming

So, whilst we at Whole Health Agriculture recognise the challenges facing the organic sector and are aware of the benefits of other farming systems and are conscious of the skills of many non-organic farmers, we strongly believe that we should celebrate organic farming during this “Organic September” – and every other month of the year.

Here’s why:

  • Organic farming is built on the concept that the health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible. This is the truly wholistic concept of the process of positive health management which we believe is the basis of whole health agriculture. This concept is at the heart of the organic principles (health, ecology, care, fairness) from which day-to-day practices flow.

  • In practice, organic farms have for decades been delivering demonstrable benefits all around the world to the farmed environment, wildlife and biodiversity, livestock, food quality and health. Faced with the problems of climate change and finite resources, biodiversity loss and pesticide and diet related ill-health it is clear that organic farming can make a massive contribution to tackling these problems.

Although research evidence is hard to gather in complex living systems the evidence for the benefits of organic farming is now mounting to the point where it is hard for even the most critical commentator to dismiss it. One of the heartening things about this Organic September is the positive tone with which the media has generally responded.

Thinking about the farm as more than a collection of enterprises

Of course, there is still a good deal of misinformation around, from both pro and anti-organic commentators – and especially over questions of soil, food quality and health. We will pick up on some of these things in the future.

Over the years I have known many organic farmers and organic farms. I have watched closely and supported conventional farmers in their conversion to organic systems and in their journey of discovery about the intricacies of organic farming and whole farm health. Almost all of them have found this journey satisfying and would never return to farming conventionally.

One of them, the late Ed Goff – a conventional dairy farmer who started his conversion to organic farming in the mid-1980s – was adamant that he would never return to conventional farming. When asked why not, he paraphrased the philosopher Descartes in reply, “I think, therefore I farm organically”.

That is not to suggest that conventional farmers don’t think. What Ed meant, was that when you begin to see how the process of health is enhanced in whole farm systems, you begin to think through how to manage that farm as a whole and not as a collection of enterprises. You start to think wholistically (not that he would ever use the term) and organically.

Lawrence Woodward

Lawrence Woodward OBE

About the Author:  I’m the chairman of WHAg, founder and director of the Organic Research Centre (ORC), and regularly advise & speak about the principles and methods of organic agriculture. 

Farm homeopathy: an inconvenient truth

WHAg Window – giving a view from our perspective…..

The use of farm homeopathy is not a prerequisite of Whole Health Agriculture but many farmers who farm for health, use or have used homeopathy.

What Whole Health Agriculture shares with homeopathy is a belief in the critical importance of the body’s self-healing capacity, and the concept that health is a process of maintaining homeostasis (a stable internal environment) or balance.

The late Dr Peter Fisher (formerly Director of Research and Consultant Physician at the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine) described homeopathic treatment as aiming “to stimulate and direct the body’s self-healing capacity by triggering a reaction. The body reacts to stimuli, which have physiological effects (drugs or toxins) by attempting to maintain homeostasis (a stable internal environment). Homeopathy makes therapeutic use of this effect.”

Many farmers have used, and are successfully using homeopathy. Our own survey of the use of farm homeopathy and other alternative methods is revealing significant levels of success in reducing anti-microbial drugs across all types of farms and livestock types – from smallholders to large scale, commercial productions. We shall be reporting these findings over the coming months.

Yet for sceptics – and those who pretend to be objective but aren’t really – the real-life evidence of farming practice isn’t enough. They dismiss it as fantastical wishful thinking, or conspiracy or arrested development or belief in fairies.

But is there anything more fanciful than the notion that hard-headed, commercial farmers would make-believe or lie about the evidence of their own, eyes, and the weight of their wallets and say that farm homeopathy works if it doesn’t?

For these sceptics, so called “scientific evidence” is the be all and end all. Yet they avoid the questions: Which science? Whose science? Which methodology? Which observations are fit for purpose? And which assessments are designed for failure.

They also fail to own up to the fact that its not so long ago that ecology and biological interactions struggled to find appropriate methodologies, scientific analysis and statistical treatments. Ecological research eventually found methods that are fit for purpose and it is highly likely that this will eventually happen with wholistic approaches and disciplines.

In the mean time we have the evidence of farmer experience, and, less well known, is that there is a body research evidence which indicates that homeopathy works – in people and in animals, plants, other organisms and cells. Before his death in 2018, Peter Fisher reviewed this evidence.

It is not definitive but it is substantial enough not to be dismissed. And at a time when we are facing new disease challenges, it should not be dismissed.

We recently reported about the hypothesis that “old friends” micro-organisms play a critical role in the development and regulation of human immune systems. If living organisms – whether in soil, plants, animals or man – have the ability to self – regulate or organise a resilient immune response by adapting to challenges (internal or externally generated), it is not unreasonable to explore the possibility that there can be a mechanism that triggers or stimulates that response in a way which Peter Fisher describes.

But setting this speculation aside, it is clear from farmer experience that whole farm approaches to health – whether in crop or livestock systems – build the capacity to be resilient to challenges (pests, disease, virus, draught, extreme weather events) by finding a way back to balance (homeostasis).

