Opinion: Modern Ag Needs More Mouthpieces

Opinion: Modern Ag Needs More Mouthpieces

Mary Hartney head shot

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Meeting fascinating people passionate about agriculture is one of the best things about FFAA’s Annual Meeting. This summer, I was captivated by our guest speaker Dr. Steve Savage, consultant and author of the blog “Applied Mythology,” and his positive messages about modern agriculture.
In the hour he spent discussing the public’s perception of crop protection products, FFAA members learned:

  • How to debunk the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) “Dirty Dozen” rants;
  • The comparative toxicity of household products (aspirin, caffeine, and salt) to commonly used ag pesticides;
  • Lessons on the difference between hazard and risk; and
  • What the USDA Pesticide Detection Program data actually tells us (facts the EWG ignores).

Dr. Savage’s PowerPoint was punctuated by his rational, data-driven discussion of the pros and cons of the issues, an approach echoed in his engaging blog written for the general public.

In a recent blog post, he shared a letter he’d like to send to late writer and environmentalist Rachel Carson:

Dear Ms. Carson,
On this, the 50th anniversary of the publication of your book, “Silent Spring” I’d like to tell you about the remarkable legacy of your book. Many things have transpired over the last five decades that would give you considerable satisfaction. Unfortunately, I also must explain to you why many people today don’t understand how profound those changes have been.

Your Positive Legacy

The biggest change since 1962 has been in our societal appreciation of the need to carefully evaluate the environmental and health attributes of chemicals that we use for the control of agricultural pests or the vectors of human disease. Whole new fields of science have developed to understand such risks (environmental toxicology and environmental science to name two). Whole new regulatory bodies (EPA) and processes (chemical registration) have been instituted to translate those risk assessments into sound policy. DDT, which was central to your 1962 warning, is long gone, as are scores of other old pesticides that cannot meet high, modern safety standards. Billions of dollars have been invested in the discovery, testing, and introduction of new, low-risk pest control methods and practices. The net effect of all of this is that not only are our springs well-accompanied with bird songs, we also enjoy a safe, affordable, and diverse food supply beyond anything one could have imagined in 1962. I’m sure that when you took the risk of publishing your book, you hoped that it would initiate this sort of positive change, and that is certainly what has happened.

Your Legacy Obscured

Unfortunately, there are some today who seem to have a vested interest in convincing us that your legacy has not been this positive. Whether it is to sell certain products or to garner attention or contributions, these voices continue to promote a “sky is falling” narrative. When you wrote “Silent Spring,” you employed highly emotive language, vivid mental images, and a good degree of hyperbole. Such over-the-top prose was justifiable because you had to overcome the deep-seated complacency of your age. Today, many groups continue to employ that same literary style when talking about food and agriculture issues. By doing so, and by engendering unnecessary fear among consumers, they effectively deny people the confident enjoyment of life and food that would otherwise have been another part of your legacy. I am confident that you hoped to initiate change, not to inaugurate a perennial state of alarm.

The full post can be read at Appliedmythology.blogspot.com.
FFAA applauds Dr. Savage and everyone who works to engage and educate the public about the strides made in modern agriculture.
Our 80th Annual Meeting program featured more ag advocates. Many thanks to all our great speakers for giving FFAA members information they can use to contribute to ag’s continued success in Florida.