Dr. Charles (Chuck) Benbrook has a PhD in agricultural economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an undergraduate degree from Harvard University. He has held many positions over the course of his career, from chief scientist at the Organic Center, to executive director of the Board on Agriculture in the National Academy of Science, and professor at Washington State University. Chuck is extremely well-versed in agriculture and natural resources policy. From 1981 to 1983 he was the staff director of the Subcommittee on Department (USDA) Operations, Research, and Foreign Agriculture of the House Committee on Agriculture. Currently, he is working on the Children’s Environmental Health Network’s Healthy Kids project, which examines the affects of herbicide use on birth outcomes in the Midwest.
In this first part of a two-part conversation, Chuck discusses how his breadth of experience led him to the forefront of biotechnology, genetically engineered agriculture and pesticides. “Because I had all of this background in federal regulatory law and policy, and pest management, and pesticides and the seed industry, I’ve been heavily involved in the public debate about biotech ever since,” he says. And it’s a lucky thing we have people like Chuck involved in these debates.
From explaining the Delaney Paradox, a complicated case where a provision in the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act that was designed to reduce cancer risk actually increased it, to demystifying the work that he does in the area of epigenetics, Chuck talks about the problem of pesticides in agriculture today. “I would say without a doubt the weight placed on neurological development issues, and birth defects…from pesticide use has gone down. And the weight placed on the economic return or the value of pesticides for farmers has gone up.”
If that shift doesn’t seem right to you, you’re not alone.
Chuck shares his misgivings about the way biotechnology continues to be regarded in our country: “What really troubles me is that so many of the universally accepted sort of ‘biological truths’ about growing food and raising animals have just been swept under the rug in the United States because of this blind faith in technology and the next drug, or the next gene, or the next pesticide that’s going to come along.”
And come back next week to hear part 2 of our conversation with Dr. Charles Benbrook.
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Dr. Charles Benbrook, part 1
Air Date: August 7, 2017
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez 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 Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez and I’m so honored and delighted to have Dr. Charles Benbrook with me today. And Chuck is an agricultural economist, and he has not only a degree from Harvard but also got his agricultural economy degree from University of Wisconsin at Madison, one of our favorite schools. Chuck, welcome, and thank you so much for being here.
CHUCK BENBROOK: Well, thanks for having me, Theresa.
TM: You are a foremost expert in the use of pesticides, for one thing, around the United States and the world. As an agricultural economist, that’s certainly a major topic in that area. How did you find yourself in this position of being like a foremost expert in this field?
CB: Well, it sort of found me. I went through college and farmed and ranched in my twenties for a while. So I decided to go back to graduate school—I went back to UW Madison—and after about a year in my PhD program I got invited to go to D.C. for a soil and water conservation conference, and ended up learning about a job that was open in the staff of the Council on Environmental Quality, which is part of the executive office of the President. This is a year and half from the end of the Carter administration. And one thing led to another—I took the job and finished my dissertation and got my degree, and I was very lucky to get the job as a staff director of a congressional subcommittee on the House side.
And this particular subcommittee had jurisdiction over the national pesticide law called FIFRA—the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. And because this fell within the jurisdiction of the subcommittee that I was staffing, I had to learn about it. I sort of became captured by that set of issues. I became knowledgeable in pesticide use and risk and regulation, and the underlying biological sciences that are required to understand the impacts of pesticides, both on the environment and on human health. And from there I was recruited into the National Academy of Sciences, and I was the executive director of what’s called the Board on Agriculture and had a wonderful seven years working with some of the top scientists in the country on a range of issues. We put out, in the seven years, probably 70 reports on various agricultural topics.
That stage of my career came to an end at the end of 1990. By now I was a recognized expert in pesticides and agricultural science and the environmental impacts of farming. I ended up leaving the Academy and working for myself—that was the beginning of Benbrook Consulting Services. And over the next couple decades I worked for nonprofit organizations, state and federal government agencies, international organizations, on a wide array of topics. And then, of course, the science of biotechnology came along in the early ’90s, and issues around genetically engineered plants have been front and center in the debate about the direction of agriculture and the impacts of agriculture for a good 15 years now in the United States. And because I had all this background in federal regulatory law and policy, and pest management and pesticides, and the seed industry, I’ve been heavily involved in the public debate about biotech ever since.
TM: While you were at the National Academy of Sciences, didn’t the team that you were on, and you in particular, publish a very controversial—perhaps, it was controversial—report on the impact of pesticides on infants and children?
