Thursday, August 13, 2015

Silent Spring #5- Reflections on the Precautionary Principle

by Sarah Janes Ugoretz
After spending the last several weeks exploring the implications that pesticides like neonicotinoids and glyphosate have on our pollinators and other beneficials, this week we bring the precautionary principle into the conversation. Now more than ever, we can be brutally honest and ask ourselves: how did we get here?

The precautionary principle (PP) was first formulated and invoked in the 1980s, primarily through the implementation of the Montreal Protocol. Its basic tenant mandates that: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically” (Raffensperger, 1998). In the event that this is true, the burden of proof falls to those who endorse and promote the activity, not the general public. For example, in accordance with the PP, instead of waiting until people become sick, the responsibility of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is to extend to the public a reasonable expectation that we are shielded from danger. An informed, transparent, and democratic process must accompany the application of the PP, and the possibility of taking no action (as in, not moving forward with the marketing, sale, and widespread use of a potentially harmful pesticide) must be given equal weight when considering the range of alternatives (Raffensperger, 1998).

Unfortunately, as we touched on in our earlier conversation about glyphosate, the FDA is often presented with industry studies—studies that are conducted entirely by corporations like Monsanto and Dow Chemical Company and that are, apart from FDA review, classified. By attaching a commercial-in-confidence label to these reports, corporations manage to side step having to offer up their studies for review and assessment by external scientists, researchers or even the general public—groups who are less likely to be burdened by any conflicts of interest (Leu, 2014). As the Union of Concerned Scientists has noted, “By creating obstacles to independent research on its products, [corporations like] Monsanto make it harder for farmers and policy makers to make informed decisions that can lead to more sustainable agriculture” (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2012).

In the U.S., we depart starkly from Europeans, Canadians, Australians and others who tend to subscribe to the notion that it is better to prevent damage than to repair it. As Mark Bittman has commented, “We ask not whether a given chemical might cause cancer but whether we’re certain that it does” (Bittman, 2015). For an interesting contrast, let’s take the European Commission, which, in 2013, voted to impose a two-year ban on the use of certain neonics. Faced with incomplete data and uncertainty as to whether neonics are irrefutably related to the decline of bee populations, the European Commission erred on the side of caution in imposing the ban. The U.S., on the other hand, is still reviewing the evidence. According to Jim Jones, Assistant Administrator for Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the EPA is allowing science to inform the regulatory actions they do and do not take. Operating in this manner allows them to “make sure that [they] make accurate and appropriate regulatory decisions as opposed to [doing] things that could lead to meaningful societal cost without any benefit whatsoever” (Plumer, 2013). As Plumer has commented, where the European Commission is siding with the environment on this one, the U.S. is clearly letting economic considerations take center stage. “It’s still not clear that neonicotinoids are to blame, and pesticides are a billion-dollar industry, so regulators are moving slowly in setting restrictions” (Plumer, 2013).

Unsurprisingly, there are many in the U.S. who question the usefulness and the practicality of the PP. These critiques primarily fall in line with the question of weighing risks. Michael Specter, longtime staff writer at The New Yorker, insists that we “…have to be aware of blindly invoking the ‘precautionary principle’” (Specter, 2015). After all, risk is subjective and safety is difficult to prove. But when we really get down to it, what truly needs protecting here? The economy, silly! As we know (and as we can deduce from Mr. Jones’ comment above), the pesticide industry is a billion-dollar entity and in the U.S., we’re hooked on industrial agriculture, quick fixes and cheap food. All of these things are intimately tied to the convenience that comes with agro-chemicals. To move away from pesticides like neonics and glyphosate would be to unravel the model of agriculture we’ve worked so diligently to put in place since chemical fertilizers first appeared on the scene after World War II and Earl Butz so tenderly cooed, “Get big or get out” (Philpott, 2008).

Over 20 years ago, Farmer Richard spent some time in Holland. During this time, he met with several Dutch farmers, a majority of whom grew vegetables in greenhouses using hydroponic methods. They recounted to Richard that some months before, they had noticed a decline in the aquatic life and, by extension, the water birds that lived near and fed from the canals that traversed their region. The farmers quickly traced the problem back to their hydroponic systems—the water that was being discharged was making its way into the canals, and it was taking the farmers’ fertilizer and other chemicals along for the ride.

Despite being competitors in the same marketplace, these farmers came together to collectively recognize the problem and identify a solution. Though the cost was considerable, the farmers decided that the most effective solution would be to install recycling systems, which would work to clean the discharged water. Driven by the conviction that making this change was the right thing to do, and having faith that consumers would be willing to pay a few cents more for their produce, the farmers invested in the necessary infrastructure. Before long they began to notice that, in the absence of polluted water, the canals’ rich aquatic life had begun to rebound, along with other valuable species like birds.

This “do the right thing” mentality and attitude made a lasting impression on Farmer Richard—one that he has carried with him over his many years of farming. Where the Dutch farmers recognized the need for and ultimately embraced change, many farmers in our country tend to stick to the status quo—despite the fact that we need to adjust the overarching principles that drive large-scale conventional agriculture. As Farmer Richard has noted, here we are more likely to see farmers banning together in opposition to change. In advocating for “right to farm” laws (often with backing from the Farm Bureau), it becomes less likely that farmers will have to take a serious look at and acknowledge the detrimental impacts some of their farming practices are having on the health of their families and friends, employees, pollinator helpers and their own land.

In reflecting on our current state of affairs—our country’s ongoing dependence on pesticides and our populace’s relegation by the FDA to the de facto status of guinea pigs—I found this commentary by Mark Bittman (2015) particularly appropriate: “We don’t need better, smarter chemicals along with crops that can tolerate them.” Rather, Bittman argues that what we truly need is fewer chemicals and a heavy infusion of agroecology—intercropping, crop rotation, organic fertilizers, cover crops and other methods that are ecologically informed, environmentally safe, and demonstrated to be economically beneficial.
We should hold tightly to this image, as a future reality to strive for. In the meantime, however, at a time when our regulatory bodies are slow to take preventative, protective action on our behalf, we can use our own knowledge and understanding in deciding whether or not to apply the precautionary principle on a personal level, a household level or, as we’ll see next week, on a city-wide level….because it’s the right thing to do.


Bittman, M. (2015, March 25). Stop making us guinea pigs. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Leu, A. (2014). The myths of safe pesticides. Austin, TX: Acres U.S.A.

Philpott, T. (2008, February 8). A reflection on the lasting legacy of 1970s USDA Secretary Earl Butz. Retrieved from

Plumer, B. (2013, May 3). Why are bees dying? The U.S. and Europe have different theories. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Raffensperger, C. (1998). The precautionary principle: A fact sheet. Science & Environmental Health Network. Retrieved from

Specter, M. (2015, April 10). Roundup and risk assessment. The New Yorker. Retrieved from

Union of Concerned Scientists. (2012). Eight ways Monsanto fails at sustainable agriculture. Retrieved from

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