Sound science on trial

Activist organizations have long sought to impose European-style regulations based on “the precautionary principle” as the law of the land in the United States. Simply put, this rule would give regulators carte blanche to use any controversy, no matter how specious, to ban products. Activists especially want to import EU-style bans on genetically modified crops, pesticides and other technologies that are integral parts of many of today’s farming operations. And they are increasingly finding allies within Congress and the regulatory agencies who want to follow their lead.

Only one real obstacle remains in their way—a vast body of sound science practices developed by independent scientists at the EPA and their advisors.

To demolish this last obstacle, activist organizations like the National Resources Defense Council are mounting a sophisticated and lavishly funded campaign to discredit sound science and the EPA by alleging that past studies that found these technologies safe to use were somehow “tainted” by corporate involvement.

In fact, the NRDC and its NGO allies have made a steady practice of denouncing “industry-funded studies” as worthless PR at best, as conspiracies to hoodwink regulators and the public at worst. The national target of this campaign is now atrazine, a common herbicide used by corn and other farmers for more than fifty years. When EPA re-registered atrazine for use in 2006, among the 6,000 studies on atrazine it had in its files were multi-million dollar industry-funded studies. Critics say those studies should be dismissed out of hand, since anything funded by industry is by definition biased and untrustworthy.

The truth is that chemical and agribusiness companies don’t fund safety studies as PR exercises. They fund these studies because the law requires them to do so. In the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, as amended in the last few decades, Congress places the burden of proving safety on pesticide companies.

For a pesticide like atrazine to be regulated, it must undergo a battery of tests designed by the EPA and often carried out by independent, third party laboratories. All data must adhere to rigorous Quality Assurance Protocols, and documentation can run to hundreds of pages. Moreover, the process is completely transparent. All the raw data is available to EPA auditors, who will often sit down with the scientists to examine the data, point by point. If EPA determines that a test is not sufficient, it will readily require companies to fund and perform additional tests.

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