CB: There were too very important reports on pesticide and pesticide regulation that were done during my era. The first one was called “The Delaney Paradox,” and it was about an inherent conflict in two federal laws that applied to the setting of tolerance levels. A tolerance level is a level the government sets that allows a certain amount of pesticide to be on an apple or asparagus or in milk. And in between the Delaney Paradox report coming out in 1986, we had started a second report during my tenure at the board on pesticides in the diets of infants and children. We recruited another terrific committee chaired by a man you know, Theresa: Dr. Phil Landrigan from Mount Sinai.
TM: He’s a wonderful pediatrician and really well, well respected.
CB: Yeah, he’s one of the most well-respected pediatricians and environmental health specialists around the world. The release of that report in 1993 was a very big deal. And the report contained unusually specific recommendations on new legislation that Congress should pass to address the unique risks faced by pregnant women and infants and children, because at that early stage in life, cells are dividing and nervous systems are getting wired and your immune system is forming, reproductive systems. And everything’s really got to go just right at that stage of life or you have problems later on.
Back then the term epigenetic wasn’t even part of science. No one understood the ways that low levels of exposure to pesticides, drugs, personal care products, pollutants, during fetal development and in the first few years of life, they can have subtle but very important impacts. And of course science is much farther along in understanding some of those mechanisms now, but that report recommended a number of changes in law. And believe it or not, three years later, in effect, the recommendations from that report became the guts of this highly significant new federal environmental law called the Food Quality Protection Act that really put a significant new layer of protections on the way that EPA regulated pesticides in order to be even more certain that pregnant women, infants, and children aren’t being exposed to damaging levels.
TM: Chuck, for our listeners, you’ve mentioned the Delaney paradox a few times. What is the paradox?
CB: In the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in the mid-’50s, a congressman from New York, named Delaney—his wife had gotten, I believe, breast cancer and had passed away. And hurting from the loss of his wife, he championed an amendment to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, a very simple one that said, “Thou shalt not add anything into food that is known to cause cancer.” Very simple.
So this was one of the rare, very straightforward mandates in federal regulatory policy that was in the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which is the main statute that governs what the FDA—the Food and Drug Administration—does. But remember, there’s a whole separate pesticide law called FIFRA—the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. The basic standard in FIFRA is a risk-benefit/cost-benefit balancing standard. And under FIFRA, the EPA could approve a new pesticide that’s known to have the potential of causing cancer, and that pesticide could be in food. But the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, because of the Delaney clause, said nope, can’t do that. And so there were many times when the EPA had a new pesticide that posed perhaps modest cancer risk, and this pesticide would replace a much more dangerous cancer-causing pesticide, but they couldn’t approve it because of the Delaney clause.
So the Delaney paradox, and the reason that the National Academy of Sciences used that in the title, was that we had a provision in federal law that was designed to reduce cancer risk that actually was increasing it.
TM: So, could we back up for just a second, Chuck, because I’m thinking that perhaps some of our listeners might not know what epigenetic means.
CB: Epigenetics—it’s a new field of study in genetics, toxicology, risk assessment, that tries to understand how disruption in gene expression as a child develops in the womb and in the first few years of life, how disruption of the expression of those genes will impact the organism later on in life. Epigenetics is not about a mutation in a gene; it’s about a difference in how the gene is expressed. So that’s sort of why the term epi is sort of beyond genetics. So it doesn’t change the genes but it changes how they’re expressed.
And we now know that many of the most important chronic diseases that we’re dealing with here in the United States, and people are around the world—and this would certainly include overweight and obesity, Type 2 diabetes, several cancers, a number of neurological problems—have their roots in an epigenetic change while a mother is pregnant, or in the first few years of life. And these changes are almost always imperceptible at the time that they occur. They bring about no perceptible change in the health of the mother or in the child. Many time it isn’t till the child’s in their 20s before there’s the first manifestations of something in the way that their genes developed and expressed themselves in their early stages of growth are now impacting how their body works, in effect.
TM: That must be very hard to track. If you’re a researcher and scientist, like you are, that’s a 30-, 40-year study, isn’t it, of someone?
CB: Theresa, great question, and prompts me to say how much more complicated it gets. Some of these epigenetic changes do not manifest in the first generation. They’re carried in the genes of a female offspring, and when that female becomes mature and reproduces, their offspring can manifest the genetic change. And some scientists have studied this out three generations now. So it really does take a long time, particularly when you’re speaking about critters like human beings that have such relatively long life spans.
