Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from an interview with Jay Vroom, president and CEO of CropLife America and Ken Cook, president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group, on the 50th anniversary on “Silent Spring.” WGN Radio’s Orion Samuelson, host of This Week in Agribusiness, questions the pair on the book’s impact on industry and environmentalism. The transcript of the interview is reprinted with permission of CropLife America.
Orion Samuelson: The 50th anniversary of the book that shook up the agricultural world, “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, who made some dire predictions of what was going to happen to the environment. So now 50 years later, I’m interested in hearing from the two of you — have the dire predictions come true, have we made progress? Start with you, Ken.
Ken Cook: Well, you know I had the occasion to re-read the book because Jay (Vroom) reminded me, what does that tell you, I had to be reminded by Jay Vroom of CropLife America (Jay chuckles) that this was the 50th anniversary, it had completely passed me by.
That was one of the most important books in my decision to devote my career to environmental protections. She writes about the fact that pollution is global now, it’s in all of us, it’s in the entire biosphere, that many of the consequences are completely unintended, that there is very modest if any regulation, that the science is not as solid as it needs to be to understand what the impacts will be, and she also says she’s not in favor of eliminating all use of pesticides.
Samuelson: So Jay, you represent an industry that is science, certainly, but also a producer of the products that there is concern about the environment. What do you see as a result 50 years later of the book?
Jay Vroom: I would agree with I think most of what Ken just said, as I’ve re-read the book, some of the things that my organization and others in our industry did at that time we wouldn’t do today, it was just, we would see today as a wrongheaded approach to reacting to and engaging on this kind of an issue.
The industry didn’t do an adequate (if at all) job of articulating that it was already in the process of addressing some of the things Rachel Carson had brought out. I really feel like this 50-year anniversary on Silent Spring is a moment for us as an industry to really reflect and have these kinds of conversations so that we can all be thinking about, ‘Well, are we better, and where could we be better?’
Samuelson: Ken, do you think the industry has made the progress that would satisfy you?
Cook: I think we have seen that there is a much more sophisticated understanding of environmental impacts, human health impacts, and that has driven through a regulatory process and invention at the leading companies, it has led to some advances. We still have some of the concerns that Rachel wrote about we have insect resistance even with biotech-type crops, we have weed resistance coming about, we have water contamination with chemicals that we were at least initially told wouldn’t end up in the water.
And so the concerns continue, I think the pressure is still there, she did have major role in causing the modern environmental movement, the national environmental policy act, pesticide regulation, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Vroom: I would say it a little differently, as you might imagine. I think our regulatory process has evolved, so first of all I would say that from 50 years ago, launching the Environmental Protection Agency after “Silent Spring,” we have added world-leading capacity of environmental regulatory ability with the Environmental Protection Agency.
A lot of pesticide regulation today isn’t just black or white, but it drives toward changes in label uses and targeting application. I would also come back to the conversation about the organic marketplace, and say we were very uncomfortable with where the organic industry was a decade ago or more, it has increased the market for biopesticides that by and large are certified by the USDA as appropriate to use and be treated on organic crops.
Cook: That’s a fair point.
Vroom: And now, conventional farmers are seeing a benefit to having access to those same biopesticides to help manage resistance in conventional crops, to create space for earlier worker re-entry, to do the hand labor in fields. There’s some synergism that nobody thought of 15 or 20 years ago between conventional and organic that is market driven, and is again one of those strengths of American agriculture that we all ought to stop and say, ‘It works.’
Cook: Yeah, it’s practical.