Science and Technology in the Balance? Food Security, Precaution, and the Pesticide Debate
About This Event

Earlier this year, the twenty-seven European Union (EU) governments reached a consensus to institute new criteria that could ultimately blacklist around twenty-two chemicals--about fifteen percent of the EU pesticides market--used by the agricultural and pest control industries. The EU regulation embraces a more restrictive hazard structure based upon the "precautionary Listen to Audio

Download Audio as MP3
principle," which contends that some chemicals are intrinsically dangerous at any level, even absent definitive risk data. The new ban, to be phased in beginning in 2011, has been challenged by some policy experts who are concerned that it could damage food security while yielding limited or no health benefits. Opponents also argue that the measures could lead to unintended consequences such as damaging disease-control efforts in developing countries. Proponents of the new pesticide regulations hail them as necessary precautions for addressing the unknown cumulative effects of chemical residues.

This new EU decision breaks with long-standing protocol in the United States and many other countries that rely primarily on risk standards, which hold that chemicals are considered safe if studies on animals reveal no known risks at the levels found in food. Does the EU's new approach to pesticides place the scientific method in jeopardy? What are the implications of the precautionary standard, which may shape future regulations in many countries, including the U.S.?

Event Summary

WASHINGTON, D.C., October 6, 2009 -- The world will be home to approximately nine billion people by 2050. Feeding this growing population will be one of the great challenges of the twenty-first century and will require international institutions, governments, nongovernmental organizations, and corporations to coordinate their efforts like never before. Pesticides have the potential to play an integral role in achieving global food security. At AEI’s October 6 event "Science and Technology in the Balance? Food Security, Precaution, and the Pesticide Debate," AEI vice president for foreign and defense policy studies Danielle Pletka addressed these issues by asking, "How do we strike the right balance between consumer safety and modern agricultural techniques that enable us to meet our food security needs?"

According to keynote speaker U.S. Senator Mike Johanns (R-Neb.),"we must stand strong for policies that are truly based on sound science. . . we need to continue to explore science and embrace new technologies." Yet controversy has erupted over employing modern agricultural techniques such as pesticides and genetically modified crops to increase food production. This past year, the European Union (EU) set out to ban about fifteen percent of the EU pesticides market on the grounds that the substances might pose public health and environmental risks. The twenty-two chemicals targeted belong to the agricultural and pest control industries. Proponents of the proposed ban justify it on the basis of the precautionary principle, which maintains that chemicals have the potential to be unsafe even if they meet scientifically established risk standards.

For some, this cautious approach represents a departure from science that could damage food security. According to Jonathan Adler, professor of law and director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, the precautionary principle is difficult to enforce legally and "efforts to implement it can do more harm than good." Richard Tren, founder and director of the health policy and advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria, discussed ways in which regulation of chemicals, especially DDT, have damaged malaria control efforts in Africa.

Nevertheless, conference participants maintained that some degree of regulation is necessary to protect consumer safety and the environment. According to John Wargo, professor of environmental risk analysis and policy at Yale University, the challenge is to "identify and manage danger, especially when it is invisible," as is the case with pesticides. Mr. Wargo suggested that "the strategies that have evolved in pesticide law are a reasonable approach." Carolyn Raffensperger, the executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, went to on defend the implementation of the precautionary principle. "I don’t think science is under any kind of threat from the precautionary principle...but [the precautionary principle] does recognize the limits of science in the face of complexity."

Crafting pesticide policy that ensures public safety and environmental protection, while tackling the herculean task of achieving of global food security is a difficult balance to strike. The challenges before policymakers are clear, but their resolution is not.


View complete summary.
Speaker biographies

Jonathan Adler is a professor of law and director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, where he teaches courses in environmental, regulatory, and constitutional law. Prior to joining the Case faculty, Mr. Adler clerked for the Honorable David B. Sentelle on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He also worked as the director of environmental studies for the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Mr. Adler’s writing focuses primarily on environmental and regulatory policy issues. He is the author or editor of three books, including The Costs of Kyoto: Climate Change Policy and Its Implications (Competitive Enterprise Institute, 1997) and Environmentalism at the Crossroads (Government Institutes, 1995), and several book chapters. His work has appeared in publications ranging from the Harvard Environmental Law Review and the Supreme Court Economic Review to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. In 2004, Mr. Adler received the Paul M. Bator Award, given annually by the Federalist Society for Law and Policy Studies to an academic under forty for excellence in teaching, scholarship, and commitment to students. In 2007, the Case Western Reserve University Law Alumni Association awarded Mr. Adler their annual “Distinguished Teacher Award.”

