The History of Big Chemical’s War on Food, 1865—2007

chemical plant

In the timeline below of the chemical industry’s march into our food supply, Will Allen, author of The War on Bugs, answers the question, “How did we get here?” As Allen points out in the introduction to The War on Bugs, our food supply suffers from a toxic overdose of chemicals. As a result, our health, growth, and longevity are disasterously affected.

Why would we ever think it a good idea to spray our food with poisons? Why is it such common practice now? Why is it that we have such a relaxed attitude toward chemical farming, and some of us get agitated at the idea of organic farming?

Will Allen presents this timeline to help us discern the answer of how it happened.

From The War on Bugs:


  • The Colorado potato beetle, transported east by the transcontinental railway system, destroys much of the eastern US potato crop.


  • Paris green, a common arsenic paint pigment, is first used successfully by Brian Markham on the Colorado potato beetle. There are no regulations on its use at this time, and food often carries high arsenic residues.
  • South Carolina phosphate deposits are first mined.
  • United States buys Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million, or 2 cents an acre.
  • First use of the worldwide search for beneficial controls by the US Bureau of Agriculture.


  • Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.


  • This was a farm populist decade. The Grange movement in the West and Northeast was followed by the populist movement, stretching from Texas, through the South and up to New York and the Midwest. Both movements were anti-monopolist and pro-labor.


  • Paris Commune rises and is suppressed.
  • The rural journal Country Gentleman promotes the arsenic pesticide known as Paris green.


  • DDT is first synthesized by a German scientist. No commercial value is immediately recognized. The Panic (economic depression) of 1873 causes widespread farm bankruptcies.


  • Connecticut establishes the first state-supported agricultural experiment station in the United States. By this time there are more than a hundred such stations in Germany (74), Austria, and Italy.


  • Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone.
  • Custer is killed at the Battle of Little Big Horn.


  • Swan invents the light bulb.


  • First electric train is launched in Berlin, Germany.


  • This too was a farm populist decade. The Texas National Alliance movement grows into the populist movement and the People’s Party and begins to elect candidates.


  • The National Fertilizer Association is formed by a conglomeration of dominant fertilizer corporations, in part to fund research at land-grant colleges and promote the use of agricultural chemicals. It later becomes the Fertilizer Institute.


  • Steam turbine is developed by Charles Parsons.


  • Karl Benz makes the first practical petrol-burning car. Gottlieb Daimler produces the first motorcycle.


  • The Hatch Act is passed, providing money for entomological work at land-grant colleges. The act is also the basis for the establishment of at least one agricultural experiment station in each state.


  • Cottony cushion scale on California citrus comes under control after worldwide search for and use of a predator, the vedalia beetle. This is a major success against a destructive pest.


  • This decade sees the culmination of the rural populist movement. Four previous economic depressions and a civil war in this century had accelerated the concentration of land into fewer hands.


  • Ellis Island immigration processing center opens.
  • Lead arsenate is introduced as a pesticide to control the gypsy moth. It becomes the most popular pesticide in the United States until the early 1950s.


  • Sales of South Carolina phosphate exceed 600,000 tons. Fertilizer ad campaigns are finally proven effective.


  • The Panic (economic depression) of 1894 causes additional farm losses.
  • 900,000 tons of sodium nitrate are used in Europe alone.
  • More than 165,000 copies of the US Bureau of Agriculture Farmer’s Bulletin 127, Important Insecticides: Directions for Their Preparation and Use, are distributed by 1900. An important recommended poison is arsenic. Arsenic poisoning of apples is reported in the Boston Globe.


  • Standard Oil discovers a process for mining sulfur deposits in Louisiana.
  • Scientific American helps sell farmers on the importance of using sulfur.


  • Fertilizers is published by E. B. Voorhees. The book sells for one dollar. Fertilizer merchants buy and distribute thousands of copies to their customers.


  • There are 6,400,000 farms in the United States. These farms occupy about 400,000,000 acres.
  • Labour Party founded in Britain.


  • Wright Brothers make the first controlled powered flight in Kitty Hawk, NC.
  • World standard for arsenic and lead residues is set by the Royal Society of London and agreed to by France at 0.01 grains of arsenic and 0.02 grains of lead per pound or gallon of product. Big US agriculture will fight these tolerances for the next fifty years.


  • First German chemical cartel is formed — often referred to as Baby Farben.


  • National concern over food adulteration results in the watered-down Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle (a description of the filthy meatpacking industry) and pesticide poisonings prompt much of the public outcry. Administration of the 1906 act resides within the Department of Agriculture, so unfortunately public and environmental safety issues become secondary to big agriculture’s demands.


  • American Cyanamid synthesizes ammonium cyanide in Niagara Falls, Canada.


  • First reported pest resistance to lead arsenate, sixteen years after its first use.
  • Model T car is produced by Henry Ford.


  • American Cyanamid begins selling cyanide gas and ammonium cyanide products.
  • German chemist Fritz Haber perfects a process for extracting nitrogen from the atmosphere and synthesizing ammonia.


  • First National Pesticide Act. The law regulates the composition of arsenic and other pesticides, not their safety. It is only a truth-inadvertising law.
  • Mexican Revolution (1910—1911).
  • The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) begins organizing farmworkers.


  • F. H. King publishes Farmers of Forty Centuries. This book describes organic farming practices in Asia. Officially, the book is ignored by US agricultural institutions, though many US farmers own it and use many of the practices it describes.


  • Federal Trade Commission is established; pesticides and fertilizers are supposed to be regulated in the marketplace for the first time.


  • First World War begins in Europe.


  • Easter Rising in Dublin.
  • The BASF scientist Fritz Haber, working with Robert Bosch, further develops his process for extracting nitrogen by using large feedstocks of natural gas, a cheap by-product of petroleum and coal/coke. Haber and Bosch win the Nobel Prize for the discovery.
  • First birth control clinic is established in Brooklyn.


  • Bolsheviks storm the Winter Palace.
  • United States declares war on Germany.


  • First World War ends.
  • I. G. Farben, the German chemical cartel, forms and includes Bayer, BASF, and Hoechst. I. G. Farben will build chemical plants next to concentration camps during WWII, in support of the Third Reich.
  • Basle A. G., the Swiss chemical cartel, forms to counter I. G. Farben. It includes Ciba, Geigy, and Sandoz. They will dissolve the cartel after World War II but later merge to create Novartus.
  • William A. Albrecht scientifically demonstrates the validity of soil inoculants. Albrecht’s findings greatly increase farmers’ knowledge of organic soil management and the value of legume fertilizer crops.


  • Alcock and Brown cross the Atlantic by air, only sixteen years after the Wright brothers’ flight.
  • Boston Health Department destroys arsenic-contaminated apples. Though a few articles appear in the newspapers, the poisonings are mostly hidden from the general public.


  • Prohibition begins.
  • Boston Health Department destroys more arsenic-contaminated apples.
  • Ghandi’s resistance begins in India.


  • First use of an airplane as a crop duster.
  • Boston Health Department destroys arsenic-contaminated apples for the third year in a row. Little news of this is leaked to the public.
  • Communist Party organizes in China.


  • Mussolini forms Fascist government in Italy.
  • USSR is established.
  • Irish free state is established.


  • Unsuccessful Nazi uprising in Germany.
  • Rudolph Steiner (founder of the Waldorf schools) gives his first lecture on agriculture.


  • Rudolph Steiner publishes Agriculture, which describes the basics of biodynamic agriculture.


  • Vietnamese Nationalist Party is founded; Ho Chi Minh is the spiritual and political leader.
  • Adolph Hitler publishes Mein Kampf.


  • Standard Oil signs a twenty five-year working agreement with I. G. Farben, the German chemical cartel that includes BASF, Bayer, and Hoechst.


  • The US Food and Drug Administration is established. The USDA is the administrator of the FDA.


  • Standard Oil hires Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka, “Dr. Seuss”) to sell the insecticide Flit. This move proves to be a stroke of marketing genius, leading to the most successful advertising campaign up to that time.

(Click for larger image.)


  • Twenty-nine million pounds of lead arsenate and twenty-nine million pounds of calcium arsenate are applied on food and cotton. The American Journal of Health suggests arsenic spraying should be reduced.


  • Panic of 1929. The Great Depression begins.


  • Strong winds begin the “Dust Bowl” process of soil erosion in the western Great Plains of the United States.
  • DuPont scientist discovers the pesticidal properties of carbamates.


  • First use of an organophosphate as a pesticide.


  • President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduces the New Deal.
  • Hitler is elected German chancellor.
  • Falange, the Spanish fascist party, is created.
  • Arthur Kallett and F.J. Schlink publish their book 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs. The chapter “A Steady Diet of Arsenic and Lead” chronicles the hazards of spray residues. The book becomes a best seller.
  • A fifteen-year-old Montana girl dies from poisoning by fruit sprayed with arsenic.


  • The Long March by the Communist Chinese begins.
  • Hitler is declared German Fuhrer; he exercises dictatorial control until 1945.


  • Land redistribution in Mexico.


  • Dust Bowl ends.
  • Methyl bromide is introduced to the United States by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.


  • The USDA Yearbook of Agriculture, titled Soils and Men, provides an excellent account of organic farming.
  • Passage of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act which frees the FDA from the USDA’s direct control by 1940.


  • Germany invades Poland; World War II begins.
  • Swiss entomologist Paul Muller, working for Geigy Chemicals, discovers DDT’s insecticidal properties. For this discovery he wins the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1948.


  • Sir Albert Howard’s book, An Agricultural Testament, is published. It describes many of the principles of organic agriculture. He should have won a Nobel Prize.
  • The FDA finally moves out from under the supervision of the Department of Agriculture; it is now placed in the Federal Services Administration.


  • United States enters World War II against Germany and Japan.
  • The Nutrition Foundation is formed by food and chemical companies to fund research into nutrition.
  • Agriculture in the United States becomes even more industrialized, using chemicals, mechanization, and monoculture to increase production and feed war-torn Europe (1941—50).


  • J. I. Rodale launches the magazine Organic Farming and Gardening.


  • Germany surrenders.
  • United States drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • First use of DDT and Telone (DD or 666) on American farms.


  • First electronic computer built by US researchers.
  • First cases of DDT resistance in European houseflies.


  • The Federal Fungicide, Insecticide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) replaces the 1910 Pesticide Act. The law, like its predecessor, regulates the synthetic organic pesticides and does not specifically address environmental or public health. The Agriculture Department (USDA) administers the law but does not set up a procedure for recall of products until 1969. The USDA filed criminal proceedings only once from 1947—69, although by 1969 documented pesticide accidents had risen to 50,000 per year. The USDA investigated only 60 accidents to people and 120 to animals in 1969.
  • The growth hormone DES is approved for use in cattle by the USDA and FDA, although animal tests since 1938 had shown it to be carcinogenic.


  • First reports of DDT resistance in US houseflies.
  • Gandhi is assassinated in India.
  • Transistor is invented in the United States.


  • Houseflies show almost 100 percent resistance to DDT on US dairies.
  • Korean War begins.
  • Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti- Communist witch hunt begins.


  • Readers Digest publishes an article titled “Organic Agriculture—Bunk.”


  • Structure of DNA is discovered.
  • TV becomes a popular form of entertainment.
  • Korean War ends.


  • French lose to the forces of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. The United States immediately continues the fight in Vietnam, contending that it is a civil war.
  • Segregation in US schools is declared unconstitutional.
  • Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz claims agriculture “is now a big business” and farmers must “adapt or die.”


  • One hundred fatal cases of parathion poisoning are reported in India and sixty-seven in Syria.
  • The Delaney clause becomes law. It disallows carcinogenic additives in processed food.


  • Four University of California scientists advise farmers to use farming practices later known as integrated pest management (IPM), which is a major pest-control tool for modern organic farmers.
  • Antarctic Treaty is signed.
  • Cuban Revolution. Rebel forces under Fidel Castro are victorious over the government of Fulgencio Batista.


  • Rachel Carson publishes Silent Spring. It is an immediate best seller. Carson warns that excessive use of chemical pesticides is killing wildlife and damaging human health. Chemical corporations, the American Medical Association, and large-scale farmers begin an immediate and aggressive counterattack to Carson’s views.
  • The Committee for Economic Development publishes An Adaptive Program for Agriculture, which promotes huge corporate farms at the expense of family farms. This report guides government policy for more than a decade.


  • The President’s Science Advisory Committee publishes a report vindicating Rachel Carson’s research and assertions.
  • The National Agricultural Chemicals Association doubles its public relations budget.


  • The President’s Science Advisory Committee decries the excessive use of agricultural chemicals and states: “The corporation’s convenience has been allowed to rule national policy.”
  • Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta organize the United Farmworkers Union in Delano, California. Pesticide abuses are a major focus of their organizing work.


  • Science magazine publishes an article linking bird population declines with reproductive failure caused by pesticide accumulations in their tissues.


  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is created. Pesticide registration is moved from the USDA to the EPA.
  • Campbell Soup Co. finds dangerously high levels of PCBs in chicken. Approximately 146,000 New York chickens are destroyed.


  • The registration for DDT is suspended in the United States. It continues to be sold in many foreign markets, however, that export food to the United States. More than 250 pests worldwide are resistant to DDT.
  • Jim Hightower publishes Hard Times, Hard Tomatoes, detailing the agribusiness bias of the landgrant college system.
  • A nongovernmental organization (NGO), the International Federation of Agricultural Movements (IFOAM), publishes the first standards for organic agriculture.
  • The US EPA assumes principal authority over pesticides.


  • The first organic certification organizations are formed in the United States: California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and Oregon Tilth. Both are NGOs.
  • First genetic engineering research is proposed.


  • The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) reauthorized.
  • Economic risk assessment is imposed on the EPA, reviewed by the Secretary of Agriculture and both House and Senate agriculture committees.


  • First state organic law passed, in California.
  • The registration for the growth hormone DES, used on US cattle, is suspended because of evidence that it is carcinogenic.
  • Antibiotic- and hormone-treated meat from the United States is banned in Europe.


  • Washington State implements the first state-run organic certification program.
  • First Common Ground Conference is held in Maine by the Maine Organic Farming and Gardening Association (MOFGA), an NGO.


  • First Ecological Farming Conference is held in Winters, California, by the Steering Committee for Sustainable Agriculture, an NGO.


  • Chemical manufacturers push for support of genetic engineering to make crops resistant to herbicides. “If they wanted to reduce chemical use they would have pushed for allelopathic [weed-suppressant] characteristics,” said Chilean-born University of California Professor Miguel Altieri in 1997.


  • Executives of the largest foodtesting lab in the country are found guilty of falsifying tests determining food safety. Some 80 percent of the testing is found to be phony. This lab worked on contract for the chemical corporations. The poisons tested remain on the market.


  • By this date 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.
  • Michigan State University becomes the first land-grant college to sponsor a major conference on sustainable agriculture.
  • Milk containing dangerously high levels of chlordane/heptachlor (an organochlorine and relative of DDT) is recalled in Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Chlordane/heptachlor had been suspended in

1975 with a drop-dead date of December 31, 1980, except for subsurface treatment of termites.


  • 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.
  • The first national guidelines for organic production are published by the Organic Foods Production Association of North America (now called the Organic Trade Association).


  • The US EPA finds seventy-four different pesticides in the groundwater of thirty-eight agricultural states.


  • The conservative World Health Organization estimates that there are 1,000,000 pesticide poisonings in the world each year, resulting in 20,000 deaths.
  • Two environmental groups, Natural Resources Defense Council and Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet, release a study implicating the apple growth regulator Alar as a cause of cancer. Alar is banned, and the furor over its widespread use helps stimulate a public demand for organic food. Apple growers suffer significant losses as the market for apples evaporates for several months.
  • The European Union (EU) bans the importation of US meat treated with any growth hormone.


  • There are 2,140,000 farms in the United States on about 1.1 billion acres. More than 40 percent of the land is rented. Some 600,000,000 acres is cropland.
  • Farmers spray more than 800,000,000 pounds of pesticides on US crops.
  • Two out of five people are expected to get cancer in their lifetime.
  • The Organic Foods Production Act passes the U.S. Congress, establishing a framework for creating standards for certifying organic food and fiber products.


