A Plea to President Obama: Phase Out Pesticides

Near Sheldon, Illinois, grower Joe Zumwalt applies a low-insecticide bait that is targeted against western corn rootworms fee
Near Sheldon, Illinois, grower Joe Zumwalt applies a low-insecticide bait that is targeted against western corn rootworms feeding on and ...

Dear President Obama,

I am delighted you will govern this country for another four years. I have a favor to ask: phase out pesticides.

Here's why:

I worked for two years on Capitol Hill and 25 for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. During that tumultuous era, from the administration of Jimmy Carter to the first administration of George W. Bush, I saw and experienced the decline and near extinction of America's policies for the protection of public health and the environment.

The government in most instances kept the people in the dark but catered to private interests, which even drafted the government's policy.

In the case of pesticides, for example, the result of the "regulated" industry-government complex has been deleterious.

By the time EPA came into being in December 1970, America was hooked on petrochemical sprays of staggering amounts, 70 percent of which went to drench the farms and the rest to millions of homes, lawns, schools, golf courses and industrial facilities.

Pesticides are by design killers of life. They are biocides. They are the only hazardous pollutant willfully put into the environment. Some of them are associated with higher rates of cancer; others poison the nervous system; others act like hormones, disrupting the endocrine system, causing sex and developmental abnormalities.

Pesticides also threaten wildlife: forcing some animals and plants to extinction and giving animals diseases and deadly malformations. In fact, pesticides are a clear danger to "protected" endangered species.

According to David Pimentel, professor of entomology at Cornell University, pesticides affect some 720 million birds per year, killing outright 10 percent or 72 million birds each year. In addition, pesticides are killing our honeybees that pollinate a third of our food.

If pesticides are such killers, why has the government been "registering" them, making them "legal" "economic" poisons for more than 70 years?

The most convincing answer is power -- the power of large farmers who use these toxic chemicals for the preservation and expansion of their estates. Yes, sometimes weed killers kill weeds and insecticides kill insects. But, fundamentally, pesticides lubricate large-scale farming.

Pesticides, however, have nothing to do with promoting science, higher yields of crops, or better food. If anything, they deny science, impoverish the nutritional quality of crops, and endanger our health and the health of the natural world.

Those who benefit from pesticides -- the chemical and pest control industries and large farmers -- deny any evidence or wrong doing and declare pesticides innocent of all harm. And the government sides with this powerful group of pesticide advocates.

In 1962, Rachel Carson warned the American people of the deadly ecological effects of pesticides. In 1978, another American scientist, Robert van den Bosch, professor of biology at Berkeley, compared the beneficiaries of pesticides, including academic scientists and the government, to a pro-pesticide "mafia." He said the use of sprays constitutes "a massive pesticide orgy," causing an "ecological rip-off" and an "atrocity" "perpetuated by tacticians of pure Watergate stripe." Finally, in 2008, Philip Shabecoff, former reporter for the New York Times, accused the chemical industry for "poisoned profits" whose products become the weapons for the "toxic assault on our children."

If this sounds extravagant, it is not. Van den Bosch, for example, was not merely a distinguished biologist devoted to helping family farmers, but he was also an insider of the business of pest control. He denounced pest control for merchandizing, making "a mockery of scientific pest management": pesticides used where they are not needed and employed in the wrong amounts in the wrong places.

I agree with van den Bosch because I, too, was an insider at EPA, which is the federal bureaucracy "regulating" these sprays. I was astonished how accurate van den Bosch was.

The key malpractice that keeps pesticides in business is the long-standing tradition allowing the chemical industry to "test" its own products for safety. The government supposedly has an oversight over this, but don't count on it. The industry abused this privilege so often that it has no more credibility.

Do away with this invitation to corruption. Either the government or an independent organization must take up the testing of pesticides.

However, the solution of the pesticides problem, exactly like that of nuclear weapons, is their abolition. If farmers rotate their crops, bring back animals in their farming, and use biological pest control, pesticides are unnecessary. Organic farmers are proof of that.

I imagine that phasing out pesticides, perhaps in three years, will create thousands of jobs and boost public and environmental health. Other good results of this suggestion may include a restructuring of giant agriculture into family farms and a revitalized and democratic rural America.

I would hope, President Obama, that you would embrace this idea. You no longer need to worry about corporate influence or Congress. Order EPA to ban deadly toxins approved on questionable science.