CHEESE AND WINE AND BIG
AS A growing number of young South Africans swell the jobless queue, the authorities have taken to talking with increasing fervour of the sea and the potential of the “Blue Economy”.
It’s one of those catchy phrases, a bit like “Radical Economic Transformation”, that can mean all things to all people, but often adds up to little more than sound and fury.
It gets bandied about in official documents or dropped into speeches by ministers and other heavy hitters to describe a multibillion-rand purse just waiting – the public are told – to be prised from the ocean’s clutches.
To make this happen, the government was backing Operation Phakisa, an elaborate planning framework. Operation Phakisa brings under its roof diverse and competing interests: gas and oil exploration, commercial fishing, marine transport, marine conservation, coastal and marine tourism and marine aquaculture (fish farming).
In the protection stakes, South Africa has lagged on its international commitments to expand its network of Marine Protected Areas.
Until recently, only 0.4% of South Africa’s exclusive economic zone was protected.
The issue came under scrutiny at a recent Ocean Stewards Science Session – an initiative launched by Wildlands and Grindrod Bank in recognition of threats facing the oceans.
Before this year’s science session, Ocean Stewards played a leading role in launching the Only This Much campaign, which called for increased protection of the oceans.
Amid growing public pressure, the Cabinet finally announced on October 24, that it would expand protection to at least 5% of South Africa’s marine environment – a move welcomed as long overdue by marine conservationists.
But it was not only the need to protect oceans that came in for scrutiny at the session, hosted at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Ambitious plans to grow the aquaculture sector revenue from about R500 million (estimates vary), “to almost R1.4 billion in 2019” were also on the bill. And it took a pounding from Larry Oellermann, the chief executive of the South African Association of Marine Biological Research.
Aquaculture is of course hardly new. It was familiar to the Romans and other ancients. Today it contributes almost half of the global fish supply, but less than 1% of South Africa’s seafood supply.
The government wants it to play a much bigger part in our economy, believing it offered great potential for rural development, especially for poor coastal communities.
In June, Senzeni Zokwana, the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said 35 aquaculture projects around the country had registered with Operation Phakisa and more were in the pipeline.
Since the launch of the initiative, more than R700m had been invested in the aquaculture sector by the government and private sector, said Zokwana.
“Opportunities in the aquaculture sector are supporting rural economic development for both inland and coastal communities. It has started a cycle of economic activity, employment and consumer demand in these communities,” said Zokwana.
Oellermann, however, was not convinced. As if sensing the anticipation from the young scientists at the session, Oellermann first set out his credentials: more than 30 years’ experience working in the aquaculture and marine aquaculture (mariculture) field in Namibia and South Africa as a hatchery manager, researcher, consultant and adviser.
Next, Oellermann fired up a PowerPoint presentation with a series of graphs and tables, drawn from an economic and sectoral study.
It showed there had been limited growth in the marine industry for prawns, oysters and mussels over the past 15 years.
Then came the hook.
The idea that South Africa was going to become a world player in mariculture was far-fetched, said Oellermann. “We are not naturally a mariculture country. We do not have fjords and the coastal environment to do large scale mariculture,” he explained. He said aside from Saldanha Bay, which has a big calm bay conducive for mariculture, the industry in South Africa was largely land-based – and hugely expensive to set up.
“My point about mariculture in South Africa is that, because of the nature of our coastline, it will mostly have to be undertaken in specially created facilities onshore,” said Oellermann. “Our sea is just too rough, and the coastline too unprotected, for us to be able to farm much in the sea. As soon as you have to pump seawater onto the shore, and build special systems on the shore to keep your animals alive, the operation gets costly, not just in infrastructure terms, but also in terms of meeting the environmental requirements and the regulations involved,” said Oellermann.
It took on average R120m to start an abalone farm and typically took six years to reach breakeven point, he said. Let’s be realistic. Tapping the ocean’s economic potential will be a tough fight. NOT too long ago, Brian Wansink was one of the most respected food researchers in the US.
