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Science and Food: Today and Tomorrow (1961)

Chapter: Contributions of Science to Supplying Food for a Changing World--Solutions to Problems from the Chemical Industry Standpoint

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Suggested Citation:"Contributions of Science to Supplying Food for a Changing World--Solutions to Problems from the Chemical Industry Standpoint." National Research Council. 1961. Science and Food: Today and Tomorrow. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18719.
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Suggested Citation:"Contributions of Science to Supplying Food for a Changing World--Solutions to Problems from the Chemical Industry Standpoint." National Research Council. 1961. Science and Food: Today and Tomorrow. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18719.
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Page 10
Suggested Citation:"Contributions of Science to Supplying Food for a Changing World--Solutions to Problems from the Chemical Industry Standpoint." National Research Council. 1961. Science and Food: Today and Tomorrow. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18719.
×
Page 11
Suggested Citation:"Contributions of Science to Supplying Food for a Changing World--Solutions to Problems from the Chemical Industry Standpoint." National Research Council. 1961. Science and Food: Today and Tomorrow. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18719.
×
Page 12
Suggested Citation:"Contributions of Science to Supplying Food for a Changing World--Solutions to Problems from the Chemical Industry Standpoint." National Research Council. 1961. Science and Food: Today and Tomorrow. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18719.
×
Page 13
Suggested Citation:"Contributions of Science to Supplying Food for a Changing World--Solutions to Problems from the Chemical Industry Standpoint." National Research Council. 1961. Science and Food: Today and Tomorrow. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18719.
×
Page 14
Suggested Citation:"Contributions of Science to Supplying Food for a Changing World--Solutions to Problems from the Chemical Industry Standpoint." National Research Council. 1961. Science and Food: Today and Tomorrow. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18719.
×
Page 15
Suggested Citation:"Contributions of Science to Supplying Food for a Changing World--Solutions to Problems from the Chemical Industry Standpoint." National Research Council. 1961. Science and Food: Today and Tomorrow. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18719.
×
Page 16
Suggested Citation:"Contributions of Science to Supplying Food for a Changing World--Solutions to Problems from the Chemical Industry Standpoint." National Research Council. 1961. Science and Food: Today and Tomorrow. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18719.
×
Page 17
Suggested Citation:"Contributions of Science to Supplying Food for a Changing World--Solutions to Problems from the Chemical Industry Standpoint." National Research Council. 1961. Science and Food: Today and Tomorrow. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18719.
×
Page 18

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Contributions of Science To Supplying Food for a Changing World—Solutions to Problems from the Chemical Industry Standpoint DAVID H. DAWSON Vice President, E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company It is an honor to me and to the Du Pont Company to have been invited to participate in this symposium. The success of your committee in organizing it is indicative of the extent to which the scientific, governmental, and commercial communities are pursuing common objectives. We are here to pool our thoughts toward increasing contributions to the world's food supply from creative scientific research, with assurance that the benefit of these contributions will far outweigh any hazards, real, unknown, or imaginary. It may be accepted as self-evident that enormous strides have been made in the past half-century in this country's methods of producing and distributing foodstuffs. Thereby we have been able to almost double our yield per acre, with about one-fifth of the manpower per unit produced; we have increased the variety and improved the quality of foods available; we have largely rebuilt the distribution mechanism in such a way as to lower cost, reduce spoilage, improve variety, and decrease risks to the consumer. It may also be accepted as self-evident that the population growth of the next half-century will be of such magnitude as to necessitate further advances, perhaps even greater than those which have already been achieved. Looked at solely from the standpoint of this country, these would seem to be readily at-

tainable and, in fact, almost within reach. In today's world, such an insular point of view is completely untenable, and on a world- wide basis the problems grow in magnitude and complexity to such an extent that major advances are clearly required and no longer easily foreseeable. The advances of the past, and those to be expected in the future, have been, and will be, contributed from many sources. Of the greatest importance have been the radical innovations in agricultural machinery, the lower cost and freer availability of electrical energy, improved utilization of water resources, the improvements in the quality of plants and animals, and their resistance to attack by weather and natural enemies. Some of the most noteworthy advances have been achieved by the widespread use of synthetic chemical products throughout the process of growing and distributing foodstuffs. Many have become so widely used and accepted that there would seem little point in elaborating on them here. I should like to, however, for two reasons: First, because there has of late been so much emphasis on the dangers and risks in the injudicious use of chemicals that even reasonable and well-informed people may lose sight of their positive values and accomplishments; and second, because our view of the needs of the future may become clearer as we examine the accomplishments of the past. Fifty years ago, the output of the chemical industry was about four per cent of that of today and was largely confined to simple, basic inorganics. The whole spectrum of synthetic organic compounds was just being unfolded in university labora- tories and their commercial applications being tentatively explored. The first, and possibly still the most important, contribution of the chemical industry has been the availability of low-cost soil nutrients, principally nitrogen. Stemming from Haber's work on nitrogen fixation, aided by the war-generated demand for nitrates, furthered by the utilization of lower cost hydrogen from petroleum and natural gas, synthetic ammonia and its derivatives are now increasingly supplying the nitrogen requirements of the soil. Along with this basic development have come many others— the low-cost synthesis and use of urea, improved methods of ap- 10

