Subversion and Perversion: Atrazine and Leverage Points

The New York Times article, A Valuable Reputation provides yet another analysis into the dichotomizing interests of science and business in providing a safer, more sustainable future. The article unfolds the collusion between scientific findings and incentivizing the necessity for action both on behalf of the Tyrone Hayes –the scientist advocating the mal-effects of atrazine– and factorial suppression by Syngenta – the producing company attempting to obscure findings to keep their product on the market.


In reading this article through the lens of systematic leverage as illustrated within Donella Meadows’ Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in A System, several subversive interconnectivities were revealed. One of the largest obstacles that Hayes faces when battling Syngenta on the issue was the effect of, as Meadows calls, the buffer. For Syngenta, atrazine is their buffer into the US corn market that stabilizes their grip on profits within the specific industry. However, as Meadows alluded to, when a buffer becomes too big it becomes inflexible, just as it has become in this case.With all of Syngenta’s focus on atrazine as this golden cash-cow corn pesticide, driving their profits within the corn agricultural system, they have become extremely defensive of the threats Hayes posed to the viability of continuation of sales within the US market. In lieu of diversifying their scope of products, this hyper-focus on one profit-driving product for an entire segment of the market has caused an extremely unstable economy in attempt of holding the market permeation of their product.

With each subsequent experiment and exposé released by Hayes came an even greater attack stemming from the increased potential litigation towards the end of use for their profit-driving product. From a business standpoint, it makes sense the steps that they took to discredit the studies emerging, however, a greater sense of confusion washes over these efforts. Instead of spending so much time (and presumably money) defending their profit-driving pesticide, why didn’t put effort into producing a new, less environmentally intrusive product?

Another great misstep on behalf of Syngenta was utilizing this time and effort to discredit their negative feedback loop, in this case, Hayes and his fellow scientists putting their chemicals into testing. Instead of simply hiring a scientist to put their stamp of approval on their product, they ended up with a scientist providing insight into the missteps of the product. Instead of utilizing this impartial, third party feedback and working towards augmenting the product to be safer for the market, or producing a new product offset to take its place within the market, they spent the entirety of their effort on perverting the truth behind the scientific findings. If they took said findings and utilized them to monitor the effects on the environment, they would realize the necessity chaging of the product’s formulation with the goal of removing the overall adverse impact of the product.

Syngenta found themselves relying too heavily on strengthening positive feedback loops with competing scientific studies skewed the reality of Hayes’ studies. Instead of an aggregation of both feedback loops, they focused only on the internal input that strengthened their stance instead of addressing the negative externalities pushing for action on behalf of the company and regulatory agencies.

Yet another problem illuminated within the two articles in conjunction with one another surrounded Meadows’ concept of, ‘the rules of the system’. As A Valuable Reputation brought forth, “The European Union generally takes a precautionary approach to environmental risks, choosing restraint in the face of uncertainty. In the U.S., lingering scientific questions justify delays in regulatory decisions.” A large problem, not limited to the scope of this specific case lies, in the US infrastructure of regulation in the chemical industry. As it stands chemical regulation in the United States takes a similar approach to the legal framework of innocent until proven guilty. In translation, the chemicals in the US market have a stamp of healthy until proven to pose a direct threat to our health, and can thereby continue along with potentially lethal products until someone like Hayes attempts to check the underlying impact of a chemical compound on human and environmental systems. If the US chemical regulation was under similar guidelines as that of the EU, we would likely not even be reading about this case.