It is customary at year’s end, particularly this clichéd millennium marker, to reflect on the past and speculate as optimistically as possible on what lies ahead. Usually I am wary of the herd instinct, but this occasion marks something more intriguing than Y2K: a second address for IFT. IFT has resoundingly embraced the decision to establish an office in Washington and has vested leadership of the DC team in staunch IFTer and pre-eminent Washingtonian, Fred Shank. Congratulations, Fred, and may the wind be always at your back. We canoeists try not to get caught running between the waves.
The addition to IFT of permanent quarters in Washington is not before time. IFT has established its identity there, achieved substantial recognition for its name and expertise, and is expected to be heard on food safety, biotechnology, Codex Alimentarius, health claims, dietary supplements and assorted other issues. Attendance has sometimes been spotty, but our voice has consistently advocated heeding the science. We are welcome at many doors, people invite our thoughts, and we’re sought for our ideas. In a town where you are expected to know when to bow out, where dissonant views may be shunned, and where it’s not about the truth or ideal way, you have to know when to pick up your toys and move on. Sometimes IFT has hung around. Annoyingly, we have reminded some of the big boys that even though their might appears right, there’s something we just want to say. Again and again. IFT is in Washington for the long haul, not just the day to day courtesies of decorum. There is a lot to do in an environment that makes food policy and hasn’t heard much from food scientists. It isn’t a smooth path, but if Fred can’t walk right down the center of it, I can’t imagine who can.
IFT has barely begun to bring the insights and relevance of food science to the broader realm of public policy. It must think much bigger than has been its habit; it must embrace its part in agriculture production, environmental management and conservation, technology development and transfer, and economics. Eventually it must find a way to articulate its research fundamentals to the public and to Congress, or forever reside in the dustbin of science. Why aren’t food scientists working with agricultural economists and vice versa to broaden the clout of both fields? Why have we pretended that biotechnology isn’t “really” food science? Why have we uttered barely a shred of concern about international agricultural research and development? If the foundation of the food pyramid is cereals and grains, and the next most important layers fruits and vegetables, why do we not count hundreds or thousands of plant scientists among our members? Where are food scientists’ voices in the debates about sustainable agriculture, global warming, the decimation of marine species, environmental pollution, population pressures, the exploitation of women, particularly in countries dependent upon women’s labor in agriculture, displacement of agricultural workers owing to natural disasters, urbanization, desertification, war, and more? Do these not have predictable consequences for food production, safety, nutrition and health? Why are we not pushing the doors open wider for global food trade so that poor countries can strengthen their economies to expand prosperity? Are we too busy being successful and competitive to look out the window or read the newspaper? Yes, I know about walking before you run, proceeding cautiously, sticking to the knitting, etc., but leaders stand tall, seldom acquiesce to fashion’s trend, and generate their own ideas. There aren’t restraints on IFTers getting involved in these issues, networking with colleagues in other disciplines, writing letters to the editor, protesting rubbish in the news media, talking to local community groups and setting the record straight on food safety, food processing, government safeguards. If we want to be taken seriously as professionals and leaders of a $500 billion industry, much more is expected of us than the few who are galvanized to action are now delivering.
IFT has given me more opportunities to explore food science and try to put it on the map than I could possibly have envisioned nearly eight years ago when I came to Chicago. I couldn’t have imagined a job description more laced with challenge and risk than the one I was given, nor one better suited to my strengths. I have had the luxury of being able to try new ideas, work with supportive colleagues, meet new associates, stumble and get up again, and learn from a departmental staff of immense talent, motivation, collegial spirit, and humor. Thanks to the many IFTers who helped me grow, got in and out of my way, and kept on teaching me. Most of all, I would like to salute the incredibly special people who have worked with me in Science Communications from the very beginning, and who have built the foundation for IFT’s accomplishments in the news media, government activities, committee activities, annual meeting, work with outside groups, and inter-staff relationships. They are the head, hands and heart of our department. Thanks team, then and now: Cynthia Bailey, Thelma Brown, Angela Dansby, Leigh Ann Disser, Joan Finn, Annette Hawkins, Eva Lopez, Rosie Newsome, Therese Schaley, Ellen Sullivan, Bess Thomas. Those who hear not the music, think the dancers mad.
by JOYCE A. NETTLETON
Director, Science Communications