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Defining Public Interest Research

Public Interest Research The Case for Science and Technology in Agriculture: From Destruction to Wisdom
Carolyn Raffensperger (1999)

It says in the book of Job,

"But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee: Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee." Job 12:7-8

Tonight I have been assigned the task of discussing science, technology and agriculture. What curious dinner conversation. Do science and technology have anything to do with wild rice, carrots, and chicken and hence anything to do with agriculture? Are science and technology the words that come to your mind when you think of food?

Let me circle around this topic by considering an unlikely concept not usually discussed in scientific circles - Holiness.

For years I have struggled with the question of what is holy ground? During my time working for an environmental organization I thought the answer was clear - it was wilderness. Holy ground was any land which had not been damaged by humans and from which humans were excluded. It was obvious to me that farm fields were desecrated - the opposite of holy. What I smelled and saw and tasted of the corn and soybean fields in Illinois was anything but holy. It was a violated landscape.

Some years later I married a farmer who lives on the Great Plains. Our farm now has 1000 acres of unplowed, native grasslands. In many ways we were married on the prairie and perhaps we are married to the prairie. These magnificent grasslands don't meet the legal definition of wilderness since we graze our cattle on them and they are surrounded by gravel roads.

Nevertheless they are sanctuary, sanctified places. So I asked again in this new context, "what is holy ground?" The answer my bridegroom gave was, a relationship makes a place holy. I have come to see our entire farm as holy because of the deeply connected set of relationships of bee, grass, soil microbes, durum, buckwheat, flax, frogs, white pelicans, hawks, and other wondrous things. But we too are part of those relationships which allow us to share in that holiness.

"Humans are tuned for relationship. The eyes, the skin, the tongue, ears, and nostrils - all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness ... For the largest part of our species' existence, humans have negotiated relationships with every aspect of the sensuous surroundings ... every aspect of the earthly sensuous could draw us into a relationship fed with curiosity and spiced with danger. Every sound was a voice, every scrape or blunder was a meeting - with Thunder, with Oak, with Dragonfly. And from all of these relationships our collective sensibilities were nourished." (David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous pg. Ix.)

The subject of scientific inquiry must be precisely the relationships that allow humankind and the other Beings to mutually nurture each other. The technologies we develop must honor these relationships. Why? Because otherwise we cannot continue to survive and flourish. Our lives depend not on technology but on the relationship of pollinator to pollinated, eater to eaten and the transformer to organic matter.

It is these relationships of communion rather than coercion which foster sustainable relationships. Perhaps the best illustration of this is a story about my friend David Kline, an Amish farmer in Ohio. He called me one day a few years ago and told me that he had petted an owl while walking in the woods near his house. I asked him what the owl had gotten out of it. David laughed but didn't have an answer to my absurd and irreverent question.

Later that same day, a Navaho friend of mine, a young medicine man, called. I asked him a question that was on my mind since I was living in Washington, DC - "what is power?" My friend said that power was when you had the ability to speak with all the animals and they had a willingness to speak to you. This was power as communion. Then I knew what the owl had gotten out of it - communion with David.

This story has a direct bearing on science and technology for a sustainable agriculture. To make the link, I would like to pose two definitions of science. As you know there are many. The two I am currently using are: 1) science is a method for seeking pattern in the universe; and 2) science is a search for truth.

Too often truth is considered to be isolated facts unsullied by emotion, value, spirituality. But David Abram makes this lovely point, truth is not static fact but a style of thinking that associates truth with a quality of relationship. "Ecologically considered, it is not primarily our verbal statements that are 'true' or 'false', but rather the kind of relations that we sustain with the rest of nature." My friend David Kline lives out truthful relationships - ecologically secure relations - with the natural world on his farm. And so it is that a human community that lives in a mutually beneficial relation with the surrounding earth is a community that lives in truth.

