In Our Children’s Food

  • submit to reddit

Bill Moyers and Frontline trace the 30 year history of US pesticide use, regulation and scientific study and explores what is and is not known about the risks of agricultural chemicals in our food. The program examines how the government has failed to certify pesticide safety and why the only source of data on the safety of pesticides is the industry that profits from them.



ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE – “In Our Children’s Food.” Pesticides and children, with correspondent Bill Moyers.

BILL MOYERS: The only word to describe it is “war,” a war that has been waged on American soil for more than 40 years, the longest chemical war in history. And this is the enemy, the countless billions of agricultural pests that feed on America’s food supply. In the past quarter century alone, farmers have dumped over five billion pounds of insecticide onto their crops, more than 11 billion pounds of herbicide into the soil, almost two billion pounds of fungicides in an escalating war to ensure good harvests.

Like any war, civilians caught in the middle are the first casualties.

MARTA SALINAS, Former Farm Worker: I was a farm worker. Working on the soil, as I was turning it over, I started with bleeding fingers, skin rashes, dizziness. My mother was a farm worker. She just was told it would go away, all her skin rashes. She started turning yellow and she died of cancer. It was diagnosed too late.

BILL MOYERS: There is no longer any scientific question that agricultural poisons pose health risks to farm workers. What we don’t know are the long-term chronic effects of pesticide exposure on the general population, and in particular on children.

These children attend the Browning Road Elementary School in McFarland, California, in the heart of the fertile San Joaquin Valley. Next door, this typical suburban development. Marta Salinas used to live here. It was built especially for farm workers.

MARTA SALINAS: For farm workers, low income and opportunity of the American dream.

INTERVIEWER: What’s it turned into?

MARTA SALINAS: A nightmare, a death trap. Wherever you go, your life is a time bomb.

BILL MOYERS: This development was built near what had once been a pesticide dump. It is surrounded by cotton fields regularly sprayed by airplane. The drinking water has a long history of contamination by pesticide residues.

MARTA SALINAS: We’re being exposed, right directly, over and over and over again.

INTERVIEWER: So it’s sort of a worst-case scenario for pesticides,

MARTA SALINAS: Yes. And we are the perfect example for America to see.

BILL MOYERS: What Marta saw happening was a neighborhood health epidemic.

MARTA SALINAS: Two years after she moved in the house, she started with brain lesions and seizures. She’s had two surgeries. Then the next door-

BILL MOYERS: Everywhere she turned, Marta saw neighbors and their children suffering from illness and deformity.

MARTA SALINAS: Then we’ve got another neighbor here with a little girl, had kidney, bladder problems, had urine tract opened a couple of times, premature gray hair, the chronic diarrheas. Then we have this neighbor with a chronic diarrhea, the skin rashes, the hair loss, fevers. She’s had surgery a couple of times.

INTERVIEWER: Is there anyone on this street who hasn’t had a problem?

MARTA SALINAS: No, everybody’s been sick in this neighborhood.

BILL MOYERS: One of Marta’s daughters started losing her hair. Another had chronic skin rashes. The family moved out two years ago and the symptoms disappeared. No one, it seemed to Marta, was paying attention, so she returns regularly to her old neighborhood to document the trail of disease in McFarland.

MARTA SALINAS: The red is for the cancers, the purple is for the tumors, the blue is the birth defects, the miscarriages is for the black. And it’s just common sense that we have to think that if us in this neighborhood, any farm worker is dying, being exposed directly, what makes you think or anybody out there think that it’s not going to happen to them? They’re eating this food, this contaminated food, and it’s low dosage.

BILL MOYERS: Marta Salinas’s community came to be known as the “McFarland childhood cancer cluster.” Five years ago, one study suggested pesticide exposure was probably a factor, but right now there is no local, state or federal agency even studying the question. So were pesticides the cause of all that disease among the children of McFarland? We really don’t know. What we do know is that pesticide exposure is not just an issue for farm workers and their children, because there are minute traces of pesticides in the food we all eat every day. Some of it is what’s called “systemic,” which means you can’t wash it off. It’s part of our produce. Does this exposure to agricultural chemicals threaten our health? And what about the most vulnerable among us, our children? Those are the questions we set out to explore in this broadcast, questions that concern all of us, but especially parents.

Farmer Paul Buxman never thought much about agricultural chemicals until his son, Wyeth, was diagnosed with leukemia over 10 years ago. Today he worries about pesticides. A recent National Cancer Institute study found that if you live on a farm, you have a far greater chance of getting some forms of cancer.

PAUL BUXMAN: I didn’t want to just jump to the conclusion, “Oh, yes. Farm chemicals is what it is,” because after all, that was what was helping me produce. And-but I do remember kind of coming to this conclusion. What if I don’t stop using a lot of this material and I’ll go ahead and tell Wyeth, “Wyeth, we don’t know for sure. I’m going to continue to use this stuff.” What if seven, ten years from now and Wyeth is back in the hospital and they find a direct link? What am I going to tell him, that the peaches were more important, that I was willing to take a risk?

