How can the history of science assist us in understanding present day problems? In the context of Brexit, Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, casts critical light on debates about pesticide use in the UK. Carson began writing Silent Spring in the 1960s out of a sense of moral responsibility and outrage, seeking to highlight how pesticides caused harm to the environment and biodiversity. Today, there are still calls to reduce chemical use in agriculture, and instead implement alternative sustainable solutions. This is one of the ongoing legacies of Silent Spring.
Rachel Carson was born on 27th May 1907, in Springdale, Pennsylvania, USA. Trained as a biologist and environmentalist, Carson was credited with founding the environmental movement in the 1960s. She died on 14th April 1964 after a long battle with cancer. Her achievements were wide ranging and included studying biology at Pennsylvania College for Women (Chatham College) from 1925-1929 and receiving a scholarship to study for an MSc in Zoology at John Hopkins University from 1929-1932. She taught at John Hopkins University and University of Maryland until 1936, and then joined the USA Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington DC as an aquatic biologist in 1936. Her first book, Under the Sea Wind, was published in 1941 but attracted little attention. Her second book, The Sea Around Us, was published in 1951 and remained on the bestseller list for 86 weeks, receiving many awards. A third book, The Edge of the Sea, was published in 1955.
It was however her fourth book – the highly controversial bestseller, Silent Spring, published in 1962 – which brought pesticide misuse into the public consciousness. The book is about the toxicological properties of 19 pesticides and the harm these cause the environment and biodiversity. In the USA, the book prompted congressional hearings and led to the formation of the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, as well as triggering the wrath of the chemical industry and associated groups. Carson’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin, and the New Yorker, which serialised Silent Spring, received threats of legal action from the makers of the pesticide DDT and other pesticide manufacturers. Attempts were made by companies such as Monsanto to attack the work of Carson and Silent Spring. Some of the attacks on Carson were highly personal. She was described as sentimental and hysterical, and was defined as existing outside of science even though she was a trained scientist. In response to these attacks, she stood firm with the scientific data she collected and analysed.
Although written for an American audience, Silent Spring is still highly relevant to those living in the UK in 2019. At the time of writing, the UK is due to leave the European Union (EU) in March 2019. Brexit could significantly reshape the UK’s relationship with pesticide use. The EU has largely decided how pesticides are regulated and used. The EU regulatory regime is considered one of the strictest in the world for protecting human health and the environment from the harmful and hazardous effects of some pesticides. The number of pollinators in agricultural landscapes has been declining and there is a concern this is due in part, to the introduction and widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides such as clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. In December 2013, the EU implemented partial restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids on crops which may be used as food by pollinating insects. Due to concerns about the effects of neonicotinoids, this has become an active research area. In October 2015, The Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, published its report, Neonicotinoids and Insect Pollinators 2015, which reviewed the literature concerning the natural science evidence base in respect of the use of neonicotinoids and their effects on insect pollinators. In February 2018, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published its findings in relation to the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. The results showed that neonicotinoid pesticides presented a risk to bumblebees, solitary bees and honey bees. The restrictions implemented by the EU in 2013 were updated and strengthened following the release of these new results. Just as there is uncertainty surrounding the use of neonicotinoids in 2019, there were doubts and misgivings surrounding the use of pesticides evident in Silent Spring. Carson described the interconnections between humans and nature, and how reliant humans were on the environment. The use of pesticides were disrupting the natural world, and were damaging ecosystems. By 1975, all of the toxic chemicals described in the book were banned or severely restricted in the USA. Measures were introduced to ensure pesticides were subjected to greater scrutiny, and regulations and controls were tightened.
As Brexit draws closer, the UK Government has a decision to make in regards of pesticide use. It could continue with the regulatory standards currently set by the EU and can enhance these further by introducing additional measures. However, the UK Government may be influenced by the pro-pesticide lobby and instead use Brexit as an opportunity to deregulate. This will enable the use of a larger variety of pesticides on UK farms. Following Brexit, the UK will have to implement the functions previously conducted by the EU in respect of pesticide use. This will involve deciding which active substances found in pesticides can be used in the UK, and setting the level of pesticides which are permitted to remain on food (Maximum Residue Levels). Rachel Carson described in great detail in Silent Spring how chemical residues were found on food. She explained how washing fruit and vegetables had little effect on removing pesticide residue. As argued by Chung (2018), this still continues to be the case. Silent Spring illustrated pesticide use in food production and the harm pesticides caused to human health in the 1960s. At this time, little was known about cancer and its causes. Carson described how many of the pesticides used in agriculture contained carcinogenic chemicals. It is these carcinogens which are dangerous to human health, as exposure to carcinogens can lead to the formation of cancer. The debate about the link between agricultural chemicals and cancer continues in 2019.
Future trade deals which the UK makes with non-EU countries may also involve negotiations concerning pesticide use. According to the Food Research Collaboration Food Brexit Briefing (2018), the USA has a history of attempting to lower the pesticide standards of other countries during trade negotiations. This could enable the import of food products into the UK which contain residues of currently banned pesticides.
The pesticides Carson describes in Silent Spring are not the same as those in use in 2019. However, the uncertainty of the effects of these substances remains and the debate about their use continues.
Catherine Price is a PhD Student in the Sociology Department at the University of Warwick. Her broad research interests are science communication and public engagement with science, particularly through the media. She is also interested in the representation of food in the media. Catherine’s PhD thesis is examining the constructions of science and scientific expertise and alternative expertise in the online GM food debate. In addition, it also examines the understandings of those who reject scientific facts and their reasons for doing so. You can find Catherine on Twitter @CatherineJPrice.