Tag Archives: industry

The food industry is skewing research, but we’re onto them now

The food industry could be actively working against public health by influencing the results of studies in their favor.

Image credits Stefan Divily.

New research reports that around 13.4% of the nutrition studies it analyzed disclosed ties to the food industry. Studies in which the industry was involved were more likely to produce results that were favorable to its interest, the team adds, raising questions in regards to the merits of these findings.

Harmburger

“This study found that the food industry is commonly involved in published research from leading nutrition journals. Where the food industry is involved, research findings are nearly six times more likely to be favourable to their interests than when there is no food industry involvement,” the authors note.

It’s not uncommon for industry to become involved with research — after all, they have a direct stake in furthering knowledge in their field of activity. This can range from offering funding to assigning employees to research teams for support or active research.

The current paper comes to show that, at least in the food industry, such activities are actively skewing and biasing research into nutrition. It is possible, the team reports, that this can put public health at risk as corporate interests can start dictating what findings see the light of day, where, and in what form. Such findings are worrying since corporations are notorious for putting profits above anything else, including truth or the common good.

In order to get a better idea of just how extensive the influence of industry is in food-related research, the team — led by Gary Sacks of Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia — analyzed all papers published in the top 10 peer-reviewed academic journals related to diet or nutrition. They looked at which had ties to the industry such as funding from food companies or affiliated organizations, and then whether or not the authors went out of their way to support industry interests.

Roughly 13.4% of the articles had some level of industry involvement, with some journals bearing more of the blame than others. The authors explain that studies with industry involvement were over five times more likely to favor industry interests compared to a random sample of studies without involvement (55.6% vs 9.7% for the latter).

Such figures offer a pretty big warning sign that industry involvement could promote research bias or help push an agenda at the expense of quality science (such as the neglect of topics that are important for public health but go against industrial interests). The authors suggest several mechanisms that could be employed to preserve the quality of nutrition research.

The paper “The characteristics and extent of food industry involvement in peer-reviewed research articles from 10 leading nutrition-related journals in 2018” has been published in the journal PLOS One.

Dry cat- and dog-food production uses an area twice the size of the UK

The world’s pets eat a surprising amount of food, according to a new study. It reports that the dry food used to feed cats and dogs worldwide takes an area twice as large as the UK to grow every year.

Image via Pixabay.

Where would we be without our pets? Arguably, life wouldn’t be quite as enjoyable. But at the same time, we’d also save up on quite a lot of greenhouse gas emissions — more than are released by countries such as the Philippines. The findings come from a new study that looked at the global environmental impacts of the pet food industry.

Feeding fur babies

Enough people around the world now have pets that we need to accurately assess their environmental impact if we want to reach our climate targets, the team explains. The production of dry food intended for our pets especially needs to be analyzed, they add.

For the study, the researchers looked at the main ingredients used in over 280 types of dry food available in Europe and the US. These areas account for around two-thirds of the global sales of dry pet food.

Around half of the ingredients used are based on plant crops, mainly maize, rice, and wheat. The other half is made of a large selection of animal and fish products. From these figures, the authors estimate that dry dog and cat food production takes around 49 million hectares of agricultural land, which is roughly twice the size of the United Kingdom. Dry cat- and dog- food accounts for around 95% of all pet food production, even when accounting for the use of byproducts in pet foods.

As far as greenhouse gas emissions are concerned, this would account for roughly 106 million tons of CO2 per year. A country producing the same levels would be the world’s sixtieth highest emitter, the team explains.

The team says their findings should be factored into our climate estimations to better inform our actions. Furthermore, they show that the industry should be considered alongside other drivers of biodiversity loss such as agriculture and deforestation.

The paper “The global environmental paw print of pet food” has been published in the journal Global Environmental Change.

How the alcohol industry lies to you

Study identifies “denying, distortion and distraction” as strategies commonly used by the alcohol industry to mislead the population.

