The Pesticide Industry Invades the US Classroom

by John F. Borowski

July 3, 2002



In her classic book about the hazards of pesticides, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson posed a question that is possibly more timely today than ever. "Have we fallen into a mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental, as though having lost the will or the vision to demand that which is good?"


Multinational corporations have used a two-pronged approach to convince the public that environmental organizations are "Chicken Littles" pontificating global woe in a time of technological wonder.


The first strategy is to saturate the news and print media with counter claims that attempt to refute current science. Case in point: Theo Colborn's claims in her book Our Stolen Future, that hormone disrupters such as pesticides are playing hormonal havoc in nature, have come under serious attack. For example, in the July 21, 1997 issue of the FASEB Journal (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology), Bruce Ames and his partner Lois Gold attempted to debunk many of Colborn's premises -- which are based on the work of over 400 scientists.


Ames is an active adviser to The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), a corporate-supported "watchdog coalition that advocates the use of sound sciences in public policy." TASSC has about 900 members, 375 of whom are scientists. The rest are executives from the chemical, oil, dairy, timber, paper, mining, manufacturing and agribusiness industries -- like "Support comes from companies like Procter & Gamble, Exxon, Dow Chemical, and Philip Morris -- who are seeking ways to defend their products in media and the courts. TASSC's Web site offers examples of what it terms "junk science," alongside a host of entries defending bovine growth hormone, genetically engineered foodstuffs, dioxin, electromagnetic fields and endocrine disrupting chemicals. Ames is also on the Board of Directors for the Marshall Institute (MI), a well-funded and very powerful corporate "think tank," that substitutes rhetoric for good data. MI is a pro-business group which claims to present "unbiased" scientific analyses; it dismisses global warming, champions star wars defense expenditures and puts out media releases asserting genetically engineered foods pose little or no risk.)


The second corporate strategy, actually a page out of the environmentalists' own play book, is to reach lots of children. As an environmental teacher of nineteen years, I've watched this strategy evolve into a tremendous public relations bonanza, well funded and skillfully marketed.


The ramifications are staggering. Fifty million young people are now in public schools, all soon to be consumers and voters. The time to shape their beliefs is now. These materials are professional, obviously expensive to produce, and often they are free to educators. Corporations realize that schools are desperate for materials, and what better way to fill this niche but to provide readings, labs, and quizzes, all touting the corporate view of pesticides.


One great example is Agriculture and The Environment, published by the American Farm Bureau. Well organized, the booklet includes activities, questions, and readings. I was particularly struck by the "Basic Understanding" sections: "The quality and abundance of our food supply is due to modern agricultural practices which include the use of pesticides," and "Chemicals are chemicals, whether they are naturally occurring or manufactured."


I've noticed a pattern with these publications: downplay the risks, accentuate the old reliable phrases ("media scare," "safest food supplies," "99.99% of the carcinogenic substances we consume in our diet are natural substances") and create confusion about reliable data. While the Farm Bureau is entitled to its opinion, if corporations flood our schools with these freebies, how will children receive a counterpoint?


This spring, a student brought me an article about the hazards of atrazine. This herbicide, heavily used on corn, apparently is being widely found in rainwater, wells, and rivers. Concerns range from toxicity to aquatic organisms to reproductive problems in wildlife. More sinister is that atrazine is being linked to two forms of human cancer. When I checked my data against the Farm Bureau information, I found discrepancies. According to the Farm Bureau, it is not linked to any risk of cancer. The key point here is the use of repetition. Concerns are dismissed as zealous, heavy handed regulatory action, and environmentalists with an agenda.


This approach is also seen in "Impacts of Eliminating Organophosphates and Carbamate under the Food Quality Protection Act," produced by the Agriculture and Food Policy Center at Texas A&M University. The executive summary reads like a nightmare: "If you want to eliminate these organophosphates the results include reduced yields, increase of imports with their questionable use of pesticides, increased pest resistance, and reduced consumption of fruits and vegetables."


This generation of young voters is being counted on to address and solve some of the most pressing ecological issues facing humankind. Such a task demands that they have access to credible scientific data, not merely corporate-produced sales materials. Many teachers do not delve into these special topics and feel less fluent in issues such as genetically altered food or the chemistry of organophosphates. This creates a void for corporate American to fill with science that is more suited to fill the needs of a three month profit report rather than the well being of a community, its children, and its resources.


The environmental community had better go on the offensive. The largest environmental groups should fund those grassroots groups that are willing to develop and promote sound science materials for teachers and their students. The prospect of losing a generation to corporate science is a thought that makes me shudder.


John Borowski has taught high school environmental science for 24 years. His articles have appeared in the NY Times, "Z" magazine, and UTNE Reader. He lives in Philomath, Oregon and can be reached at: