Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ Turns 60, as UK Government Turns Cold on Pesticides

27 Sept 2022

Sixty years ago, Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, alerted the world to the dangers of chemical pesticides to the environment and our health. The environmental degradation predicted by Carson, who warned of a future “silent spring” unless pesticides were tackled, continues to unfold.

Since records began in 1990, the UK has covered over 700 million hectares in pesticides – enough to dose every inch of the country 14 times over. Meanwhile, local councils, up and down the country, still routinely use pesticides linked to cancer in parks and playgrounds.

The UK Government’s “dither and delay” approach to pesticide policy is failing to adequately protect human health and the environment from pesticides.

Despite its promises to publish a national action plan on pesticides, the Government is now talking about deregulation, with UK’s prime minister, Liz Truss, promising a “red tape bonfire”, which is likely to put human health and wildlife at further risk.

Synthetic pesticides are some of the most toxic substances in use today, persisting in the environment for weeks, months or even years.

Polar Bears have been found to have pesticides residues in their system, despite those chemicals never having been used in the Arctic. Ice sheets and glaciers melting as a result of climate change, are thought to be releasing pesticide residues that have been accumulating since the 1940s.

“How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind? Yet, this is precisely what we have done.”- Rachel Carson, Silent Spring.

Food & Farming

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“Rachel Carson would turn in her grave if she could see how pesticide use has proliferated since she wrote Silent Spring. Most crops are now treated with a blizzard of insecticides, molluscicides, fungicides and herbicides, which damage soils, pollute streams, and chronically expose wildlife and people to complicated mixture of toxins. We urgently need to transition to more sustainable farming methods.” – said Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology, University of Sussex and author of Silent Earth.

According to the United Nations, the world’s population is set to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, with huge concern on the need to ensure universal access to healthy food, but at the same time making sure food is produced in a sustainable way.

Pesticides are putting long-term food security at risk by damaging our soils and the creatures that help plants to grow. Despite industry claims, pesticides are not necessary for food security, and there are other ways to farm with nature.

Approximately 75% of global crop types rely on animal pollination. The UK government decided to authorise, for “emergency use”, the poisonous bee-killing pesticide neonicotinoid on beet crops. A single teaspoon of neonicotinoid is enough to deliver a lethal dose to 1.25 billion bees.

Josie Cohen, Head of Policy & Campaigns, Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK), mentioned:

“The agrochemical industry continues to tout the long discredited myth that we cannot feed the world without pesticides. But three quarters of the world’s food crops depend, at least in part, on pollinators. We now know that the recent crashes in populations of bees and other pollinators that are being driven by pesticide, pose a much greater and more existential threat to global food security.”

In the meantime, the UK farmland biodiversity continues to decline, with bird populations more than halving since 1970 and arable wildflowers becoming one of the most threatened groups of plants in the UK. The use of pesticides is the leading cause of this decline.

Martin Lines, an arable farmer and UK chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, explains:

“Government policy has taken farmers down a path that doesn’t view or reward nature as integral to sustainable food production. The government has not acted with the necessary urgency to address the biodiversity crisis, and it continues to drag its feet in delivering a new pesticide National Action Plan. We are concerned that this new government will turn a blind eye to importing products that use pesticides, which are illegal in this country and will contribute to the decline of nature.”

Human Health

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“We are very concerned about the effects of certain pesticides still in current use. Some may act as carcinogens by inducing gene mutations. Others can act as endocrine (hormone) disrupting chemicals that may affect hormones – including oestrogen – which may also increase breast cancer risk”, mentioned Thalie Martini, CEO of Breast Cancer UK.

Pesticides used in agriculture can leave traces of chemicals in our food known as residues. Residues detected on a specific food item will depend which pesticides are used and how persistent they are. Some food may contain one single residue or multiple ones (‘cocktail effect’).

We should all be aware of the implications caused by exposure to pesticides by spraying throughout towns, parks and playgrounds, and ingesting food containing not only one but also multiple pesticides, especially if consumed over a long period of time, during our childhood, adult life and especially during pregnancy.

Carey Gillam, investigative journalist and author of Whitewash – The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science and The Monsanto Papers – Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption, and One Man’s Search for Justice, mentioned during our last communication:

“There is abundant scientific evidence dating back decades that clearly establishes the serious health risks pesticide exposures create for people, especially children. It is simply irresponsible to ignore those risks, which include cancers, neurodevelopmental harms, reproductive problems, Parkinson’s disease and other adverse health effects.”

