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Conservationists call for action on chemicals on 50th anniversary of Silent Spring

Thursday 27 September 2012

Advocates of environmentally sensitive agriculture have called for more to be done to reduce the farming sector’s ecological footprint on the anniversary of one of the environmental movement’s most defining works.


Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was released 50 years ago on Thursday (27th September); the book made a link between the widespread use of damaging pesticides and declining biodiversity. In response to its publication, the chemical industry sought to vilify Carson; the hangover of some of the claims made against her, particularly in relation to chemical DDT, persists today. However, an investigation into Carson’s meticulous work commissioned by John F Kennedy vindicated her, and resulted in an immediate strengthening of pesticide regulations in the United States.  


Conservation farming groups have used the occasion of the book’s 50th anniversary to call for more action to be taken in exacting a paradigm shift in agriculture towards greater sustainability. They argue that too little has been done to reduce the negative social and environmental impacts of agriculture in the time since Silent Spring was first published.

Increasing use of chemicals threatens resilience


Silent Spring author Rachel Carson

Around the world, the use of pesticides is rising. Over the next eight years, chemical production in Europe and the United States will rise by 25 percent. In Asia-Pacific production will rise by 50 percent and in the Middle East 40 percent.


In the UK, this trend is also observable; many expressed fears over increased plantings of oilseed rape this year, as the crop requires more chemical inputs than those it has generally replaced. Data from the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) shows the percentage of crop areas treated rose by 86 percent on strawberries, and 74 percent on oilseed rape between 2005 and 2010; both of these crops are pollinated by bees, whose decline is thought to be linked to, or exacerbated by, use of certain pesticides.


Environmentalists and sustainable farming advocates have called for more consideration to be given to agroecological methods, which combine cutting edge scientific knowledge with a more holistic perspective to create a socially just, environmentally sensitive approach to farming. The approach has been championed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, as it has been demonstrated to empower communities, raise yields in historically deprived regions and produce positive environmental impacts.  


On Wednesday (26th September), Worldwatch Institute senior researcher Danielle Nierenberg described agroecology as a system which provides benefits including “capturing and storing carbon dioxide, involving the local community in the farming process, and improving farmers’ ability to adapt to climate change.” She continued, “Industrial agriculture, on the other hand, tends to rely on scarce fossil fuels, harmful chemical inputs, and a small number of crop and animal species.”

Friends of the Earth calls for action on neonicotinoids


Friends of the Earth called on Thursday for government to aid the paradigm shift away from a purely financially-driven, petrochemical-reliant agriculture, which is damaging the environment and rendering global food production fragile in the face of climate change and peak oil. The environmental organisation is currently pushing for an investigation and stricter regulations on neonicotinoid pesticides in the UK, which have been linked to declines in pollinating insects, primarily bees.  


The organisation claims that “Despite mounting evidence of the harm that pesticides can cause to pollinators, the Government's draft Pesticide Action Plan issued in July this year failed to set out new measures to reduce chemical use on the crops visited by bees and other pollinating insects.” In contrast, France and Italy suspended use of the chemicals following the publication of two studies in the journal Science in May. 


Whilst in the United States, UK and several other EU states, the response to ‘Silent Spring’ has been slow, parts of Europe are gradually introducing policies aimed at ‘greening’ the agriculture sector. Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands and Norway, have had pesticide-use reduction plans in place for over a decade already and France's agriculture department has set the target of reducing pesticides use in the EU’s agricultural powerhouse by 30 percent (without impacting on crop yields or farm income).


Speaking on the anniversary of Rachel Carson’s seminal work, Friends of the Earth's Nature Campaigner Sandra Bell said, "Fifty years on from Silent Spring we still have a Government that is failing to act to stop the harmful impacts of pesticides on our natural world.


“The UK dragged its feet over banning the highly toxic pesticide DDT, despite strong evidence it was killing birds and now we're way behind other countries in taking action to protect bees. The Government must stop prolonging this issue and suspend the use of neonicotinoid pesticides and set out a clear strategy to help farmers cut their dependence on chemicals."


On Thursday, Celebrity gardener and president of organic certification body the Soil Association, Monty Don discussed the book’s legacy in a letter to The Guardian. He said,   “I can remember the mixture of naïve optimism and unbridled arrogance of our farmers throughout the 60's and 70's and the utter disrespect that almost all showed towards Carson and those that shared her concerns. Now, 50 years on, that arrogance is somewhat modified, but the patterns and systems that it created for remorseless profit-based food production are in the tight fist of huge corporations that have no respect or care at all for humanity.”


On the pressing need for deep structural changes towards more sustainable food production, Don stated, “Capitalism cannot change track. It is condemned to measuring success and failure in terms of profit and loss. Governments have less and less power and chase after more and more control. But we can change things for the better.”  


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