In a recent newsletter for the customers of his Riverford organic farmers’ co-operative, twice BBC Farmer of the Year Guy Watson railed against the profit motive that still rules the agro-chemical industry. He related how a dead orca that washed ashore in Scotland in 2016 had poly-chlorinated biphenyl (PCB) levels 20 times greater than what scientists consider manageable. The chemical industry manufactured—and profited from—PCBs until they were banned in the 1970s but their toxic effects linger.

It’s a story we’ve heard before: thalidomide, asbestos, dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT). Watertight assurances that these products were safe gave way to greasy disclaimers that the evidence was inconclusive. And, finally, laws banning them. In the meantime, manufacturers raked in the cash while their scientists worked on the next wonder chemical—wonderful, that is, for the bottom line of the chemical industry.

Age of Enlightenment

Science is the great achievement of humanity, particularly since Isaac Newton ushered in the so-called Age of Enlightenment with the publication of his Principia Mathematica (‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’) in 1687. The catalogue of discoveries and inventions that have benefited humanity is truly inspiring. Yet the long list of inventions banned after causing harm is hardly enlightened. Why does the science-backed chemicals industry continue to aggressively promote new products, given its dismal past? Why doesn’t it adopt a safety-first approach? Small-scale, long-term testing—for several decades, clearly, given the evidence of the dead orca cited by Watson—before scaling up for widespread usage.

Profit is Watson’s answer, but it doesn’t go far enough. By the time a chemical company makes the first sale of a new product, systemic failure may already have occurred. The product will have been through countless stages of research, design, prototyping, validation, limited manufacture and compliance testing. Yet somehow products—such as the PCBs banned over 30 years ago—still make it to market. Why doesn’t the industry learn from its own failings?

Because it doesn’t care.

Achilles’ heel

The great strength of science is that it is based purely on empirical, testable explanations. Science is amoral; the data is the only truth. This, science’s dazzling jewel, is also its Achilles’ heel. Science has no moral compass. It doesn’t care what it discovers. It places no inherent value on wellbeing. If a discovery can be turned to use—such as making a profit—then it makes no difference whether that discovery is healthy or unhealthy.

The rise of Science correlates with the rise of cancer. Correlation does not imply causation, but surely it urges caution? Science can produce products that harm our environment just as easily as those that enhance it. The difference lies in the psyches of individual scientists. As Watson writes, “for those with power to knowingly expose our planet and future generations to such risks in the name of profit is psychopathic”.

That such people exist in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries is beyond doubt. Marcia Angell, formerly editor of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, wrote in 2009 that “It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines.”

Until such time as we learn to temper the brilliance of scientific objectivity with an overarching concern for wellbeing, science cannot be trusted

We need regulatory bodies that are not beholden to money and power. Wisdom and common sense should be applied just as much as intelligence. Until such time as we learn to temper the brilliance of scientific objectivity with an overarching concern for wellbeing, science cannot be trusted. Humanity will have to keep fighting the chemicals industry—and dead orcas with unsafe levels of toxins will continue to wash ashore.

Image: You won’t see this at Seaward by Christopher Michel on Flickr. Cropped to 16:9.