PEST CONTROL

Scientific facts key in pest control

Whoever is funding the big and glamourous noise underway, the children dying of encephalitis will be a lot quieter,

In Summary

• There have been anti-technology movements and scientific rifts throughout history.

• It is now vital we distinguish between the ‘Earth is Flat’ and ‘Earth is Round’ movements of our modern world.

Scientific facts key in pest control
Scientific facts key in pest control
Image: OZONE

A communication gulf exists in our modern world between scientists and non-scientists. Yet we can all use a TV set without knowing how it works, or take antibiotics for pneumonia without a biology qualification, just as we can pick up WiFi without understanding internet protocols.

However, when a gap in general scientific knowledge begins to be exploited to deliver a political victory or precedent that will benefit some, but hurt many more of us, it can start to matter a lot that we and our policy makers get to grips with the science involved.

And so it is with the current debate on pest control.

There have been anti-technology movements and scientific rifts throughout history. However, with climate warming, and pressures of population, food, water and other resources all growing, it is now vital we distinguish between the ‘Earth is Flat’ and ‘Earth is Round’ movements of our modern world.

And, in this, fervency, celebrity endorsement and noise are not indicators of right and wrong. Indeed, a keen historian should tell us whether the views that were less fervent, less popularised but more practical turned out to be the correct ones, or whether polar opposites were equally loud and passion-driven.

Either way, my own science community has done a poor job in explaining the safety checks and essential nature of pest control products once faced with posters of vegetables that say ‘choose your poison’. It doesn’t matter that we put these products through nine years of international testing to establish how they can be used without poisoning people, or that they are based on molecules that break down in days, so they simply do not exist some days after they are deployed to control one pest or another.

Faced with a celebrity poster, the chemistry of molecular breakdown isn’t a route to hearts looking for a cause. However, it just so happens that it is a scientific fact that makes a massive difference to our health and food security.

Individual examples of that difference abound, and we have managed to speak about locusts, which actually cannot be killed by banging pans, and actually do eat entire crops and breed vigorously. We have also spoken of Fall Army Worm, which has swept through our maize crops triggering shortages. But the pests that face our farmers, and which are routinely resolved in Europe and North America, Australia and much of Asia with pest control products, are sometimes as simple as the dipping of cattle to prevent ticks and the deadly diseases they give to animals and humans alike.

From Crimean-Congo heamorrhagic fever, Lyme disease, Spotted Fever, Q Fever and all the other Rickettsial diseases.

For we scientists, familiar with the poisonous nature of these natural toxins - actually called ‘toxins’ by the WHO, which knows at least one or two things about what is toxic and what isn’t - the current manipulation of scientific information with false claims, celebrity posters and viral videos is hard to know how to counter. How do all of us in agriculture counter this onslaught from those who are making a living and their political fund raising through trying to get Kenya to deliver a world first that they can claim as their victory?

For these campaigners want nearly all pest control banned in Kenya, where all of those products are used across the rest of world, in Tanzania, in Uganda, as well as in the US and Australia, and by our food trading partners.

But whoever is funding the big and glamourous noise underway, the children dying of encephalitis will be a lot quieter, as will the families who lose their maize to Fall Army Worm. And what their future depends on is not the glamour, but the facts, the tests, the solutions, the costs and benefits, and the hard stuff of serious decision making, away from the studio lights, and driven by hard realities of death by tick. For Kenyan lives matter.