TM: I’m looking at your career and I’m seeing 35, 40 years, really studying these things. So you’ve probably seen an awful lot of change in the way we look at science now. The Cambridge [Oxford], I think, Dictionary said their word of the year for 2016 was post-truth. It’s so hard to understand what the truth is and what isn’t. How has that impacted, do you think, your field of scientific research over the last 35, 40 years that you’ve been doing this?
CB: Let’s talk about that in the context of an important contemporary issue involving the neurotoxic insecticide chlorpyrifos, otherwise known as Lorsban. It’s in the news now because the new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, overruled the recommendation and findings of his scientists in the EPA and decided to retain the remaining agricultural uses of chlorpyrifos, for the indefinite future.
TM: Didn’t he just rubber-stamp it, even though people had all these concerns?
CB: Yeah, he just changed the agency’s decision. And when you’re the administrator, when you’re running a federal agency during a time like the Trump administration, you can do a lot of things that certainly aren’t supported by the science. But, Theresa, chlorpyrifos was the poster child insecticide in the 1986 “Delaney Paradox” report. Scientists knew at the time it probably—it was in the top five in terms of total risk to the American public, this chlorpyrifos. It was definitely the most heavily focused-on pesticide in the 1993 “Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children” project. And in fact, in that project, the Academy committee pioneered some new ways to do what’s called now cumulative risk assessment.
The National Academy of Sciences committee quantified overall exposure to chlorpyrifos and laid out the reasons why it was excessive. And so when that new law passed in 1996 and EPA worked to implement it, again chlorpyrifos was one of the most heavily studied of all the insecticides. It was one of the most widely used class called organophosphates, or OPs. And it was really by the mid-’90s there was a consensus in EPA and in the scientific community, the outside scientific community, that chlorpyrifos really had to go because it altered the development of the nervous system and the brain in babies. And there were many studies published that showed that in humans, positive human studies that had come out.
And so by the mid-’90s, those of us that had been working on chlorpyrifos for 20 years thought that, well, the job was about done and the EPA would end, certainly, the uses that resulted in residues in food and human exposures. But you know, chlorpyrifos is like Lazarus—it has more lives than a cat. And it stuck around, and more science was done, and the depth of science supporting the need to end its uses in human food crops continued to grow, and yet it hung in there. And then Donald Trump gets elected president and a new administrator comes into the EPA and, bingo, chlorpyrifos is accepted, is acceptable now, the risks that are associated with it.
And I tell the story because this is an example of 30 years of research on the risks posed by a pesticide, both within the government and outside of the government, around the world, with a very high degree of agreement and consensus on the nature of the risks, the magnitude of the risks, and why they’re brought about—and yet it’s still on the market, it’s still being used. So it really is a troubling testament to the erosion of integrity in science and how cavalier some government officials are about just ignoring what the scientific consensus is, as if it doesn’t really matter.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here with Dr. Chuck Benbrook, who is an expert on the impact of pesticides on human health and especially infants and children.
The question, of course, I think people are probably asking is, yes, there’s 30 years of study on this and probably it’s banned, I’m assuming, in many parts of the world—is that true?
TM: But our EPA is saying, “No, it isn’t a risk.” Because after all, their job—the USDA and the EPA—is risk assessment. And so how is it that they feel that it’s not a risk? Can we trust the EPA and the USDA? We’re talking about how has science changed over the last 40 years. You basically just said they ignored the science. How has our, the way that we look at science changed, do you think, over the last 40 years?
CB: Well, in the world of pesticide regulation under U.S. law, and laws governing pesticide use in most countries, it’s really about acceptable risk, and acceptable relative to the benefits, the perceived benefits, from the use of the pesticide. And so if Scott Pruitt were pressed, he would acknowledge that data compiled by the agency and the studies supporting the use of chlorpyrifos do point to a risk of impairment of neurological development. But the position of the EPA, and certainly what motivated Scott Pruitt to take the action that he did, is that one can argue that if the insecticide is used carefully and lawfully and the crops are washed properly, the levels of exposure will be relatively low, and whatever the risks are rising from such exposures, they’re acceptable because of the benefits to farmers in terms of controlling [unclear – insects].
So that’s how the dance happens. It’s really about weighing risks and benefits. And I would say, without doubt, the weight placed on neurological development issues and birth defects and things of that nature from pesticide use has gone down; and the weight placed on the economic return or the value of pesticide use for farmers in getting their crops through the season and harvested has gone up. But one steady incremental victim over my 30-year career has been the trust and confidence people put in science.
