The Pesticide Industry’s Moral Dilemma

Originally published on October 1, 2015. This is actually my favourite blog from a busy 2015 best explaining how Stupid is able to defeat industry and science with irrational, idealistic arguments. Meme-rich, this blog motivated me to start a blog-series and training course on “How to deal with Stupid” and to commit more time to the glyphosate issue (which has kept me busy for the last six months!). I enjoyed rereading my combination of anger, frustration and wit.

Society has already surrendered far too many important benefits to these precautionary perverts in the organic lobby.

The agricultural-science world is looking on in horror as countries, regions and retailers are beginning to ban glyphosate, the active ingredient found in Monsanto’s main herbicide, Roundup. These restrictions are not being implemented on scientific grounds (per exposure level, coffee and biscuits are far more toxic than glyphosate) but on the basis of moral outrage. Somewhere over the last decade, the chemical industry has lost its right to market and has become “denormalised” much like the tobacco industry, making their science and data unwelcome by regulators, and powerless in the face of sustained activist campaigning. Public affairs specialists in other industries (like emerging technologies, banking, pharmaceuticals, petroleum and alcohol) need to study this evolution in communications campaigns in order to anticipate systemic threats to their own public trust.

The dilemma for the pesticides industry is how to defend itself against this seemingly relentless onslaught from the organic food lobby and environmental NGOs who have proven to be quite open to lie, frighten and act in completely unethical manners to win the debate, gain market share, increase donations, beat up big industry and implement their myopic strategy of changing society. Should “Big Chemical” fight back, run the same hit-and-run campaigns against organic pesticides and frighten even more people from eating fruit and vegetables? If one group is behaving unethically (and winning the argument), should the other side also break rules and violate their ethical codes of conduct? If they do, they might defend their products and allow farmers to continue to viably bring produce to market … but they will have lost their integrity. This is the pesticide industry’s moral dilemma.

Some facts on glyphosate

In the actions against glyphosate, like most activist fear campaigns, the facts are often lost in the mantras incessantly emanating from concerned Mommy blogger gurus (Food Babe, Mamavation, Living Traditionally, …), organic industry lobbyists (OCA, IFOAM, JustLabelIt …) and anti-pesticides NGOs (Pesticides Action Network, Beyond Pesticides, Friends of the Earth,Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace …). However, we need to keep some basic scientific facts to ground our thinking.

  • Glyphosate has a much lower level of toxicity (per average exposure levels) than both cookies and coffee.
  • The use of herbicides increases yield.
  • The use of GMOs does not increase the use of pesticides
  • There is no evidence of a link between glyphosate in the food chain and autism, diabetes and obesity. (No links provided because these are well-repeated rumours made up on social media with no credible sources.)
  • American consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables is on the decline because of fear of pesticides. This will increase overall cancer risks.

Hypocrisy from the Organic Lobby

Ethically-Challenged Activists

While many consider anti-pesticide campaigners as doing “God’s work”, these men of the cloth are more often than not, doing the work of the organic industry lobby, an industry that is growing rapidly (rabidly?) and is now worth 100s of billions of dollars. See an eye-opening recent study on the US organic food industry, including an overview of their lobbying budgets and ethically questionable techniques.

  • The Environmental Defense Fund has been paying scientists to represent their interests on international panels and they have not been transparent about that. See my blog on how EDF scientist, Christopher J Portier first convinced IARC to do a study on glyphosate and then serve as the lone special external technical adviser on the IARC glyphosate study to get a “probable carcinogenic” decision to feed into the organic lobbying campaigns.
  • 6iy-fgdm
    Gary Ruskin, source: twitter

    The American Organic Consumer Organization has paid a political Rottweiler to set up a front-group called the US Right to Know that used the Freedom of Information Act to scour emails between companies and researchers. They came across 25,000 USD that Monsanto had paid the University of Florida so that their plant biologist, Kevin Folta, can organise a series of science outreach events. Although anyone who has organised events knows that 25K is peanuts for such activities, the organic lobbyists and NGO activists swarmed all over Dr Folta, trying to destroy his reputation as only witch-hunters know how. Meanwhile, web-pages that acknowledge funding from organic lobbyists, like that of Washington State University which gets 250,000 a year to do research supporting organic farming, were quietly being taken down.