plication, improved availability of the necessary phosphates, and better compounding of mixed fertilizers. Their use is doubling each decade. The higher yields of many of our crops, our ability to avoid the waste of "farmed-out" land, and perhaps even some of our farm crop surplus problems are due in large part to developments of the chemical industry and its agricultural co- operators in this area. As the output of his land increased, the farmer has had more economic justification for expenditures for the control of preda- tory insects, diseases, and competing weeds. These challenges led to a second major advance in a succession, during the past 20 years, of new organic insecticides. DDT was followed by other chlorinated hydrocarbons and more recently by the organic phosphates and the systemic insecticides. The reduction that these products have made in the multi-billion dollar annual crop and livestock loss due to insect pests cannot be evaluated. Their economic justification has been, however, abundantly proved. Another major advance has been made in the chemical control of weeds, estimated to add about $5 billion annually to the cost of crop production. 2,4-D and the other phenoxyacetic acid derivatives, and most recently the substituted urea compounds, have all found important applications. Millions of man-hours of labor have been saved, and the full economically justified usage of such herbicides is still far from being attained, even in this country. The third area of crop protection is plant disease control. Protection of growing plants against disease, blights, and rots starts with treatment of seed with such compounds as the organic mercurials. Dithiocarbamate fungicides have become widely used for protection of foliage and fruit. Other applications of new chemical agents, while individually less impressive in their contribution to lower labor costs and im- proved agricultural yields, in total are comparable to these. Typical are the use of plant growth regulators such as those used to prevent premature dropping of orchard crops and the defoliants to aid harvesting. In the production of livestock and poultry, comparable advances have been made through the 11

addition to feed rations of synthetic chemicals such as urea, methionine, the antibiotics, and the vitamins. The further processing of these agricultural products into foodstuffs has since time immemorial demanded the use of simple, naturally occurring chemicals such as the sodium chloride in salt, the sucrose in sugar, and the acetic acid in vinegar. The wide range of synthetic chemicals has extended and increased the effectiveness of these—as preservatives, antioxidants, emulsifiers, stabilizers, bleaches, and colorants. While no single chemical or group of chemicals has been responsible, in total their use has been a major factor in producing greater variety, more safety, greater availability, increased attractiveness to the consumer, and higher nutritive value in the food consumed by the American people. The chemical industry has also participated in the radical improvements which have been made in food distribution through improved packaging materials. By tailoring transparent protective films to the unique requirements of each foodstuff, such developments as the prepackaging of meat and poultry have been made possible. The loss in the distribution system has been reduced, hygienic standards improved, savings in transpor- tation and storage space achieved, and certainly a wider—some- times bewildering—variety of more attractive foodstuffs has been offered to the American housewife. These accomplishments bulk large in the total advances which have been made in this country in the efficiency of producing, and in the quality and safety of, the food supply for our people. They give us security against disastrous crop failures, and provide some relief in the farmer's cost-price squeeze. Finally, they give us some assurance that our farms and food industry can meet the food requirements of future generations without hardship. Now, how have these chemical contributions come about? Fundamental, of course, has been the development of basic chemical knowledge—the result of the productive creative efforts of many scientists, in university laboratories particularly, but also in industrial research and in government laboratories. Chemical science had first to conceive and then to make this almost infinite variety of compounds, each unique in its chemical structure and 12

