The Risk-Monger

The Risk-Monger recently spoke at a crop protection industry conference on how to prepare data requirements for implementing the new pesticides legislation. I am not sure they liked my main point: that the data they will generate does not matter … at all. Still, they were polite. Please find below the rough text. As I had spoken without the use of notes, slight variations may have occurred.

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Let me start with a story.

I know a friend who heard about someone who walked by a field where they were spraying beans, and the next day she was dead – I kid you not – pesticide poisoning. Her body was riddled with cancers from, from, … pesticides!!!

How do you relate to this story? Do tests? Submit a report? Release data to show that pesticide poisoning is not possible in such circumstances? You are battling a story with science and facts, but most people (including some MEPs and civil servants) would see you coldly denying a sad story. Sorry, but in light of a well-told, often repeated emotional story, facts and science don’t matter.

Man is a story-telling animal. We remember information in story form. We identify our dreams and aspirations from stories with happy endings. We strive to be like characters in the stories which teach us our values and provide our visions. The stories widely told today about pesticides (in the media, on social media, by key stakeholders and decision-makers) are mostly negative and critical. In these stories, I often hear industry usually trying to deny other people’s shared stories.

Stories do not need facts or need to be true in order to shape our perceptions and affect our view of the world. Think of a movie like Avatar.

You are giving us numbers and data – you are not giving us stories – and even the most sympathetic regulator is under pressure to engage the views of the story-tellers whose emotional rhetoric is far richer than any information you can produce. The regulator might agree with you, but his or her decision may be otherwise. Sorry to be so blunt, especially after three days of working on data production techniques and guidance, but your data does not matter … AT ALL!!!

Isn’t it time to tell your story?

Bees and Colony Collapse Disorder

Here is a story. They say that when the bees go, shortly after, humans will go too. Armageddon is a good story feature – it captures our attention. And we all know that certain types of pesticides are killing the bees. To make this story a happy ending, we must ban the use of all pesticides.

So strong is this story that the alternative causes for CCD have been drowned out. DG Sanco was able to invoke and enforce the precautionary principle on a class of pesticides within two months on the basis of an inconclusive sentence in an EFSA report. This is a record. Also an interesting story on how they did it … if anyone is ever interested in telling it.

Some stories are not being told. The bee population in Europe is increasing. Previous attempts to ban neonics did not positively affect bee populations. And the alternatives to neonics are far worse for the environment. More research must be done on addressing viruses that are weakening bee colonies. These stories need to be told.

Instead, the story is that the big chemical companies have sent the lawyers in to sue the European Commission. I wonder how that story will work out in the court of public opinion.

Endocrine disruption

One of my favourite stories is a personal issue that goes down below my waist. But even that is becoming a horror story because we are now told that my hormones and sperm count are being affected by, you guessed it, pesticides. We will soon not be able to reproduce (cue more Armageddon stories). If you cannot prove to me that pesticides are not causing this crisis, then I can only conclude that it is. A beautiful story, no? For 20 years, this speculation has been the story and now we need to act to protect ourselves (remove all pesticides … OK, and why not, all plastics too!).

You continue to produce data that rejects their claims. But resisting and reacting is not story telling – it is being part of someone else’s story. They have set you up as the villain, so of course, you will deny the information and continue to push poisons on innocent children. And besides, you are industry, so your data, even if using GLP, cannot be trusted.

Who is telling the story of the Danish longitudinal study that measured sperm counts of 5000 young male military service volunteers from two towns in Denmark, and over 16 years found no decrease in sperm counts? The readings were actually going up over the last four years. Another good story is that the activist scientists tried to withhold their data.

Soy: Who is telling the story of how the increased consumption of soy is exposing us to far more endocrine disrupting chemicals? The vegans aren’t telling that one!

Lobbyists

A frightening story we hear today is about how the pesticide industry is spending millions lobbying to continue to poison innocent people. It is a catch-all story – anything you say, anything you do is lobbying and merely confirms your capacity for manipulation. Everyone knows the real story.

Who is telling the story about how NGOs are paying journalists to prepare reports and documentaries about chemical industry lobbying? Expect dramatic music and tearful testimonials. NGOs are flush with cash to fight you and are generating stories by the bucketful to confirm what they want to believe.

OK, I hear what you are saying Mr Monger, but we are professional and responsible. Our industry relies on scientific evidence and respectable, scientific practices – not fluffy story-telling.

I totally get that, but at the moment, important decision-makers are listening to stories more than your data and the main story is that your days are numbered. How many people in your office have retired and not been replaced? If you are part of someone else’s story, then you are not telling your story.

There are so many good stories to tell:

  • How agrochemicals are increasing and securing food supply for a growing population.
  • How certain crop diseases are being addressed through novel, safe technologies
  • How human exposure to pesticides is safer than drinking a cup of coffee
  • How ALARA is a risk management tool, and not the precautionary principle
  • How readily available fruit and vegetables at affordable prices are the keys to reducing cancers
  • How farmers rely on pesticides to ensure their harvests, communities, livelihoods

I don’t believe that these stories are being told in a proper manner. You need to find the right story-tellers. You need to find the right narrative. You need to capture your audience.

The best scientific data in the world doesn’t matter if you cannot tell your story.

OK, maybe this story is pretty sad at the end of a long day, so I had better give it a happy ending.

For 20 years, the biotech industry has been generating data and playing the regulatory game on GMOs and we saw the reality – the data – the scientific facts did not matter at all. It hurts, it goes against our values and I think we can all agree that the NGO manipulation has been totally unfair. But last year a story finally got told properly – that of Golden Rice. Rather than being the bad part of someone else’s story, those promoting Golden Rice told a clear, proper story of the value of a GMO. Greenpeace soon became the villain – trying to generate data to reject this story and they looked pathetic. Did anyone read their story this week saying that Vitamin A deficiency could be solved by turning the slums in Dakar and Manila into ecological homesteads? Overnight, the issue has changed dramatically.

One story, properly told is worth much more than 20 years of responsible data generation. You need to find that story, find the story-teller and take back your issues.

Thank you.

 

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