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April 30, 2000


Misconstruing Rachel Carson and other matters


AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com

Dear Colleagues,

I wonder how many activists out there who wave Rachel
Carson's (author of 'Silent Spring') name around like a
hanky have bothered to read her book. Supposedly, Carson is
responsible for identifying and alerting people to "unknown
dangers," to the point where she is very nearly credited
with inventing the "precautionary principle" itself.

The fact of the matter is, Carson had facts. She found
evidence that misuse of chemicals was causing damage.
Identifying "unknown dangers" is most patently NOT what
Carson did. She may have been denounced in her time, and
amongst activists, denunciation by the establishment amounts
to legitimacy.

But 'Silent Spring' was NOT the unsullied product of an
overactive imagination, which contrasts starkly with the
rhetoric of the activists who want to enshrine her in their
comic pantheon next to Frankentony the Frankentiger.

Identifying "unknown dangers" and "possible risks" is a
genre of science fiction, and deserves for good reason to be
shelved in the section of the book store next to the
"fantasy" section. (I wonder when Charles Margulis,
Greenpeace' "Genetic Engineering Specialist," will come out
with his first novel chronicling the Exlpoits of the Hero
who fights the Pangalactic Menace of Genes Amok In The
Cosmos Wreaking Unknown Havoc, a quiet, grim-faced yet
tender-hearted warrior who often whispers, sotto voce, while
victoriously slaying modified crops: "May the Precautionary
Principle be with you.")

Carson had FACTS, and forcibly aligning her with the
eco-reactionary movement maligns her in a most scurrilous
and dishonest fashion.

Eco-Reactionary Movement: The Next Step

Most public policy analysts don't know this yet, but the
next step for the eco-reactionary movement is to impose on
chemical pesticides the same standards they are about to
force on modified crops. During this discussion, bear in
mind that eco-reactionaries are not constrained by logical
requirements such as consistency, while normal people are.
(They complained about the lack of data from large-scale
field trials in Great Britain, now they are complaining
about the large-scale field trials in Great Britain.)

Greenpeace, the Amsterdam-based multinational activist
group, as part of its roughly $3.3 million campaign against
the use of modern genetics in crop and food production, is
pressing US regulators to require incredibly intricate,
environmentally- intensive tests on modified crops to assess
their impact on insects, weeds and dirt. (The National
Academy of Sciences is almost in their camp on this one.)
Once the activists succeed in the latest effort, and they
may well succeed, the next step is obvious.

Consider: the scientific community has long said that
modified crops are an alternative to chemical crop
protection. A case in point: a big complaint about the
Cornell study which showed that butterfly larvae forced to
eat Bt died was that there was no control, i.e., nobody
sprayed a separate group of butterfly larvae with the
chemicals which serve as an alternative to Bt and made a

Biotech and chemicals are comparable when it comes to
assessing their environmental impact, we have long insisted:
should not both be subject to the same requirements and
regulated accordingly?

Biotech is environmentally safer than chemicals, we have
long insisted: therefore, should regulators not hold
chemicals to the same, suddenly more stringent standards we
have set for biotech?

Of course, everyone has marveled at the fact that
eco-reactionaries would protest against technology designed
to reduce chemical use, but accusing eco-reactionaries of
inconsistency is pointless. They want to win and will change
tactics when necessary.

By obvious logic, if we are to be 'consistent' (and
scientists like to be consistent), the same standards we
apply to modified crops must be applied to chemicals. All
chemicals currently in use will be forced to a standard
which requires them to be as benign as 'plant-pesticides'

And then scientists and corporations will be forced into a
situation where they must advocate a lower standard for
chemicals than for modified crops. This, of course, is a
ridiculous position to hold. Why, indeed, is it better to
kill all insects in the field, earthworms and butterflies
with equal disregard, with chemicals when the selective
action of modified crops is so superior? Are chemical
poisons somehow morally more good than modified crops, which
merely have about half as much insect resistance as your
average weed?

By then, though, regulators will have acceded to new, higher
standards applied to modified crops and the corporate
rhetoric about the environmental safety of modified crops
will come back and haunt their chemical divisions with a

In the US, biotech companies, being both seed and chemical
companies, have been reluctant to tout too much the fact
that biotech is environmentally superior to chemicals,
because they don't want to bad-mouth their chemical
operations. Well, it may be that they have not been reticent
enough. They may have touted the advantages of biotechnology
to the point where their chemicals will have to be benign,

The next development may well force them to make a critical
choice between insecticides and biotech, because their
insecticides will, according to my guess, in two years be
held to environmental standards which will be beyond their
wildest imagining. And impossible to meet as well.