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Lecturing and Leading in the Midst of Confusion

29.sep.02, Justin Kastner & Doug Powell, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

On October 22, 1890, Robert Wallace, professor of agriculture and rural
economy at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, told his students that
despite confusion and disagreement, the risk of pleuro-pneumonia in American
live cattle imports was real, and that import restrictions adopted in 1879
should continue.
Professor Wallace directed his lecture at a controversial agriculture,
health, and trade question. At issue was whether or not Britain should
continue trade restrictions on American live cattle. The supposed discovery
of the disease pleuro-pneumonia in American cattle had prompted the British
government in 1879 to require that all American be slaughtered immediately
at the ports. In his lecture, Professor Wallace noted that the question of
continuing or repealing this regulation was "the burning question of the
It was the burning question of the moment because one of Professor Wallace's
contemporaries, Principal William Williams of the New Veterinary College in
Edinburgh, had vehemently disagreed with the government veterinarians'
diagnosis of pleuro-pneumonia among American cattle. Amplifying these
disagreements were American diplomats and Scottish livestock farmers seeking
to import American store cattle for inland finishing and subsequent sale and
Not unlike Professor Wallace of the late nineteenth century, university
professors in 2002 are facing burning questions of the moment regarding
agriculture, public health, and international trade. Some of the most
controversial include questions regarding the safety and international trade
of genetically engineered (GE) foods. These questions have evoked producer
and consumer emotions and spawned scores of opinions in the form of
articles, books, and websites.
The sundry opinions--and the questions themselves--are not lamentable; there
is nothing wrong with the enterprise of opinion-holding, a trademark of
western democracy. But when confusion is berthed in the wake of multiple
opinions, the need for educational leadership grows.
And there is confusion on the GE food question. Many farmers have embraced
GE technology as a way to reduce pesticide sprays and (fossil-)fueled
tractor runs; and consumers, when informed of this, have responded
favourably, choosing GE corn and potatoes over conventionally grown
varieties. Meanwhile, many other self-proclaimed consumer advocates have
written off GE food as an unsafe entrée of capitalism, prompting despots in
Africa to refuse GE food aid.
In the midst of all of this confusion over GE foods, there has been an
abandonment of educational leadership.
Bill Durodié's recent indictment of the Royal Society's abdication of
leadership (28 August 2002, see could be applied to
this situation. Indeed, many scientific leaders -- and universities
themselves -- are preoccupied with remaining neutral and not offending
others. Lamentably, these people are not doing what they are paid to do::
to think critically and provide well-informed decisions. It is sad that
many university professors, even those at agricultural research
institutions, refuse to take positions in the classroom regarding GE food,
lest they offend someone or compromise the University's neutral image.
The questions of GE foods are admittedly complex; but this is all the more
reason why university food scientists need to learn about and speak out on
the GE food issue. When they do not think, when they do not speak out,
scientists abdicate their leadership responsibilities and leave students to
form their opinions in a sea of websites, conversations rooted in
caffeine-stimulated intuition, and conspiracy-theory speculations.
During the academic year, web-based information, textbook material, and,
yes, class lecturers will compete for influence in the minds of students‹the
very farmers, consumer advocates, and government ministers who will one day
assume management of our global and complex food system.
To help them take back the reigns of leadership, university instructors
should consider the instructional strategies modeled over 100 years ago by
Professor Wallace.
In his lecture, Professor Wallace skillfully acknowledged all sides of the
controversial pleuro-pneumonia question, and then articulated a position on
the matter.
"I am quite aware," Professor Wallace explained, "that there is an
impression that our inspectors have mistaken the appearances of
pleuro-pneumonia for those present in the lungs of cattle suffering from a
sporadic inflammation." Wallace acknowledged that American inspectors, sent
over to Liverpool and London to verify the diagnoses of the British
inspectors, were in agreement with his contemporaries' conclusions that
there was an error in diagnosis.
Wallace also recognized efforts by the U.S. Bureau of Animal Industry to
stamp out pleuro-pneumonia, noting that recent U.S. regulations "are most
comprehensive and statesmanlike, and nominally confer sufficient power upon
the chief of the department to secure success."
But Professor Wallace went further. After citing meager staffing in the
U.S. Bureau of Animal Industry and the challenges of regulating the vast
expanse of agricultural America, Wallace noted, "The recently reported
outbreak of Foot-and-Mouth disease in Missouri is a good indication of the
possibility of disease lurking about unknown to the authorities in
Wallace considered other aspects of the issue, but his lecture was not
wishy-washy or indecisive. He concluded that despite beliefs that the
London-based veterinarians made errors in diagnosis, and despite a desire
among some Scottish farmers to import American store cattle, the
pleuro-pneumonia disease risk among U.S. cattle was a real one -- and worth
guarding against with the 1879 immediate-slaughter order.
Had Professor Wallace not put forth a position, the University of Edinburgh
Agricultural Class of 1890-91 would have been abandoned to swim in a sea of
multiple voices coming from diplomats, livestock farmers, and squabbling
Apart from the position he articulated, Professor Wallace's lecture-style
was significant. Hopefully today's educational leaders will, like Wallace,
model for students the art of being well-informed, weighing evidence,
articulating an argument, and showing true leadership -- particularly in the
midst of the GE food confusion.

Justin Kastner is a PhD student with the Food Safety Network at the
University of Guelph
tel: 519-824-4120 x4280