Even when I took over the home place, Dad didn’t know what those chemicals were. I made a list when I came and took over the home place and said, “Dad, what are these?” “I don’t know. You’ll have to call the guy up. I’m not sure what they’re used for, but they told me it’s for something.”

Some of them were definitely category one, heavy-hitting pesticides. They would kill basically anything in the field, including you, if you were out there. And in some ways, we’ve kind of gone from farms to pharmacies. You know, it’s like a dispensary. We’re kind of dispensaries out here. The unhealthier the farm, the more we need their medicine. And how well it works out that the man recommending what you need, the doctor, in this case, is the man selling you the medicine. This is this incredible conflict of interest that we’ve lived with here for 30 years.

BILL MOYERS: Thirty years ago, the public thought little about the health effects of pesticides. They were man’s miracle drugs, ridding the farmer of pests and neighborhoods of mosquitoes. They were good for fruits and good for steers. In fact, everyone seemed to agree, “DDT is good for me.” Everyone, that is, but a respected biologist named Rachel Carson. She began to notice wildlife disappearing and in her book, Silent Spring, Carson was the first to raise questions about the long-term effects of agricultural poisons on humans.

RACHEL CARSON: We have to remember that children born today are exposed to these chemicals from birth, perhaps even before birth. Now, what is going to happen to them in adult life, as a result of that exposure? We simply don’t know.

BILL MOYERS: Back then, pesticides were registered by the Department of Agriculture based on their ability to kill pests, not on their potential health effects, as agricultural secretary Orville Freeman readily admitted to CBS News reporter Jay McMullen.

JAY McMULLEN, CBS News: During the past years, do you think that the public was sufficiently appraised of the potential hazards of pesticides?

ORVILLE FREEMAN, Secretary of Agriculture: The answer, I can say very quickly, is no.

BILL MOYERS: And yet the official government position on pesticides was nothing but reassuring.

WAYLAND HAYES, Toxicologist, Public Health Service: [1963] There’s no evidence that the small doses of pesticides that we do get are causing any harm. The only effect that can be measured objectively is the storage of one of them, DDT, in the tissues of most people. This storage has not caused any injury that we can detect.

BILL MOYERS: Science would in time catch up with some of these toxic chemicals. DDT would be banned 10 years later, just as Rachel Carson had predicted.

RACHEL CARSON: Unless we do bring these chemicals under better control, we are certainly headed for disaster.

BILL MOYERS: The first generation of children exposed to pesticide residues are now adults. These are the children of the second generation. Only now, pesticide use on food crops has increased more than 150 percent. Many child specialists are growing concerned that legal pesticide residues -what are called “tolerances” -have been set for adults. On some foods, those legal residues may be too high for children.

Dr. RICHARD JACKSON:, Environmental Health Committee, American Academy of Pediatrics: It’s very hard to prove that any child has ever become ill from these chemicals. Imagine that you’re the pediatrician and a child comes into the office and she’s got a little tearing, a little diarrhea, a little nausea, maybe even a little jitteriness. Who would think to make the diagnosis of a pesticide poisoning? It’s a very difficult diagnosis to make. So saying that there’s no proof that it’s occurring in humans doesn’t mean that the safety margins are acceptable or that the system is rational.

CHARLES BENBROOK. Former NAS Study Director: We’re finding that-that risk is very much front-loaded. If you’re going to be exposed to sort of the same pattern of pesticide residues in the food you eat, you’re going to experience the vast majority of your cancer risk by the time you’re 10.

BILL MOYERS: Charles Benbrook was director of the Board of Agriculture at the National Academy of Sciences for seven years. The NAS was commissioned by Congress to examine whether the pesticide residues legally permitted on food were safe for children. Benbrook was put in charge of the study, “Pesticides in the diets of infants and children,” in July, 1988. The study was due more than two years ago.

CHARLES BENBROOK: All EPA regulation, all tolerance levels, are based on average adults, the diet of average adults, that assumes that each person eats a tiny portion of 373 different foods each day. It’s kind of-imagine the entire U.S. food supply for a year. You dump it all in a giant MixMaster, turn it on “blend,” and then every day you eat three meals of this mush that’s a little bit of everything. That is, in effect, the scientific basis of tolerance setting. And that’s absurd.

RICHARD JACKSON: Tolerances are not set on a health basis. If they were set on a health basis, there’d be much lower numbers and much fewer chemicals used on many fewer crops.

INTERVIEWER: So the tolerances collectively, cumulatively, are set too high?

RICHARD JACKSON: If you sit down and you add up what any citizen, but particularly a child, would likely eat and you add up what the government permits in that food, you find out that the government is permitting 100, 500 times as much chemical in the food as a health based number would dictate.

BILL MOYERS: What exactly do we know about the dangers of pesticides in our food? The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, is responsible for making sure that 20,000 agricultural products legally registered for use on food crops are safe. This is one of their labs. Only this lab is not even capable of testing the safety of pesticides. All of the tests to prove these chemicals are not hazardous to humans are done by the companies that make them.

[interviewing] Can the American people trust the data that comes from an industry that has millions of dollars at stake in the product it’s trying to sell?

JAY VROOM, National Agricultural Chemicals Association: I think that our industry is trustworthy. It has earned the trust, it has the track record of performance and support to the American farmer, with very effective products that have allowed the American farmer to provide us with the most abundant and safest food supply in the world. But on top of that, we invite the public and you to give us a tough look, a close examination, and watch us carefully because we understand that the public has a right to ask tough questions and we have an obligation to provide the answers.

BILL MOYERS: This is where the answers pile up-the mail room at the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs. Data from chemical companies pours in literally by the ton. Toxicology reports, animal test data, cancer studies-every day an avalanche of paper descends on the EPA. A single toxicology study for a single chemical can fill a dozen volumes and take several years to produce.

On any given day, the biggest job around here is making sure the studies are logged in and that everyone gets the right pile. Incredibly, one out of every three studies industry submits is rejected by the EPA and has to be done again. The end result: The paper keeps piling up and piling up, even as certain pesticides EPA suspects of causing cancer continue to be used on food crops.

CAROLYN BRICKEY, Former Senate Staffer: They just become completely bogged down in non-decision-making. It’s one piece of paper after another. “Let’s ask for another study.” The industry plays right along with that. That’s their game. They say, ”Yes, we’ll give you another study, but it’ll take us three years to do it.”

INTERVIEWER: And the chemical can then stay on the market.

CAROLYN BRICKEY: And then the chemical stays on the market during all this time, even if EPA has serious doubts about it, because they haven’t got the procedures in place and the will to take it off the market.

BILL MOYERS: The procedures EPA follows are decided on Capitol Hill, at meetings like this.

JIM LYONS, Congressional Staffer: I’m going to ask that you either destroy this paper or-

MAUREEN HINKLE, Audubon Society: Or eat it.

JIM LYONS: -or eat it. Right. Burn it before you leave here because I don’t want this to get out and be interpreted to be the agenda. There is no agenda right now. Let everybody understand that.

BILL MOYERS: The law regulating pesticides is known in Congress as the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act-FIFRA for short.

JERRY HILL, Congressional Staffer: Could we continue to try to work on where we left off in July or August, in terms of trying to finish up those discussions

ED RUCKERT, McDermott, Will and Emery: Rounding the corners.

BILL MOYERS: This meeting in the House Agricultural Committee involves staffers from Congress, the EPA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, some environmentalists as well as interested members of industry.

ED RUCKERT: Ed Ruckert, McDermott, Will and Emery, representing the Minor Crop Farmer Alliance.

JOHN AGUIRRE: John Aguirre with the National Food Processors Association.

BILL MOYERS: Twenty-one years ago, in 1972, Congress ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to test all pesticides then on the market for potential health hazards. The job was supposed to take five years. The current deadline is 25 years later, 1997.

JIM LYONS: Although EPA acknowledges that they’re probably not going to meet those deadlines-is that fair to say, guys? Yes?


JIM LYONS: OK. I just want to make sure.

BILL MOYERS: This is what the law required. Congress ordered EPA to make sure the 620 pesticide chemicals then on the market were safe. So far, EPA has approved the health-safety data for only 19. That’s just 3 percent. One reason that program failed is political.

HALE VANDERMER, Retired EPA Epidemiologist: I think that the reason that those programs were abandoned is that, first off, during the Reagan administration, they were advocating a position of pulling government out of-out of certain areas. They-they-we had become, I suspect, a nuisance to industry, perhaps a thorn in their side, because we were creating and identifying more problems, perhaps, than we were solving.

BILL MOYERS: Hale Vandermer is an epidemiologist who worked at the EPA for 16 years.

HALE VANDERMER: We had created a network of pesticide laboratories that were there with the capability to do all kinds of chemistry to identify pesticide residues in all sorts of human and biological substrates. We destroyed that capability. We destroyed that critical mass that we developed from 1965 to 1980.

BILL MOYERS: This is one of only two EPA pesticide laboratories out of 13 to survive the Reagan revolution. Neither is capable of even verifying the pesticide studies that industry submits

HALE VANDERMER: When you rely on the fox to provide all of the information and you have no way of checking on it, then you have to rely on his integrity to do so. I have seen industries report things that were damaging to them, ultimately, yes. I have no sense whatsoever, nor do I have confidence, that they do this with any regularity.

INTERVIEWER: What does that say to you?

HALE VANDERMER: Well, it says to me that we have probably created a bad law.

