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#521 - The Pesticide Treadmill, 20-Nov-1996

Consumers Union [CU], publisher of CONSUMER REPORTS magazine, last
month released a new book entitled PEST MANAGEMENT AT THE CROSSROADS.
[1] The book describes how we could reduce the public health hazards
and environmental dangers of pesticides by at least 75% in the next 25
years, at the same time increasing our agricultural yields. The basic
idea is to shift farms away from reliance on chemical pesticides toward
"integrated pest management," or IPM. IPM prevents outbreaks of pests
by diagnosing the source of pest problems, then employing various
preventive practices and biological controls to hold pest populations
within acceptable limits. CU's 288-page book shows in detail how and
where IPM is being used successfully today, how the shift from
chemicals to IPM could be made, what it would cost, and what kinds of
public policies would be needed to make it happen. It would be
difficult to overstate the importance of this book.

The main author of PEST MANAGEMENT AT THE CROSSROADS is Charles M.
Benbrook, former executive director of the Board on Agriculture of the
National Research Council. During Benbrook's tenure, the Board
published several important studies of U.S. agriculture, including
ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE, which presented case studies of 11 successful
farms in the U.S. that don't rely on chemicals.[2]

CU's new book starts by explaining how IPM works, then explains why it
is needed, making the following points:

** Despite the expenditure of more than $1 billion per year of
taxpayers' funds to regulate pesticides, the public health hazards and
environmental damage created by pesticides have not diminished during
the past 30 years.[1,pgs.57-87]

** The nation is on a "pesticide treadmill" because pests become
resistant to the effects of pesticides, requiring farms to adopt new
and more potent poisons, to which pests eventually become resistant.
There is no end to this toxic spiral. Resistance cannot be avoided; it
is a natural part of the evolutionary process. When a group of pests is
exposed to a toxic chemical, some of them survive. These hardy few
reproduce and their offspring inherit genes resistant to this
particular chemical. Excessive use of a pesticide speeds up the process
by which pests develop resistance. More than 500 insects have now
developed resistance to one or more pesticides; so have 270 species of
weeds and 150 plant diseases.[1,pg.2]

** The pesticide treadmill operates in another way as well. By killing
off beneficial organisms that help keep pests in check, pesticides
often create the conditions under which pests can flourish. As the
World Bank said recently, "Since the 1940s, pest management technology
has increasingly relied on chemical pesticides. Although in some cases
this use has led to significant short term alleviation of pest
problems, it has not led to long term sustainable solutions. In fact,
it has often led to further pest problems, putting farmers in a vicious
cycle of pests and pesticides, and increasing the burden on the

Happily, an alternative exists: integrated pest management (IPM). CU's
new book describes many examples of successful IPM programs, citing
successful efforts on individual farms, and by government agencies.
Compared to chemical techniques, such programs result in fewer pests,
and higher crop yields, at lower costs.

In every sense, IPM is a rational approach to pest management. It
relies on knowledge of the specific pests and specific crops grown in
specific soils under specific climatic conditions. In essence, IPM
substitutes knowledge for the "brute force" approach of toxic

However, it is difficult to be optimistic about IPM being widely
adopted until other changes have occurred in the way our society makes
decisions. Unfortunately, the CU book shies away from discussing these
more fundamental changes. The truth is that, at present, the pesticide
corporations are simply too powerful to be influenced by rational
argument or the need to protect public health and the environment.
Worldwide, pesticide sales reached $29 billion in 1995[1,pg.32]--$10.4
billion in the U.S. alone.[1,pg.1] Six corporations dominate the
industry, capturing 67.4 percent of total industry sales in 1995.
[1,pg.31] The recent merger of Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy created Novartis,
the world's largest agrichemical corporation, with annual sales of more
than $4.4 billion in 1995 --almost double those of the next largest
competitor, Monsanto.[1,pg.31]

In addition to exercising almost unimaginable political power, the
pesticide industry is now off on a new tangent that promises to be
immensely profitable by increasing the use of chemical pesticides. The
new direction is genetically engineered crops.

There are two major paths being explored now by companies like
Monsanto: (1) crops that are genetically engineered to withstand
applications of herbicides, so that whole fields can be doused with
herbicides to kill weeds. And (2), crops that are genetically
engineered so that the crop itself becomes toxic to particular pests.
Monsanto is leading the way in both technologies.[4] This year,
Monsanto started selling soybean seeds that have been genetically
altered to withstand Monsanto's herbicide, named Roundup. Roundup
[glyphosate] kills just about everything green, so it must be applied
to weeds with great care and in limited amounts, to avoid harming
nearby crops. But now Monsanto has incorporated a petunia gene into
soybeans, and the resulting soybeans are not harmed by Roundup. Now an
entire field can be doused with Roundup, killing the weeds but not the
soybeans. The short-term result is an increased soybean yield, and of
course soils and nearby water supplies and wildlife contaminated with
Roundup. Because neither the farmer nor Monsanto pays the price of
ecological or public health damage from such techniques, the result is
more profit for farm corporations, more profit for Monsanto, and
increased costs to public health and the environment.[4]

Monsanto is also leading the way in the other new genetic engineering
technology --giving whole plants the characteristics of a pesticide, by
gene splicing. For example, consider Bt. BACILLUS THURINGIENSIS (Bt) is
a natural bacteria that exists in the soil. Caterpillars that eat Bt
develop serious stomach problems and die. The larval stages of many
moths and beetles, and certain butterflies and flies, are killed by Bt.
In recent years, Bt has been cultivated and manufactured into a product
that can be sprayed on crops. So far as anyone knows, nothing besides
the larval stages of these insects are affected by Bt. Bt is used by
almost all organic farmers, and by many "conventional" farmers as well,
especially on fruits and vegetables. (Organic farmers grow and market
food and fiber certified as 100% free of toxic chemical residues.)

