Set up to urgently reduce pesticide-related harms in the UK, we at The Pesticide Collaboration are taking a closer look at pesticide campaigns over the last sixty years.

For almost as long as pesticides have been used, there have been campaigns warning about their potential harms. This series of blogs looks at a range of different campaigns, stretching from Rachel Carson in 1962 up to the present day. Part information, part inspiration, we’ll be looking at the diversity of campaigns in terms of geography and campaign focus. From local to global, we want to see what lessons might be learnt for today’s movement pushing for an end to pesticide harms.

In this first blog of the series, we’ll be looking to the best-known pesticide campaigner, Rachel Carson.

During the 1940s & 50s, the insecticide DDT became widely used in the USA and beyond.

In 1957, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced the fire ant eradication program which involved spraying DDT and other pesticides – including mass spraying from planes – on private property. The indiscriminate spraying alarmed Carson, and led her to start researching the effects of DDT and other pesticides on the environment, with growing intensity.

As a government scientist with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, Carson had access to confidential scientific information as well as contact with the wider scientific community. Then as now, scientists were split between those that dismissed the potential harm of pesticides, and those who accepted the possibility of wide-reaching, long-term problems.

Her concerns were met with backlash from vested interests, with the USDA releasing a film directly challenging her safety concerns about DDT. Carson described the film as blatant propaganda. Following an article she published in the Washington Post newspaper, linking declines in birds with pesticide use, the pesticide industry started to fight back by attacking her work. Undaunted, she continued her research, which ultimately led to the publication of her seminal book Silent Spring in 1962. Originally serialised in The New Yorker, in Silent Spring Carson argued that pesticides had a demonstrative harmful impact on the environment, with DDT being the prime example. The book also looked at some of the human health implications of pesticide use.

Silent Spring caused a huge stir and kick-started the modern environmental movement. It also led directly to the establishment of the Environmental Defense Fund in 1967 which brought lawsuits against the US Government, with a focus on DDT, and the overarching notion that citizens have a right to a clean environment.

By 1972, the US Government had started to phase out the use of DDT – the precursor to the global ban in place today.

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”
Rachel Carson

What can we learn?

In many ways, this really is the benchmark against which all pesticide campaigns can be measured. It was started as a result of clearly unacceptable pesticide use, that triggered someone to look more closely at the issue. Rigorous scientific investigation formed the backbone of the work but it was accompanied by savvy use of the media. Carson’s scientific findings and concerns were communicated in often emotive language, that reached out beyond a technical audience.

Although Carson was not specifically calling for an outright ban on DDT, the work she did brought the issue of pesticides to the fore and, as DDT was featured so prominently in the book, it became the standard bearer. It is a great example of how focussing on one active substance can be used to look at the bigger picture.

One-by-one, or all together now?

Similar to the DDT ban, there’s now a huge amount of campaigning taking place to ban the world’s most commonly used weedkiller, glyphosate. Glyphosate, (widely recognised as Roundup), is used and sprayed by councils, gardeners & farmers. In 2015, the World Health Organisation identified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen. Glyphosate has caught media attention and brought many new activists into the world of pesticides campaigning.

While considerable efforts to ban glyphosate are ongoing, it’s worth questioning the strategy of pouring so much time and energy into campaigning against just one chemical. As activists target glyphosate, the agrochemicals industry are busy creating new herbicides for authorisation, some of which could be just as harmful.

The Pesticide Collaboration is focussed on addressing the root cause of pesticide use, and changing the system which drives pesticide reliance in the first place, by promoting solutions and alternatives. How to balance this focus on one specific chemical vs working towards systemic change is an ongoing question for campaigners.

Rachel Carson’s efforts to highlight the systemic issue of pesticides, generated action to ban DDT. Now, sixty years later, what if we were to alchemise the interest and action on glyphosate, to secure long-needed system-wide change on pesticides?

For the next blog in the series, we’ll be looking at a campaign led by a group of farmers in Mals, Italy.

Photo credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt