Being given the chance to review any book of one’s own choosing is a rare pleasure. My immediate thought was a tip given to me by a colleague in Swansea many years ago when, as a young lecturer, I stood in as head of department for a year. ‘Read Toddler Taming by Dr Christopher Green’, she said. ‘Best book on management and leadership there is.’ And indeed, I would advise anyone in a management position to give it a try. The controlled crying technique can work in a range of contexts, for example. But I’ve gone for a very different work, on a very different topic: The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II.
The title refers to a longitudinal study of 6500 adults in rural China aimed at elucidating the connection between diet and health. T. Colin Campbell was the project director, collaborating with Junshi Chen from China and Richard Peto from Oxford in the UK. This piece of work had a number of methodological advantages over previous studies. Since salary costs were low compared with the US, and the social structures allowed for more intervention than would be usual in the West, the data sampling was unusually thorough. Regular blood and urine samples were taken and a wealth of detail on nutritional habits collected from the participants. Typical dietary items were bought from village markets and analysed for their nutritional content. This robust data was novel in another and more important way, however. For the first time the nutritional habits of a population that ate food mainly of vegetable origin could be compared with those of the typical American population that ate food rich in animal products. The results were startling, revealing a strong correlation between animalderived foodstuffs and the civilisation diseases of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and dementia. As the consumption of plant-based foods rises, the incidence of these maladies falls. The consumption of animal-based foods of any kind - not just red meat, or meat generally, but also dairy products and eggs - was strongly correlated not only with the typical Western diseases, but also with the obesity epidemic that was beginning to sweep America.
T. Colin Campbell grew up on a dairy farm. He began his career as a scientist examining the causes of liver cancer in children, and found, completely counter-intuitively, that the children from wealthier backgrounds whose parents could afford what was then seen as a healthy diet rich in dairy products, especially milk (‘calcium for growing bones’) were more likely to contract cancer, not less, as he had expected. Indeed, his early research was aimed at giving better scientific foundations to the advice given to the parents of my own generation in the 50s and 60s: growing children need plenty of protein, they were told, and the best source of that is meat and dairy products. To cut a long story short, over the course of a long career Campbell entirely revised his view of the healthy foundations of human nutrition, coming to the view that the government-approved guidelines advising caution on red meat and processed meat, but supporting the consumption of white meat, fish, eggs in moderation and dairy products, were wrong. He advocates a low-fat, wholefood, plant-based diet for optimum nutrition and protection against heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
The China Study is not a diet book. It doesn’t contain any recipes or specific lifestyle advice. What impressed me was not only the care and detail with which the scientific basis of the main author’s intellectual journey is depicted, but the political implications of his insights. As Campbell began to publish his results he found that food industry lobbyists began to rubbish his findings and attempt to discredit him personally. It became clear that some leading nutritional scientists on influential committees - including the one advising on dietary guidelines - were either directly retained by the food industry or received research funding from them. He began to realise that it wouldn’t just be a case of putting the data before the relevant scientific advisory committees and changing the guidelines. I have to confess I was startled by Campbell’s account of the way in which industry interests moved to discredit him. Further reading, particularly of Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, by Michael Moss, revealed the frankly cynical way in which the big processed food companies create highly palatable but addictive and unhealthy products that deliver a good profit margin. It was a revelation to discover that the tobacco giant Philip Morris owned three of the biggest food companies (Kraft, General Foods and Nabisco) for twenty years. Pharmaceutical companies rely heavily on products designed to treat conditions arising from poor diet. The costs to health systems in the West are enormous. Is it going too far to talk of the medical-industrial complex?
These works, The China Study among them, have made me reflect deeply on how universities work. We devote huge research resources to finding new treatments for cancer and diabetes. Should there not be more focus on prevention? Do we always think seriously enough about the sources of our research funding? Leadership brings with it responsibility. Are we exercising it with sufficient insight?
Professor Colin Riordan took up the post of president and vice-chancellor at Cardiff University in September 2012. Previously he was vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, having been appointed in October 2007. He moved to Essex from Newcastle University, where he had been pro-vice-chancellor and provost of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences since August 2005.
Professor Riordan taught English as a foreign language at Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg in Germany (1982-84) and was lecturer, then senior lecturer in German at Swansea University (1986-1998). He became professor of German at Newcastle University in 1998, where he remained until his move to Essex. He has published widely on post-war German literature and culture, including editing books on the writers Jurek Becker, Uwe Johnson and Peter Schneider. Other research interests include the history of environmental ideas in German culture.
He is a vice-president and Board member of Universities UK, the Leadership Foundation, the Edge Foundation, NARIC, UCAS and the Equality Challenge Unit. In 2013 he became chair of Higher Education Wales, the body which represents the interests of higher education institutions in Wales. He is also a member of the South East Wales City Region Board. As chair of the International Policy Network of Universities UK, he is active in promoting and advancing the role of UK universities aboard. He is also chair of the UK Higher Education International Unit, and is a member of the International Education Council sponsored by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.
My Inspiring Leader was Professor Rhys W. Williams who headed the department of German at Swansea University from 1984 to 2008. He knew what he wanted to achieve and communicated a clear vision for the department to everybody in it and beyond. He taught me the importance of combining detailed analytical ability with emotional intelligence, of building and motivating a team while having the courage to take difficult decisions from time to time, and of having fun.