27 September, 2022

This month is Organic September. September 27th also marks the 60th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, often credited with sparking the modern environmental movement. PAN-UK has written a guest blog to mark this anniversary.

Originally serialised in The New Yorker, Carson weaved heartfelt writing with scientific observation, responding to the impacts of pesticides she saw in the US – across both the environment and human health.

In 1957, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced the fire ant eradication program, which involved spraying DDT and other pesticides – including mass spraying from planes – on private property. The indiscriminate spraying alarmed Carson. It led her to start researching the effects of DDT and other pesticides on the environment with growing intensity.

As a government scientist with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, Carson had access to confidential scientific information and contact with the wider scientific community. Then as now, scientists were split between those that dismissed the potential harm of pesticides. And those who accepted the possibility of wide-reaching long-term problems.

Her concerns were met with backlash from vested interests. The USDA released a film directly challenging her safety concerns about DDT. Carson described the film as blatant propaganda. Following an article she published in the Washington Post newspaper, linking birds’ decline with pesticide use, the pesticide industry started to fight back by attacking her work. Undaunted, she continued her research, which ultimately led to the publication of her seminal book Silent Spring in 1962. In Silent Spring, Carson argued that pesticides had a demonstrative harmful impact on the environment, with DDT being the prime example. Carson also looked at some of the human health implications of pesticide use. In 1960 Rachel was diagnosed with breast cancer herself, though she remained reluctant to let anyone know. When she testified before Congress soon after the publication of her book, she wore a wig to hide the effects of radiation treatment.

Silent Spring today

Although DDT was banned globally, many of Carson’s concerns remain relevant today. Pesticides are synthetic chemicals designed to kill and disrupt life systems. The process to authorise pesticides cannot truly replicate how these chemicals interact in the wider environment. And, in our systems, over time. Often pesticides, once deemed “safe”, are revealed to harm the environment or human health years later. The most widely used pesticide in the world today, glyphosate, has been linked to cancer. This can understandably feel overwhelming.

Organisations like PAN UK and others carry on the work Carson started sixty years ago. This Organic September, a fully organic diet can feel intimidating. But lists like the Dirty Dozen help inform what changes you might like to prioritise and look out for. The growing movement of Pesticide-Free Towns can help encourage and support councils to find alternative weed management in our towns and cities.

This September also allows us to mark and celebrate the work of a pioneering female scientist who stood firm in the face of intense opposition and handed us a great gift in her work and writing.

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