I am loath to question scientists, who are vastly more informed than I am about their field of study. But even the smart can be unwise.
A recent New York Times opinion essay, breathlessly titled “A Cure for the Allergy Epidemic,” described a search for allergy cures in the dust and offal in Amish farms.
The core idea, known commonly as the hygiene hypothesis, suggests modern cleanliness has so reduced our exposure to mild diseases and parasites, that our immune systems have grown overactive and under-regulated. Amish children, exposed to the stimuli of farm and field, have much lower rates of allergic sensitivity. If we can find the factors behind the difference, we can stop allergies before they start.
This isn’t quackery. Serious science based on these ideas has already recast our understanding of autoimmune diseases like MS and lupus. Still, no direct mechanism for what might change our allergic sensitivity is known. It is finally an assumption, not a theory, that we are missing a readily-accessible rural lack.
One should question whether the desire for a quick, reproducible, lucrative solution colors the theorizing of our scientists.
Cleanliness and its agents are not the only thing that has changed in 200 years. One might come out of the barn and look at the kitchen table. The Amish eat as they have eaten. They prepare locally sourced food. They do not eat processed food in packets. They use little fossil fuel and only have the pollution that drifts in from elsewhere. Their lifestyle includes hours of physical labor on a daily basis.
A few years ago the New York Times Magazine covered artisanal baker Jeff Ford, whose locally-grown hand-ground long-fermented grain breads are well-tolerated even by people with tested wheat allergies. Ford is not a gluten-free baker, but he is selective about his grains and yeasts, not his rate of production. From the article:
“The varieties of wheat grown in this country for industrial production are down to about five, so it’s all monoculture, chemicalized, no nutritional value,” said Ford… “The breeds are bred to stand up to abuse from the machines. We feed people this stuff that their bodies are not designed or adapted to eat. Of course they’re sensitive to it, and it’s not good for them and causes problems….”
Consider also that our allergies are increasing. Maybe, like global warming, we might be generations into negative changes to our bodies, possibly epigenetic ones we might pass on. It’s worth studying, at any rate. But hard to sell in pill form.
It would of course be wonderful to have a vaccine to prevent allergies. I myself underwent years of injections. But I don’t believe it will happen without a greater basic understanding of our bodies, and I worry the search will direct effort away from where it’s needed most — in pushing our entire food production and distribution system away from the efficiency-prizing corner-cutting appetite-hacking giant food conglomerates, toward complex taste and nutritional quality.
In my novel I give my boss villain Magda a little speech based on Ford’s ideas:
Potatoes with DNA from bacteria that poisons bugs. Meat slurry scraped from skulls and hooves, jammed in a digestible condom. Served in cheap tasteless bread with sugared spices. People line up for it, give it to their offspring, like birds too stupid not to eat plastic.
Birds of course have no excuse for not eating plastic. But, in our defense, there is no industry telling the birds the plastic is good, and that the cure for the less-good side effects lies in the scrapings from some dropping-covered cliff. We worked hard for decades to be this stupid.
Or maybe we were just worked over.
On the money.