To Russia With Love

Trofim Lysenko, a Russian biologist from a non-scientific background who rejected Mendelian genetics, was a favorite of Stalin because his theories of agronomy -- based on the (now discredited) concept of environmentally acquired inheritable traits -- promised vastly higher crop yields. ”Lysenkoism” was made an official doctrine of the Soviet state, and dissent was punished with dismissal from employment, or worse.  The result of this was years of lower crop yields in a country whose agricultural sector was already in shambles due to forced collectivization.  Lysenko’s influence extended from the mid-1930’s to the mid-1960’s, when physicist Andrei Sakharov had the guts to publicly expose him as a fraud.

The genesis of the ozone rule announced by EPA on March 12, 2008, makes me wonder whether Lysenko’s ghost is haunting the Bush White House. Once again, politics are determining scientific “truth” to the probable detriment of agriculture – this time, to U.S. agriculture.

There are two ozone standards reviewed by the EPA every five years. One is for public health and one is for public welfare. The public welfare standard is intended to protect the environment, including agricultural lands, food crops and forests.  EPA scientists know protecting crops and ecosystems requires a lower ozone standard than the health-based standard.  And, as the EPA told the White House, air quality criteria are to “accurately reflect the latest scientific knowledge useful in indicating the kind and extent of all identifiable effects on public health or welfare which may be expected from the presence of such pollutant in the ambient air.”

Unfortunately for us, our lungs, and future food supplies, this criteria was overruled – by politicians, not scientists. In a Soviet-style turn of events, the Bush administration intervened and disregarded the Clean Air Act and recommendations by EPA scientists who lobbied to set a stricter ozone level for agricultural lands and ecosystems in general. Every one of EPA’s scientific experts believed the standard for protection of the environment should be lower than the standard for protection of human health. By overriding the EPA’s decision to set stricter ozone limits, the administration chose to ignore science and instead, for reasons of pure politics, to set the public welfare standard at the same level as the public health standard -- much higher than EPA felt was justified.

Trofim Lysenko and Joe Stalin would have been proud of this decision.  As my colleague John Walke explained and was covered today on the front page of the Washington Post and Associated Press:  “Never before has a president personally intervened at the 11th hour, exercising political power at the expense of the law and science, to force EPA to accept weaker air quality standards than the agency chief's expert scientific judgment had led him to adopt.”  Question is, will we be stuck 30 years from now still trying to recover from the impact of one man’s politically motivated decision to weaken ozone limits?