Science And Sense

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced that it is banning methyl parathion, an important pesticide used in fruit and vegetable production for many decades. The ban is the beginning of a long process as the EPA reevaluates dozens of pesticides which, like methyl parathion, are known as organophosphates. The process is part of a larger effort to reevaluate all pesticides that were approved a long time ago.

The produce industry’s efforts in this area have focused around ensuring that good science, rather than emotion or scare tactics, is what governs the process and, as far as it goes, these efforts have had some modest success in keeping chemicals available to farmers.

Increasingly, however, the premise of this effort – that evaluation of individual chemicals can tell us, in some sort of scientific manner, if the chemical is safe or unsafe – seems inadequate.

The problem is that for every action, there is a reaction. The more we know about the world, the more we see this kind of discrete chemical-by-chemical analysis is useless.

A recent study found that sunscreen does not help prevent skin cancer. Why? Well, it turns out that those who use sunscreen feel more confident about staying out in the sun for extended periods thus negating whatever advantage the sunscreen may provide.

It has been hard not to note the explosion of fat-free products over the last few years, yet the number of skinny people seems to be ever shrinking. Want an explanation? Here are two: First, those fat-free products are so flavorless that they tend to be filled with sugar to provide some taste, thus making them more calorie-filled that the original “fat included” product. Add in the increase in people’s willingness to consume greater quantities of the fat-free product and one comes away certain that the more fat-free products we produce, the fatter we are likely to become.

All this is just a roundabout way of saying that the impact of restricting any one thing on people’s health and on the environment can’t be determined without looking at the interrelationships between things.

All of the chemicals used are safe in the acute sense that nobody dies instantly from eating a piece of fruit with any legal pesticide applied in legal amounts. So we are talking about highly hypothetical consequences of consumption of a product over many decades.

It is undisputed that even if pesticides create some health risk, they do so only infinitesimally compared to smoking, excessive drinking, being overweight, failing to exercise and, yes, failing to eat adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables.

Not that we actually know that methyl parathion really causes any damage. The sudden rush to abandon these long-time chemical workhorses of the industry is caused by an arbitrary policy change enacted in the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996. Methyl parathion and organophosphates, in general, have long been considered “safe for use” because they passed the old standard which required a safety factor of 100 times the “no effect” level found in rat tests. The 1996 law, however, allowed the EPA to impose 1,000 times safety factors which, apparently, the chemicals don’t measure up to. But, of course, there is no evidence that consumers were ever injured by consumption at the old level.

The consequences of forcing farmers to use a second best choice are unpredictable. Very possibly the use of inferior alternatives may reduce yields, and such a reduction will increase the cost of production. Higher prices will lead to consumption lower than what we would have had with lower prices.

This lower produce consumption will be compensated for with higher consumption of other, less healthy food products and that will mean more heart disease, cancer, etc. So real policy changes done to achieve dubious and hypothetical advantages in health may well lead to poorer health for the citizenry.

Same point for environmental damage: Chemicals cost a lot of money and farmers apply them to increase yields of saleable crop. If inferior products are all that is made available to farmers, farmers will experience declining yields. These lowered yields mean more land must be devoted to farming to generate the same size crop.

Do this on any scale and before one knows it, forests are being felled to expand farmland and additional acreage under the plow means more chemical usage, perhaps outweighing any actual benefit from reducing the use of a particular chemical.

The produce industry has walked a fine line on this issue. Loathe to be identified as a defender of chemical companies, the produce industry has worked quietly behind the scenes while letting chemical companies defend their own products publicly.

The sentiments are understandable, but it is a bit cowardly as an attitude. The truth is that the use of chemicals has enabled farmers to feed an ever-growing population and the only real thing we know is that, somehow or other, as the usage of chemicals in farming has boomed, life expectancy has boomed as well.

Did chemicals cause this increase? Not in the sense that any study of a chemical will ever find, but in the sense that they helped create a world with a great surplus of healthy, inexpensive food. Surely that is the real goal of our government’s policy.

Perhaps we need to start fighting for the ideal that government policy needs to be dictated not only by good science but also by good sense.