He founded the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, where he won attention for studies that showed that small behavioural changes could influence eating patterns. He found that large plates lead people to eat more food because they make portions look smaller, and that children eat more vegetables when they have colourful names like “power peas”.
Wansink wrote best-selling books and published hundreds of studies. For more than a year, he served in a top nutrition policy role at the Department of Agriculture under George W Bush, where he helped shape the government’s influential dietary guidelines. His research even led the government to spend almost $20 million redesigning school cafés, an initiative known as the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement.
But this month, Wansink’s career at Cornell came to an unceremonious end. On September 20, the university announced that a year-long investigation had found that he committed “academic misconduct in his research and scholarship, including misreporting of research data”, and that he had tendered his resignation.
The announcement came one day after the prestigious medical journal JAMA retracted six of his studies because of questions about their “scientific validity”. Seven of his other papers had previously been retracted for similar reasons.
“I think the extent of misconduct that has occurred with this author is unique,” Dr Howard Bauchner, JAMA’s editor-in-chief, said. “There are literally millions of authors, and there’s very few who have had numerous papers retracted.”
For more than a year, Wansink had been dogged by accusations that many of his studies were riddled with errors, data inconsistencies and evidence of fraud. Wansink admitted to making “typos, transposition errors and some statistical mistakes” in his papers. But he defended his work and said none of his mistakes “changed the substantive conclusions” of any of his papers.
“I’m very proud of all of these papers,” he said, “and I’m confident they will be replicated by other groups.”
But as news of the scandal reverberated through academic circles, some experts said they feared it was symptomatic of a broader problem in food and health research. While very few scientists are accused of misconduct or misreporting data, critics have long contended that nutrition research is plagued by a credibility problem. They argue that an alarming number of food studies are misleading, unscientific or manipulated to draw dubious conclusions.
Wansink’s lab was known for data dredging, or p-hacking, the process of running exhaustive analyses on data sets to tease out subtle signals that might otherwise be unremarkable. Critics say it is tantamount to casting a wide net and then creating a hypothesis to support whatever cherrypicked findings seem interesting – the opposite of the scientific method. For example, emails obtained by BuzzFeed News showed that Wansink prodded researchers in his lab to mine their data sets for results that would “go virally big time”.
“P-hacking is a really serious problem,” said Dr Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, who teaches medical journalism at New York University. “Not to be overly dramatic, but in some ways it throws into question the very statistical basis of what we’re reading as science journalists and as the public.”
Data dredging is fairly common in health research, and especially in studies involving food. It is one reason contradictory nutrition headlines seem to be the norm: one week coffee, cheese and red wine are found to be protective against heart disease and cancer, and the next week a new crop of studies pronounce that they cause it.
Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, said that many researchers are under enormous pressure to churn out papers. One recent analysis found that thousands of scientists publish a paper every five days.
“You can’t get a job if you don’t have papers,” she said. “I see this at my university. We expect assistant professors to be hired with already a record of scholarship.”
In 2012, Dr John Ioannidis, chairperson of disease prevention at Stanford, published a study titled “Is Everything We Eat Associated With Cancer?” He and a co-author randomly selected 50 recipes from a cookbook and discovered that 80% of the ingredients – mushrooms, peppers, olives, lobster, mustard, lemons – had been linked to either an increased or a decreased risk of cancer in numerous studies. In many cases a single ingredient was found to be the subject of questionable cancer claims in more than 10 studies, a vast majority of which “were based on the new ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda (who had been Ocampo’s assistant) could not convince all three judges that there was enough evidence against Gbagbo. According to French online investigative news site Mediapart, the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was aware of the weakness of Bensouda’s case and had rushed to the Hague to discuss progress with the French ambassador.
