By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
With the new pesticide law giving agribusiness the green light--within the flexible parameters of risk assessment--there's now scant incentive to transfer to other methods of ensuring high productivity in fields and orchards. But pesticides become less effective the more they are used. American farmers sprayed 33 percent more pesticides per acre in 1990 than they did in 1945. Over the same 45-year period, crop losses from pests increased from 31 to 37 percent. The response has been ever greater dosings with pesticides. Addiction to chemical-intensive agriculture has become so acute that bio-engineers at the Monsanto Corporation have concocted "Round-Up Ready" soybeans. It is a deadly circle of poisons.
The risks from chemical-intensive agriculture come not only in the food, but also in the application of the pesticides, mostly in the form of aerial spraying. The federal Office of Technology Assessment reckons that more than 40 percent of the pesticides dumped by planes drifts off the target area, ending up in streams, schoolyards, and neighborhoods. Fluorescent tracers have shown that it takes only a moderate breeze to carry poisons such as 2,4-D and paraquat 20 to 50 miles. One study found poisons such as toxaphene, furan, and dioxin in the mud on the bottom of Lake Siskiwit, on Isle Royale--a wilderness island in the middle of Lake Superior. The pesticides had been wind-carried there over more than 200 miles.
Workers are the first to pay the price. In central Washington last year, 55 workers in an apple orchard became seriously ill after the wind shifted and they became exposed to the pesticide carbaryl. The EPA and the chemical industry claim that the regulations for the use of such pesticides will prevent any adverse health consequences. In their idyllic scheme, harvesting spraying takes place in perfect windless weather, with workers decked out in the latest protective gear and with detailed warning labels emblazoned on the poison brews. Real life in the fields means planes dumping clouds of pesticide in the wrong place at the wrong time, no protective clothing, poisons mixed with bare hands, workers uninformed about the dangers of the chemicals they are told to handle. The instructions for the use of pesticides are usually printed only in English, while most field workers are Spanish-speaking.
This Food Quality Protection Act is the consummation of a campaign by the food and chemical industries that has stretched over decades, ever since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring alerted the public to chemical poisoning back in the 1950s. The Delaney Clause found its defenders in the National Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, Food & Water, Environmental Research Foundation, Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet, Cancer Prevention Coalition, and dozens of grassroots groups across the country such as Californians for Alternatives to Toxics.
In the end, they were no match for the forces arrayed against them. As Clinton was signing the bill into law, with a youngster (one in four chances of croaking from cancer) at his elbow, Katie McGinty, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, hailed the act as the dawning of a new age of environmentalism. "I truly believe that the president will go down in history for having put in place a new generation of environmentalism, based on cooperation, not confrontation; defining and securing the common ground, defining the common interest, not the special interest." McGinty should know all about special interests. At an earlier stage of her career, before she began ministering to Al Gore, McGinty was a lobbyist for the American Chemical Association.
But why wasn't there a fight from the big green groups inside the Beltway over Delaney? Kurt Davies, of the DC-based Environmental Working Group, which backed the new bill, says it was about political realism. "An idealist would interpret the loss of Delaney as a retreat from environmental protection," Davies said. "But realistically, Delaney was going and keeping it just wasn't a tenable battle. We just didn't have the voice. We weren't getting the thousands of letters needed to the Hill. Without that, it was just bending to the enemy."
Of course, the reason those letters weren't coming in to congressional offices was that the big green organizations had long since decided to give in on Delaney, trade it off in the interests of "realism." Organizations such as the unabashedly pro-corporate Environmental Defense Fund even attacked Delaney as an inefficient barrier to flexible environmental regulation. Groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and National Wildlife Federation actually joined with lobbyists from Dow and Monsanto in testimony supporting the bill as a "sensible solution that goes a long way toward protecting the health of consumers."
Michael Colby, at the Vermont-based Food & Water group, calls this surrender "a classic case of activist malpractice. These organizations back legislation that gives corporations the right to pollute at the expense of the public health, while promoting the law as an improvement. Meanwhile, citizens are left to face the onslaught of more cancer risks, states are held hostage to weaker federal health standards, and the chemical companies and big environmental groups are laughing all the way to the bank."