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This year marks the 50th anniversary of biologist Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, which argued that man-made chemicals represented a grave threat to human health and the environment. Using harsh and unscientific rhetoric—which was rebuked in the journal Science magazine shortly after its publication—Carson postulated that man-made chemicals affect processes of the human body in “sinister and often deadly ways.”
History has proven Carson’s claims wrong. Contrary to her admonitions, a chemically caused cancer epidemic never came to pass. Researchers who identified environmental factors did not simply target trace chemical exposures as significant, but instead focused on major cancer causes such as tobacco and poor diets. In fact, people are living longer and healthier lives, cancer rates have declined even as chemical use has increased, and chemicals are not among the key causes of cancer.
As the world reexamines Carson’s anti-pesticide legacy, this paper focuses on the importance of chemicals designed for crop production. These agrochemicals represent a subset of the many technologies and practices designed to promote high-yield farming— making it possible for farmers to increase food production per acre. Other technologies include biotechnology, better soil and water management, among other things. Policies that allow strategic development and application of such tools will continue to facilitate the Green Revolution and increase agriculture’s ability to feed the world’s growing population. In addition, high-yield agriculture reduces the amount of land necessary to meet those needs, thereby providing more land for conservation and biodiversity. The adverse impacts of pesticides on human health and the environment are often greatly exaggerated and history shows that these risks can be managed to ensure substantial net benefits.
Unfortunately, these benefits are at risk as Carson’s legacy of misinformation lives on within the politically organized environmental movement. Green activists oppose strategic pesticide spraying to control deadly diseases like the West Nile virus and advocate “organic farming” using “natural chemicals,” even though there is little evidence that organic farming makes food any healthier. As a result, regulatory trends around the world have supplanted wise management with heavy regulations and product bans. The cost and risks associated with bureaucratic regulations alone dampens the market for innovative new products, diminishes the supply of pest control options for farmers, and reduces their efficiency. The result is lower food production, higher food prices, and fewer environmental benefits.