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Food Sunday: Why We Poison Our Food

I just finished reading a book I highly recommend: The War on Bugs by Will Allen. Allen grew up on a farm, then studied war chemicals in the Marines, and was surprised when he returned to the farm to find out that farm chemicals were "modified versions of the nerve poisons and antipersonnel weapons that [he] learned about when studying chemical warfare in the Marine Corps." Today he’s an organic farmer and he serves on the policy advisory board of Organic Consumers Association (as do I).

Allen’s book was a FASCINATING read. I was familiar with part of the story, which I wrote about in my own book. Agricultural chemicals didn’t hit the big time until after World War II, for a number of reasons. But much of the story happens before World War II, before they became widely used on U.S. farms. That history is significant, and Allen uses primary sources to completely document it.

As early as the 1800’s, advertisers began promoting farm chemicals, often industrial wastes and often highly toxic heavy metals like lead and arsenic. The story of advertising and PR in the U.S. is its own story and it’s told very well in the book Toxic Sludge is Good For You (which I also highly recommend). Allen tells the history of advertising as it relates to pesticides and other farm chemicals. Even before pesticides hit prime time in the U.S., advertisers were hard at work, trying to figure out how to successfully overcome farmers’ and consumers’ concern about applying poisonous chemicals to food.

Also important is the alliance of universities, government, and farm journals in favor of pesticides and other farm chemicals (like sodium nitrate fertilizer) EVEN WHEN FARMERS OPPOSED THEM. This continues today, and often people ask why, if synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs are bad, the government or universities are in favor of them. I wonder the same thing myself, actually. As it turns out, the history of this alliance dates back to the 1800’s, long before our food system was chemically dependent as it is today.

World War II is remarkable for a few reasons. DDT became a war hero, of course, and the U.S. dramatically built up its capacity to produce nitrogen for bombs… and then gave all of the taxpayer built plants away to chemical corporations. So nitrogen for bombs became fertilizer, DDT was the pesticide du jour, and excess planes became crop dusters. This was the turning point when U.S. agriculture became chemically dependent. Allen cites that in the late 1930’s, only 3.5% of U.S farm acreage was fertilized with synthetic nitrogen. By the late 1950’s, that number was up to HALF. By the 1990’s, it was over 90%.

Also important to note about World War II era chemicals is that the pests develop resistance to them in a matter of years. Chemical companies and advertisers relied on farmers to know very little about the world outside of their local area, so that they wouldn’t find out that a new pesticide had already failed elsewhere before they even bought it. In fact, there were reports of DDT resistance among pests before U.S. civilians used even a drop of it.

Surprisingly, the person who single-handedly "helped" the American people get comfortable with putting toxic chemicals on our food was Dr. Seuss. Standard Oil employed him to advertise their pesticide, Flit, and he drew clever and funny cartoons, similar to those in his children’s books. Just as he is popular with children the world over, his pro-pesticide cartoons had an enormous impact on grownups in gaining their acceptance for pesticides.

During the second half of the 20th century, many farmers lost their farms, and those who remained on the farm accumulated more acreage. Often, pesticides were adopted as a last-ditch or fear-based effort to help a farmer keep his or her farm. Also, when the pesticides failed, it was the farmer who suffered, not the chemical company.

Pesticides (and fertilizers) are like a drug. Often, after World War II, the chemical companies gave out the first sample for free. Once a farmer has used the free sample, he or she kills all of his or her soil life and beneficial insects – as well as the pests. With proof of the pesticide’s effectiveness, the farmer buys more. Then, as pests evolve resistance, the farmer has to buy even more. Ultimately, the pesticide fails and the farmer has to move on to a new pesticide to repeat the cycle. If the farmer quit spraying cold turkey, it would take a few years to build back up the biodiversity and beneficial insects that he or she once had, and the farmer WOULD experience decreased yields as a result. So the farmer keeps spraying.

So do we need all of these chemicals? The answer is actually no. I have a detailed explanation of how organic agriculture actually works, but the basics are simple. First of all, think about lush rainforests, or tall prairies, or old growth forests. None of them required synthetic fertilizers or pesticides to grow. The key is biodiversity. Insects, earthworms, and microbes play a number of important roles to help plants flourish, and the plants are actually pretty smart in how they work together with other species to get what they need. Beneficial species prey upon or compete on pest species. Some species like symbiotically with plants. And soil life makes the soil texture (its crumb structure) such that water can trickle down to the groundwater and the soil can hold water. Thus, plants become more resistance to floods and drought. For a wonderful description of how organics work, I recommend reading Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web.

The history of pesticides should not be viewed in a vacuum. I recommend reading it alongside the book Eating History by Andrew F. Smith. Eating History tells how American cuisine became what it is today in 30 essays that each tell about an important turning point in our culinary history. When America became a country, food was local, seasonal, and organic out of necessity. Obviously, the lack of known pesticides was one reason for that, but not the only one. Farmers lacked equipment to plant and harvest large amounts of crops, so farms were small by necessity. They were also diversified by necessity – you could grow more food by planting many different crops that could be planted and harvested at different times throughout the year. Animals were needed on farms for meat as well as for transportation and manure. Transportation costs were high, so food was local by necessity. And the technology for canning food was basically non-existent (Mason jars didn’t exist until 1858). Obviously, as each of these factors changed with new inventions, canal and railroad construction, immigration, and the Civil War, American food and farming changed as well.

Understandably, a small, diversified farm has little use for synthetic fertilizer and pesticides. Manure serves as fertilizer and pests can be controlled with crop rotation and weeding by hand. Besides, if one crop fails, you have many others. And, if you are just growing food for your family and maybe for the local market, you aren’t worried about fluctuations in the world price, and you aren’t trying to squeeze extra bushels of corn out of every single acre. As farms grew larger (aided by advances in technology to help them plant and harvest larger areas and advances in transportation to sell to far away markets) and less diversified, then chemicals were a way to save on labor costs.

I’m not anti-technology or anti-science. In fact, I am fascinated by the science behind sustainable agriculture – the science of viewing nature in an ecological (instead of a mechanical) way and looking for ways to produce more food by letting nature do the heavy lifting. Nor am I interested in sending the U.S. back to the 1700’s. But I do think that even though we have found a way to let less than 2% of the population produce enough food to feed all of us, we have NOT found a way to do that in a healthful and environmentally responsible way. I believe that more people need to become farmers (and gardeners), and – while I don’t expect everyone to eat only food grown locally – I do think we need to decentralize our food system. I think we have a tremendous amount of risk built into our food system by growing 50% of our fruit and 25% of vegetables in California (which is in the middle of a severe drought). It’s fascinating to read these books and to see how both scientific and technological advancement as well as propaganda fueled changes in our food system and to contemplate what we can do now to make it better.

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Jill Richardson

Jill Richardson