Interview by Chris Walters
From the October 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine
Over the years a queasy complacency has replaced the alarm once triggered by the subject of pesticides. While millions of people strive to avoid using them or eating food containing residues, many millions more accept their continued use in the belief that agricultural chemicals are understood, regulated and used with discretion. André Leu’s new book, The Myths of Safe Pesticides, demolishes these notions with a steady stream of hard facts derived from solid science. He puts a hand grenade into the layer cake of wishful thinking, and there isn’t much left after it goes off. As he explains, Leu was moved to write the book by repeated exposure to a series of mistaken ideas about pesticides, massaged into the public mind by public relations professionals working for industrial ag concerns. He hears these dangerous misapprehensions parroted far and wide as he travels the world in his capacity as president of IFOAM, the international organic umbrella group. Hailing from Queensland, Australia, Leu raises tropical fruit in a bucolic spot where the tropical rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef. His activism on behalf of sustainable farming brought him increasing prominence over several decades, leading to his current post. He is a longtime friend of Acres U.S.A.
ACRES U.S.A. Every so often an apologist for mainstream agriculture takes the line that Rachel Carson and her supporters overstated the problem, since their apocalyptic fears of pesticide effects were not borne out in the decades following publication of Silent Spring. DDT was banned, better chemistry came on the market, integrated pest management techniques evolved, and so on. The world didn’t end. What do the facts really tell us?
ANDRÉ LEU. The reality is that after generations of increasing life expectancy, we’re at the point now in the developed world where we are looking at the first generation that will have a shorter life expectancy than ourselves, so we can see that something clearly isn’t right. If you look at the U.S. President’s Cancer Panel report, it clearly says that 80 percent of cancers are caused by what we call outside environmental influences, of which chemicals are one of the most considerable causes. That is also backed up by the International Agency for Research on Cancer which says breast cancer, for instance, is at an epidemic level when we measure the number of women getting it and the number of women dying. In the developed world we have much better medical intervention, so we’re getting higher survival rates. In the rest of the world, where they don’t have our level of medical care, there’s incredible mortality. The United Nations’ World Health Organization maintains an environmental program looking at endocrine disrupters, particularly diseases of the sexual tissues. Those cancers are on the rise — birth defects, lower reproductive rates. Across the board we can see negative health outcomes as a result of chemicals. This is borne out by good, peer-reviewed science. It’s not dogma, it’s published, peer-reviewed science, meta-studies by the WHO and findings of the President’s Cancer Panel in the United States. We’re talking about some of the world’s best experts getting together, reviewing all the data and presenting their findings. They cannot be discredited and ignored.
ACRES U.S.A. You’ve been president of IFOAM now for a couple of years. Can you cite a place where you’ve seen the effects of pesticides more vividly illustrated than in the United States or Australia, where the quality of medical care and media apathy may tend to mask what is happening?
LEU. I think there are some very good examples in India. The Punjab region is now the center of the grain revolution in India, and they have a thing called the cancer train because of the incredible number of people with cancer, due to pesticide use. Other parts of India are now seeing birth defects because of endosulfan and other pesticides skyrocketing, and that is symptomatic. If you go around, you see people in rice paddies wearing their safety shorts and safety T-shirt, and they’re out there spraying pesticides everywhere. They mix it up in their little houses and huts around their family. All the data shows pesticide poisonings and chronic diseases now are happening within the developing world’s farming communities because of their exposure. It’s very hard to collect data in those countries, but the data that has been collected shows the rise in cancers within the developing world increasing rapidly, particularly cancers of the sexual tissues — breast cancer, ovarian cancer and endometrial cancer in women. For men it’s across the board around the world now — the prognosis is that if we reach 70, we’ll either die with or die of prostate cancer, 100 percent prognosis now.
ACRES U.S.A. Why is this happening now more than 20 or 30 years ago?
LEU. Because of the rapid increase in pesticide use.
I know people like to say that with IPM and such that pesticides are being used responsibly, but if you want to look at the actual data on pesticide sales, they have skyrocketed, particularly glyphosate.
