Tag Archives: American agriculture

We The Guinea Pigs

We Americans are obsessed with the content of our food–but generally, for all the wrong reasons.

Trendy urbanites worry about genetically modified foods, ignoring the fact that pretty much everything humans have consumed for the past couple of centuries has been genetically modified (we call those hybrids). Popular magazines peddling the diet of the moment wax poetic about eating like a caveman, or avoiding carbohydrates, or….the list is endless.

What we don’t tend to obsess about is the very real damage being done to public health thanks to our abiding faith in herbicides and pesticides.

The Guardian recently had an eye-opening article.Here’s the lede:

The recent headlines announcing billions of dollars in damages to people who have gotten cancer after using Roundup are just the tip of a very large iceberg. There are over 1,000 lawsuits against Monsanto’s parent company, Bayer, waiting to be heard by the courts. Beyond concerns about that specific glyphosate-based weedkiller, we should be talking about the innumerable other potentially punishing chemicals in our food system.

After all, our food and our health are deeply connected. American healthcare spending has ballooned to $3.5tn a year, and yet we are sicker than most other developed countries. Meanwhile, our food system contains thousands of chemicals that have not been proven safe and many that are banned in other countries.

As the article points out, unlike European systems, the American regulatory system (routinely criticized by business interests as overactive) doesn’t operate on what is called the “precautionary principle.” Potentially hazardous substances aren’t banned from our foods; instead, chemicals are typically considered innocent until proven guilty.

That’s a great principle in criminal justice, but not so great when applied by the FDA.

As the article puts it,

As a result, we are the guinea pigs in our own experiment. And our desire for food that is fast, cheap and abundant only compounds the speed with which we are introduced to new, untested substances.

Much of the problem can be attributed to our disdain for the natural world, and the quintessentially American belief that we can always bend nature to our wishes.

For decades we’ve operated on the principle that if we can selectively kill off the unwanted parts of the natural world, we can control our futures. Farmers operate that way, but also homeowners, highway crews and landscapers. We spread herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones and various other toxins which kill everything around. Even good things.

We’re becoming aware of the loss of what we can see: bees, butterflies, the diverse plant life of our ecosystems. We also need to worry about the invisible microbiome and fungi in the soil that nurture life above, store carbon and absorb water.

Not only have we not improved on nature, what the herbicides, antibiotics and pesticides have done is breed bugs, weeds and disease increasingly resistant to our control.

And our chemical onslaught will have long-term effects. Our fertilizers and pesticides leach into groundwater and streams, head out to sea and create dead zones and red tides. They also leach into our drinking water. Take Atrazine, a weedkiller made by the Swiss company Syngenta (and also banned in Switzerland), which is found in wells all across America. The list of potential health risks of Atrazine causes is too long to list in its entirety, but it includes cancer, poor birth outcomes and developmental defects.

The next time you hear some under-educated ideologue ranting on about the evils of regulation, you might think about the real issue, which isn’t whether to regulate, but how and what to regulate.

We might begin by respecting science and expertise, and by electing people who will fill our agencies with people who actually know what they are talking about–people who care about safeguarding the public good–rather than anti-science camp followers who are firmly ensconced in the pockets of political donors.