  • Tissue analysis demonstrates a substantial link between pesticides and breast cancer. The European Union approves the first government-enforced standards for organic production.


  • The National Research Council warns that children are at particular risk from pesticide residues because standards were created to measure the effect of pesticides on adult males, ignoring children’s lower body weight.
  • The National Academy of Sciences calls for greater regulation of pesticides and stricter tolerance standards.


  • The FDA approves genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST) after a long activist fight. The hormone was developed to increase milk production. The United States already has an enormous surplus of milk.
  • The genetically engineered Flavr-Savr tomato is approved for sale. It tastes terrible and no one buys it.
  • Studies link organochlorine chemicals with male reproductive problems and breast cancer. Problems include a 50 percent drop in male sperm count in forty years.
  • Sales of organic food top two billion dollars. Average sales increases have exceeded 20 percent per year since 1991.
  • Monsanto and Delta and Pine Land get federal permission to grow genetically modified Roundup Ready cotton.


  • More than 100 square miles of the Antarctic ice shelf drop into the ocean due to the warming of the seas. The resultant sea-level rises are already becoming catastrophic for island nations.


  • Congress unanimously passes the Food Quality Protection Act. It repeals the Delaney Clause in exchange for a provision forcing the EPA to evaluate the combined toxic effects of all pesticide exposures, including those from water and food. This evaluation must use body weight and possible impacts on children as a baseline.


  • The FDA approves food irradiation as a way of killing bacteria such as E. coli in beef. E. coli results from the same dirty slaughterhouse conditions that Upton Sinclair exposed in The Jungle at the beginning of the twentieth century. Activists claim the process destroys nutrients and creates chemicals that may be mutagenic and carcinogenic. A CBS News poll says 77 percent of Americans oppose irradiation.
  • More then 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.
  • 4 million acres of genetically engineered cotton, soybeans, and corn are grown in the United States.


  • The USDA finally proposes federal organic standards. These proposed standards include irradiation, genetic engineering, sludge as fertilizer, sodium chlorate as a defoliant, and allowing 20 percent of the animal diet to be not organic. The public responds with a deluge of more than 280,000 complaints.
  • The organic food and fiber market continues to grow more than 20 percent per year.


  • In the United States, 45 percent of the cotton acreage, 45 percent of the corn acreage, and 57 percent of the soybean acreage is planted with genetically modified seed.


  • The Human Genome Project finds that humans possess about 25,000 or 30,000 genes, not 140,000 as previously thought. This finding completely refutes the one gene—one protein theory advocated by DNA pioneers Watson and Crick and used by GMO corporations and US government regulators.
  • The USDA finally adopts national organic standards without including the use of sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering as approved organic practices because of the outcry from 280,000 concerned voters.


  • Eighty-four percent of US canola acreage is planted with GMO seed.
  • Five major weeds develop resistance to Roundup herbicide. Arsenic, paraquat, and 2, 4-D are recommended to control resistant weeds.


  • Seventy-six percent of cotton, 45 percent of corn, and 85 percent of soybean acreage in the United States is planted with genetically modified crops. Many farmers have few options for obtaining other seed, since Monsanto and the other corporate conglomerates refuse to provide anything but genetically manipulated seed.


  • More than 9,000 farmers are accused by Monsanto of violating its patent rules. Most settle out of court. More than 190 farmers and businesses end up in court.


  • Brazil wins its WTO suit against US cotton for excess taxpayer subsidies.
  • REACH is passed by the European Union. Evaluation of EU chemicals begins.
  • Carbofuran becomes the only pesticide to lose its registration under FQPA.


  • Staphylococcus infections resistant to several antibiotics surface in various regions of the United States.
  • The US House of Representatives sends a new Farm Bill to the Senate. The bill contains similar subsidy payments to those of the 2002 Farm Bill, in direct violation of the WTO’s ruling on cotton.
  • Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drain most of the funding from farm programs like conservation security, equipment, sustainable practices, and water quality.
  • Twelve weeds develop resistance to Roundup.
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