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"Sound Science" - - Is it?

"Sound science" is a phrase often used to defend the use of pesticides, drugs, and other chemical concoctions used in today’s society. For me, upon hearing the phrase "sound science," the DDT catastrophe and thalidomide babies often comes to mind. The Food and Drug Administration continues to re-label or restrict drug use – after the drugs are on the market. Our society is also plagued with reports of numerous abnormalities including higher rates of attention deficit syndrome, autism, and decreased testosterone levels, not to mention an epidemic of obesity. This list could be expanded upon, but the point is made. The causes of many of these abnormalities are still perplexing. If "sound science" exists what is it doing?

Before proceeding, let's be clear about one thing – this article is not anti-chemical. Different folks have different preferences. We use chemicals on our own little farm. The issue here is the use of the term "sound science" in the defense of using certain technologies.

Should "sound science" take precedence over common sense?
Capitalizing on fear, skepticism, and frustration to market more natural products is found to be a fault by the purveyors of “sound science.” However, those same purveyors have no qualms about utilizing fear, skepticism, and frustration when it comes to marketing pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics, and other synthetics. The fear, skepticism, and frustration simply take a different focus. In comparison to the eons of natural adaptation, these chemical wonders have practically no verification of their long-term effects.

Another argument for "sound science" states that if today's populace were in a starvation mode we would not care if there were traces of synthetic chemicals in the food we eat. This premise finds it convenient to ignore that we are not in starvation mode but expects us to think like we are.

Modern technology has protected many of us from starvation, at least as we commonly know it. The promoters of that technology like to indicate that more natural processes will not work in today’s scheme of things. How do they know? Fred Provenza, Animal Scientist at Utah State University, has been studying animal behavior as it relates to animal nutrition for the last twenty years. Provenza has found that animals, in a natural environment, have the ability to balance their diets to meet their own specific needs. His work has included domesticated animals under range conditions.

Daryl Emmick, NRCS/USDA State Grazing Specialist for New York is currently concluding his PhD program under Provenza and believes there are applications that can be applicable to more conventional farms. There are already New York farmers considering these applications. All this makes a lot of sense – common sense. After all, all animals, including man, survived for centuries without synthetic manipulation of diets.

Scientific testing in a laboratory has to be done for specific compounds. We have limited or no knowledge of other compounds that might, or might not, be present in a food as a biological consequence of the use of whatever chemical tested for. Furthermore, there is no test that can indicate if anything toxic is present. Since we do not have perfect knowledge; can we conclude, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that something is perfectly safe or unsafe? Let’s face it. No matter how educated we are, we are all relatively ignorant. Can we have faith in "sound science?"

Organic production has raised questions
As the number of conversations with organic producers continues to increase a trend begins to appear; a trend that reflects centuries of animal adaptation. That trend reveals lower animal production, improved animal health, improved utilization of energy (nature’s universal currency), and a net benefit to the farmer. Keep in mind that the appearance of these trends is not based on scientific evidence, just farmer observations.

If the trends reported by farmers are accurate, and I'm not saying they're not, might we, as a society, find advantage in attempting to better utilize processes intended by nature rather than impose our own, relatively ignorant, influences?

And for those of you in the scientific community, who by now probably have their dander up, might future scientific efforts strive to work more closely in tune with nature? If the scientific community utilized their knowledge finding ways to work better in sync with nature, rather than finding ways to extort nature, isn’t it possible that today’s more natural production could be just as abundant? Who knows; someday we might actually have "sound science."

Bill Henning is a Small Farms Specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension Service. He is a regular contributor to American Cowman Update. He can be reached at 315-536-5123. For more information about opportunities for small farms, visit the Cornell Small Farms Program web site at: