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The Beginning of The War on Bugs

The following is an excerpt from Will Allen‘s The War on Bugs.

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, nicotine, 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 that 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 swatted only 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, after a bit, the stronger dosage of DDT also 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 animal and insect 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 the early 1980s, 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, 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 salespeople, 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.

This is part 1 of 2. Check back soon for the conclusion. Also, check out ChelseaGreenTV for a presentation from Will Allen.

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