frequently also in its biological effects on plants, animals, insects, and man. Second has been the willingness of agriculture, frequently with the strong leadership and urging of state and federal agriculture agencies and the food industry, to undertake the necessary experimentation and to risk the new and untried. Third has been a healthy and growing chemical industry which was able and willing to devote large expenditures to research and to proceed with plant and capital expenditures when success was far from assured. Fourth, and most basic, was an economic system and govern- ment climate which promised rewards to the inventor and innovator and allowed him a maximum degree of freedom to explore the new, with due, but not excessive, regard for the risks involved, both to himself and to the users. Now let us turn to the future and the problems which it presents. They would seem to be, in essence, two. First, how do we extend the advances, already made and to be made in the future, on a world-wide basis and particularly to the under- developed countries whose needs are greatest? And second, how do we achieve the necessary continued advances, and in what areas are they most needed? The first of these—the extension to under-developed countries— is of the foremost importance, but one which is clearly beyond the scope of the speaker and which will be treated at length by other speakers at this meeting. The second presents difficulties enough, and I would prefer to devote my limited time, and yours, to it. Without minimizing the accomplishments of the past or the opportunities of the future, it seems clear that the maintenance of our rate of progress will not be easy and will perhaps require even greater efforts that have been made in the past. I will mention only a few of the troublesome areas where concentration of that effort seems indicated. Three basic fields of study seem to promise the greatest ad- vances in the application of chemicals to agriculture and food. First is the chemistry of life processes in living cells. Second is the perfection of evaluation procedures, particularly of analytical 13

techniques. These two fields of study take us into microcosms at the molecular level. The third is an almost equally challenging macrocosm—the teeming mass of minute plant and animal Me, called the edaphon, which inhabits the soil and of which we have yet only limited knowledge and understanding. I can deal only briefly with the edaphon, so will take it first. It consists of molds, bacteria, yeasts, fungi, algae, protozoa, nematodes, mites, and various other forms of life. Many of them exist at the expense of plant roots and are thereby responsible for serious crop losses in the field. The normal edaphon develops a natural balance between harm- ful and beneficial organisms. As we approach the control of harmful organisms, we must be sure that we do not also kill off the beneficial ones, or turn them into harmful ones, by upsetting their environment and possibly destroying their normal sources of nourishment. Now, let's look at the study of chemistry in living cells. The behavior of chemicals in living systems depends on intricate chemical reactions in the enzymes and nucleic acids of individual living cells. These reactions are sensitive to slight influences and they occur in successions and combinations which are presently difficult or impossible to duplicate in the laboratory. As a result, development of products for biochemical activity depends too often upon the classical Edisonian or empirical approach. This is inevitably slow and wasteful. Success is all too often the re- sult of chance rather than skill. A better understanding of these processes would bring us closer to prescribing molecular formulas to fit given biochemical needs. These might be aimed to promote desirable biochemical effects as in nutrition, regulation of growth, or influencing genetic factors. Or they might be aimed to inhibit undesirable forms of life, such as harmful bacteria and viruses, fungi, or predatory insects. Understanding of biochemical activity in living cells would help also to overcome some of our major problems in establishing safe levels of human exposure to synthesized chemicals. It would help us to anticipate the metabolism, dispersion, and disposal of these compounds in the human body, and to understand the 14

body's own detoxication mechanisms. It might allow us to simplify or even to eliminate the present cumbersome procedures of bio-assays with laboratory animals. The second fundamental problem is that of testing and analyti- cal techniques. At the present time, and for several years, we have run toxicological tests with as many as 450 laboratory ani- mals and compiled a 300-page volume of data. With all this we can still only demonstrate effects of some particular recognized magnitude. We cannot demonstrate the absence of any effect at all. Toxicity is not a specific measurable characteristic like melting point or molecular weight. It is related to the other conditions in a living system which is exposed to its influence. Again, in our chemical analyses, we can be accurate only to a point. Our analytical procedures cannot prove an absolute zero. We cannot prove the presence of a smaller amount of chemical than we can detect. Our whole concept of tolerances is based on analytical methods of finite sensitivity, and the term zero can only mean "less than can be detected by a method of appropriate sensitivity." If we are accurate down to one part to one million, then anything less than that represents zero by our analysis. Since both our bio-assays and our analytical methods leave us in the position of having proof only when we have failed, we have to resort finally to scientific judgment on the basis of what is known now because so much is still unknown. If we find no negative evidence, we can assume that we have succeeded. But we can't prove it. The need for greater analytical accuracy, however, is not just for the establishment of safe levels of commercial chemicals. It is basic to all our fundamental studies. We have to identify and measure the various synthetic and natural compounds in con- trolled or uncontrolled biochemical reactions in order to know the chemical situation we are working in. We have to be able to differentiate infinitely small amounts of compounds from closely related or similar chemicals. Progress in these and other areas may be confidently expected. It will require continued dedication to basic research by our government and university scientists. But to a very important extent it will depend also on the willingness of the chemical and 15

