It’s a Matter of Trust

Mark Rasmussen | Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture Director

In recent times we have experienced a significant erosion of trust in our society. Intentional obfuscation, half truths and outright lies seem to be an everyday occurrence now. Such deception and dishonestly takes a toll on everyone, from personal interactions to national and international affairs.

Trust and honestly is especially important with respect to our state and federal regulatory agencies. We rely on these organizations to evaluate and approve drugs, medical treatments and chemicals based upon science and a thorough process of due diligence. But when a whiff of politics or influence enters that decision-making process, decades of trust can evaporate very quickly. When trust is lost, lawsuits usually follow.

This is especially relevant in the business of food and agriculture because food is a universal exposure (everyone eats) and because agriculture has such a huge footprint on the landscape. Regulatory decisions regarding food and environmental safety are important not just for humans but also for the rest of the biological world, on field and off.

I have been thinking a lot about what causes the loss of a species. We have all heard news about honey-bee Colony Collapse, and many wait anxiously for annual Monarch butterfly migration numbers. Many explanations try to deflect responsibility by citing a complicated list of factors such as disease, parasites, reproduction, habitat, critical co-species, over-harvesting and social inertia. Unfortunately, other than a few celebrity species in the “going, going, gone” book of life, many don’t get much attention as they quietly fade away.

While many factors have an impact on biodiversity, extinction or survival, I want to focus on one factor that does not get adequate consideration. This involves a complex mix of toxicology, multi-chemical interactions, sub lethal dosages, and off-target environmental consequences. This is where trust in our regulatory agencies is vital. Their decisions are important because the products we use, the medicines we take, and the chemicals we apply ultimately end up in our soil, water, and air. These represent an extensive array of drugs, hormones, cleaners, pesticides and personal care products.

Things get complicated quickly when chemical mixtures are involved. Scientists that work in this area are faced with a complex array of interacting ingredients, many possessing residual biological activity that lingers long after use.

Most undergo regulatory approval as pure compounds, and some information is available on their environmental impacts but often a lot of information is restricted and filed away in confidential regulatory application files. I get very frustrated when I seek out such information and find it is cloaked as confidential.

Only later do we find that someone has identified unanticipated deleterious consequences from use of a chemical that has put some species at risk. Maybe our own. Such surprises happen more frequently than they should. We need our regulatory experts to make evaluations using the best available science free from undue influence. It’s a matter of trust.

If you feel frustrated, I share your frustration. For some, this complicated research process may be cause for despair and surrender to the idea that we can never figure this out, so why try. For others it means; “Forge ahead. We need this product now and we will just assume nature will take care of it.” Others react with a resolute: “Stop now! Ban it”.

None of these positions are particularly helpful. More than ever, we need to be thorough and deliberative in our decisions. We need to double-down on research and knowledge-formation. We need more scientists and more open research on the environmental aspects of multi-chemical interactions. We also need more support for scientists doing this work.

We need the relevant industrial partner to provide metabolic, toxicological and degradation data before a product is released into the environment so there are no surprises. We also need to maintain a little humility. The chemistry of life is vastly complicated. And finally, we need a regulatory system that is not harassed into ignoring science and making inappropriate or premature decisions as a result of political pressure.

Life on earth and our own well-being depends on getting good, timely answers to these complicated questions. The clock is ticking.

Mark Rasmussen, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture Director