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In travels along rural American highways, much of the countryside looks picturesque, tranquil, and bucolic—beautiful farm and forest country. However, once one gets off the highway, anyone can see forestland brutalized by clear-cutting or overgrazing and large areas of farmland crusted over with salt from excessive irrigation, fertilization, and pesticide use. Crop dusters regularly fly over houses, highways, schools, rivers, forests, and canals, leaking and spraying millions of pounds of pesticides, while farmers on the ground spread millions of tons of toxic fertilizer.
On agricultural drainage ponds that formerly were part of majestic lakes on the Pacific flyway the water is so contaminated that air cannons and shotguns are constantly discharged to keep the birds from landing and mating. All matter of salts, heavy metals, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides get dumped into these agricultural sewers. Tulare Lake, in California's San Joaquin Valley, was formerly the largest lake west of the Mississippi. The lake is now an agricultural drainage puddle.
Farming practices such as these contaminate rivers and drinking water with farm chemicals and have increased significantly the number of cancer and birth-defect clusters in farm communities. We haven't reached Rachel Carson's Silent Spring yet, but as a farmer I can tell you that, wherever factory farming dominates the landscape, every spring is more and more polluted. Every spring brings us closer to Carson's nightmare.
For more than twenty years my colleagues and I have been alerting people to this rural disaster by writing, speaking out, and conducting farm tours for more than a thousand representatives from government, the universities, consumer and environmental groups, industry executives, and the press. These tours showcase California, Texas, and mid-South farms where industrial agriculture has polluted, depleted, and destabilized environments and rural communities. The tours also showcase farmers who have figured out how to farm with no toxic chemicals. Most of the tour participants, like most of the general public, have no idea how truly toxic our food production is in the United States.
The most commonly asked questions on these tours were:
"Why do people put up with so many toxic chemicals being used on farms next door or down the street?" "How do the chemical companies and the largescale corporate farms get away with it?"
"Don't farmers know these chemicals are toxic?"
"Aren't they worried about the effects on their own family and their community?"
"If they know the chemicals are dangerous toxins and they are worried about their family's health, why do they continue to use such poisonous pesticides and fertilizers?"
This book tries to provide some answers to these questions. Fortunately, the record of corporate, government, scientific, and journalistic advocacy for chemical use in agriculture is plainly and graphically preserved in the pages of the farm magazines, industry pamphlets, and university publications. I use their advertisements and their editorial and "scientific" campaigns to outline, illustrate, and punctuate the story. Much of the narrative, therefore, is dependent on the words and graphics of the advertisers, the publishers, and the scientists.
This story outlines how these powerful entities actively cooperated to promote farm chemicals for more than 160 years. I argue that the chemical corporations, along with the accomplices listed above, are the most responsible parties in the destruction of rural America. Farm journal editors as early as the 1840s, and almost all the editors of farm journals since the 1880s, have served the chemical corporations and other advertisers far more than they served the interests of farmers or the consuming public.
Today, the chemical corporations continue their propaganda efforts to convince farmers that they cannot make a profit without using chemicals, antibiotics, hormones, and genetically manipulated crops and animals. The chemical corporations persistently argue that growers must use their products or suffer crop loss and financial failure. Chemical corporation promoters have convinced U.S. farmers that they are the "bread basket for the world." Farmers have been led to believe that if they don't use chemicals to get the highest yields, then millions around the world will starve—and they will lose their farms.
In the pages that follow, we expose many of the corporate tricks, promises, and promotions and illustrate how farmers who were stridently opposed to chemicals came to believe in and be comfortable with farm poisons and their salespeople. We also draw a chronological outline of the devastating effects on the environment and rural communities wrought by these propaganda campaigns and their toxic chemical products. Sadly, many of the farmers who believed these promotions and adopted farm chemicals to save their farms lost their farms, their health, and a way of life. At the beginning of the twentieth century, when chemical farming was still viewed with suspicion and fear, more than six million full-time farmers cultivated eight hundred million acres in America. At that time only 8 percent of the land was leased from absentee owners. Today, less than a million full-time farmers and another million part-time farmers graze and cultivate more than a billion acres, and about half of the nation's farmland is leased from absentee landlords, banks, insurance corporations, chemical producers, the U.S. government, and holding companies. Even though the land area farmed has increased over the past century, the number of farmers on the land has decreased, and the loss in farmers continues to this day.