BILL MOYERS: The law ended up creating a bill of rights for older pesticides. It allowed chemicals in use before 1972 to remain on the market until EPA proves conclusively they are dangerous. These plants will continue to be exposed to them even though EPA may already have serious doubts about their safety.

Take carrots, for example. Federal law permits the residues of 40 pesticides in carrots. EPA now believes eight may be cancer agents. All of them were registered for use before 1972 and under the law these old chemicals have special rights.

Captan, for example, is a fungicide first registered in 1951. Animal studies have indicated it causes cancer, birth defects and genetic disorders. Twelve years ago, EPA began the process of canceling Captan, yet Captan can still be used on 74 food crops, including grapes. Its maker, ICI Americas, wouldn’t talk to FRONTLINE and the EPA is bound by law.

CHARLES BENBROOK: If you’ve got an older pesticide that’s already on the market, it’s got the right to stay on the market until EPA can prove that risks exceed benefits and that’s very scientifically difficult, often, and also legally it’s a-the burden of proof on EPA is a very heavy one.

1st EPA ECONOMIST: Anything from USDA yet?

2nd EPA ECONOMIST: Well, USDA, we have one report that was dated, I think, ’84-’85 that was a draft report

3rd EPA ECONOMIST: But right now it’s the best data that we have and it’s the data that we have to go on.

BILL MOYERS: These EPA economists are conducting a risk-benefit analysis of a so-called “suspect chemical” with valuable food crop uses.

1st EPA ECONOMIST: Since California’s impacted, and it’s a major producer of carrots, their dependency on the subject suspect chemical is a major concern, at this point, until we-

BILL MOYERS: The law won’t permit EPA to just ban a chemical that has major economic benefits. If it tries, the appeals process could take years or even decades.

4th EPA ECONOMIST: Are you comfortable with everything other than carrots?

BILL MOYERS: These discussions have the difficult task of weighing the risks to the public health against the economic impact on everyone from farmers to supermarkets to consumers.

5th EPA ECONOMIST: Yeah, I think we should be definitely keeping in mind the different regulatory options, other than just cancellation.

CAROLYN BRICKEY: The chemical industry was able to get provisions put in the law that gives them many, many bites of the apple. They get opportunities at the EPA to stop-to slow down the process. They get additional administrative hearings. And then finally, if they go to court, the process starts all over again, as if the agency had never done anything or spent years studying a chemical.

INTERVIEWER: So this just maintains the status quo?

CAROLYN BRICKEY: And the result is nothing gets done.

BILL MOYERS: FRONTLINE requested interviews with the chief executives of the leading companies still producing and selling old chemicals. We wanted to ask why none had satisfied the requirements of re-registration after 20 years. All of them declined and all referred us to their Washington lobbyist, Jay Vroom.

[interviewing] But we wanted to talk about specific products those companies have been making for a number of years. You don’t make products.

JAY VROOM: No, that’s correct.

BILL MOYERS: And you can’t talk about them.

JAY VROOM: No, I am not in a position to speak to individual product questions.

BILL MOYERS: It’s kind of a Catch-22 situation for a journalist trying to find out.

JAY VROOM: Well, why don’t we talk to them together.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think you might give them the courage to talk to us?

JAY VROOM: Well, I don’t know, but I’ll try.

BILL MOYERS: Are they open to-


BILL MOYERS: -talk to us?


BILL MOYERS: As it turned out, they weren’t. We asked Mr. Vroom to help arrange an interview with any of four leading companies still selling old chemicals. None would agree to an on-camera interview with FRONTLINE.

[interviewing] If they don’t want to talk about it, can the public trust these companies-


BILL MOYERS: -that are producing these products

JAY VROOM: Understand.

BILL MOYERS: -that go on the food I eat?

JAY VROOM: Uh-huh.

BILL MOYERS: In fact, industries’ own tests suggest that 65 pesticides now in use may cause cancer, but EPA can’t just ban them until the link is conclusively proven, so their residues remain part of our daily food supply.

But even those tolerances are set for adults. The National Academy of Sciences study on the effects of pesticides was exploring whether the legal residues on food are set too high for infants and children. The committee began to amass some shocking data, according to its original director, Charles Benbrook.

CHARLES BENBROOK: The people that have worked on the Academy committee and other experts in this field have come to learn that there are some big holes in our safety net when it comes to assuring that the levels of pesticides that the government says are safe, and are legal and are sanctioned to be in the food supply, in many instances, those levels are not safe for children.

INTERVIEWER: What you’re saying is that the NAS study found that, for those vulnerable populations of children, that the risk has been too high, in some cases.

CHARLES BENBROOK: Yes, the report will undoubtedly find that to be the case.

BILL MOYERS: Charles Benbrook was fired by the NAS one month after the study’s initial deadline.

CHARLES BENBROOK: It was like a classic risk-benefit decision. I became more of a pain than I was worth to the Academy. The agricultural community likes to call for good science and regulation, but it really doesn’t want too much good science, particularly when it cuts the wrong way.

SUSAN OFFUTT, National Academy of Sciences: [addressing NACA meeting} Well, OK. Let’s cut to the chase, here. What about this pesticides in the diets of infants and children?

BILL MOYERS: Susan Offutt is an agricultural economist. Last year she moved from the Office of Management and Budget to head up the NAS children’s study begun by Charles Benbrook.

SUSAN OFFUTT: [addressing NACA meeting} Let me say that I am fully aware of the concerns that you have about the study’s conclusions and recommendations. We make it a point to try to understand the concerns of the affected constituents and being able to come to talk to you this morning and keeping in touch with your membership is a good way for us to do that. It matters to us.

BILL MOYERS: The “affected constituent” Ms. Offutt was addressing this day was the National Agricultural Chemicals Association and she told them something they wanted to hear.

SUSAN OFFUTT: [addressing NACA meeting} This is a study about the methodology of risk assessment. It is not a risk assessment itself and it was never intended to be. The responsibility for making judgments about acceptable residue levels of individual chemicals on foods rests with the EPA. It is not within the purview of the committee.

BILL MOYERS: What she is saying is that the five-year-long study is not likely to provide any real answers about pesticide risks to children. It’s not required to conclude if there is any risk or even propose that legal pesticide residues on certain foods may be too high.

SUSAN OFFUTT: The outcome of a risk assessment is a decision about a risk, the management of a risk, and the committee is not over taking-is not going to perform that function for the federal government. It’s going to advise the government on how those decisions should be made.

BILL MOYERS: But the committee’s deliberation has been of intense interest to the industry for five years.

[interviewing] Who is Don Collins?

JAY VROOM: Donald Collins is our director of food safety here for NACA.

BILL MOYERS: What’s that, “director of food safety”? What’s his job?

JAY VROOM: His job is public communications, public relations ..

BILL MOYERS: This memo obtained by FRONTLINE shows that Don Collins and his “food safety task force” kept a close eye on the NAS children’s study. In it, he warns of what he calls “the kiddies report” that “a leak” was still possible, but that there was “no public pressure for release.” The memo suggests regular contact with Richard Thomas, the first person to replace Charles Benbrook as head of the NAS children’s study. It identifies Thomas as someone “formerly working on industry concerns.” To Jay Vroom, keeping track of potentially damaging studies is one thing his association is supposed to do.

JAY VROOM: Then we would be remiss, and so would our critics if they aren’t doing the same thing, but it has nothing to do, absolutely nothing to do with influencing the National Academy of Sciences or this report.

BILL MOYERS: But a draft of the report written last fall under Susan Offutt got some committee members hopping mad. FRONTLINE obtained this letter from the study’s chairman, Dr. Philip Landrigan, a renowned pediatric toxicologist. He implied that her report was watered down. He charged that somehow the report had “regressed and lost substance,” that “case studies had been blurred,” that the work of the committee had been “diluted and delayed by forces acting within the depths of the Academy.”

[interviewing] Did he tell you what he meant when he wrote in his letter that “changes from other sources seem only to blur and confuse the report”? Did you all discuss that?

SUSAN OFFUTT: No, we did not. Having spoken with Dr. Landrigan about his concerns, he has told me that he is completely reassured about the course the study is taking. Whatever he meant by that letter was not the subject of our meeting, quite frankly.

BILL MOYERS: Weren’t you curious about why he would write a letter like this?

SUSAN OFFUTT: As I said, I’ve learned not to speculate on other people’s motives.

BILL MOYERS: After my interview with Susan Offutt, Dr. Landrigan wrote to FRONTLINE to say that the committee has now re-established control over the children’s study. His letter says that “the current draft is the best the committee has produced so far.”

[interviewing] I mean, is there any way to know when we will be able to answer the question raised by the report in the first place, “What’s the impact on infants and children of pesticide residue in their diet?”

SUSAN OFFUTT: First we have to see what the committee says. What do they recommend actually be done? Then the question is if they make a recommendation for a change in practice or a change in decision making, is that something that the executive branch can do on its own? Then the question is, if they have the ability, the legal ability to do that, will they do it? That’s a-that’s got as much to do with politics as it does with science. The other issue that can arise is, based on what the committee actually says, is there legislation-does the law of the land have to be changed in order for the recommendations to be implemented? Then you’ve got the Congress and everybody, you know, with a dime to put on the table as part of the debate. It might require amending the statute. How long would that take? It hasn’t been amended in a while. I don’t know.

BILL MOYERS: The fruits of government ripen very slowly.

SUSAN OFFUTT: Well, that would be a good way to put it, yes.

CHARLES BENBROOK: It’s going to be 10 years, 15 years before there is any significant change in the patterns of exposure in the diets of infants and children as a result of this National Academy of Science report, and that’s if the system works fast.

