Buyers trust shaky science when making food choices

It’s hard not to be stricken with awe and amazement when one thinks about the rich American history of scientific progress. During his presidential campaign, President Obama reminded us of how “federally supported basic research, aimed at understanding many features of nature … has been an essential feature of American life.”

Despite science’s great achievements, however, things go awry when we depend on it too heavily. Scientific information must be respected for its uncertainty and limited scope. When science is not respected, and when it is instead used for profiteering, people and the environment get hurt. This hurt is most readily seen in the food industry.

We used to go to the supermarket to buy food, but instead one is now confronted with a zoo of edible food-like substances. America, the melting pot, has never had a strong food culture. After all, historically we never developed through trial and error that rice and beans, for example, are an excellent way to obtain many different proteins. In absence of this cultural underpinning, we’ve looked to science to help lead the way.

But science’s good intentions are often led astray by the profit-hungry. We find ourselves bombarded monthly by diet books of what we should and should not eat, often to be repealed in subsequent months. Michael Pollan, a food expert, wrote for the New York Times Magazine that “humans deciding what to eat without expert help — something they have been doing with notable success since coming down out of the trees — is seriously unprofitable if you’re a food company, distinctly risky if you’re a nutritionist and just plain boring if you’re a newspaper editor or journalist.”

This “spin” on scientific information exacts a large toll on the environment. The current system encourages copious consumption of meat. Meat production is extremely energy intensive, and feedlots are an unregulated, yet intensely concentrated, pollutant source. Grains that also require large amounts of energy, through fertilizers and pesticides, are put at the base of the old food pyramid (which the food lobby heavily influenced).

Going forward requires that we respect science. We have to use its information to benefit all people and not the few looking to make a quick buck. Declaring his own stance, Obama said that “promoting science … is about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology.” A more comprehensive rendition might include — in addition to “politics” and “ideology” — the “free-market,” where we’re all encouraged to seek profit, for the supposed benefit of everyone.

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