This year marked the 50th anniversary of biologist Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring. Although the anniversary is soon to become history as well, Carson’s impact promises to continue well into the future—and it’s not something to celebrate.
Carson was right to advocate for careful use of pesticides, but her harsh rhetoric needlessly raised excessive alarm. She postulated man-made chemicals affect processes of the human body in “sinister and often deadly ways,” birthing a powerful environmental movement that is fiercely anti-pesticide.
But history has proven Carson’s claims wrong. Contrary to her warnings, a chemically caused cancer epidemic never happened. People live longer and healthier lives, cancer rates have declined even as chemical use has increased, and chemicals are not among the key causes of cancer.
Evidence abounds prudent use of pesticides greatly improved human well-being and the environment. Along with other technologies, such as biotechnology, agrochemicals advanced high-yield farming—making it possible for farmers to increase food production and feed ever-higher percentages of the world’s growing population.
A 2007 report by Jerry Cooper and Hans Dobson of the University of Greenwich highlights many of the benefits of pesticides over the past several decades. The authors note India has increased its grain production four times over since 1951, and “now not only feeds itself but exports produce.” Farmers in the United Kingdom have increased the yield of wheat crops by 200 percent between 1948 and 1997. Corn yields in the United States grew by more than 230 percent per acre between 1920 and 1980.
Since high-yield farming reduces the amount of land farmed, it makes more land available for wildlife. In past decades deforestation, much of which occurs for food production, has declined in many parts of the world and reforestation has begun in some areas. These changes would not be possible without high-yield agriculture.
The use of chemical herbicides also improves water quality by making no-till farming possible. Before the 1960s, farmers tilled soil to control weeds, a practice that led to sediment runoff into nearby waters that killed vegetation and harmed wildlife. No-till farming with herbicides reduces soil erosion by 50 percent to 98 percent, notes Dennis Avery in “The True State of the Planet.”
In addition, pesticides do not pose the threat to birds Carson suggested they would. More substantial threats come from natural diseases and habitat loss. Even cats and skyscrapers likely pose greater risks to birds than pesticides.
Fortunately, there is evidence that where chemicals are used strategically and widely in agriculture, such as the United States, wildlife biodiversity improves. Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in New York, told Live Science: “Birds are increasing and that’s good. … We don’t always hear enough about the fact that a lot of things are doing well.”
After decades of progress, though, improvements in agricultural productivity have slowed and world food prices have increased when adjusted for inflation. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) notes: “The sudden [food price] increases took many by surprise and led to increased concern over the ability of the world food economy to adequately feed billions of people, now and in the future.”
Population will continue to expand, which warrants expansion of farming with agro-chemicals and other technologies to ensure a growing food supply. Yet policies advanced by Carson’s followers are moving the world in the opposite direction, applying increasingly stringent regulations and some bans on many safe and valuable agro-technologies.
Although many in the developed world may be able to shoulder some of these costs, the world’s poor will suffer disproportionately, and wildlife could suffer as well if more land is needed for agriculture as per-acre production dwindles.
Moving into a new year, it’s time we look to the future and advance the technologies that will make life better for everyone. Continuing to advance misguided ideas of the past is the more dangerous proposition.