Science Says… the case for a new marque

Thanks to Science Moms for illustrating the challenge!

Many consumers are motivated in their food purchasing decisions by what’s best for the environment, and what’s best for their health in nutrition and food safety.  So why is it so hard to distinguish between evidence and spin when making these decisions?

Lets start with some statements that the scientific establishment can broadly align with:

  • Organic is not always best for the environment 
  • Organic does not inherently provide better flavour or greater nutritional value 
  • GMO crops can have environmental benefit
  • If they make it through the regulatory hurdles, you can be confident that GMO-based foods and crops are safe

Food: 21st Century Culture vs Science

For many, some of this may come as a surprise, but the science is pretty clear.  For those of us who think of ourselves as guided by the science, it can be frustrating to see false hope, scare tactics or pseudo science used to sell (eg “GMO free water”).  But how can we possibly be expert judges of what science tells us across such a complex and sprawling food system?

It’s hardly surprising that most people, even those who’d like to, aren’t making their food choices on an entirely rational and evidence-based footing.

An insight from a presentation made by Sylvia Rowe recently helped me re-contextualise this observation.  She highlighted that food sits within a system in 21st century culture that means that it’s not just sustenance.  In contemporary culture, she highlights,  food is also medicine (“Nuts ‘reduce heart disease risk!’”), it is risk (“Is burnt toast bad for you?”), it’s a statement of your values (“How to Keep Your Quinoa Consumption Ethical”) not to mention that it’s also in competition as a source of fuel (“The pros and cons of biofuels – Ethanol tanks“).  

In this context, our choice of food is a daily roulette of disease risks, wellbeing implications, social justice statements, environmental impacts and self-medication choices.  It’s hardly surprising that most people, even those who’d like to, aren’t making their food choices on an entirely rational and evidence-based footing.  Add into the equation simple matters of personal taste, and that every organisation with skin in the game is heavily invested in promoting or protecting their position, nobody’s going to change their position readily!

What matters is what the evidence says is best….

Back in November I had a conversation with someone from Rothamsted Research Centre who tossed out an idea that it would be great to have a consumer standard – a brand, like Fair Trade, or the UK’s Red Tractor – that indicates that a food had been produced using adherence to evidence based best practice.  Best for the ecosystem, for carbon emissions, etc.  

Those best practices could be consistent with the Organic Playbook (eg use of cover crops), the Conventional Playbook (eg use of pesticides when other methods aren’t working) or any other framework.  It might reflect the products of genetic modification /gene editing (eg so fewer pesticides are needed for the most common pests) or the contributions of Agtech innovations more broadly (eg precision dosing of nutrients), or age old wisdom.

a consumer standard … that indicates that a food had been produced using evidence based best practice about what’s best.  Best for the ecosystem, for carbon emissions, etc.

The key thing is that the practices would have been shown – through the scientific method – to be the practices that have most positive impact and fewest negative impact.

How might it work?

We’d first have to establish what our criteria are. So here are some thoughts to get the ball rolling.  

  • Firstly, impact on the environment.  For instance impact on carbon emissions, biodiversity and soil health are likely essential to this dimension.  
  • Secondly, impact on human health.  For instance high fibre or proven antioxidant benefits might get extra “points”.
  • Perhaps some measure of social justice would be worth including – especially for items or ingredients produced in the opaque supply chains of the developing world.  
  • And finally we could also look at economic efficiency – this might highlight the distorting effects of subsidies, or the benefits of wrapping cucumbers in plastic so the reduction in wastage outweighs the costs.

You might argue that it’s better to just stick to the environmental criteria, and I accept that the specifics need work, but you get the idea.  

The key thing is to rely on the evidence … and as new evidence emerges, the conclusions may change!

The next step is to work out how to evaluate alternative options in an evidence based fashion, and how to highlight the gaps where the jury is still out.  It would require a body of independent scientists to do this work.  Perhaps something like the UK’s NICE, whose conclusions about which medications are effective and give value for money are broadly respected.  Or the system of variety trials which compares varieties of (eg) wheat side by side. 

The key thing is to rely on the evidence.  If the data suggests that the use of a new biopesticide is the most resource efficient & lowest impact way of controlling diamond back moths (for instance), then that becomes the gold standard.  Producers get a score based on their adherence to best practice in their particular crop.

Of course, from time to time as new evidence emerges the characterisation of “best practice” would have to change

If there isn’t evidence to suggest how we might evaluate a new technology or theory, this body could provide guidance about what a robust piece of research might involve.   And of course, from time to time as new evidence emerges the characterisation of “best practice” would have to change – it’s the nature of science, especially in complex and emerging areas of research such as soil health.

Protecting such an organisation from actual or perceived influence would be a challenge, but is surely not impossible.  The funding would have to come from sources that couldn’t be readily be considered a source of bias – for instance, a levy on all farmers and food producers, or a government funded body.  Generally speaking scientists pride themselves on conscientiously doing work whatever the source of the funding, but there’s been enough mud thrown around (eg research into the impact of sugar has attracted a lot of attention recently) to justify a need for heightened caution.

Aspiration and Challenges

I like this idea because it helps to level the field between the small conscientious farmer and the big processors.  I like it because it gives simplicity for the consumer in a world that is murky and hard to understand.  And I like it because it’s based on evidence rather than emotion.  

just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s without merit

On the other hand, I recognise it’s devilishly difficult to manage the competing agendas, funding issues, and paucity of data, to name just a few of the challenges. 

However, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s without merit.  It’s a well worn fact that with the human population is increasing; figuring out the best ways to feed ourselves without causing even more damage to our planet is a worthy goal. 

Harnessing the power of science to achieve this in production is essential – harnessing the power of science to convince the consumer is equally important.


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