One can only hope that those family farmers who were fortunate enough to see Peter Jenning's "Bitter Medicine: Pills, Profit and the Public Health" on ABC-TV May 29 did not let it escape their notice that the same situation the public finds itself in, being at the mercy of the pharmaceutical industry when it comes to health care, is the same for farmers when it comes to their reliance on chemical poisons in the production of their crops.
Not only in many cases are the same companies involved, but in matters of who pays for research, patent awards, heavy advertising and defraying costs the predicament is the same for farmers and health care consumers. Adding up, for example, all the drugs approved over the past six years, 80% of all those drugs were deemed by the FDA to be similar to what already exists. In other words, not a significant improvement.
Ever since the end of World War II the nation's and the world's farmers have been fed a steady diet of "new and improved" chemical poisons, slickly obfuscated by the use of the word "pesticides." As the late brilliant and outspoken University of California entomologist Dr. Robert van den Bosch characterized it:
"Fundamentally, pest control as it is now practiced ... is essentially not an ecological matter. It is largely a matter of merchandising. In essence, we are using the wrong kinds of material in the wrong places at wrong times in excessive amounts and engendering problems which increase the use of these materials, adds to the pollution problem, adds to the cost of agricultural pest control, and adds to what you might describe as the concern of the general public."
By emphasizing pest eradication rather than pest control the manufacturers of these chemical poisons have managed to keep farmers on a treadmill, promising with each new product that their problems with pests will be solved, which in fact often only generates new problems with both the loss of the pest predators, but also increasing the immune system of many pests as we have seen with mosquitos and DDT giving rise to whole new generations of super bugs.
Yet the farm press, which undoubtedly would disappear overnight were the chemical poison and the farm machinery manufacturers ever to yank their advertising from its pages, continually show farmers pictures of lush green crops and weedless and pest-free fields effectively propagandizing and economically seducing them into buying more of the company product.
At the same time the poisons that they can't sell to this nation's farmers because of government restrictions they export abroad. They are in turn used on those crops and produce which are increasingly being imported back into the United States, with less than 1%, according to the General Accounting Office, being inspected for harmful residues.
The ABC report noted that on top of the $532 million spent every year on over-the-counter drugs, consumers spent $90 billion more on prescription drugs last year than the $64 billion that was spent just six years ago. "And yet, there is little evidence that the huge increase in spending is dramatically improving the health of Americans. Are consumers getting their money's worth?" it rightfully asks.
Why do prescription drugs cost so much money? According to a Tufts University study cited by ABC, on average it costs $802 million to bring one new medicine to market. The high cost of drug development is the industry's justification for the high price of drugs.
A study by the nonprofit National Institute for Health Care Management (NIHCM) has examined whether drugs were accepted by the FDA for "priority" or "standard" review, and whether they included new molecular entities or were improvements on existing ingredients on the market. The group judged the "priority" drugs that contained new active ingredients as the most innovative and the "standard," "incrementally modified" drug applications as the least innovative.
The NIHCM study learned that of 1,035 drugs approved by the FDA from 1989 to 2000, 46% were in the least innovative category while during that same period, only 15%, or 153 approved drugs, were medicines that both used new active ingredients and provided significant clinical improvements, the potential level of benefit needed to achieve a priority FDA review. During the first six years studied (1989 to 1994), the FDA approved 168 drugs that neither provided significant clinical improvements nor had new active ingredients. In the second six years (from 1995 to 2000), the number in that category increased to 304.
"The $802 million figure is used by pharmaceutical firms, I believe, to help explain the enormous challenge involved in bringing a new product to market," said Ken Kaitin, who runs the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development. "These are extraordinary costs to bring individual products to market."
While it is not possible to look at a breakdown of research costs &emdash; companies aren't required to make this information public &emdash; their profits are public, and the drug industry is the most profitable industry in the country. "Their R&D [research and development] costs could be $15 billion, $15 trillion, $15 gazillion, and it wouldn't matter if their profits are double that," said Dr. Marcia Angell, a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, told ABC.
The drug industry claims its high profits are necessary in order to conduct expensive research and development. It spends more on research than any other industry. The federally funded National Institutes of Health, however, may be the drug industry's biggest benefactor. This government agency alone will spend more than $23 billion on research this year. And much of the research benefits the drug industry.
At the same time a large measure of the research dollars that go into developing chemical poisons come out of the tax payer's pockets, just as in the pharmaceutical industry, by way of the efforts of our nation's land grant university's who in many cases not only do the research and development, but through their various extension services, do the actual promoting of these poisons in our fields and orchards.
"Bitter Medicine" noted that the drug industry currently has enormous influence in Washington. The pharmaceutical industry has more registered lobbyists than the number of senators and congressmen combined. Likewise, through such corporate agribusiness lobbyists as the National Agricultural Chemical Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation the ag chemical industry is ever present in the corridors of political power in our nation's and states' capitals.
The time has come for family farmers and grassroots farm organizations to take a long and hard look at these chemical drug dealers who not only care little about despoiling the environment, endangering the health of the men, women and children who work in our fields, but who continue to force consumers to play a game of Russian roulette when it comes to the health and safety of the food they buy for themselves and their family.
A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98203-0201; email firstname.lastname@example.org; web site www.ea1.com/CARP/