“Sound environmental administration must reconcile divergent interests and serve the total public constituency. It must appreciate and take fully into account competing social and economic claims.” This snippet of wisdom originates in a memo sent to Republican President, Richard Nixon recommending the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in April, 1970.
Following a tradition of eco-consciousness started by GOP predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, Nixon created the EPA as a force for responsible environmental action, reliant upon hard science to guide policy. A cadre of EPA lawyers interpreted the science to encode legislation against polluters, set legal guidelines for conscientious development, and seek appropriate reparations against offenders.
And it worked! Superfund sites were designated and cleaned up, urban river renewal became a ‘thing’, and new clean air standards slowed down the ravages of acid rain.
At the same time, the U.S. became ‘bread basket’ to the world, harnessing modern, mechanized farming techniques and post-World War II chemical pesticide technology. Our agricultural might quickly became a source of wealth and geopolitical leverage.
It also brought us the environmental disaster known as DDT.
For those too young to remember, DDT and its extensive, lethal wildlife impacts only became known after ecologist Rachel Carson gleaned pesticide data from her work at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and published the bomb known as “Silent Spring.”
Despite extensive chemical company resistance, massive public concern led to DDT’s U.S. ban in 1972, with all pesticides also regulated to prevent another DDT-type fiasco. We’d done our job as citizens. We finally had our watchdog, the EPA.
Or so we thought…
On the market since the 1990s, neonicotinoids (neonics) are a class of pesticides that kill by acting upon the nervous synapse in invertebrates—like flea beetles and bees. Neonic approval relied primarily upon industry-generated research, and was fast-tracked during the Reagan administration, and registered for use with no long-term study of effects.
What happened to the EPA?
Hamstrung by continual budget cuts, accused of stalling economic growth during a recession, and demonized by the political party that founded it, EPA became a rubber stamp agency headed by appointees with little, if any, regulatory experience and a forgotten mandate. The watchdog had no teeth.
Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) responded to the growing neonic danger, as bee populations plummeted and food crops were endangered. Italy banned neonics in 2008 without any of the industry-predicted reductions in crop yields. The EU, using research from over 30 peer-reviewed studies issued a temporary ban against three neonics—imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam—in December 2013.
A particularly alarming study out of the Netherlands in 2014 compels comparison of neonics to DDT. It links a drastic decline in farm bird species to water-soluble neonicotinoids “turning up in waterways at levels that exceed the lethal dose for things that live in streams”—aquatic species which breeding birds depend on for food.
Thirty European studies not enough? A 2014 Harvard School of Public Health study conducted on western Massachusetts farms concluded that “sub lethal exposure to neonicotinoids is likely the main culprit for the occurrence of CCD.” Colony Collapse Disorder is a mysterious phenomena that is devastating honeybees—our key food crop pollinator.
Neonicotinoid manufacturers Bayer and Syngenta deny the studies, of course. They’re pushing to have the EU ban overturned, citing higher than normal pesticide applications in the lab as responsible for negative results, even though the Harvard and Netherlands studies were field studies.
Endless debate between research scientists and multinational companies has led to government paralysis and public apathy in the U.S. But as we dither, evidence mounts that neonics are eroding the very basis of the food chain upon which we all depend—a lot more than bees are at risk.
With Big Ag and the chemical pesticide industry receiving no federal guidance to “reconcile divergent interests and serve the total public constituency,” it’s well past time to depoliticize the EPA, appoint reputable environmental scientists without allegiance to a desired outcome, and penetrate the confusion surrounding neonics.
The EPA will issue a report in late 2015 or early 2016 with recommendations for action. It’s time for Republicans to reclaim their proud heritage of eco-consciousness and finally support EPA in doing the job they so wisely gave it.
Former farmer and journalist Karen Johnston is a regular Blue Ridge Press contributor. She lives in Rochester, Vermont. © www.blueridgepress.com 2015.
Published: March 19, 2015 - Volume 13 - Issue 49