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Modern science suffers from Peterkin thinking

Plese see the end of this commentary for links to more CropChoice news items.

By George B. Pyle
The Prairie Writers Circle

(Friday, Oct. 4, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- When I was a child, my mother read to us from "The Peterkin Papers," a collection of 19th century stories about a large, loving and particularly silly family. The Peterkins, created by author Lucretia P. Hale, were honest and diligent and all about self-improvement. They worked hard and read extensively. And they always managed to get it wrong.

When the Christmas tree the Peterkins chose for the parlor was too tall, they devoted great effort and expense to raising the ceiling, obliterating a second-story bedroom in the process. When the deliverymen carelessly set the new piano down with its back to the room, young Elizabeth Eliza carried the piano stool out to the porch and played by reaching through the window.

Though these stories are more than a century old, they seem as fresh as this morning's newspaper, at least when that day1s newspaper carries another story about scientists who are hamstering away creating new technologies designed to plaster over the failings of only slightly less new technologies. Peterkin science, one might call it.

It is like the time that Mrs. Peterkin realized with horror that she had, quite by mistake, poured salt into her coffee instead of sugar. The family gathered in the dining room to consider what should be done. Being a progressive family, they were not too proud to call in an expert. The local chemist was asked to remove the salt from the coffee. He added some chlorate of potassium. Some bichlorate of magnesia. A pinch of hypersulphate of lime.

A dash of ammonia.

After each addition, the coffee was tasted, and pronounced to be even worse than before. So the family brought in the herb woman from the woods, and she proceeded to treat the salty, and now chemical-laden, coffee with flagroot and snakeroot and catnip and valerian and everything else she could find in her apron pockets.

"The more the old woman stirred, and the more she put in, the worse it all seemed to taste," the story went.

Finally, the family decided to consult the visiting lady from Philadelphia, who was reputed to be very wise indeed. The lady from Philadelphia listened to the whole sad story, and then said, "Why doesn't your mother make a fresh cup of coffee?" Which she did.

If only the lady from Philadelphia had been consulted before researchers at the University of California at San Francisco set about mutating proteins, to fight "mad cow" disease, or before scientists at the University of Guelph in Ontario started fiddling around with pig genes in an effort to make their waste less polluting, someone might have realized that, rather than making the coffee even more disgusting, it would make more sense to go back to a fresh beginning.

The San Francisco research is indeed impressive. It appears to have designed a prion, a protein that lacks nucleic acid, to be engineered into the DNA of farm animals to make them immune to another prion, the kind that causes always-fatal brain-wasting diseases in cattle, deer, elk and even humans. The Ontario research apparently shows promise in creating a strain of "Enviropigs" that can digest the phosphorus in their feed rather than simply passing it through into hazardous, and stinky, feedlot lagoons and on into groundwater supplies, rivers and the Gulf of Mexico.

It is work that displays much energy and brainpower. But not necessarily a lot of common sense.

Mad cow disease is only a risk, to cows or to humans, because of the highly unnatural way in which cattle are raised and processed. The disease can only find its way into the food chain when cattle are fed things they ought not be fed, such as protein meal made of other cows. And it can only find its way on to us when the brains and nerve tissues are carelessly ground into our meat.

And the pollution generated by huge hog lots is only a problem because we have been foolish enough to create huge hog lots, which not only create more waste than natural systems can handle, but more pork than the world market can consume. That depresses the price and puts more and more farmers out of business. A scientific means of making those food factories slightly less polluting of the water does nothing for the social and economic pollution they continue to create.

We need to think about all of this another way. And we can start by pouring ourselves a fresh cup of coffee.

George B. Pyle is a director of The Prairie Writers Circle, a project of The Land Institute, a Natural Systems Agriculture research organization in Salina, Kan. He is writing a book about the advantages of small-scale agriculture over the industrial model of food production.

Also on CropChoice:

1. Seeds of Conflict update, with transcript; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?RecID=1018

2. U.S. consumers challenge spread of biotech food; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?RecID=1019

3. In face of drought, agribusiness opts for cheap grain imports; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?RecID=1020

4.Strong Roots, Fragile Farms; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=1010

5. Modified pollen hits organic farms; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=1017

6. Letter to the Zambians; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=1014

7. Must anti-biotic treated cows be removed from the organic farm? http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=1016

8. Decline of farms leaves voters with painful choice; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=1015

9. Food industry campaigns against Oregon labeling proposal; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=1013