"There is not a single instance in history in which the introduction of a major technological innovation has had only benign consequences for the natural world, or even for the social world. New technologies allowed corporations and nations to exploit and expropriate nature for short-term gain, before damages finally escalated to such a level that they became necessary to regulate. The actual gain from these new technologies has always been illusory and instead resulted in long-term pollution, depletion, or destabilization of some portion of the biosphere."
—Daniel Imhoff, August 2000
My interest in how farmers became comfortable with using dangerous chemicals began more than thirty years ago, as many of us converted our farms from chemical to organic production. Along with several close friends, I had come to the realization that we did not need to use so many dangerous poisons on our farms since we were getting good yields and high quality without them. This realization was an epiphany for those of us brought up believing that the chemicals were Necessary, Critical, Essential, Modern, Progressive, Profitable, Economical, Miraculous, even Heroic—all in capital letters.
At farm field days, meetings, potlucks, and Farm Aid concerts, we began recounting how each of us had become convinced that farm chemicals were indispensable. All of us recalled how farmers, extension agents, schoolteachers, feed store salesmen, and billboard ads claimed that the chemicals were miraculously effective and safe.
As farm kids, we knew that the chemicals were effective. We knew that arsenic and lead killed pests and that the chemical fertilizers produced good yields, even though most of our folks were small farmers who rarely used them. All of us knew, however, that the claims about safety were B.S., because we would get our butts whipped if we went near the chemical storehouse. At my grandma’s farm in Hemet, California, she and my aunt repeatedly told us to keep away from the shed with the chemicals. At home, my mom would always warn us: “Remember Bobby Arbuckle? He played with arsenic, and he’s dead.” Then she would follow with, “And don’t forget that boy Danny what’s-his-name, who lived down the road—he got into that Black Leaf 40 tobacco poison and it burned him like a fire.”
One time, a friend and I were smoking one of our first homemade cigarettes made from straw and a little bit of tobacco from a cigarette butt we found. We were smoking and coughing behind his father’s fertilizer shed and the manager of the ranch caught us. He was hopping mad. He chased us away with a stick, yelling after us that if we got one spark on the fertilizer it could blow up the whole place. Threats and warnings such as these definitely had their impact. They convinced all of us that, while farm chemicals produced bumper crops, they were dangerous.
In contrast to our fears, and all the threats and warnings, we all had a story or two to tell about hearing local large-scale farmers who laughed off anyone’s concerns about health and safety as being ridiculous. Instead, these farmers, and the chemical salesmen they hung out with, emphasized that pesticides and fertilizers were not only safe to use, but also necessary to make a profit, to conduct the Second World War, and to feed all the hungry people in the world. “If you read the label and follow the instructions, you can’t get hurt,” they would say.
I remembered how my teachers used to praise the war chemicals, the scientific revolution, and the heroic effect of DDT against typhus and malaria during the war. In class we watched documentary newsreels praising the chemicals. Friends found old articles where similar praise appeared in newspapers and magazines. Others recalled hearing reports on the radio, or seeing movie newsreels and shorts at Saturday afternoon matinees, which also praised the virtues of the war chemicals.
Several of us recalled when the feedstore salesmen began selling DDT near the close of World War II. Our salesman and family friend, Arnold, came to the house and delivered a practiced speech about the safety and effectiveness of this scientific wonder. He told us that DDT was a war hero, deadly to insects, typhus, and malaria, but harmless to people. He opened a bottle of the stuff, and, in a few minutes, flies on the table and floor began writhing around in their death throes. Within the hour, all the flies and mosquitoes in the house died. He claimed that just opening the bottle usually “knocked ’em dead.” We all snickered because his pitch was so canned. But we didn’t laugh at how effective DDT was. Its killing power amazed us, and my folks bought some that day.
We always had some cows, a few goats, chickens, turkeys, ducks, lots of pigs—and, as a result, too many flies. My least favorite chore as a kid was swatting flies in the house and around the outside of the doorways. Right after we got DDT, my fly-swatting chores all but vanished. My mom began to spray the flies and all us kids, with the hand-pump sprayer filled with DDT. “Arnold said, it won't hurt you,” she would say, as she used her “Flit Gun” to zap the flies, and us. For a while after that, I only swatted the flies that survived to enter the house. I loved not having to kill as many flies. But I hated to spray or to be sprayed with the stuff; it stunk, and it left a sticky-sweet film on my skin.
At the time, in spite of its significant drawbacks, DDT seemed better than fly swatting to this twelve-year-old farm kid. However, despite all the advertisements, promotions, hopes, and promises my furlough from fly swatting was short-lived. Within a few years the flies no longer rolled over in their death throes when we sprayed DDT. So we increased the dosage. Still, the stronger dosage of DDT failed to kill them.