Its sales have gone through the roof. They’ve increased exponentially. They are used all around the world; there’s nowhere that’s safe. They’re used along sidewalks, in children’s playgrounds, in parks and gardens as well as in farming. Where people can test for it now, we’re finding nearly all of us have residues of it. Where it’s particularly evident is in the unborn, in the fetus and in growing children. As they’re developing, hormones are critical for turning on and turning off and moderating the growth of different organs in the body. Something that disrupts these hormones disrupts proper development in children, so as they’re growing to adulthood these problems manifest more often. That’s the other reason we are now seeing an increase, because those people who have been exposed in their childhood are now reaching adulthood. They are starting to be affected by these endocrine disruptive chemicals.
ACRES U.S.A. Do scientists have a more intricate and thorough understanding of endocrine disrupters than several decades ago? You emphasize threats to development of intelligence in childhood in the book.
LEU. We do, but we’re only at the beginning of this. These things were once more or less overlooked or ignored in our standard toxicology tests. Part of it has been the advent of better technology for looking at these systems. Before, the chemicals were essentially injected into animals, and they were killed and there was visual examination of the organs. Now we have far better, more sensitive tests. For instance, we can use MRI scans and see exactly what is happening in the development of the brain in humans. We can culture cell lines now instead of using animals and look at what the toxicology is doing to see exactly what has happened to hormones and other things. This is actually showing that lots of the previous assumptions about toxicology were not correct. As more of these studies come out, we’re starting to understand what the mechanisms are and why the endocrine disrupters are causing these problems.
ACRES U.S.A. Are Australians, or even Thais or Indians, more alarmed about these trends than Americans? This is hardly on the radar in America, which is fairly amazing.
LEU. Actually it’s hardly on the radar anywhere, and that’s why I wrote the book. In fact, while you might say it’s hardly on the radar in the States, actually your country is one of the world leaders in this field, so you can see how alarming it is in terms of other countries. My own country, Australia, is one of the most backward in terms of ignoring peer-reviewed studies. When it comes to pesticides, we are amongst the worst on the planet. Australia uses 80 pesticides that have been banned in other countries around the world, including the United States. You’re way ahead of us.
ACRES U.S.A. And the United States still allows atrazine which is banned in Europe — true?
LEU. Yes, that’s true. Europe banned atrazine based on the fact that it will contaminate every water system on the evidence of the science about the negative effects. Eighty percent of rainfall samples contained atrazine, but the United States and Australia took no action and it’s one of the most common pesticides used in agriculture.
ACRES U.S.A. Some of the studies you cite in your book have effects most vividly in farm communities because they’re the closest, their exposure is the highest. I think some people might see figures like that and think if they don’t work at farming or live near farms, it won’t affect them too much. But the studies you’re citing also correct for that bias, right? You also cite studies that examine effects far and wide through the water and the air and of course on the produce itself.
LEU. Yes. The waterways are a very good example, and one of the best studies was done by Dr. Warren Porter and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. They looked at some of the pesticides and nitrite fertilizers in the water levels in the United States. Their testing showed a whole range of adverse effects, including thyroid disruption in growing children, so that’s a major concern. Since then there have been many more studies showing the amount of chemical residues in the water systems in the United States. This is all based on research by the United States’ Geological Survey, and that’s as credible as any data that you can get in terms of contamination levels.
ACRES U.S.A. One of the persistent myths you mention is the idea that the pesticides we use now break down a lot better than DDT and the other old, bad pesticides. What do we know about the actual breakdown effects of pesticides, especially those currently in use?
LEU. DDT bio-accumulated like no other pesticide and Rachel Carson wrote a lot about that in her subsequent work. She showed how it was affecting the reproduction of animals, and that’s why she chose the term “silent spring.” As they slowly phased out some of these older organochlorines, they went over to organophosphates, which break down much quicker. Some of them are really an organochlorine-pan-organophosphate, and what has been shown is that when they break down into their oxon form, in this case, they’re actually far more toxic and far more stable. The best way to explain an oxon form is to imagine you have a car and it rusts, then your rust lasts for much longer than your original steel. So the oxon form is oxidized, and these forms of pesticides when oxidized are like rust. They are far more stable in the environment, they take longer to break down, and in many cases they are considerably more toxic.
