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Book Review: The War on Bugs by Will Allen

by: Jill Richardson

Sat Jan 30, 2010 at 12:36:39 PM PST


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I just finished reading The War on Bugs by Will Allen (not the Will Allen of Growing Power - a different Will Allen) and I can't recommend it highly enough! This was a book that Allen was uniquely qualified to write. He grew up on a farm, and then went into the Marines where he was an atomic, biological, and chemical warfare paramedic. Following his years in the Marines, he went to college and - as part of his education - did research in the tropical forests of Peru, living among forest farmers. He says, "The ability of these [Peruvian] farmers to produce surpluses without chemicals in an environment ravaged by pests started me thinking that maybe the miracle chemicals that the sales men pushed were not so necessary after all." After college, Allen went back to farming. Upon taking a pesticide and fertilizer applicator's course at a local college, he found out that the chemicals commonly sprayed on farms were "modified versions of the nerve poisons and antipersonnel weapons that I learned about when studying chemical warfare in the Marine Corps."

So - with his firsthand observations of food grown without chemicals and his knowledge of the toxicity of common farm chemicals - Allen went to work finding out where our dependence and trust of pesticides came from in the first place. His findings actually surprised me. I knew part of the picture, which I wrote about in my own book. I don't think my book was inaccurate, but Allen fills in a lot of details and really makes it clear what happened and how.

More below.

Jill Richardson :: Book Review: The War on Bugs by Will Allen
So where did the trust and reliance on farm chemicals come from? Advertising in farm journals. Going back before the days of the internet, radio, or TV, farm journals were popular. At first, in the early 1800's, farm journals promoted ecological methods of farming and they did not contain much in the way of ads. Over the course of the 1800's, the journals gradually began increasing their use of advertising. And, of course, much of what they advertised were the latest and greatest farm chemicals. The ads they accepted influenced the content of the journals, as they did not want to write anything that upset their advertisers. In essence, these farm journals became essentially produced for the purpose of making money from advertisers and promoting those advertisers products. Thus, methods of farming that required no outside inputs were not of value as they could not be advertised by a for-profit corporation.

Farmers are not a homogeneous group, and from the start, some were more accepting of chemicals than others. But on the whole, at first, farmers were not terribly interested in buying things to replace processes and products that they could obtain for free. Then came Peruvian guano.

In 1804, Alexander von Humboldt found that Peruvians traditionally used well-composted bird poop from nearby islands. He brought some of this back to Europe and proposed that Europeans could make money by mining and selling it. Which they did, beginning in the 1820s. The important thing to note about the guano is that it actually worked quite well as fertilizer. With farmers still skeptical about buying farm inputs to replace previously free inputs like manure, this was key. It gave advertisers a foot in the door to establish credibility among farmers.

Peruvian guano was in fact so successful that it was gone within a few decades. Often advertisers would claim a product was Peruvian guano when in fact it was a diluted mixture that might have contained no guano at all.

Another turning point in chemical agriculture came in the 1830's with the work of German industrial chemist Justus von Liebig. We have Liebig to thank for the idea that only N, P, and K matter in our soil (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium). He specifically dismissed the idea that organic matter was an important component in soil. Liebig didn't care much for the experience or expertise of actual farmers - he thought that work in the laboratory was much more valuable. Farmers at the time thought that he was doing "book farming" (as opposed to real farming) and they did not adopt his ideas. However, he had students who came back to respected American universities, carrying his ideas with them. This illustrates the beginning of a rift between those who favor organic farming and the government, major universities, and farm journals, who were much more accepting of Liebig and his ideas about scientific farming. The late 1800's saw a populist movement among farmers that included a rejection of toxic chemicals and synthetic fertilizers. The turning point came in 1894 when an economic crisis hit.

After Peruvian guano ran out, a number of industrial wastes were peddled as new fertilizers. Corporations kept looking for a new mixture of minerals that would equal or beat the fertility of Peruvian guano. Allen says, "No mined or synthetic fertilizers could replace the rich materials produced in the natural Peruvian laboratory of composted seabird deposits or composted manures from the farmer's livestock." The use of industrial waste as fertilizer continues today, by the way.

