A Remarkable Achievement: Beyond Pesticides Celebrates 30 Years of Making the Environment Safer
Questions & Answers With Founder Jay Feldman
This coming Thursday, Oct. 27, a remarkable achievement will be marked in Washington, D.C., when Beyond Pesticides celebrates its 30th anniversary. Beginning at 6:30 p.m. at Busboys & Poets, leaders of the environmental movement will come together with the general public for a benefit reception with live music and organic food and drinks. Later in the evening guests will be invited for to a screening of the award-winning film Vanishing of the Bees, hosted by beekeeper David Hackenberg, who first discovered pesticides’ connection to colony collapse disorder (CCD).
It will be great to meet David in person after all these years of chatting with him by phone after our first eye-popping article together nearly five years ago. The real star of the evening, however, will be the visionary who founded Beyond Pesticides three decades ago. Though quick to defer credit to others, Jay Feldman has steadfastly kept the pesticide conversation alive through six presidents, several EPA directors and literally hundreds of millions of dollars in opposition funding from folks like Scotts Miracle Gro and Monsanto — who just as steadfastly try to convince the American public that pesticides are safe when used as directed.
It’s the simple fact that pesticides are not safe — and he has seen those impacts first hand — that has kept Feldman focused and energized for so long. As someone who has been in the trenches for barely half that time, I continue to be awed by Jay’s commitment year after year.
To mark his 30th anniversary as one of the defacto leaders of the anti-pesticide movement in North America, we asked Jay to reflect on his time, his accomplishments and his frustrations:
SafeLawns: What was the inspiration for starting BP?
Jay Feldman: Beyond Pesticides, which began in 1981 as the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, originally started as an umbrella organization to bring together environmental, farmworker, and farmer organizations into a united voice for pesticide reform. At the time, I worked on health care issues for an advocacy organization in D.C., Rural America, which sought to improve life for those living in small towns and rural areas. As a part of my work with Rural America, I traveled parts of the country seeking to document the pesticide problem, and organize public forums for farmworkers and farmers to share their poisoning and contamination problems with state and federal regulators. At that point, with the election of Jimmy Carter, there was an interest in developing a farmworker protection standard and program, but in order to do that we needed to create a record that supported action. At that time, workers were “protected” by one page in the Code of Federal Regulations, which offered little to no protection. EPA’s office of pesticide programs initially supported the program to speak with farmworkers and small farmers and assigned a special assistant to the director to travel with me and hear directly from those adversely affected by pesticides. In addition, our forums were attended by political appointees in EPA and the Department of Labor, as well as state departments of agriculture, which are responsible for pesticide enforcement. The backlash was to be expected. Congressional offices descended on the White House claiming that we were out to destroy American agriculture and urged that the program be defunded. We had planned, and EPA had agreed, to culminate the series of forums, which were held in central Florida, the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, and the Salinas Valley in California, with the establishment of a National Pesticide Information Center. As we moved across the country, the size of the forums grew, small farmers and farmworkers stood together to explain the poisoning and contamination experiences —the headaches, dizziness, nausea, miscarriages, cancer, rashes, lack of worker protection equipment, limited reentry standards, contaminated drinking water, children exposed in the fields while their parents worked all day, lack of enforcement, no training on pesticide handling, and notification, and more. The stories created for me personally a deep bond with those who were willing to share them, allowed me into their homes in labor camps, and trusted that there was a genuine concern for their health and welfare. We told EPA we did not want to engage in a factfinding mission and ask workers to put themselves on the line (many were threatened by their employers when they agreed to submit affidavits and speak at our forums), if EPA was not prepared to commit to a followup effort to address the problems we expected to identify. With the political pressure against the project mounting, EPA decided to hold additional meetings with pro-pesticide forces prior to our public forums to try to damp down the increasing criticism coming from those who felt that any restriction on pesticides would be the undoing of a productive agricultural system. As the pressure grew, a decision was made by EPA to discontinue the project, just as we were getting ready to launch the Center. Having traveled the country on pesticide issues and met with workers, farmers, and community people, it seemed important to me and others to continue the effort — so we transformed NCAMP into a grassroots-driven organization with a board of directors with diverse interests, expertise in law, medicine, organizing, and agriculture.
SL: What has given you the stamina to stay at this for 30 years?
JF: The experience of meeting victims of a failed system that condoned (and still condones to a large degree) poisoning led to my own deep personal commitment to working on pesticide reform. Additionally, joining with others through grassroots action, and (despite continuing problems) seeing important changes that have resulted in the growth of organic systems (as an alternative to toxic chemical dependency) are the factors that contribute to my continued work.
SL: You’ve had some high-profile media showdowns with with pro-pesticide lobby groups like RISE (Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment) and others through the years. Can you reflect on those?
JF: Over the span of several decades, we have certainly come up against the pro-pesticide lobby, which obviously exists to support the economic interests of their members. Of course, those economic interests, especially when it comes to toxic chemical proliferation, do not often conform to basic principles of public health and environmental protection. Our differences with the pesticide lobby are somewhat predictable, with arguments over science, unknown and untested effects, fraudulent data supporting pesticide registrations, regulatory loopholes that allow unnecessary use and overuse, and legislative efforts that represent the monied chemical company interests not the public interest. It doesn’t take long to realize that groups like RISE and trade associations representing hazardous pesticide companies derive their influence and power from their wealth and not from their facts. Despite decades of commissions, General Accounting Office reports, National Academy of Sciences reports, congressional hearings, and independent peer-reviewed science journal articles, the industry has nurtured its political support to fight off the kind of systemic regulatory change that would effectively question the need for their products — given the availability of non-toxic practices and products.
