The Risk-Monger


Two studies came out (just in time for Pesticide Action Week) that question the cost to society of pesticides and other chemicals. The logic is simple: Chemicals cost societies billions of dollars, therefore removing them would save money. I am a little troubled by such a simplistic view – like any statistical analysis, you can find in numbers what you want to believe. Couple that with groups that build bias into manipulative environmental activist campaigns and you can see some impressively creative (but terribly frightening) bullshit. This is what I would call “number-mongering”.

In this blog, I’ll briefly look at how these activist scientists juiced the numbers, then I’ll use their methodology to try to “one-up” them with my own numbers. My goal though is not to get you to believe my numbers over theirs (I can be as equally manipulative as they have been and I prefer to risk-monger rather than to number-monger), but to get you to realise how pointless such an approach actually is. Well, there is a point – they are trying to scare influencers. I’ll conclude that their very trying to under-value two centuries of science and development is an act of desperation – perhaps this is Stupid’s last stand.

It’s going to cost us billions!

The first release is an 85-page literature review entitled: “The hidden and external costs of pesticide use” published last month in Sustainable Agriculture Reviews by Thomas Guillemaud and Denis Bourguet. Using a wide range of variables (including the price farmers pay for pesticides and the added cost of organic food in the shops), from different studies and methodologies over various decades, the suggested conclusion seems to be that pesticides are not worth the money we spend on them. The authors feel that health costs to society from pesticides should be increased tenfold from 1.5 billion USD to 15 billion per year to take into account fatal cases from chronic exposure. Other estimates (like regulatory costs) were reassessed upwards to arrive at a total cost to society of 39.5 billion USD per year.

The second publication (Female Reproductive Disorders, Diseases, and Costs of Exposure to Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals in the European Union) was funded by the Endocrine Society, a quasi-academic activist NGO, and published in their own journal. This was a literature review of ‘carefully identified studies’ that determined the healthcare and economic costs to women in the EU from exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) from pesticides and plastics. Their conclusions are that the EDCs “contribute substantially to the most common reproductive disorders in women, endometriosis and fibroids, costing nearly €1.5 billion annually”. The study made some assumptions including an EDC probability of causation of 20-39% and largely ignored European national and regional variances, lifestyle and dietary influences on women’s health, as well as maternity trends.

Of course I have issues with the motivation and methodology of these studies. The Guillemaud study uses organic farming as the benchmark (not factoring in the costs to the environment or human health from pesticides approved for organic farming or other IPM disasters). The methodology and speculative number-mongering was alarmingly juvenile (no clear baselines, US data from the 1990s combined with studies from other continents decades later, grouping different costs that actually offset each other …). It was published in Sustainable Agriculture Reviews, one of those Springer pay-per-publish journals with a very low impact factor (1.37) and was timed for activist swarm techniques during Pesticide Action Week. I have even more problems with the publication from the Endocrine Society, namely that they did not consider other factors, the likelihood that the targeted chemicals were EDCs and a grossly elevated probability of causation.

I’ll see your billions and raise my trillions!

But OK – they want to play the numbers game? I will gladly spot them their curious figures: 39.5 billion USD per year cost to society or €1.5 billion per year. These numbers sound frighteningly high, and that is the point – you should be afraid … afraid enough to contact your decision-maker or your tribe leader and tell him or her to do something. But numbers are wonderfully blunt and also quite impotent – they can mean anything you want them to. So let’s do some number-mongering ourselves using a similar isolated and opportunistic methodology that these authors are trying to manipulate.

In my last blog I provided a reference that calculated a world without herbicides (what these campaigners are, in part, aiming for). To keep the agricultural yield at par without the aid of herbicides like glyphosate, just in the US, we would need to employ 55 million teenagers to hand weed the crops (go to the 27 minute mark). I use children as the variable since they were originally freed from school to do such labour over just the necessary two months – otherwise, we would have to separate 55 million adult workers from other productive full-time jobs. Now suppose those 55 million kids were to have a chance to do something else for the summer, say, work in a factory or office to gain valuable experience. Their pay would not be commensurate to the value they would add to society, but let’s suppose each teenager, rather than working the fields, would add, by a very modest estimate, 1000 USD of value-added revenue to the economy (tax income not included) – this would mean an extra 55 billion USD added to the US economy (rather than time lost pulling weeds at little to no pay – otherwise food prices would skyrocket). If we extrapolated this across the developed world and China, we would be close to a quarter trillion USD of lost added value. I cannot even begin to imagine the benefits to society if some of those teenagers, instead, took a course in entrepreneurship or broadened their mind with travel over the summer instead of having to replace the simple work that herbicides have been safely doing for the last 50 years. We could have the next Bill Gates or Elon Musk (again adding trillions to the economy) who might never be if he or she would have to spend summers pulling weeds.

