Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Arising from the recent Consultation and Planning Workshop in Bangkok which Dr Heong referred to in his March 19, 2011 post where I was stunned when country after country, which has experienced planthopper pest outbreaks recently, described their respective Pesticides Supply Chains and Pesticide Information Supply Chains. I have been working mainly on the economics of rice production as well as rice supply chains and trading networks and have been advising ASEAN countries on rice policies but have never been involved in pesticide issues. To me as an ‘outsider’, it was blindingly clear that in these countries, pesticides, which are poisons, are increasingly being advertised, promoted and sold like Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) such as toothpaste, detergent and shampoo. I just can’t help but to ponder over the question “How did things ever to come to this?” In Malaysia, pesticides sales are regulated under the Pesticides Act which provides strict rules on advertising, packaging and sales. Despite of this pesticide misuse is still rampant.
This poser troubled me beyond that Workshop and I continued to grapple with it. After much contemplation and reflection, I now have some further thoughts to share.
During the Workshop, various participants stressed that the observed continuing misuse of pesticides stem from inefficient markets and market failure – due not only to asymmetry of information but rather misinformation designed to mislead, if not deceive. Some vented their accumulated frustration that despite mounting scientific evidence for decades, not only have governments been slow to act but the situation has worsened. Some are describing the rampant pesticide misuse as the “pesticide tsunami”. Insecticide misuse is not only polluting the environment, killing wildlife and posing heath risks to citizens, but becoming a major threat to rice production causing massive planthopper outbreaks all over Asia. Why is this so?
Upon reflection, one recalls how the unconstrained chemical industry promoted pesticides in the 1950s and 1960s to the extent that extensive damage was done to the ecosystem until Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring exposed the destruction of wildlife through the widespread and indiscriminate use of pesticides. It caused a major rethink which led to the banning of DDT in the US, establishment of new pesticide regulations and regulatory systems and laws. Unfortunately, after Carson’s death two years after her book was published, certain quarters with vested interests continued to vilify her and discredit her work. A former chemical industry spokesman, Robert White-Stevens even stated, ‘If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth’!
How such parties with vested interests strategize and operate was painstakingly exposed in Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway’s Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Among other things, it highlighted how a loose-knit group of doubt-mongering scientists have been operating for decades, fighting the facts on a laundry list of health and environmental issues, including tobacco, climate change and yes, pesticide use. Oreskes and Conway also highlighted a particularly objectionable publication titled Bad Science: A Resource Book, which they described as ‘a how-to handbook for fact fighters, providing example after example of successful strategies for undermining science’.
Now, those of my vintage will no doubt recall how in the 1950s and 60s, when cigarette smoking was promoted as ‘good for health’! Lucky Strike’s advertised with a physician implying that they prefer “Luckies” and so do beautiful ladies. This in many important ways, contributed towards smokers making up some 50% of US population then! Relatedly, Taiwan had the dubious distinction of having ‘LongLife’ as it’s most popular cigarette! There are more than 40 Longlife packaging.
This leads us to agnotology (or agnatology), the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt, particularly through the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data. Those often credited for promoting this neologism were Robert Procter of Stanford and his wife, Londa Schiebinger in the early 2000s. They were both science history professors, just like Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway. Recent torch bearers include Michael Betancourt, who fleshed out the political economy dimension and introduced the concept of ‘agnotologic capitalism’.
From another perspective, this increasingly multidisciplinary or trans-disciplinary group, that ADB-IRRI-FAO are bringing together to address this planthopper issue in ASEAN countries and beyond, should be aware of two somewhat related marketing and business strategy of big business with which I am familiar, as I continue to straddle both the public and private sectors.
Firstly, the sales, marketing, and public relations strategy of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (or FUD) which is premised on the management of perception of policy makers, consumers and indeed the general public.
Secondly, the business strategy of the ‘Three Eees’ (3Es), that is, ‘Embrace, Enhance and Extinguish’ (or more aptly, Exterminate? – since we are discussing pesticides).
Although, I am quite sure that the big and reputable chemical companies will not stoop to adopt such questionable strategies and tactics mentioned above, we should be vigilant and see things as they are, as the study/initiative progresses. The recent posts on this site on the positive policy developments to launch new ecological initiatives in both Thailand and Viet Nam marked crucial, ‘significant wins’ towards restoring biodiversity, ecosystem services and sustainability to rice fields. However, there is still much to be done, so much more need to be achieved, especially in policy and structural reforms that will contribute greatly towards sustainable agriculture.
Hopefully, the on-going multidisciplinary, regional initiative will provide more fact-based economic and other evidence to enable us to ‘speak reason to power’ better and embark on a focused process of ‘shoring and sharing’. There is need to rebalance the Yin and Yang forces of Pesticides (Mis)use through a combination of ecological services, ecological engineering efforts, policy adjustments as well as sustainable options. I have modified the “yin-yang” of pest management to illustrate this.
There is hope yet as in China lawmakers are slamming cigarette advertising when they resort to “Love China” ads . In 2007 China finally announced that all cigarette advertising will be banned by 2011.