How ill thought-out policies can decimate a nation’s food security and safety
In the first of a new regular series, Dr Sepe Sehati looks at the opportunity for unintended consequences to emerge when innocuous looking policies are pushed through with little thought for the problems they might invite.
There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen”
– Frédéric Bastiat, French Economist, 1801–1850
In 1958, the Chinese leader Mao Zedong initiated the so-called ‘Four Pests Campaign’ after concluding that four pests – mosquitoes, flies, rats and sparrows were blighting crops and needed to be eliminated. Sparrows in particular were blamed for their love of eating grain seeds. And so begun an industrial level selective slaughter of these pests.
To the surprise of those involved the crops’ yield actually decreased. It was later discovered that sparrows’ diets were composed of mainly insects, and only a little grain seed. The cessation of the killing of the sparrows did not help. It was simply too late. Without sparrows, locust populations multiplied and decimated the fields. The government even resorted to importing sparrows from the Soviet Union to no avail.
Solutions aren’t always helpful
The combination of locusts and other ill-conceived policies embedded in the Great Leap Forward led to the Great Chinese Famine in which over 30 million people died of starvation. Indeed, sometimes the solution to a problem is worse than the problem itself.
Such is the unintended consequence of how culling sparrows resulted in one of the greatest human-made disasters in human history. Welcome to the law of unintended consequences – it is more common than you think.
One definition of this ‘law’ (popularised by American sociologist Robert K. Merton) is that the actions of people, and especially governments and regulators, often have effects that are unanticipated or unintended.
History is literally littered with significant examples of unintended consequences – be it the Great Chinese Famine, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease) epidemic, or the silent tsunami facing modern medicine – antibiotic resistance.
Does it matter what we feed to food-production animals?
Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”
– Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, French politician and gastronome, 1755-1826
There is an undeniable relationship between man and the food he eats. It would be highly irresponsible and worse than foolish to claim that the same relationship does not apply to animals and the food we feed them.
Looking at the landscape of animal feed production, animal feed ingredients and feeding practices and biological, chemical and other etiologic agents detected in animal feed, there is every sign that we often continue to behave as fools. It is only when we befall a crisis or an epidemic that we are forced to make – often only partial changes – to the flawed practices, costings lives and livelihoods.
Both BSE and antibiotic resistance are, to varying degrees, linked to what we feed livestock. It is important to point out that BSE is not the only example of Zoonotic disease – an animal disease that has gone on to infect humans. In fact, the majority of recent major human infectious disease outbreaks started out the same way, including HIV, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and swine flu. Although there are still some gaps in our knowledge, the pandemic of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) caused by SARS-CoV-2 has also been classified as a zoonotic disease.
As for antibiotic resistance, there is evidence1 that antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be transmitted from swine and poultry to humans. It has also been reported2 that after the ingestion of antibiotic-resistant Enterococcus faecium originating from contaminated chicken and pork, the resistant bacterium can be isolated from the stool of infected individuals for up to two weeks, indicating that antibiotic-resistant E. faecium can survive and multiply in the human gastrointestinal tract.
In addition, there is strong temporal evidence suggesting that some domestically acquired antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections in humans emerged in the US only after the approval of specific human antibiotics for use in animal feed or water.
In the coming months, we will look at other examples clearly demonstrating that the health of humans, animals, and the environment are inextricably linked and elaborately connected. In the process I will make the case for a transdisciplinary holistic thinking and approach for the attainment of a more secure safer food and a healthier public.
About the author
Dr Sepe Sehati is an innovator and a passionate advocate and practitioner of both critical thinking and tactical cross-pollination of disciplines. Sepe holds a Doctorate in Bioengineering from the University of Oxford and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine. Sepe’s innovative approach to problem solving and strategising – fuelled through the application of diverse scientific fields, analytics, neuroscience, behavioural science and evidence-based principles, has led him to contribute to various high-profile initiatives, ranging from President Obama’s Transition Health Policy, to the UK Prime Minister’s sustainable development plan, to the late Dr Richard Rockefeller’s innovative healthcare models.