BILL MOYERS: But nothing happens quickly today when it comes to pesticide regulation. After the Reagan administration cut back the EPA’s pesticide program, 10 Congressional committees rushed to the rescue and Congress began to issue a flurry of often-conflicting demands.

TOM JORLING, Commissioner Environmental Conservation, New York State: Now it’s unclear who knows anything about the subject. The mark-ups are scripted. The debates are scripted. Everything is now sort of canned and the Senator becomes a performer. They-they deliver the-to deliver the script, and you’re never sure.

BILL MOYERS: Tom Jorling was a Senate staffer 20 years ago when Congress first ordered that pesticides be tested for safety.

TOM JORLING: And so you had proliferation of staff. Now when”! come down here, they can’t even get a schedule together to bring the staff together, much less get a meeting with the members. Now it’s theater. You come into this room during a mark-up and it’s filled with high-paid lobbyists. The media are covering it. The staff have given scripts to their members. They read the scripts.

Sen. ORRIN HATCH (R-UT): I know that our staffs have worked diligently to examine all the unanswered questions.

BILL MOYERS: There are now more than 300 Congressional staffers working on some part of federal pesticide law. The members have all they can do to keep up with the debate.

TOM JORLING: It’s a process now that has been removed from the accountability of the individually elected Senators and it has been transferred into kind of a theater where the staff playa much more dominant role, where the arrayed interest groups play a much greater role.

BILL MOYERS: So while lobbyists work to protect the interest of agribusiness, food tolerances set decades ago remain in effect, with incomplete data to support their safety.

TEACHER: It smelled as good as toast and French fries and catsup-

RICHARD JACKSON: The problem is that the system is set up depending on good luck. It’s set up hoping that the levels will be quite low in the food, rather than limiting it to those levels. It’s a little like setting the speed limit at 7,000 miles an hour and congratulating yourself that no one exceeds the speed limit. The numbers are set so high that, clearly, there’s very little food out there that is violative, that breaks the law.

BILL MOYERS: According to the Food and Drug Administration, less than 3 percent of our produce violates the law for pesticide residues. The problem is FDA samples only 1 percent of the produce reaching American consumers.

FDA INSPECTOR: You’re gonna have to take them out.

BILL MOYERS: In the winter 40 percent of our produce comes from outside the country, like these tomatoes at this inspection station on the Mexican border. Curiously, the third most frequently detected residue is DDT, which is still used heavily in Central America, even though it was banned in this country decades ago.

It has been 30 years since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and many of the same questions are still being asked. Only now, instead of look at immediate impact of pesticides, wildlife scientists are documenting some long-term effects. More and more studies are indicating that pesticides are increasingly finding their way into the food chain through fish, birds and mammals. There are concerns that these pesticide residues are disrupting such basic biological processes as the endocrine, nervous and immune systems.

Dr. THEO COLBORN, World Wildlife Fund: I was working on a book on the state of the environment of the Great Lakes and I became fascinated with the fact that there was this suite of anomalies that were being seen in the offspring of the animals in the Great Lakes, not in the adult animals. It was very evident in at least 11 of these species that had been studied quite extensively that it was the mother’s exposure that was causing the effect in the offspring. And all I kept thinking was, “My gosh, these same chemicals that are in these animals are in humans.”

BILL MOYERS: The studies suggested that chemical contamination produced some grotesque deformities.

THEO COLBORN: You can’t find a top predator fish in the Great Lakes that doesn’t have an enlarged thyroid.

INTERVIEWER: Just because that happens in fish, though, can we assume it would happen in humans?

THEO COLBORN: We don’t know and we can’t experiment with people.

BILL MOYERS: We may not know the long-term effects of these toxins on humans, but we do know one important thing.

HALE VANDERMER: These chemicals, once they’re incorporated into the tissue of the mother, will go into the bloodstream, cross the placental barrier and be incorporated into the tissue of the unborn child.

INTERVIEWER: No way of stopping it?

HALE VANDERMER: No way of stopping it. Certainly not.

THEO COLBORN: It has been demonstrated in the laboratory that these chemicals can change the way the endocrine system, the nervous system, the immune system and the metabolic processes take place in the body. Basically, how those systems develop or how they are constructed are controlled by the presence of these chemicals in the womb.

INTERVIEWER: That could then change the child in some way?

THEO COLBORN: That certainly-you change the building blocks of an individual or a building or a house and the foundation has to be perfect. If it isn’t perfect, you’ve got problems.

BILL MOYERS: Profound questions remain to be asked about the long-term effects of pesticide exposure on children.

THEO COLBORN: It’s just like the National Academy study, “Pesticides in children.” All they did was look at food. Again, one source, very narrow-minded. Why didn’t they look at everything, from the mother’s exposure that’s passed on to that child, from the child’s exposure from the breast milk, from the child’s exposure crawling around on the lawn that somebody just put some herbicides on because they didn’t want dandelions in their yard?

