Nov. 4 was not exactly a “red-letter” day for the U.S. crop protection industry. In fact, some would argue the Democratic Party's victory in the national presidential election was the seed and chemical sector's worst nightmare come true.
But, rather than bemoan the outcome, industry leaders have begun calling for the making of science-based regulatory decisions, something which they say was not always the case the last time a pro-environmental-lobby administration took office.
“Under the current administration, the EPA is working hard to let science dictate the decision making policy,” said Eric Wintemute, CEO of AMVAC Chemical Co. and chairman of the board of directors of CropLife America, the organization that represents most of the nation's farm chemical suppliers.
“But it has not always been that way. Under a previous administration, the elimination of all ‘old’ chemicals was the directive, regardless of science. My concern is that when we face a new administration in January, we do not want to see the derailing of sound science and risk-benefit analysis.”
Speaking at the Southern Crop Production Association annual meeting the day before the election, Wintemute said farmers in the United States and other parts of the world know the importance of having the crop protection tools they need to feed a growing world population.
Regulatory agencies, on the other hand, don't always have the same understanding of the need for crop protection chemicals and biotechnology products.
“Depending on the outcome of the election tomorrow, there may be renewed efforts to restrict the use of our products,” he said on Nov. 3. “As we have long faced, environmental concerns and human health concerns will be cited. Too often, these loudly voiced concerns are supported by little more than emotion and unfounded fear and the occasional movie star.”
The underlying premise of those voices has often been that if you eliminate all pesticides, no one will be hurt. Nothing could be further from the truth, said Wintemute.
“Our industry helps feed the world, helps clothe the world, keeps the world safe from diseases and helps provide alternate sources of energy,” he said. “It is not true that by eliminating pesticides you do no harm. If pesticides are banned, people starve, people die.”
Wintemute cited the elimination of DDT in 1972 (by a Republican administration, ironically), as an example of what can happen when sound science is trumped by fear and speculation. (DDT was believed to cause thinning of birds' eggshells.)
“Over the last 30 years, close to 50 million people have lost their lives to malaria; deaths that could have been avoided with the use of DDT,” he said. “Three decades after its ban, the World Health Organization is finally calling for the reinstatement of DDT to combat malaria. Science is finally triumphing, but at what cost of human life?”
As more than one economist has predicted, the world population, the numbers of people in the new middle class and demand for food are all expected to grow exponentially in the next 20 to 30 years. Wintemute says the world is looking to the United States to meet the growing need for food.
“The good news is that we in the United States represent the center and pinnacle of the world's agricultural community,” he said. “We lead the world in embracing agricultural advancements, equipment, farming techniques, irrigation systems, stewardship and, of course, soil treatment crop protection chemicals and use of genetic seed.
“What everyone in this room knows is that through sound science we have the tools and the know-how to meet the growing demands on the agricultural industry. But what we have to do, individually and collectively, is ensure that these tools are not taken away.”
The U.S. crop protection industry, he said, has the opportunity to 1) focus the attention of the world on output and yield enhancement; 2) show the positive aspects of genetic modification; 3) showcase the application of synthetic chemicals safely, efficiently and economically; 4) focus on soil fertility regeneration; and 5) emphasize the economic application of crop protection materials while minimizing the environmental footprint.
Wintemute acknowledged that some tools used by farmers have risks. “John F. Kennedy talked about the importance of being willing to take risks when acting to solve problems. He said: ‘There are risks and costs to a program of action. But they are far less than the long range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.’
“We know that the world cannot be fed unless crop production is enhanced and increased, and this cannot be accomplished if our tools are taken from us.”