UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA
ENVIRONMENTAL TOXICOLOGY NEWSLETTER
Vol. 10 No. 1 January 1990
" More Grist for the Mill "
Table of Contents
II. Editorial: Can the Environment and Agriculture Coexist?
III. Agricultural Pesticides: 100% Use Reporting
It seems appropriate that this first Environmental Toxicology Newsletter of the 1990 decade be different. Therefore this issue is really an "editorial" issue and the lead article is an expanded version of a talk that I gave at the Far West Fertilizer and Agricultural Chemicals Association meeting in December, 1989 in Spokane. The topic for the presentation was "Can The Environment and Agriculture Coexist?" As I pondered over this question for a few weeks it became obvious that this was not a scientific question, but a philosophical one. As you read it you will not encounter much toxicology. I assume that a toxicologist was asked to participate in this discussion because of the recent furor over food safety and the continuing concern about environmental contamination. It has been obvious for some time that the questions about food safety and environmental contamination have made their greatest impact when they have been related to human health, especially the health of children. The fact remains however, that low level pesticide residues in food and water have not been definitively linked with human disease.This does not mean that we should not be concerned about finding chemical residues in places where we had not intended them to go. It means we should take a rational, research based approach towards solving this issue. Food safety has been adopted as an environmental issue because it gets everyone's attention. Personally, I do not see it as a public health issue which deserves more attention than it has been given in the past. To do so would take away resources from other programs where there are documented cases of human illness and death each year. In times where resources are tight, we should not be easily persuaded to emphasize programs that will have no demonstrable public health benefit. A simple law of nature has not changed and that is "The dose makes the poison." Paracelsus knew this well. We should not forget it.
Also included in this issue is a review of the new total pesticide use reporting regulation that went into effect this year. Overall this should be beneficial in many ways, although it does mean more paperwork for growers and regulators.
II.Editorial: Can The Environment and Agriculture Coexist?
The title of today's forum is "Can the Environment and Agriculture Coexist?". I think that the answer to this question is quite simply, "Yes." They have coexisted for millennia, and will continue to do so. In effect, agriculture involves manipulation of the environment (water, soil and air) to produce food. Many people believe that the quality of the environment is deteriorating as a result of modern agricultural practices. Changes in the environment have certainly been documented, the reasons for many of these changes are not so clear.
I think that a more appropriate question would be "Can modern agricultural practices and environmental quality coexist?". I would define environmental quality as health of the environment (air, water, soil and biota which is comprised of all plants and animals). Many people also include "chemical contamination" of the environment in this category. Chemical contamination alone however, cannot serve as an indicator of "environmental health". One misconception many people have about the environment and agriculture too, is that of "chemicals". The environment is made up of chemicals, and all agriculture is based on chemicals. There is no difference in the way that natural molecules (chemicals) and synthetic molecules are handled in the environment. The environmental processes that govern the fate of synthetic molecules are the same ones that affect the fate of "natural chemicals". The only difference is the rate at which things break-down and are mineralized (transformed into their component elements).
When thinking about the health of the environment, it is useful to keep in mind that the environment is not a static entity; it is constantly changing, although the time scale of environmental changes is much greater than the human life span. To many people, environmental quality is synonymous with maintaining the current environmental "status quo". Homeostasis of the environment is neither possible nor desirable. Over many thousands of years, the environment has changed, and will continue to change. Our limited understanding of this is based on the very small amount of recorded time that we have documentation of "environmental quality". The last ice age occurred before the advent of recorded history. Climatologists tell us that another ice age will occur. Would it be desirable to prevent it if we could?
From the earth's point of view, human beings make up a small and relatively insignificant part of the environment (biota). Indeed, human activity has had significant impacts on many aspects of the environment, and because we have impacted the environment to such a degree, we tend to think that we have some measure of control over it. This is true, but only to a limited extent. I think this is based on a curious "technological over confidence", the idea that we can solve practically any problem with technology. Recent evidence of the degree of "control" we humans exert over the environment can be seen in the effects of hurricane Hugo, the San Francisco earthquake and the recent volcano in Alaska. It appears our ability to improve the environment is quite limited in scope whereas our ability to wreak havoc is of a global nature.
