Nieuws - 15 november 2012


50 years after Silent Spring

Fifty years ago biologist Rachel Carson shook the world awake with Silent Spring, a book that raised the alarm about the disastrous effect of chemical pesticides on the natural environment. In Naturalis natural history museum in the Dutch city of Leiden, nature and environmental organizations will be marking this anniversary on Saturday. But nowadays the environment is high on the agenda and there is no need for another Silent Spring.  
Frank Berendse
Professor of Nature Management and Plant Ecology

'Much has changed for the better in the last few decades. The overall use of pesticides has been halved since 1985 and the use of insecticides has been cut by as much as two thirds. But the use of fungicides, on the other hand, has changed very little in the same period. And since 2005 the use of pesticides has been increasing, including new types such as the neonicotinoids, which are much more toxic. Wageningen should pay far more attention to the potential threat posed by these substances.
It is true that the problems were much bigger in the time of Silent Spring. At that time birds of prey such as the buzzard, the hawk and the sandwich tern had almost disappeared from the Netherlands. We saw them return in the years following the ban on substances such as dieldrin. So a very great deal has changed, but at the same time there is every reason to remain alert.'
Wouter van der Weijden
Director of the Centre for Agriculture and Environment (CLM)
'A lot has happened since this impressive and legendary book came out. But not everything is solved, by any means. The concentrations of pesticides in surface water are still too high. The jury is still out on the question of neonicotinoids and bee deaths. Fungi are becoming resistant to fungicides. Do you know that these days hospitals are as bothered by resistant fungal infections as they are by resistant bacteria? In that area we could certainly do with a small Rachel Carson. Silent Spring was a pebble that made a big splash. We may not need a pebble that size but little pebbles should still be thrown into the pond from time to time. I am concerned about that resistance in fungi, for instance. And I am also concerned about the commercialization of scientific research. Increasingly often, even at Wageningen, science is funded by external financiers. That can mean there are not enough independent scientists left over to research the harmful effects of substances. Then we won't have a silent spring but a silent science.'
Michiel Wallis de Vries
Dutch Butterfly Conservation and professor of Ecology and Insect Conservation

'We must all watch out that we don't get lulled into a false sense of security. Look at the systemic pesticides such as the neonicotinoids. And there are other threats besides those. Nitrogen emissions, for instance. Many plants and animals need nitrogen in order to grow. But most insects evolved through nitrogen scarcity. There are very few species that thrive on an excess of nitrogen. Most species of butterfly, for example, go into decline, including the common or garden ones. A wake-up call such as Silent Spring may not be called for nowadays. Environmental awareness is just below the surface. But it is sacrificed pretty fast when it is weighed up against other interests. And since the book came out, biodiversity has only gone down. It continues to be necessary to stress that.'
Anton Schuurman
Associate professor in the Agrarian and Environmental History chair group

'We don't know how important Silent Spring was in the Netherlands. Hardly any research has been done on its influence among scientists of the time or on the leading lights in the environmental movement of the nineteen sixties. For the US, too, it is difficult to say precisely what the significance of the book was. DDT was already banned in Michigan at the end of the nineteen fifties, for example. And in his farewell address in 1961, President Eisenhower was already appealing for a sustainable use of natural resources. In other words: environmental awareness did not start with Silent Spring. Why has the book become so iconic? People jump on the bandwagon, I think. As far as the proposition is concerned: in terms of awareness-raising, there is no need for a new Silent Spring. But in the end what matters is where something is placed on the agenda. That is what I liked about the Brundtland report in 1987. That report placed the environment in the context of economic growth and a fair society - which made clear that people are working towards other goals at the same time.' 
Joop van Lenteren
Emeritus professor of Entomology
'I totally disagree with this proposition. We don't have environmental awareness in our genes, we have greed. Greed and grabbing. We want to make maximum profit and that is why we reach for pesticides. Twenty years ago it was already proven that the use of pesticides could be reduced by 95 percent. That is if you don't spray to a schedule but only if and when it is really necessary.
The big gain compared with the past is that the substances now used are less persistent. They break down faster. But the frequency of applications and the amounts used are still ridiculous. And that is reflected in the diminishing biodiversity. In short, the situation has been improved but there is still an awful lot to be done. Especially on the greed gene. The market for pesticides in Europe is stable now. But just look at Brazil: the second biggest consumer of pesticides in the world. That is because there is a strong lobby for pesticides there, and a week environmental movement. A new Silent Spring is definitely needed.'