We sometimes forget that agricultural chemicals are an important tool needed to produce affordable food because opponents ignore the benefits but inflate the potential risks.
They often misrepresent studies, ignore evidence and use emotive or dramatic imagery to heighten public concerns well above levels that are justified.
The most recent example is an article in a national daily newspaper which claimed that agricultural chemicals cause deformities in farmed fish as well as human health impacts ranging from headaches and flue-like symptoms through to diabetes and auto-immune diseases.
All chemicals, whether they are natural or synthetic, pose potential risks - natural chemicals, for instance, in nuts have the potential to cause life threatening allergic reactions.
An agricultural chemical that posed a similar level of human health risk would never be approved for use in Australia.
We have a strong regulatory system that examines the level of risk, whether and how that risk can be managed, and whether the benefits from the use of the chemical outweigh those risks.
The regulator only approves a product once it is satisfied that the product presents no risk that cannot be managed.
Opponents regularly use misleading tactics to promote their view and to raise public concern well beyond the true risk level.
These tactics are not peculiar to chemicals management; they can be detected in many similar debates where pseudo-scientific misinformation is used to justify philosophical beliefs. They include:
• Highlighting one limited scientific study to the exclusion of more significant, comprehensive and detailed studies that undermine their claims;
• Citing conclusions from overseas studies that do not take into account Australian conditions;
• Making logical leaps of faith that are not supported by any, or only very limited, scientific evidence; and
• Using isolated, emotive and dramatic anecdotes.
Regrettably, each of these tactics were displayed in the article.
The authors ignored several hundred studies that have demonstrated the environmental and human safety of agricultural chemicals, and been independently verified by international regulators, but instead emphasised a limited and questionable American study that suggests otherwise.
While opponents have already blamed farmers, agricultural chemicals have been discounted as the cause.
The opponents of agricultural chemicals believe these products are unsafe and no amount of scientific evidence from independent and peer reviewed studies will convince them otherwise.
Most of us accept that we cannot live in a zero-risk world, so we depend on a strong regulatory system to ensure that risks are identified and managed, and we use our own common sense to use products responsibly and according to the label. Australians have the right, and responsibility, to be informed about any chemicals that may impact upon them and the environment, and to be vigilant about any potential impact.
However, they should not be mislead and alarmed by political activists whose campaigns are based on beliefs and not scientific evidence.
While the potential effects of agricultural chemicals make great newspaper copy, the truth is more mundane but much more reassuring.
Any agricultural chemical that has been registered by the Australian regulator, and is used properly (that is, according to the label), is safe.
They remain an invaluable and innovative tool for farmers to respond to pest pressures and produce abundant, affordable and safe food for Australian consumers and export markets.
Constant, unsupported claims from opponents merely raise public concern without justification, and consume scarce public funds to respond ñ funds that could be used to address real health and environmental issues facing Australians.
The regulatory system ensures that the producers of agricultural chemicals are rigorous and transparent in demonstrating the safety of their products.
It’s a shame that those who seek to eliminate this industry are not held to similar standards.
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