In thinking about what farmers do to the environment and how they affect it, we can see that farmers manipulate portions of the environment to produce food. In the past, this focus was on long-term production, and many farmers today have the same concerns. I am reminded of a story from the ancient Roman Cicero, who once asked a very old farmer "Why are you planting these trees? You will not live to harvest the fruit." His response was "I am planting them for the children of my grandchildren." The recent interest in "sustainable agriculture" is trying to reintroduce this concept to corporate agriculture. The modern corporate farm, with a principal interest in profit, may not have this time scale in mind. All of us should have this time scale in mind when we think about food production and human welfare.
During the last decade, we discovered many examples of changes in environmental quality. Why are certain aspects of environmental quality deteriorating? Is modern agriculture responsible? My answer to this question is a resounding "YES!" Why? The answer is quite simple; because modern agriculture is the reason why so many humans can live on this planet today, and the human population explosion is responsible for the deterioration of environmental quality. Currently, human overpopulation is the greatest threat to the environment and the overall quality of life. We know from observation of natural cycles that the population of animal species rises and falls depending on food supply and conditions that are conducive to proliferation. When population becomes to great to be supported by the environment, mass die-offs occur due to famine and/or disease. We seem to think that our species is immune from this law of nature. To blame the deterioration of the environment on agriculture, or any other factor, is to overlook the real cause. Quite simply, there are too many human beings on this planet.
Woody Allen once described the earth as a great big smorgasbord. Every living thing has to eat, and usually it eats something else that is living or once lived. Increased population means a greater need for food, shelter, heat, and all of the things necessary for life. The simple act of keeping warm and eating cooked foods has resulted in the desertification of vast areas of forest, and a resulting rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from burning of wood and fossil fuels. Some people would have us think that the degradation in environmental quality can be alleviated by the elimination of modern agricultural practices. They may be right, but the result might be quite different from what they expect.
Critics of the use of synthetic (human-made) chemicals in agriculture often refer to the "data gaps" that exist for pesticides. Data gaps are pieces of information needed to secure federal or state approval for use of a pesticide. These data gaps may be in such areas as toxicology studies, environmental fate studies, or effects on wildlife. Many of these data gaps exist because the registration requirements have increased over the years and older pesticides need to be reexamined according to current methods.
These critics overlook one particular data gap that I will call the "Alternative Agriculture Data Gap." At the current time it is unknown if food sufficient to support the current world population can be generated using alternative agriculture techniques. Some people would have us adopt new practices without testing them nearly as rigorously as we do new pesticides, or without testing them at all. In effect we are being asked to make major changes on a "trust me" basis. As a consumer of agricultural products, I'd like to have changes made on the basis of solid evidence, and made at a moderate rate so that if we do make mistakes, we can recover. I'd rather we eased ourselves into these unknown waters, rather than diving in head first.
Ultimately, the solution to this perceived problem will be attempted through legislation and legal action. In other words, this will be a political decision. My major concern is that the decisions are currently being made without sufficient scientific evidence and on the basis of fears, such as fear about food safety. We have a responsibility that decisions that must be made, be made on the basis of the best documented evidence available. I think it is unfortunate that certain special interest groups tend to present evidence that support only their preconceived notions of how things should be. This occurs for proponents of current agriculture, and for proponents of alternative methods. Thus it is very difficult for legislators to make decisions about what should be done. Another problem is that the scientific education and competence of most legislators is no better than most of the general public; it stopped at the 8th or 9th grade. They lack the necessary tools to make good, critical decisions themselves. Who then do we turn to for advice?
