In a recent op-ed for The Hill, (now) independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. laid out the case for his candidacy. Among his grievances, he lists the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as one of the victims of corporate capture by business interests.
As a tort lawyer and environmental activist, Kennedy has long considered the EPA as a thorn in his side. This is because the agency has approved many of the pesticides that RFK Jr. opposes in his advocacy, one of which is the herbicide glyphosate. It’s one of the most commonly used crop protection chemicals in American agriculture, essential for farmers to protect their crops from weeds. The glyphosate compound, which can be found in a variety of products, does this by blocking an enzyme that is required for plant growth.
In a world without herbicides, farmers would need to increase tillage, which disrupts the soil and releases more carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere — something that, say, an environmentalist might normally care about.
RFK has been on the warpath against glyphosate for a long time, motivated by his erroneous belief that the compound is linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. As a lawyer, he has been able to extract millions from agro-chemical giant Monsanto through a lawsuit. However, convincing a jury is a different game than convincing a scientific body such as the EPA, which upholds that “there are no risks of concern to human health when glyphosate is used in accordance with its current label” and that “glyphosate is unlikely to be a human carcinogen.”
Kennedy’s suggestion that the EPA is beholden to the industry merely because it approves a chemical he’s skeptical of is an unfair and misleading characterization. Regulatory bodies base their approval decisions on their own risk assessments, as well as those of independent researchers.
EPA administrators are appointed by the president, which is arguably the only element of bias that politics introduces into the agency. (RFK himself had once been considered to run the EPA by President Obama, but his view that climate change skeptics should be considered “traitors” ultimately made him too controversial of a pick.)
Perversely, this is the element Kennedy wants to use to appoint “activists,” as he writes in his op-ed. The people he would appoint as president would no doubt be activists from within the anti-pesticide movement. The agency would become even more politicized and biased, not serving the interests of the American people or scientific processes.
Contrary to popular belief, the fact that regulatory agencies are in contact with chemical manufacturers is not suspicious behavior. Rather, it is essential for the approval process, not dissimilar from the way that the Food and Drug Administration communicates with pharmaceutical companies to share data and information about a new drug.
Reading on a blog that Bill Gates is trying to make the frogs gay doesn’t make for a good action item for an EPA meeting, contrary to what RFK might believe. Innovating products for the sake of growers and consumers, that is where manufacturers and regulators come in and play a vital role.
The way regulatory agencies operate is predicated not on the idea that politicians set the ground rules for approval, but that the agencies make determinations on safety independent of legislatures. Europe is currently experiencing the downside of a system that seeks final approval from elected officials. Glyphosate is up for reapproval in the European Union, and has already been green-lit by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Still, the heads of government in the European Council, roughly the equivalent of the United States Senate, are still pondering whether they will continue to allow glyphosate to be used on European soil.
Once agencies have spent months or years analyzing scientific literature and research to determine whether a crop protection chemical is safe, should it really be up to elected officials whether the product ought to be approved or not?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., unlike the scientists at the EPA he so regularly attacks, has no scientific authority. His tort actions for the benefit of his clients aside, his wild conspiracy theories about everything from vaccines, which he suggested could be linked to the Spanish Flu epidemic, to Wi-Fi, which he thinks can cause cancer and “leaky brain,” make him unfit to make unbiased decisions on complicated scientific topics such as agricultural policy.
As president, he would make appointee choices that would undermine the efficacy and independence of these agencies and make them mere extended arms of the White House.
Guaranteeing the independence of agencies such as the EPA is key. That does not mean that agencies cannot get it wrong — they can and they do. But throwing these bodies under the bus of an imaginary grand big business conspiracy does the conversation a disservice.
Originally published here