It’s the same story we’ve seen over and over again. Tobacco companies lied about the negative effects of cigarettes. Exxon knew about climate change since the 70s and lied. It shouldn’t even surprise us that alcohol, a Group 1 carcinogen, is a subject of manipulation.

A study led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine with the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden analyzed information relating to cancer which appears on the websites and documents of nearly 30 alcohol industry organizations. Almost all of the websites they analyzed (92%) featured at least some type of manipulation regarding alcohol-related cancer risk.

The most common forms of misrepresented cancers are breast and colorectal cancers.

Total recorded alcohol per capita consumption (15+), in liters of pure alcohol. Image via Wikipedia.

Make it seem complicated

Latest research is quite consistent — a standard drink a day can increase the risk of breast cancer. More drinks, higher risks. But every day, journals churn a whopping amount of papers analyzing the impact our diet has on our life. Some are high-standard papers, some less so. What alcohol companies often do is cherry pick the studies they want.

The main mechanism through which they do this is making everything seem complicated. They’ll say things like “there’s no evidence of a consistent link,” quoting and often misrepresenting studies that present the information they want.

Another common strategy is to opt for the ‘moderate drinking is not a risk factor’, going on to list a wide number of other risk factors, making it seem like alcohol is just another drop in the bucket.

“The weight of scientific evidence is clear – drinking alcohol increases the risk of some of the most common forms of cancer, including several common cancers,” says lead researcher Mark Petticrew“Public awareness of this risk is low, and it has been argued that greater public awareness, particularly of the risk of breast cancer, poses a significant threat to the alcohol industry.”

Image credits: Paul Joseph.

Again, this isn’t really a surprise and should shock no one, but what this study does is to indicate that this is almost certainly no honest mistake. Mark Petticrew, who serves as Professor of Public Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, says that the consistency with which alcohol companies disseminate misleading information leaves little room for interpretation — they want to make it seem like alcohol is not so bad for you… and it works.

“Public awareness of this risk is low, and it has been argued that greater public awareness, particularly of the risk of breast cancer, poses a significant threat to the alcohol industry. Our analysis suggests that the major global alcohol producers may attempt to mitigate this by disseminating misleading information about cancer through their ‘responsible drinking’ bodies.”

All the bad boys do it

The mention of tobacco and oil companies is not coincidental. Industries with some sort of negative effects on society invest heavily into things like lobby and PR, whitewashing said negative effects. It’s hard to sell a product when studies clearly show that it gives you lung cancer, and that’s visible in the declining trends of cigarette sales. However, the alcohol industry was thought to be “cleaner.” While it’s in no way as bad as Big Tobacco, Big Alcohol also isn’t clean.

“Contesting the research evidence base is often part of the stakeholder marketing strategy of the alcohol industry,” says Ross Gordon, President of the Australian Association of Social Marketing, who wasn’t involved in the research.

“This has parallels with the tobacco industry who contested the links between smoking and cancer for years.”

Researchers suggest following the advice and recommendations of established health bodiesnot the alcohol industry.

Journal Reference: Mark Petticrew, Nason Maani Hessari, Cécile Knai, Elisabete Weiderpass. How alcohol industry organisations mislead the public about alcohol and cancer. DOI: 10.1111/dar.12596

Shrinking economy.

Too much innovation wrecks weak economies, too much competition paralyzes strong ones, paper reports

Lacking in efficiency and stability, burgeoning economies might actually suffer if innovation comes too fast, or at too large a scale, a new paper reports. At the same time, highly mature economies put themselves at risk of collapse as they become too efficient and streamlined, it warns.

Shrinking economy.

Image credits Gerd Altmann.

Moderation seems to be the skeleton key to every aspect of life — including policy and economics. Changes that overshoot on what a country’s economic systems can actually deliver risk backfiring completely, and developing economies seem to be especially at risk in this regard. That’s why for them, innovation can actually grind the economy to a halt when dealt in large heapings rather than manageable spoon-fulls. But even fully-fledged economies aren’t safe, warns a paper led by Charles Brummitt, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for the Management of Systemic Risk at Columbia University, New York.

Buffer up!

