By Donella Meadows
–October 3, 1996–
If you are a purist who would just as soon not have any harmful chemicals in your food, you will not feel protected by the new “Food Quality Protection Act of 1996.” If you’re a political realist, though, you might say, “Well, heck, it’s better than the law we had before. It’s probably the best we’re gonna get, given the crew we’ve got in Washington.” (Anyhow, that’s what a realist who was deeply involved in the legislation recently said to me.)
In some ways the new law may indeed turn out to be an improvement:
1. It takes children into account. For ten years a Yale professor named John Wargo has been challenging the government’s assumption that we all eat an average adult diet. Actually, hardly anybody does, especially not kids. Wargo’s research, now assembled in his book “Our Children’s Toxic Legacy,” shows that small children eat fewer kinds of foods than adults do and much larger amounts (per unit of body weight). Seven times as much milk, for example. Sixteen times as much apple juice. Therefore a child could, while eating perfectly legal foods, be exposed to many times the government-determined “safe” level of pesticides.
The new law asks the EPA, as it sets standards for new pesticides and re-examines old ones, to consider children’s exposures. That should lower pesticide allowances in our foods. But it will take decades to test and review all the standards, especially on a low budget.
2. The law finally recognizes multiple exposures. Obviously we encounter more than one pesticide at a time and from more than one source. But until now the “safe” level for each chemical on each food was determined in isolation. A tolerance was set for benomyl on tomatoes, say, disregarding the fact that there might also be benomyl on green beans and other pesticides on tomatoes.
Now EPA may set standards based on combinations of chemicals coming from many sources. Again, the process will take decades, not only because the review process is slow, but because the necessary information is almost nonexistent. For example, when John Wargo tried to estimate total exposures to one particular set of pesticides, he found adequate data for only five (out of 40) pesticides on eight (out of 75) foods.
Meanwhile, there are many ways the new law falls short of protecting our food supply:
1. It still sticks the government with an impossible task. Producers have come up with over 25,000 pesticides, containing mixes of 600 “active ingredients” (the chemicals that actually kill the pest) plus 1600 “inert ingredients” (added for solubility, storability, or other purposes). The EPA is supposed to determine “safe” residue levels for each of these pesticides on 675 different kinds of foods. There isn’t enough knowledge to do this job, even if there were enough money, which there isn’t.
2. The law does little to inform consumers of the risk of pesticide exposure. The government can probably never do enough testing to put warnings on all pesticide-tainted foods, but it surely could certify those that have been grown without pesticides. Many states now do this, but only federal certification will work for foods that cross state lines.
3. The new law severely discourages states from setting pesticide standards more stringent than federal ones. That is an attack on states’ rights unworthy of a Republican congress. Furthermore it ignores the fact that in the past several states have banned pesticides that were later found harmful and banned by the feds.
4. The law still lets U.S. companies make banned pesticides for export — some of which come back to us in imported foods. The law also does nothing to ensure that imported foods are sufficiently tested. Wargo’s book cites data from a few years ago showing that the Food and Drug Administration conducted one residue test for every two million pounds of imported food. Each year it tests 167 bananas out of ten billion imported and ten samples of orange juice out of hundreds of millions of gallons.
5. The law is based on dubious risk-benefit calculations. For example, it allows enough pesticide to cause one cancer in a million children over those children’s lifetimes, or two cancers if the pesticide provides really important benefits. Now, maybe we would be willing to pick out 260 random Americans (one in a million) and give them cancer in order to save the entire corn crop of the Midwest. But would we do it to let farmers grow continuous corn, when they would need little or no pesticide if they just rotated their crops? Who bears the risk? Who benefits? Who says?
6. The most fundamental flaw of the old law is still alive and well in the new one — the burden of uncertainty is thrown onto the public. While the EPA tries to figure out risks and benefits, while companies fight in court, while tests are conducted, while budgets are too small to allow all pesticides to be properly examined, the chemical makers and users can carry on. This makes us all guinea pigs, most especially our children, who have both higher exposures and higher sensitivities than the rest of us.
It’s impossible to eliminate all life’s hazards. No one wants to pay a lot to reduce a very small risk. It might not be government’s responsibility to remove every danger from the marketplace. But if government doesn’t ensure honest and full communication about hazards and their uncertainties, if government doesn’t seek out and coordinate the necessary research, if government doesn’t protect the public from reckless commercial experiments, who will?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996