I remember the first time I wore a seatbelt. It was 1964 and I was nine. My dad had them installed in our Chevrolet Bel Air Station Wagon.
The lack of seat belts was only one of many safety deficiencies of that vehicle! Obviously there have been vast improvements in the safety of car travel since that time. No one would be surprised to read that the US rate of fatalities per million miles of vehicle travel has been dropping every year since 1920 and is now down to the range of 2 people per 100 million miles driven.
Vehicle travel is still a leading cause of death, but we have made great strides in the relative safety of this important activity and everyone knows about it.
A Less Appreciated Example of Safety Progress
The safety of pest control in agriculture has also improved dramatically over the same time period, but this is something that most people don’t know about or wouldn’t be likely to believe. I think there are four main reasons for this difference in the perception of safety progress:
- Very few people have any direct or even indirect involvement in farming that would allow them to experience the changes
- Few people understand the critical difference between “hazard” and “risk”
- The way that the EPA regulates pesticide risk does not allow for relative safety claims
- There are numerous groups in society with a vested economic interest in having people be frightened about pesticides and other technologies
The Status Of Pest Control When I Was Riding In The ’63 Bel Air
When I was nine and first “buckling up for safety,” farmers didn’t have particularly good tools for controlling pests, and the ones they had were often nasty. They had products based on heavy metals (tin, copper, even mercury). They had products based on arsenic. They had products based on sulfur or lime sulfur. They had some synthetic chemicals including DDT and some of the early, and very toxic Organophosphates. There was no Environmental Protection Agency and only an emerging understanding of the environmental, worker, and consumer safety issues.
All of this began to change in the late sixties and there has been tremendous progress since that time. I’ve been directly involved in this field since 1977 and I have seen significant changes of at least eight types (listed in declining order based on my best guess of their relative contribution to safety progress):
1. Development of new pesticide products with very low intrinsic toxicity or environmental impact
2. De-registration or discontinuation of the pesticides with the most serious risk issues for the environment or human health
3. EPA regulation of pesticide use pattern restrictions (minimum re-entry intervals, rate limitations – total and per use, protective equipment requirements, minimum pre-harvest intervals) which limit worker exposure and consumer residue exposure
4. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approaches (scouting, economic thresholds for application, trap crops, crop rotation, attention to preservation of natural enemies…)
5. Precision Application (seed treatments vs furrow drenches, electrostatic sprayers, drift control technologies…)
6. Advances in genetic pest resistance via traditional breeding, Marker Enhanced Breeding, or Biotechnology
7. Progress in non-pesticidal control methods (pheromone confusion, microclimate management, protected culture…)
8. Biological controls (a very cool approach and one I worked on for many years, but honestly a relatively small part of the solution)
When you see agricultural pest control characterized by its critics and by certain marketers, you would think it is an activity that is stuck in the 1960s ethos. Its not.
I’ll make this personal. I’m really glad that my grand daughter will do all her automobile travel in vehicles that are far safer than what I survived (shameless grandpa picture below). She also gets to ride in an infant car seat which I never did. I’m equally glad that she has a food supply that is cheaper, safer, more environmentally sustainable, and vastly more diverse than what was available to my family when I was a child. I just wish that more people appreciated the second change.