Drawing on their background in economy and economical system modeling, the authors developed a theoretical framework that models how disruptions propagate in a modern economy. They found that such disruptions are the effect of “poverty traps” which limit the ability of emerging economies to develop — especially when there’s a big push to do so. At the same time, large economies tend to slowly fall back into these traps as a direct consequence of the market’s tendency to promote efficiency via competition.

And the Achilles’ heel of all these systems is the supply chain.

The paper started from the observation that while poor economies have lower outputs, as well as shorter supply and production chains, they’re much more prone to disruptions than mature economies — and experience them more often. Stronger economies, by contrast, have robust supply chains and complex economies but “are not immune to disruptions,” either. Here, problems usually arise because “competition drives firms to build lean supply chains,” so a single hitch in the chain can cause “large aggregate losses” across the whole system.

The authors report that hiccups in the supply chain can spread “contagiously” throughout the whole economy. This way, even a tiny original disruption can end up leaving a deep mark in an economy through a cascade effect that propagates the damage with every step.

Too big to rise

For under-developed economies, disruptions can be traced back to a host of factors associated with immature industrial and economic systems, such as faulty machinery, power shortages, logistical issues associated with poor infrastructure, work absenteeism, and so on.

Faced with such constraints, agents naturally scale back on their operations. They roll-back on their technological base (no need for cutting edge computers when there’s no reliable power in the grid) or shorten logistical chains to mitigate the impact of infrastructure, for example, all of which translate into a scale-down of production — both in regards to the quantity and quality of goods produces.

The flip-side is that this constant scaling-down process means that disruption sources become chronic — if the economy is bad, there’s no money to invest in power or infrastructure. If production chains are kept short to avoid issues, there’s no reason (and economic means) for longer and more stable chains to develop.

In this context, when an economic or industrial actor tries to scale up too much, the rest of the economy simply can’t sustain it. The enterprise either fails or scales back down. The authors use this argument to point out that our current way of trying to help such systems develop actually dooms them to constant under-development cycle. The best way to go about it, they argue, is to promote incremental improvements in the sustainability and stability of an economy, not its scale or scope.

“The big technological push that for a long time was the standard policy recommendation for underdeveloped countries is not the solution”, says paper co-author and University of Bocconi’s Department of Decision Sciences Prof. Vega-Redondo.

“Pushing these economies beyond the functionality of their system makes them even more dysfunctional. The solution is to proceed by gradual increases in technological complexity”.

Too small to stand

In mature economies, it’s actually too much efficiency that causes problems. Companies are in constant competition, and over time one actor imposes itself on the market. The more market share in its particular field it gathers, the more it pushes competitors out of business — and this weakens supply chains. Any issue with that one company will impact others who depend on its product or service, no matter what field they operate it. In turn, companies that depend on these latter ones will be impacted, and so on.

“Once the economy develops, these buffers are considered redundant and shrink. Eventually, the flip side of the coin is that, by becoming too lean, an economy becomes also more fragile,” Vega-Redondo explains.

“This is something you can see in our modern developed economies – think, for example, about the consequences of the 2011 earthquake off Japan‘s Pacific coast. Disruptions that had a relatively limited geographical and productive scope ended up imposing a major burden on the overall Japanese operations, both in Japan itself and abroad”.

Overall, the team argues that increasing the resilience of these supply chain “buffers” helps eliminate disturbances and promote general system health. For example, such measures might include having several suppliers instead of one for key industrial commodities — how that goal is reached is up for us to decide.

The paper “Contagious disruptions and complexity traps in economic development” has been published in the preprint journal ArXiv.

Public is skeptical of all research tied to a company, new study shows

A new study has revealed that at least when it comes to health risks or medicine, most people don’t believe studies associated with an industrial partner, even one with a good reputation.

No one really loves corporations, however, they do play a vital role in society — and in science. But at what cost? Image credits: takomabibelot.