The experience of farmer indicates that homeopathy is one way of assisting in that approach.

To use Al Gore’s headline phrase, this is “an inconvenient truth”. Or you can choose your own headline. How about a paraphrase of Lord Alfred Douglas poem, it is a “truth that dare not speak its name”, or rather that people dare not speak of.

On the other hand, you could choose the headline “homeopathy works” – OK?

Lawrence Woodward

Lawrence Woodward OBE

About the author:  I’m the chairman of WHAg, founder and director of the Organic Research Centre (ORC), and regularly advise & speak about the principles and methods of organic agriculture. 

The Ecology of Health

WHAg Window – giving a view from our perspective…..

Every month, sometimes every week there is a new report on “health” and the need for new initiatives. Most get it wrong and when they do get something right, it seems to be by accident.

A recent one from the “think-tank”, Demos, is no exception. It’s called “Turning the Tables” and has a sub-heading “Marking healthier choices easier for consumers”. It contains some valid recommendations about making unhealthy choices more difficult to access but its thinking “tanks” badly because it hasn’t got a clue what a positive healthy choice might be,

This is a common theme. “Unhealthy” equals fat, salt, sugar, red meat and processed meat; ergo, “healthy” is simply the opposite and anything we can do to reduce foods and diets containing these things is good – irrespective of context, overall food and diet composition, and certainly, of food integrity and quality.

All of which leads directly to recommendations that the food manufacturing industry should be given support to reformulate food processing to produce “innovative” processed food and preservatives, lab-grown meat and meat substitutes using patents and other intellectual property right based technologies such as genome editing and synthetic biology.

In fairness, there are some reasonable recommendations and the report also contains interesting information about consumer buying dynamics.

But there is nothing about positive health management, nothing about production systems, and nothing about environment, farming and food interactions, what might be called the ecology of health.

Microbiome health: an ecological approach

However, in happy contrast, another recent report highlights a whole body of research work, observation and thinking which does this and, for us at least, improves our understanding of how that new “buzzword” – the microbiome – can be viewed from a Whole Health Agriculture perspective.

Writing in “The Conversation”, Jake M Robinson, a landscape researcher at the University of Sheffield, explains that “biodiversity loss could be making us sick”. Here are some of the key points he makes:

– Most of us know that we are losing biodiversity at a massive rate. But we may not realise that microbial diversity is a large part of that biodiversity loss. “And these microbes – bacteria, viruses and fungi, among others – are essential for maintaining healthy ecosystems. Because humans are a part of these ecosystems, our health also suffers when they vanish, or when barriers reduce our exposure to them.”

– Many people now realise that our bodies “harbour distinct microbiomes – vast networks of microbes”. “The human gut alone harbours up to 100 trillion microbes, which outnumbers our own human cells. Our microbes provide services that are integral to our survival, such as processing food and providing chemicals that support brain function.”

– However, there is less recognition that “Contact with a diverse range of microbes in our environment is also essential for bolstering our immune system. Microbes found in environments closer to the ones we evolved in, such as woodlands and grasslands, are called “old friend” microbes by some microbiologists. That’s because they play a major role in “educating” our immune systems.

– Part of our immune system is fast-acting and non-specific, which means it attacks all substances in the absence of proper regulation. Old friend microbes from our environment help provide this regulatory role. They can also stimulate chemicals that help to control inflammation and prevent our bodies from attacking our own cells, or innocuous substances like pollen and dust.”

– Exposure to a diverse range of microbes allows our bodies to mount an effective defensive response against pathogens. Another part of our immune system produces tiny armies of “memory cells” that maintain a record of all the pathogens our bodies encounter. This enables a rapid and effective immune response to similar pathogens in the future.

– Just as microbes have important roles in ecosystems, by helping plants grow and recycling soil nutrients, they also provide our bodies with nutrients and health-sustaining chemicals that promote good physical and mental health. This strengthens our resilience when facing diseases and other stressful times in our lives.”

Lessons for farming and land use

Robinson’s primary focus is on increasing biodiversity in urban settings to restore microbial activity aimed at improving the health of residents. He sees restoring natural habitats, growing diverse native plants, and providing access to safe, green spaces as key strategies.

These are just as relevant to farms – and of course many organic and health focussed farms are doing these things. The WHAg hypothesis is that there is a direct connection between the quality of diversity on farms and the food produced and the health of all those – people and livestock – who eat that food.

The concept of diverse microbial communities and “old friends” in the ecosystem being linked to those in human and animal bodies seems to fit into this hypothesis. It might be one explanation as to why health in all aspects of long established, whole farm systems appears to increase over time. Investigating this will be a key part of our research work in the next few years.

For now, we can’t see that the reductionist, technological approach to health of “think-tanks”, celebrity foundations and (probably) high profile “food strategy” task forces, which ignore the ecology of health, have much to commend them.

Here are some links, additional to those in the text above, for those interested.

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