Does agriculture have a science problem?
Agricultural science is in trouble.
Everyone in agriculture — from farmers, to agribusiness executives, to the professors who conduct agricultural research — says that decisions ranging from what to eat to settling international trade conflicts should be based on science.
But developments in the past few weeks have raised questions about how much people should trust agricultural science and scientists.
In January, a New York Times investigation alleged that cattle, pigs and sheep at the US Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska had been “subjected to illness, pain and premature death” as scientists attempted to increase birth rates.
In early February, an Institute of Medicine panel of experts recommended that low-income people should be allowed to buy white potatoes through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children known as WIC. That recommendation reversed an IOM panel’s decision that WIC shouldn’t allow purchases of white potatoes because mothers and children needed other, less starchy vegetables.
Then the report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended that the government tell people they no longer need to worry about how much cholesterol they consume. The recommendation reversed about 30 years of advice that people should limit their consumption of eggs and other cholesterol-dense foods.
That advisory committee also said that the government should encourage people to eat “sustainable” diets, meaning that they should think about eating less meat and more plants to assure production of food for future generations. Previous advisory committees had never gone beyond nutrition and diet advice, and the recommendation raised questions about whether the 14 nationally recognized experts in nutrition, medicine, and public health were competent to reach that conclusion.
How can scientists make decisions that seem so questionable?
Each situation has its own explanation. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said that some of the practices cited at the animal research center were abandoned decades ago, but that USDA has launched a 60-day review of the treatment of animals at all federal research facilities.
In the potato case, the panel appears to have concluded that the 2010 dietary guidelines recommended WIC participants eat more starchy vegetables and therefore decided that potatoes should be included.
On cholesterol, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee said the latest science showed that the previous scientific conclusion linking dietary cholesterol to human cholesterol was wrong.
And in case of sustainability, the advisory committee had the authority to raise whatever issues the members decided were important.
The most comprehensive answer may be, as Vilsack said in an interview, “Science, like everything else, evolves.”
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report is advisory, Vilsack noted and in writing the actual guidelines he and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell will rely on advice from federal officials, the industry and the public.
But Vilsack added, “I hope we would respect science” because it’s difficult for policymakers to make policy without relying on science.
Yes, it’s impossible to imagine government policymaking without science. But these situations also demonstrate the limits that individuals and policymakers face in relying on science since it changes over time.
Americans may simply have to rely on common sense and the admonition to eat and drink everything in moderation and smaller portions when making their diet decisions.
Policymakers need to bring in values other than increasing agricultural productivity, as Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., have by introducing bills that would bring farm animals under the standards of the Animal Welfare Act, which governs the use of animals for nonfarm research. The National Pork Producers Council has already said, however, that the bill’s temperature, housing and handling standards cannot replicate the real-world environment of farms and ranches.
The difficulties that US and European Union negotiators are having in dealing with genetic modification and washing chickens with chlorine in the proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership also show that other approaches may be needed.
Scientists say genetic modification, for example, is safe, but at a January event on T-TIP sponsored by the International Food Policy Research Institute and the Berlin-based Ecological Institute, David Orden, a FAPRI researcher and professor at Virginia Tech, observed that the problem is “science is never absolutely certain.”
German Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture Christian Schmidt noted during a recent trip to Washington that “You can’t just meet this with science issues. You have to have cultural understanding.”
European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan noted last week in Washington that “science is fundamental,” but he added that it is up to the political process to guide science to policy.
Even AGree, the US foundation-financed collaborative initiative to try to reach consensus on big issues facing agriculture could not reach agreement on genetic modification.
At an event last fall at the National Geographic Society to encourage more public discussion on food and agriculture, Deb Atwood, the executive director of AGree, said of genetic modification, “We do not have a dogma in that fight.” But the group had agreed, Atwood said, “to have the platform for respectful exchange that includes science and values. It is ‘science plus.'”
After the dietary guidelines report was released, Vilsack said that scientists need to do a better job of explaining their research to the general public. That’s true, but they and their advocates also need to exhibit some humility, common sense and “science-plus” values.