The paid adulterators everyone loves to hate

March 15, 2002

Food scientists, once considered altruists, are now seen as driven purely by commerce. They will regain public trust only by answering tough questions, says Tim Lang.

The past 20 years have shocked food science. Unleashed in the second world war from the shackles of underinvestment and marginalisation, it had had a good half century of favoured status, offering choice to consumers, growth for the food industry and peace to the politicians. Yet now the status of food science is low. Few young people want much to do with labs and their low pay. What have "they" done to "our" food? is the cry. Adulteration has replaced adultery in the lexicon of no-no's. This sullied name is partly deserved. The science may have been brilliant, but the subject was losing its soul. Dissent about its role is good for policy and science because it asks what food science and technology are for and whom they serve.

The food scientists of the mid-20th century who mapped a vision for soil, plants, animals, nutrition and factories - people such as R. G. Stapledon, Daniel Hall, N. Pirie and John Boyd Orr - must be turning in their graves. The current outlook was not what they expected or what they meant by their passionate support for a coherent plan for food science. They saw good science as essential to unlock the earth's ability to feed its people.

Their vision might have been patrician, but it was humane. The scientist had social obligations. The technologist had the wherewithal to reduce waste. The nutritionist had new discoveries to promise health. Guided by public health physicians, the farmer, suitably re-skilled, could deliver. The processor could preserve. And so on. This was the vision that underpinned the founding conference of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation in 1945 as much as the national plan laid out by Labour's 1947 Agriculture Act.

That model of science's role in policy-making was simple but relied on the state to set a framework. By a judicious mixture of capital investment in techniques and innovation throughout the food chain, science could raise production and deliver health. Undernourished children needed milk - better dairy techniques and grassland management could deliver it, schools could promote it, taxpayers fund it. Behind such apparently consensual policy recipes lay different interests and values. But whether the motive was to meet social needs, stifle social dissent, stave off the eugenicist's nightmare of population explosion in the developing world, plug the gaps of economic inefficiency or educate the public, a common theme was that science was central.

So what has gone wrong? How have food scientists and technologists snatched defeat from the jaws of victory? Read the claims of the gene manipulators, and old arguments emerge with new twists: genetic modification is needed to feed the world! Trust us! Invest in us! If you don't, we'll go elsewhere and you'll be sorry! The worry is that the humane rationale is just window dressing.

My own view is that there is a vital role for food science and technology, and that they will emerge the stronger for the current critique. Good science requires dissent. But painful lessons must be learnt. Let us outline some key ground rules.

First, the consumer is key. Consumers have been eating the residues of scientific endeavour - such as additives, pesticides and nitrates - and they are not sure they like them. A long list of food crises point to a lack of scientific accountability. People still eat, of course, but sceptically; they do not like to be manipulated or told they do not understand what is good for them.

Second, too much food science and technology has been driven by commercial rather than by public interests. This is not wholly the fault of scientists and technologists, although they have colluded with the process by continuing to voice the humane motivation as though unclouded by commercial outcomes.

The key player has been the state, abandoning the notion of public good for the view that science is best driven by private rather than by public motives. Today, food science does the adulteration whereas in the mid-19th century, food chemistry thrived on trying to unmask and block adulteration. From Frederick Accum's 1820 exposé, A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons , which named those involved in adulterating food, to the landmark Food Act of 1875, which laid down many of the food regulations that continue today, there were years of campaigns by independent voices. Food science will win hearts only if it reconnects with that radical tradition, now more alive in non-governmental organisations than in universities.

Third, career options in food science and technology are reduced. The national cohort of food scientists is ageing. Chances to work in genuinely public institutions have been reduced. Professions such as environmental health officers are constrained rather than lauded. For two decades, the national scientific capacity has been wound down and research institutes have been merged. In the BSE crisis, where were the meat research institutes? Closed and marginalised.

I am hopeful. The dissent and public debates about food science are a chance for food science to be reborn. Good science needs awkward questions. The dissidents - too often deemed "luddites" or anti-science by the old guard - may actually have saved science by reminding it of its social responsibilities.

Tim Lang is professor of food policy at the Centre for Food Policy, Thames Valley University.

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