Myths about pesticides are a testimony to the power of advertising, marketing and lobbying. The big pesticide corporations, like big tobacco and the oil industry, have systematically manufactured doubt about the science behind pesticides and fostered the myth that their products are essential to life as we know it — and harmless if "used as directed".
The book Merchants of Doubt calls it the "Tobacco Strategy" — orchestrated PR and legal campaigns to deny the evidence, often using rogue scientists to invent controversy around so-called "junk science" to deny everything from cancer-causing second-hand smoke to global warming to the hazards of DDT. Here are eight of the seemingly plausible myths we hear every day:
Reality: The most comprehensive analysis of world agriculture to date tells us that what can feed the world — what feeds most of the world now, in fact — is smaller-scale agriculture that does not rely on pesticides.
More to the point, hunger in an age of plenty isn't a problem of production (or yields, as the pesticide industry claims), efficiency or even distribution. It is a matter of priorities. If we were serious about feeding people we wouldn't grow enough extra grains to feed 1/3 of the world's hungry and then pour them into gas tanks. Dow, Monsanto, Syngenta and other pesticide producers have marketed their products as necessary to feed the world. Yet as insecticide use increased in the U.S. by a factor of 10 in the 50 years following World War II, crop losses almost doubled. Corn is illustrative: in place of crop rotations, most acreage was planted year after year only with corn. Despite more than a 1000-fold increase in use of organophosphate insecticides, crop losses to insects rose from 3.5% to 12% (D. Pimental and M. Pimental, 2008).
Reality: Pesticides are dangerous by design. They are engineered to cause death. And harms to human health are very well documented, with children especially at risk. Just a few examples recently in the news:
A large and growing body of peer-reviewed, scientific studies document that pesticides are harmful to human health. The environmental harms of pesticides are also clear, from male frogs becoming females after exposure, to collapsing populations of bats and honeybees.
Reality: If one were exposed to an extremely small amount of one ingredient of a pesticide at a time, and it was a chemical of relatively low toxicity, it might pose little danger. That’s unfortunately an unlikely scenario. First, pesticide products typically contain several potentially dangerous ingredients (including so-called 'inerts' not listed on the label). Second, we’re all exposed to a cocktail of pesticides in our air, water, food and on the surfaces we touch, and combinations of chemicals can interact to be more toxic than any one of them acting alone. Third, many pesticides are endocrine disruptors — which if the timing is "right" can do lifechanging damage to the human body with extremely low doses that interfere with the delicate human hormone system. Finally, the research considered when reviewing a pesticide is funded and conducted by the corporations marketing the product, leading to distortion of findings.
Reality: Our regulatory system is not doing the job. More than 1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied every year on U.S. farms, forests, golf courses and lawns, farmworkers and rural communities suffer illness throughout the spray season and beyond, and infants around the world are born with a mixture of pesticides and other chemicals in their bodies. “The prevailing regulatory approach in the United States is reactionary rather than precautionary,” concluded the President’s Cancer Panel in May 2010, “instead of requiring industry…to prove their safety, the public bears the burden of proving that a given environmental exposure is harmful.”
The cornerstone of pesticide regulation is a fundamentally flawed process of "risk assessment" that cannot begin to capture the realities of pesticide exposure and the health hazards they pose. EPA officials remain reliant on research data submitted by pesticide manufacturers, who do everything they can to drag out reviews of their products, often for decades. Lawsuits are pending to force EPA to follow the law and speed up review. But a better, common sense precautionary approach to protecting us would assess alternatives to highly hazardous pesticides rather than accepting public exposure to pesticides as a necessary evil. Such a shift will require fundamental federal policy reform.
Reality: Genetically modified organisms are driving pesticide use, and no surprise: the biggest GMO seed sellers are the pesticide companies themselves. The goal of introducing GMO seed is simple: increase corporate control of global agriculture. More than 80% of GMO crops grown worldwide are designed to tolerate increased herbicide use, not reduce pesticide use.
Monsanto, the world leader in patented engineered seed, would have us believe that its GMOs increase yields, will reduce environmental impact and mitigate climate change, and that farmers use fewer pesticides when they plant the company’s seeds. None of this is true. On average, Monsanto’s biotech seeds reduce yield. In 2009, Monsanto admitted that its “Bollguard” GMO cotton attracted pink bollworm — the very pest it was designed to control — in areas of Gujarat, India’s primary cotton-growing state. Introduced in 1996, Monsanto’s Bollguard seeds — which include toxic traits from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) — now account for half the cotton grown worldwide. In India, the productivity of Bt cotton has fallen while pesticide costs have risen almost 25%, contributing to the tragic epidemic of suicide by India’s debt-ridden farmers.
In 2009, 93% of U.S. GMO soybeans and 80% of GMO corn were grown from Monsanto’s patented seeds. “RoundUp Ready” corn and soybeans were designed for use with Monsanto’s weed killer, and mostly they feed animals and cars, not people. Now that weeds are rapidly becoming resistant to RoundUp, Dow and Monsanto are introducing GMO corn that includes tolerance of 2,4-D, a more dangerous herbicide related to Agent Orange used in Viet Nam.
Reality: After 20 years of market stagnation, the pesticide industry entered a period of vigorous growth in 2004. The global pesticide market is approximately $40 billion, and expected to grow at almost 3% per year, reaching $52 billion by 2014. About 80% of the market is for agricultural uses, but non-agricultural sales and profit margins are growing faster, driven by the rise of a global middleclass adopting chemically reliant lawns and landscapes. In addition, the industry strategy of promoting GMO seeds, most of which are engineered to tolerate higher applications of herbicides, has driven increased sales of weed killers.
Reality: Multinational corporations are working hard to increase market share by exploiting climate change as a sales opportunity. As of 2008, Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, DuPont, BASF and others had filed 532 patents for “climate-related genes,” touting the imminent arrival of a new generation of seeds engineered to withstand heat and drought. Their approach will further restrict the age-old practice of farmers saving seeds with desirable traits — a practice that may prove even more important as the climate changes in unpredictable ways and demands more, not less, farm-scale diversity. In fact, evidence is showing that sustainable farming provides important solutions to climate change, with systems that create far fewer greenhouse gases, promote on-farm biodiversity and create carbon sinks to offset warming. Despite this latest gene-grab, none of these companies has yet been able to engineer any kind of yield-increasing or “climate-ready” seeds. Their promises to end world hunger through drought-, heat- and salt-tolerant seeds and crops with enhanced nutrition have proven empty.
Reality: The recent resurgence of bedbugs has nothing to do with the 1972 ban of DDT. Bedbugs, like many mosquitos, are resistant to DDT — and they were decades ago when DDT was still in use. In some cases DDT even makes bedbug infestations worse, since instead of killing them it just irritates them, making them more active. DDT had been abandoned as a solution to malaria in the U.S. long before it was banned for agriculture use, and around the world practitioners on the ground battling the deadly disease report that DDT is less effective in controlling malaria than many other tools. A small cadre of advocates continue to aggressively promote widespread use of DDT to combat malaria, bedbugs — even West Nile Virus — despite it's lack of effectiveness and growing evidence of human health harms, even at low levels of exposure.