Before one talks about the role of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the raising and quality of our food, it is necessary to say a few words about the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The USDA is much older and bigger than EPA and, more importantly, since WWII, USDA has been the brain behind the metamorphosis of American agriculture from small-scale family farming to the gigantic agribusiness of the early twenty-first century.
The USDA and other federal departments were so committed to corporate business they ignored the environmental effects of the industry for decades. The results included pervasive pollution of the environment and a serious blow to public health.
President Richard Nixon created the EPA in December, 1970. The hope then was that the new agency, conglomerated from pieces of older departments like the Department of the Interior, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW and now Health and Human Services) and Department of Agriculture, would clean up the pollution mess and mediate between the industry and the public.
For the first few years of its life, the EPA tried to protect people and the natural world from the toxins of the industry. But when it came to farming it faced terrible resistance. First of all, most of the agricultural and toxicological staff came from USDA. And by the early 1970s, the farmers themselves were brainwashed by USDA, the chemical companies, and the land grant universities. The doctrine of these big players was that pesticides were essential for the production of food.
Despite the power of the pro-pesticide alliance and its strong support on Capitol Hill, EPA banned DDT in 1972. DDT in 1972 was what systemic pesticides is in 2016. EPA studied the ecological and human health risks of DDT and said they were unacceptable. This courageous action proved the undoing of EPA. The entire agribusiness-chemical industry-big Science-Congressional complex attacked them.
Between 1973 and 1974, EPA senior officials adopted something between the conclusions of science and the bidding of the industry. EPA scientists would do their work, but the final say was left to the political appointees. These EPA politicians, appointed by the President, could not and did not resist the recommendations of the White House and, often, Congress. Those instructions had the fingerprints of the industry all over them.
The Politicals Behind Environmental Protection and the EPA
As a result, since the mid-1970s, the EPA has been licensing toxic and cancer-causing farm chemicals that, essentially, poison our food and drinking water while causing harm and death to wildlife.
How do I know this? I worked for the EPA for 25 years. In 2014, I published a book, Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA in which I document how the EPA works, who is influencing the scientists, and the administrators involved.
Pesticides are products of WWII chemical warfare. Many are neurotoxins which hurt our immune system, damaging female animals more than the male. Some of these toxins castrate male animals, including men. They also change the sex of animals, stopping their reproduction. And many of these pesticides injure or kill wildlife at extremely low amounts, contributing to a massive extinction of species, which is unprecedented in history.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit conservation organization in San Francisco, pesticides are a “significant threat” to both endangered species and biological diversity. On January 19, 2011, the Center sued the EPA for its failure to protect endangered species. The wave of extinction decimating plants and animals, according to the Center, is the worst since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. Species become extinct at a rate of 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate.
Systemic pesticides are also pushing honeybees to the brink of extinction. Honeybees give us honey and pollinate one-third of our crops. Meanwhile, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, pesticides kill on average 72 million birds every year.
The Environmental Protection Agency is not protecting public health and the environment. It is rather protecting the profits of corporations. The effects of pesticides are nearly invisible because Americans have been indoctrinated to consider pesticides as “normal” as apple pie when it comes to farming. The EPA does what Congress and the business of America has enshrined into law.
For example, it legalizes America’s unhealthy and hazardous food.
I call the food Americans eat “unhealthy and hazardous” because, unless it is certified organic, it is contaminated by legal and illegal poison residues. The EPA’s approval of so much poison in the food supply does nothing to lessen the toxic effects of the poison residues.
According to EPA data from the 1970s, these residues change the nutrition of food and pose immediate or long-term health threats to those growing and consuming it. EPA researchers pointed out in the 1970s that farmers die from cancer at twice the rate of those living in the cities. That farmer death rate must be much higher now.
The EPA pushes these unethical policies because America’s chemical and agribusiness corporations make huge profits from selling farmers and householders pesticides and fertilizers. According to a 2014 study, Environmental and Economic Costs of the Application of Pesticides Primarily in the United States, by David Pimentel and Michael Burgess of Cornell University, manufacturers of pesticides earn about $40 billion per year. In addition, the US Department of Agriculture and the country’s 65 agricultural universities have made possible the near extinction of small family farmers for the sake of large farmers and giant agribusiness corporations.
USDA subsidizes large farms and the agricultural universities develop technologies, like pesticides and machines, for large farms. In such hostile environment, small family farmers sink from debt and low prices. Banks appropriate their land and sell it to the large farmers.
This unsettling of the land, families, and society in rural America is a massive crime we usually associate with the feudalism of Dark Age Europe. However, it leaves our academic mandarins undisturbed. I taught at one of those “land grant universities,” the University of Maryland, during 2003-2004. With the exception of a couple of my colleagues, the other “resource science” professors even refused to use words like “family farmer” or “sustainable agriculture.” Agribusiness is their calling.
This undoing of rural America and the inevitable ditching of public health and democracy, did not happen overnight. Rather, after WWII, the Pentagon decided that for national security purposes the US had to side with the large farmers and business corporations large enough to support an empire.
Just like other government departments, the EPA also serves this empire, embracing the agenda of corporate America.
The latest demand of agribusiness is the genetic engineering of our food in America and worldwide. This extends the life of best-selling herbicides like glyphosate and 2,4-D. In addition, GMOs are equivalent to the corporate control of food. Farmers hooked on GMOs must purchase their seeds from the same herbicide company. Their very existence depends on seed and pesticide merchants.
EPA bought this scheme knowing it would exacerbate the pesticide effects of American agriculture. With GMOs, farmers spray their herbicide-immune crops large amounts of herbicides in order to get rid of all their weeds. This extra poison does extra killing of wildlife and, of course, adds more poison into the food Americans eat. Second, EPA must have known there was grave scientific uncertainty about GMOs. EPA scientists have always been in touch with their colleagues at FDA: the US Food and Drug Administration. FDA scientists warned their agency about the problematic, nay hazardous, nature of GMOs.
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Determining The Future Of Madness
Hippocrates, the Greek physician and father of medicine, spoke about food being medicine. He lived in the fifth century BCE or about 2,500 years ago.
Making food medicine is a tall order but, among us, we have farmers who are trying to raise food as if it were medicine. We call these small farmers organic or biological. We need to join them and, together, grow food as if our lives depended on it.
This means we no longer eat “conventional” food, however attractive the wrapping or appearances. Spread the message of wholesome food to city councils, schools, churches, friends, and doctors. Form food movements.
Tell your land grant university you are not satisfied with its misuse of science and public funds. Tell the EPA to stop approving bee killers and poisons tainting our food and drinking water.
Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D. former EPA analyst, is the author of several books, including “Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA” (with Mckay Jenkins, Bloomsbery Press, 2014, 2015).
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