ACRES U.S.A. Then the broken-down form of a chemical could turn out to be even worse for the human body and the ecosystem than the original poison?
LEU. Exactly. And unfortunately when you purchase food you’re actually getting these breakdown products on it rather than the original chemical. This is one of the mythologies of testing. They’ll only test for the original chemicals, they don’t find them, and they say, “Oh look, it’s safe.” The fact is they haven’t tested for the breakdown product which is more residual and in many chemicals can be more toxic. Just because the testing doesn’t find a chemical doesn’t mean that the food is safe. It could actually be worse.
ACRES U.S.A. What are some other major flaws in our testing and evaluation regimes?
LEU. The first one I think is really critical is that the actual compound, which is sold as a pesticide, contains the active ingredient plus all these other compounds called adjutants or synergists to make it work more effectively. The actual product that is sold is not tested. They only test the active ingredient, the pure form of it. It’s incredible to think there are thousands and thousands of these products out on the market and not one has been tested, so how can regulatory authorities say they’re safe? They make an assumption because they’re testing one ingredient to determine whether the whole cocktail is safe. The other flaw is that the regulatory agencies approve a whole range of pesticides, such as herbicides, fungicides and insecticides that can be used on any one crop. There will be multiple residues on any one crop. Also people eat more than one food, and when there are multiple residues in the food people are getting a cocktail of these permuted chemicals. There’s actually been no testing for that. And yet the small amount of science that we have shows they can be synergistic. In other words, instead of one and one equaling two, one and one can equal five. In some cases one and one can equal a thousand. This is very concerning, to have such a huge data deficit where we have no regulator on the planet testing for the actual, real-world use of pesticides.
ACRES U.S.A. Are the possible interactions presumably so complicated and numerous that testing for them would take so long that the EPA would just rather avoid it? Or is it because this testing regime has really been designed to smooth the industrial roll-out?
LEU. I’d say there’s truth in both of those.
ACRES U.S.A. Then if you’re a scientist you’re looking at thousands of potential synergistic combinations, and that really would make your head swim. You’d need to hire armies of graduate students even to begin the lab work.
LEU. Exactly. And this is the issue, particularly in a lot of science where it’s common to increase the amount of possible variables to the smallest amount. It’s not just the chemicals in the pesticides — there’s a lot of data saying there are synergistic reactions with all the other chemicals we’re exposed to, the plasticizers and detergents and cosmetics and you-name-it — it’s the different chemicals we have in our systems. They can also make the effects of pesticides far worse. There’s data, for instance, from testing the placental cord blood in newborns in the United States showing up to 280 chemicals in the placental blood. That’s a minefield for toxicologists. But it has to be done. The fact remains that it’s difficult, so operating under the assumption that it’s safe is not good enough. Regulatory authorities have a duty of care. If they are permitting these toxins, and we know they’re toxins — that’s why they’re sold as poisons — a duty of care to make sure that they are safe, and that if people are exposed to small residues that there are no harmful effects. Given the mess we’ve got now, they do not have credible scientific evidence to show that they are safe.
ACRES U.S.A. We know a lot more about glyphosate than we did five years ago. What do we know that we can say for certain should have scared the pants off of us when the stuff was put on the market about 20 years ago?
LEU. We know so much now that it’s turning out to be one of the most dangerous substances in the environment and in terms of health. For instance, we know that it causes breast cancers. It’s estrogen-sensitive, which is how about 80 percent of breast cancers multiply. We know that it’s an endocrine disrupter. In other words, it disrupts hormones, particularly hormones of the sexual tissues. We know that it causes necrosis in cells. We know it crosses the placental barrier. We know that it disrupts what is called the CYP for 50 families of super enzymes. These enzymes are critical for something like 80 percent of the metabolic reactions in humans in terms of detoxifying or neutralizing different hormones and chemicals in the body. For instance, the fact that it disrupts CYP means if we’re getting low levels of other chemicals and the body doesn’t detoxify itself in the normal way, they can have a synergistic effect. We know that it disrupts the gut microbiome; the naturally beneficial bacteria that synthesize a lot of important nutrients and hormones. Colitis and those sorts of diseases are increasing, and also gluten intolerance. Some of these things are being linked to small levels of glyphosate in our food.
