Protecting Pesticides & Profits: What are the EPA’s priorities?

by Robin O’Sullivan, author of American Organic

What is the raison d’être of the Environmental Protection Agency? It’s not a trick question… at least, it shouldn’t be. The EPA’s mission is to “protect human health and the environment.” One of the agency’s primary purposes is ensuring that “national efforts to reduce environmental risk are based on the best available scientific information.”[1] Those words ought to be unequivocal. Like America’s rivers, however, they’ve become murky.

Richard Nixon entered the White House when ecological awareness—like the Cuyahoga River—was aflame. Nixon acknowledged that “restoring nature to its natural state” was “a common cause of all the people of this country,” so he signed the enabling act that consolidated several federal agencies into the EPA.[2] Formally established on December 2, 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was largely nonpartisan. Nobody wanted to assail clean air or clean water. The rationale for creating the EPA wasn’t radical. A bevy of pesticides were unregulated. Pollution was unchecked. Lead poisoning was a national scourge. The Santa Barbara oil spill galvanized eco-activists, and Earth Day—a festival born from fretfulness—was first celebrated. Evidence was incontrovertible: humans, plants, animals, soil, waterways, and the sky were imperiled. Former EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus, in an interview with the Public Integrity Project, said that environmental protection had enormous bipartisan support in the US during the 1970s.[3] Ahh, the halcyon days when science was scientific, facts were factual, and the Lorax wasn’t alone in speaking for the trees.

Here’s the predicament now. Under the Obama administration in 2016, the EPA decided to ban chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate insecticide found in dangerously high levels in drinking water. Organophosphates are banned in households but permitted for agricultural use. Researchers from universities, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service have revealed a litany of detrimental effects from chlorpyrifos and similar pesticides.[4] After extensive research directed by EPA chief Gina McCarthy, the EPA itself deemed chlorpyrifos to be unsafe to farmworkers, children, and any person coming into contact with the contaminated water. Then—rejecting its own decision—the EPA, under the Trump administration, did an about-face. New EPA chief Scott Pruitt claimed that the studies by his own agency were flawed and said that chlorpyrifos would not be banned. This reversal took place after Pruitt met privately with the CEO of Dow Chemical, Andrew Liveris.[5] Dow Chemical manufactures chlorpyrifos. American farms use 6 to 10 million pounds of chlorpyrifos on edible crops each year; meanwhile, studies have linked the chemical to autism, ADHD, and other neurodevelopmental problems in children.[6] Dow Chemical has extensive power in Washington. The mega-corporation spent over $13 million on lobbying efforts in 2016 and also wrote a $1 million-dollar check for Trump’s inaugural party.

Sure, science is not immutable. It changes when new evidence arises. However, it does not flip upside down immediately after ethically questionable cloistered meetings. Is the EPA confused about its own priorities? This could be a coincidence; but, if you were on the agency’s website in July 2017, reading its mission statement, you were invited to view the EPA’s priorities. However, when you clicked that hyperlink, you were directed to a page that said: “Page Not Found.”[7] Perplexing, yes…and vexing.

What’s worse than an EPA that’s not protecting human or environmental health? Well, no EPA at all…and that’s a sobering possibility. A recent report from the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, an international network of academics and non-profit employees, concluded—based on confidential interviews with present and former EPA employees—that Pruitt’s ultimate goal is to eliminate the EPA entirely.[8] The Sierra Club has reported on the current president’s hostility to the EPA, asserting that “the Trump administration’s decision to not renew the appointments of 38 out of 49 advisers on the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC) is a clear attempt to break up the independence and institutional memory of the agency.”[9]

What will change Scott Pruitt’s mind next? A burning river? Doubtful. A silent spring? Not likely. The American people? Perhaps. To get involved with EPA regulations, you can visit: https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/get-involved-epa-regulations. You might want to remind the EPA what its priorities are.

Dothan Campus head shots

Robin O’Sullivan, Ph.D., teaches U.S. history, environmental history, and cultural history at Troy University in Alabama. She is the author of American Organic: A Cultural History of Farming, Gardening, Shopping, and Eating (2015).