SL: Is the public “getting” the pesticide message more than it used to?
JF: The dramatic change that is occurring in the growth of the organic sector, both in food production and lawn and landscape care, is directly attributable to changes In the market brought on by the public. So, people are getting it, despite the best efforts of the chemical industry to proclaim the safety of and need for their products. There has always been a core of people and organizations that have advanced the information and taken action to show the viability of practices and products that challenge the essentiality of toxic materials. In the last decade, however, many of those practices and products have grown exponentially and become competitive on a commercial scale. While that is a positive, it also means that the consumers supporting this growth have to remain vigilant in ensuring that the underlying standards supporting the alternative or organic approaches are true to the public health and environmental values that spawned this sector.
SL: Is it fair to say there’s more work to be done?
JF: One of the best measures of our success is the growth of organic food production. Since the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, the organic food sector has grown to a nearly $30 billion industry. As a measure, that shows impressive growth, and one of the only profitable sectors of the farm economy. Still, there is a lot of room for growth as we work to see organic become the mainstream or conventional form of agriculture in the U.S. and worldwide. Of course, with the advent of genetic engineering (GE) and herbicide-tolerant seeds and Bt incorporated plants, we are forced to fight a technology that threatens to invade non-GE crops, increase herbicide resistance and use, elevate resistance to biological controls, eliminate habitat for pollinators, and contribute to climate change — all without any productivity benefit. If we can grow organic, which forbids GE as a method, the use of GE seeds will fade. Similarly, the organic turf and landscape movement is growing as people demand these services and products. In our work, we are seeing institutions from schools to hospitals embrace defined integrated pest management systems that eliminate hazardous pesticides and practice prevention strategies that implement structural exclusion practices by eliminating insect and rodent habitat, entryways, and, food sources. As towns and cities develop sustainability plans and green teams, our work must focus on the details of embracing a precautionary approach which eliminates pesticide use, while carefully defining acceptable practices and materials.
SL: What are the major remaining frustrations?
JF: Obviously, I’d like to see change advance more quickly. Risk assessment practices, including exclusively risk assessment-bases reform strategies, that drive the regulatory decision making process undermine public health and environmental protection because they do not answer all the necessary adverse effects questions (e.g. synergistic effects) and they accept a high degree of uncertainty. So, at a regulatory level, without a strong mandate to conduct alternatives assessment, we move from one toxic chemical family to the next, all the while allowing unnecessary toxic chemical use.
SL: Can the U.S. ever get to where Canada is on the issue of pesticide regulation?
JF: I think that we will. It is just a matter of time as people and communities adopt organic practices and then realize that continued chemical use is resulting in chemical trespass, contamination of local waterways, impacts on the health of vulnerable populations, such as children and those who are health compromised. Pesticide preemption laws in 41 states, of course, create a tough hurdle, but in the end will not stop the public groundswell for green communities that is growing.
SL: Funding obviously plays a part and the pesticide proponents are playing with a stacked hand. How does BP and its allies compete?
JF: Money can’t buy you love. Building a grassroots network, sharing information, and collaborating and sharing resources all contribute to a support network that at the end of the day helps to drive individuals’ decision to adopt green practices and work with their communities, schools, and workplaces to do the same.
SL: What have been the major successes at BP?
JF: Beyond Pesticides works at many levels in an effort to effect change. We work with individuals, community-based organizations, institutions, local, state, and federal government to effect changes in practices and policies. While it is difficult to measure, we can trace this work to the adoption of hundreds of policies and tens of thousands of households that have tapped into our information. While the information that we have developed on our website does not ensure an outcome, we know that the resources we have established through a number of databases, such as our Gateway for Pesticide Hazards and Alternatives, Pesticide-Induced Diseases Database, and Eating with a Conscience, have contributed to greater public understanding. We have taken on a number of chemicals over the years through litigation to exemplify the failure of the regulatory system to protect health and the environment, chemicals like the termite insecticide chlordane, the fumigant ethylene dibromide (EDB), and arsenic-based wood preservatives in addition to dozens of pesticides which we have helped to rally public support against. We have worked with dozens of pest management companies to effect a transition in the services that they offer and developed Safety Source for Pest Management, a directory with nearly 300 listings in over 40 states to drive consumer demand toward safer management practices. Ultimately, we seek to institutionalize practices and eliminate pesticide dependency and therefore view our participation in the creation, adoption, and implementation of the Organic Foods Production Act as a success story for the organization and the nation. My appointment to the National Organic Standards Board offers a new level of opportunity to help insure the integrity and future growth of organic. The law creates a public certification and oversight system for the production and processing of organic food. More importantly, I believe that it serves as a model for future environmental laws, which, if they are to ensure our survival, define acceptable management systems that do not rely on inputs, protect biodiversity through a life cycle analysis of any input or substance used, and only allows materials that meet tough health and environmental standards and have proven essentiality.
SL: After 30 years, how many more years do you have left in your tank asthe head of the pesticide movement in the U.S.?
JF: One of the great things about the grassroots movement on pesticide reform is that it doesn’t have a head. I believe that Beyond Pesticides plays an important leadership role, and we are part of a network of activists, parents, scientists, health practitioners, farmers, farmworkers, teachers, lawyers, policy makers, producers, retailers, and regulators that support change. I look forward to contributing as a part of this incredible family as long as I am able.