Suddenly I seemed to be swatting more flies than ever. Arnold said we should mix other chemicals with the DDT to make it stronger. First we mixed it with chlordane, then lindane; later we used lindane alone.
Several other “miraculous” chemicals followed as chlordane and lindane, like DDT, rapidly proved completely useless for killing flies. After spraying a chemical for only a couple of years, each one seemed to lose its killing power, and the flies returned with a vengeance. Many people had stopped using the fly sprays Flit or Bif some years earlier because they too had become useless. In spite of these setbacks, a belief in the necessity and ease of using the chemicals had seeped into our minds, and gradually it came to dominate nearly everyone’s pest-management decisions. We were becoming hooked on pesticides, just like the large-scale farmers.
In the mid-1950s I joined the Marine Corps, and my brother and sisters took over my fly-swatting and pesticide-spraying duties. In the Marines I was an electrical technician and an atomic, biological, and chemical warfare paramedic. After the service I went to the University of California and the University of Illinois and was fortunate to do research in the tropical forests of Peru and to live with forest farmers.
The ability of these farmers to produce surpluses without chemicals in an environment ravaged by pests started me thinking that maybe the miracle chemicals that the salesmen pushed were not so necessary after all. I had never seen so many pests and yet they were getting bumper yields. Thereafter, everything that I saw or learned about farming was filtered through that experience. I left the university in 1970 and worked on more than a dozen farms as a laborer, fence builder, planter, picker, mechanic, tractor driver, cultivator, manager, plumber, carpenter, cowboy, and researcher. As I worked on all these farms, I began to realize that American farming practices had become much more poisonous and dangerous than when I was a kid.
In 1981, I enrolled in a pesticide- and fertilizer-applicator’s course at the local college to learn more about spray rates for foliar fertilizers. I also hoped that I might understand why most of my neighbors and all my bosses continued to feel so comfortable with farm chemicals, while I had become fearful. The course provided a wealth of practical information about spray rates and nutrient requirements that helped me feed my plants better and certified me as a licensed pesticide applicator.
The course also left me more alarmed than ever about the dangers of farm and home pesticides. I was shocked to find that most of the chemicals in common use on farms were modified versions of the nerve poisons and antipersonnel weapons that I learned about when studying chemical warfare in the Marine Corps.
After the course, I had several contentious discussions with neighbors, friends and relatives, and employers who were addicted to chemicals. Literally everyone I talked with argued that farm chemicals were not dangerous if properly used. No matter what I said or how much evidence I produced to the contrary, deep down, most of these people believed that the fear of farm chemicals was blown out of proportion. More importantly, folks honestly felt that without chemical fertilizers their crops wouldn’t grow, and without toxic pesticides the insects and weeds would destroy their plants. Nearly all maintained that if they didn’t have the chemicals, the little profit they now enjoyed would be wiped out.
Often, when I tried to discuss the dangers of chemicals with friends and neighbors, many appeared to feel they were being accused of poisoning their families and their land with the “tools” they thought they needed so badly. Instead of seeing chemicals as synthetically produced poisons, these people viewed them as “their tools,” and so mentally they minimized the threat that they posed. Most farmers too felt an ownership of the chemical “tools” as much as they felt for other pieces of farm equipment. They ignored the risks of using chemicals because they believed they needed them to make a profit, just as they needed tractors or rototillers or combines, which were also very dangerous if used incorrectly. In the minds of these yield- and price-dependent farmers, chemicals had become a necessary means of survival.
Part of the problem is that the toxicological analysis of farm chemicals is not required to be on the labels or in the advertisements for the products. Consequently, most farmers actually know very little about the dangers of the chemicals they use. Many find it hard to believe that the most heavily used poisons can cause a wide variety of cancers or birth defects, or are incredibly damaging nerve poisons.
Farmers I spoke with wondered why they should bother to know all the chemistry or toxicology of each product. Several explained that they were more concerned with the killing power of the pesticide than its chemistry or toxicity. They were farmers, not chemists, they said. Many felt that understanding the chemical part was the job of the pest-control advisor and the university-extension specialist at the agricultural experiment stations. They argued that, if the government regulators and their banker allowed the use of these chemicals, then they must be safe.
Many times local chemical salesmen or bankers badgered my neighbors and friends about the necessity of using chemicals when I was present. I would laugh at them and argue that their poisons were unnecessary and dangerous. They in turn argued that my fears were exaggerated, and proceeded to “guarantee” the safety of the chemicals.
Clearly, the job of the chemical sales staff is to convince farmers that they can’t get along without their products, so no one can fault them for being aggressive—they’re salesmen after all. Many chemical salespeople get paid a commission on the basis of quantity of material sold. As a result, for them, selling chemicals and convincing farmers to buy more, whether the farmer needs them or not, has become a survival thing. For many, their survival and salary depend on the volume of pesticides they sell.
