It’s hard to believe but this year marks the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s best-selling book Silent Spring.

For younger readers or those who might need a refresher course, Carson’s 1962 book woke up the world to the dangers of global pollution, the potential risks ofpesticides, and the threats to environmental safety. The book documented selected scientific studies that suggested detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment, particularly on birds. Carson accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation, and blamed public officials of accepting industry claims uncritically.

At that time and in its own defense, many critics complained that Silent Spring unfairly painted the entire agricultural industry with a broad brush stroke, giving the general public the false impression that agriculture was engaged in faulty and damaging practices that might endanger human health, wildlife and the environment.  Scientific experts at the time claimed that many of the book’s findings and conclusions were heavily flawed and exaggerated, and could not withstand close scrutiny when placed under a professional microscope.

Nonetheless, Carson’s tome — however defective — placed agriculture and chemical manufacturers squarely in the crosshairs of public ridicule, and gave birth to today’s activist environmental groups. This, in turn, alerted agriculture to the urgent need of educating the public about the benefits of commercial crop production that utilizes valuable crop protection tools in order to feed the world’s growing population. Since the publication of Silent Spring, many developments have occurred over the years that have improved and enhanced the overall image of those industries attacked in Carson’s book.

For example, amid consumer concerns, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — created in 1970 under the Nixon administration — serves as an umbrella agency bringing together all the various other federal agencies charged with the responsibilities of regulatory oversight of chemical manufacturing and food production, as well as federal agencies concerned with protecting the environment and human health. Another inroad was that the federal Fungicide, Insecticide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) was revised to provide new safety measures. The objective of FIFRA is to provide federal control of pesticide distribution, sale, and usage.

Three separate amendments from 1972 through 1992 significantly updated the original 1947 law, and established additional stringent standards for pesticides including: transferring pesticide regulation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to EPA; re-registering older pesticides to ensure compliance with new standards; and new worker protection measures.

Furthermore, the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act added special margins for infants and children, and the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act, passed first in 2002, increased industry fees to enable EPA to expand scientific evaluation capacity and enhance timely decision-making.

Core pillar of crop protection

A major development that has occurred since Silent Spring was first published in 1962 has been a fervent dedication to research and development which serves as the core pillar of the crop protection industry. Statistics from the USDA Economic Research Service show that private investment in R&D for pesticide products has grown significantly, from $42 million in 1962 to $793 million in 2010.

Other enhancements over the last half century: a rigorous registration and re-registration process for each pesticide product, including more than 120 safety, environmental and health tests to determine possible effects on consumers, wildlife and the environment; advancements in the training of applicators, and the development of precision applications; the continuing investment in Integrated Pest Management, a multi-faceted form of pest control that helps reduce energy use and potential environmental impact, while maintaining quality output.

In the nutshell, the crop protection industry is committed to serving the consuming public safely and efficiently. When negative information surfaces that makes the general public distrustful and suspicious of their business practices – regardless of how ill-conceived and flawed that information is – then companies and the industry as a whole must work together to repair the damage.

Thorough testing, science-based regulation, and continued investment in modern agricultural tools and techniques all contribute to the success of U.S. farming. This would have been the logical progression with or without the “mass hysteria” of Carson’s book. Meanwhile, agriculture, as always, continues working on ways to improve the world’s food supply in spite of the many hurdles placed in its path by certain activist environmental groups spawned by Silent Spring.

AMA against California’s biotech labeling measure

Here’s an important update to an earlier column that I wrote about California’s Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act to appear on November’s general election ballot. The American Medical Association announced recently that “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods.”

It believes that nothing about the process of recombinant DNA makes genetically engineered crop plants inherently more dangerous to the environment or to human health than the traditional crop plants that have been deliberately but slowly bred for human purposes for millennia.

This is the shared view by the National Academy of Sciences, the American Dietetic Association, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., the European Commission, and countless other national science academies and non-governmental organizations.
Proponents of the measure claim to promote opportunities for consumers to make informed choices about the foods they eat.  But to build support for the initiative, they are playing on consumer fears about a promising technology that is nevertheless prone to “Frankenfoods” demagoguery. Let’s hope that Californians see this measure as wrong-headed and unnecessary and vote accordingly come November.