|For the week of May 22, 2006|
Be Leery of the Scientist Who Interprets the Data
When the Sierra Club, the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals or any number of activist groups make assertions about the “appropriate” way to raise livestock, they, without a doubt, are going to quote a scientist/researcher who has highfalutin credentials.
A recent example was when the Sierra Club had Dr. Robert S. Lawrence, director of the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, present his points of view about “industrial” and “unnatural animal production” and the need to have the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or Superfund Act, pertain to livestock production.
Of course, Farm Bureau and most Environmental Protection Agency officials are quite confident that the intent of the Superfund Act, as approved by Congress to regulate and clean up abandoned hazardous and toxic industrial waste sites, is not to oversee agriculture. Additionally, the Agriculture Department and livestock associations contend that livestock producers in this country are using humane, environmentally appropriate methods of raising animals.
From word one, Dr. Lawrence expressed his bias against most types of animal agriculture and suggested negative health effects associated with both raising livestock and eating meat. He proclaimed that the average American eats too much meat annually – 220 pounds per person. He proclaimed that corn fructose sweetener also can be blamed for much of the public’s unhealthy diet.
Lawrence went on to claim livestock production has polluted nearly all the rivers of his home state. He also asserted that ammonia and hydrogen sulfide air pollution from livestock production are extremely unhealthy for livestock producers and their neighbors, and human antibiotic resistance is being spread by too many antibiotics used in livestock production. He concluded by suggesting that farmers should “return to sustainable farming operations.”
It was almost as if this scientist could trace all the world’s ills directly to livestock production. Scientists and researchers who proclaim a connection between unrelated situations and occurrences are everywhere. They compile “thinking outside the box” research proposals and submit them for funding. Lo and behold an organization or government agency will step forward to fund the research.
For every assertion from one scientist there is frequently another one making claims to counter the assertion. It becomes nearly impossible to “point, counter point” with scientists because the public will make its own decision on what to believe, often based more on personal biases than anything else.
In the end, degrees and titles do not result in scientists of undisputed supreme knowledge. Hopefully, people are leery of information claiming that farmers and ranchers are recklessly and inappropriately raising livestock, especially if that information is coming from just one scientist – or an activist-sponsored group of scientists.
Richard Keller is a director of news services for the American Farm Bureau Federation.