[1] United States Environmental Protection Agency. “Our Mission.” https://www.epa.gov/aboutepa/our-mission-and-what-we-do Accessed July 1, 2017
[2] Kovarik, Bill. “A green Nixon doesn’t wash.” http://environmentalhistory.org/2013/01/07/nixon/  Accessed July 1, 2017
[3] Kovarik, Bill. “Environment used to be bipartisan.” http://environmentalhistory.org/2015/04/11/environment-used-to-be-bipartisan/  Accessed July 1, 2017
[4] Nosowitz, Dan. “Dow Chemical Asks Trump’s EPA To Disregard Government Studies That Indicate Its Pesticide is Dangerous.” http://modernfarmer.com/2017/04/dow-chemical-asks-trumps-epa-disregard-government-studies-indicate-pesticides-dangerous/ Accessed July 5, 2017
[5]  Nosowitz, Dan. “EPA Chief Met With Dow’s CEO Before Deciding Not to Ban Dow’s Dangerous Pesticide.” http://modernfarmer.com/2017/06/epa-chief-met-dows-ceo-deciding-not-ban-dows-dangerous-pesticide/ Accessed July 1, 2017.
[6] Lerner, Sharon. “Poison Fruit: Dow Chemical Wants Farmers to Keep Using a Pesticide Linked to Autism and ADHD.” https://theintercept.com/2017/01/14/dow-chemical-wants-farmers-to-keep-using-a-pesticide-linked-to-autism-and-adhd/  Accessed July 5, 2017
[7] https://www.epa.gov/node/19701 Accessed July 1, 2017
[8]  Environmental Data & Governance Initiative. “The EPA Under Siege,” https://100days.envirodatagov.org/epa-under-siege.html  Accessed July 5, 2017.
[9] Smith, Heather. “Trump Administration is the Greatest Threat the EPA Has Ever Faced.” http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/trump-administration-greatest-threat-epa-has-ever-faced Accessed July 5, 2017.

Organic Farming, Monsanto, and Biotech Battles

9780700621330Agribusiness colossus Monsanto announced this week that it is cutting 2,600 jobs. Monsanto reported a net loss of $495 million in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2015. For sustainable food activists, this may augur a decline in biotechnology’s profitability, popularity, or viability. Monsanto has historically been cast as a scoundrel by organic farmers. The corporation is a global leader in patented plant traits, crop protection chemicals (e.g. Roundup), and genetically engineered seeds (e.g. Roundup Ready soybeans). Ad interim, synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are precluded from USDA-certified organic food production methods. Organicists tend to view GMOs as abhorrent and have tried repeatedly to pass national GMO labeling bills—unsuccessfully, so far. To witness the torrent of hatred directed at Monsanto, try searching for the #MonsantoEvil hashtag on Twitter.

I contacted Monsanto and received a call back within one hour from Christi Dixon, Monsanto spokesperson. Since Monsanto’s name is universally linked with agrichemicals and genetically altered seeds, I asked if Monsanto’s work was incongruous with the organic movement. “No. It all works together. We do a lot of research of traditional plant breeding,” Dixon said. “We serve growers of all types, including organic farmers. We have a vegetable business that is robust. We do a lot of traditional plant breeding.” I asked if Monsanto would consider funding organic agriculture research. “Yes, if farmers asked for it.” It was farmers, she said, who first demanded Roundup-ready crops.

Organic growing and genetic engineering have been held up as antithetical food production methods. Keeping GMOs out of organic crops is sacrosanct for the organic movement. There has long been a consensus that organic standards should exclude GMOs, since their inherent safety is still unknown. Monsanto has responded by pointing to thousands of studies, none of which have revealed concrete health problems from genetically modified foods. “We are committed to sustainable agriculture. We are trying to preserve the soil and preserve the planet and use resources more efficiently,” Dixon said. Monsanto is a multinational enterprise with prodigious—and sometimes ominous—power. Layoffs do not mean Monsanto will rescind its support of GMOs. The organic movement, meanwhile, will not abandon its ardent opposition.

-Written by Robin O’Sullivan, author of American Organic: A Cultural History of Farming, Gardening, Shopping, and Eating. O’Sullivan teaches history at Troy University and tweets @historynibbles.