More number play – I am not sure how Guillemaud and Bourguet calculate the value of pesticides to US agriculture at 70% of 39.5 billion USD, but let’s look at the value of pesticides assuming the standard baseline of a 40% overall increase in yield from conventional farming (as compared to organic). Now the last US census (2012) estimated the total US agricultural output to be at 394.6 billion USD. Remove 40% of that amount and we find ourselves with a loss to society of 157.84 billion USD. Extrapolate this across the developed world, and, again we are talking about over half a trillion lost in a world without synthetic pesticides. (Note in these figures we are not even factoring in the losses to public health and the environment from pesticides approved for use in organic farming.)

Please note that I have not factored in the economic benefits of fungicides and insecticides (a plague of locusts anyone?). The results would be quite similar. I hope you get the point – indeed, their number-mongering is pointless.

Now if that €1.5 billion that the Endocrine Society is trying to scare us about seems a little less scary, let us now look at how much a famine costs to society. Over 70 million lives were lost in the 20th century due to famines although if forecasts from climate and water issues are to be factored in, with a growing population, that number is set to escalate in the 21st century. Add to that serious loss from economic interruptions, long-term education and development losses from systemic malnutrition, increased diseases and political instability, then the numbers are astronomical. Removing synthetic pesticides doesn’t seem to me to be the best way to lessen the risk of famines.

If these numbers make the efforts of our activists look less impressive, we need to also factor in the value added to society of plastics and chemicals (what the Endocrine Society was also trying to scare us on). I would love to see some statisticians (Hans, Bjorn?) put a monetary value on the benefits of the following:

  • The use of light-weight plastics in the transportation industry, reducing fossil-fuel consumption, urban air emissions and CO2.
  • The use of chemicals in improving housing insulation, reducing fossil-fuel consumption, urban air emissions and CO2.
  • The use of plastics in food packaging reducing food waste, preventing disease and spoilage.
  • The use of chemicals in anti-bacterial/disinfecting applications that, according to the WHO, saves hundreds of thousands of times more lives a year more than any cancer risks they may pose.

Add to this list other applications of chemicals and plastics in mobile technologies, textiles, pharmaceuticals, medical sterilisation … and we can begin to see that the value of these products and technologies to economies, lives and livelihoods makes any opportunistic number crunching by a group of scare-mongers seem, well, silly.

Saint Malthus

You cannot put a price on this – the value of chemicals and plastics is literally priceless. But this is not the point. So what then is the motivation of scaremongers like the Endocrine Society or Guillemaud and Bourguet? Activists are pushing ‘cost to society’ as part of a wider, more complete picture of why we need to abandon chemicals and pesticides (in favour of their utopian world without chemicals). Their goal is to use manipulative number-mongering approaches to try to undermine work that science has done to ensure a better way of life – to try, with vulgar hindsight, to get people to think that these innovations that have saved lives and improve living were tragic mistakes. This is the claptrap behind David Gee’s Late Lessons from Early Warnings series.

To see clearly the world they are working from, we need to go back to their assumed hero and benchmark, the Reverend Thomas Malthus. Neo-Malthusians firmly believe that all solutions since the early 1800s to meet the needs of a growing population have done more harm than good. Agricultural technologies, chemical innovations and industrialisation, to these romantic activists, have come at a price far greater than any benefits. And we need to return to a simpler world (with a much lower, better controlled population). In order to justify returning to some Malthusian utopia, these costs need to be articulated in as frightening and demeaning a manner as possible. So they make shit up!

My fingers are longer than yours!

My numbers were bigger, but were they better? My goal in comparing my trillions to their billions is to show how meaningless any manipulated calculations can be. Certainly famines are also caused by conflicts as well as poor harvests. I also cannot imagine 55 million American teenagers having the humble disposition to spend their summers doing manual weeding (any more than I can imagine EU leaders actually banning glyphosate without better alternatives). If they did, I suspect the meat industry would price itself out of the market (leading to even higher losses to the economy from malnutrition). The reality is that we have trillions of USD in annual benefits from science and technology and a couple billion of possible costs. No reasonable person should dare play this numbers game. Maybe these authors think we are too stupid to see that. Or are they that blinded by their own bias?

In short, this pissing contest is pointless. It is also desperate. When your arguments are failing or you fail to get regulators to do what you want, then you bring in the threatening consequences. I was handling communications for the European Chemical Industry during REACH so I know that playing the high cost card is one of the last cards you can play. The same was true with the GMA’s recent reasoning for avoiding labelling of GMOs. The Stern Report on the costs of doing nothing on climate change was an act of desperation to get leaders to wake up to the threats global warming.

Perhaps the Endocrine Society is fed up having their papers and campaigns ignored. So is this numbers manipulation “Stupid’s” last stand? Are they playing their last card – a final act of desperation? If it is, then they should have come up with much better numbers than they had done. Perhaps it is time for them to pack up and find something else to do!

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