INTERVIEWER: So we don’t even really know how much exposure children have now.

THEO COLBORN: No, we don’t. We truly don’t. We truly don’t know what the long-term, cumulative, delayed health effects are of these chemicals in children.

INTERVIEWER: When will we know?

THEO COLBORN: We may have to wait another generation again.

BILL MOYERS: And those who have experienced the most extreme pesticide exposure feel a sense of urgency to get the answers.

MARTA SALINAS: It’s common sense. We’ve got to wake up. We’ve all got to wake up because if we’re dying, you’re not escaping from it, either-your children’s children. We’ve got to find a safe place and the way to start is, we’ve got to get our government to be accountable to what they’re registering out there and what they’re permitting, what pesticides they’re permitting. Study them. And if it causes cancer or defects-stop it.

TOM JORLING: If you have 600 active ingredients that are out there being used in commerce in large, large quantities and you haven’t tested but a small subset of them, that means you’re using the population as experimental animals for the ones you haven’t tested. By definition, you’re doing that. So that’s not good public policy.

BILL MOYERS: But public policy on agricultural chemicals has gotten bogged down in the minutiae of bureaucracy and the politics of pesticides. Caution and delay control the agenda.

MAUREEN HINKLE: It’s outrageous. Every year-every year that it’s that it goes on without resolution is-it’s a-it’s a travesty. We’re eating that stuff.

JIM LYONS: Well, we’re going to-we’ll work on it.

BILL MOYERS: And work and work they will. In 1972, the law regulating pesticides was only 35 pages long. This year it will be well over 200 pages, filled with special clauses to accommodate a variety of interests.

JIM LYONS: Whatever the chairman wants is clearly a priority.

STAFFER: Well, great.

BILL MOYERS: The chairman is Kika de la Garza from Texas, a 28year veteran. De la Garza heads the powerful House Agriculture Committee, which has principal jurisdiction over pesticide regulation. The chairman’s committee has proven to be the most influential voice on federal pesticide law and that’s why everyone with an interest in agriculture wants to be friends with Chairman Kika de la Garza.

WOMAN’S VOICE: Hi, Mr. Chairman

BILL MOYERS: Chairman de la Garza controls the $68 billion budget at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His House committee sets agriculture priorities and funds them. He and his fellow members are aggressively courted by agribusiness. In just the last five years, powerful agricultural interests donated more than $1 million to their campaigns. On any working day here you’ll find lobbyists for everything from chemical companies to food retailers watching to make sure that change does not hurt their clients, so simple questions become more complicated and the members struggle to keep up.

House Agriculture Committee meetings are always full, but this is one of the least crowded hearing rooms on Capitol Hill. Here is where they discuss alternative approaches to farming, the Senate Sub

committee on Agricultural Research, chaired by South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle. There are rarely chemical lobbyists in this room.

Sen. TOM DASCHLE (D-SD): I hope that today’s discussion will generate some good ideas about how-

BILL MOYERS: Less than 7 percent of the USDA’s research budget goes towards promoting alternatives to chemical agriculture. At EPA the number is less than 3 percent. Of the 800 EPA employees in the Office of Pesticide Programs, only five work on alternatives to chemicals, a research effort of slightly more than a half million dollars. So the development of alternative methods of pest control rests largely in the hands of entrepreneurs like Glen Scriven. His company, Biotactics, grows and markets predator mites that feed on strawberry pests.

GLEN SCRIVEN: The production of natural enemies, predators and parasites, is not 8S profitable as producing chemicals and this may be one reason that itís difficult for us to get capital investment to develop this business.

BILL MOYERS: Federal law permits the residues of 67 pesticides in strawberries. The EPA suspects that seven may cause cancer. All but one are old chemicals. But there are no poisons in this strawberry patch. These workers have another weapon, Glen Scriven’s predator mites. This farm is changing from chemicals to integrated pest management. The workers are getting their first lesson in how to apply them. Insects are adapting faster than we can kill them with poisons, but even though we are losing the chemical war, the use of natural predators is not likely to replace pesticides any time soon.

GLEN SCRIVEN: Chemicals are still number one.

PAUL BUXMAN: The last meeting, those of you that were here remember that the theme was cover crops and I hope you got them in. That’s all I can say. I thought we’d just go around again this morning and bring up any concerns or any revelations.

BILL MOYERS: More and more, small farmers are taking the lead in alternative forms of pest control.

1st FARMER: They use it on the Colorado potato beetle. I don’t know whether it would work on~

2nd FARMER: I mean, is it something I can commercially go get from somewhere?

1st FARMER: Yes.

PAUL BUXMAN: What about mealy bug on your place, Fred? What’s happened?

BILL MOYERS: Paul Buxman chairs a monthly breakfast with local farmers from the Fresno area.

