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The Beginning of The War on Bugs, part 2

The following is an excerpt from Will Allen‘s The War on Bugs. This is part 2 of this series. Part 1 is here.

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. [Available in the book.]

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 birthdefect- and cancer-causing chemicals. My organicfarming 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 about 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 registration terminations. Many of them argued, “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 as or similar to chemicals that Saddam Hussein used on the Kurds in Iraq or that
Osama bin Laden threatened us with from Afghanistan, that we had used in the war in Vietnam, and 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 growing consumer 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—not just to rats, but to people as well.

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 U.S. 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. My friends and I 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, University of Vermont, 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 had 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 concenrated their search for the beginnings of chemical farming on the period after the 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.

I dug further into the magazines and several books, including those mentioned above, and 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 the 1800s, 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 their 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, 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. By that point, the concerns of the reader had become 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 nineteenthcentury 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 I present in this book is concentrated on farming, but there are occasional glimpses of similar advertising campaigns, including those conducted on military customers, urban landscapers, homeowners, and national and state governments. 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 oftenoverlooked 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.

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