Issue Date: February 28, 2011
Food Science Disconnect
Gavin Schmidt’s review of “Merchants of Doubt” was thoughtful and apropos (C&EN, Jan. 17, page 38). I have been studying the controversy involving the health effects of trace amounts of synthetic compounds thought to interfere with endocrine function in humans. This is a subject rife with activist researchers touting alarmist theories based on limited studies that have been shown, time and time again, by larger studies employing good laboratory practice protocols, to fall short of proving anything besides the bias of the researcher.
One example is the recent reconfirmation of the TDI (tolerable daily intake) for bisphenol A—for the third time in six years—by the European Food Safety Authority.
Overland Park, Kan.
The book review of “Merchants of Doubt” raises critical issues that deserve more attention. During a long career in the food and agriculture arena, I have grown progressively troubled by incremental erosion in both the integrity of science and the role of science in decision making. Put simply, we have much more reliable and deeper knowledge now about what is working and what is not in our food system, yet as a nation, we are consistently unable to agree on anything that challenges the status quo and supports innovation in a new direction.
Science and discovery have intrinsic value and both inspire and challenge those lucky enough to work on the front lines. But for society, the return on investment in science is driven by the degree to which society acts on new knowledge and technology in improving the human condition. Today, the linkage between new science and insight—and action in the public policy arena—has become tenuous at best.
Since the 1980s, there has been a dramatic shift in the sources of investment capital that fund food and agricultural science and related analytical activities. Three decades ago, the public sector invested about two-thirds of the total dollars supporting such work, with farmers, consumers, companies, and researchers sharing the task of identifying priorities. Today, the public share is below one-third, and companies, trade associations, and allied commodity and food industry groups dominate the politics of appropriations. The result is predictable. The voice of independent science has been marginalized, the notion of “public good” has all but disappeared, and the policy process is nearly frozen, like a deer in headlights, because there is little consensus on what the problems are and even less on optimal solutions.
The U.S. has the largest and most productive combination of natural resources and climate for food production in the world. Although today the strength of the U.S. economy is based on technologies and industries other than agriculture, the long-run economic value of this nation’s agricultural resource base and food industries dwarfs the importance of all other natural-resource-based industries. Yet we are allowing deep-set problems to fester and are too often unable to translate new science and insight into coherent, cost-effective innovation.
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