We usually turn to experts in the field when we need advice. Ideally our experts would give us the benefit of their study without bias due to special interest. Many of us with expertise in toxicology are concerned about serving in this function, that is, in public service. Recently one of our esteemed colleagues served on a very prestigious committee for the state of California. The purpose of this committee was to establish a list of chemicals that should be regulated under California State Proposition 65 (The Safe Drinking Water and Toxics Enforcement Initiative). As a result of his service to the state, he was sued by a public interest group, and also made the victim of a malicious attack by a state legislator. The overall result was that he incurred personal legal expenses amounting to many thousands of dollars. Because of this, many renowned scientists are now unwilling to serve on such advisory committees. The current risk of injury to personal finances and/or reputation is preventing the public from receiving the benefits of the wisdom of these scientists.
Is this a hidden agenda of some "public interest groups"? Such groups usually have many lawyers on their staff, and few if any qualified scientists. The "science" generated by these groups is not science at all, it should be called what it is; propaganda. True science is both a descriptive and empirical process and it implies a search for the truth. True science involves looking at all that is known about something, developing theories and hypotheses to test the theories. Conflicting data are expected and generally are instrumental to developing general theories. Propaganda is not science at all. It starts with the final truth and then fills in only the information that supports this preconceived view. If there is no information to support the preconceived truth, information is manufactured to support it. Science is malleable, ever changing. Propaganda is fixed in its view; only the data changes. It is particularly distressing to true scientists to see such "propaganda" masquerading as science, and even more distressing that many members of the public cannot see the difference. To someone who has already made up his mind, an expert is someone who agrees with his position and can provide some data to support the preconceived view.
Another example of the non-scientific approach that is often used is what is known as the ad hominum argument. When you cannot attack the validity of your "opponent's" arguments, attack the person himself. In other words, if you cannot show that the persons logic (or science) is faulty, attack their personal integrity, their motives, their reputation, anything. Usually the attack is against motives (e.g., conflict of interest so we cannot accept their data, no matter how valid). This technique is often effective in swaying public opinion (almost no one will believe a chemical company spokesman), but it does not speak to the facts of the matter. Again, the arguments are rearranged to change the focus (obfuscate) and to remove science from the decision making process.
I would be lax if I did not state that scientists (toxicologists) are also responsible for the current state of affairs. All too often in the past, scientists have not wanted to become involved with public decisions. We too are responsible for the lack of critical scientific judgment in most political decisions and have a responsibility to reach out.
We are all in this together, and in fact we all really want the same things. We live on a small, closed system and whatever we do ultimately affects us all. We must make the hard decisions that will allow the best quality of life for the greatest number of people. We all want the same things, we just differ on what the best course of actions are to realize our common goals. When we do decide, let's do it on the basis of the best data available, not on untested hypotheses that we believe to be true.
I would like to close by saying that our knowledge is constantly growing in all areas. As we learn more and more, we learn that many of the things we were taught have changed. As one educator put it, "Half of what we know today will be shown to be incorrect within the next 10 years. As educators it is unfortunate that we don't know which half!" There is a Chinese proverb that says that "A fool can ask more questions than ten wise men can answer." It is very easy to ask unanswerable questions, and to some people this seems a sign of intelligence. We have to learn to ask the questions that can be answered, and not be impressed by those who ask the unanswerable ones. Only then can we really progress rationally into the future.
In the course of preparing this talk I made many notes and talked to myself often. One of the things I have been trying to understand is why there has been such a reaction to things like the Alar report from the NRDC. To me it was relatively easy to see through what they were doing and that the report had no scientific basis. Recently it became apparent that the whole situation was actually a slight modification of an old joke (repeated below in Scenario #1).
A young man comes to your door soliciting donations to an organization known as the "Community Alligator Protection Alliance". He says that the organization has been very active in the past in providing protection to the community against alligators, but they will run out of funds in two months and cannot continue to offer their services unless adequate funding is found. Your response? "Are you crazy? There aren't any alligators for hundreds of miles!!" His response; "You're absolutely right! See what a good job we've been doing!"
