Growing concern over pesticides extols the legacy of Rachel Carson

Jon Carapiet

Jon Carapiet

Auckland, July 26, 2023

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Long Read

Scientist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962 and brought to the world’s attention the harms that pesticides were wreaking on ecosystems. 

Mark Hamilton Lytle wrote that Carson “quite self-consciously decided to write a book calling into question the paradigm of scientific progress that defined postwar American culture.”

Carson’s work is credited with helping to create the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. Until then, the US Department of Agriculture was responsible both for regulating pesticides and promoting the concerns of the agriculture industry; Carson saw this as a conflict of interest since the agency was not responsible for effects on wildlife or other environmental concerns beyond farm policy.

History Professor Gary Kroll wrote, “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring played a large role in articulating ecology as a ‘subversive subject,’ as a perspective that cuts against the grain of materialism, scientism and the technologically engineered control of nature.”

At the time Carson’s warnings were met with fierce criticism and resistance by the pesticides industry.

Chemical giants like Monsanto predicted her recommendations would bring about a world of famine and disease. Biochemist Robert White-Stevens from American Cyanamid was among the most aggressive critics saying, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.”

People may have assumed that, over the years the lessons had been learned and that we would be using advances in science to effectively limit the harm caused by toxic chemicals and by new genetic engineering technologies in the environment.

Farm-to-Fork Strategy

But the fight-back from the pesticides industry that followed Ms Carson is still manifest today.

Sixty years later, the European Union is underway with its long-awaited Farm to Fork strategy to vastly reduce the use of pesticides, but it is facing lobbying tactics from the pesticide industry to cancel Ms Carson’s message.

It is a long story detailed in a report by Corporate Europe Observer and provides insight into the workings of some of the world’s most influential companies to determine the future of agriculture.

The tactics used by the pesticide industry may be familiar to people in many countries.

Tactic A: Scaremongering with impact studies

These tactics range from scaremongering with ‘impact studies,’ mobilising third countries (notably the US) to put pressure on the EU, to promising voluntary commitments or other false solutions, and lobbying for the deregulation of new gene editing techniques like CRISPR-Cas 9.

Ms Carson’s legacy inspired thousands of people and organisations in the US and across the world to challenge the use of toxic chemicals that are known to disrupt natural systems, biodiversity and human health.

Today, the result of decades of work since Ms Carson first wrote Silent Spring are visible from the global map of pesticide bans published online by the Pesticide Action Network.

It is hard to imagine that Ms Carson would be impressed. Of the many Highly Hazardous Pesticides that are listed by PAN on the website, the USA has banned one (n=1).

New Zealand’s pride

New Zealand can be moderately proud of its ban on 27 toxic pesticides, beating other countries including Argentina (18), Bahrain (21), Bangladesh (13), Canada (25), Iran (21) and Zimbabwe (11).

It is only when you work through the list of other countries that a clearer picture emerges of relative failure in heeding the lessons of Rachel Carson’s work.

European countries such as Denmark, Austria and the UK have each banned 60 toxic chemicals.

Brazil with a ban on 81 toxic pesticides appears to have had an even bigger challenge.

But the EU targets to tackle the grave threat of the biodiversity crisis has put the pesticide industry into survival mode.

A leaked document from pesticides lobby group CropLife Europe shows that while it talks a big talk about backing the Green Deal, in reality, it is using a variety of lobbying tactics to undermine ambitious, binding targets.

The EU’s aim is to cut down its dependence on pesticides by at least 50% by 2030.

This is one of four key reduction targets set by the Commission in its Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies and key elements of the EU Green Deal published in May 2020. These also include a target to increase organic production to 25% by 2030.

Save Bees and Farmers Campaign

Growing public concern over these issues has resulted in the EU citizens’ initiative, ‘Save Bees and Farmers,’ backed by 250 organisations, an official petition that has successfully secured the support of 1.2 million European citizens.

All of this has provoked a counter-lobby of huge proportions on the part of the pesticide giants including Bayer-Monsanto, BASF, Syngenta (now Chinese state-owned), and Corteva (Dow-Dupont).

The lobbying campaign detailed by Corporate Europe Observatory is being carefully orchestrated at the European and international levels.

A leaked presentation of CropLife Europe’s social media strategy 2020-2021 gives insight into the industry’s real objectives and priorities, and their lobbying tactics.

Since Silent Spring was published, the industry has evolved more subtle greenwashing strategies.

