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Viewpoint: The dirt on Earth Day: Chemophobia masquerading as environmentalism

This article originally ran at Forbes and has been republished here with permission of the author.

Wednesday will be the 45th anniversary of the first Earth Day. Founded by then-U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin), it was held in 1970 as a “symbol of environmental responsibility and stewardship.”

In the spirit of the time, it was a touchy-feely, consciousness-raising, New Age experience, and most activities were organized at the grassroots level.

A driving force of environmentalism in that era was Rachel Carson’s best-selling 1962 book, Silent Spring, an emotionally charged but deeply flawed excoriation of the widespread spraying of chemical pesticides on crops and wetlands for the control of crop-devouring and disease-causing insects. Carson’s proselytizing and advocacy led to the virtual banning of DDT and to restrictions on other chemical pesticides in spite of the fact that “Silent Spring” was replete with gross misrepresentations and scholarship so atrocious that if Carson were an academic, she would be guilty of egregious academic misconduct.

Carson’s observations about DDT were meticulously rebutted point by point by Dr. J. Gordon Edwards, Professor of Entomology at San Jose State University, a long-time member of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, and a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences. In his stunning 1992 essay, “The Lies of Rachel Carson,” Edwards demolished her arguments and assertions and called attention to critical omissions, faulty assumptions and outright fabrications.  For example:

“This implication that DDT is horribly deadly is completely false. Human volunteers have ingested as much as 35 milligrams of it a day for nearly two years and suffered no adverse effects. Millions of people have lived with DDT intimately during the mosquito spray programs and nobody even got sick as a result. The National Academy of Sciences concluded in 1965 that ‘in a little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million [human] deaths that would otherwise have been inevitable.’ The World Health Organization stated that DDT had “killed more insects and saved more people than any other substance.”

In addition, DDT was used with dramatic effect to shorten and prevent typhus epidemics during and after WWII when people were dusted with large amounts of it but suffered no ill effects, which is perhaps the most persuasive evidence that the chemical isn’t harmful to humans. The product was such a boon to public health that in 1948 the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Dr. Paul Müller for his discovery of the “contact insecticidal action” of DDT.

The fear of pesticides that began a half century ago has degenerated into full-blown chemophobia today. Although “Every Day Is Earth Day” is etched into the American psyche as a benevolent mantra, it is useful to examine some of the motivations, actions and outcomes found under the banner of environmentalism. Protecting our planet and using resources efficiently is a noble endeavor, to be sure, but not all acts of environmentalism are created equal. Hysterical overreaction and fear-mongering by government, industry and lobbying groups are counterproductive.

Take, for example, opposition to neonicotinoids. Unfounded fear of this relatively new, state-of-the-art class of insecticides is rampant, although they are less harmful to beneficial pollinators than previously used chemicals. “Neonics” and the companies that manufacture them are often blamed for declining bee populations, a myth that has even made its way to the White House.

Last summer, President Obama ordered the establishment of a Pollinator Health Task Force. Its objectives include researching, understanding, and preventing supposed pollinator losses, and forming public-private partnerships to protect pollinators and their habitats. Announcing one such partnership, the W. Atlee Burpee & Co. seed company issued a press release on April 3rd, stating:

“Yesterday the Environmental Protection Agency released the news it will not approve new applications of neonicotinoids for outdoor use based on concerns for declining bee populations. The disturbing problem of pollinator population decline in bees, bats, butterflies and birds now poses a national security threat.”

Burpee donated a million seed packets to alleviate the perceived—but actually non-existent–problem of declining bee populations, supposedly to “build pollinator habitat and help pollinators.” The party favor for guests of this year’s White House Easter Egg Roll was none other than a Burpee Bee Garden seed packet.

Burpee appears to be better at public relations than plant breeding. Surprising for a seed company, Burpee misunderstands where certain new varieties of plants come from, not unlike an obstetrician who thinks babies are delivered by storks. A discussion on their website by Mike McGrath tries to distinguish the creation of “hybrids” (good!) from modern genetic engineering (bad!) but badly distorts science in the process.  McGrath claims that hybrids “have been used in everyday agriculture for hundreds of years and are not the product of modern genetic engineering in a lab.

Perhaps he has never heard of wide-cross hybridization, in which genes are moved from one species or one genus to another by means of very ingenious laboratory techniques. For example, as discussed in a 1987 article in the journal Science by Dr. Robert Goodman and colleagues, “embryo rescue”–performed in the laboratory–was a seminal development because it permitted the movement of genes across species or genera; in other words, across what were once thought of as natural breeding boundaries.

One method is to treat the ovule or seed with plant hormones, in order to “allow development of the embryo within the incompatible ovule until a stage is reached at which the embryo can be cultured in vitro.”  (The ovule is the plant part that contains the embryo sac and hence the female germ cell, which after fertilization develops into a seed.)

Table 1 of the Goodman article lists selected examples of agriculturally important genes and traits transferred to crop plants via wide-cross hybridization, the transfer of genes from one species or one genus to another using some of these techniques. They include oat, sugarbeet, cotton, swede turnip, pumpkin, tomato, rice, black currant, bread wheat, durum wheat and corn. These varieties are integral parts of our diet, even qualifying for inclusion in organic farming.

A self-described “beacon of hope,” Burpee boasts about its longevity as an American stalwart “through good times and bad, [the] great depression and world wars.” Beacon of hope? More like a beacon of misinformation. Leaving aside Burpee’s ignorance about where certain new varieties of seeds come from, the “pollinator problem” is as much of a “national security threat” as Orson Welles’ fictional “War of the Worlds.”  Both are, in fact, nonexistent problems.