The other and often most important influence on farmers is their banker. Many farmers borrow money to farm, and if they don’t pay out or don’t get as high a yield as the bank expects, it can be difficult getting next year’s operating loan. Some bankers merely prodded the farmers to use chemicals, while others required them to use chemicals to protect their loans. All this pressure has driven up the use of highly toxic pesticides, as table 1 illustrates.
Graph to come
Table 1: Pesticide use in the 1990s was double what it was in the 1980s. Source: California EPA, Department of Pesticide Regulation
By the late 1990s, tests required by the California Environmental Protection Agency finally proved how hazardous pesticides were to farmers and their families. However, in spite of the proven hazards that these tests revealed, the chemical corporations continued to block the cancellation of deadly and cancer-causing chemicals. My organic-farming friends and I were amazed at just how dangerous and deadly the chemicals proved to be, but we were not surprised that the chemical corporations blocked the cancellation of these dangerous products. After all, we’re talking billions of dollars a year in profits.
Our neighbors also seemed amazed at the results of the government tests, but for different reasons. Many still couldn’t see how the tests applied to them or their families. They too were not surprised that the chemical corporations defended their products and stonewalled their cancellation. Many of them argued that, “Oh, the state (CALEPA) and federal government (EPA and FDA) make the chemical corporations do tests on rats and dogs and ferrets, not people. What do you expect? They feed these little rats massive doses, of course they are going to get sick or die.” Then they would finish with something like: “You would have to eat a roomful of apples to get the same amount of poison that the rats ate.”
Dumbfounded, I would laugh and remind them that many of these pesticides were not just deadly to rats. They were the same or similar chemicals that Saddam Hussein used on the Kurds in Iraq or that Osama bin Laden threatened us with from Afghanistan, the same or similar chemicals that we had used in the war in Vietnam, or that the Nazis had used in concentration camps. Somehow, they continued to have a comfort level with these terrible poisons, but not with the testing procedures or the test results. They didn’t trust the tests or the government agencies that were requiring and evaluating them. Yes, they admitted that chemicals caused cancer and birth defects and even killed the lab rats, but they never failed to remind me that they were not lab rats or ferrets or dogs.
I told them about one test in which dogs inhaled only 268 and 283 parts per million of methyl bromide to determine a concentration that could be used in a twenty-eight-day test and a one-year test on dogs as required by California’s 1984 Birth Defect Prevention Act.
The dogs were supposed to be exposed for four days but the study had to be terminated after two days due to the observation of the following severe neurotoxicity (delirium, thrashing and vocalization, tremors, traumatizing behavior [defined as slamming the head and body into cage walls]), depression, ataxia, [irregular gait], rales, [abnormal sounds when breathing] and a cachectic appearance [general wasting and malnutrition, associated with chronic disease].
In spite of such damning evidence about their pesticide tools and the widespread alarm about the increased use of the most toxic poisons, my friends and relatives continued to argue that most pesticides were still registered, and that neither the FDA nor the EPA seemed anxious to prohibit their use. Therefore, they had concluded they must be safe enough to use. I argued that the FDA and the EPA determined that their most important constituencies and concerns were big chemical and corporate farming interests, not the taxpaying consumer or the health of the farmers. Consequently, neither agency felt obliged to eliminate chemicals that the powerful corporations developed and protected, even though both agencies and the chemical corporations knew that pesticides were dangerous and often deadly—to people.
I began to ask elderly folks when and why farmers had started using these poisons. No one had a very complete picture of the origin and history of chemicals on American farms. All of them assured me that, even though they didn’t know the whole story, they believed that the use of chemicals had started long before they began to farm. Many felt that the wealthy farmers had always used pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
I finally realized that the deep-seated acceptance of chemicals was both economic and historic, because the grandparents and great-grandparents of the large-scale farmers had become dependent and comfortable with toxic chemicals a long time ago. Several of us wanted to know how this could have happened. A few farmers I knew felt that they had learned a great deal about the history of farming by reading historical pieces in farm magazines and advised that I read their back issues. So I began to read the early journals and almanacs. It was fascinating. We had all read Jack Pickett’s editorials in California Farmer for years, and knew full well what kind of advice and analysis he was giving, especially about pesticides and chemical fertilizers. He was a chemical industry cheerleader.
Soon I started reading all the old farm magazines I could get from relatives and neighbors. As I read older magazines, I found that Pickett’s father, who was the California Farmer editor before Jack, also promoted the use of chemicals and defended the farmers’ need to use them. I scoured the old journals and found original copies in the University of California and Dartmouth College libraries. These magazines told most of the story about how pesticides and fertilizers were first sold, and how they continue to be sold today.
