In 1962, Rachel Carson questioned the ever-rising use of synthetic (man-made) chemicals in agriculture:
Since the mid-1940’s over 200 basic chemicals have been created for use in killing insects, weeds, rodents, and other organisms described in the modern vernacular as “pests”; and they are sold under several thousand different brand names. These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes — nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the “good” and the “bad,” to still the song of the birds and the leaping of the fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in the soil — all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life?
Today, there are well over 1,000 active ingredients registered as pesticides, which yield over 20,000 pesticide products that are marketed in the United States (CDC). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1.1 billion pounds of pesticide active ingredients are used annually in the U.S. alone. Carson had already witnessed this number go from under 300 thousand pounds per year in 1947 to over 600 million pounds per year by 1960.
Elixirs of Death
Rachel Carson prophetically described how this “endless stream” of man-made chemicals sharply differed from the simpler, naturally occurring insecticides from “prewar” times — effects that today’s scientists widely confirm.
What sets the new synthetic insecticides apart is their enormous biological potency. They have immense power not merely to poison but to enter into the most vital processes of the body and change them in sinister and often deadly ways. Thus, as we shall see, they destroy the very enzymes whose function is to protect the body from harm, they block the oxidation processes from which the body receives its energy, they prevent the normal functioning of various organs, and they may initiate in certain cells the slow and irreversible change that leads to malignancy.
The implications of this insidious form of chemical warfare are staggering and not easily grasped, then and only more so now.
For the first time in history, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death. In the less than two decades of their use, the synthetic pesticides have been so thoroughly distributed throughout the animate and inanimate world that they occur virtually everywhere. They have been recovered from most of the major river systems and even from streams of groundwater flowing unseen through the earth. Residues of these chemicals linger in soil to which they may have been applied a dozen years before. They have entered and lodged in the bodies of fish, birds, reptiles, and domestic and wild animals so universally that scientists carrying on animal experiments find it almost impossible to local subjects free from such contamination. They have been found in fish in remote mountain lakes, in earthworms burrowing in soil, in the eggs of birds — and man himself… They occur in the mother’s milk, and probably in the tissues of the unborn child.
Carson’s book is famous for launching “the” environmental movement in America. Shortly after the book was published, the United States created the Environmental Protection Agency and banned DDT — the then-popular synthetic chemical she focused on in her book. Yet, if Carson were alive today, she would be horrified to learn that several hundred new synthetic agricultural poisons have been added to the list since the 1960s and that total annual usage continues to increase exponentially.
All this has been risked — for what? Future historians may well be amazed by our distorted sense of proportion. How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind? Yet this is precisely what we have done. We have done it, moreover, for reasons that collapse the moment we examine them. We are told that the enormous and expanding use of pesticides is necessary to maintain farm production. Yet is our real problem not one of overproduction? Our farms, despite measures to remove acreages from production and to pay farmers not to produce, have yielded such a staggering excess of crops that the American taxpayer in 1962 is paying out more than one billion dollars a year as the total carrying cost of the surplus-food storage program.
So if we did and do not need to use these deadly chemicals to grow our food, what the fuck is going on??
All this has come about because of the sudden rise and prodigious growth of an industry for the production of man-made or synthetic chemicals with insecticidal properties. This industry is a child of the Second World War. In the course of developing agents of chemical warfare, some of the chemicals created in the laboratory were found to be lethal to insects. The discovery did not come by chance: insects were widely used to test chemicals as agents of death for man.
The economic success and continuous succession of new synthetic chemicals has not come by chance, either. What Ms. Carson and most of us even today overlook is the powerful role that PATENTS play in this nightmare. Many assume the increased-use and rapid introduction of novel man-made chemicals is due to the creation of resistance on the part of “pests” and “weeds.” While nobody can deny survival of the fitness, we should question whether necessity is driving the proliferation of an industry that was never needed to begin with. What are “pests” and “weeds” — sometimes “pollinators” and even our “food” (honey bees; GMO corn).
Industrial Agriculture: Utility Patents Misapplied to Nature
Under federal patent laws, an inventor/company may apply for an exclusive right to make and sell any new and useful discovery, as long as it is not “physical phenomena” — which the courts have interpreted to strictly mean “not already occurring in nature.”
Patents — effectively, temporary monopolies granted by the U.S. government — explain why a single company can invest the tremendous amount of money it takes, not only to research and develop these synthetic poisons in laboratories, but also to aggressively advertise, sell, and defend them to farmers and the general public. Patent protection for any new, man-made chemical only lasts 20 years, however, at which time other manufacturers may start making and selling the same chemical. This time-limited nature of patents is what drives the same conglomerate chemical company to continuously introduce and market new synthetic poisons to farmers and gardeners. But we remember that this is all just a law, a law that we can and must change –– as scientist and seed saver based in India, Dr. Vandana Shiva, goes around the world preaching.
The Other Road: Grow Your Own, Buy Organic, Ban Ag Patents
Writing over 50 years ago, Rachel Carson explained and documented “truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects.”
We stand now where two roads diverge… The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at the end lies disaster. The other fork on the road — the one “less traveled by” — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth. The choice, after all, is ours to make.
But she failed to realize these “natural” or “biological” alternatives could not compete with man-made chemicals in our capitalist markets, simply because — as “natural phenomena” — no single company could obtain the monopolistic right from our government to profit off them. That is, there is no economic incentive to market and sell them to farmers and the public.
Carson was partially right. We have the CHOICE to switch to organically grown produce. We have the choice to meet our farmers, or better yet, to become an organic farmer!
But we all must come together to address the systemic issue, the need for federal patent reform.
Less than 30 years ago, chemical companies started genetically altering plant life in laboratories in order to gain patent protection on pesticide-resistant varieties of crops. Now, they may not only own monopolies on these new forms of life, but these frankenstein crops are designed to withstand heavy applications of their patented chemical poisons while all adjacent life forms are annihilated.
Fighting for labeling or moratoriums or restrictions on spraying are merely reactive to the problem; they simply do not address the roots of the problem. So the problem will keep growing back in the form of new dangerous chemicals or crops awaiting the EPA’s swift approval.
We must get patents out of agriculture and our food completely — not just on GMOs, but also on man-made things like:
- The synthetic chemicals they are designed to tolerate (Roundup, and now a formulation of Agent Orange, on the verge of approval by the EPA);
- The hormones given to livestock (BGH);
- The additives or artificial flavors used to process our foods (MSG).
Agriculture and our food system has and always will be an ecological activity — where the balance of nature, not the rule of industry, reins supreme whether we like it or not.