So much is spent on medical research we may wonder if a humble, virtual College has anything more to contribute. A great deal, is the answer. Food and farming impact on human health and wellbeing in hundreds of different ways. Many remain underinvestigated, and some are ignored all together.
Nutrition is a key issue – and nutrition has been a very poor relation in orthodox western medical thinking. Nowadays, too, medical research is primarily in the hands of private industries. Pharmaceutical companies have obviously produced much that is brilliant and invaluable – but equally obviously, and especially within the prevailing economy, they are obliged to maximize returns to shareholders. It is far more profitable to cater for the chronic ailments of the rich than the acute and often life-threatening disorders of the poor – and this is reflected in the balance of research. It’s also true that much of what we really ought to know – for example on the putative long-term effects of micro-nutrients – is very difficult to study, and cannot be done without serious public investment of the kind that in this age of debt is considered too expensive.
It is hard to escape the feeling, too, that people in high places are predisposed to defend the status quo. Thus a very senior agricultural scientist recently assured me, in writing, that the health hazards of GMOs are most unlikely to be serious because the Americans have been consuming them for years with no obvious ill effects. In practice it may be true that GMOs don’t seriously affect our health (it may be true — let us not take anything for granted!) but this argument, although put by a scientist, clearly has nothing to do with science. If we were talking about anything else – traditional medicines, the possible role of particular fats in causing heart disease or cancers – then that same scientist would be warning us about confounding variables, and stressing the need for controlled blind trials, and all the rest. But in defence of the latest gizmo he is content, as so many seem to be, with arm-waving. More generally, it is now obvious that very little nutritional research of any kind can truly be said to be “independent”. Scientists these days live largely on “soft” money, and governments make a virtue of this, because it seems to reduce public spending. So there is a great deal to be discussed.
One obvious, special topic is the welfare of farmers and farm-workers themselves. In Britain, agriculture is now the most dangerous of all trades and professions – everything from falling off buildings to suicide. Morbidity is also tremendous – from orf to stress and depression. The College surely will not be equipped to carry out front-line medical research but it can certainly identify and explore more benign ways of farming that minimize the risks.