What a wondrous task for the scientist - she has the obligation to help us live in this truthful relationship with the natural world with all that truthfulness implies - honesty, integrity, harmony, responsibility. This allows us to extend and transform the role of science from a disconnected, disjointed fact-collection skill into wisdom. Science must not hide behind a spurious notion of objectivity since the scientist's view of her societal and ecological obligations determine the results of her research. Scientists who witness first-hand the destructiveness of current technologies and at the same time experience awe at the beauty of the world, have a great opportunity to use wisdom as the taproot for their disciplines.

Tonight I would like to explore with you three overlapping spheres and outline their role in science as wisdom and then consider what agricultural technologies or tools might arise out of a science rooted in wisdom and relationship. The first community is the natural world. The second is humanity. The third is that of scientists.

Every one of us is a deeply embedded member of the natural world. Our most primal relationships are those with the shivering, grazing, flapping, waving, honking, mooing, listening, speaking Beings that we eat and that eat us. It might surprise you but some humans have gone without sex for a long time, but we can't go without a relationship with those who are our food.

Humans all over the globe enter into relationships characterized by agreements about how we treat each other and how we treat the natural world. Most cultures have harvest festivals, laws about natural resources, healing practices, prohibitions against antisocial behavior, and so on. Some people within almost every culture have special responsibilities to serve as mediators between the natural world and the human community. Shamans, scientists, farmers and doctors all have had skills in understanding and mediating this relationship. Doctors seek to understand the microbes that cause disease and heal the ill. Farmers have enlisted the life giving forces of soil, water and the libraries contained in seeds to provide food for humans and other species.

Some among us have a rare gift to mediate the relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world. To paraphrase Martin Buber, people with this gift help create a "we-thou" relationship rather than a "we-it" relationship with the Other Beings. But, as a culture, we have lost that profound sense of calling and the skills required to know, and work with the powers of the natural world. I suspect western science has had a role in this loss. Doctors now plug patients into machines and prescribe genetically modified drugs to pacify and cure the afflicted rather than use healing hands. And farmers now plant seeds which have been "engineered" asexually. They pour on poison, and hack at the earth with big machines rather than midwifing new life out of soil, seed and sow. Those in both medicine and agriculture are mediating the human community not with the natural world but with technology developed under the industrial paradigm.

What is wrong with such technology? The hallmarks of the industrial paradigm are that it is dependent on borrowed energy. It concentrates and externalizes its wastes in ways that local and planetary ecosystems cannot absorb. It is based on specialization that destroys the biodiversity which is essential to all healthy ecosystems including, and perhaps especially, those that sustain agriculture.

Technology developed under the industrial paradigm is "untruthful" insofar as it disregards its own effects and destroys the harmony between humans and the rest of the planet. Technology has become synonymous with machines and their cousins, artificial processes and substances. In fact, the word "technology" has been corrupted through the industrial revolution. It has lost the connotation of "pertaining to art" embedded in its Latin root "technic". Technology can be defined as the artful application of scientific truth.

Scientists have long formed a community. It is the basis for the rigor required by scientific inquiry as exemplified by the requirement for peer review to validate research. Michael Polanyi, the philosopher of science, has argued that "many of the procedures known collectively as the 'scientific method' are important only because they make possible communication among scientists" (Scientific Community, pg. 12). Scientists have made major contributions to how we understand our world. The view of planet Earth from space fundamentally reoriented our notion of our place in the universe. Odum's ecological theory has helped to provide methods for protecting endangered species as well as giving a theoretical basis for sustainable agriculture. Theo Colborn's work on endocrine disruption explains complex illnesses that do not conform to models of carcinogenicity or infectious agents.

But much of agricultural science and the scientific community has followed the industrial paradigm - depending on borrowed energy and the specialization that destroys biodiversity, and creating wastes that cannot be absorbed.

Agricultural science and the technologies it has developed have undermined all three communities. The natural world is rapidly being destroyed by technologies such as pesticides, genetic engineering and the transportation system. We do not have a mutually beneficial relationship with the natural world. We are, therefore, living a lie by undermining the truthfulness, the harmonious sustainability, of ecologically grounded relationships. Barry Lopez says, "... to make up something...which can never be corroborated in the land, to knowingly set forth a false relationship, is to be lying, no longer telling a story." (Crossing Open Ground, pg. 69).

