By Deb Hamernik, President-Elect, ASAS
In 2016, many interesting and potentially far-reaching political events have already taken place. In May, Brazil impeached its President. In June, the United Kingdom (UK) voted to leave the European Union (EU). And, the presidential campaign in the United States (US) is filled with drama and controversy that will likely continue to escalate until the November elections. Each of these political scenarios provided the opportunity for the public to engage in discussions on a wide range of topics, including the economy, jobs, immigration, healthcare, education, international trade, and others. However, in none of these countries was science, agriculture, or food on the political agenda or a topic of debate. Yet, the ramifications of politics in Brazil, the UK and the US will likely have a long-lasting impact on science, food production, and human nutrition.
The most immediate impact of political change in Brazil is a potential disruption of funding for science. The interim president of Brazil downgraded Brazil’s science ministry by fusing the federal Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation with the ministry that handles telecommunications and internet regulations. In addition, federal funding for research in Brazil was 37% lower in 2016 compared to 2015 and will likely be cut by an additional 6% this year due to declining oil revenues resulting from a bribery scandal that involves the major state-run oil company (1).
In the UK, it is too soon to tell how the vote to leave the EU will impact funding for science or science policy. EU funding programs have provided around 8 billion euros to scientists in the UK over the past 10 years. Scientists in the UK will be shut out of the EU’s multi-billion euro Horizon 2020 program, if the UK restricts immigration or until the UK signs a new agreement with the EU. Scientists in the UK were also leading efforts to work around controversial issues associated with the use of federal funding for research with human embryonic stem cells. It is not clear if UK scientists will be allowed to participate in these policy issues in the future. What will happen to research facilities located in the UK that are owned by the EU? What will happen to trainees from other EU countries that are in programs located in the UK? What will happen to EU-funded collaborations that are led from the UK? Despite advocacy campaigns supported by overwhelming facts and empirical evidence generated by academic experts, lobby groups that represented scientists, and other scientific experts…52% of the UK public ignored this science-based evidence and voted to leave the EU. (2)
In addition, with the sharp decline in the British pound after the vote to leave the EU, the cost of imported meat (especially bacon) is expected to rise. Almost half of all meat products consumed in the UK are imported. The UK may have to independently negotiate new trade agreements with EU countries as well as with major beef exporting countries including Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. More than half of Ireland’s beef exports and around 60% of Ireland’s pork exports go to the UK. After Brexit, Ireland will now be treated as a foreign country so that tariffs, regulatory barriers or other restrictions may be imposed and may lead to more than a billion euros in reduced trade and considerable damage to the UK’s beef industry and rural economy. (3)
In the US, a Clinton presidency is expected to essentially be status quo for scientists, farmers, and ranchers while a Trump presidency is at best unpredictable. Funding for science or support for farm policy rarely gets more than a few seconds of media attention from either candidate. Instead, farmers and ranchers seem to be more interested in other national issues such as composition of the Supreme Court, additional regulatory burdens, and potential changes to the Constitution. Farmers and ranchers should likely pay more attention to issues associated with immigration and the potential for disruption in opportunities for international trade. Without sound policies for immigration the future workforce needed for crop, vegetable, and livestock production as well as meat processing plants may be in jeopardy and export markets for these food products may be limited. (4)
The US food system may be the biggest challenge and opportunity that is absent from the US political agenda. Human nutrition and the environmental impact of the food system are major policy issues that are in need of basic and applied research, education, and extension efforts. Production of food accounts for 70% of water use, significant release of greenhouse gases, and tremendous challenges to the oceans, biodiversity, and rural communities. Sustainable food production systems that are economically viable for producers, environmentally responsible, and socially acceptable are needed. Poor nutrition is the leading cause of poor health in the US and around the world. Americans spend more than $3 trillion annually on health care, including more than $1 trillion per year on diabetes, pre-diabetes, hear disease, obesity, and cancer. The only way to reduce the amount of money spent on preventable and curable diseases is through improved food choices, improved diets, and healthier lifestyles. In addition, Americans with lower incomes often have lower quality diets, reduced performance in school, lower wages, increased costs for health care, and more poverty. The gap between the size and scope of these problems and the media attention it receives is larger for food and nutrition than any other issue being debated by the presidential candidates. (5)
Now is the time for scientists, especially animal scientists around the world, to engage in discussions with politicians and the public to advocate for increased funding and science-based policies that will ensure the sustainable production of animal-sourced foods that promote human health and well-being. We must learn from the recent events in the UK and take every opportunity to use new communication methods (including social media) to elevate science, food, and human nutrition to the forefront of political agendas in countries around the world.
- Angelo, Claudio. 2016. Brazil science woes mount. Nature 533: 301.
- Abbott, Alison; Daniel Cressey; and Richard Van Noorden. 2016. UK scientists in limbo after Brexit shock. Nature 534: 597-598.
- Murphy, Dan. Meat of the Matter: Assessing the aftermath. Drover’s Cattle Network. http://www.cattlenetwork.com/community/meat-matter-assessing-aftermath Accessed on June 30, 2016.
- Phipps, John. 2016. Trump or Clinton: Who is better for ag? Drover’s Cattle Network. http://www.cattlenetwork.com/news/trump-vs-clinton-who-better-ag Accessed on June 30, 2016.
- Mozaffarian, Dariush. 2016. Why our food is the single biggest election issue not on the table. Aspen Institute. https://www.aspeninstitute.org/aspen-journal-of-ideas/food-single-biggest-election-issue-not-table/ Accessed on June 30, 2016.