Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Jay Feldman, the founding executive director of Beyond Pesticides. Today is Part 2 of a two-part interview with Jay.
So Jay, let me just back up a minute and talk about the science for a moment. So science has gotten a pretty tough rap over the last several decades. Because of the industry-funded science, like you say, it’s gotten a bad rap. You can kind of find literature on just about anything that you want to prove, and so it is very challenging to parse out what is peer-reviewed science, what is funded by the industry. And there’s not a ton, anymore, of science that’s just independent science. So when you talk about these things, is it clear to you, is there a clear consensus from scientists that yes, in fact, these pesticides do cause these issues?
JAY FELDMAN: Yeah. Well, you know how you have to talk about this. You talk about it in terms of the “preponderance of evidence.” Because even when there are industry studies, they tend to be very few relative to the total number of studies. I mean, we’re looking at chemicals now that are adversely impacting pollinators. In the news, we know that there’s a decline in pollinator populations; we see that study after study is linking systemic and other pesticides to… So these are the chemicals that get into the vascular system of plants and they express themselves through the pollen and nectar and guttation droplets on the plant. And then insects come along and feed on that plant or forage, and they are exposed—indiscriminately exposed. So whether it’s the target insect or some other insect, a predatory insect that comes along, they will be, in total, adversely affected.
The preponderance of evidence linking these chemicals to a range of adverse effects, whether it’s depressing the immune system, affecting navigational skills, behavior of the insect, straight-up acute toxicity, persistence—whatever it is, the data is there, mountains of data that show a problem. Are there industry studies that show there are no problems, or that there is another cause of the problem? See, one of the things we’ve learned and seen over the years is that there’s a tremendous amount of deflection that goes on. So the industry, instead of really studying the chemical of concern, they’re studying another potential cause of concern. And I’m not saying these causes don’t work together. But they’re studying the Varroa mite, in the case of pollinators, and they’re saying it’s the Varroa mite that is causing decline of bee colonies and bee populations.
AOC: I mean, that’s been refuted by a large collection of scientists.
JF: Yes, but the reality is they get traction. They get traction in the regulatory arena. As you may know, EPA relies exclusively on data produced under its protocol but nevertheless produced by the chemical industry. So if I’m a registrant or a manufacturer of a pesticide, I produce the data, whether it’s ecological data or human health data. I present that data to the agency, and the agency relies on that for its decision on what to allow, what to put on the product label, what mitigation measures to impose on that product.
AOC: So we basically have a case of the fox telling the farmer how to keep the chickens safe here, is what we’ve got going on.
JF: That’s right. So there’s no question that the fox is guarding the henhouse. And we have a situation—and this is up and down the chain—where, starting with the introduction of that product into the marketplace, with industry data, industry-produced data, brought onto the market with an enforcement structure that in most states is governed by the Departments of Agriculture, who are effectively promoting pesticides in most cases… Now, there are about seven or more states now that have given the authority for pesticide enforcement to a Department of Environmental Protection, like CalEPA or New York State Department of Environmental Protection, or DEC, Department of Environmental Conservation.
AOC: Those are some helpful things, but it does help us understand how the EPA has not acted to ban these neonicotinoid insecticides, even though other countries have done this already.
JF: Yes. And you know, there is a system in place that assumes the need for pesticides and then, around that assumption, builds a regulatory system to try to get that pesticide on the market with restrictions, admittedly weak, admittedly ineffective, based on U.S. Government Accountability studies that basically offers limited protection. And this keeps repeating itself, over and over again. We see a system that is ineffective at so many levels.
So we shouldn’t be just focusing on the science or on the label or on the enforcement system or on the penalty system. We need to look at the whole system and ask ourselves: If there’s a weak link in that system, what is the real outcome, the adverse effect on people and the environment?
