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Things Fall Apart: An Insider’s Account of the EPA

Technically-sounding “pesticides” are destabilizing our natural world and our lives.

Dithiocarbamate fungicides being sprayed on tobacco in a greenhouse in Jalapa, Nicaragua. (Photo: Peter Essick)

Natural Philosophy

I have been observing how farmers raise food for several decades because I am convinced agriculture is civilization. I inherited this virtue from the ancient Greeks. They had several gods protecting nature and agriculture (Zeus, Poseidon, Artemis, Demeter, Athena, Dionysos, and Pan).

I love Athena for gifting the olive tree to Athens. I grew up among olive trees. Olive oil is so important I cannot imagine life without it. Demeter gave the Greeks wheat and taught them how to cultivate the land. Wheat, like olive oil, is the stuff of life. Zeus was a weather god, blessing humans and the Earth with rain. Artemis protected animals and the natural world. Poseidon was the god of the seas. Dionysos introduced the grapevine and wine to the Greeks. Tragedy and the dramatic theater arose from the celebration of Dionysos. Pan was associated with flocks of sheep, goats and cattle. The Greeks even had god Aristaios protecting honeybees.

It was the ancient Greek divine view of the world that shaped my natural philosophy.

You can imagine my surprise when I started looking at American agriculture. Instead of the tooted “modernity” and “science” I was supposed to find in the farms of rural America, I stumbled upon mechanical feudalism. I saw rural America losing its small family farms to gigantic plantations. I came across the engineered divisions of this new agriculture: slaughterhouses, stinking animal farms with huge lagoons of excrement and urine, large tractors and machines, and mountains of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals. Petroleum fuels this colossal rural factory.

In the Belly of the Beast

My rural travels started in the 1970s. I had guessed then but did not have the evidence that US agriculture was toxic. I learned about agricultural toxicity and harm quite by accident during my highly contested tenure at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1979 to 2004. This was an era that the industry completed its capture of EPA, which it did with the full cooperation of politicians and appointed Democratic and Republican officials. The country was discarding its democratic institutions for the hegemony of corporations.

But when I joined EPA in 1979, everything looked fine. The EPA camouflage let you see a beehive of scientists buzzing with energy. These experts were writing to each other, producing tons of memoranda, running up and down corridors, always having meetings or being on the phone. I liked that. It brought me back to my graduate school days. I kept telling myself I was finally going to use my knowledge for the protection of human health and the environment. I was ready: My credentials included a book challenging the nature of industrialized farming, an undergraduate degree in zoology, a doctorate in history and postdoctoral studies in the history of science. For awhile, I thought this was an ideal place for me.

In my second year at EPA, however, things turned upside down. I was astonished that beyond the façade of science embellished by an almost impenetrable technical jargon, there was a “secret” EPA legalizing the deleterious nature of industrialized agriculture.

My discovery or understanding of the real function and purpose of EPA and the chemical industry frightened me. I did not know what to do or to whom I should turn for guidance or assistance. My college education had not prepared me for this abhorrent reality.

I felt shame I had abandoned my father and our tiny farm in Greece. After all, before confronting the EPA, my views on the US had been shaped by positive ideas: a great beautiful country that gave me a free education, for which I am still grateful. I thought its countless colleges and universities were striving for the improvement of human life. The country had enormous potential for good. Or I liked to believe that was the case.

But the reality at the EPA slapped me so hard that I had to rethink everything that affected my life. It was the equivalent of taking an advanced seminar on the real rather than the imaginary US I had in my mind. Now it looked to me I would have to abandon my Greek ideals of the integrity of nature and human health. Even more: What would happen to my love for the natural world?

My early confusion and anger eventually settled down and allowed me seeing the government, industry, science and the world differently. Instead of trusting the pronouncements of government, industry, press and universities, I started doing my own investigations. I sensed the danger. I read beyond the greetings, statistics and risk assessments of my colleagues. There was invisible warfare out there, especially all over rural America. Like a fish in a tank of sharks, I had to reinvent myself.

Meanwhile, questions kept ringing in my ears: Why would the EPA permit chemicals in the market or approve new pesticides based on studies from laboratories, which had been caught making things up for decades? And why would the EPA outsource its own review of industry data? It looked unseemly to me that the EPA also dismantled its own lab audit group. The least the agency should have done would be to stop accepting studies from a tainted industry. But business as usual continues. The EPA and the chemical industry are the best of friends. A few times I suggested that environmentalists should be present in our meetings with industry. Senior officials smiled at my suggestion, but nothing changed.

