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From Climate Deniers and Big Tobacco to Agribusiness: How Major Industries are Pushing “Junk Science” Legislation Intended to Dodge Regulations

April 23rd, 2015
By Colin O'Neil, Director of Government Affairs, Center for Food Safety
Center for Food Safety

For years, agrichemical companies have used their influence to pass state legislation that prevents cities, counties and even states from regulating farming practices that may cause harm to human health, the environment or farmers. Their latest tactic, reminiscent of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) model, is to introduce state resolutions intended to inoculate themselves from any federal, state or local regulations that would limit the use of so-called “modern agricultural technologies” like genetic engineering, synthetic pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers.

Already this year two states, Mississippi and Indiana, have passed resolutions opposing legislative or regulatory action at any level that may restrict the use of modern agricultural technologies despite known or potential risks. Near identical legislation is currently pending in Texas, Tennessee, Missouri and Alabama, with Texas holding a hearing on it today.  

While the legislation may not have an immediate impact, these bills are part of the agrichemical industry’s broader attempt to use scientific uncertainty and industry-funded “junk science” to stop publicly-supported regulations in their tracks. This alarming trend follows a spate of similarly anti-science measures in Florida and Wisconsin that bar state officials from talking about climate change.

Many experts have written at length about the pitfalls of industry-funded science or the maddening use of the term “sound science” by Members of Congress. As Celia Wexler from the Union of Concerned Scientists described, using scientific uncertainty or industry-funded science to halt regulation is nothing new. This tactic was a mainstay of the tobacco industry’s playbook for years as it fought back against the linkage between tobacco use and cancer. We are now seeing the same PR spin used by the agrichemical companies to quash efforts to protect bees from toxic pesticides or cast doubt on the connection between processed foods and skyrocketing rates of diabetes and obesity.

As Center for Food Safety noted in official letters sent to states currently debating “sound science” legislation, modern agricultural technologies by their very nature are new. Rigorous research prior to their approval, as well as continual reevaluation, is paramount to ensuring the long-term safety of the surrounding community and environment. Equally important, critical evaluation of their various financial, cultural and socioeconomic impacts must also be taken into account by regulators. While the resolutions call for the use of “sound science” in studying and regulating modern agricultural technologies, their attempt to discourage regulation is fundamentally anti-scientific in nature. They also ignore the wealth of peer-reviewed scientific research and documented economic harms that already demonstrate the need for responsibly regulating the farming sector.

From the well-documented overuse of herbicides on genetically engineered (GE) crops to the impact of neonicotinoids and other systemic insecticides on pollinators, there is no shortage of reputable science backing the need to protect against the unintended impacts of new agricultural technologies. For instance, the UN’s International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) recently determined that glyphosate–an herbicide sprayed on over 200 million acres of GE crops in this country–is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” This finding should be reason enough for state legislatures to approach agricultural technologies with some well-informed caution. Farmers and residents in numerous states worked hard to improve local oversight of pesticide use and GE crops in order to limit exposure for children and farm workers in their communities.

If history is any indication, the major agrichemical companies will stop at nothing in their attempt to block local control, overturn democratically-passed safeguards, and dodge regulations. The use of well-supported and breakthrough science is critical for effectively protecting communities in the long term. Yet passage of these falsely named “sound science” bills will instead further erode the public’s trust in the government’s ability to evaluate new agricultural technologies entering the market and fundamentally undermining the objectivity of science itself.

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