The pesticide industry has pretended to embrace the EU Green Deal and Farm to Fork objectives, while in fact opposing binding legislation to achieve them.

These are some of the tactics that have been identified.

Tactic B: Third country pressure, US launches international anti-Farm to Fork coalition

The EU Green Deal and the EU Farm to Fork Strategy aim to ”support the global transition to sustainable agri-food systems.”

The EU will embark on “green diplomacy” and set up “green alliances on sustainable food systems with all its partners in bilateral, regional and multilateral fora.” This would also entail the EU “obtaining ambitious commitments from third countries in key areas such as animal welfare, the use of pesticides and the fight against antimicrobial resistance.”

This has provoked a strong reaction from the US, which has a long history of acting in agribusiness interests abroad, through its embassies or via free trade agreements.

Corporate Capture at the UN

Alarm bells are ringing against corporate capture since the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) entered into a formal partnership with CropLife International in October 2020.

Civil society and scientists warn that the FAO’s integrity and credibility are at risk.

The September 2021 UN Food Systems Summit was widely condemned when the Summit’s process was shaped to grant more influence to the agribusiness sector and side-lining the small-scale producers who produce 70%-80% of the world’s food.

Corporate Europe Observatory’s 2020 report ‘Toxic residues through the back door’ revealed how pesticide corporations and the US and Canadian governments previously crushed a plan by the European Commission to no longer allow any residues of certain hazardous pesticides – banned in Europe – to be present in food and feed imports.

Tactic C: Voluntary commitments and distractions

Another way for the industry to persuade politicians and decision-makers that there is no need for them to introduce binding rules is to propose non-binding voluntary actions and targets. These give the impression of supporting green goals, but rarely lead to serious action or change on the ground.

Tactic D: Opposing the push  for organic food

The EU Farm to Fork organic target goes hand in hand with the pesticide reduction target.

An increase in organic production will automatically lead to less pesticide use.

This has been a great annoyance for the agribusiness lobbies, as the organic production model does not bring them a lot of profit.

Lobbying by CropLife Europe shows they want the focus to be “farm performance and outcomes, rather than on any particular farming model used.”

Another industry group opposed the 25% organic target saying, “We can learn from organic farmers, but we should not oversupply the market.”

Deregulating new GMOs

For over a decade, biotech multinationals have been pushing the EU to deregulate CRISPR-Cas, Gene Editing and New Genomic Techniques. This continues with CropLife Europe calling for an enabling regulatory environment for “plant breeding innovation” i.e. GMOs. But by this, they mean that there will be no environmental or health risk assessment, no monitoring and no consumer labelling.

The industry’s angle is that reduction in pesticides must be accompanied by “a clear framework that allows the development and use of new innovative techniques including biotechnology,” and that these should be subsidised and deregulated.

Tactic E: Techno-fixes and promises of faux solutions

With binding pesticide targets looming the pesticide industry is desperate to be seen as a “partner in providing solutions,” and to find ways to make up for any potential loss in profits from pesticides. Instead of pesticide reduction targets, the industry is proposing ‘digital and precision farming,’ and new GM techniques.

Remembering Rachel Carson

These tactics will sound familiar to anyone who has listened to politicians advocating for the deregulation of Gene Editing and exemptions from safety testing and traceability of products of  New Breeding Techniques (NBTs).

The industry message is that ‘how something is produced” is not important and that it is only the end product that needs to be evaluated. But unless there is a system to regulate the ‘how,’ important market signals (including the consumer right to choose) will be subverted.

And consumers want to know.

There is significant consumer interest in the non-use of pesticides, synthetic inputs and GE/GMO ingredients, as well as in animal welfare, climate action and country of origin.

It is the consumer demand for safe, natural, ethical food that underpins demand for organic and GE-free/ Non-GMO food. These continue to be key market drivers.

The EU Farm to Fork strategy is a positive transition away from reliance on synthetic chemical inputs, in line with consumer and citizen demands.

It is a testament that change is possible. It could hardly be imagined when Silent Spring was first published. But the road remains long. Industry tactics must not be allowed to succeed in slowing the reduction in pesticide use or in fading away the legacy of Rachel Carson from our collective memory.

Jon Carapiet was born in Ghana and educated at Cambridge and Auckland Universities. He is a consumer researcher and advocate, photographer and writer. He is a spokesman for GE-Free NZ (in food and environment) Twitter: jon@brandnewzealand. The above article, which appeared in The Daily Blog has been reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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