JF: Too often, EPA will sort of separate out… And when I say EPA I’m also talking about state regulatory agencies, because EPA works very closely with the states. And we should not forget that the states have unique and independent authority to adopt more stringent standards. And this is really interesting to think about, especially in these times. If we go back in the history of pesticide restrictions and pesticide regulation, virtually every pesticide that was regulated by the federal government was first regulated by a state, starting with DDT in Michigan and Wisconsin; DBCP in California; Chlordane in New York and other states; and EDB—I don’t know if you remember this alphabet soup of chemicals here, but—
AOC: I think that the famous one, DDT, that now we have learned some lessons from. And we know now, we’re living in times where the EPA and other government agencies have been told to stop releasing information to the public, and that scientists are being asked to stop sharing information. And these are scary things for a democracy that relies on information. So—
JF: Well, first I should say that in the absence of information, in the absence of complete reviews, acknowledging deficiencies and limitations in the systems that support a label on a chemical, an admittedly toxic chemical, in the absence of complete information there is no question that local communities want to be cautious and take a precautionary approach. Whereas the state typically, and the federal government, is juxtaposed to that, is predisposed to assuming the benefits of a toxic chemical and really implying, if not affirmatively stating, that the chemicals represent an acceptable risk and therefore nothing to worry about.
So there’s this sort of dichotomy going on, where the perspective and the mindset and the conversations and discussions that we see at the local level are much richer in understanding that in the absence of information we act on the side of caution. Okay, so if our federal government decides, “We’re going to stop the regulatory review, it’s too expensive; we’re not going to share information with the public, it’s too scary for them or it is abused somehow once it gets into the press,” if the government decides that “We’re going to gag scientists to participate in independent peer review and go to scientific meetings and disclose their work,” that elevates the uncertainty and the lack of information. It deprives our democratic decision making process from information.
In my view, it only fuels the need to be more precautionary, the need to take a much more serious risk in asking the question about toxics—and this is true across the board: Do we need this toxic material in our community, in our food, in our schools, to manage our parks? Do we need these chemicals? And the reality is, the answer more and more and more is no, we simply do not need these to achieve productivity on the farm, to achieve management of our athletic fields. We just simply do not need them.
And so what I foresee with pesticides really leading the country, because we’ve already done this in many communities—we have a map on our website and there are over 100 communities and we’re trying to capture them all, we just created this database—that have adopted these policies, had this kind of conversation with their policy makers, and settled on an approach to managing their landscapes and schools or what-have-you without toxic chemicals. So that gives me a real sense of a future in which we don’t rely on these and we drive the process from the bottom up, to the point… And this is where, you know, we drive this process from the bottom up, and we see that our communities are deciding collectively, with our elected officials, that we can adopt management practices that don’t rely on toxic chemicals.
And you know where else we see the change? We see the change in the marketplace. We started this conversation in describing the history of organic with… We started this conversation discussing the history of organic, acknowledging that it grew from a sense of public pressure, really. It grew from public involvement and demand—really, farmers working with consumers to say, “We want to grow a market,” even though… I mean, this was during a period where EPA was registering pesticides hand-over-fist, pushing the safety message hand-over-fist. And while this is all going on, people are looking at this and saying, “I don’t want that in my food,” and they’re growing this organic market.
And you know, it’s interesting, we talk about that the agriculture community is a conservative community. And I was there at the time when we were fighting both ChemLawn and chemical agriculture, and if someone would have asked me at that time, which is going to take off faster—are we going to see organic lawns in every town across this country or are we going to see organic food in every grocery store across this country—guess what? I would have said organic lawns, because we were told that organic’s not commercially viable, it can’t be done in agriculture, it’s not feasible, and it’s a very conservative community, and we’re not going to be able to make this transition. And guess what? We now see organic in every grocery store. I mean, we saw an 11 percent increase in farmland in organic in the last two years; we see exponential growth, a $43 billion industry; and organic lawn care is still in its infancy.
AOC: Yeah, and this is all consumer driven.
JF: It’s all consumer driven.
AOC: It’s all driven by people wanting their food free of these pesticides, free of antibiotics, free of the things that are not necessary to strong agriculture. Yeah.
JF: Right. And it’s evolved in an environment in which the science is disputed, see? So that goes back to the point that as people see the preponderance of science raising problems, they see the controversy, they see the uncertainty, they see the reports that are telling them that the regulatory system isn’t as protective as it ought to be, and they make a decision to drive the market toward alternatives.
