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Phasing Out Pesticides

Until I started working for the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1979, I rarely had come across the word pesticide and never seen the actual synthetic poison. My father occasionally used sulfur for fumigating his vineyards, the very same method Homer mentioned in Book 22 of the “Odyssey.”

It happened, however, that my position with the EPA was with its Office of Pesticide Programs. So my education about pesticides was rapid and comprehensible. I was fortunate that my first supervisor was Bill Preston, a biologist with remarkable and extensive experience and knowledge. He used to manage several government laboratories. At the EPA, however, he was in charge of developing guidelines for data necessary for testing and registering pesticides. He used to tell me, in great regret, that the government laboratories dedicated to protecting human health and the environment from pesticides were getting fewer and fewer.

Preston was probably the only government manager I remember with affection and respect. He calmly described the forces at work within and without EPA. Politics, he often said, was satisfying the industry. Bureaucrats had science on their side. With his assistance and encouragement, I learned the basic science and policy that govern pesticides.

I also learned pesticides are dangerous and useless for family farming. Why call them pesticides when they are biocides? In fact, these biocides are also chemical and biological weapons.

To some degree, I kept my private thoughts to myself – for twenty-five years. Yet, I could not suppress the truth. My memos to senior officials were full of facts and warnings about the failure and dangers of industrialized farming hooked on neurotoxins and other poisons.

Once retirement arrived in 2004, I spent the next several years in writing “Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA” (2014).

The book is a great relief for me. Now, I said to all thinking men and women and, in particular, environmentalists, you have my story: neatly arranged between two covers. No more excuses of what is going on behind the closed doors of the industry and EPA. At great and measurable economic cost, disruption of my career, and risk to myself, I tell you what you need to know to get rid of pesticides and reform agriculture to a democratic and life-supporting civilization.

Fortunately, I am not alone in this struggle. In 1962, Rachel Carson warned pesticides are silencing the natural world. In 1978, Robert van den Bosch, biology professor at Berkeley, did more than repeat Carson’s warning. Killing bugs, he said, is mostly about “merchandising gimmickry.” He warned that regulating pesticides in America is nothing but a façade of hidden “politics, deceit, corruption, and treachery.” His blunt language probably scared people. The environmentalists ignored Bosch but embraced Carson.

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