Half a century on from Rachel Carson’s seminal Silent Spring, debate rages over GM food labelling proposals

Fifty years ago, marine biologist Rachel Carson ignited the modern environmental movement with the publication of Silent Spring. It was an ecological alarm call – an attack on what she believed was the overuse of pesticides and the potential harm they might cause to humans and wildlife – and a call for a progressive science-focused view of modern agriculture and food.

Her deeper, ecological message is often overlooked by her most ardent supporters. It should be front and centre as Californians prepare to go the polls in November to decide the fate of Proposition 37 – which would introduce mandatory labelling of genetically modified (GM) foods into the United States for the first time.

Carson got some key facts catastrophically wrong in her book, particularly her wholesale demonisation of DDT, which she believed was killing eagles and other wildlife. Hundreds of studies have since shown that DDT, as properly used, does not cause cancer in humans or pose serious threats to wildlife.

Then and today DDT is recognised as a unique and indispensable tool in combating mosquito-born malaria. Literally millions of people may have died because of bans imposed on DDT as the result of campaigns inspired by Carson’s book.

But Carson’s overriding...

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