Claude Barfield is a resident scholar at AEI. He is the author or editor of a number of books on trade and science policy, including Free Trade, Sovereignty, Democracy: The Future of the World Trade Organization (AEI Press, 2001). In 1999, he coauthored Tiger by the Tail: China and the World Trade Organization (AEI Press) with Mark Groombridge. Mr. Barfield is working with Andrei Zlate on the forthcoming AEI Press book The Eagle and the Dragon: The United States, China, and the Rise of Asian Regionalism. Before coming to AEI, he served in the Gerald R. Ford administration on the staff of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and as a co-staff director of the President’s Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties.

Mike Bushell is head of Jealott’s Hill International Research Center and head of external partnerships with Syngenta in the United Kingdom. He joined Jealott’s Hill in 1980 as a team leader in insecticide research, following post-doctoral work in Cambridge. He returned to Jealott’s Hill in 1999 as sector leader for insect and fungal control. He has previously held the roles of head discovery and head of strategy and technology, before taking up his current role with Syngenta. He is also secretary to Syngenta’s Science and Technology Advisory Board.

Lawrence Elworth is the agricultural counselor to the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. In his more than thirty years in agriculture he has managed and owned orchard and vineyard operations, served as head of the grower check-off program for apple growers in Pennsylvania, served as senior policy advisor for the Department of Agriculture and the Domestic Policy Council in the Clinton Administration. More recently, he was founder and director of the Center for Agricultural Partnerships, where he worked extensively on implementation of conservation programs in the Chesapeake Bay, the Southeast and other parts of the country.

Jon Entine is a visiting fellow at AEI. A former Emmy-winning producer for NBC News and ABC News, he researches and writes about corporate responsibility, science, and society. His books include Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People (Grand Central Publishing, 2007), which focuses on the genetics of race; the best-selling Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk about It (Public Affairs, 2000), based on an award-winning NBC News documentary; and No Crime but Prejudice: Fischer Homes, the Immigration Fiasco, and Extra-Judicial Prosecution (TFG Books, 2009), about prosecutorial excesses. Entine is an adviser to Global Governance Watch, a project that examines transparency and accountability issues at the United Nations, in nongovernmental organizations, and in related international organizations.

Jay Feldman is the cofounder of Beyond Pesticides and has served as its director since 1981. He dedicated himself to finding solutions to pesticide problems after working with farm workers and small farmers through a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant to the national advocacy organization Rural America (1977-1981). Since then, Mr. Feldman has helped to build Beyond Pesticides' capacity to assist local groups and impact national pesticide policy. He has tracked specific chemical effects, regulatory actions, and pesticide law. He is very familiar with local groups working on pesticides and has helped develop successful strategies for reform in local communities. His work with media has helped to bring broader public understanding of the hazards of pesticides.

Kenneth P. Green is a resident scholar at AEI where he studies public policy with respect to air pollution and climate change, energy and the environment, transportation and the environment, and environmental chemicals. His work includes analysis of Canadian environmental policy. He has authored numerous policy studies, newspaper and magazine articles, several encyclopedia entries and book chapters, and a textbook for middle-school students entitled Global Warming: Understanding the Debate (Enslow Publishers, 2002). Mr. Green has worked on both U.S. and Canadian policy, first at California's Reason Foundation, then for nearly three years at British Columbia's Fraser Institute.

Mike Johanns is a U.S. Senator for Nebraska. Prior to that, he was the twenty-eighth secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2005-2007, where he  worked to expand foreign market access for U.S. producers, promoted the growth of the renewable fuels industry and advanced cooperative conservation. Additionally, he developed an in-depth farm bill proposal, which became the foundation for improvements and reforms adopted in the final 2008 farm bill. Senator Johanns has also served in numerous public roles in Nebraska state and local government. He served on the Lancaster County Board from 1983 to 1987, and on the Lincoln City Council from 1989 to 1991. He was elected mayor of Lincoln in 1991 and was re-elected in 1995 without opposition. He successfully ran for governor of Nebraska in 1998 and was re-elected in 2002.