And I think this is a very troubling and dangerous development, because what’s happened is science has become, in Washington D.C., at the federal level, it’s kind of like polling, it’s kind of like politics. It’s, you know, whoever has the microphone and the most money to spend on influencing people, on PR, prevails. It’s no longer the truth that prevails. And when a society loses the value of science in governing the society’s sort of moral compass on what’s right, especially in the long term, history evolves in some very chaotic ways. Look at how—I mean, climate change is obviously the best known example of how uncertainty in science and controversy in science has made it difficult to reach decisions about what to do about fossil fuel use, for example. And I would say the pesticide regulation and the way we grow food, there are a number of examples of critical issues in how we grow food and raise animals in this country where there’s been a scientific consensus for 30 or 40 years that the way we’re doing it really isn’t the best way and there are some serious adverse repercussions from the way that we are managing our agriculture. But nothing really has been done to change it in a fundamental way.
I think one of the best examples is antibiotic use in livestock agriculture, where really, by the ’60s, there was a consensus in the scientific community that the way antibiotics were being used at sub-therapeutic doses, low doses, to speed up how fast pigs and chickens grow, was contributing to the emergence of bacteria resistant to antibiotics. And lo and behold, those resistant bacteria found ways to get from the pig barn or the chicken barn into the human population. And these resistant genes, they’ve moved around in the microbial world. And so we have this huge problem now with resistance to antibiotics which, I think, the science is pretty clear that agricultural use, and in particular the sub-therapeutic use, has been probably the largest driver of these new resistant genes that find their way into the human population, and once they’re in humans they’re part of what doctors are having to deal with.
And so we’ve understood the fundamentals of that for decades, and yet the United States has done very little to curtail it, whereas several European countries reached the same scientific consensus 20 years ago and they came down hard on it. And guess what? Penicillin is starting to work again in Denmark and in the Netherlands. Antibiotics that would never be used in human medicine now because there are so many resistant bacteria in the United States, they’re working again in Europe because they clamped down on it. And just as nature created antibiotic-resistant genes, if you get rid of that selection pressure that selects for those resistant bacteria, those resistant genes fade away in the population.
So that’s an example of where I think the Europeans, in several instances, have believed in the science and taken action that was consistent with the insights from the science, and I think it’s benefited them in some really meaningful ways. And that recognition by scientists in the U.S. and ultimately government agencies is beginning to take hold. And I think that’s going to be helpful in perhaps restoring some authority to the scientific community on these complex issues that arise in how we grow food.
TM: Well it seems that science always can mystify people, and so you can see how it’s easy for the government, for example, to disregard it and for the public to not even really understand it. But I feel very encouraged by what you were saying about the Europeans. I know with not just chlorpyrifos and atrazine, they’re banned in 30-plus more countries outside of the United States. The Europeans seem to be doing it. What are they doing to continue to feed themselves without using these horrible, potentially high-risk, especially to infants and children, pesticides?
CB: Well, interesting question and important one, Theresa. Here we sit in southwestern Wisconsin, in a part of the United States with a beautiful, varied topography, but corn and soybeans really dominating agricultural production. Several studies have been done now in the last few years that have compared the yields in corn and soybean production in European countries compared to the United States. Of course the United States, starting in 1996, corn and soybean farmers adopted genetically engineered crop technology. And certainly for the last 15 years, most of the corn and soybeans grown in Wisconsin have been genetically engineered and express one to four or five traits. But the very clear data—really indisputable—shows that corn and soybean yields have gone up just as much, just as steadily in continental Europe, without the planting of really hardly any genetically engineered corn and soybeans, as they have here in the United States. So it’s clear that there are alternatives.
And every decision that a farmer makes in terms of what to grow, how to grow it, what seeds to plant, what drugs to give a cow, what pesticides or herbicides to apply on field, have consequences. And what really troubles me is that so many of the universally accepted, sort of biological truths about growing food and raising animals have just been swept under the rug in the United States because of this blind faith in technology and the next drug, or the next gene, or the next pesticide that’s going to come along. That’s very troubling. Many of the core problems are really management issues that arise from how we grow the food. And if we just had somewhat more diverse cropping patterns, a little more genetic diversity, fed livestock a healthier diet that reflected more closely what they evolved to eat, we would not have the gravity of problems, from human health to environmental to economic, that we’re dealing with now in American agriculture.
TM: We have been talking to Dr. Chuck Benbrook about human health versus the economics of agriculture. And we will be continuing Part 2 next week, interviewing Dr. Charles Benbrook, researcher, scientist, and expert on the impact of pesticides on human health in infants and children.
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