With a few exceptions, we tend to think that the crises occupying the daily news cycle are of recent origin. That’s partly due to the sheer volume of media coverage to which we’re daily subjected, but it’s also a result of a worrisome detachment from history—and I don’t mean ancient history, I mean events within the last century.
Climate change, the subject of intense debate in this space lately, provides a perfect example. If asked, most people would respond that the climate debate is a relatively new issue, an outgrowth of the environmental movement that started in the 1970s.
They’d be wrong.
In fact, climate change was first proposed more than 120 years ago by a Swedish chemist named Svante Arrhenius, who developed mathematical models predicting that as the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rose—due to the combustion of fossil fuels—the planet’s temperature would increase.
I know: You’re thinking, who the heck is he? He was a highly respected scientist, who received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1903, which, I grant you, is a bit suspect, seeing as how that award was created by Alfred Nobel, who was—wait for it—himself a Swedish chemist who invented dynamite and created the awards in 1896 as his life’s legacy.
Home court advantage aside, Arrhenius is recognized as one of the first scientists to calculate how changes in atmospheric CO2 could alter surface temperatures through the greenhouse effect. He was definitely the first one to predict that emissions from burning fossil fuels might be large enough to effect global warming.
Granted, his research was heavily influenced by other contemporary scientists—that’s how science works, of course—but remember, we’re talking about the 1890s: When automobiles were truly horseless carriages rarely seen outside of a few big cities. Before most of our major sports became popular, or even existed. Before five of our current states were even admitted to the Union, and when farmers numbered fully one-half of the U.S. population of 62 million.
Heck, the 1890s predated the emergence of democracy altogether—with few exceptions, almost the entirety of the world’s population was ruled by kings, queens, emperors and czars.
It was another era altogether.
Grounded in science
So why is a stroll through late 19th century history relevant to current debates? For one, to remind us that climate science isn’t something conjured up by a bunch of modern-day eco-activists; the research has been ongoing for generations.
More importantly, it’s to underscore that scientists are usually fighting an uphill battle against both powerful commercial interests and skeptical political leadership. I mean, it’s not exactly a stretch to recognize that the captains of industry and the aforementioned monarchies in power a century ago could have cared less about some scientist spouting techno-jargon about CO2 and the potential impact of global warming decades in the future.
Today, after a 20th century notable for its incredible technological progress, we stand upon sound science as the foundation of how animal agriculture conducts its business—as it should be.
Where we encounter problems, however, is when we decide to pick and choose which science we accept, and which we reject. We can debate the policies purporting to address socio-economic issues all day long, but we cannot delegitimize the data generations of scientists have collected and analyzed—not without serious consequences.
Consider three current controversies, and how science is used to support industry’s positioning:
- Food safety. Critics contend that meat and poultry processors need to slow down their linespeeds, ramp up their testing protocols and, in essence, provide consumers with a guarantee of pathogen-free products. What’s the response? A scientifically solid retort on the nature of microbial organisms, the statistical limits of random sampling and the scientifically certified reality that raw foods contain bacteria that cannot be removed, short of total sterilization.
- Biotech. Here’s an even better example. Like climate change, there are plenty of voices—some with serious scientific credentials—bitterly opposed to the use of genetic engineering in agriculture. The only valid response is one that patiently explains the rigor and precision behind genetic engineering and the growing urgency of using biotech tools to address the looming threat of worldwide food shortages.
- Animal antibiotics. Last, an issue closely parallels climate change. On one side are respected scientists, veterinarians and researchers who have created rigorous protocols for these drugs, and who can point to substantive benefits in terms of animal health and productivity as a result of their usage. On the other side are scientists who contend that we face a serious problem with clinically significant pathogen resistance, and that the most important mitigation is the immediate cessation of sub-therapeutic antibiotic use in agriculture.
How can producers and processors respond to such a critique? Only by emphasizing the industry’s track record of prudent use, proper dosage levels and valid withdrawal schedules—all based on scientific research. We insist that media members and policymakers buy into the premise that absent a scientific basis for regulatory interventions, we risk damage to vital industries by imposing wrongheaded rules that make the problems worse, not better.
Why should climate change be any different? Just like projections of global food shortages, even though we can’t predict the exact parameters of the problem, shouldn’t we give credence to the scientific evidence about the potential threat it poses? Just like biotechnology, shouldn’t we invest in energy R&D not just to address global warming but also to advance fundamental priorities, such as energy independence?
When we attempt to discredit scientists—and the legacy of research on which they stand—because we don’t like their politics, it undermines the respect we demand for other initiatives in production agriculture that have been put in place as a result of the exact same scientific scrutiny.
We can’t dismiss climate scientists because we disagree with proposed solutions to the threats they document, then turn around and insist on deference to science when it supports developments with which we do agree.
Science is neutral; science doesn’t take sides. Either conclusions supported by years of research, data collection and analysis and confirmed by one’s peers are accepted as the best blueprint for regulatory measures, or else we’re forced to accept that the loudest, most influential voices get to shape our laws and our regulations.
No matter how crackpot they might be.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.