Euros Jones has worked for the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) since May 2001, and has been director of Regulatory Affairs since January 2006. He previously worked for the National Farmers’ Union as deputy director of the Brussels office,  and for the European Council of Young Farmers as secretary general. In his current post, Mr. Jones’ responsibilities include supporting ECPA’s advocacy on regulatory issues dealing with the marketing and use of plant protection products and their residues in food.

Douglas Nelson is executive vice president, general counsel, and secretary of CropLife America, the largest U. S. trade organization representing developers, manufacturers, formulators, and distributors of agricultural crop protection products. He is also president of CropLife Foundation, a 501(c)(3) educational and research foundation promoting sustainable agriculture and the environmentally safe use of crop protection products and bio-engineered agriculture. Mr. Nelson is also an appointed member of the United States Industry Trade Advisory Committee on Intellectual Property Rights. Prior to working at CropLife America, Mr. Nelson was assistant general counsel and assistant secretary of Unilever United States, Inc.,in New York, N.Y; worked as an Acquisitions and Divestitures counsel at Union Carbide Corporation in Danbury, Conn., and as an associate lawyer in the New York law firms of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, and Coudert Brothers. Mr. Nelson is also an adjunct lecturer at the Johns Hopkins University, teaching courses on corporations, business law and globalization, and has taught at American University’s Washington School of Law, Columbia University, North Carolina State University, Brooklyn College, and the New School for Social Research.

Carolyn Raffensperger is the executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN). In 1982, she left a career as an archaeologist in the desert Southwest to join the environmental movement. She first worked for the Sierra Club where she addressed an array of environmental issues, including forest management, river protection, pesticide pollutants, and disposal of radioactive waste. Ms. Raffensperger began working for SEHN in December 1994. As an environmental lawyer she specializes in the fundamental changes in law and policy necessary for the protection and restoration of public health and the environment. She is co-editor of Precautionary Tools for Reshaping Environmental Policy (M.I.T. Press, 2006) and Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle (Island Press, 1999). She has served on editorial review boards for several environmental and sustainable agriculture journals, and on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Research Council committees.

Richard Tren is a founder and the director of the health policy and advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria (AFM), which has offices in South Africa and the United States. AFM is one of the few malaria advocacy groups that promotes the increased use of indoor spraying of insecticides for malaria control and has advocated for more random testing of pharmaceuticals in the developing world. Mr. Tren is an economist and has researched and written widely on health and development, with a particular focus on malaria and other communicable diseases. He is a council member of the Free Market Foundation of Southern Africa.

John P. Wargo is a professor of environmental risk analysis and policy  at Yale University. His most recent work has focused on children’s exposure to air pollution, especially diesel emissions. He has conducted extensive research on childhood vulnerability to complex mixtures of toxic substances, particularly pesticides. His research explores spatial, temporal, and demographic distribution of environmental health risks, providing a basis for evaluating past environmental and natural resource management policies, and for suggesting legal reform. Our Children’s Toxic Legacy: How Science and Law Fail to Protect Us from Pesticides (Yale University Press, 1996), presents a history of law governing pesticides and a history of scientific evidence of pesticide risks during the second half of the twentieth century. It won the American Association of Publishers award as the Best Scholarly Professional Book in Government and Political Science in 1996. Mr. Wargo has also conducted extensive research on the ecological basis of park and protected area management, concentrating on the Adirondack Park in New York, barrier islands within U.S. National Seashores, and UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. He is affiliated with the Yale–New Haven Teachers Institute, and works with urban primary and secondary school teachers in developing environmental curriculum units. He is a fellow of Branford College.

Mark Whalon is a professor and the director of Pesticides Alternatives Laboratory at Michigan State University. Mr. Whalon’s work focuses on pesticide reduction, agriculture, and natural resources. His lab is committed to developing reduced-risk, sustainable and organic insect pest management strategies, tactics, and tools within the context of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) systems. Through various policy efforts in Michigan, the Upper Midwest, Washington, D.C., and internationally, Mr. Whalon serves in a number of advisory roles to United States Environmental Protection Agency, United States Department of Agriculture, Organic Materials Review Institute, and on various academic and scientific committees.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine

What's new on AEI

Rebuilding American defense: A speech by Governor Bobby Jindal
image Smelling liberal, thinking conservative
image Stopping Ebola before it turns into a pandemic
image All too many reasons for pessimism about Europe
AEI Participants






Kenneth P.
AEI on Facebook