When it Comes to Human Flourishing, Forget Rachel Carson & Remember Bruce Ames


Here's a USA Today opinion column by former Democratic Rep. Charles Stenholm and former Republican Secretary of Agriculture John Block, talking about Rachel Carson and Silent Spring (whose 50th anniversary is being marked today).

The authors praise Carson's book for sparking "environmental awareness" but damn it for its "demonization of agricultural technology [which] obscures the overwhelming environmental fact of our times, that such technology — even pesticides — has been an overwhelming good for the environment and human health."

To that end, they cite a 1993 Reason article by University of California scientist Bruce Ames:

Synthetic agricultural chemicals, he wrote, "have advanced public health by increasing the supply and reducing the price of fruits and vegetables." First, pesticides at the infinitesimal levels they are consumed are simply not dangerous. Fruits and vegetables have naturally occurring pesticides in them, and they are not dangerous either. Second, "People who eat few fruits and vegetables, compared to those who eat about four or five portions a day, have about double the cancer rate for most types of cancer and run an increased risk of heart disease and cataracts as well. Thus, pesticides lead to lower cancer rates and improved health."

And there's this:

Because of the advances in agriculture since 1960, we are now using half as much land to grow our food crops than we would without new technologies.

In other words, if we had not embraced new technologies, the farmers of the world would have been forced to raze and plow an area of land equal to the size of Russia, or three Amazon rain forests, to grow the same amount of food. Had we gone back to organic agriculture, which is 30% less efficient, the loss of forest and habitat would also be huge.

Read the full USA Today piece here.

Here's a great 1994 Reason interview with Ames by Virginia Postrel. More on Ames here.

Read Ron Bailey on how Rachel Carson paved the way for highly politicized science policy that plagues us today.

And check out this April 2011 Reason TV vid on "The Top 5 Environmental Disasters That Didn't Happen":