Activists unify efforts, focus on health issues

Environmental activism is undergoing a metamorphosis — resulting in a more focused, more unified effort against chemicals and pollutants, says Bartholomew Mongoven.

“The new movement, simply, puts health at the center of all environmental issues,” he told members of the Southern Crop Production Association at their annual conference at Hilton Head, S.C.

“The clean air debate, for example, is no longer focused on the air, or emissions, but rather on asthma and other health effects of industrial emissions. Chemical issues, which have previously tended to be about water and other concerns, now are about the health impact of chemicals.

“There has always been a health aspect to agricultural chemical issues, and the environmental movement has seen how well that has worked, so they're now making health a part of industrial emission and toxic issues. This has resulted in a merging of activism in the industrial chemicals and pesticide arenas.”

Mongoven, who is director of analysis for Strategic Forecasting Inc., which identifies new and emerging issues and helps clients to deal with those issues, says several trends are occurring that will have an impact on agricultural chemicals.

They include the environmental health movement; an anti-toxics movement, centered mostly on industrial pollution; pesticide issues; and new developments in philantrophy.

“The one with the greatest long term implications is philantrophy,” he says. “Foundations are joining forces, working together more and more, and making different demands on the environmental movements.”

Medical influence

The environmental health movement is “very smart, very organized,” Mongoven says. “One example is how they're getting medical professionals to be their messengers. They've done this by working through medical associations, student medical groups, medical examining boards, and other organizations to make them hyper-aware of their claims regarding pesticide-related health issues.”

In turn, he says, when physicians are taking patient histories, “They'll be more likely to ask family health issues related to pesticides. The message implicit to these medical groups is that physicians should consider pesticides dangerous. By working with medical students, they disseminate their message to people who are young and more impressionable. Their ultimate goal is to make this procedure a part of state medical boards. It's a well thought-out, very organized strategy.”

Their position, Mongoven says, is: “We don't know how dangerous these materials are, but we can't prove they're safe. We have to be cautionary, we have to be afraid. Then, when they add the suspicion that pesticide companies influence the government's regulatory, science, and review processes, it further reinforces the message of caution and fear.”

The range and type of activist organizations, such as the Environmental Working Group and National Resources Defense Council, that are active in pesticide issues is relatively small, he says. “Other groups, such as the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Foundation, sometimes get involved in pesticide issues, but usually they stay out. Beyond these are the more rabid, anti-chemical groups.”

Clarifying message

All, Mongoven says, “are clarifying their message on chemicals and working toward complementary campaigns. You're going to see health groups and victims' groups coming at you.”

For example, he says, mental retardation groups, autism groups, and similar organizations “are going to become active at the state level, talking about how certain chemicals may be causing these health conditions.

“It's one thing when a bunch of activists come before a legislature and say these chemicals are causing health problems. It's another when a mother delivers an emotional message that ‘my child's autism was caused by this chemical, and it must be stopped.’ It's a different kind of messenger, with a different kind of message, and it's much, much more powerful.”

Other complementary issues are bringing anti-toxics and anti-pesticide groups together, he says. “People are talking about various threats to schools and students from chemicals — not just pesticides, but they're lumping in building materials, cleaning materials, etc.”

The environmental health movement is being abetted by changes in philanthropy, Mongoven says.

“It used to be that a foundation would just write a check to a non-profit organization and let it carry out its goal. Now, the foundation is saying, ‘We want to achieve the following. Write me a proposal to accomplish it.’ Previously, these organizations didn't have to work together, didn't have complementary goals. Now they do. Now the foundations are telling them where to go, what to do. ‘If you can't do it, we'll find someone who can,’ they say.

“These groups are learning that they need to work on environmental health issues, on pesticide issues — that that's where the money is. As a result, the non-profit organizations are getting smarter, more efficient, more effective, and we're seeing them coordinating their efforts on complementary objectives.”

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