  • The IUCN Taskforce on Systemic Pesticides has acquired an undisclosed amount of funding from pro-organic groups to campaign against pesticides. This band of activist scientists actually recorded their strategy of how they would use the supposed bee crisis to get neonicotinoid pesticides banned by publishing articles in high impact journals showing how they affected bee health. This strategy document appeared four years before they published their research (in a very low impact journal). To pour toxins on their scientific integrity, this band of white-coat campaigners has a scientific director with no experience in bee research, has never published its full list of members and is not transparent on how much funding they receive.
  • Mommy bloggers like the FoodBabe, Mamavation and Living Traditionally (linked above) have disclaimers on their websites saying they merely earn referral fees for supporting organic products and ad revenue. The image they cast is one of a concerned mother (just like other mothers) sharing information on social media to help promote healthy families (while their babies must be sleeping). In the lobbying course I teach, I refer to this as Trust-Building 101 (creating a bond of vulnerable kinship). How do these Super Mommies have time to go to Washington, to negotiate with companies and to lobby large organisations and institutions to boycott or disassociate with certain companies or industries? This is the soft and gentle face of the organic industry lobby (a trusted story-telling source building up a groundswell of support through their social media communities much like the detergent industries had done in the 1950s in the early days of another new communications technology).

My Dog just Died

Last week I spoke during an event in Brussels with a director from the crop protection industry and I asked him why they don’t raise the issue of the health risks, higher toxicity and untested residue levels of pesticides approved for use by the organic industry. Here is an excerpt:

Shouldn’t you be campaigning to stop the misperceptions created by the organic industry?

Well David, we are not supposed to attack competitors, other products or industries. This would go against industry-wide codes of ethical conduct.

Yes but the organic industry is tearing you to pieces, and, quite frankly, eating your lunch.

He just shrugged and looked down, with an expression like his dog had just died. There’s nothing he can do about them.

So here is the moral dilemma for the pesticides industry. They are losing the lobbying campaign on pesticides and have lost the public trust and market share to a Machiavellian band of liars, charlatans and unethical lobbyists (who perversely have painted the chemical industry as the unethical operatives). Using the deceptive tools within social media, the pro-organic lobby has gained market share and pushed regulations against pesticides like glyphosate through commonality: the contrived perception that we all agree that something is bad and must be eradicated. Farmers are losing essential tools to bring their produce to market, food security is becoming an issue as yields are dropping and public consumption of fruit and vegetables are decreasing due to manufactured fears of pesticides. This is unethical behaviour by the organic industry lobby, regardless of how successful it has been.

Should the crop protection industry fight back? Can they?

  • If they raise the public fear about the toxicity of pesticides used by organic farmers, the only thing they will do is raise more public alarm (and accelerate the decline in cancer-fighting micronutrients from consuming fresh fruit and vegetables).
    That would be unethical, even though the organic lobby seems OK with doing that.
  • If the crop protection industry succeeded in drawing attention to the high toxicity levels of organic-certified pesticides, and getting them taken off of the market, they would only be making it harder for farmers, their clients, to have tools to protect their crops.
    That would be unethical, even though the organic lobby seems OK with doing that.
  • If they openly attacked competitors’ products, they would be breaking the codes of ethics all employees of chemical companies signed onto during their first day on the job and (from my personal experience) regularly reminded of.
    That would be unethical, even though the organic lobby seems OK with doing that. What is worse is that environmental NGOs not only do not have ethical codes of conduct, but they even celebrate their lying tactics.

So it seems there really is nothing that the pesticides industry can do. Because of the intellectual incapacity or conflicted bias of weak regulators and the indiscriminate unethical behaviour of NGO activists and organic industry lobbyists who have drummed up a fundamentalist moral outrage against industry, products like glyphosate will soon be taken off of most markets, despite the scientific facts, risks of productivity declines and the stupidity of these activists’ campaigns. It is sad but such is the reality in what we can call the Age of Stupid.

