The Enviros Are Farmers' False Friends

January 01, 1998  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Pest

Here’s something you don’t see everyday. A group of suit-wearing city slickers who rarely get closer to a farm than watching Green Acres reruns have produced a report telling farmers how to protect their children from pesticides. The ultimate in arrogance? Perhaps. Or is it just another thinly disguised salvo in the environmentalists’ never-ending campaign against pesticides?

"Trouble on the Farm: Growing up with Pesticides in Agricultural Communities," just released by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), is the latest in a series of environmentalist "studies" aimed right at Americans’ softest, most vulnerable spot their children. (Another was their infamous, discredited Alar report). This one claims children on or near farms are exposed and often overexposed — to pesticides "from their parents’ work clothes and skin, from indoor and outdoor air, from their mothers’ milk, and from water, food and soil."

To bolster the idea the report is to help farmers, it contains "practical steps" for them, revealing that the NRDC apparently thinks that because some farmers grow hay, they’re all a bunch of ignorant hayseeds. It includes, "After work, wash up and change clothes before picking up children." Also, farmers should, "Provide water, soap, and towels to agricultural employees to allow them to wash off pesticide residues routinely and after emergency exposures."

Goodness, from what esteemed agricultural university did the authors glean such knowledge?

"Their attitude is we’re too dumb to look after ourselves," says Barry Bushue, a Boring, Oregon farmer who’s growing raspberries, shrubs for nurseries, and three children.

Much of what the NRDC says is true. For example: Kids exist. Farms exist. Pesticides exist. It’s the, well, finer points on which the NRDC is wrong.

For example, "Pesticide use in the United States is increasing," it states. No national statistics follow, merely that from the last few years of a single state. Could this be because agricultural pesticide use in the U.S. has dropped sharply from 843 million pounds in 1979 to 771 pounds in 1995, the last year for which there are data?

This decline is hardly surprising if you don’t have the NRDC’s prejudice that farmers are a bunch of pesticide-use addicts. Farming today is incredibly competitive, with profit margins measured sometimes in pennies per bushel. Pesticides cost money. "We use as little as possible because of economic considerations," says Jack Carey, who’s now retired but raised, cotton, soybeans, rice, wheat, and five children on his Dumas, Arkansas farm.

The NRDC would also have us think that any pesticide exposure is the next best thing to drinking Kool-Aid prepared by the Rev. Jim Jones.

Obviously, pesticide application accidents happen, but farmers’ real accident worries aren’t chemicals but machinery. The NRDC report doesn’t even pretend anybody’s being fatally poisoned directly from pesticides.

How about chronic exposure? Studies repeatedly show that overall farmers have less cancer and live longer than non-farmers. The largest and most recent to date, published this year in the Annals of Epidemiology, combined 37 studies and found yet again that farmers have lower overall rates of cancer. Indeed, the only excess they found was that of the lip, apparently from sun exposure.

Three federal agencies are now carrying out a massive study that also looks at children, but bear in mind that most farms are multi-generational. Those adult farmers with their low cancer rates were once children working in their parents’ fields long before there was an EPA, before most pesticide application laws were passed, and when pesticides were used much more heavily than today.

"I’ve got three, very, very healthy kids and it’s sort of ludicrous to think they’re all going to die because they were exposed to pesticides,"says Bill Spencer, who has spent his life raising lemons, tangelos, and grapefruit in Yuma, Arizona.

"Farmers are trained in safe application of pesticides. I think there’s probably no more family-oriented people in the world than farmers and they’re not about to put their children at risk."

Further, he says, "I don’t think the NRDC is aiming their material at farmers. I don’t know any stupid farmers out there."

Certainly Spencer isn’t one. He’s right; this report isn’t meant for farmers, it’s meant for the media, for well-meaning but unknowledgeable city folk, and it’s meant to influence the EPA and give it political leverage.

"Unfortunately, EPA’s record in enforcing child protection requirements of the law has been poor," said Dr. Gina Solomon, the report’s principal author. This is exactly the kind of criticism the EPA loves, giving them an excuse to do what they already want expand their bureaucracy by further tightening farm regulations and enforcement.

Ultimately the NRDC doesn’t want safe use of pesticides; it wants NO use. This is the motivation for every pesticide attack it launches, and it’s hardly surprising therefore that among the recommendations in this latest one is to "Encourage organic farming by instituting stringent national standards."

Knowing it can never get an outright ban on pesticides, the NRDC and similar environmental groups wants to make their use so onerous that farmers will have to abandon them.

Then we’ll all be forced to eat expensive, ugly, shriveled-looking organic produce and foreign competitors will have our farmers foreclosing at rates not seen since the dust bowl days.

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for some farm group to release a report telling urban dwellers how to keep their kids safe from drug pushers and gang influences.