We Don’t Trust the Scientists But We All Enjoy the Benefits Science Has Brought

There are few aspects of life today have not benefited from the help of Science, which attempts not only to understand but to control nature.

We take it for granted that science is objective – its conclusions tested by independent peers before any conclusion is announced – even the word conclusion is slightly misleading because scientific research is constantly evolving

For every “conclusion” there is often also an equal and opposite “conclusion” – there’s no definitive end point – and it’s therefore understandable that we now take a lot of it with a hefty dose of skepticism.

It may be that the key to all this is that research is carried out for humans by humans, albeit scientists trained in rigorous methods of testing that try to keep things objective.

A tension arises when different groups clamour for results or solutions to a variety of sometimes conflicting issues.

Agriculture, food production and the environment seem at the moment to be among the main areas of tension.

We as consumers are partly responsible. We want what we call “healthy” food, thousands of us buy vitamins, minerals, pro-biotic drinks and yoghurts, for example, yet we are deeply suspicious of GM technology and we still buy a huge amount of pre-cooked, ready-meals and other “convenience” foods.

If we are sending mixed messages back to the producers and the politicians is it any wonder that we wait ages for action on what are generally held to be urgent issues?

Add in the commercial interests that also seek to influence what we eat, how it’s packaged and how it’s produced and no wonder the topic of food is such a minefield.

The climate change scientists at the centre in the e-mail “hacking scandal” were recently cleared of manipulating data by an inquiry, though its report criticised them for a lack of openness.

However, the whole episode did significant damage to the climate change debate in allowing climate “sceptics” to claim the e-mails showed that UEA scientists had manipulated and suppressed key climate data.

The report of the Independent Climate Change Email Review, also said that public trust in science depended on an inherent culture of honesty, rigour and transparency.

Commentatiors on the result generally anticipate that the effect will be “moves towards opening up research material and data to those the academic community have regarded as outsiders”.

So in theory we can look forward to yet more info – and yet more confusion – and that not only affects consumers but also agriculture and any new agri-products in development.

Almost regardless of the consumers’ views European politicians have already moved to put severe restrictions on manufacturers’ claims of health benefits on a range of products from cranberry juice (long thought to be helpful in urinary tract infections) to green tea (alleged to help with issues of blood pressure, cholesterol levels, bones and teeth) to probiotic yoghurts, which has particularly affected the makers Danone and Yakult.

When it comes to increasing the amount of food farmers need to produce from the available land – and we, as consumers, want it to be in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way – the picture’s even more muddled.

In the UK and Europe, in contrast to other parts of the world, particularly the USA, consumers and environmental campaigners are very wary of genetically modified crops.

The Senior Scientist for the Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre, Norfolk, UK, Prof John Jones argues in a blog on the BBC website earlier this month (July 2010) that this attitude is illogical and there has been no scientific evidence of any harmful effects to humans or land in the 27 years of GM technology development.

But so great is the apprehension and resulting safeguarding legislation that only the biggest multinationals can afford development and licensing costs, which means they have a near-monopoly in the marketplace, which he says is not a good thing.

Jones argues that actually genetic modification is only one of the many necessary tools farmers will need to increase yield to feed a growing world population.

The same issues affect Biopesticides Developers, who are devising ever more low-chem pesticides, fungicides and yield enhancers for small and large farmers but facing huge costs and lengthy waits of up to eight years for licensing in European countries.

It seems the scientists will continue to face an uphill struggle in their efforts to provide consumers with the means to have the healthy produce we say we want, while we continue to question the methods they’re devising to meet those requirements.

Copyright (c) 2010 Alison Withers