My original shock eventually turned into a crude strategy for survival. I pretended everything was normal, attending meetings and working in resolving issues in collaboration with my colleagues. I politely kept asking questions and taking peaks on the inside.

Most of my colleagues revealed their secrets to me. Some of them became good friends of mine. They talked about themselves, their bosses and the industry. They started giving me the memoranda and other papers they authored.

Reading those in-house reports told me pesticide toxicity and political corruption were related. EPA scientists were too immersed in the politics of the chemical industry. They met industry scientists and business people continuously. They took field trips funded by the pesticide companies. They received huge amounts of data from the industry. They trusted the pesticide companies. Meanwhile, they disregarded the fact the industry was a source of fraudulent science. Private laboratories working for the industry conducted fraudulent studies, which EPA scientists reviewed for approving pesticides. This behavior told me these guys had been under the influence of the industry. Perhaps they had decided their promotions were of higher value than personal integrity. The choice was not an easy one. It wrecked my life. But why should we expose our scientists to such hellish politics? Human health and environmental protection evaporated from my mind.

My early realization of the power of the industry did not make me cautious. Naïvely, perhaps, I put all my trust in the power of truth. I let all the virtues of scientific knowledge, the history of science, and my academic degrees cloud my mind. My wife never ceased reminding me I had to have a paying job. But even that warning did not put a brake on my vulnerable behavior. I kept making my case with facts in scholarly footnoted memoranda I sent to senior officials. But the payback did come soon: warnings and threats. I was not a “team player,” senior officials said.

I was scared but never entertained the option of climbing the pro-pesticide career advancement ladder. I tried to work under pressure, knowing I was under a microscope, surrounded.

I was intrigued by the exposure of farm workers to neurotoxins related to WWII chemical warfare agents. I kept asking why and how the EPA and its predecessor, theUS Department of Agriculture, had approved such bad stuff. Did that mean the US was oblivious to the devastating effects of nerve poisons in the food of children and on the skin of farm workers? Or, more likely, did the government and the industry cover up the effects?

Researchers have been studying pesticides for decades. Every so often, they would publish studies linking cancer and farming. They also discovered that children exposed to neurotoxic pesticides are likely suffering from cancers and illnesses affecting the brain and central nervous system. In fact, Warren Porter, professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin, has been warning that pesticides are also making children aggressive. An EPA-funded study at Colorado State University had also revealed in the early 1980s these nerve poisons affected intelligence and learning.

I knew one of the EPA scientists responsible for the management of this study. In fact, I cite him and the results of this study in my 2014 book Poison Spring. But while at EPA, my colleagues refused to make a mental connection between the neurotoxins the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and EPA had “registered” and the WWII nerve poisons. And, of course, in their risk assessments of pesticides, EPA scientists work out models that have very little connection with the real world. Their assumptions mirror mathematical possibilities, not the ugly fact these neurotoxins accumulate in the human body and do harm in fantastically tiny amounts. And in the natural world, these nerve poisons are destroying endangered species, indeed, they are a factor in the current sixth mass extinction. Pesticides have been destroying honeybees to such anextent beekeepers are worrying about their ultimate survival.

Rural America Is Falling Apart

In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which summarized the scientific literature about the toxicity of pesticides. She warned US farmers’ sprays were killing birds and silencing the natural world. The enormous popularity of Silent Spring might have influenced President Richard Nixon, who established the EPA in December 1970.

Yet more than five decades after Silent Spring, pesticides remain the elephant in the room of the US public and environmental health. They are decisive in killing wildlife and severely damaging biodiversity.

Pesticides are the lubricants of industrialized agriculture. Pesticides and industrialized farming are inseparable. They have had detrimental effects on rural communities throughout the country. They determine the size of farms, what food farmers produce and the nature of society in rural America. That society has been falling apart for decades. Large farmers, banks and railroads, with the government looking the other way, used corrupt practices and speculation in taking the farmland of millions of rural Americans. Black farmers are almost gone. It’s like the dust storms and Dust Bowl of the 1930s continue. Banks, agribusiness companies, USDA and EPA pro-business regulations, and USDA subsidies mostly to large farmers are the infrastructure of the dust storms blowing away rural America, making it flat, homogeneous, sterile, and inhospitable to biodiversity and prosperous traditional small-scale agriculture.

