Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#434 - The Pesticide Opportunity, 22-Mar-1995

Worldwide, food production has gone through three stages, and last year
it entered a fourth. Since the emergence of our species, HOMO SAPIENS,
roughly 100,000 years ago,[1] humans have hunted and gathered what
nature produced. A handful of human communities still live this way
today. About 10,000 years ago, people began to plant seeds and
cultivate crops on a local scale. Most of the world is still at this
stage. (Throughout the world, there are 3.1 billion people, out of 5.4
billion, or 57%, still living in the countryside.[2]) About 150 years
ago, in some parts of the world, farmers began to use large machines
(for example, the McCormick reaper, invented in 1831). During the past
50 years the industrial trend accelerated with the introduction of
chemical technology (fertilizers, pesticides, and growth regulators).

A key idea underlying all industrial agriculture is the mind-set that
says, "The best measure of success in farming is crop-yield per
agricultural worker."[3] By this narrow measure, industrial agriculture
has been a success.

During the past 40 years, industrial/chemical agriculture has become
known as the Green Revolution; industrial corporations and government
agencies (e.g., the World Bank) have made major efforts to promote the
Green Revolution world-wide. Despite such efforts, the Green Revolution
has met with only limited success (discussed below). Nevertheless,
chemical corporations are now trying to move the world into a fourth
stage of agriculture, which maintains the industrial mind-set as it
adds yet-another major technology: genetic engineering.

The introduction of rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) into the
American milk supply last year (see REHW #381-#384) was the chemical
industry's opening shot in a campaign to shift the world's farmers to
genetic engineering. Some major corporations, such as Monsanto of St.
Louis, have committed their entire future to convincing farmers to
adopt genetic engineering. It was Monsanto who introduced the synthetic
hormone rBGH into our milk last year and who is now promoting
genetically-engineered crops that are resistant to chemical herbicides.
The theory is that these genetically-engineered crops will be able to
survive heavy application of herbicides aimed at killing non-crop
species (weeds). Monsanto hopes to sell to farmers, worldwide, both the
genetically-engineered crop strains AND the herbicides, in hopes that
farmers will grow dependent upon such technologies and upon the
corporations that sell them.

However, even as industrial corporations tinker with the genetic
structure of crops and animals, there are countercurrents developing.
During the past 15 years, people have begun to ask whether humanity
took a wrong turn when we applied the industrial mind-set to
agriculture. For example, Indian physicist Vandana Shiva says, "For
more than 40 centuries Third World peasants, often predominantly women,
have innovated in agriculture. Crops have crossed continents, crop
varieties have been improved, patterns of rotational and mixed cropping
have been evolved to match the needs of the crop community and the
ecosystem. These decentred [decentralized] innovations have been
lasting and sustainable. They stayed because they struck an ecological
balance. Peasants as experts, as plant breeders, as soil scientists, as
water managers, have kept the world fed all these centuries." Dr. Shiva
goes on, "The worldwide destruction of the feminine knowledge of
agriculture, evolved over four to five thousand years, by a handful of
white male scientists in less than two decades has not merely violated
women as experts; since their expertise in agriculture has been related
to modelling agriculture on nature's methods of renewability, its
destruction has gone hand in hand with the ecological destruction of
nature's processes and the economic destruction of the poorer people in
rural areas."[4]

A different, though related, criticism of the Green Revolution comes
from Rutgers University biology professor David Ehrenfeld: "The
chemicals that are an inseparable part of the system are highly toxic
to farmers and their environments. It erodes and wastes the soil even
as it poisons it. It depletes scarce water resources. It allows, even
promotes, the extinction of countless precious varieties of crops, the
irreplaceable genetic heritage of millennia of farming. And all these
consequences, acting together, have destroyed farm culture and farm
communities and have forced millions of knowledgeable farmers to
abandon farming and leave their land, in the rich and poor nations

This last idea may be the most fundamental criticism of industrial
agriculture: that it destroys the fabric of both rural AND urban

In his eye-opening book, THE TRAP (a runaway best-seller in France and
England, but so far largely ignored in the U.S.), Sir James Goldsmith,
a member of the European Parliament, writes,

"When people leave the land, they gravitate to the cities in search of
work. But throughout the world there are not enough urban jobs and the
infrastructure --such as lodgings, schools, hospitals, etc. --is
already insufficient. The result is increased unemployment, with the
attendant costs of welfare, as well as a need for substantial
expenditure on infrastructure. These are the indirect costs of
intensive [industrial] agriculture and they must be taken into account.