In the past couple of years, we’ve seen a disturbing trend of anti-intellectualism. People don’t believe the experts, they don’t want science, and would often take their news and information from click bait Facebook posts or articles. Science isn’t really quick to react and scientists rarely aim to grab your attention with catchy headlines, so this problem is likely going to stick with us for a long time. However, if there is something scientists are good at, it’s figuring stuff out — and they recently showed that one of the mechanisms which erode trust in science is partnerships with industry.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that most people dislike big companies, but the effect through which this dislike carries onto science is still not properly explored. Many health studies have a corporate partner or involve some kind of drug or treatment method developed by a corporation; how impactful are these associations?

“People have a hard time seeing research related to health risks as legitimate if done with a corporate partner,” said John Besley, lead author and an associate professor who studies the public’s perception of science. “This initial study was meant to understand the scope of the problem. Our long-term goal though is to develop a set of principles so that quality research that’s tied to a company will be better perceived by the public.”

In Besley’s study, participants were randomly assigned to evaluate one of 15 scenarios which included various partnerships between scientists from a university, a government agency, a non-governmental organization, and a large food company. Basically, participants were presented the same study on genetically modified foods and trans fats, but featuring various partnerships of the author.

The results clearly showed that people tended to dislike and distrust the science when the food company was involved. In fact, 77 percent of participants had something negative to say about this association and questioned the quality of the produced results. At the other side, only 28 percent of participants said something negative when a corporate partner wasn’t present. Additional partners, even reliable ones such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, didn’t change these values significantly.

What this tells us is pretty simple: even if you do some quality science, there’s a good chance people won’t believe you because you got money from a company. This is understandable to some extent and you’d be tempted to say — “OK, scientists simply shouldn’t partner up with corporations” and that’s that. But then… where are you supposed to get funding money from? In the US, the funding leash is getting shorter and shorter, and there’s virtually no branch of science which isn’t getting significant funding from industry. Much of the science happening today is also trans-disciplinary and benefits from multiple actors involved. The study explains:

“University scientists conducting research on topics of potential health concern often want to partner with a range of actors, including government entities, non-governmental organizations, and private enterprises. Such partnerships can provide access to needed resources, including funding. However, those who observe the results of such partnerships may judge those results based on who is involved.”

So you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place — either risk the public not believing in your research or just never get the money you need in the first place. It’s a challenging time to be a researcher.

“Ultimately, the hope is to find some way to ensure quality research isn’t rejected just because of who is involved,” Besley said. “But for now, it looks like it may take a lot of work by scientists who want to use corporate resources for their studies to convince others that such ties aren’t affecting the quality of their research.”

Journal Reference: John C. Besley , Aaron M. McCright, Nagwan R. Zahry, Kevin C. Elliott, Norbert E. Kaminski, Joseph D. Martin — Perceived conflict of interest in health science partnerships. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0175643

Spend a month at the science and industry museum of Chicago

I have to say, this is one of the most attractive initiatives I’ve come across in quite a while. Basically, you live in the museum and breathe science for 30 days, and if you do that, you win 10.000$ and a lot of other prizes. That’s pretty much awesome if you ask me. You can apply here.


From their page:

The Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago is looking for “you.” And by “you,” we mean an adventurous, outgoing person with a strong interest in learning about science and the world around her or him, plus the ability to write very well about your experiences. Ideally, you’re also the web-savvy sort who can keep your thumb out of frame when taking photographs. If that “you” sounds like you, or if you are simply curious about this intriguing endeavor, then you should read on.

We’re looking for someone to take on a once-in-a-lifetime assignment: spend a Month at the Museum, to live and breathe science 24/7 for 30 days. From October 20 to November 18, 2010, this person’s mission will be to experience all the fun and education that fits in this historic 14-acre building, living here full-time and reporting your findings to the outside world. Sure, it’s a commitment. But if you are chosen and can successfully complete the Month at the Museum, you’ll walk away with a prize of $10,000, a package of tech gadgets, an honorary lifetime membership to MSI, and new knowledge and experiences that may just transform you.

