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Published on October 18th, 2010 | by Steve Savage

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Remembering A Time Of Less Polarized Environmental Politics

As we approach this hyper-partisan 2010 election, the “environment” has become just one more point of polarization, particularly around the question of Global Climate Change.  All but one Republican Senate candidate candidate today passively or actively opposes the idea that human activity is responsible for greenhouse gas effects on climate.  It is hard to find Republicans who are moderates on this issue these days, let alone the environment in general. There is also a significant fringe on the Right that views any sort of environmentalism as part of a “liberal conspiracy.”

On the Left one hears more and more from those who believe that all profit making businesses are intrinsically evil and that “industrial agriculture” involving biotechnology and chemical pesticides is completely unacceptable.  There is also a fringe of the environmental Left basically considers humanity to be a blight on the planet and wishes for our demise. Environmental issues have certainly become part of the hyper-partisan debate.

It Wasn’t Always Like This

I recently happened upon something that reminded me how it was not alway like this.  I was cleaning my office and came accross a photo that was sent to me in 1992.  At that time I was working for a start-up, biotech company in San Diego called Mycogen.  We were developing “biological controls” as alternatives to chemical pesticides.  I actually came to the company in 1989 from DuPont, a “chemical pesticide” company.  That was mostly because I wanted to get back to the West after 7 years in Delaware, and partly because I was frustrated with the failure of that chemical industry to effectively communicate to the public the huge advances they were making in pesticide safety.  I thought, “why not give this other approach a shot.”

Most of the few dozen employees at Mycogen were young and politically liberal to moderate.  The CEO was a well connected Republican.  Even with this disparity, politics were not a problem in our little company.  We all shared the goal of developing environmentally “soft” ways to control agricultural pests, and the Bush/Quayle ticket wanted to be associated with that goal.  Practical environmentalism was a truly bipartisan issue in 1992.

This all lead to a campaign “photo-op” for Dan Quayle at our company that included the image above.  Both the Right and the Left of 1992 were completely supportive of what our biocontrol/biotechnology company was doing.

This Has All Changed

Many of us in that picture have strident political opponents today.  I (and likely others in the picture) would be offensive to the Right because we believe that the potential for climate change is real.  We believe if there is even a moderate probability of climate change (no matter what caused it), we have to prepare for it because the impact will be on the food supply for the poorest in the world.  We believe that we can’t be slow to prepare for that.

I, and many in that picture would be offensive to the Left today. We have become players in both the biotechnology and chemistry realms that the environmental Left loves to hate today.  In fact these technologies have done more than “biocontrol” to allow us to have a safe and productive food supply.

As an agricultural scientist, I feel alienated from both the Right and Left in a way that is completely different from what was going on in 1992.  I was never a big fan of Dan Quayle, but I wish that modern Republicans were half as open on environmental issues.  I also wish that environmentalists on the Left were half as open to the role of technology as some of them were back in the day.

Post Script

I do have to finish with a funny story.  For the “event”  of Dan Quayle visiting we had the Secret Security guys, the snipers on the roof and the press.  We had a display of some of our emerging technologies.  One was a natural product alternative for preventing Penicillium rot in lemons in storage.  On the display table we had lemons treated with our product, pelargonic acid, and lemons that were not treated (they turned into the green spore covered fruit you have probably seen at times in your refrigerator).  As he made his way down the display, Dan picked up one of the lemons and was tossing it up and catching it without really looking.  He had inadvertently grabbed one of the infected lemons that was a total “spore bomb. ” There were spores flying everywhere, and those of us in the picture above had to have extreme self control not to laugh in front of the cameras.  In that picture, I’m shaking hands with Dan knowing that his hand is completely covered with Penicillium spores.

When I look at this old picture I now forget about the whole spore-bomb thing.  I think about what a different time it was politically.  I wish we could somehow get back to that ethos.

I welcome your comments on this site or at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com

Quayle handshake image scanned from my old photo from some unknown source.

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About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)



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