Neonics were derived from a naturally-occurring plant substance, nicotine, about 20 years ago. They act on the nicotinic receptors in insects’ nervous system, which are critical to insects’ functioning but are almost insignificant in vertebrate and mammalian–including human–physiology.  Consequently, these compounds are much safer for humans and other vertebrates than previous generations of pesticides, such as carbamates and organophosphates.

Related article:  Honeybees are not in crisis, but what about beekeepers?

Neonics are also more selective in their action than earlier pesticides. Commonly applied as a seed treatment or to the soil at the plant’s roots, the pesticide is taken up into the plant, becoming progressively more dilute as the plant grows, so that it is present at only low levels in the plant’s flowers and fruit.  By far the highest concentrations of neonics are in the stems and leaves of plants—where predatory insects most often feed—rather than in the flowers, where pollinators feed. The result is that especially in the crop’s vulnerable seedling stage, the neonics in the plant control only the insects that actually feed on the crop–quite an improvement over earlier pesticides that killed insects indiscriminately, often with wider ecological impacts.

Moreover, a single neonic seed treatment, sometimes supplemented by a single sprayed application, is usually enough for the whole season for many crops–another advance over previous compounds that required multiple sprayed applications throughout the growing season. In spite of having been derived from a natural plant substance (not unlike many organically-approved pesticides), the safety for humans and other vertebrates, high specificity for the pests that feed on the crop, and reduction of the amount of pesticides applied during the crop’s growing season, the banning of neonics has become a high priority for anti-pesticide activists. Their primary argument is that the chemicals are bad for bees, but bee populations in the U.S. and Europe remain at healthy levels for reproduction and critical pollination of food crops and trees.

Contrary to oft-repeated claims, honeybee populations are not declining. According to U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization statistics, the world’s honeybee population rose to 80 million colonies in 2011 from 50 million in 1960. In the U.S. and Europe, honeybee populations have been stable (or even rising slightly over the last couple of years) during the two decades since neonics were introduced, according to U.N. and USDA data. Statistics Canada reports an increase to 672,000 honeybee colonies in Canada, up from 501,000, over the same two decades.  And last April the EU published (a year too late to have an impact on their 2013 neonic ban decision) a survey of all beehives in 17 EU countries, dubbed EPILOBEE.

Except for a handful of northern European countries subject to very severe winters–and accounting for only 6-7% of the EU’s bee population–the survey showed that over-winter and in-season bee losses everywhere else in the EU were at or below the 15% threshold described as “normal” by beekeepers.

Although Europe is not suffering from a “bee-pocalypse,” it is suffering from the consequences of environmentalism run amok: In the absence of neonicotinoid seed treatments for flea beetle control (following the ban of neonics in 2013), farmers’ applications of older, broad-spectrum pesticides have doubled in the UK and quadrupled in Germany, and they are experiencing losses in crop yields.

But facts don’t faze the true believers.

Thanks in part to developments such as the Burpee-Obama partnership and the EPA’s unwillingness to approve new applications of neonicotinoids for outdoor use, millions of children and gardeners nationwide will spread misinformation about pollinators and neonics. Just in time for Earth Day.

The Big Organic industry continues to spread the earthly joys of chemophobia. In 2013, the Organic Consumers Association called on Americans to swarm the EPA on Earth Day, and to “tell congress to ban neonicotinoid pesticides before they devastate the U.S. bee population.”

Neonics aren’t the only targets. Just last month, Only Organic, a consortium of organic producers, started its own grassroots “New MacDonald” movement, demonizing agricultural chemicals and biotechnology in general. To launch the initiative, Only Organic released a modern abomination of a classic song, with revised lyrics like these: “Old MacDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O, and on that farm he sprayed some crops, E-I-E-I-O, with some GMOs here and a pesticide there, here a spray there a spray, everywhere a spray spray.” Imploring unsuspecting consumers to “take the New MacDonald pledge,” the movement’s webpage states, “When you choose Organic you are choosing a healthy future for our kids and for all of us, with less toxic chemicals in our food and environment.”

The movement presents a false dichotomy between a dystopian vision of a dark, toxic world dominated by Big Agribusiness and a chemical-free, prelapsarian utopia. Indeed, the New MacDonald vision is so extreme and disingenuous that even organic farmers took offense. The Earth Day Network website invites worldwide contributions to “a billion acts of green.” One call to action asks followers to request Congress to support environmental education. We suspect that what they have in mind is teaching schoolchildren to be able to spell “sustainable” before they can spell “d-o-g.”

However, much of the indoctrination about environmentalism–especially in schools–is of th passion-is-more-important-than-fact variety. Kids are being misled and shortchanged, to their own and society’s detrimeent. For one recent Earth Day, for example, sixth-grade students at a tony private school near San Francisco were given this bizarre assignment: Make a list of ways Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates’ fortune could be spent on environmentally friendly projects. There was no hint that systematic market-based incentives for people and businesses could protect the environment–merely that it is okay to appropriate wealth from someone as long as it’s for a good cause.

What we really need for Earth Day and beyond is a billion acts of scientific literacy, because having more than a passing acquaintance with science is wonderfully enriching. It enables one to understand how the world works–everything from why salt on the sidewalk causes ice to melt, to the miracle of the wing design on a hummingbird or on a fighter plane. But it is also a prerequisite for being a genuine “environmentalist”; without it, it is easy to be lured into feel-good but nonconstructive and antisocial advocacy.

Kavin Senapathy is a freelance writer and science popularizer in Madison, Wisconsin. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Henry I. Miller, a physician, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy & Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.  He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Follow him on Twitter @henryimiller.

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