3rd FARMER: I think the fact that some of these heavy pesticides are being eliminated-it’s nice to know that you can do it without them.

BILL MOYERS: Attendance at the breakfast has been steadily growing. The group calls itself the California Clean Growers Association. Their aim is to radically reduce their dependence on synthetic chemicals.

PAUL BUXMAN: When Dad was farming prior to the 1950s, the USDA published some reports that we were losing an annual percentage of fruit of about 7 percent, overall, to pest damage. Today that’s up . around 13 percent. So with all of the chemical warfare that we’ve gotten against our pests, our damage has almost doubled. Now, there’s something real haywire here. If this stuff is so helpful and useful, why is it that we continue to lose all this stuff? And has any pest been eradicated? No. Has any pest been really controlled? No. Has the chemicals really helped farmers become more independent and economically sound? No.

BILL MOYERS: Buxman uses no poisons in his orchards.

PAUL BUXMAN: I feel safe with my son out there. We don’t post warnings, “Keep out.” He doesn’t break out in skin rashes, like in the old days, my daughter coming down with total body rashes. There’s something phony, you know, about those studies if they’re telling you that it’s-you know, this is just-“Don’t worry about it. This is safe.” I keep hearing, “This is the safest thing in the world” and so on. My observation is that that’s not true.

BILL MOYERS: Buxman uses no herbicides to strip the ground bare of vegetation. And something good started to happen.

PAUL BUXMAN: Beneficial insects began to grow in here. You can see all kinds of life forms in here. That little shelled animal provides free calcium for my trees. Other guys are out buying fertilizer and they’re buying manures and they’re buying calcium nitrate and Triple-15 and triple phosphate. The truth is that all these little organisms will eat this vegetation. It turns it into raw manure. And what happens is, the land finally becomes self-fertile.

BILL MOYERS: And the difference is easy to see when Paul Buxman takes a shovelful of dirt from his neighbor’s vineyard and compares it to one from his orchard.

PAUL BUXMAN: Now, these soils were identical when we took the farm. There was just no difference between the two that you could see physically. But I think you can see a difference now. We’ve begun to get earthworms coming in and also there’s a lot of microscopic, very small critters that are in here. You can smell it. You can feel it. The smell is rich and deep. And there’s no smell. This is dead. This soil, it died. It died a long time ago.

BILL MOYERS: It will take most farmers a long time to catch up with Paul Buxman. The need to maximize crop yields to pay that mortgage drives American farmers. They see chemicals as the fastest, surest way to protect their investment. But the farmer is not the only one responsible. We consumers you and I -are part of the problem, demanding the cosmetically perfect fruits and vegetables that chemicals produce. Did you know that many of the chemicals used have nothing to do with protecting crops? They merely make fruit bigger, shinier, more pleasing to the eye. Now, admit it. You’d have picked this one, too. And we prefer convenient foods-seedless creations, easy to eat.

PAUL BUXMAN: When we bred the seeds out of watermelon, we got a poor watermelon. When we bred the seeds out of grapes, we got weaker grapes. We’ve got a grape that was developed by the USDAI mean, that grape was just meant to rot. You’ve got to spray it every five days, every row, through the entire harvest season to get it to market. And the only way around that it to spray it with fungicides that are systemic, meaning that it goes into the fruit itself. It’s seedless and it’s red and that’s what the customer wants. I pulled out 13 acres of seeded grapes because I couldn’t sell them and that-that vineyard required almost no pesticide use. I tried my best to sell those grapes. I bagged them. I packed them fresh. I trimmed them. I did everything I could, but the customer looked at them and said, “Eh, seeded? Forget it.”

BILL MOYERS: The consumer who does not want chemically grown food has to demand it, but few major supermarket chains offer it and nearly all large growers rely heavily on chemicals. So what should parents of young children do, not feed them fruits and vegetables? Well, that cure might well be worse than the disease because children need the vitamins and minerals this fresh produce has to offer. But surely the time has come for government to act swiftly and for industry to respond candidly in telling the public what’s on and in the produce our children eat.

PAUL BUXMAN: You know, it’s just-it’s so hard to change the clumsy way of doing things, but it will change. Government will change.

INTERVIEWER: What will make it change?

PAUL BUXMAN: I think what will make it change is that it will die of its own weight. It can’t survive the weight of the paper. It can’t even read and make sense of its own-its own documents. It can’t make decisions based on information that it can’t understand.

BILL MOYERS: The report about pesticides in the diets of infants and children is now scheduled to be released in June, nearly three years late. It will be the first government study to ask basic questions about what impact residues of agricultural chemicals might have on children after 40 years of continuous use. Its likely conclusion: The potential problems merit further study. The answers seem no closer today than when Rachel Carson first began to ask them three decades ago.

This transcript was entered on April 15, 2015.

  • submit to reddit