In essence, Bt is a public good --a freely-available benefit that
nature has provided to us all, useful to anyone who wants to use it. Bt
belongs to no one.

Now, however, Monsanto has decided to put Bt genes into cotton and
other crops, for Monsanto's benefit. There are plans afoot to do the
same for corn, potatoes and perhaps other crops as well. All the parts
of the resulting plants become poisonous to certain pests. As a result,
insect pests of many kinds will soon become resistant to Bt, and Bt
will cease to be useful to farmers. No one disputes that this will
happen --some say in 10 years, others say as soon as 3 years.
[1,pgs.167,222] The result will be that Monsanto has destroyed this
public good. Bt will be rendered ineffective as a pesticide. Those who
rely on Bt will then have to substitute dangerous organophosphate and
carbamate chemical pesticides.

As CU says, "The loss of Bt to resistance triggered by Bt-transgenic
[genetically-engineered] plants would be a major setback for American
agriculture, especially fruit and vegetable growers in the Southeast
and organic producers nationwide. Insects that Bt can control include
many difficult to manage pests leading to heavy reliance on
insecticides in a wide range of crops--the cabbage looper, diamondback
moth, major insect pests of cotton (bollworm, tobacco budworm), corn
borer, the Colorado potato beetle, the beet armyworm, gypsy moth,
spruce budworm, and many other tough to control pests. Bt foliar
products [i.e., sprays] are the foundation of most... [high quality]
IPM systems in Florida fruit and vegetable regions. Organic farmers
producing certified produce are even more reliant on Bt products than
their conventional neighbors because they are not able to use
conventional pesticides without sacrificing their ability to market
produce as organic."[1,pg.221]

If one were in the business of making chemical pesticides without a
moral compass, there could be no better plan for promoting the sale of
pesticides: use genetic engineering to destroy the effectiveness of the
main non-chemical pesticide relied upon by the organic farming
community. In a strict business sense, Monsanto has developed a winning
strategic attack on its organic-farming competitors --a brilliant,
almost diabolical, plan for crushing the competition. However, it is
also a ruthless assault on the public, which has an inherent right to
use Bt and to not have its use of Bt spoiled by one self-absorbed
corporation. Monsanto's strategy --which it is presently carrying out -
-will inevitably lead to greater environmental damage and harm to
public health from reliance on pesticidal chemical poisons.

CU recommends that EPA should become more assertive and "just say no"
to "avoid draining agency resources on efforts to manage major new
risks, like those posed by... the approval in 1995 and 1996 of plant
varieties genetically engineered to produce... BACILLUS THURINGIENSIS
(BT).... Widespread planting of BT-transgenic crops is likely to
accelerate the emergence of resistance to BT, forcing farmers to switch
to more toxic insecticides. This will increase risks EPA has been
struggling to reduce."[1,pg.9] CU goes on: "...EPA should refuse to
register new transgenic BT crop varieties and herbicide-resistant crop
strains, and should revoke the registrations of any such products...
shown to trigger genetic resistance among target pest

Unfortunately, CU fails to come to grips with reality here. EPA --
despite lip service that it pays to IPM --simply hasn't got what it
takes to stand up to power like Monsanto's. And so the environment
continues to deteriorate, public health is increasingly endangered, and
public confidence in government diminishes further. The hope of
achieving 100% IPM by the year 2020 fades as Monsanto and other giant
corporations take the world in a direction that is profitable for them
but destructive for virtually everyone else. Given who funds Congress
and the President at re-election time, EPA's only conceivable role in
this drama is to sit by, provide the necessary approvals, and give
empty assurances that all is well.

This is an excellent, informative book. Everyone who cares about
pesticides, public health, and the environment should be encouraged to
read it. One can only wish that the book didn't skirt the central
issue: Can corporations be made truly accountable to their neighbors,
their compatriots, their shareholders, their employees and their
customers? If so, how? It is THE key question. Is it asking too much to
think that Consumer's Union, the nation's premier consumer protection
organization, should speak clearly about the REAL reasons we're on the
dreadful toxic treadmill their new book describes so convincingly?

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] Charles M. Benbrook and others, PEST MANAGEMENT AT THE CROSSROADS
(Yonkers, N.Y.: Consumer's Union, 1996). Copies available for $35.95
from Professional Mailing and Distribution Services, Inc., P.O. Box
2013, Annapolis Junction, Md. 20701; phone: (301) 617-7815; fax: (301)
206-9789; E-mail: pmac@pmds.com.

[2] National Research Council, ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE (Washington, DC:
National Academy Press, 1989).

Bank, March, 1996), quoted in Benbrook (cited above in note 1), pg. 36.

[4] Peter Fritsch and Scott Kilman, "Seed Money: Huge Biotech Harvest
Is a Boon for Farmers --And for Monsanto," WALL STREET JOURNAL October
24, 1996, pg. A1.

Descriptor terms: agriculture; pesticides; corporations; regulation;
epa; genetic engineering; bt; bacillus thuringiensis; consumer's union;
pest management at the crossroads; charles benbrook; ipm; resistance;
roundup; monsanto; novartis;

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