Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
A Weekly News Update on Pesticides, Health and Alternatives
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The National Research Council has issued a report critiquing the fragility, narrow focus and externalized costs of contemporary industrial farming and calling for more sustainable, balanced agriculture. To help achieve a sustainable system that looks beyond the limited goal of commodity production, the committee identified four goals that should be considered simultaneously: satisfy human food, fiber, and feed requirements, and contribute to biofuels needs; protect the natural resource base on which food production depends; maintain the economic viability of agriculture; and improve the quality of life for farmers, farm workers, and society as a whole. Authors note that achieving these goals will require long-term, multidisciplinary research, education, outreach, and experimentation in partnership with farmers.Titled, "Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century," the report's findings are remarkable both for their consistency with the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Technology and Development (a landmark UN report about which the U.S. has been conspicuously silent), and for the intervention they pose in a public debate about the future of food and farming. Coming from an esteemed institution, and authored by dozens of scientists and industry leaders (including a former undersecretary of agriculture under George W. Bush) the report throws considerable mainstream weight behind the sustainable food and farming movement at a time when industrial ag interests are “fighting back” by attempting to characterize sustainable food and farming advocates as fringe. Carolyn Lochhead of the San Francisco Chronicle notes, “The report squares off against a growing backlash by proponents of industrial agriculture to what they see as a utopian and romanticized vision of pastoral life that would take food production back to the 19th century and starve the world.”
Authors note efficiency gains of the industrial model but place those in the context of costs like agrochemical waterway pollution and agriculture’s contributions to climate change, noting that these—as well as human and animal health harms—are unaccounted for in industrial ag’s preoccupation with productivity. This narrow pursuit of production has also placed industrial ag itself on fragile footing, as the system is susceptible to shocks like oil price spikes and food safety concerns, noted the report’s committee chair Julia Kornegay, who also chairs the horticultural science department at North Carolina State University. Also noted was the price farmers have paid: farmers’ income is not keeping up with rising production costs, primarily due to the higher prices of external inputs such as seeds, fuel, and synthetic fertilizer.
Toxic Free North Carolina recently announced the unfortunate end of a long battle. Since 2005, the agricultural giant Ag-Mart has been under investigation for negligence that likely resulted in severe birth defects in at least three farmworker families whose mothers had worked while pregnant on Ag-Mart farms in Florida and North Carolina. The North Carolina Pesticide Board accepted a final settlement agreement in the case that started in 2005 when the state found hundreds of AgMart pesticide safety violations in what would become the Department of Agriculture’s largest enforcement case ever.
As Toxic Free NC reports, “One of the children died, and another, Carlitos, became a symbol of this case through stirring photography and reporting in the Raleigh News & Observer and Palm Beach Post. An investigation by the NC Division of Public Health could not prove whether the exposures of pregnant workers to pesticides caused the birth defects, but found that they were almost certainly a contributing factor." In the settlement, Ag-Mart is to pay $25,000 and must conduct a pesticide education program for North Carolina farmworkers during the 2011 and 2012 growing season.
“This is a ludicrous response to a heinous crime,” says PAN senior scientist Dr. Margaret Reeves, who worked on a critique of the Florida Department of Agriculture’s investigation of the case.
In a recent letter in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), Drs. Hans Herren and Charles Mbogo — both with extensive malaria control experience and expertise in Africa — responded to ongoing propaganda from front groups like Africa Fighting Malaria (AFM) that promote DDT as the only effective tool for malaria control. Drs. Herren and Mbogo point out that in a flood of opinion pieces, letters and articles, the ideologues associated with AFM "reduce the complex issue of malaria control to a single, dichotomous choice between DDT and malaria. Framing the issue in this manner is a dangerous oversimplification and an distraction from the critical dialog on how to effectively combat malaria around the world — particularly in African communities." The questions that need to be pursued, according to Herren and Mbogo, are not “Which is worse, malaria or DDT?” but rather, more complex and practical: “What are the best tools to deploy for malaria control in a given situation, taking into account the on-the-ground challenges and needs, efficacy, cost, and collateral effects — both positive and negative — to human health and the environment, as well as the uncertainties associated with all these considerations?”
AFM has repeatedly denied the human health dangers of DDT, despite well documented findings to the contrary. Evidence and concern around DDT's adverse human health impacts led the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants to mandate a global phaseout of DDT by 2020. AFM has, for many years, churned out publications like their recent vanity-press book and op-eds in conservative media venues, asserting that DDT is the most effective solution for malaria control despite a dearth of on-the-ground evidence to substantiate their claims. Underlying the group's cynical pro-DDT campaign is a culture war strategy that attempts to drive DDT as a wedge issue with the ultimate aim of discrediting the environmental movement. Staffed and backed by right-wing groups and climate change deniers, AFM attacks both the work of scientists who document the links between DDT and a host of serious reproductive health impacts, and the motives of advocacy groups who work to advance knowledge of and funding for non-DDT malaria control regimens. Many such community-based systems of health and vector control ("myriad micro-solutions") are working effectively to reduce malaria incidences and deaths. Herren and Mbogo note in closing that AFM's work does “more to fuel ... 'interminable debates' than to meaningfully inform decisions that will save people’s lives.”