In 1962 Rachel Carson published her seminal work, Silent Spring, warning that excessive use of synthetic pesticides, especially DDT, was killing wildlife and damaging human health. She also accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation, and public officials of accepting the industry’s marketing claims unquestioningly. The book is widely credited with galvanising the environmental movement into existence.

Rachel Carson

That same year, the Committee for Economic Development published An Adaptive Program for Agriculture, which promotes huge corporate farms at the expense of family farms. This report guided government policy for more than a decade – and arguably still does. (See: How America’s Food Giants Swallowed The Family Farms.)

The following year the President’s Science Advisory Committee published a report vindicating Rachel Carson’s research and assertions, thereby temporarily redeeming public officials from her accusations. In response, the National Agricultural Chemicals Association doubled its public relations budget, thereby absolutely confirming her accusations. This has now become a familiar strategy of selling bad ideas to the public. (See last week’s blog on “Molecules of Freedom”.)

I invite you to take a look at this timeline outlining the history of Big Chemicals’ War on Food. It’s interesting. Here are some highlights:

  • 1986: Israel’s breast cancer rate drops 30 percent in women below the age of forty-four, just eight years after the country banned organochlorine pesticides.
  • 1988: The US EPA finds seventy-four different pesticides in the groundwater of thirty-eight agricultural states.
  • 1989: The conservative World Health Organization estimates that there are 1,000,000 pesticide poisonings in the world each year, resulting in 20,000 deaths.
  • 1992: Tissue analysis demonstrates a substantial link between pesticides and breast cancer. The European Union approves the first government-enforced standards for organic production.
  • 1994: Studies link organochlorine chemicals with male reproductive problems and breast cancer. Problems include a 50 percent drop in male sperm count in forty years.

Meanwhile, the arms race escalates:

  • 1972: More than 250 pests worldwide are resistant to DDT.
  • 1984: 447 species of insects and mites are known to be resistant to one or more pesticides; 14 weed species are resistant to one or more herbicides.
  • 1997: More than 600 insects and mites are resistant to one or more pesticides. Approximately 120 weeds are resistant to one or more herbicides. Approximately 115 disease organisms are resistant to pesticides.

Pesticides are poisons. Homicide means killing a person. Genocide means killing lots of people. Pesticide means killing “pests”, and by “pest” we mean something else that wants to eat the same food we want to eat. The pest doesn’t know it’s a pest. It just wants its dinner.

What does exposure to these chemicals entail? It’s not nice, for either the pests, the (often immigrant) workers administering them, or the lab animals. From PennState:

The toxicity of a pesticide is its capacity or ability to cause injury or illness. The toxicity of a particular pesticide is determined by subjecting test animals to varying dosages of the active ingredient and each of its formulated products…  

Acute toxicity of a pesticide refers to the chemical’s ability to cause injury to a person or animal from a single exposure, generally of short duration. The four routes of exposure are dermal (skin), inhalation (lungs), oral (mouth), and eyes. Acute toxicity is determined by examining the dermal toxicity, inhalation toxicity, and oral toxicity of test animals. In addition, eye and skin irritation are also examined. Acute toxicity is measured as the amount or concentration of a toxicant– the a.i.–required to kill 50 percent of the animals in a test population…

The chronic toxicity of a pesticide is determined by subjecting test animals to long-term exposure to the active ingredient. Any harmful effects that occur from small doses repeated over a period of time are termed chronic effects. Some of the suspected chronic effects from exposure to certain pesticides include birth defects, production of tumors, blood disorders, and neurotoxic effects (nerve disorders). 

And of course it’s not great for the planet either. According to the US National Institute of Health, “Over 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used in the United State (US) each year and approximately 5.6 billion pounds are used worldwide”. (The article goes on to say: “In many developing countries programs to control exposures are limited or non-existent. As a consequence; it has been estimated that as many as 25 million agricultural workers worldwide experience unintentional pesticide poisonings each year.”)

Ooh, time for some graphs, I think… (with thanks to Our World In Data).

Ah, you may say, but we need pesticides in order to produce enough food to feed everybody. And clearly, I am not advocating increasing world hunger.

The first step to reducing food poverty would be to stop wasting so much food. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, around one third of global food production is wasted. Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).

And we don’t need to splurge pesticides around like there’s no tomorrow (literally). This study in Nature found that the losses resulting from a 50% reduction in pesticide use ranged from 5% to 13% of the yield obtained with the current pesticide use. (It also reports that two recent meta-analyses showed that the substitution of conventional high-input systems with organic systems would lead to 19% to 34% of yield loss – but see “stop wasting one third of food” point above.)

Can organic farming feed the world? According to this study by John Reganold, Regents Professor of Soil Science & Agroecology at the Washington State University, yes it can. He and his colleagues set out to see if we can feed an estimated world population of 9.6 billion people in 2050 without expanding the area of farmland we already use. They found that:

“Enough food could be produced with lower-yielding organic farming, if people become vegetarians or eat a more plant-based diet with lower meat consumption. The existing farmland can feed that many people if they are all vegan, a 94% success rate if they are vegetarian, 39% with a completely organic diet, and 15% with the Western-style diet based on meat.”

In other words, there is enough food for our need, but not for our greed, to quote Gandhi.

I’d like to leave the final word to a real-life farmer, Bob Quinn from Montana, who knows a lot more about this than I do, and believes it’s time to break our addiction to farm chemicals. Over to you, Bob.


Other Stuff:

Last night I spoke at the Royal Geographical Society in London at an event for World Oceans Day, coming up on 8th June. It was an honour to be speaking on the same stage as such oceanic superstars as Dr Sylvia Earle, Dr Callum Roberts, Dr Jon Copley, author Helen Scales, and Orla Doherty from the Blue Planet team. Thanks to all for a memorable evening.


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