Building Community At America's Table

The Research Fog

written by Grant

I’m confused.

And depressed.

And so wanting to really dig into an actual meal for this One Hundred Meals project. But we need to start with some information first. We need to get informed a wee bit more neutrally before we just jump in. We need to do the homework before we arrive at the first test.

So, Ellen and I have given ourselves this task of understanding and respecting the viewpoint of big, industrial farmers. Check.

One topic comes to the fore which seems pivotal to understanding – research. We ask our new Big Ag friends, for example, what they think of the recent FDA decision to reduce antibiotic use in livestock. The response is both from the gut and experience (which we honor and respect) as well as to cite organizations and research they trust – FDA, USDA, land-grant university studies. If I’m doing my job right, I hear them out and guess what? I get that if that were the body of knowledge I had always known and was the bulk of what I’d heard for years, and I was in the business of earning a living following those principles — sure enough, I’d reach the same conclusions the Big Ag folks have reached. I would be comfortable with the current antibiotic use in animals. I would be comfortable with GMOs in our food system. So there you go – I can understand and respect Big Ag (Agvocates*) where they stand.

Turning it around, I hope they feel the same.

So are we done?

Well, if we were, contention about our food system would not exist. So, no.

Now imagine this. In my effort to internalize and understand Agvocates’ viewpoint (kinda like running a second operating system on your computer!) I read a bunch of literature and research coming from their “camp”. As I do, I am careful to note who funded the literature, what the biases are. And there are lots and lots of biases.

But here’s the thing: When I turn the mirror inward, I see, sure enough, that you find biases and questionable funding of “my” literature also.

Gridlock.

That is where my brain is right now. Stuck. Ellen, for her part, is just getting depressed.

And it gets worse: There is no arbiter for this.

You’d like for it to be the FDA and the USDA, because that is actually supposed to be their purpose for existing. But recently, if you are following along, you’ll know that the FDA is just now getting around to acting on its findings from 35 years ago. And they are only doing so because a judge forced them to. So I am hard-pressed to trust the FDA as the reliable arbiter of truth we’re looking for on these tricky questions!

Look, I do NOT come from a long history of conspiracy theory, but the more I research, the more I start to sound like such a person.

In some weird way, I am starting to distrust that a research duel will help us. I may find some research I trust. I’m not saying I can’t find that, but I am not sure pitting one body of research against another will lead us anywhere because even if the greater percentage of society or a government agency like the FDA finally chooses one body of evidence over another, does that matter? Will it lead to anything when the “other side” is still going to stay entrenched in their beliefs regardless?

If you’d like to disagree with all this gloominess, then answer one of these two simple questions:

  • If you currently disagree with antibiotic use in animals for growth purposes, whose research to the contrary would you believe? Who could turn your firmly held beliefs completely around?
  • If you currently agree with the use of antibiotics in animals for growth purposes, whose research to the contrary would you believe? Who could turn your firmly held beliefs completely around?

They’re rhetorical questions.

I will say, even being confused and depressed is better than not thinking about our food at all.

And Ellen and I are certainly thinking about things! We’re getting familiar with all the entities and interests on the Agvocate side of things. We’re learning the acronyms like GRAS, FOIA and CSPI. We’re learning how to spot influence and bias (ProTip: follow the money, which is often only barely hidden by a public service-style organization with a clever name). We’re reading the data from the Farm Bill. All in the hopes of having some solid background information before we start.

We have been busy brainstorming a starter list of Meals We Hope To Eat and we’ve posted them here for you to look over.

And we hope, soon, to sit down and eat with someone so we can get this show on the road!


*Agvocates — for the sake of clarity, from here on out, we’ll refer to Big Ag folks as Agvocates, which is what they are calling themselves these days. We’ll call the other side — the sustainable, local, Slow Food side — Agripreneurs.

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6 responses

  1. Suzie Wilde

    Grant,
    I came across this in a daily email update I get, and it brought your “who to trust” issue to mind:

    “Meanwhile, on the issue of school breakfasts, which was discussed in a front page New York Times article on Friday (“With Classroom Breakfasts, a Concern That Some Children Eat Twice”), The New York Times editorial board indicated on Saturday that, “But as the City Council speaker, Christine Quinn, has rightly explained, depriving hungry children of good breakfasts because they might eat a candy bar or a bowl of cereal first makes no sense. A study from the Harvard School of Public Health in 2008 said that the nation’s School Breakfast Program ‘is highly effective’ in helping children learn in school, eat more nutritious diets and lead generally healthier lives.”

    I asked the question, do I trust the Harvard School of Public Health? Do I only trust them when I find out where their money came from? If so, then I only trust the Harvard School of Public Health some times and not all the time.

    Wow, that left my head spinning! So I guess we are all confused at times with the Research Fog!

    April 25, 2012 at 9:56 am

  2. I have pondered the same thoughts at times Grant. My biggest question has always been how do we get research that is not only nonbiased but also appears to be so? As you mention government is one way but that is very slow, the only other way that I have thought of is if we can get both sides of the equation to contribute equally to the funding of research of a neutral and trusted party to do the research. In both these scenarios however there would have to be some sort of safeguards to keep behind the scenes lobbying from happening to ensure true results. Just a few thoughts from me!

    Mike

    June 5, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    • Mike, thanks so much for your thoughts on this. You do hit the nail on the head when you say it is more than just achieving “unbiased” research, but that also the appearance of the research matters. Yes! Yes! Yes! Science that supports Ag Practice X has to be more than valid science – it has to reach consumers, they have to find it trustworthy and frankly, it also has to be trustworthy to the filters that lie between big ag and the consumer, by which I mean the thought leaders, bloggers and reporters who go over this stuff on behalf of the consumer and act as watch dogs. I’m sure they’re the thorn in the side of big ag, but they’re not going away.

      That said, our recent meal with a scientific mind has me now questioning the existence of “unbiased”. And we’ve got blog posts about it coming soon, so I don’t want to say too much here but I will admit that I now have a chink in my armor – I am not exactly convinced of the role of heavy science in food production, but I am open to thinking about it more than I was before.

      Also, your idea is fascinating…though fraught with snarls, as I’m sure you imagine. Who exactly are the two funders in any given case? Who determines that both sides are fairly represented? I like your thinking on it though…and mostly I like that you ARE thinking about it! Wish there were an easy answer.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:27 pm

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