Cultivated thought : : Near the end of an otherwise lackluster speech to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in September 1859, Abraham Lincoln suddenly shifted gears heading into his peroration.

Having compared two conflicting theories of labor, he continued, “This leads to the further reflection, that no other human occupation opens so wide a field for the profitable and agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought, as agriculture.”

Although my son would likely question the intellectual appeal of spreading manure, Lincoln’s observation resonates, at least in moments when the laborer/scholar is not exhausted.

Lincoln went on to suggest what fields might provide food for agricultural contemplation. Chemistry assists in the analysis of soils—and in the selection of manures for fertilization. Botany is of obvious assistance in dealing with any crop. And had the field existed at the time, Lincoln certainly would have mentioned nutrition. For surely, as farmer/philosopher Wendell Berry has observed, “Eating is an agricultural act.”

Within the burgeoning genre of food commentary, it has become a matter of course to bash, in many cases rightly so, the status quo of food production, agricultural practices, and imposed taste. But in the case of nutrition science, the criticism has at times become confused, conflating disparate, and often conflicting, voices and disciplines into the conspiratorial specter labeled by one critic “nutritionism,” suggesting a plot to enrich food corporations and make us fat.

Michelle McGuire and Kathy Beerman, WSU nutrition professors and authors of a nutrition textbook recently released in its second edition, shrug off such generalizations.

I suggest that people’s anxiety about food might lead them to turn on nutritionists, who seem always to be changing their minds. One day, for example, butter’s bad for you. The next, it’s fine.

That’s the nature of science, says McGuire. There is no perfect experiment that’s going to answer every question. “That’s not how science works.”

Beerman concurs. “Like other sciences, nutrition evolves.” Sometimes information is overstated or simplistic, whether of necessity or through interpretation in the media. “I think that’s one of the reasons you see inconsistencies and contradictions.

“But another part of it is if we don’t fully understand something, it might be better to give the public some guidance rather than no guidance. If we didn’t revise our recommendations, we’d still be saying margarine, no butter.”

Driven by a complex mix of environmental, ethical, and nutritional concerns as well as ideology and nostalgia, food issues, like so much else these days, have become maddeningly polarized. Perhaps we’ll never agree on how we assess the quality of our food.

But McGuire and Beerman’s textbook represents the best of the University’s mission, providing a cool-headed, scholarly assessment of the current state of the science, a solid and provocative base for Lincoln’s cultivated thought.

Tim Steury, Editor

For more on McGuire and Beerman’s text, Nutritional Sciences, visit wsm.wsu.edu/discovery.