Pesticides and Politics

Prior to the 1960's, DDT was the "wonder pesticide" that saved the lives of millions of people. During wartime, it protected our soldiers from insect carried diseases, which previously had taken more lives than battle itself. At that time, we did not complain about the possible dangers of DDT, as long as it was used to control human diseases.

Then in 1962, Rachel Carson came out with her extremely influential work, Silent Spring. Eventually printed in 17 countries and in 10 languages, the work made the dangers of DDT well known. It aroused fear that we were being poisoned with pesticides. She called these pesticides "biocides" to imply that they were killing everything living, not just pests. According to Carson, pesticides, and especially DDT, were carcinogens which were upsetting the balance of nature.

President Kennedy read Rachel Carson work. Shortly afterwards, the Life Science Panel under the President's Science Advisory was ordered to begin reviewing pesticide use. In 1963, the panel called for legislative measures to protect the environment from these chemicals.

In 1967, the Environmental Defense Fund was created to further review pesticide usage and safety. And by the late 1960's, there was already a tremendous growth in public concern over pesticides.

In 1972, the EPA put out a nationwide ban on DDT. It was subsequently replaced with other pesticides that degrade much more quickly than DDT. Today, over 20 years later, do you think that DDT is still around us?

DDT is still one of the most important and well known pesticide in the world. While it's no longer used in the U.S., it's use continues in many other parts of the world. In fact, DDT usage in the world today is roughly the same as it was prior to the ban by most of the Western countries. Some countries which still use DDT include India, China, South America, Africa , and Malaysia.

"Okay, so DDT is used in other parts of the world. It probably doesn't affect me in any way, though."

Today, the environmental movement is very strong. In the United States, we spend roughly 600 million dollars every year in support of it. Roughly 3/4 of the U.S. population agrees with it, and more than half of the us would be willing to pay more money just to get organic produce. What other economic factors result from not using pesticides?

Yet, should we use pesticides to make food more affordable?? Shouldn't people who cannot afford the high prices of food be given the option to accept the risk from pesticides as opposed to going hungry??

Of all the pesticides that fruits and vegetables contain, 99.99% of it is naturally occurring. Many of these naturally occurring pesticides are rodent carcinogens.

Still, most of continue to believe in organic produce. Are we overacting? Was DDT directly responsible for our present day fear of pesticide and our ever growing evironmental movement?

Questions like these probably cannot be answered conclusively. We do know, however, that it was the safety concerns of DDT which led to Silent Spring, and this work had a tremendous influence on our perception of pesticides.

Vice President Al Gore has said of Carson's work, "without this book, the environmental movement might have been long delayed or never have developed at all."

This completes the Pesticides and Politics section.

Return to the beginning of the Pesticides unit.