Ag Makes Great Strides Since Publication of ‘Silent Spring’
June 28, 2012, 8:42 pm
Filed under: Agriculture, Farming, Pesticide Use | Tags: , ,

It’s hard to believe but this year marks the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s best-selling book Silent Spring. For younger readers or those who might need a refresher course, Carson’s 1962 book woke up the world to the dangers of global pollution, the use of pesticides such as DDT, and the threats to environmental safety. The book documented detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment, particularly on birds. Carson accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation, and blamed public officials of accepting industry claims uncritically.

Indeed, Carson single-handedly spawned today’s environmental movement as scores of different groups now claim devotion to improving and saving the planet from such health threats and environmental damage. While Carson placed ag chemicals squarely in the cross-hairs, her warnings did lead to positive advancements in the way agricultural does business, and have successfully resulted in measures to protect life and the environment.

For example, amid consumer concerns, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970 under the Nixon administration to protect human health and the environment. The creation of the U.S. EPA marked a transition to a more rigorous crop protection and regulatory program. It also created a closer working relationship between industry and the federal government and regulatory state agencies. Another benefit was that with the creation of the EPA, the Federal Fungicide, Insecticide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) was revised to provide new safety measures. The objective of FIFRA is to provide federal control of pesticide distribution, sale, and usage.

Three separate amendments from 1972 through 1992 significantly updated the original 1947 law, and established additional stringent standards for pesticides including: transferring pesticide regulation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to EPA; re-registering older pesticides to ensure compliance with new standards; and new worker protection measures. Furthermore, the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act added special margins for infants and children, and the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act, passed first in 2002, increased industry fees to enable EPA to expand scientific evaluation capacity and enhance timely decision-making. In 1970 there were 4,084 EPA employees. Last year that number had grown to 17,359.

Can you name some other areas in farming that have improved over the past 50 years? Do you believe that the safety of pesticide products and their application have improved since the printing of Silent Spring?


2 Comments so far
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I read Silent Spring for the first time this year. The introductory chapter is an example of extremely emotive language. One might forgive Carson for that considering how much needed to be overcome, but she has inspired new generations of scaremongering environmental activists who act as if nothing has changed in the 50 years. Pesticides today are nothing like that era because of the rigorous application of science-based regulation and massive discovery investment over all those decades.

Comment by Steve Savage

As always, right on target Steve. Most environmental groups don’t credit agriculture and regulators with the positive advancements that have been made over the past half century, both in safer chemistries and in the tightening up of government oversight. As I point out here, there’s no comparing the industry today to the troubles of the past. And, to follow up on your research and development angle, there’s been a fervent dedication to R&D which serves as the core pillar of the crop protection industry.

Statistics from the USDA Economic Research Service shows that private investment in R&D for pesticide products has grown significantly, from a meager $42 million in 1962 when Carson published her book, to a whopping $793 million in 2010. Other enhancements over the last half century: a rigorous registration and re-registration process for each pesticide product, including more than 120 safety, environmental and health tests to determine possible effects on consumers, wildlife and the environment; advancements in the training of applicators, and the development of precision applications; the continuing investment in Integrated Pest Management.

But as you know, these facts don’t mean a thing to environmental activists who seem to be prisoners trapped in their own bubbles who refuse to admit that major inroads have been made over the past 50 years that have eliminated the majority of concerns raised by Rachel Carson. Sometimes it seems like a lost cause in trying to deal with these folks. As always Steve, thanks for your contribution to the subject.

Comment by Western Plant Health Association

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