A fund raiser (or politician) comes to your door. To start out with he talks to you about a problem with which you are vaguely familiar; dog packs. He mentions the problems that they cause with respect to livestock and wildlife losses, and then he informs you that occasionally these animals will even attack humans, something which has indeed been documented. This is nothing new to you, but then he says something that really gets your attention; he tells you that these animals are also responsible for something even more insidious than occasional livestock losses, or attacks on adult humans. He tells you that there is reason to believe that these animals are also responsible for many if not all of the cases of missing children. Although there is not a documented case of this, experiments have shown that these animals will indeed attack sheep, goats, rabbits, etc. so there is very good reason to think they will go after children too. Every year family dogs occasionally attack children in their own household and cause them grievous harm. Your child could be the next victim! How much would you like to contribute to eradicate the problem? The solution to the problem is very simple too; he will do his best to see to it that all dogs are eradicated. Owners cannot be trusted to care for them properly and keep them inside at nights, and never let them run loose. The only solution is to get rid of them entirely and remove them as a source of danger for good.
Scenario # 3:
The analogy in scenario #2 is startling if you follow it through to its conclusion except for one thing; most people would tell the fund-raiser (or politician) that they were full of it, after all, there is no hard evidence that dog packs are responsible for ANY missing children. For some reason, people will accept arguments similar to the one made above when it comes to chemical residues and cancer (this applies to both residues on foods and in air and water). Perhaps it is because dogs are a better known chemical commodity than agricultural chemicals.This is what happened with the Alar situation. Why is it that people are so willing to pay (or elect) someone to save them from a problem whose effects cannot even be measured?
Are we really so gullible? It appears that we are. What better scheme can you use to raise money or win elections than to attack perceived problems that cannot possibly be measured? You can claim to have saved people from incredible danger. No one could ever prove you wrong since the danger could never be demonstrated in actuarial statistics.
Writing this editorial has helped me to better understand the current situation in regard to the perceived food safety and environmental contamination issues. I would like to reiterate that there are real problems associated with the use of agricultural chemicals. Food safety is not one of them. Let's not spend a lot of time and money "shadow boxing" when there are things that can be done which will really make a difference in the quality of all of our lives.
III.Agricultural Pesticides: 100% Use Reporting for California
California has adopted the nation's first 100% pesticide use reporting system. Under this system all agricultural pesticide uses must be reported to the state. There will undoubtedly be some increased paperwork for all pesticide users. However, we anticipate that this program will have many important benefits for informed pesticide management in California.
Food Safety--risk evaluation: Many of our current food safety controversies have been aggravated by our lack of information on actual pesticide use in California's agriculture. Total pesticide use reporting will provide data from which more accurate risk evaluations can be made.
Worker Safety--injury evaluation and prevention: Worker injuries are the most serious direct consequence of agricultural pesticide use. Total pesticide use reporting will provide additional information for evaluating pesticide related illnesses among California's farm workers.
Groundwater protection--contamination prevention: Groundwater contamination from agricultural chemicals is a serious consequence of pesticide use in the state. Total pesticide use reporting will assist regulatory and research agencies in evaluating and preventing groundwater pollution.
For additional information on the mechanics of total pesticide use reporting contact your county agricultural commissioner. Anyone wishing further information on the subject before April 30, 1990 can contact M.W. Stimmann, Environmental Toxicology, UC, Davis, CA 95616.
An Apology to Readers
We thought that you might wish to know why the color of the Environmental Toxicology Newsletter has changed several times recently. The paper color choices are currently limited to paper which was overstocked in the past (and apparently not very popular, which is understandable). ANR Publications cannot order any more until this supply is used up, so you can expect to see a rainbow of bright colors in the next year. Sorry. We have to wear sunglasses to read it too.
Statewide Pesticide Coordinator