Each time I think or write about pesticides I am shaken up. It’s being thirty-eight years since I joined the Office of Pesticide Programs of the US Environmental Protection Agency. I retired in 2004. Equally heavy on my consciousness is the persistence of a largely useless “debate” Americans and Europeans have been having about pesticides. Pesticides are just as entrenched in 2017 as they were in the 1960s or 1990s.
Behind post-WWII chemical farming was the hubris of arming farmers with a multitude of mostly large machines run on petroleum and, of course, petrochemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
The petroleum solution for agriculture is no solution at all. The looming global warming is a stress signal to agriculture, which is a major contributor to the warming of the planet. In addition, land is full of life and petroleum is full of poisons killing life.
Where were the scientists when the petroleum deal was struck for agriculture? They were all over, in fact, they have been the glue of industrialized agriculture. They have known that crop land and petroleum are incompatible, but times of war, nuclear bombs, and cold wars did not allow for independence of thought, much less resistance to the satrapies of governments and industries.
Indeed, the scientists of the agricultural (land grant) universities embraced the new petroleum vision of the world. They almost invented chemical farming. Pesticides came out of chemical warfare and the brains of the scientists of the land grant universities. These agricultural professors take money from agrichemical companies to raise doubts about chemical risks. But it is giant agrichemical corporations that keep twisting the truth about the safety of their products. They give the world the deceitful impression that pesticides are safe and essential for food production.
The triumph of this aggressive form of farming has meant the sidelining of science and the formal, state-supported addiction of farmers to pesticides. In this agricultural context science became a weapon. The petrochemicals industry drafted the pesticide laws in America and Europe. Such blatant power grab infused everything about pesticides with loopholes, secret to the public but crystal clear to the industry and most regulators, politicians, and environmentalists.
Testing pesticides for health and ecological effects became a brutal abuse of science. It is a display of concern in a strategy of deception. For example, the massive fraud of the Industrial Bio-test Laboratory made no difference to the corruption engulfing the “registration” of farm sprays. Registration equals government approval with little if any reliable data. From the 1950s to the 1970s, IBT made up most of the results of testing hundreds of pesticides, drugs, and a myriad of other chemicals.
Despite the public revelation of the gangster-like behavior of this American lab, and no doubt questionable practices in countless other labs all over the world, nothing happened to eliminate lab corruption. In fact, according to Rosemary Mason, physician and defender of the natural world and public health in the UK, the UK government protects both the pharmaceutical and the agrochemical industries, allowing them to work from within the government. One gives people disease and the other sells drugs for curing that disease.
So it’s business, all of it: agriculture, environmental protection, public health, government regulation and pesticides.
It’s this push for profits that explains government-industry collusion in all facets of giant farming. The 2016 global market for agricultural chemicals (pesticides and fertilizers) was about $ 125 billion. The best-selling weed killer, glyphosate (roundup), made billions for Monsanto but how many billions only Monsanto knows.
Glyphosate illustrates the tragedy of pesticides. In 1974, Monsanto registered glyphosate with EPA. In 1972, EPA banned the global best-seller insecticide DDT. So Monsanto’s glyphosate slowly but steadily replaced the glamor of DDT. It became the new golden bullet for biological warfare: disrupting and destroying plants, desiccating wild flowers and vegetation farmers, loggers, homeowners, and governments don’t like. Monsanto also recruited glyphosate in its genetic engineering of crops. Now farmers drench thousands of acres of GMO corn and soybeans with glyphosate (roundup) without fear the chemical would kill the crops.
Like DDT, glyphosate earned its followers and enemies all over the world. Americans see glyphosate as resurrected DDT. Foreigners see glyphosate as American imperialism. Scientists and international agencies take sides, some defending glyphosate some arguing it causes a multitude of diseases, risking agriculture and nature.
In March 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer branded glyphosate “probably carcinogenic to humans.” This infuriated Monsanto and the chemical industry, which have been trying to discredit IARC primarily by funding scientists and journalists seeking not truth but propaganda gold.
In March 2017, the European Chemicals Agency said glyphosate is safe. In June 13, 2017, a UK scientist, John Little, wrote to the European Commissioner Karmenu Vella, suggesting that dose does not make the poison but “small doses [of glyphosate] over a long period of time are very likely to be carcinogenic. If so, scientists have been either fooled or corrupted.”
Little is right for much more than glyphosate. Some scientists willfully side with government or corporate authority. The incentives are often overwhelming.
The dying EPA toxicologist Marion Copley accused her colleague, Jess Rowlands, of playing political games with glyphosate to benefit Monsanto. She said she was certain glyphosate causes cancer.
I never met Copley or Rowlands. But I understand their conflict. Copley was dying of cancer in 2013. Her knowledge that glyphosate causes cancer made her passion for public health all the more a powerful prayer. Writing a note to Rowlands was a letter to the future, shaming us for including glyphosate in our political games.
No doubt, the current Trump administration is giving glyphosate a lease on life, which it does not deserve. An American scientist, Anthony Samsel, explains why:
“The fact that glyphosate integrates with human enzymes should be reason enough to ban this chemical completely…. Glyphosate is a synthetic amino acid that should have no place in biology. We are but one biosphere, what affects one affects all.”