I found that, over the last 160 years, many editors have used their editorial pulpit in the journals to play a major role in promoting and justifying chemicals. The rural magazines told much of the story of how and why farming had changed so dramatically, and how prosperous farmers got comfortable with using highly toxic medicines and other poisons. When there was no competition from radio, TV, or other electronic media, the farm magazines significantly influenced farmers’ opinions and decision making. In fact, California Farmer was at one time so important a voice in California that it was often used as text material in rural schools.
Many academic and popular studies have concentrated their search for the beginnings of chemical farming on the period after Second World War, apparently under the assumption that most of agriculture was chemical-free before that time. A few authors have extended the picture to the time of the First World War, and even fewer (especially James Wharton, Margaret Rossiter, and Richard Wines) have understood that the chemical agriculture story has much deeper roots.
As I dug further into the magazines, I found that the American portion of this story began more than two hundred years ago, with the colonial farmers and the farm crises of the 1700s and early 1800s. Shortly after the beginning of the1800s, the large-scale farmers in America began to be propagandized by scientists and the mining and manufacturing companies, who proclaimed how newly discovered chemicals would solve both their financial and farming problems.
The first farmers targeted with propaganda about chemicals farmed large tracts of land, with some cultivating thousands of acres of tobacco, corn, hemp, cotton, and other crops for export. The farming practices on their huge estates and plantations had literally destroyed the fertility on most of the choice farmland on the eastern seaboard even before 1800.
The New York State Agricultural Society magazine, The Cultivator, conducted the earliest propaganda campaign promoting chemicals, beginning in the 1840s. To conduct the campaign they trumpeted the discoveries of chemical scientists and used testimonials from aristocratic farmers. In spite of their aggressive promotion, though, most small- and medium-scale farmers opposed the use of harsh chemicals and poisonous metals. Then, in the 1850s, industry developed or discovered several chemical products that they peddled to farmers. Yet farmer resistance to chemicals persisted for most of the nineteenth century. This farmer opposition prompted the chemical corporations to advertise and propagandize more often, more creatively, more fearfully, and more authoritatively.
As a result of seven generations of such campaigns, most American farmers have come to be dependent on chemical pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, and genetically manipulated products. Recently, many farmers have begun to compare their chemical and corporate dependency to drug or alcohol addiction.
This story illustrates that, well before the start of the twentieth century, advertising space in rural magazines became an essential platform for chemical corporations. By 1900, the ads were producing more revenue for these farm periodicals than their subscriptions ever could. At that point, the concerns of the reader became secondary to the concerns of the advertisers. Because of this, the views of the chemical advertisers, not the needs of the farmers, have dominated farm magazines for more than a century, and continue to do so today.
By the 1890s the magazine Agricultural Advertising was entirely devoted to the search for farm-journal advertisers. Even by this early date the farm journals knew who paid the bills, and it wasn’t their readers. But the publishers still had to keep their subscriptions up because the more subscribers a journal had the more the advertisers would be willing to pay to place their ads. Many journals began to offer free subscriptions around this time, and most have continued to do so to this day. So, for more than one hundred years, even if farmers didn't pay for the magazines, they usually received them free of charge. The publishers wanted to be sure that farmers got the messages of their advertisers and to make sure that the subscription base was high enough to attract the most expensive ads.
While other factors certainly influenced farmers’ decisions to use chemicals besides advertising, a major thesis of this book is that advertising and propaganda campaigns have historically played, and continue to play, a very important role in guiding a farmer’s choice of which products to buy.
In the late 1800s Cyrus H. K. Curtiss, the nineteenth-century advertising genius, emphasized the importance of advertising. Curtiss, the owner of the Saturday Evening Post, the Ladies Home Journal, and the Country Gentleman (one of the most influential national farm magazines), once told a gathering of potential advertisers: “The Editor of the Ladies Home Journal thinks that we publish it for the benefit of American women. That is an illusion, but a very proper one for him to have. The real reason, the publisher’s reason, is to give you who manufacture things that American women want and buy a chance to tell about your products.”
When asked for the secret of his success, Curtiss always had a one-word explanation: “Advertising!” Curtiss, didn’t publish the Country Gentlemen for farmers any more than he published the Ladies Home Journal for women; they were both sales platforms for the product manufacturers.
The story that I present in this book is concentrated on farming, but there are occasional glimpses of similar advertising campaigns, including those conducted by military, urban, national, and foreign interests, and even those in phone books. Uncovering how chemical companies regularly communicated to farmers, homeowners, and businesses reveals patterns and formulas that they have employed to convince people to use deadly and dangerous poisons. It is hoped that this little book, which started in questionings and remembrances with farmer friends, will provide a graphic and interesting outline of the rise of chemical agriculture in the United States.
My goal is to provoke readers with some often-overlooked historical perspectives about food and farming, and to suggest what they can do to ensure that food is produced safely on land that is properly cared for, so that our children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy its bounty and continue to make it productive.