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Opinion: Science plays role in food choices

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Science plays an increasingly important role in society. Without scientific research, we would not have the conveniences we have come to depend on.

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Science plays an increasingly important role in society. Without scientific research, we would not have the conveniences we have come to depend on. 

There would be no cellphones or computers, and our activities would be geographically constrained to an area dependent on how far we could walk or ride a horse in a reasonable length of time.
Health care as we know it would not exist, and people would die of diseases we treat with a pill or prevent with a vaccine. It is fair to say few of us would be willing to give up many of the ways in which scientific study has improved our lives.
While we depend on the fruits of scientific inquiry to make our lives easier and healthier, we don’t use science to make many of the decisions in our lives, from those that are of utmost importance to those that are mundane. That is not to say many people don’t depend on the rigorous testing and repair data analysis conducted by Consumer Reports in the purchase of cars; they do. But when it comes to color and accessories, personal biases come into play. If it were just about science, it’s a good bet there would be fewer fully-loaded pickup trucks and huge SUVs in suburban garages and driveways.
While scientific studies are critical in establishing the safety of everything from drugs to crops to pesticides, studies are not the only factors consumers consider when they decide what foods to purchase.
Religious beliefs, for instance, often play a role in the meat people eat, but also the manner in which the animals they do use for food are slaughtered. Islam and Judaism proscribe the eating of pork and prescribe the manner in which cattle, sheep and goats are slaughtered for food.
Any science about the nutritious qualities of pork is beside the point.
Livestock producers who want to sell meat to members of these communities would be well advised to focus instead on raising goats, sheep and cattle. They also will have to make contact within those communities to establish systems that will ensure the animals are ritually slaughtered.
Tradition also plays a role in food selection. If you eat lutefisk, it is likely you are of Norwegian heritage; haggis that you are of Scottish extraction; kimchi that you have Korean ancestry.
Studies might show how traditional diets are nutritious, containing the recommended balance of nutrients, but for most, what we eat is influenced by family.
There are a host of factors that influence the foods consumers buy: individual taste, risk tolerance, economics, allergies, the desire for novelty, marketing and others. There is nothing wrong with that.
If there is a question, we expect scientific studies to determine the safety of a product, realizing the published level of safety is a statistical determination based on the factors considered in the studies.
Thalidomide was determined to be safe for human consumption until it was given to pregnant women. DDT was thought to be a safe and effective insecticide until researchers looked at its effect on birds. The determination a compound or product is safe probably will not override the concerns of a risk-averse person.
Too often, agricultural producers are drawn into unwinnable arguments about the science behind the safety or danger of GMOs when other factors are at play; it is not necessary for agricultural producers to know what those other factors are.
What they need to know is what consumers want to purchase. Consumer preference, not producer preference or convenience, is at the heart of our economic system.
If consumers want organic and are willing to pay what it takes to keep organic production economically viable, there is no problem. If consumers want cage free eggs, producers need to find a way to make that profitable. In the end, the customer is king.
The challenge of agriculture is to keep up with the ever-evolving preferences of the consumer. Producers, who insist on raising and growing what they want in the manner they want, run the risk of facing increasingly less profitability and more limited markets.
Editor’s note: Schaffer is a research assistant professor in the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center at the Univer-sity of Tennessee. Ray is former director of APAC.

Related Topics: FOODFARMING
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