The human community is increasingly threatened by the very technologized food that is supposed to nourish us. US citizens only spend 10% of their dollar on food. But they now spend just over 10% on health care. It is estimated by USDA that US citizens spend 250 billion dollars on diet related health care costs. I suspect that those estimates underrepresent diet related problems such as endocrine disruption and food-borne illnesses.

And of course, patenting and intellectual property rights for those technologies stifle scientific debate by the secrecy involved in the legal machinations around research. Nowhere is this more evident than in medicine and agriculture. The very communication that glues together the scientific community has been largely eliminated by patenting before publishing scientific results.

How do we re-establish a mutually beneficial relationship with the natural world and how can science help? I would offer five criteria for science that should help us develop actions and technologies that support these harmonious and beneficial relationships.

  1. Research can help us understand why we consider some organisms pests and it can help us turn pests into allies rather than enemies. As a matter of fact, current scientific paradigms identify insects as "pests" and some plants as "weeds" - both are value-laden words. In a science that promotes harmonious relationships we would ask what is the place for insects and how do we relate to them? There are many examples from our own farm as we seek to coexist with various Beings. Aphids appear when there is too much nitrogen. Ragweed also thrives in soils with a surplus of nutrients. Both aphids and ragweed are allies because they provide information. This information is a lot cheaper than GIS systems and requires a relationship between the farmer and her land. I should confess that I've given up with our biggest "pest", wild mustard, and we just eat it. I guess you could call us beneficial people.
  2. Actions and technologies need to preserve existing relationships between plants, pollinators, soil microbes and other Beings. We underestimate these relationships at our peril. For instance, one out of every three bites of food must be pollinated. But we use insecticides wholesale without regard to the relationship between plant and insect.
  3. Actions and technologies must be aesthetically pleasing. Seed or animal breeding can yield plants and animals that are beautiful. Why is this important? The aesthetic sense is our own biological radar for harmony. Science itself can't determine aesthetics, so scientists need to work with an engaged public to determine what tastes, smells, looks and feels good. Think about the directions we have taken even with traditional breeding. Holsteins are getting to be grotesque in their proportions because we are only breeding them for milk production. Genetically engineered crops and animals are often grossly distorted and ugly. Traditionally bred seeds developed through chemical and radiation mutagens lack the elegance of, say, my black popcorn which I am breeding on our farm.
  4. Actions and technologies establish nutrient loops (rather than flows) so that all Beings' waste nurtures and feeds other Beings. That is, they don't externalize waste and the associated costs. On our farm we have closed loop cycles. Cattle eat waste grain and the plants eat cattle waste.
  5. Actions and technologies result in systems which provide meaningful work for all Beings. Earthworms disappear when they don't have organic matter to digest just as highly processed foods and overly sweet foods deprive the bacteria in our gut of work. Humans are not exempt from this criterion. How does our emphasis on labor efficiency take away meaningful work from us?

So what does this mean for science? Two things will point science in the right direction. One is to establish a truly public interest research agenda. The other is participate in a science-based regulatory structure which employs the Precautionary Principle.

We need a public interest research agenda which is well funded and clearly directed. At present, only 32% of research is funded by the public in the US. I assume the statistics are similar in Canada. But even these few dollars are often used to benefit a private company rather than fully dedicated to the public interest. For instance, the United States Department of Agriculture spent public money on the so-called Terminator Technology. This was a purely private interest. This means that most of research is, in fact, directed to keeping these nations economically competitive rather than ecologically cooperative. Money trumps ethics.

A Public Interest Research Agenda does four things. It responds to ecological issues; It addresses public rather than private need; It fosters cooperative relationships among scientists in many disciplines; and finally, it incorporates an aesthetic sensibility into the work.

