The Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” the Word of the Year for 2016. It’s defined as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The word is often used in the context of “post-truth politics,” inspired by our recent election. But in fact, “fake news,” spin, and propaganda is nothing new in the world of food and agriculture.
Take pesticides. We have a growing body of scientific evidence – facts – from peer-reviewed research, published in respected journals, showing that pesticides pose harm to future generations. Exposure to pesticides has been linked to birth defects, autism and learning disabilities, cancer, impaired neurological development, endocrine disruption and related damage to sexual and reproductive systems.
Any economic advantages we hear attributed to the use of pesticides, must be weighed against the tremendous costs of illness. According to Pete Myers, chief scientist of Environmental Health Sciences,“…exposure to tiny amounts of toxic agricultural chemicals…is costing the US 1.2 billion dollars per year.”
In post-truth society, “disinformation campaigns” crafted by slick public relations firms abound. Pesticides aren’t called “poisons,” but instead given the more emotionally-appealing name: “crop protection.” We’re told they’re “critical tools for farmers,” necessary to “feed the world.” Who could argue with such noble intentions?
Scientists, hungry for funding, risk becoming tools of the industry when they become dependent on agribusiness research dollars. If researchers report harm associated with pesticides, their research may be discredited, and they may lose employment.
Agribusinesses also court and hire dietitians to help assure consumers that their products are safe, further muddying the public’s ability to know who they can trust for the truth.
In a recent newsletter sent to dietitians, a Monsanto spokesperson assured us that foods with pesticide residues below the EPA’s tolerance levels pose no safety concern. But according to Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides and Heather Spalding, deputy director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association , the EPA’s toxicity classification of pesticides is limited to immediate effects, not long term illnesses, such as cancer.
The EPA doesn’t test pesticides for their effects on our gut bacteria either, or their ability to disrupt our endocrine and immune systems. As Warren Porter, Ph.D., professor of zoology and environmental toxicology at the University of Wisconsin –Madison explains, there is no safety testing to measure the increased toxicity of multiple pesticide residues, nor the toxic effects of a product’s “inert” ingredients. Porter, a Beyond Pesticides board member, is also concerned about increasing residue tolerance levels allowed in our food and water, as well as the harmful effects of very low – parts per trillion – levels. (Hear Dr. Porter on Food Sleuth Radio on February 16th, 2017)
It’s no wonder that the Hartman Group, a food industry trend-tracker, identified transparency as their “Power Word of the Year.” Consumers are weary of spin. We want food producers to be more transparent about their ingredients and production processes. And we deserve to know because so much is at stake.
Kathleen Dean Moore, Ph.D., nature essayist and distinguished professor of philosophy at Oregon State University, describes our “moral obligation” to protect what we love – our children, our water, our planet, our future. She says, “We’re paying the costs of destructive industries with our health and our children’s futures while the captains of industry make fortunes. That’s not fair.”
Eating “clean” in 2017 means choosing organic food and supporting agro-ecological farming systems, where the use of pesticides is restricted, and farm workers and our environment are protected. Naysayers may tell us organic food isn’t worth the price. I say, how can we not afford to contribute to a healthier planet and a sustainable future?