The Mafia Paradigm

In addition, the entire genetic engineering of crops, the highly controversial and corrupt GE food venture or GMOs, came into being in the mid-1990s to extend the life of best-selling pesticides.

Just like Carson used Silent Spring to denounce the toxic sprays of the farmers, a distinguished Berkeley professor of entomology, Robert van den Bosch, published his book The Pesticide Conspiracy in 1978, in which he documented that pest control is mostly “merchandising gimmickry,” dishonesty and danger.

I read these books with profit. They helped me put my work in a historical context. In addition, Bosch opened a new area of interpretation. His lengthy research, teaching and practical experience gave him an unmatched knowledge of the politics of the peddlers of pesticides. He accused them of acting like the mafia.

This shocking revelation may not be as farfetched as it seems. After all, unless one assumes a mafia-like organization at work, not much makes sense with the regulation of pesticides in the United States. Pesticide companies have their way on Capitol Hill and on the executive branch. The USDA and EPA do their bidding. But why are these powerful national institutions so docile to poison makers? Why should the EPA license deleterious products after decades of bad effects on human and environmental health?

We don’t need synthetic pesticides. Biology offers us solutions to insect and plant infestations. After all, that was the purpose of the EPA’s own Integrated Pest Management Unit (IPM): encourage biological and cultural alternatives to hard poisons. But, like most science at the EPA, IPM was made into a lipstick service or cosmetic solution.

Applying pesticides is wrong. Our knowledge of their deleterious effects is extensive and thorough. They should have been banned long time ago.

Farm sprays, however, are so much part of “normal” life, they are invisible and beyond democratic discourse or control. Like nuclear weapons, they exist for irrational purposes. Big science and agribusiness supports them. But really, the reason for their existence and application is the connection of their owners with the government. Poison Spring documents that connection.

The unholy consortium of government and industry has the appearance of science and the support of the country’s land grant universities, but has very little or nothing to do with science, much less truth. It resembles the mafia paradigm of Robert van den Bosch. This is an organization determined to maintain the domestic and international monopoly of industrialized agriculture.

Who Is Protecting Human Health and the Environment?

From the moment Poison Spring came into being, in April 2014, I did my best to spread the word: informing Americans the technically-sounding “pesticides” are destabilizing their natural world and their lives. I also stressed that I wrote my book on the basis of a 25-year experience with the EPA and on the basis of government documents.

I still hope that environmentalists are embracing Poison Spring, which explains how self-selecting elites (from the government, industry and big science) run the state for profits and power. But more than that, Poison Spring gives facts of bad science and corruption that make the current state of environmental regulation and approval of pesticides untenable. With this information, environmentalists can ask the right questions and fight for the replacement of corrupt regulation and giant farms with regulation and small farms protecting and healing public health and the environment.

Environmentalists say they are out there defending the public and the natural world from hazardous and unhealthy practices in food and agriculture. Poison Spring should make their work easier.

The other resistance to the gigantic pesticide poisoning of people and the natural world comes from small family organic farmers who recognize the pesticide danger. They say no to pesticides and raise healthy crops, fruits and vegetables. They are the seed, both political and ecological, of what still has to grow in the US in order for the country to recover its rural traditions and become friendly to the natural world.

Small organic farmers grow healthy food with the wisdom of their forebeard — and lots of agroecological science. This is science that combines traditional knowledge and advanced ecological science. Agroecological farming is farming for the future. Joining organic farmers promises more wholesome food and a greater chance we focus on rebuilding our agriculture and repopulating rural America.

This will demand lots of things, especially:

1.) The establishment of a political party for the education of Americans on the extremely important role of small-scale organic family farming to replace agribusiness and the industrialization of agriculture. This means Americans must have a national conversation on land and its ownership. We must be ready to buy all excess land (of more than 160 acres per person) from those owning too much. Excess land in parcels of few acres should be granted to those capable and willing to raise food organically. We cannot afford to repeat or tolerate in rural America the gross Wall Street inequality (where one percent of Americans own most of the country’s wealth). The equivalent would be large farmers possibly owning most of rural America;

2.) Bringing back the land grant universities to their original mission of developing the agroecological science for productive and healthy small family farmers and rural America; and

3.) Reinventing an independent EPA like a Supreme Court of environmental and public health. This new EPA must also be like a monastery, cut off by law from polluters and their lobbyists. The new EPA would also need an independent national laboratory responsible for testing necessary chemicals. It goes without saying that the government would not accept any pesticide or chemical studies from private laboratories. The industry would pay the government lab for testing its chemicals.

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