This month, Corteva announced it would stop making chlorpyrifos, a brain-harming pesticide. Though this is generally welcome news — to me, this win feels complicated. Why?
Corteva’s announcement came after a lengthy saga of corporate influence and ignored science that resulted in EPA reversing a planned national ban of the brain-harming chemical in 2017. Lacking federal action, states were forced to step up per the demands of rural communities and farmworkers, resulting in big state level wins in Hawai’i, California, and New York (with additional state-level bans in the works). Corteva’s announcement came the same day California, the nation’s top user of chlorpyrifos, ended sales of the chemical.
Following Corteva’s move to end chlorpyrifos production, celebrations from many commentators and advocates ensued, including here at PAN. People called Corteva’s announcement a victory, a watershed moment in the battle for a more just future. As a woman from an agricultural community, however, I’m not feeling the joy I see shared across Twitter threads and press releases. Instead, I’m feeling conflicted.
A cause for celebration?
Though Corteva’s announcement is news I was pleased to hear, I also felt scared. Corteva stopped producing chlorpyrifos not because policies were in place to protect us, but ultimately, because with the largest U.S. user of chlorpyrifos, California, no longer buying the chemical, it would no longer be profitable to produce. Our federal government lacked checks to balance Corteva’s power to produce and profit from a chemical that’s toxic to our health. In this instance, our federal government failed us to the point that we’ve suffered the exposure and consumption of a neurotoxic chemical until it was no longer profitable for Corteva. And for me, that’s not cause for celebration. That’s unacceptable, and a cause for serious alarm.
Corteva, which is the result of a merger between chemical giants Dow and DuPont, is the world’s largest manufacturer of chlorpyrifos. Use in the U.S. is estimated at about 5,000,000 pounds per year. That’s 5,000,000 pounds of neurotoxic chemicals applied each year in our communities, affecting our food supply nationally. Scientists have known for years that chlorpyrifos exposure is linked to IQ reductions, learning disabilities, and more. But Dow, and later, Corteva, kept selling the chemical. In fact, they went so far as to meet with EPA officials in 2017; just a few weeks later, EPA’s planned national chlorpyrifos ban was reversed.
How corporations regulate themselves
From influencing regulatory processes to big-money PR campaigns, Corteva is working hard to protect their profits at the expense of our health and safety. From the Corteva billboards featuring smiling, happy farmers I see in the Des Moines airport every time I travel home to Iowa to visit family, to their closed-door meetings with regulatory officials in DC, to their sponsorship of community events and initiatives such as the Iowa State Fair to build public gratitude and support for their brand, Corteva has gone to great lengths to protect their profits. And unfortunately, it worked — they continued producing a profitable neurotoxicant chemical until they simply didn’t want to anymore.
But it’s not just Corteva. The chlorpyrifos saga is just one example of the power chemical companies wield. Corteva ending chlorpyrifos production due to a declining market for the product is a symptom of a larger problem — companies are building a regulatory and political environment conducive to the needs of corporate profits over the health, safety, and well-being of our communities.
Other examples abound. Corteva’s announcement was preceded by a jury awarding over $2 billion in damages to plaintiffs diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma due to glyphosate exposure via Monsanto’s flagship herbicide, Roundup. And the health concerns covered in this suit don't account for glyphosate’s impacts on farm operations, including weed resistance, pesticide drift, and more. An important win for the plaintiffs and their communities? Of course. But it’s yet another example indicating the lack of a federal regulatory system that works for us. We shouldn’t need a lawyer to slap punitive damages after-the-fact on corporations; we should have policies and a federal regulatory system that prevent damage to public health to begin with.
Corporate power & what’s ahead
Similar to Corteva, Monsanto (recently acquired by Bayer) has gone to great lengths to protect their profits. From a visit with their “Director of Millennial Engagement” to our classroom as a graduate student at Iowa State University, to the aptly-named Monsanto Student Services Wing in one of main agricultural research buildings on campus, to more nefarious efforts such as ghostwriting scientific studies and lobbying to cut funding to cancer researchers — our institutions have been captured and utilized for corporate power.
And it doesn't have to be this way. The fact is, people across the U.S. (and beyond!) have been advocating for policities, institutions, and regulatory processes that work for us for decades.
From Indigenous communities advocating for tribal sovereignty to protect and regulate traditional agricultural practices, to farmworkers in Bellingham, Washington building a worker-owned and governed berry farm cooperative to democratize power on-farm, to family farmers calling for the busting up of seed and chemical company monopolies, to people advocating for an end to the revolving door between chemical companies and regulatory agencies — we're already doing the hard work of creating a political and regulatory system that works for people, not corporations. Together, we're creating a system that protects us from the harm of corporations like Corteva — and that, without hestitation or conflict, I'm celebrating.