AOC: I want to just take a moment to say, if you’re just joining us now, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Jay Feldman, who’s the founding executive director of Beyond Pesticides. And we’re talking about pesticide use, regulation, the dangers, the alternatives. And we’ve just started talking about how the local communities are really the forerunners, the people who lead the way on the use and practices in pesticides—which is, as you say, Jay, a really good thing for the times that we’re living in.
JF: Yes. Now, there are seven states that have not preempted local jurisdictions. I want to segue here to issues that we really have to watch carefully in the democratic process. As local people exert authority and move markets, move policy, industry is watching. You know, the industry that has an economic vested interest is working on behalf of their shareholders, right? They’re in there saying, “We have to protect our investment in the market, we have to protect our profits.” That’s what corporations do. They’re not doing anything they’re not supposed to do as a corporation, except they’re not being very socially responsible in the products that they’re advancing.
And we know from experience that these same companies could move into biological management. There are tons of pesticides now that fall under the category that we call organic-compatible materials. They protect biodiversity, they protect public health. There’s money to be made out there, so they could shift their manufacturing process to produce these things. And actually some of them have. But they’re still highly invested, whether we’re talking about Monsanto or Syngenta or Dow Chemical, they are highly invested in this and they’re out there protecting.
AOC: They are, and they’re also starting to see that organic is the fastest-growing segment of the food industry and that consumers—this is the future.
JF: That’s right, they are noting that. But they’re also seeing that they have a share of the market now that they want to protect in the non-ag side, non-agricultural uses of pesticides, as we say. And so they are in there, and they’ve been successful, preempting local jurisdictions. So what they do is—and this happened after a Supreme Court decision in the early ’90s, where a little town, the little town of Casey, Wisconsin, decided that this Christmas tree farmer who was growing conventionally, growing chemical-intensive Christmas trees, and the chemicals were drifting into town. So they restricted his use. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court upheld the right of local jurisdictions to restrict pesticides. So we’re not just talking public property, we’re talking private property. Because think of it: I mean, we live in a community, we know that what our neighbor does affects us, right? There may be a property line, but toxic chemicals do not know property lines. They move, they run off, they drift…
AOC: They follow water and…
JF: Right. So the chemical industry went to every state legislature and they successfully adopted legislation that preempts local jurisdictions from restricting pesticides on private property. They couldn’t do that on public property because essentially towns and cities are usually the largest landholders. That’s their property. They own that property, and they can manage it as they will.
But two of the states that have upheld the rights of local jurisdictions to restrict pesticides within their jurisdiction, meaning public and private property, Maryland and Maine, have adopted this concept that, you know, we’re going to allow our local communities—we believe in our local communities, we believe in local government, we understand these are public health issues. These are issues like zoning, these are issues like public health protection, driven by local public health departments. And so the authority is vested in the local jurisdiction. And the largest jurisdiction in the state of Maryland, Montgomery County, back last year adopted a law that restricts and basically bans what we call the cosmetic or aesthetic use of pesticides on lawns across all property, public and private.
AOC: So if people, if listeners are sitting here and listening to this and thinking, “Oh, wow, I need to do something about this.” This is an area where they could effect change in their local communities, and to get in there and get something on the books before it becomes a test case, right? So that’s what the chemical companies did at the state level, but there are ways to push against that.
JF: Yeah. So the real focus in local communities—and you’re right, people can get involved. And I’ve seen this done within one legislative session. People come together—well, maybe I’m exaggerating; two! Two legislative sessions. People come together, they make the case, they build the coalition, they educate the members of the city or town’s county council, and they introduce the legislation, have the hearing. And they restrict the use of these pesticides. They ban the use of these cosmetic, aesthetic pesticides on public property.
That’s, in many cases, for many elected officials—and this should be an election issue. I mean, we don’t do electoral work, but we certainly do public education work around elections. And when we ask people running for office, “Hey, you know, what do you think about these things? Should these chemicals be used at schools?” And you know, most people don’t get that question when they’re running for elective office. So we need to ask that question. And we also need to make sure that people decide on this issue, on this very issue, which is a really critical issue for family health, for everything we care about in terms of prevention—preventing disease. It starts with what we put in our body, what we inhale, what kinds of exposures we experience on a daily basis. So to go down to our local government and find that the elected officials are unresponsive, say, “Hey, I’m going to run for public office on this issue.” This issue invades our lives. It’s so intimate in terms of the exposure patterns that we see.
