JONATHAN LATHAM: Unsafe at any Dose?

Glyphosate is an agrochemical for which there is multiple evidence of harm (International Agency for Research on Cancer, IARC). Banning it would therefore seem like a rational decision and obviously in the best interests of public health—obvious, except that glyphosate, like all chemicals released into the environment, is not by itself the problem. Its application all over the world is a symptom of something much larger. Just as scratching an itch does not make a bite go away or prevent more bites, banning glypho­sate will only open up space for other agro-chemicals. If glyphosate were banned, chemicals such as Thorazine, 2,4-D, and dicamba would replace it, and campaigning efforts will, at best, have been wasted. At worst, they will have resulted in greater harm. The only way to eradicate glyphosate without making things even worse is to understand its place in the system of corpo­rate food production (as opposed to “cultivation”—Martha Herbert’s useful distinction found elsewhere in this book) and act accordingly.

The principle at work is that all complex systems such as global food production contain the possibility of change; but in order for change to occur, it is necessary for an external change-maker to carefully select those points at which pressure can productively be exerted and distinguish them from those that may be more obvious but are ultimately ephemeral. The sys­tem will not change of its own accord. Possibly a little pressure at the right place can achieve what historically has not been done because the energy has been misapplied. Perhaps much more can be achieved than the simple ban­ning of glyphosate. But first it will be necessary to understand the processes by which chemicals become widely used, which is best done through their history. We can begin with the lesson of BPA. Piecemeal, and at long last, chemical manufacturers have begun removing the endocrine-disrupting plastic bisphenol-A1 (BPA) from products they sell. Sunoco no longer sells BPA2 for products that might be used by children under three. France has a national ban3 on BPA food packaging. The European Union has banned it from baby bottles.4 These bans and withdrawals are the result of epic scien­tific research and some intensive environmental campaigning. But in truth these restrictions are not victories for human health, nor are they even losses for the chemical industry.

For one thing, the chemical industry now profits from selling premium-priced BPA-free products. These are usually made with the chemical substi­tute BPS, which current research suggests is even more of a health hazard than BPA.5 But since BPS is far less studied, it will likely take many years to build a sufficient case for a new ban.

But the true scandal of BPA is that such sagas have been repeated many times. Time and again, synthetic chemicals have been banned or withdrawn, only to be replaced by others equally harmful, and sometimes worse. Neonicotinoids, for example, which the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) credits with creating a global ecological catastrophe,6 are modern replacements for long-targeted organophosphate pesticides. Organophosphates had previously supplanted DDT and the other organochlorine pesticides; many bird species are only now recovering from their effects.

So if chemical bans are ineffective (or worse), what should anyone who wants to protect against flame retardants, pesticides, herbicides, endocrine disruptors, plastics, and so on—but who doesn’t expect much help from their government or the polluters themselves—do?

What would effective grassroots strategies for the protection of people and ecosystems from toxic exposures look like? Ought their overarching goal be a reduction in total population exposures and/or fewer chemical sales? Or should they aim for sweeping bans, such as of entire chemical classes? Or bans on specific usages (e.g., in all food or in all of agriculture)? Or on chemical use in particular geographic locations (e.g., in and around schools)? Or perhaps a better demand would be the dismantling (with or without replacement) of existing regulatory agencies, such as the culpable EPA. Or should chemical homicide be made a statutory crime? Or all of these together? And last but not least, how can such goals be achieved given the finances and politics of our age?


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