Future cars could be partially powered by their bodywork

Parts of the car’s bodywork could double up as it’s batter in a not so far away future; at least that’s what the people involved in the 3.4 million project believe. They are working on a prototype that can store and discharge electrical energy; the material is also light and very hard.

Ultimately, this will not only double the battery, but it will make cars lighter, more compact and more energy efficient, allowing drivers to travel longer distances without having to recharge. Furthermore, the material could also be used in different fields, such as mobile phones or computers, so they wouldn’t need a separate battery.

“We are really excited about the potential of this new technology. We think the car of the future could be drawing power from its roof, its bonnet or even the door, thanks to our new composite material. Even the Sat Nav could be powered by its own casing. The future applications for this material don’t stop there – you might have a mobile phone that is as thin as a credit card because it no longer needs a bulky battery, or a laptop that can draw energy from its casing so it can run for a longer time without recharging. We’re at the first stage of this project and there is a long way to go, but we think our composite material shows real promise.”, said The project co-ordinator, Dr Emile Greenhalgh, from the Department of Aeronautics at Imperial College London

You can find a demonstration and additional details here.

China – pollution crisis ??

pollution

Photo by Stefan

Everybody (or almost everybody) believes that no matter what, USA remains “polluter no. 1”. Don’t take my word for it, just ask BBC’s environment analyst Roger Harrabin – he says the same thing. The industry is by far the most developed, so that would seem logical, despite the fact the China and India have way more people.

But now, people everywhere and global leaders are going to have to change the way they see things: without a a sea change in its energy policies, China’s increases in greenhouse gases could now be several times larger than the cuts in emissions being made by rich nations under the Kyoto Protocol. They’ve surpassed the ‘competition’, and the figures are quite dire.

The world climate depends on China being able to tackle and overcome this problem, but things aren’t getting any better. Still, there’s no need and no sense in pointing a finger at the Chinese, according to Dr Max Auffhammer (who conducted studies concerning this issue).

“They are trying to pull people out of poverty and they clearly need help. The only solution is for a massive transfer of technology and wealth from the West.America’s per capita emissions are five to six times higher than China’s, even though China has become the [world’s] top manufacturing economy.”

Update: China did face a pollution crisis in 2013 – read about it here.

Pollution and Life Expectancy

 

smog

The fight between health and industry is more intense than it has been for many years and as a result,  numerous studies are conducted on the matter, and to be more precise, to find out how pollution shortens life expectancy, especially in children. But there are some gaps in information and implementation, according to a new European Environment Agency (EEA) report which makes it harder to get a result.

The latest in a series of assessments of the pan-European environment published by the EEA over the past 15 years, the report assesses environmental progress in 53 countries — an area with a total population of more than 870 million people. The region includes: Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia (EECCA), South East Europe (SEE), as well as Western and Central Europe (WCE). The biggest environment threats are from agriculture, tourism, transport and energy, the report says. There is also a growing need for resources, putting our environment at further risk.

The impact that such activities make is noticeable everywhere; water, air and soil quality differ greatly across the pan-European region. More than 100 million people do not have access to safe drinking water and sanitation. There are many countries in which the quality of water supply and sanitation has deteriorated over the past 15 years with the rural population being most affected, the report says. Those countries are from Eastern Europe, Caucasus, Central Asia and South East Europe so things are not that good. There has been some success with air pollution, current levels — mainly nitrogen oxide, fine particles and ground-level ozone — but the results are not that many.

For biodiversity, the target of halting biodiversity loss by 2010 will not be met without considerable additional efforts. More than 700 European species are under threat from extinction, including a number of iconic species such as the Iberian lynx and the snow leopard, as a result of habitat destruction, degradation and disturbance. ‘We need to further strengthen the will to act on environmental issues across the pan-European region. This requires a better understanding of the problems we face, their nature and distribution across societies and generations. Analysis, assessment, communication and education will help overcome this ‘information gap’ and will better equip those who need to act,’ said Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the EEA. People appear to not understand the impact that they have with the environment. The bad things that we as a species do to the planet are mostly irreversible and the downsides are by far more important than the benefits.