ACRES U.S.A. What about reproductive effects?
LEU. We actually know now that it causes birth defects — it’s teratogenic — and even the mechanism of how it does that which is the retinoic acid pathway, so it’s clear now that it’s responsible for birth defects. The retinoic acid pathway is really important when the fetus is developing to facilitate the orderly development of organs, tissues and so on. It also has a corrective mechanism for the hormones to make sure everything develops. Now if we disrupt it, which is what glyphosate does, it means that there is disorderly development, and there is no corrective mechanism to stop that. That’s why it causes multiple types of birth defects.
ACRES U.S.A. What is astounding is that there isn’t even a hint of alarm over the widespread use of this stuff. Something that is linked pretty decisively to possible birth defects is normally the kind of thing that gets people foaming at the mouth and setting their hair on fire.
LEU. It should, because our children are our future. I just don’t understand why regulatory authorities are ignoring this huge body of science. I quote a lot of scientific studies showing the birth defects, and the regulatory authorities just disregard them and say it doesn’t cause birth defects when we have multiple studies showing that it does. The critical thing now is we actually understand the mechanism, how it does it, how it disrupts the key pathway that prevents birth defects. That’s the really outstanding result of the recent studies. It’s not just from epidemiology where we can see a relationship, we actually can now show a cause, and that is critical.
ACRES U.S.A. As you travel around, are you seeing companies still market glyphosate as one of the more benign chemicals? Do you run into farmers who still think it’s relatively safe?
LEU. Benign, environmentally harmless. Everywhere I go, it’s just used everywhere. Roadsides and farms are sprayed, universities are sprayed, parks and gardens are sprayed, children’s playgrounds are sprayed because everybody thinks it’s safe and environmentally benign when it is neither. The worst thing is the irresponsible use of this chemical. People don’t wear any protective gear when they use it because it’s Johnny Roundup, you know.
ACRES U.S.A. All these pesticide myths, do you just keep encountering them repeatedly as you travel the globe? Are they all still active?
LEU. Yes, and unfortunately it’s worse than mythology. These things are still being actively promoted. Of course we expect the companies to promote them since they make their money from them. But when agricultural departments, universities, United Nations agencies and policymakers all promote them, that is the concern for me. They’re not prepared to look at independent, published, peer-reviewed science showing that these products are clearly not safe.
ACRES U.S.A. What kind of adventures have you had trying to break the news to people, since your job takes you to a lot of places most activists can’t reach?
LEU. I do a lot of media — television, radio and print media all over the world, whichever country I’m in. Rather than the anti-pesticide argument, I’ve been talking more about pro-organic and the multiple benefits of organic farming in terms of food security, in terms of taking farmers out of poverty, in terms of the benefits of climate change, in terms of biodiversity and doing positive messages. One of the reasons I wrote this book is because I’ve heard time and again, “What’s the point of organic farming since pesticide use is safe? There’s no need for it, what we’re doing at the moment is perfectly regulated, we’ve got group science to show there’s no danger from the way pesticides are used if they’re used as per regulation.” I want to debunk that line to show that it’s not true.
Pesticide regulation is not based on good, peer-reviewed, transparent science. It’s based mostly on data-free assumptions, and the science that we do have shows that those data-free assumptions are clearly wrong.
ACRES U.S.A. Seemingly one of the most persistent mythologies is our old favorite, which is that even if everything you say is true, we just can’t produce the amount of food we need if we got rid of all this horrible stuff we’re pouring into the water, onto our food and into our bodies.
