Do you remember how comedian Rodney Dangerfield always used to say: “I can’t get no respect!” Lately that is how it seems for environmental regulatory agencies like the EPA. I feel as though we need to defend the very idea of sound regulation against three intensifying challenges:
- Threats of defunding or arbitrary rollbacks coming from some on the populist-right
- A denial of the progress that has been made by some on the eco-left, and
- A severe under-appreciation of our legacy of environmental protection by American society as a whole
I certainly can’t defend or critique all regulation, but as an agricultural scientist I have observed four decades of a reasonably function federal and state level regulation of pesticides and other crop protection agents. I’m not saying that system is perfect, but I have witnessed how it has greatly advanced the health and environmental profile of this sector. I’ve watched the sifting out of problematic practices in response to increasingly sophisticated scientific understanding. I’ve also watched how this system has provided a framework that that encouraged the private investment and innovation needed to bring farmers better and safer tools with which to protect their crops and thus our food supply.
I speak here strictly as an individual not trying to speak for any company or organization. I have had a long career in this sector. I’ve never had a regulatory compliance role as such, but I’ve been involved in the process of finding and seeking regulatory guidance and/or approval for products based on synthetic chemicals, natural product-based chemicals, and live biological control agents. I’ve interacted with dozens of employees of the EPA, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and other state-level regulators. Yes, my industry connections and experience gives me a certain bias, but it also gives me some practical and historical perspective from which to share.
I believe that our goal should be to refine our regulatory processes, not to dismantle, dismiss or fail to appreciate them. To pursue that refinement goal I believe that there are four principles of sound regulation that can be learned from this example. Good things can happen when we have:
- A system that is consistently guided by science and adjusted as scientific understanding evolves
- A system where regulatory decision making is reasonably free from political pressures and agendas
- A system which focuses on managing the risk of harm, rather than on based on hazard out of the context of real-world exposure
- A system which maintains perspective on benefit/cost trade-offs
- A system which is sufficiently predictable and timely so that it remains rational to make a substantial and continuing private-sector investment in the development of innovative new solutions
A few years ago I gathered historical information about the pesticide use on what is still one of my favorite crops – California wine grapes. The chart below shows the trend for one measure of toxicity for this crop, but it is indicative of trends in other crops and with other measures of impact. Pesticides have clearly changed for the better, both in terms of what they provide for the farmers and in terms of their safety profile.
This progress was possible because of massive and sustained private investment. That, in turn, was possible because the industry could count on a fairly rational regulatory process. This was in no way a cozy relationship, but it was functional. The nature of the EPA regulations has definitely evolved over the decades as guided by developments in environmental science and toxicology, but the process is sufficiently rational to encourage further investment to find the newer, better tools. This is an excellent example of successful innovation under an intense, but highly functional regulatory regime.
I wish I was fully optimistic about this process moving forward, but I have some deep concerns regarding the public perception of the EPA. First of all, very few consumers, voters, reporters or food thought leaders seem to have any appreciation for the progress made over nearly five decades of EPA pesticide regulation. Instead, I see assumptions or expressed views about crop pesticides that are a distorted caricature that does not even fit with “the bad old days” prior to regulation. The positive historical impact of the EPA case has been inadequately articulated. This leaves the agency vulnerable to the populist urge to discard or severely restrict its role. The under-appreciation of marked progress made with EPA oversight provides fertile ground for unethical marketers who exploit fear of pesticides for economic gain. Similarly, an under-appreciated EPA helps to empower activists such as those in Hawaii who are exploiting fear to drive a politicized over-ride of agricultural regulation.
I am also concerned about the role of science in EPA pesticide regulation going forward. Primarily in Europe, but increasingly in the US, we see junk science and activist manipulation diminishing the scientific integrity of the regulatory process. Problematic examples include questions about pollinator health or the IARC cancer hazard statements. In these and other situations we need a trusted, robust, independent EPA that confers with a robust, independent academic science community, as it has historically. We need an EPA that appropriately considers the risk/reward profile of its actions and which appreciates the eco-modernist perspective. What we don’t need is an EPA distracted by endless activist lawsuits or facing political uncertainty about its future. We need an EPA that gets a little respect.
A version of this article appeared at Applied Mythology as “The EPA Deserves Some Respect” and has been republished here with permission from the author and the original publisher.
Steve Savage is an agricultural scientist (plant pathology) who has worked for Colorado State University, DuPont (fungicide development), Mycogen (biocontrol development), and for the past 13 years as an independent consultant. His blogging website is Applied Mythology. You can follow him on Twitter @grapedoc.
For more background on the Genetic Literacy Project, read GLP on Wikipedia