What would it take to create a vegetarian Britain?

So one thing I’ve wondered on an off for the past several years – what are the chances that Britain will become predominantly vegetarian. This may seem far-fetched, but it is precisely the kind of long term foresighting exercise of interest to policy makers and society planners. The idea of a vegetarian society is one I discussed with some friends on a train recently, my thoughts in this instance prompted in part by the recent media coverage of Labour’s shadow environment secretary on establishing public campaigns on eating meat, similar to the campaigns against smoking. Now keeping in mind that I myself am an unapologetic meat eater (I do believe there are ethical and sustainable approaches to being one), in my view there are several considerations that might lead to a more vegetarian society, and indeed possibly one that is predominantly so:

  1. The numbers of vegetarians and vegans is on the rise, at least according to some news stories, suggesting that the total proportion of people who might consider these as viable options, has no obvious upper limit;
  2. With this growing number, vegetarian food options become more plentiful, and more appetising;
  3. The “urban-rural divide”, in particular as related to an understanding of where food comes from would suggest that moral arguments about the ethicality of killing of animals for food may become more persuasive;
  4. There are increased concerns over the contributions of livestock to global warming;
  5. There are increased concerns over the health risks associated with excessive red meat and processed meat consumption in particular.

Each one of these factors alone may not be sufficient to cause a mass move to vegetarianism, but together, could they create a non-linear  “perfect storm“? So what are the counter-arguments? I haven’t look in any detail at this, but as far as I can tell, arguments in its favour primarily amount to (i) we like it and (ii) we have ‘always’ done so.  The fact that the majority of people do makes it hard for most of us to imagine that meat eating could ever be in a minority (and I’ve had this discussion with a few people). And yet consider how rapidly smoking when from being a slightly frowned upon by many practice, but one that was widely accepted, to one where smokers are in many ways considered pariahs. Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 22.42.40Going a bit farther back, I remember in Canada when drinking and driving was considered acceptable and indeed quite funny; in some places it still is. But now, and this all happened quite rapidly, drinking and driving is completely unacceptable – at least in the segments of society I am familar with. Sea changes in behavour like this are surprisingly common, though often unanticipated – they are examples of percolation phenomenon. Of course percolation is only a description of the phenomenon, what causes them are possibly ‘game-theoretic‘ like responses to circumstances, where individual behaviour is influenced by the actions and behaviour of those around them (and something a colleague, Jess Enright and I, looked at in the context of farmers, trading behaviour and biosecurity recently). When sufficient conditions are reached, percolative changes can occur.


Mouldy bread. When the individual patches of mould grow to the point where they become a large patch that extends across the slice of bread, they become a spanning population, and the patch of mould passes through a ‘percolation threshold’.

A vegetarian Britain might not be likely; on the other hand, if you are a meat eater (like me), don’t be surprised if some day your children view you as a carnivorous dinosaur, and you are relegated to eating in a corner of the restaurant away from normal, civilised people.


The irrationality of being rational.


The Boyd Orr Blog is back! Hopefully with greater regularity than ever before.

Its now been over a year between posts, and it seemed like time to either put up (i.e. with my regular promises to self and other to restart the blog) or shut up – and those who were hoping for the latter, will be sorely disappointed! Many reasons for the hiatus, including the natural inertia that arises from not doing something regularly, through to the desire, as time between posts increases, to make the next one REALLY significant (a possible reason for some of the long-tailed distribution between correspondence times that has been observed in famous and ordinary people, through to realising that I was unsure about the direction that this blog should be taking – is it a personal view on science-related events, a blog meant to inform others, a blog to promote the Boyd Orr Centre, or … ? In the end I’ve decided that it perhaps doesn’t really matter too much, so long as there is some overall relevance to the scientific arena. After all, you as readers can quickly decide for yourselves if what is posted here is worth the time to read it. I would still encourage other Boyd Orr Centre members to contribute if you’ve the time – when I was blogging more regularly, there were a surprising number of views (though predictably, an awful lot of them seemed to be related to a post I did relating Star Wars Imperial Walkers to elephants).

And on to the post. Bovine TB has been in the news a lot over the last year, most recently because of a recent government strategy announcement. Badger culls have not only been continued, but rules for what is viewed as acceptable have also been relaxed. This has been supported by a seemingly innocuous statement that it is supported by the scientific evidence. Leaving aside any comment on the scientific debate itself, it is somewhat disturbing that such a blanket statement is made. Which scientists? And of course, such statements, in the face of the ongoing often vociferous debates going on in both the scientific community and in public, are a misrepresentation of the ongoing debate, refinement and synthesis that should be a defining process of science, and the scientific community itself.