All of research and new technologies - even those derived from a solidly grounded public interest research agenda - need some kind of check, something that acknowledges the complexity of the planet and provides a method for the public to say "no" to technologies. Unfortunately, both Canada and the US have gleefully used risk assessment to underestimate the harms from new technologies and say "yes" to everything. Risk assessment has been used as a tool of arrogance.

In contrast, the precautionary principle is functionally a principle of humility. It tells us that when we have scientific uncertainty and the likelihood of harm, then we need to act with precaution. The precautionary principle provides ethical decision-making criteria for dealing with scientific uncertainty. Current agricultural scientific regimes sweep scientific uncertainty under the table. By honoring the precautionary principle scientists have an extraordinary opportunity to drive innovation by finding ways of working in concert with nature rather than forcing nature. It allows us to do research that is robust to uncertainty and favor actions that are reversible. That is, we can find options and opportunities that do not cause damage for generations and over the wide geographies. We do not need more DDT, dead monarchs or Pfiesteria in the water.

In conclusion, I began this talk with a story about my coming to the farm on the prairie and what I understood about Holy ground. I have also had occasion to think about the opposite of holiness and to seek definitions of sin. My husband Fred defines sin as "separation". You can see how sin as separation dovetails with the definition of holiness as a right relationship. Western science has aggressively promoted the notion that humans are separated from the rest of the natural world. It has been horribly destructive. It has been sinful.

If society chooses wisely for science and agriculture, the technologies that we create will be tools that enhance mutually beneficial relationships among scientists, other Beings and our human community. These tools will not be designed to beat out other organisms or countries in some unwinnable race to economic competitiveness. These tools will be useful for right livelihoods, conviviality, art, and nourishment. We will have a much greater possibility of living in a relationship with each other and all of creation in ways that do not separate us. These relationships will be holy, truthful and wise. And then maybe all of us, scientists, farmers and customers will do as David Kline does and count the wild hatchlings as part of our harvest.

Let me read this poem by Wendell Berry as my offering to you and then I will sit down.

The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union

From the union of power and money,
from the union of power and secrecy,
from the union of government and science,
from the union of government and art,
from the union of science and money,
from the union of ambition and ignorance,
from the union of genius and war,
from the union of outer space and inner vacuity,
the Mad Farmer walks quietly away.

There is only one of him, but he goes.
He returns to the small country he calls home,
his own nation small enough to walk across.
He goes shadowy into the local woods,
and brightly into the local meadows and croplands.
He goes to the care of neighbors,
he goes into the care of neighbors.
He goes to the potluck supper, a dish from each house
for the hunger of every house.
He goes into the quiet of early mornings
of days when he is not going anywhere.

Calling his neighbors together into the sanctity of their lives
separate and together
in the one life of their commonwealth and home,
in their own nation small enough for a story
or song to travel across in an hour, he cries:

Come all ye conservatives and liberals
who want to conserve the good things and be free,
come away from the merchants of big answers,
whose hands are metalled with power;
from the union of anywhere and everywhere
by the purchase of everything from everybody at the lowest price
and the sale of anything to anybody at the highest price;
from the union of work and debt, work and despair;
from the wage-slavery of the helplessly well-employed.
From the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation,
secede into care for one anotherv and for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth.

Come into the life of the body, the one body
granted to you in all the history of time.
Come into the body's economy, its daily work,
and its replenishment at mealtimes and at night.
Come into the body's thanksgiving, when it knows
and acknowledges itself a living soul.
Come into the dance of the community, joined
in a circle, hand in hand, the dance of the eternal
love of women and men for one another
and of neighbors and friends for one another.

Always disappearing, always returning,
calling his neighbors to return, to think again
of the care of flocks and herds, of gardens
and fields, of woodlots and forests and the uncut groves,
calling them separately and together, calling and calling,
he goes forever toward the long restful evening
and the croak of the night heron over the river at dark.
Amen


I owe special thanks to Nancy Myers, Tom Tomas and Fred Kirschenmann for their extravagant help.
Any folly is mine alone.



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