Pesticides have become a crisis again. Environmental hazards haven't been fashionable popular causes since the early 1970s. But they came back in style when labor-movement icon Cesar Chavez fasted to protest allegedly dangerous chemicals used in growing California table grapes.
Stan Rhodes, a chemist and former food store manager, agrees that the government allows dangerous amounts of chemicals on farm products. But instead of going on a diet to protest, he started NutriClean Inc., of Oakland, California. His company offers to inspect farmers' fields and test the produce for contamination. If the produce passes the tests, he allows store owners to display a certificate declaring the produce to be safe.
Not everyone in government is comfortable with this vigilante regulator. The chief of California's Department of Food and Agriculture accuses Rhodes of feeding off public paranoia. The head of the California Table Grape Commission likens NutriClean to a "lynching party" formed by people who think the "sheriff" isn't doing his job. He threatens, God forbid, that someday private enterprise will certify doctors if we don't stop this kind of thing. The state legislature is moving to regulate companies such as Rhodes's and require them to post large bonds.
The most significant pesticide danger, however, may come not from relatively minor specialty crops, such as grapes and oranges, but from federally subsidized crops such as corn and wheat. Such subsidies directly result in the use of "too little land and too much chemicals," says Delworth Gardner, a farm policy expert and economics professor at Brigham Young University.
By supporting high crop prices and restricting the amount of land farmers plant, federal farm programs encourage farmers to grow much more on their remaining land than it would normally produce. Naturally, the farmers carpet-bomb their remaining land with a panoply of poisons: pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, rodenticides, fertilizers.
And, says Gardner, "fragile land that should never have been plowed, has been" because of federal programs. Land that would best be used as pasture, for example, is bombarded by farmers who must figure that, with enough chemicals, they could grow crops on linoleum.