What standards do you want for food safety in the US? Are you interested in science- and evidence-based policies and standards? This won't come as a surprise to many of you here, but I'm certainly a supporter of policies based on legitimate and mainstream science--the weight of scientific evidence in a field.
We all joke around here that the GOP is backwards on so many areas of science, and is in fact actively anti-science. But these anti-science views are certainly not limited to the GOP. In fact, if you heard about this type of funding coming to the US, what would your response be?
Thankfully there are some advocates of evidence-based policy speaking out about this--Ben Goldacre will be known to many of you for his outreach against Bad Science, both in book form and in The Guardian. Here's what he said about this funding:
Leading scientist, Dr Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science criticized the move, “I'm a big fan of doing more research, but it's a basic rule of evidence based medicine that we need to be clear about where the uncertainties are, and what kind of research therefore needs to be done.”
He added, “ Homeopathy is one of the most well studied alternative therapies in humans, and when the best quality trials - the most fair tests - are all pooled together, they show there is no benefit. There is therefore no good argument for spending large amounts of public money on examining what are, after all, dummy sugar pills, which contain no ingredients at all, just the "memory" of an ingredient which homeopaths theorise - using 18th century arguments from before we even knew about atoms and molecules - is remembered by the water, and also remembered by the sugar in the pill.”
From the Respectful Insolence blog, I got this terrific poster that helps us to visualize principles of homeopathy. You can learn a lot about alt-med types of treatments from that blog if you are interested in a deeper understanding of the field.
When I brought this project over to Google+ where I have contact with a lot of active scientists, someone replied to me with this hilarious take on it:
"Can't we just tell the cows that there is antibiotics in their feed, and then count on the placebo effect work? Maybe, we could adjust the breeding cycle timing so that all of the cattle was born in a more productive astrological sign where they will "See a highly productive opportunity in their future" and have them wear power bands with magnets and holograms so that they are protected."
Cows with power bands! Auspicious astrological breeding! Snorf... Can I please have two million to study that?
Where does it stop? How far down the alt-med road can we go--and do you think that would raise your confidence in the safety of your food?
But in addition to the problems of food safety, this actually could be harmful to animals. Have a look at this story that disturbed me and provided my first awareness that alt-med was the treatment of choice for some farmers:
The Cruel Irony of Organic Standards
The triumph of purist ideology over compassion and science means suffering and death for organic farm animals across America.
The week-old dairy calf, gangly and still, lay on a barn floor, her long-lashed eyes rolled back to expose the blue-white rim. The next morning, when I went to help my neighbor with his newborns, the calf was dead.
I didn't realize that the standards were so harsh on the use of evidence-based treatments in organic farming. It doesn't have to be this way--Canada and the EU handle it differently. But apparently in the US it's alt-med or you are out. Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association adds:
Others remain pure. Allowing one-time therapeutic antibiotics is “a slippery slope,” says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, and would “undermine consumer confidence in organics. It’s the same position [I have] as on human vaccines. They are dangerous, and that’s why I didn’t vaccinate my kid.”
Vaccines are "dangerous"? Is this the perspective you want driving food safety rules in the US? I thought that the eradication of rinderpest was an excellent and effective science-based policy:
Rinderpest caused hundreds of millions of animal deaths that preceded famines in Africa, Asia, and Europe.
After centuries of efforts to prevent outbreaks of the disease, international authorities announced in May that the disease was the second, after smallpox, to be eradicated through human efforts....
In the 1950s, Dr. Walter Plowright, a British veterinarian, and his colleagues developed in Kenya an attenuated-live virus rinderpest vaccine that proved to be safe and economical. Dr. Plowright, who won the World Food Prize in 1999, died in February 2010.
"Dr. Plowright's contributions to developing and perfecting the vaccine for rinderpest have made its eradication, for the first time in human history, a practical objective," according to the World Food Prize Foundation.
The whole issue was raised again in a recent discussion I got into at a blog by an organic dairy. The story was about one of their prized animals, and what happened when their alt-med treatments didn't work:
It was an interesting look at this from an organic farmer's perspective. I'm glad they eventually got Miley some effective treatment. But in the mean time I didn't realize they were also relying on homeopathy. They offered a link to their text--which they described as "our organic 'playbook'" for animal treatment. From the Amazon page about this book, we see that the author of this book practices in this manner:
Though he began his career as a conventional practitioner, he now specializes in the sustainable and organic/biological treatment of dairy and beef cows, sheep and goats using natural remedies, botanicals, homeopathy and holistic treatment of the farm.
Oh--and by the way--you can buy these treatments from him and his company.
If I see homeopathy and anti-vax perspectives touted as a viable strategy for safe food, I'm gonna call that out. And I have to doubt the credibility of those who advocating it--if they lack that level of understanding of science, that's a real problem for me. I will continue to advocate for science- and evidence-based policy making on all topics: vaccination, food safety, climate change, alt-med treatments, science education, everything, despite the inevitable name-calling that will result from this by the anti-science forces. As a scientist it is my duty to the community.