So, as you’re saying, there are really clear opportunities here, and that’s a direct pathway to changing the practices. And even if the state legislature has already preempted—which is the case in most cases—so that that same electoral body, the local city, town, or county council is prohibited from restricting pesticides on private property, if that’s already the case, the mere fact that a local government starts managing its lands and parks and athletic fields in this way will be noticed in the community. And then they can begin educating and say, “Look, your kids are playing on an organic field. Your kids are going to a school that does not use pesticides. The hospital is not using pesticides. You can do this in and around your own home.”
AOC: Well, I want to just pivot just a little bit, because you are doing such great work and activism and thinking about things at policy levels and really getting some good results. I want to ask you, though, if you have a neighbor, if you have parents, if you have people you love who just are really resistant to this idea that these chemicals are a problem, how would you approach? What approaches have you found to be successful for somebody who’s resistant and you want them to understand? You love these people, or they live next to you, and you want them to understand the real risks involved in using these chemicals.
JF: Yeah, you know, sometimes it’s a slow process. And I’m not going to say it’s always easy. People, you know, you have to, as an activist or advocate for a public health or environmental issue, you have to recognize that when you approach someone, their immediate response is defensiveness, because no one wants to feel they’re hurting anybody else. And they’re certainly not intentionally hurting anybody else.
So usually—and I was once told this by a farmer’s wife, actually, when I was at a meeting. And she said, “You know, sometimes the pushback you’re getting from my husband and other people that are using pesticides is because they don’t have any background information on the chemicals. They don’t know what they’re doing.” In fact, this particular farmer’s wife said to me, “My husband, as a farmer, is not doing the actual application. He picks up the phone and says, ‘I’ve got boll weevil, I’ve got some problem,’ and calls the custom applicator. The custom applicator starts spraying. Then he gets a call from his neighbor, an environmentalist and says, ‘What did you spray? And don’t you know how dangerous that is?’” And, as she told me, he really doesn’t know what was sprayed. He didn’t actually do the spraying. He was told by Extension perhaps to do this spray. A homeowner went down to the local nursery, [who] said, “Use this product.” And so they don’t really necessarily have the background. So the first thing is, we need to get information that’s digestible, information that just, you know, soft-sell, gives people the background on these chemicals.
But the other side, I think, that really moves the envelope on this is the knowledge that there is another way—that in fact you can maintain your lawn to the expectation that you want without the toxic chemical. And you know what? We couldn’t always have said that years ago because the tools weren’t always readily available at the local hardware store. But I can tell you, from working closely with a local hardware store in Maine after the adoption of a local ordinance that banned these chemicals on public and private property, the local Ace Hardware store changed all the products on their shelf. So that conversation on the availability of alternative practices, instead of buying that bag of synthetic fertilizer and that Weed & Feed, there are these products that are readily available. It’s almost getting to the point, similar to organic food, where you can go to any nursery now and buy organic fertility products for your garden and your lawn. That wasn’t true even two years ago.
So the reality is, as you’re having this conversation with a loved one or a neighbor, you’re basically saying, “Look, your lawn’s beautiful. Wow, you’re doing a really good job. You know what? I’ve just learned about these products that can be used that can replace toxic chemicals, and here’s some information on the toxicity, which isn’t widely understood because the folks that sell this stuff and the folks that use this stuff when you buy a service don’t really have this information.” Coming at somebody with just “What you’re doing is bad, is poisoning me,” is really tough for people to accept.
AOC: That doesn’t work, that strategy doesn’t work so well, does it?
AOC: You know, Jay, I just want to thank you so much for all the work that you’re doing out there, both on a policy and advocacy level, but also just personally with people in communities and affecting families and individuals and communities. So I just want to thank you for all the work that you’re doing with Beyond Pesticides. And if our listeners want to find you on the Web, where should they go?
JF: To www.beyondpesticides.org.
AOC: Well, thank you so much for joining me today, Jay.
JF: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
AOC: And thank you, listeners, for joining us today. We’ll see you next week.
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