Manufacturing Fear

An anti-pesticide group twists the truth for financial gain


"If you think there's a link between heavy pesticide use and human health problems, you're not alone," writes Pesticide Action Network Program Director Monica Moore in a recent fundraising letter. Just in case you don't get make the link, the letter helpfully notes in bold type at the top: "Childhood cancer is increasing 1% per year" and "Breast cancer is increasing nearly 2% per year." These numbers might be cause for concern if they were true, but they're not.

According to the American Cancer Society's Cancer Statistics 2001, "[b]reast cancer incidence remained approximately level during the 1990s, but may appear to be decreasing in younger women."

What about cancer in children? According to a January 2001 report from the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Children's Health Protection, "The incidence of childhood cancer increased from 1975 until about 1990. The frequency of the disease appears to have become fairly stable overall since 1990." Fortunately, cancer remains rare in children, killing 1,378 children under age 14 in 1998, the last year for which figures are available. By comparison, 5,189 children under 14 died in accidents.

But cancer scares have raised a lot of money for activists such as Moore and PAN. Despite scientific evidence that pesticides are not causing a cancer epidemic, such groups keep on shamelessly selling the pesticide-cancer scare.

Hence, Moore's letter also warned: "Even with common sense principles and scientific evidence on our side, we face a powerful, politically influential pesticide industry with a single goal-to expand its multi-billion dollar business. For example, in 2000, Monsanto sold more than $2.6 billion worth of Roundup around the world, and the area planted with Monsanto's genetically engineered seeds grew to more than 100 million acres."

It is more than a little strange that Moore would choose to denounce the herbicide Roundup. After all, her own group's "Pesticide Database" declares that Monsanto's herbicide Roundup is not a "PAN Bad Actor." This is significant because PAN Bad Actors are pesticides that the group says have been identified as carcinogens, reproductive or developmental toxicants, neurotoxic cholinesterase inhibitors, groundwater contaminants, or exhibit acute toxicity. According to PAN, if Roundup is not a Bad Actor, then it doesn't cause cancer, or reproductive problems–and it isn't toxic and doesn't contaminate groundwater.

Evidently, the fact that Roundup is safe doesn't mean that Moore and PAN can't use Monsanto's enviable sales figures to scare folks into sending a contribution. Activists count on the fact that , thanks to books such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and groups such as PAN, many people believe that all pesticides are evil, even if the activists themselves know better.

What will the activists do when the news that pesticides are not causing cancer finally leaks out to the public? PAN is already staking out the next big scare that will help fill up their coffers. Also listed in bold at the top of the PAN letter is this: "At least 60% of food on our grocery shelves contains genetically engineered ingredients that have not been adequately tested for impacts on human health."

As the letter makes clear, Moore and her group are anxious to forge a link in the mind of the public between the pesticides that they and other environmentalist organizations have already demonized and new genetically enhanced crops. As support for its fears, PAN cites the successful efforts of their Genetically Engineered Food Alert coalition, which "forced the recall of more than 300 products containing genetically engineered Starlink corn." This included the infamous taco shell recall last September that occurred after StarLink, which the EPA had approved only for animal feed, was found in them.

PAN's fundraising letter treats StarLink as though it were a dangerous contaminant. Never mind that the EPA's Scientific Advisory Panel found in December 2000 that consuming StarLink corn "should be classified as having low probability to sensitize some individuals to Cry9C protein." In plain English, the scientists don't believe that the bacterial protein engineered into the corn that protects StarLink from insects will cause an outbreak of allergic reactions. (The Food and Drug Administration is testing some 20 people who claim to have suffered allergic reactions to consuming products that they believe contained StarLink. The results of those tests should be available this summer.)

Industry and regulators now agree that to avoid the problem of trying to segregate crops for animals from those for people, all future genetically enhanced crops will meet safety criteria for human as well as animal consumption. But do genetically modified crops already in circulation pose a threat to human health? Not according to the American Medical Association and seven leading national scientific societies, including the U.S. National Academy of Science and the Royal Society of London. They recently declared that there is no evidence that genetically enhanced foods now on the market have harmed anyone. Nevertheless, PAN is using the StarLink pseudo-crisis that it helped to manufacture to raise money.

Here's a final twist: PAN's campaign to "stop genetically engineered crops" overlooks the fact that planting genetically enhanced pest-protected crops significantly cuts down on the spraying of some pesticides. For example, in 1998, cotton farmers using genetically modified crops used 2 million fewer pounds of pesticide than they would have on ordinary cotton plants. Planting crops resistant to herbicides is environmentally friendly in another way, too: Farmers don't need to plow as much and that conserves topsoil.

With letters like the one from Moore and the Pesticide Action Network spreading misinformation, it's no wonder that many people "think there's a link between heavy pesticide use and human health problems." The fact is that people like Moore and her environmentalist colleagues get paid to scare people. No problem, no checks. Perhaps one day the public and press will understand that activists' claims should be treated every bit as skeptically as those made by corporations and government agencies.