Carolyn Raffensperger is executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, based in Ames, Iowa, which advocates the wise application of science to efforts to protect the environment and public health.

Monday, 3 Feb 2003

AMES, Iowa

Like most of you, my weekend was full of the Columbia shuttle disaster. It raised questions central to my work on public health and the environment. Our specialty at the Science and Environmental Health Network is science: How do we create a public interest research agenda? What do we do when the science is uncertain? Can ethics and values be fully integrated into science and environmental policy?

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One of the Internet news stories about the Columbia disaster had this sentence: “In a flying machine with more than 2.5 million parts, even a 99.9 percent reliability level would still leave 2,500 things to go wrong.” This remarkable statement could be the slogan of the precautionary principle, which stands for the proposition that we should take action to prevent harm even when we are uncertain.

I am playing catch-up today because last week I went to Denver to speak to the U.S. EPA about children’s environmental health and the precautionary principle. My colleague Dr. Ted Schettler spoke about the complex things that are happening in a baby’s brain in the nine months before she is born. The complexity is staggering. It makes the Columbia shuttle look as simple as a mousetrap. Ted pointed out that we know a lot about the damage done to a baby rat’s brain by chemicals like organophosphate pesticides, mercury, and lead. We know that human babies are being born with organophosphates — and many other chemicals — in their bodies. This is the functional equivalent of asking these babies to land on earth without the basic gear in place.

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While I spent the weekend in Ames, Iowa, my husband Fred Kirschenmann, was in Aberdeen, S.D., attending the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society’s annual conference. The day before the meeting, a group of scientists and farmers gathered to discuss the seed breeding they are doing for organic systems in the Great Plains. In this project farmers and scientists work together to develop oat, wheat, and other seeds that fit the ecological niche of the north country and that function well on farms where there is a good crop rotation and no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. The outcomes of this breeding program stand in stark contrast to the uniform transgenic crops developed for mono-cropped, industrialized farms worldwide in scientists’ labs without much, if any, input from farmers.

After the shuttle disaster I kept wondering if it didn’t make sense to have lots of small-scale, farmer-driven experiments going on. Could we try these farmer-scientist breeding programs for some crops, like wheat, and not use transgene technologies at all? At present wheat is about the only major commodity crop that is not genetically engineered. The more engineered, the larger the scale, the more complex, the more likely it is that something will go wrong. It makes sense for publicly funded research to support low-tech, non-patented science in lots of areas, particularly medicine and agriculture. The precautionary principle not only stands for the timeworn ideas like “look before you leap,” “better safe than sorry,” “measure twice, cut once” — it also stands for “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Have we put too many eggs in the high-tech basket?

Later this week, the entire staff of SEHN and board president Peter Montague will convene at my house in Ames to discuss the future of our work. We will be exploring ways to advance ecological medicine, a new vision for the courts, the precautionary principle, and much more. I love these staff meetings because I get to spend time hashing out ideas with these marvelous people. It is an occasion to ask, “What if?” So much of our time is spent cranking out research, speeches, and newsletters. But during these meetings we are able to brainstorm, scan the horizon for the needs of the environmental movement, and think about the big picture.

I suspect that one question we will ask is, “Are there any systems where we cannot tolerate a 0.1 percent failure?” Our babies? Our oceans? Our food? This beautiful planet? I wonder.