La Vida Locavore
Book Review: The War on Bugs by Will Allen
by: Jill Richardson
Sat Jan 30, 2010 at 12:36:39 PM PST
I just finished reading The War on Bugs by Will Allen (not the Will Allen of Growing Power - a different Will Allen) and I can't recommend it highly enough! This was a book that Allen was uniquely qualified to write. He grew up on a farm, and then went into the Marines where he was an atomic, biological, and chemical warfare paramedic. Following his years in the Marines, he went to college and - as part of his education - did research in the tropical forests of Peru, living among forest farmers. He says, "The ability of these [Peruvian] farmers to produce surpluses without chemicals in an environment ravaged by pests started me thinking that maybe the miracle chemicals that the sales men pushed were not so necessary after all." After college, Allen went back to farming. Upon taking a pesticide and fertilizer applicator's course at a local college, he found out that the chemicals commonly sprayed on farms were "modified versions of the nerve poisons and antipersonnel weapons that I learned about when studying chemical warfare in the Marine Corps."
So - with his firsthand observations of food grown without chemicals and his knowledge of the toxicity of common farm chemicals - Allen went to work finding out where our dependence and trust of pesticides came from in the first place. His findings actually surprised me. I knew part of the picture, which I wrote about in my own book. I don't think my book was inaccurate, but Allen fills in a lot of details and really makes it clear what happened and how.
Read the whole article here.
The history of humankind might also be said to be the history of warfare. From Roman times to the present day, human conflict has been the hallmark of our historical progression. But the fight against ourselves isn’t the only war we’ve embarked upon.
Organic farmer Will Allen’s beautifully illustrated and eye opening account of the US War on Bugs is an incredible story of the 100 year war against organic agriculture and small-scale farms - a war waged on two fronts: the chemical attack on bugs and the war for the hearts and minds of the US farmer.
Allen’s book charts the history of pesticides and reveals the collusion between scientists, corporate chemical advertisers and farm magazines in the promotion of chemicals in food production. Using a number of original advertisements and photos to illustrate his case, Allen delves headlong into the history of American farming, before embarking on a detailed look at the farm journals and publications that led the way in changing the fate – and land – of American farming. The introduction of guano fertiliser (literally thousands of years old bird shit, mined from the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru), DDT, cyanide, arsenic, and methyl bromide read like a litany of toxicological traumas. Yet the toxicological analysis of farm chemicals is neither required to be on the labels or in the advertisements for the products, Allen tells us. This and the anecdotal information about what Allen calls ‘the deep-seated acceptance of chemicals’ amongst farmers makes for fascinating reading.
Allen is particularly adept at stating his argument. Having trained as a chemical warfare paramedic in the Marine Corps, lived with forest farmers in Peru while studying anthropology at university, before eventually becoming a full time farmer his detailed research and wealth of information is backed by a keen sense of advocating change. When he states that the chemicals used on crops are similar to the ones Saddam Hussein used on the Kurds in Iraq and that were used in war in Vietnam it really makes you think.
But the counter-insurgency exists and Allen is careful to highlight the attempts made to oppose what he calls ‘the rural disaster’. Looking at the organic farming and the anti-factory-farm movements, Allen sees hope and opportunity for farmers to unhook themselves from their addiction to poisonous chemicals.
An absolutely fascinating read that encompasses the cultural, technical and economic challenges faced by US farmers, Allen’s story is of one hell of a drug trip, revealing the illusions – and dangers - perpetuated by such an addiction, while indicting those who seek to gain from it. Mandatory reading for anyone wishing to take a closer look at what’s actually in their meal!
Eating Oil: “The War On Bugs” Sounds A “Pharm Alarm” About the Toxic History of American Agriculture
By Rob Williams
East Thetford, Vermont’s Will Allen of Cedar Circle Farm is no ordinary tiller of the soil. The former marine, jailed for anti-war protests during the Vietnam Era, also possesses a Ph.D. in Anthropology, a long track record as a citizen/activist, and now, a new book brilliantly entitled “The War On Bugs.” Allen’s story is a remarkable expose, ten years in the making, that highlights the often-sordid relationship among what might be awkwardly termed “corporate agricultural interests,” Madison Avenue, and the U.S. Empire’s military/industrial complex. Let’s collectively call this trio “Big Pharm.”
As always, history is a useful starting place. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, author Jared Diamond coined the term “farmer power” to describe the dramatic increase in land productivity (and economic and political might) that emerged with the Neolithic Revolution in agriculture roughly 10,000 years ago, a series of processes that gave us the very best and worst of human civilization. Allen’s analysis in “The War on Bugs” charts the arrival of a second agricultural revolution, which began around the time of the so-called American “Civil War” during the 1860s, when U.S.-based chemical companies declared war on two scourges: bugs of every description, and declining soil fertility.
Allen’s great strength lies in combining short and pithy analytical vignettes detailing the various tools and tactics used by an evolving “Big Pharm” industry with a cornucopia of visual material. Each chapter features fascinating historical reproductions harvested from a wide range of U.S. media—newspaper articles, old editorials from farm journals, pseudo-scientific testimonials bought and paid for by Big Pharm interests, and, of course, ever-ubiquitous advertisements (including some early head-turning work by Theodore Geisel—a.k.a. Dr. Seuss—who was employed by the chemical industry early in his career to sell Pharm toxins to an unsuspecting U.S. public. Who knew?).
What makes Allen’s work so vital is his exploration of the historical and cultural intersections among a variety of forces: Madison Avenue media marketing, science, corporate power and, most importantly, the process of “farming” itself, a complex and rigorous activity so full of mistaken mythological holes within the fabric of U.S. history that you can drive a John Deere combine harvester through it. Simply stated, farming is incredibly hard work, made more so by forces way beyond the control of individual farmers—weather, crop prices, and the price of fuel—to name but three. The great genius of Big Pharm interests, and “The War On Bugs” highlights it, comes with their use of what Allen calls a “four part sales model” to get farmers “hooked” on their products. To whit: beginning in the mid-19th century, Big Pharm editorials in various farm journals planted the seeds of interest in new chemical-intensive products and processes; scientific testimonials by so-called “experts” (often citing studies paid for by Big Pharm interests) watered the seeds; saturation advertising by well-funded marketers nurtured interest even further; and finally, farmer testimonials about “Big Pharm” success helped seal the deal.
And, let’s be honest about the results. In one sense, oil/chemical based fertilizers and pesticides ushered in a remarkable era in food productivity during these past 150 years. The only reason why today’s 21st century planet can afford to carry close to 7 billion human inhabitants is because of the so-called “Green Revolution” in agriculture. Literally, as Dale Allen Pfeiffer states, we in the West “eat oil,” as consumers eating in the midst of the most fossil-fuel-intensive agricultural system the world has ever seen. Allen’s book makes it clear that we’ve been “eating oil” for longer than most of us realize, and that the high costs of doing so—from rampant toxin-related illnesses and death; to the chemical poisoning of our air, water, and landscapes; to the centralizing of corporate commercial political and economic power—are worth considering.
It would be a mistake to romanticize small-scale subsistence farming. Perhaps more of a mistake, however, is to ignore the history and the trade-offs of Big Pharm’s “war on bugs.” If ever there was a historical argument for cultivating thoughtful localvore living, food sovereignty, and homestead security moving into the 21st century, this book is it.