Unabated Deadly Springs
As a developing country with its population still overwhelmingly dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, we have to take heed of the dangers inherent in the technology and inputs that are designed in the developed countries and sold to us as ‘mandatory’ for our development.
It is a sign of the times that on the fiftieth year of the anniversary of “Silent Springs”’, the book that first alerted us to the dangers of pesticides, the Journal, “Food and Chemical Toxicology”, could publish a paper: Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Roundup is the most ubiquitous pesticide in the world – including Guyana – and the genetically modified crops that were supposed to be tolerant to it are being pushed as ‘the next best thing’ since the green revolution. The first longer-term study (two years) all confirmed the non-linear endocrine-disrupting effects of Roundup. Not coincidentally both are products of the US chemical giant Monsanto.
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, credited with being the forerunner of the modern environmental movement, documented the use of toxic chemicals in agriculture and of their widespread fatal effects on plants and animals. The author’s training as a scientist bridged the gap between lay observation and science. Her book accused the pesticide industry of being detrimental to the environment, especially of destroying bird species. Indeed, the title Silent Spring alludes to an all-too-possible spring when birds would no longer sing because they would all have been exterminated by pesticides. The author also said that the chemical industry misinformed the public about the effects of its products and that the United States administration accepted the industry’s claims without verifying them.
While documenting the horrors of synthetic pesticides, the author traced the link between chemical companies and the political economy of the time and accused the two of letting profit take precedence over health. Capitalist economies and corporations that dictate to government were not new scenarios even at that time, but Rachel Carson introduced new characters into this old drama. Un-selfconsciously and scientifically, she wrote that all life forms were connected and the act of injecting poisons into life cycles would soon affect human life.
As can be expected, Silent Spring resulted in an uproar from the chemical industry. The challenge to its very profitable business enraged it. Its ire was fuelled further by the fact that it was a woman who had dared to question what was one of the most powerful and politically influential industries in the U.S. at that time. Retribution was fast and brutal. Rachel Carson was belittled at every level, from the quality of her research to her gender. Oddly enough for the times, she remained steadfast and unmoved by the attacks. Her standing as a scientist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made it all the more difficult to dismiss her.
But fifty years after her comprehensive and compelling documentation of the dangers and horrors of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, the world continues to use the very same chemicals. Little has changed apart from the generic and brand names of many chemicals that Rachel Carson had proved were highly dangerous. DDT, malathion, parathion and dieldrin continue to be used in many parts of the world in spite of the fact that she had proved, fifty years ago, that they had fatal consequences. In addition, newer ones like Roundup have been added to the deadly and unabated deadly springs.
Pesticides accumulate in the fat deposits in the body where they remain and cause damage. Pregnant women can pass pesticides on to their foetus. Women who eat fruits and vegetables that have been sprayed with pesticides, pass the pesticides on to their nursing children. The chemicals alter genes, disrupt the endocrine system, damage the nervous system, deform foetuses and cause diseases ranging from cancer to Parkinson’s disease.
In our drive to ramp up our production of agricultural products, our policy makers must insist that the so-called ‘new and improved” methods that are foisted on us do not form ‘silent springs’ and destroy us.