It’s worth highlighting some facts about the effects caused by pesticide exposure to our health:

• Long term pesticide exposure has been linked to the development of Parkinson’s disease; asthma; depression and anxiety; attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); and cancer, including leukaemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

• Some pesticides, known as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), have the potential to disrupt our hormone systems, and can play a role in the development of cancers, including colorectal and breast cancers. Pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as young children, are particularly vulnerable.

• Neurologists are warning of an impending Parkinson’s pandemic, linked to widespread exposure to herbicides, solvents, and other toxic chemicals used in agriculture and manufacturing. There is currently a class action lawsuit in the US over the link between lethal weed-killer paraquat and Parkinson’s disease.

• UCLA-led research published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, found that children prenatally exposed to the chemicals acephate and bromacil had an increased risk of developing retinoblastoma, or cancer in one eye, and exposure to pymetrozine and kresoxim-methyl increased the risk of all types of retinoblastoma.

Helen Browning, CEO, Soil Association, mentioned:

“Switching to foods that support healthy and sustainable diets, produced on agroecological farms, is crucial to stabilising our climate, reversing the catastrophic decline in wildlife and preventing public health emergencies. The countryside is still silent. Future generations deserve and need to live in a fertile, productive and naturally noisy world.”

Corporate Power

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“It is also an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged.” – Rachel Carson, Silent Spring.

Rachel Carson was met with fierce resistance from agrochemical companies, dismissing and undermining her scientific studies as nonsense – a tactic that the industry still uses today.

According to Allied Market Research, the global agrochemicals market is projected to reach $315.3 billion by 2030, compared to $231.0 billion in 2020.

Syngenta, one of the top four pesticide manufacturers, reported a 26% increase in profits for the first three months of 2022, a staggering $8.9 billion.

According to US scholars Howard and Hendrickson, up to 66% of the world sales of agrochemicals are in the hand of just four multinationals (Syngenta-ChemChina, Bayer-Monsanto, Basf and Corteva), whereas three of the same companies control half of global trade in seeds.

The UK continues to allow Syngenta manufacturing facility in Huddersfield to produce and export deadly pesticide paraquat to developing countries. Paraquat has been banned for use in the UK and the EU since 2007.

There’s clear evidence that the agrochemical industry is making substantial profits at the expense of people’s health and lives, as well as contributing to damage to environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.

Corporate lobby groups continue to deploy “science” to manipulate the public and pour money into the political system to get policy and regulation that tips in their favour and increases their profits.

Pesticide companies have been known to adopt tactics similar to the tobacco industry, including reportedly ghostwriting safety studies, going after scientists who publish unfavourable research, and putting out misinformation designed to undermine evidence that their products cause harm and that effective non-chemical alternatives exist.

Brexit & Deregulation

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In the UK, pesticide regulation is another issue of concern. If weakened, as a result of Brexit, there is a real danger of massive increase in pesticide harms.

Weakening of pesticide standards via trade deals with countries where pesticide regulation is less rigorous, like Australia, Brazil, India, Mexico and the United States, means the population in the UK may be consuming products with high level of pesticides, which are already banned in the country. The UK should be banning the imports of food produced with banned pesticides.

UK agriculture and farmers will also be directly affected by allowing crops grown more cheaply on a larger scale to be imported. This could lead to UK farmers having no option but to resort to the use of more pesticides domestically.

Hundreds of environmental laws that protect nature and our health in the UK, including chemical contamination, are set to expire in December 2023 and removed from UK law under a new government bill. This decision could have serious implications to our health and the environment; at a moment we should be doing everything we can to stop the damage we have caused to our planet.

According to a report released in January 2022 by the United Nations Human Rights Council, the toxification of planet Earth is intensifying. While a few toxic substances have been banned or are being phased out, the overall production, use and disposal of hazardous chemicals continues to increase rapidly.

“The chemical war is never won, and all life is caught in its violent crossfire.” – Rachel Carson, Silent Spring.

Climate change, the energy and food crises are real issues and currently affecting most of our lives in one way or another. It’s our duty to get involved and push world leaders, politicians, corporations, regulators, the ones in power and able to make concrete changes, to address these issues immediately, including the chemical war on our health and the environment.

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