LEU. That’s the other reason why I needed to write this book. The fact is we do have very good data now that we’re starting to get some research on organic agriculture, because we’ve historically been neglected by the scientific community. Most of the research has gone into researching pesticides and artificial fertilizers and not into good, ecological science. Now that we’re starting to get this science, we’re seeing higher yields in organic than conventional. This is particularly the case in the developing world, which is very important when we look at food security. Fifty percent of the people who are undernourished — in other words there are several months of the year when they don’t have enough food to feed their family — are smallholder farmers and another 30 percent are the laborers who depend on them.
ACRES U.S.A. Backing up our argument ought to be getting easier over time.
LEU. We have very good data now on good organic practices. We can increase the yield by more than 100 percent and that’s the way we feed the world. The other model, the industrial model — “Let’s have large-scale monocultures of GMO soy and corn in Brazil and Argentina and Australia and the United States and we export that” — has failed. Even if we doubled the yields in those instances, that wouldn’t save them because it’s the nature of the market mechanism. Under this commodity trading system, we have more hungry people on the planet than we ever had. The green revolution has been a total failure at ending starvation because we have more hungry people in the world than at any time in our history. However, it has been a great success in feeding the obesity epidemic because we actually have more people overweight than we have people who are hungry. So it’s a faulty model.
The way to feed the world is to work locally with food sovereignty and smallholder farmers. Grow the food where it’s needed, raised by the people who need it. That is really simple. Resources need to go there instead of into funding hundreds of millions of dollars into developing new GMOs.
ACRES U.S.A. A persistent idea pops up in discussions of globalization often enough to be labeled a shibboleth. Someone always rolls out a figure to argue that we’ve cut the number of starving people in the world. It’s difficult for the non-expert to evaluate or rebut. Is this an example of active lying?
LEU. Benjamin Disraeli, one of the British Prime Ministers, said there are lies, there are damned lies, and there are statistics. Through very creative use of facts and figures, yes, we can say we’re feeding more people because the world’s population is growing. But the fact is, if we look at the rising trend in hunger, it’s increasing. Now, like in any system, we do get surges where it goes up and it goes down slightly. For instance in 2007-08 when we went into the global economic crisis and the banks collapsed, the figure leaped up to over a billion people who were hungry. Then it went down to about 850 million people. It wasn’t that there was less food, it was because of the commodity speculators withholding food. But if you draw a trend line, it’s still increasing — it is not going down. They can say whatever they want in terms of how successful they are. The real measure of success is that the number of hungry people on this planet decreases, not increases.
ACRES U.S.A. Do you mean consistently hungry?
LEU. The trend line is still going up on actual hunger. Another billion people are malnourished. They’re not getting enough vitamins, minerals and protein. They’re getting enough empty carbohydrates because the measurement of hunger is just pure calories — they’re getting the calories but they’re not getting the other nutrients. That’s another billion. That’s almost 2 billion people who are undernourished on this planet. So you can’t call that a success. We try to call it a success on the other side of the equation where we’re not fighting an obesity epidemic because of all these empty calories. In fact there’s a new word now to describe this food — obesogenic.
ACRES U.S.A. Antibiotics are used to fatten up livestock, and they are over-prescribed for humans and administered far too often. Could antibiotics be contributing to fattening us up as well?
LEU. That could be a contributing factor as well. When we actually look at this obesity epidemic, it’s not just the increase in junk food, there are other contributing factors. We know that endocrine disruption is one. I haven’t seen any research, but I’d say given that we know how we use antibiotics to increase the rate of growth in animals, the same could be happening in our species as well.
ACRES U.S.A. What did the European Union’s dismissal of the Panagelli study, which found defects in chicken embryos and tadpoles due to glyphosate, tell you?
LEU. The reason I put that in the book is to show how regulators tend to ignore published science. Here again, New York has just increased all the residue levels for glyphosate and they said there’s no evidence that it causes birth defects even though that study was a very good scientific study. Another group of scientists looked at the process that regulators used and found that while they tried to minimize the data to show there’s no evidence of birth defects, the actual data they used when these independent scientists got inside it showed there’s actually more evidence, not less evidence, of birth defects. It calls into question the whole nature of regulatory authorities. Why do they ignore or rebut peer-reviewed scientific papers and instead only work off the information provided by the manufacturers? That to me is a complete conflict of interest.