food industries to support the research which it requires, and then to take the capital risks involved in manufacturing and marketing the products that research has uncovered. The willingness to risk capital has been subtly but profoundly influenced by the changes in legislation and in legislative climate which have developed in the past several years. I refer to the increasing emphasis on the risk involved in any chemical additive to food—whether directly in the handling and manufacture of foodstuffs, or inadvertently through pesticides or animal feeds. This seems to reflect a public—or at least a legislative—desire to reduce the risk of any harmful effect of any chemical additive to foods, and preferably to make that risk approach zero. Now to argue against the reduction of risk to the consumer— all other things being equal—is patently foolhardy. But it is possible—and essential—that we argue that all other things are rarely equal, and that to eliminate risk would be to bar progress. Certainly we did not allow the very great risks involved to inter- fere with our development of nuclear weapons and power; every advance into the unknown has and will involve risk, and generally the greater the magnitude and rate of the advance, the greater the risk. We must not, and really we cannot, eliminate risk. We should be trying only to eliminate those risks which are not consonant with potential benefits. And we should carefully avoid segre- gating the two considerations. Basically any consideration of the extent of risk without simultaneous evaluation of the potential benefit is, I submit, in grave danger of effectively preventing progress, or at least ensuring that it be achieved distressingly slowly. The problems involved in increasing food supplies faster than population growth are of such magnitude that we need to accelerate and not to hinder their solution. If it can be assumed—and I see no reason to assume otherwise— that recent legislative trends faithfully reflect public attitudes, it would appear that the basic problem before the chemical, food, and agricultural industries is to convince the public that govern- mental controls and administration should not be concerned solely with the elimination of risk, but rather with a judgment of risk versus gain. To do this is no mean task, but it will not 16

be accomplished unless there is proper understanding of the achievements already made and those required in the future, and unless our conviction that considered risks are not only ad- visable but essential are forthrightly and cogently argued. Meanwhile, the chemical industry, with others, finds itself faced with the necessity of living under present legislation and its able administration. In doing so it is encountering and at- tempting to solve two very real problems. The first of these is the cost, and equally important the time required, to establish the safety, not only of new, but of many established food additives. In years past, the time elapsed be- tween discovery of a new chemical compound later proved to have biological activity and the start of its commercialization has been from four to seven years. Under present conditions, it would be longer. The cost of establishing safety is in the order of half a million dollars for a single product and involves testing over a period of several years. These costs must inevitably ap- pear, in due course, in the price of the product. If any product fails after the expenditure of some large part of this cost, some other product must bear that cost. My own company has for many years accepted the responsi- bility of satisfying itself that its products, if properly used, do not expose its customers and consumers to undue risk. It has also accepted the responsibility of educating its customers in the proper use of its products. To facilitate such investigations, it established as long ago as 1935 the Haskell Laboratory for Toxicology and Industrial Medicine and has since maintained and expanded an able staff dedicated to investigations in this field. Despite such a history, we have found that the task of meeting the requirements of recent legislation has added significantly to the cost of this work and, more importantly, has slowed the pace of our research efforts. We do occasionally say that, rather than pursue the long trail of "proving safe," we would prefer to turn our research efforts elsewhere. And this introduces the second dilemma which the chemical industry faces—the increased difficulty of justifying research in view of added burdens of "fool-proof testing for safety. I do not subscribe to the thesis that has been propounded that industrially 17

supported research in the food additives field will shortly dis- appear. Obviously it will not—the stakes and opportunities are too great; the needs are too pressing. But it will be difficult to expand such research to the extent that world food problems of the future justify, and it might even decline—simply as the result of the economic factors which have been introduced. We in industry must earn a profit in order to exist; we invest in research with the firm conviction that it will, in the long run, add to our ability to earn. To a considerable degree every re- search project is competing with every other one; as we add to the cost of doing the research, and subtract from the potential earning capacity of the resultant development, we make this research effort less attractive relative to the others. Decline in order of attractiveness it must, and some may well drop off the bottom of the list and join in the forgotten limbo the other good ideas we would like to develop, but won't. These are problems of magnitude—the ability of the industry to solve them, only the future will reveal. But while we work on them, we should not neglect the basic one discussed before— that of demonstrating to the public and its legislative representa- tives that we are concerned here with a field in which, as in so many others, some risk is not only justified but essential; that to eliminate risk is to forego progress, and that public interest de- mands that governmental action be based on a balanced judg- ment of risk versus benefits to society. 18

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