April 19, 2014

Is pesticide science based on false assumptions?

A leading article for The Ecologist Vol. 1 No. 5, November 1970. Republished in The Doomsday Funbook (Jon Carpenter Books, February 2006).

See ordering information for the Funbook.


The scientist is under attack. His image is deteriorating fast. No more do we see a benevolent sage whose infinite wisdom is leading to man’s conquest of nature, to the elimination of disease, poverty, misery and everything else that afflicts us. Instead, to more and more, he has become an ogre who, to satisfy his own curiosity, is concocting vile poisons that are bound to get us all in the end.

This new image is not undeserved. There is a lot wrong with modern science. Primarily, it is based on a set of assumptions that are rarely questioned, and thereby should be regarded as little more than dogmas.

Take pesticide science. It is based on four assumptions. The first is that there are such things as ‘pests’. But what, in fact, is a ‘pest’?

Bugs like leaf worms and boll weevils, birds like sparrows and wood-pigeons, mammals like wolves and foxes, even people like Tasmanian Aborigines and South African Bushmen have at various times been shot, poisoned and whenever possible, exterminated.

What do these biologically very different animals have in common? Mainly, it would seem, that they are all presumptuous enough to eat food that could otherwise be eaten by us. It is essential to realise, however, that they do lots of other things as well. Countless millions of years of evolution did not occur simply to provide western man with minor irritants. Each fulfils a multitude of essential functions in our biosphere.

This leads to the second assumption; that exterminating ‘pests’ leads to increased food supply. Pesticides concentrate as they go up the food chain, and at the top are the wretched predators, so they are the first to go. This can only lead to a proliferation of their prey. Thus killing off hawks and buzzards in Britain and elsewhere has led to a population explosion among sparrows, while killing off ladybirds in Norfolk resulted in plagues of aphids. It must be apparent that by killing off predators, pesticides are actually creating ‘pests’, not the odd one, but epidemics of them. These are the very reasons pesticides were abandoned in many parts of Malaysia and in the Canete Valley of Peru.

This is also why, in different parts of the world, predators are being re-introduced; otters to control fish in Polish rivers, birds to control insects in Spain and birds of prey to control gulls in Guernsey.

Also we must not forget a basic ecological principle: stability is achieved by increasing complexity. But we aim at achieving the simplest possible ecosystem: one consisting of us and our crops, to the exclusion of all other forms of life. We simply cannot get away with it. We must pay the cost: in the long run this will mean less food availability, and an increased vulnerability to disease.

This leads to the third assumption: that it is, in fact, possible to eliminate ‘pests’. Mammals and birds may be quite easy to kill off, but not so insects. They produce so many generations in such a short time that they can adapt genetically to any new chemical, and probably faster than scientists can produce them. In spite of warnings we are using ever greater amounts of pesticides, and there are more species of insects today than ever before, while over 200 of these have already developed resistance to chemicals. So it looks as if we are fighting a losing battle.

And now for the final assumption: that we can tolerate the ever higher amounts of toxic pesticides to which we are exposed in the food we eat, water we drink and air that we breathe. Things that are toxic to all other mammals, whether in the wild or a laboratory, must certainly poison us too. As Wayne Davis points out, “one of the lessons of modern molecular biology is that basic life processes are essentially the same in all organisms.”

Scientists are constantly refusing to accept conclusions that are apparent to most people, on the grounds that they are not supported by sufficient ‘evidence’.

So let me give them a dose of their own medicine. I challenge any of them to provide evidence to justify these four fundamental assumptions. If they can’t, then they will have to admit that pesticide science is based on false assumptions, as are many other disciplines taught in our schools and universities, economics to name but one.

In other words, specialists are incapable of questioning the basic assumptions on which hinges the very validity of the work they are doing. This being so, to what extent can this work be regarded as scientific? Either it isn’t, in which case science should be redefined, or it is, in which case it should be outlawed.

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