Bensouda’s team took another year to try and gather enough evidence. It was only in May 2014 that the charges against him were confirmed. Some evidence brought by the prosecution in the pre-trial hearings was proven to be fabricated, with one video of his followers allegedly carrying out massacres having actually been shot in Kenya.
Bensouda was later to admit to one of the presidential candidates of the Central African Republic, Pascal Bida Koyagbele, at a dinner in the Netherlands, “There is nothing serious against Gbagbo, it’s political pressure coming from France and I can do nothing.”
Koyagbele contends that Bensouda had lobbied France to be appointed as ICC chief prosecutor.
But perhaps more importantly is why the ICC was being used as a political instrument by the former colonial power to neutralise Gbagbo from the political scene of the Ivory Coast.
The fundamental reason was that since becoming president in 2000, Gbagbo had become the greatest threat to France’s domination in Ivory Coast as well as Francophone Africa. Gbagbo had started to reduce the dominance of French corporations over the economy, and the concern was that this could be replicated across West Africa.
Gbagbo was determined to relax France’s control weak statistical evidence”, the paper concluded.
Nutrition epidemiology is notorious for this. Scientists routinely scour data sets on large populations looking for links between specific foods or diets and health outcomes like chronic disease and life span. These studies can generate important findings and hypotheses. But they also have serious limitations. They cannot prove cause and effect, for example, and collecting dietary data from people is like trying to catch a moving target: many people cannot recall precisely what they ate last month, last week or even in the past 48 hours.
In one recent example, an observational study of thousands of people published in The Lancet last year made headlines with its findings that high-carb diets were linked to increased mortality rates and that eating saturated fat and meat was protective. Then in August, a separate team of researchers published an observational study of thousands of people in a related journal, The Lancet Public Health, with contrasting findings: low-carb diets that were high in meat increased mortality rates.
He and other experts have called for reform in nutrition science. They say that researchers should publicly register their study protocols beforehand to eliminate data dredging, share their raw data to increase transparency, focus on large randomised controlled trials to produce better results, and refrain from slicing and dicing large observational data sets into multiple papers that magnify weak findings.
Experts say the problem extends to science journalists as well: many reporters are encouraged to produce articles that get lots of attention. That is another reason researchers and universities feel pressure to put out studies and news releases with exaggerated findings.
Oransky said while Wansink’s behaviour was egregious, it is not isolated. Wansink would not even make Retraction Watch’s list of the top 30 scientists with the most retracted papers One person on the list, an anesthesiologist, has had 183 retracted papers. Oransky estimated every year roughly 1 400 scientific papers are retracted out of the 2 million to 3 million that are published.
What made this case stand out, he said, is that a media darling like Wansink was at the centre of it. Indeed, the unique part of this scandal is how prominent he was. over banking, insurance, transport, cocoa trading and energy policy, and had invited companies from other countries to tender for projects.
Gbagbo was appalled by the gross overspending on French projects, such as the bridge France was to build in the capital, Abidjan, for 200 billion CFA francs (R4.7bn), a contract he cancelled when the Chinese said they could build the bridge for 60bn CFA francs in 2002.
Then there was Gbagbo’s opposition to France maintaining its colonial pact with its former colonies whereby the French treasury controls their currencies, capital reserves, and trade and investment policies. Under the agreement between France and its former colonies on the creation of the CFA franc, the central banks of its former colonies are obliged to keep 80% of its foreign exchange reserves in an operations account held at the French treasury in Paris. This has made it impossible for countries to regulate their own monetary policies.
Gbagbo’s incarceration at the Hague was a solution of last resort, when all other means to neutralise him, including a series of coups, had failed. The tragedy is that Gbagbo had returned Ivory Coast to multiparty democracy, ensured press freedom and fought for the total sovereignty of an African country still under the yoke of neo-colonialism.
It is time the world recognises the ICC has been manipulated in this instance and, as Africans, to ensure this type of manipulation does not continue, as there is no other alternative to the ICC in terms of prosecuting gross violations of human rights.