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Digging Deeper

Better Living Through Chemistry?

In March, Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency’s new head, announced that the EPA would not move forward on a long-anticipated ban of the insecticide chlorpyrifos. The news devastated public health leaders and farmworker champions, among many others.

Chlorpyrifos is the poster child for toxic chemicals we shouldn’t be using: It’s been on the market since 1965, but we’ve known for decades that it affects not just the insects it is meant to kill, but humans too. It was banned for home use more than 15 years ago precisely because of its toxicity. The EPA’s own research has found that the insecticide causes “neurodevelopmental effects in fetuses and children.” These effects include mental development delays, lower IQ, attention problems, and increased risk of autism spectrum disorder.

photo of Crop Dustingphoto Roger Smith / FlickrMany assume that technologies – chemical pesticides, for instance – persist because they are the best, most efficient means. But this ignores the forces behind a technology’s introduction and its success.

Despite this evidence, chlorpyrifos is still widely used in US agriculture. Six million pounds of the chemical are used every year on over 50 crops, including peaches, strawberries, apples, broccoli, onions, and walnuts. (It’s also still in use in 100 countries worldwide.)

Cheerleaders of chlorpyrifos, including Dow Chemical, its largest manufacturer, say risks are overblown. Industry groups, like CropLife America, formerly the National Agricultural Chemicals Association, also argue that chemicals like chlorpyrifos aren’t really so harmful.

Meanwhile, public health researchers have documented real harm from pesticides like chlorpyrifos. Studies of farmworkers and communities located near farmland using agricultural chemicals have found higher rates of certain cancers, Parkinson’s, and other illnesses, as well as developmental delays, ADHD, and autism in children.

We also have ample evidence that we need not face these risks. A new study from France investigated nearly 1,000 farms using agricultural chemicals and found that farmers could dramatically reduce their chemical use with no impact on yields. As The Guardian reported, “The results were most startling for insecticides: lower levels would result in more production in 86 percent of farms and no farms at all would lose production.”

Many assume that technologies – chemical pesticides, for instance – persist because they are the best, most efficient means. By this logic, chemical agriculture expands because it is better than non-chemical, organic methods, or it endures because farmers can’t make the alternative work. But this ignores the forces behind a technology’s introduction and its success – forces that are not neutral.

Theorist Langdon Winner writes that technologies “embody specific forms of power and authority. [There is] an ongoing social process in which scientific knowledge, technological innovation, and corporate profit reinforce each other in deeply entrenched patterns, patterns that bear the unmistakable stamp of political and economic power.”

This power often shapes our agricultural systems. Organic agriculture isn’t flourishing faster in part because of the vested interests fundamentally threatened by this way of farming. These interests aggressively promote chemical agriculture through lobbying elected officials, fighting chemical regulation, and blocking research dollars. Dow Chemical alone spent more than $13 million lobbying elected officials in 2016.

If we are to feed the future, we must work to bust mythologies about agricultural technologies. This is not about demonizing farmers who use chlorpyrifos, or other toxic pesticides, but about exposing how a company like Dow Chemical has shaped the policy framework and public debate.

“Better living through chemistry,” proclaimed the DuPont tagline that debuted in the 1930s. We have had a long love affair with chemical pesticides, but that’s beginning to change. There is a revolution afoot in food and it’s an ideological one as much as a technological one. It’s a revolution in thinking about organic farming, not as the antiquated approach of Luddite hippies, but as the most innovative way to create abundance while balancing nature’s cycles.

It took decades before lead was banned from gasoline; now we see it as a tragically ill-conceived approach to fueling our cars. Likewise, it may yet be decades before we abandon our most toxic pesticides. And while our voices are not heard at the moment in the halls of the EPA, they are being heard in the marketplace and at the local and state level. The Organic Trade Association just reported that 82 percent of Americans now have at least one organically produced product in their homes, and there are efforts underway in California to ban chlorpyrifos in the state.

The federal decision on chlorpyrifos was a blow, but progress continues.

   

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