"There is also a deeper price.... loss of rural employment and
migration from the countryside to the cities causes a fundamental and
irreversible shift. It has contributed throughout the world to the
destabilization of rural society and to the growth of vast urban
concentrations. In the urban slums congregate uprooted individuals
whose families have been splintered, whose cultural traditions have
been extinguished and who have been reduced to dependence on welfare
from the state. They form an alienated underclass. From the first world
to the third, these huge shantytowns have become tragic, moribund
intumescences. The cost of such social breakdown can never be measured.
The damage is too fundamental. Throughout the world social breakdown in
the mega-cities threatens the existence of free societies."[6]

Think of the U.S., where the House of Representatives recently voted to
weaken Fourth Amendment guarantees against illegal search-and-seizure;
and voted to curb prisoners' ancient right of HABEAS CORPUS; and voted
to spend another $10.5 billion building new penitentiaries[7] at a time
when the U.S. already has more than one million of its citizens
incarcerated;[8] and voted to spend yet another $10.5 billion in "block
grants" that local authorities can use as they see fit to "fight
crime." Even as the Congress is restricting liberty and spending vast
sums to "fight crime" no one believes that even these extreme measures
will do much good: the "crime problem" is expected to worsen steadily
because industrial farming has destroyed communities and families, the
mainstays of civilized life.

But, you ask, didn't "the market" drive the family farmer out of
business because of "economies of scale" enjoyed by industrial
agriculture? No. As World Bank economist Herman Daly has shown, "...on
closer examination, it turns out that it is government policy that has
given the advantage to the larger farmers. Study after study has shown
that small family operations are in fact more productive per acre.
Though cash income may be small, they can support a family. It is when
they are drawn into increasing their size or into excessive borrowing
for 'modernization' that they are sucked into the downward currents
that lead to bankruptcy."

Daly continues: "The only measure by which the large farms are better
is that of productivity of labor... if productivity is measured in
other ways, such as production per acre or per unit of energy or amount
of capital input, it is the small farm that always excels. It is
federal policy that has destroyed family farms in so much of the
country, not any inherent weakness in the family farm system. The
cessation of federal interference is the first requirement for the
recovery of healthy rural life."[9]

In the U.S., the public is not well-informed about government programs
that have destroyed rural communities and farm families. But there is
one aspect of industrial agriculture that the public "gets." The public
is deeply disturbed about industrial poisons in the food supply, namely
pesticides. According to a survey conducted by the federal Food and
Drug Administration (FDA) in 1989, fully 97% of the public is genuinely
concerned about pesticides contaminating their food. At the same time,
the public is losing faith in the ability of government to regulate
pesticides safely. Thirty years ago, in 1965, 98% of Americans
expressed confidence that government could regulate pesticides safely;
in 1987, the number expressing such confidence had dropped to 46%.[10]
A majority of Americans no longer believe that the government can
protect our food supply from the whims of the industrial corporations
that now dominate farming. But, in a sense, this is GOOD news.

A concerned public is an essential part of any reform effort, and often
the hardest part to develop. The pesticide issue ALREADY HAS THE
PUBLIC'S ATTENTION. The scene is set for organized citizens to develop
the case for major reform of federal farm policies, for curbing the
appetites of the agrichemical corporations, to revitalize rural life
and culture, to offer people a way out of the prison that urban life
has become for so many. Of course, neither the present Republican
Congress nor the Democratic Congresses before it, would consider such
people-oriented, common-sense solutions. As always, our first step must
be to get private money out of our elections, so more serious,
thoughtful people can afford to run for Congress. Nevertheless, the
ground is fertile now, and it is a good time for us all to be sowing
the seeds of change.

--Peter Montague


[1] Human physical and cultural history is described authoritatively in
Bernard G. Campbell, HUMANKIND EMERGING 6th edition (New York:
HarperCollins, 1992).

[2] The 3.1 billion figure from: Sir James Goldsmith, THE TRAP (New
York: Carroll & Graf, 1994), pg. 106. The 5.4 billion figure from: "94
Almanac" in "Microsoft Bookshelf '94" CD-ROM (Bellevue, Wash.:
Microsoft, 1994).

[3] The attitudes that underpin industrial agriculture have been
described well in Kenneth A. Dahlberg, "Government Policies That
Encourage Pesticide Use in the United States," in David Pimentel and
AND ETHICS (New York: Chapman and Hall, 1993), pgs. 281-306. See also
the books by Shiva and Ehrenfeld, cited below, and Goldsmith, cited

(London: Zed Books, 1989), pgs. 98, 105.

MILLENNIUM (NY: Oxford University Press, 1993), pgs. 164-165.

[6] Sir James Goldsmith, cited above, pgs. 103-104.

[7] FACTS ON FILE Vol. 55, No. 2831 (March 2, 1995), pgs. 148-149.

[8] Paul J. McNulty, "Rule of Law: Who's in Jail, and Why They Belong
There," WALL STREET JOURNAL Nov. 9, 1994, pg. A23.

[9] Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr., FOR THE COMMON GOOD. Second
edition. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), pgs. 271-272.

[10] Both opinion surveys (FDA and trust-in-government) are cited in
David Pimentel and others, "Assessment of Environmental and Economic
Impacts of Pesticide Use," in David Pimentel and Hugh Lehman, editors,
Chapman and Hall, 1993), pg. 71.

Descriptor terms: agriculture; farming; food; human history; industrial
agriculture; fertilizer; pesticides; growth regulators; chemical
industry; bgh; monsanto; milk; hormones; vandana shiva; david
ehrenfeld; rural life; urbanization; pesticides; farm subsidies; price
support programs; herman daly; james goldsmith;