Since the Nixon administration in the 1970s about 650 farms per week have gone bankrupt in the United States. America's farmers, who were supposed to be rescued by one chemical product and one government program after another, have suffered staggering rates of bankruptcy, and the nation's farmland and groundwater basins are more polluted with chemicals now than ever before. As farmers went bankrupt, larger and larger corporate-farming businesses gobbled up the land. Farm size increased exponentially. For example, in 1946 the average size of a U.S. cotton farm was 17 acres. Today the average cotton farm is about 1,000 acres.
With more and more acres to manage, farmers have increased their use of chemicals and bought into the chemical corporation argument that poisons and chemical fertilizers are the most efficient management tools. Advertisers still argue that their chemicals kill more pests than biological control strategies and are cheaper and less bothersome. For years farmers believed that chemicals would be the salvation of their farms; in fact, most U.S. farmers still believe that.
In hindsight, we know that the chemicals were not the promised salvation but instead turned out to be environmentally and economically destructive, not only the affecting environment, but also helping to destroy much of rural American culture. In the process, the banks, the commodity brokers, the chemical corporations, and the large-scale farmers seized control of millions of acres from bankrupt farmers. After their successful land grab in the United States and Europe, big agricultural corporations have focused their efforts on controlling biodiversity and genetic resources or seizing agricultural land throughout the developing world.
This book traces how merchants sold the first commercial fertilizer, Peruvian bird guano. It describes how nineteenth-century miners, merchants, and industrialists tried to convince farmers that mining and industrial-waste products were highly valuable fertilizers. In the following quote from his book Potash, J. W. Turrentine demonstrates how early industrial wastes came to be sold as "fertilizer discoveries." The example of German corporations that discovered, in their search for salt, vast natural deposits of potash in 1858 illustrates how scientific data was used to puff up their value, enabling industrialists to recommend their use more authoritatively.
It should not be understood from this that the agricultural world was anxiously awaiting the discovery of such a deposit to fulfill a long-felt want of agriculture. On the contrary, unenlightened agriculture was quite content with the potash supplies on hand . . . but the Germans, desiring to find some use for a material which at that time was largely without use or value, turned to agriculture as the only industry large enough to absorb a heavy tonnage. Scientific data were easily gotten to support the thesis that potash was a valuable plant food. . . . [T]he present widespread use of potash resulted not from the demand of agriculture for potash fertilizers but from the German industrialists' demand for a market.2
As the Industrial Revolution progressed, even more enormous quantities of waste chemicals accumulated. Finally, after creating mountains and filling valleys with toxic waste, the industrialists were forced by state and national regulators to dispose of it or face serious fines and disposal fees. When the state and national regulators began imposing fines, most of the mining and manufacturing corporations followed the lead of the German potash syndicate and turned to agriculture as the major dumping ground.
The sodium nitrate fertilizer, found in Chile and Peru, was also a waste product of salt mining. Many arsenic and lead pesticides used on food were by-products recovered from flue gas in the smelting of iron and copper or wastes from fabric dyeing and paint manufacturing. Especially after the commercial success of guano, potash, arsenic, and sodium nitrate, other industrial and mining operators saw farming as a potential market. Thereafter, not only did the mining and industrial corporations avoid dumping fines, they made outrageous profits, selling their toxic waste as a fertilizer or a pesticide.
Cyanide gas, a by-product of ammonium-cyanide production, was used both as a pesticide and an antipersonnel poison shortly after the turn of the twentieth century.3 Waste natural gas and hydrogen, which came along as by-products of gasoline or coke manufacturing, enabled the industrialists to create sufficient heat to liquefy atmospheric gases and produce nitrogen. This form of nitrogen became one of the most widely used chemical fertilizers and is still the dominant form of synthetic nitrogen used today. Later, in the 1930s, fluorine, a by-product of uranium mining, became an important pesticide.
