Dr. Joe Schwarcz*, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society (OSS) is a chemist by training and a science popularizer by profession. The OSS works to promote scientific literacy among the general public and combat dangerous myths and misunderstandings. This year Dr. Schwarcz brought his message to the attendees at FarmTech 2015 in Edmonton, warning them about the deep misperceptions about agricultural chemicals that are being spread by the media, organic food promoters and “experts” with no credentials.
The major problem, Schwarcz said, is that the public conversation about food, health and agriculture has become dominated by quacks — people purveying pseudoscientific nonsense to scare the public.
Farmers, governments, and agriculture companies have become complacent, he said, trusting that the public thought well of them and could sort out nonsense from sense, science from pseudoscience. Regrettably, this is not the case. Not only is misinformation about science becoming more widespread it is growing so widespread it could have a serious impact on how farmers grow their food by promoting legislation for regulating industry that is not science-based, with long-term impacts on both farm viability and consumer nutrition.
The word “chemical”
In Schwarcz opinion the most damaging effects of this misinformation has been the demonization of the word “chemical.” He showed slide after slide of organic food stands and advertisements advertising “chemical free” produce. The media are no help: they prefer “man bites dog” stories where people were harmed by chemicals over the countless stories of food made safer and more nutritious with chemical inputs like fertilizers and pesticides.
Numerous online bloggers, lacking any scientific credentials at all, have frightened many consumers into the belief that “if you can’t pronounce it, it’s not food.” Schwarcz showed the silliness of this by presenting a list of the chemical compounds present in organic apples, which included acetone, formaldehyde and isopropanol (rubbing alcohol). That might sound scary, he said, but asked the audience to always keep in mind the saying of Paracelsus, the 16th century alchemist and one of the founders of modern chemistry: “only the dose makes the poison.” Tiny amounts of chemicals that are lethal in large amounts have no known effects on human health.
All the chemicals in common use in agriculture, from herbicides and pesticides to preservatives and ripeness promoters, have been approved by Health Canada and other regulatory agencies; they have been extensively tested to ensure they are safe for human consumption. They are safe at levels far above the trace amounts that make it onto the average Canadian’s dinner plate.
The quacks and misinformed citizens respond to these facts (when they don’t claim all the research is biased towards the agrichemical companies) by demanding to know about the long term effects of those trace amounts. A few micrograms here or there of glyphosate may be harmless, they say, but what about a few micrograms per day over a lifetime? Couldn’t that cause cancer or other illnesses?
The fact, Schwarcz said, is that we do not know. Long-term effects are very difficult to study. What we are able to determine is that the chemicals we use have not led to any notable increases in human mortality, and have in fact been introduced at a time when human life expectancy continues to grow year after year. If they do have a negative effect, it is one cancelled out by the benefits of having access to plentiful nutritious food year round.
Effectively the quacks and scaremongers are asking science to do the impossible: to prove that harmful effects absolutely cannot happen. This cannot be done — it is always possible, in principle, for any scientific finding to be overturned. It will be tricky, Schwarz said, but we need to educate the public about how scientists and regulators judge risks against benefits.
The need for chemical agriculture
One important thing to remind consumers, Schwarcz said, is that the adoption of fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides was not a purely profit seeking activity. It was necessary. To grow enough food to feed the world’s growing population requires continuously increasing crop yields. That is not possible without agricultural chemicals to improve plant nutrition and prevent losses from fungi, weeds and insects.
Schwarcz concluded by reminding his audience (and asking them to remind others) that “chemicals are to be neither worshipped nor feared; they are to be understood.” Through a sustained effort by every part of the agricultural industry, from large companies down to small farmers, we can begin to change the tide of public opinion away from the quacks and towards sound science.
*Editor’s note: In the original version of this article, we misspelled Dr. Schwarcz’s name. We regret the error. April 15th, 4:55 pm.