Until I started working for the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1979, I rarely had come across the word pesticide and never seen the actual synthetic poison. My father occasionally used sulfur for fumigating his vineyards, the very same method Homer mentioned in Book 22 of the “Odyssey.”
It happened, however, that my position with the EPA was with its Office of Pesticide Programs. So my education about pesticides was rapid and comprehensible. I was fortunate that my first supervisor was Bill Preston, a biologist with remarkable and extensive experience and knowledge. He used to manage several government laboratories. At the EPA, however, he was in charge of developing guidelines for data necessary for testing and registering pesticides. He used to tell me, in great regret, that the government laboratories dedicated to protecting human health and the environment from pesticides were getting fewer and fewer.
Preston was probably the only government manager I remember with affection and respect. He calmly described the forces at work within and without EPA. Politics, he often said, was satisfying the industry. Bureaucrats had science on their side. With his assistance and encouragement, I learned the basic science and policy that govern pesticides.
I also learned pesticides are dangerous and useless for family farming. Why call them pesticides when they are biocides? In fact, these biocides are also chemical and biological weapons.
To some degree, I kept my private thoughts to myself – for twenty-five years. Yet, I could not suppress the truth. My memos to senior officials were full of facts and warnings about the failure and dangers of industrialized farming hooked on neurotoxins and other poisons.
Once retirement arrived in 2004, I spent the next several years in writing “Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA” (2014).
The book is a great relief for me. Now, I said to all thinking men and women and, in particular, environmentalists, you have my story: neatly arranged between two covers. No more excuses of what is going on behind the closed doors of the industry and EPA. At great and measurable economic cost, disruption of my career, and risk to myself, I tell you what you need to know to get rid of pesticides and reform agriculture to a democratic and life-supporting civilization.
Fortunately, I am not alone in this struggle. In 1962, Rachel Carson warned pesticides are silencing the natural world. In 1978, Robert van den Bosch, biology professor at Berkeley, did more than repeat Carson’s warning. Killing bugs, he said, is mostly about “merchandising gimmickry.” He warned that regulating pesticides in America is nothing but a façade of hidden “politics, deceit, corruption, and treachery.” His blunt language probably scared people. The environmentalists ignored Bosch but embraced Carson.
The pesticide storm has since become a tsunami.
The government and the media have been feeding this tsunami. Their appetite for deception obscures war and terrible pollution, global warming, and, above all, the life and death threat from pesticides and giant agriculture.
This deception brought Donald Trump to power. His administration is practically shutting down EPA while pulling the country to a dangerous schism between rich and poor. In this climate of pollution and fear, pesticides are like a gigantic global octopus shucking the life out of the natural world and humans.
Fortunately, not everything is quiet. On January 24, 2017, a report of two United Nations rapporteurs on the right to food, demolished the propaganda of agroindustry, agricultural universities, and political institutions and governments all over the world: that pesticides are safe and industrialized farming hooked to pesticides is necessary.
“Hazardous pesticides impose substantial costs on Governments and have catastrophic impacts on the environment, human health and society,” wrote the UN rapporteurs.
The reasons pesticides keep poisoning the natural world and people are political. Their owners, a few global companies, have enormous power. They prefer plantations to small farms. The UN report confronted this unpleasant reality head on. It said science links pesticides to their ecological and human victims, but trying to do something about it constitutes a “challenge.” Why? Because the global agroindustry is in “a systematic denial… of the magnitude of the damage inflicted by these chemicals.” In addition, agroindustry indulges in “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics.”
True, but are there any ways out of this quagmire? The UN report urged two solutions: “phasing out dangerous pesticides” and an international treaty for the regulation of “highly hazardous pesticides.”
The British science journal Lancet partly sided with the UN report. In March 18, 2017, in an editorial, “Phasing out harmful use of pesticides,” the journal highlighted some of the worst things pesticides do to humans:
“Chronic exposure to pesticides has been linked to several diseases and conditions including cancer, developmental disorders, and sterility. Populations such as farmers and agricultural workers and those living near plantations, especially pregnant women and children, are particularly vulnerable to exposure from these chemicals. Additionally, pesticides are responsible for an estimated 200,000 acute self-poisonings worldwide each year.”
Lancet’s position is admirable but narrow-minded. Just terminate harmful use of pesticides? But is there a non-harmful use of chemicals designed to kill? It reminds me of a wonderful environmental organization, Beyond Pesticides, which, for years, called itself National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides.
Nevertheless, these minor changes in how people view pesticides mirror large shifts in their understanding of the inappropriate role poisons play in our farming and culture.
A scientist in France, Gilles-Eric Seralini, displays a thorough knowledge behind the regulatory schemes hiding the danger of pesticides: feeding tested animals contaminated food; tested active ingredient is usually less toxic than most untested chemicals mixed with the active ingredient for making up the pesticide farmers use. The result is an approved pesticide far more toxic than registration shows.
Real solutions exist and they are simple. Start eating non-sprayed organic food and start phasing out or banning pesticides. An international pesticides treaty may help but only if you decide sprayed food is here to stay.