As a consequence, consumers ate increasingly more food grown with industrial waste. What's more, we still do! The use of arsenic continues, industrial and urban sludge is used as fertilizer, spent nuclear fuel rods are used to irradiate food, and all manner of corporate waste is regularly dumped on our food and our farmland.
The War on Bugs outlines how the industrialists changed U.S. agriculture, first with imported guano fertilizer, then with arsenic, lead, synthetic fertilizer, cyanide, DDT, methyl bromide, nerve poisons, antibiotics, growth hormones, and, currently, genetically manipulated products. The facts presented here serve to indict corporate chemical advertisers, farm magazines, university scientists, and the government as enablers of the poisonous changeover in agriculture and the destruction of rural communities in the United States. This book also tracks the parallel development of organic agriculture and farmer resistance to chemical farming. Because of this duality, our tale exposes more than its share of ironic twists. The first occurred before the 1840s, when farmers first started spreading guano and mining and industrial wastes on American fields and orchards. Well before that time, farming had undergone significant change and was in the midst of a major revolution that resulted in significant mechanical, fertilizer, and land-management improvements.
The mechanical changes included plows, harvesters, combines, steam power, and other products from both the farmer's blacksmith shop and the industrial sweatshops. The structural changes in farming were part of America's first populist movement during and after the Revolutionary War. In these systems, practical land management was the centerpiece of the program: diversity of crops was encouraged and monoculture discouraged. As a consequence, crop rotations, composting, and sophisticated natural fertilization strategies became widely used in the East and Northeast by the 1830s. Farmers who had adopted these innovative strategies voiced strong opposition to the first use of poisonous chemicals. As chemical advertisers became increasingly aggressive, farmers more vigorously challenged the ads and the editorials from the chemical firms and effectively marginalized the chemical peddlers until the late 1870s.
To counteract farmer skepticism toward toxic chemicals, the ad makers developed increasingly innovative advertising campaigns targeted directly at the farmers' economic fears. These early propaganda efforts led to a flood of advertising and editorials promoting the chemicals and showcasing the aristocratic and most prosperous farmers who used them. This ongoing, 160-year-long campaign attempted to marginalize biological farming strategies while promoting the use of chemicals. The effectiveness of this campaign caused a profound change in how we view both nature and our food production system, and how we treat our bodies and ourselves. Fortunately, today a worldwide movement toward clean foods and sustainable farming practices is growing stronger every year and is once again changing how people perceive themselves and their food.
In telling this story it seemed helpful to provide readers with an overview of the connections between medicine, rat and disease control, chemistry, fertilizer, labor, spray devices, oil, dynamite, and, of course, pesticides. In order to describe these complicated connections, we occasionally are forced to leap back and forth in time. This was necessary to give the individual stories coherence. The interweaving of related stories and the chronological charts throughout the text should help illustrate interrelationships and hopefully lubricate the tracks of time travel. This outline and synthesis may help explain how chemical advertisers became one of America's most powerful rural voices, attaining an almost de facto authority among most farmers. A big part of their success was due to saturation advertising.
In the process of outlining the effectiveness of the chemical sales strategies, we were struck by the degree and amount of resistance that every generation of activists mustered against federal control, unjust taxes, trusts, cartels, the railroad barons, corporations, poisonous pesticides, poisonous foods, the war on bugs, and the corporate control of everything. Even before the Revolution, the nation was in ferment about the discriminatory practices of the aristocrats toward small farmers as well as toward workers, slaves, and servants. From the North Carolina Regulator revolts in the 1760s to the present there have been significant and repeated populist struggles with the government and the dominating class. In most of these struggles, including the one that is presently under way, food and agriculture have played prominent parts. We hope that the story told in The War on Bugs will inspire readers to join in the movement to support biological farming and safe food, to play a part in determining how the world's food is grown and farmland is managed.
The War on Bugs is really the story of two wars, one intended, the other a by-product of chemical use. The intended war using pesticides has been directed against insects, bugs, spiders, disease, and fungus and is designed to KILL. The unintended war comes from the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that inadvertently kill highly important soil life, such as microorganisms and earthworms, and their drift that contaminates areas next door and thousands of miles away. Both of these wars have had devastating effects on America's water, farmland soil, wildlife, and rural population.