Saving our bacon

As we search for new markets for our value added primary products at a time when protectionist shutters are closing, it is worth reminding ourselves of the exemplary story of how refrigerated mutton saved the country’s bacon in the 1880s and beyond. 

The first shipment of frozen meat was sent from New Zealand to England in 1882. It was a turning point for sheep farming and for New Zealand’s economic history.

Less well known in the frozen meat business is the pioneering role, more than 250 years earlier, of English aristocrat Francis Bacon, scientist, philosopher, author and controversial statesman. He belongs to the pantheon of scientists killed by their own experiments.

Bacon is, of course, mainly known for developing an inductive methodology for scientific enquiry. At a time when religious dogma smothered rational enquiry he demanded a rigorous procedure for finding out about the natural world and solving problems, like extending the use-by-date of food.

His enthusiasm for a personal experiment in food technology lead to his premature death. In April 1626 he was journeying through the snow with the physician of Charles I when he had an intuitive urge, triggered by the avalanche of raw material at hand, to experiment with snow to preserve meat.  The coach was stopped and a live fowl purchased, dispatched and immediately stuffed with snow in order to see what would happen.

The deceased bird, which deserves to be more famous than John Cleese’s parrot, got her almost immediate revenge. Chilled and ill by experimenting in and with the snow, Bacon died at Highgate within a few days, not before writing up his experiment  touching the conservation and induration of bodies” with fingers so disjointed with sickness that I cannot steadily hold a pen.”

While he left debts of £22,000, Colonel Sanders and the sheep farmers of New Zealand, among others, were left very much in his debt.

Almost four centuries later, an empirical approach to scientific research in the areas of climate change, stem cell growth and genetically modified crops, to name just three areas, has sometimes run into fundamentalist opposition in the United States and closer to home.

There is no absolute scientific truth about anything because our knowledge keeps evolving, but if scientists become the servants of politicians, rather than the savants of the  economic and political process, science becomes hamstrung in ways which Bacon would abhor.

President Obama has made an early declaration in support of the scientific method with his statements on cell-stem research.

In this country, the Crown Research Institutes are under close scrutiny from the new government in terms of the bureaucratic costs of scientific output. The pre-emptive suggestion made recently by AgResearch, itself recently amalgamated  with Crop & Food, to further amalgamate with Lincoln University, is interesting in its timing as well as its bold concept.

If it proceeds, will a new blend of academic scientists and their agri-business colleagues prove to be a rash experiment with fatal consequences for both parties? Or will it provide the right mix of blue skies and economically imperative research to help save our bacon in the fast chilling global economic climate?

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