Biologist Wins Simon Fraser University Controversy Prize For 'Silent Spring' Of The '90s

July 30, 1998

A compelling book about our futile, ongoing war against insects and other pests has earned Simon Fraser University biologist Mark Winston the university's 1998 Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy.

The annual $5,000 prize, established in 1993 by professor emeritus Ted Sterling and his wife Nora, honors and encourages work by a member of the SFU community that publicly challenges conventional wisdom on issues of broad social concern.

In his 1997 book, "Nature Wars: People vs. Pests," Winston does just that. He presents a persuasive indictment of our excessive and dangerous chemical battle to rid ourselves of the animals and plants that we consider pests. But more than that, he questions our fundamental values about the natural world, and the human compulsion to dominate and destroy, rather than accommodate and manage.

Winston notes how, 30 years after Rachel Carson's book, "Silent Spring," alerted us to the devastation wrought by DDT, chemical pesticides are still as pervasive as ever, deployed at a rate of four pounds a year for every man, woman and child in North America.

In Nature Wars, which is aimed at the general public and pest management professionals, Winston uses case studies - such as the 1992 gypsy moth spray program in Vancouver and the codling moth controversy in the Okanagan - to illustrate the complex political, economic, biological and social factors behind pest control decisions.

In the process, Winston reveals a consistent pattern of misinformation and mistakes - on both sides of the debate - and calls for a more enlightened approach to pests, one based on management rather than eradication.

He also proposes a new pest management ethic that favors biologically based alternatives - such as pheromones, insect-killing bacteria, and bioengineering - with chemical pesticides used only as a last resort. "Chemicals have a place in pest control, but the level we use is far out of line with what's necessary," he says. "We can reduce pesticide use by 50 per cent without a great deal of effort."

Winston's success at combining scientific information and rational analysis in such an important public debate is what drew the attention of SFU's Sterling prize committee.

"This is exactly the sort of pro-social controversy that the Sterling prize is meant to honor," says SFU psychologist Barry Beyerstein, chair of the committee. "How these issues are ultimately decided will have important health, nutritional, political and economic consequences for us all."

In making its selection, the committee noted how Winston criticized both the pro-spraying and anti-spraying camps. "As a result, he's been subjected to slings and arrows from both extremes, while searching for a rational and workable solution," says Beyerstein.

Winston will receive the Sterling prize at a special ceremony this fall. "I'm absolutely thrilled," he says. "This award represents exactly what we should be doing at universities - probing and generating discussion."

Controversy in this particular debate is a good thing, he continues. "To me, what's interesting is that the book is not being attacked from one side or the other. Whatever criticism it receives comes from many different directions, and that's good because it means all the issues are being aired."

Winston is an expert in insect behavioral ecology, and honey bees in particular. Since joining SFU in 1980, he's won numerous awards, including (with SFU chemical ecologist Keith Slessor) the Manning Award of Distinction (1997) and a gold medal from the Science Council of B.C. (1992). He's authored three other books: "The Biology of the Honeybee" (1987), "Killer Bees" (1992), and "From Where I Sit" (1998).

"Nature Wars: People vs. Pests" is published by Harvard University Press ($24.95 US). An excerpt appears in the July 16 edition of Simon Fraser News, available on the Web at

Simon Fraser University

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