Moralising zealots

This seems to be a conflict between deontologists (Kantians) and utilitarians. Industry employees and scientists have a code of conduct, deontologically binding them to behave in a certain manner according to rules (why they are not getting down in the mud with the pro-organic activists). The NGOs and organic lobbyists are a cross-breed of Machiavellian utilitarians, feeling that the end (getting rid of industry and the products they hate) justifies the means (do anything you can to win), with the end having an added messianic flair: saving the world by removing chemicals. Feeling morally superior to the profit-oriented industry and the supposedly paid-off research community, these eco-crusaders would never flinch at crossing any line to achieve their ends.

What is worse (can this blog actually get any worse?) is that besides this misguided belief that they are saving the world by doing whatever they can to stop pesticides, the evil geniuses in the pro-organic shadows have also convinced their innocent followers that it is industry that is inherently immoral: that they – industry – lobby and we don’t; they poison and we don’t; they fabricate science and we don’t …, and thus any measure the activists can take to fight this perceived scourge (including lying, spreading bias and fear) is seemingly justified by the effect it would have on the greater good.

… besides this misguided belief that they are saving the world by doing whatever they can to stop pesticides, the evil geniuses in the pro-organic shadows have also convinced their innocent followers that it is industry that is inherently immoral: that they – industry – lobby and we don’t; they poison and we don’t; they fabricate science and we don’t …

The pesticides industry has stayed to their principles: relied on the best research evidence, did not attack competitor’s products, did not create unfounded fear in the public … The organic industry is lobbying without a code of conduct and, in a world where regulators are weak and merely expedient, with eco-zealots at their side, they are transforming their manipulative utilitarian opportunism into policy and marketing success (that will ultimately have far greater negative effects on the planet and its inhabitants).

A Goebellian nightmare

A pro-organic activist cannot countenance the idea that the environmentalists have acted unethically and industry has not. It is just too foreign for them to consider and if they have bothered to read this far, are probably compiling a list of their own widely repeated stories against industry (as people see the Risk-Monger Facebook page, I am always open to debate, but sadly, most activists do not like to interact with those who disagree with them).

When British soldiers were moving into defeated German towns and villages at the end of World War II, they were met with disbelief by local populations who still could not comprehend why the British had not surrendered in 1942. When innocent people are bombarded with relentless propaganda, they have a total incapacity to wake up and face the facts. Joseph Goebbels used emerging communications tools in the 1930s (cinema, radio) to frighten the public into rallying around irrational and dangerous lies, and he did a very efficient job.

Today, the chemophobic propaganda is so deeply entrenched via social media that innocent consumers regard statements on the low toxicity of glyphosate not as science, but as the despicable work of industry-paid shills. In recent social media battles, when I try to demonstrate that LD50 data is simply chemistry, they reply that all of the scientists have been captured and paid off by Monsanto. Some might simply be naïve and insecure, while others, like the temporarily insane Nassim Nicholas Taleb, would appear to have other motivations.

Like German villagers in 1945, many pro-organic advocates could not imagine that the organic lobby has acted unethically and that the pesticides industry has not. The organic campaign tactics would make Goebbels proud. In the last several weeks on the Risk-Monger Facebook page, I have seen their spirit and their utter refusal to accept widely accepted scientific facts. Organic propaganda has its own internally coherent framework – once you buy into the fear matrices, the irrational arguments align consistently. When someone points out certain facts, they are banned or called names.


No scientific facts are going to save glyphosate, help the farmers, consumers or poor people in developing countries vulnerable to global food security shocks. As the crop protection industry will not break their rules or ethics codes, the situation for glyphosate is, simply put, lost.

We somehow want of believe that right will someday conquer fright, but as a risk manager, I would never underestimate the durability of the emotion of fear – the NGOs and organic lobbyists certainly know what they are doing (and from a Machiavellian point of view, are executing very well).