Related to this, my group recently published a paper that looked at how evidence of disturbance of badger setts (from a cross-Northern Ireland survey) was related to incidence of farm breakdowns due to bovine TB. We found that (while somewhat less important than cattle herd related risk factors), a combination of sett disturbance and high badger sett density was a significant and important risk factor. In my view an interesting and useful finding, and one that broadly speaking is in line with studies in England showing that, while badger-related risk factors were important for starting outbreaks, cattle-related factors were primary factors in continuing them. It was also the subject of a rather intense peer review, which our lead author, David Wright, handled with impressive thoroughness (as he did with the entire paper – well done David). The paper received some media attention (including some good radio coverage on the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 and on BBC Scotland) and there was also a fair bit of controversy over the use of the term ‘persecution’ to describe the unauthorised and illegal activities referred to in the paper. While in no way abrogating my responsibility as senior author for the content of the paper, I must admit that I was initially uncomfortable with this usage, however one of our co-authors insisted that this was, in fact, the standard term used for such activities, and it was on this basis that I was convinced. And indeed, it would in some ways seem to be a reasonable way to describe an activity that is both illegal and for which there is no evidence that it is even creating a positive outcome. And yet even while agreeing, I was well aware how emotive such a term really is (and perhaps, at least subconsciously, seeking out controversy). Insistence on being ‘right’ even when you are aware that it is likely to provoke a response that ends up obscuring the larger, more important debate (I don’t suppose you are reading, Richard Dawkins?) would appear to be a form of irrationality that is not exactly peculiar to scientists, but one which I suspect scientists are unusually susceptible to. Including, apparently, me.

Let the Games begin! Interdisciplinary teams and individuals in science

Just this past week saw the start of the Commonwealth Games. Hosting over 6,500 athletes from 71 countries, the Games is an enormous endeavour, and, if the first four days is anything to go by, one that will be a real success both in terms of participation and delivery of a high quality event. The opening ceremonies included an extended segment on Glasgow itself, and it would have taken a hard individual indeed not to have felt proud of the sometimes very hard history and unique character of this often maligned city.

The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. A celebration of excellence in sport, and a spirit of common purpose across the nations of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. A celebration of excellence in sport, and a spirit of common purpose across the nations of the Commonwealth.

Of course, the venues now completed, the ceremonies past, it is the sport itself that takes centre stage. Like the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games contains some team events, including hockey (field hockey to us Canadians), netball, and rugby sevens. However, by far the emphasis is on sports of the individual, and on the attainment of individual excellence. As a celebration of excellence across a collection of individuals, this of course makes it a very different kind of event compared to say, the just completed 2014 FIFA World Cup, similarly bringing together countries but in a celebration of a single sport, and in which, in the final, the best team beat the team with the best player (albeit not on his best day).

Which brings me to the science. Like sport, science is about the pursuit of excellence. Science can of course be done as a hobby, or purely for personal discovery but at its finest science is about the discovery of the new, and again like sport, the best of the new is achieved by the combination of discipline, long training and bursts of inspired creativity. Recent trends have emphasised the importance and need for multidisciplinary teams in science. Indeed, this was a key subject of the recent Boyd Orr conference, excellently led by the new co-directors of the Centre, Louise Matthews and Richard Reeve. In science which aims to solve real world health problems this is usually critical, due to the complexity of the problems we face, and rabies an excellent exemplar of this complexity, where, despite the existence of an entirely viable vaccine, surrounding issues complicate efforts to eradicate it.

Bigger and broader teams are also the emphasis of the funding bodies, both in terms of training of new scientists, and in terms of the research itself. There is of course considerable sense in removing duplication and enhancing value through partnerships, but such consortia both increase administrative burden, and inevitably lead to greater harmonisation. Can excellence be achieved by teams? Most certainly it can, and there are several palpable examples of this within the Boyd Orr Centre itself. But the hard graft of even the best teams, in sport and in science, must be punctuated by moments of individual brilliance in order to be truly outstanding – the pursuit of excellence is rarely served well by consensus alone. Perhaps the greatest trick of scientific discovery is how to listen to past evidence, and the arguments of colleagues and opponents, filtering out from this what is truly essential and not being swayed by consensus from developing a unique scientific voice. In my view, every scientist should spend his or her forty days in the wilderness – not, as in the Bible, as test of resolve in the face of temptation, but time spent apart from the multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary, multi-voiced environment to identify that voice. Finding that time is, of course, another matter.