ACRES U.S.A. Could you speak to the problem of mismatching regulatory regimes in different nations, when chemicals respect no boundaries, dioxin is now lodged in polar bear fat and so on? Do we need a global agreement on agricultural chemicals?
LEU. There is agreement to a degree under the World Health Organization, but I think the issue is that there’s such inconsistency in how regulatory authorities interpret the data. For instance, take the example of atrazine being banned in Europe but widely used in Australia and the United States. Another one is chlorpyrifos. The United States looked at the data and banned its use around the house. Other countries, Australia for instance, ignored it, saying they don’t regard it as significant. What it actually shows is that there is no consistent credible scientific methodology of assessing chemicals. Most of these decisions are not scientific. They’re political decisions based on pressure that different lobby groups put on the regulators, not on independent, published peer-reviewed science.
ACRES U.S.A. You devote space near the end of your book to the Tigray project in Ethiopia, which you hold up as a real beacon of hope. Why is that effort important?
LEU. For me it’s a wonderful example of exactly the right way to end hunger. Most readers will probably remember how in the ’70s and ’80s and even early ’90s we saw all these horrible pictures of people starving, refugees starving to death from lack of food. It was always blamed on crop failure. The way the Tigray project worked, it worked on a landscape level, not just on individual farms. It worked on communities — it was still the whole environment, it wasn’t just fixing up one farm. They fixed up the whole ecological system so the farmers learned how to control grazing. They revegetated the hills, and that brought back the rain that made the creeks and rivers that had previously dried up start to flow again. Then all that vegetation could be sustainably harvested, the biomass for biogas and compost. The biogas gives them energy independence, and then they don’t have to cut down trees for firewood. They can cook all their food, they can get all their lighting, they can run small machineries with it, and the compost from the biogas slurry increases yields by over 100 percent. It improves the soil, improves the water-holding capacity, stops erosion and makes the crops resistant to disease. We’ve taken a population whose poverty was so severe that people died of hunger and made them prosperous. They’re building wonderful houses, they’re sending their children to school, they can buy reasonable clothes, they can afford medical care. It’s an example of how we need to deal with hunger.
ACRES U.S.A. Who designed this project?
LEU. This was designed by the Institute for Sustainable Development with help from the Third World Network. The Institute for Sustainable Development is one of our member organizations, and I can’t speak highly enough about what they’ve done. It’s been scaled up around Ethiopia so that hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people will benefit. It’s the model we need to use to feed the world. The high-tech industrial ag model has failed; they’ve had 70 years and we’ve got more starving people. The Tigray project model of working locally, working on an ecological level, using compost, simple management, it is the example of how to take these people from being hungry and in abject poverty — poverty that kills — to prosperity. It’s a proven example and it is very, very cheap.
ACRES U.S.A. The project began in the ’90s?
LEU. Yes, and now it’s just expanding across Ethiopia. We’d love to see it scaled up globally. It’s a cheap system; it really just entails training and assistance and that’s not expensive — and it’s proven. This is the other really important thing now. We’ve had two decades now to show that this system works, and we can scale it up. That’s why I use it as an example in the book. I went there because I wanted to actually see it before I wrote about it to make sure that what I was writing was factual. The data I put in the book comes from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization publications so there’s a high level of scientific rigor behind those numbers. There are other examples I give in the book, like Push-Pull in Kenya. I went there and met with the farmers, those photos in the book are mine. I wanted to see it for myself. That’s another example of how people who spent three months of the year with the whole family having no food are now prosperous. It just changes their lives. That’s another good example of cross-discipline in scientists — they’ve got botanists, they’ve got ecologists, they’ve got entomologists and agronomists. In their work they had to get high yields of maize without having to use any toxic chemicals or genetically modified plants. They got the best results with the farmers’ own varieties. The same thing happened in Ethiopia. The local farmer-bred varieties respond really well to organic practices.
For more on the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), visit www.ifoam.org.