The only value we can draw from this dark moment in the history of public affairs is the lesson to be learnt for other industries on how to avoid losing the public trust to the point that a band of lying idiots can swarm in with cheap communications tools and establish their inadequate alternatives without evidence, reason or integrity. I suspect the petroleum and banking industries have already started sliding down that denormalisation slope; my hope is that the pharmaceutical, alcohol and emerging technology industries can identify a better strategy before it gets too late.

Comments (frozen from the old Risk-Monger site)

  1. Jack Boyne says:

    I agree that chemophobia has never been greater, but I hope and remain hopeful that logic and science will ultimately prevail. It’s easy to see how misperceptions are allowed to take root, especially when companies are busy working on other things, having assumed that prior regulatory approvals mean they have a license to operate. In the meantime, agenda-driven activists are able to frighten and intimidate pubic officials with the help of a media that is all-to-willing to generate a little controversy.

    1. David Zaruk says:

      Indeed Jack, I have my hopes that right will conquer fright but I have seen too much bullshit in Brussels. Your comment brought me back to a debate I had ten years ago with some of the “philosophy chemists” in Cefic during the REACH process. We were articulating the difference between Product Stewardship and Market Stewardship. It was thought that product stewardship would give the industry the right to produce – that with compliance and commitment, they had the license to operate. Market stewardship was the right to be on the market (that the public would accept you) and to achieve that, you had to go beyond compliance and seek your legitimacy from the market (your consumers). Given that the regulators have also seemed to have lost their legitimacy, I think market stewardship should have been the route to have taken.

  2. Jack Boyne says:

    Excellent point, David. It is discouraging when regulators bend to political whims rather than standing up for science and taking the inevitable heat that comes from doing their job. That means companies cannot be satisfied with a license to operate, but must work beyond the regulatory environment to maintain their freedom to operate (i.e., your Market Stewardship comments above). I also agree that this area is becoming far more important.

    1. David Zaruk says:

      Indeed, the drama of the less than scientific media is enjoying the verbal bash-ups. I love the professionalism of this writer’s first sentences: “As much as we’d like to forget the seed-mongering, pesticide-spreading, GMO-pushing company exists at all, we can’t. That’s because Monsanto’s devastating impact on the Earth and its people continues to ripple outward at an alarming rate. Now, two brave individuals are taking the giant company to court.”. How does science have a chance with such anecdotal assault writers?

      1. Indeed, the excellent copywriters of the NGOs make it a battle that’s seems lost before it’s even started! It’s very refreshing and enjoyable to read your views on all this – signed, an expert consultant who used to be employed by “Industry” (as they call it in Brussels).

  3. Interesting …

    Acute Toxicity and Sublethal Effects of Botanical Insecticides to Honey Bees

    In this study, we noted the effects of botanical pesticides such as garlic extract and neem oil, which had been previously described as “safe” for honey bees (Naumann and Isman 1996, Riedl et al. 2006). We found that these two insecticides resulted in an acute toxicity to both larvae and adult workers of A. mellifera, which indicates that their use should be avoided in crops during the flowering stage when the plants are visited by bees. Although Melathopoulos et al. (2000) did not observe negative effects of neem on adult honey bees, they observed that this insecticide reduced the amount of larvae in colonies and, at sublethal doses, different malformations occurred when the bees emerged from the cocoons. Rembold et al. (1980) found that neem oil extracts were acutely toxic to immature honey bees. In addition, Efrom et al. (2012) found a significant increase in the mortality of adult workers A. mellifera with an increased exposure time of the bees to different concentrations of neem oil. These same authors observed a significant mortality of A. mellifera due to rotenone. Similarly, Xavier et al. (2010) observed a high acute toxicity of citronella oil to adults of the indigenous stingless bee Tetragonisca angostura.

    1. David Zaruk says:

      Indeed, this is one nasty pesticide, approved for and used by organic farmers because it has a natural source. I did a blog a while back where I questioned why we do not ban this pesticide (also known as Azadirachtin) which affects 80% of bees coming in contact with 10% of the recommended dose for organic farmers. In the US it is not even tested. To see the organic lobby, aware of this information and still push so hard against synthetic pesticide use leads me to conclude that they are either hopelessly stupid or foul hypocrites … probably both.

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