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A modest proposal from Colin Tudge

The science and technologies that governments like Britain’s choose to promote, either by encouraging corporate research or at taxpayers’ expense, is often not what the world really needs — while the problems that really should be explored are largely neglected. The key areas for research, I suggest, are as follows:

1: Outstanding issues in agriculture

The obvious and urgent need to develop Agroecology in all its aspects sets the broad agenda. Thus:

Organic farming in general – which nowadays receives a derisorily small portion of the government research budget. The research that is done is mostly by private organizations.

Agroforestry in particular – which so far as I know does not now feature at all in Defra or BBSRC thinking.

Soil – and particularly soil microbiota: microbes (bacteria and archaeans); “protists”; invertebrates; and fungi – including and perhaps especially the all-important but much neglected mycorrhizas!

Grazing (and browse); ie, pasture-fed livestock. In particular, does well-managed grazing lead to loss of CH4 or to net carbon sequestration? General biological principles suggest the latter. Eg: during the Miocene and Pliocene when there were many billions of grazing animals the world grew steadily cooler. The present, almost hysterical attack on cattle is most inappropriate. True, intensive cattle (of the kind the government now favours) must be massive CH4 generators but cattle judiciously grazed are surely good for the biosphere.

Mixed populations of cereals and other crops. Inter alia, genetic diversity offers more long-term protection against pests and diseases than specific resistance genes.

Wildlife-friendly control of weeds and pests. It really is time we moved once and for all beyond the knee-jerk expedients of industrial chemistry and eye-catching biotech towards methods that are more in tune with the natural world.? In truth, past and present “biological control” methods have often misfired but this is where the future must lie nonetheless.

Pollinators other than honeybees. Flies for example are among the most important pollinators but only a few biologists are taking them seriously.

Animal welfare in all its aspects.

All this should be complemented by nutritional research on a far greater scale and independent of commercial bias. Thus:

2: Outstanding issues in nutrition

In truth, all the problems that were identified 60 years ago (to my knowledge) are still unresolved and perhaps are unresolvable (though we also need to get some feel for what can be solved and what, for various reasons, must always be very uncertain). Thus:

Carbohydrates

What is the real significance of fibre?

Where stand refined carbohydrates – especially sucrose?

Protein. How much do different groups of people really need?

Fats. It’s all still up for grabs!

Saturates vs unsaturates

Omega 3 and omega 6

Transfats

How much is too much (or too little)?

Etc.

Cryptonutrients. A new kind of problem! Cryptonutrients are what the food industry calls “functional foods” and the pharmaceutical industry calls “nutraceuticals”: materials that seem to bring benefits in very small quantities and act in effect as “tonics” including plant sterols which seem to lower blood cholesterol. Basic evolutionary principles suggest that there could be many thousands of such agents foods of all kinds. They are hardly understood at all but individually and cumulatively they could be very important indeed (affecting mood, longevity, resistance to pathogens, etc).

Microbiology – especially gut microbes. Research is proceeding apace but it’s all to do!

Epigenetics. Again, a comparatively new field. How much effect does life experience especially in utero affect the way the genome functions and hence influence the physiology including the response to particular foods?

The relationship between all of the above and agriculture. Eg: how and to what extent does the fat of pasture-fed beef differ from concentrate-fed? – a question that breaks down into hay vs silage etc. Does the difference really affect human health? How does soil biota really affect food quality and how does that impact on health? If microbes are so important, how does hydroponics work? Etc.

3: “Meta-questions”

These include key questions of a social/ political/ economic kind including:

To what extent is the continuing emphasis on productivity justified/ sensible? Should we not be focused far more on food quality, sustainability, wildlife friendliness etc? Can we “feed the world” with more ecologically and socially friendly farming? (The answer is surely “yes” but it needs chapter and verse.

Is it really possible to do what’s needed within a market-driven, “neoliberal” economy? If not then what?

The philosophy of science. What science is and is not – and what it can do and cannot. For science is wonderful and necessary but it all too easily degenerates into “scientism” – the belief that science is the only truly worthwhile source of knowledge and is leading us to omniscience. Technology is the key to all we do (“the extended phenotype”) but all too often gives rise to uncritical “technophilia” – a cargo-cult reliance on the next magic bullet (especially evident among ambitious politicians with no background in science or tech). Phil of sci is not a discrete research project but should always be present if only as an eminence grise.

Etc.

Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, January 23 2019

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