by Evaggelos Vallianatos
From the Huffington Post with permission by the author
At the end of book XXII of Homer’s “Odyssey,” we read that Odysseus fumigated his house with sulphur. This was sometimes in the 1200s BCE. More than three thousand years later, in the 1950s and 1960s, my father used sulphur to protect his grape vines from disease.
Thus “pesticides” have a long history. But despite my vague knowledge of my father’s rare use of sulphur in his small farm in Greece, I never thought about pesticides. They were things one used in emergencies.
All this changed dramatically when I joined the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1979. My position was with the very organization that “regulates” pesticides in America, EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs.
My colleagues made it easy for me to learn quickly. They explained what they did and gave me samples of their written work. Talking to my colleagues and reading their papers opened the secret world of pesticides to me. Many modern pesticides are chemicals from chlorine and petroleum.
Pesticides received a tremendous boost from World War I when chlorine gas killed uncounted number of troops. World War II perfected neurotoxin agents, which became the feedstock for farmers’ nerve-poison pesticides.
In the Vietnam War the United States used Agent Orange, a combination of two widely used weed killers, 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, to defoliate the jungle and kill the growing of rice.
This dirty little secret (of the intimate connection between farmers’ sprays and chemical weapons) makes the owners of pesticides nervous, always hiding the nature of their products. After all, how could you spray your food with cousins of chemical warfare agents without deception? This deception includes the thorough corruption of the EPA. Under the guns of polluters, White House and Congressional lobbyists, and the fig leaf of science, EPA, as if by magic, transforms biocidal stuff into harmless sprays.
EPA approves pesticides on the basis of shoddy evidence of potential harm or safety. Despite the twentieth century history of private pesticide lab fraud, chemical companies are still allowed to “test” their own products. But the “tested” and extremely problematic pesticide “active ingredient” is not exactly the pesticide ingredient farmers spray. Farmers spray that product wrapped with a variety of other tested and untested toxic chemicals, which EPA, perversely, calls “inerts.” The result of this deception is that the farmer sprays powerful biocides.
At EPA I attended countless meetings for the resolution of legal and science issues relating to the regulation of hazardous pesticides. Could you trust the “safety” studies of the fraud-tainted chemical industry? And what about finding pesticides in mothers’ milk? Shouldn’t such evidence bring the pesticide industry to a halt? Or what could you do knowing that “non-target species” like honeybees and birds have been dying in large numbers in the sprayed fields and every place else? Wasn’t that enough of an ecological warning to our regulators to, at least, ban the most toxic of the sprays? I heard repeatedly my colleagues complain that the risk cup was overflowing.
Nevertheless, one often sensed a university at work at EPA: scientists absorbed with research and, more important than that, scientists involved with decisions of life, disease, and death. Scientists usually do not make decisions. They give “data” (industry information, results of studies, and their own interpretation of risk and benefit studies) to decision makers. But scientists are often as responsible for bad decisions as the president’s men and women running EPA. They know so much about pesticides (and other pollutants) that they massage the data to fit the political moment of their tenure.
I learned fast that in contrast to the rare fumigation of my father, most of the fungicides approved by the EPA are cancer-causing chemicals affecting millions of Americans and even more millions all over the world. The same truth emerged with many chemicals used against insects, rodents, and unwanted plants farmers call “weeds.”
When I started asking questions about the science and morality of the government approving hazardous and, therefore, unsafe chemicals, they told me I was not a “team player.” All my efforts warning Congressional staff were futile. No one wanted to challenge what to me was the systematic poisoning of all Americans for the sake of appearances of our marriage to modernity and industrialization. But the real reason of spraying our crops with biocides is the profit of a handful of companies and a few thousand large farmers. The American people are completely divorced from such decisions.
The annual global profit of the pesticide merchants is around $ 40 billion.
I would say two final things about the EPA. First, EPA was the greatest political invention of the twentieth century. Richard Nixon deserves credit for that invention. Second, the EPA’s “regulation” of pesticides is a sham threatening our health and the health of the natural world. We can end that danger by redesigning the EPA to be a Federal Reserve-like organization, independent of polluters and their lobbyists in the White House and Congress.
My long experience with pesticides, agriculture, and the environment has convinced me we must defang agriculture. Ban most of its biocides. Keep some pesticides for emergencies. But these chemicals are not necessary to produce food. Organic farming is a proof of that.
The only reason pesticides have such longevity is that they enrich chemical companies and industrialized farmers. Large farmers are addicted to agricultural poisons in order to own huge pieces of land. That pesticides sometimes kill insects and weeds is incidental.