From here the story goes to Colorado, where the Colorado potato beetle was causing trouble - and moving east and north along new canals and railroads. In 1867, someone discovered that an arsenic concoction called Paris green worked on the bugs. Allen says:

Some of the arsenic used for colored paints came from the waste products of mining and manufacturing. If the early industrial firms could not find a market for their waste material, they usually dumped it in creeks, rivers, lakes, and oceans or created mountainous piles of toxic waste on land. Ultimately, after decades of abuse, many towns, states, and nations regulated the dumping of toxic wastes and forced corporations to dispose of their waste legally. When that happened, the corporations were forced to find acceptable dump sites or a market willing to buy their waste. - p. 75

The garment industry had previously tossed waste dyes into the ocean. Now they sold Paris green and another dye, London purple, to farmers. London purple became popular in the 1890's, but fell out of favor within a decade because it often killed the crops as well as the pests.

A new pesticide, lead arsenic, came about when the gypsy moth infested and defoliated much of New England in the late 1800's. Paris green and London purple didn't work... but lead arsenic did.

Many farmers, as stated before, still opposed using chemicals. Some of the farm journals even held out against them. But during these decades, the chemical corporations continued to look for new, improved pesticides and fertilizers (like Paris green or sodium nitrate) and their experts claimed that farmers could get higher yields by using arsenic. The public - including farmers - was afraid of polluting their soil, knowing full well how toxic arsenic really was.

The best advertisement for arsenic was the fact that it really worked. It killed everything - including many farmers' children. For advertisers, arsenic brought them to a breakthrough, where they "realized that they had to trivialize arsenic's public health and environmental damage."

Allen says:

Instead of discussing real concerns about health and safety and the poisoning of farm kids, the chemical companies ignored those issues and focused their propaganda and advertisements on the toxic potency and consistency of their products. They developed a strategy that highlighted successful farmers who had won county and state fair prizes for perfect fruits, vegetables, grain, cotton, or tobacco by spraying arsenic on them.

They began portraying arsenic and the other farm poisons as tools or weapons in the farmer's war to survive. The chemical companies and the advertisers successfully magnified farmers' fear of pests and dramatized the problems in such a manner that the farmers felt forced by bankers and the fear of crop loss into using this terrible poison on their farms and families. - p. 82-3

All of that is still true today. Arsenicals continued as the pesticides du jour until a) very real health problems (including deaths) showed up among the American public and b) alternative pesticides became available.

This is a theme as Allen goes through the history of the two World Wars and the chemicals that came out of them - particularly out of World War II. Chemical companies will defend and defend a pesticide until proof of its danger is overwhelming AND bugs begin to show resistance to it, decreasing their sales AND they have a new pesticide to sell to replace it.

World War I is remarkable as a turning point in advertising. This is true as a whole, and not just about pesticides. We had a rather conservationist culture, and advertisers wished to turn us into consumers. Which they successfully did. World War II is remarkable for a few reasons. DDT became a war hero, of course, and the U.S. dramatically built up its capacity to produce nitrogen for bombs... and then gave all of the taxpayer built plants away to chemical corporations. So nitrogen for bombs became fertilizer, DDT was the pesticide du jour, and excess planes became crop dusters. This was the turning point when U.S. agriculture became chemically dependent. Allen cites that in the late 1930's, only 3.5% of U.S farm acreage was fertilized with synthetic nitrogen. By the late 1950's, that number was up to HALF. By the 1990's, it was over 90%.

Also important to note about World War II era chemicals is that the pests develop resistance to them in a matter of years. Chemical companies and advertisers relied on farmers to know very little about the world outside of their local area, so that they wouldn't find out that a new pesticide had already failed elsewhere before they even bought it. In fact, there were reports of DDT resistance among pests before U.S. civilians used even a drop of it.

Surprisingly, the person who single-handedly "helped" the American people get comfortable with putting toxic chemicals on our food was Dr. Seuss. Standard Oil employed him to advertise their pesticide, Flit, and he drew clever and funny cartoons, similar to those in his children's books. Just as he is popular with children the world over, his pro-pesticide cartoons had an enormous impact on grownups in gaining their acceptance for pesticides.

During the second half of the 20th century, many farmers lost their farms, and those who remained on the farm accumulated more acreage. Often, pesticides were adopted as a last-ditch or fear-based effort to help a farmer keep his or her farm. Also, when the pesticides failed, it was the farmer who suffered, not the chemical company.

Pesticides (and fertilizers) are like a drug. Often, after World War II, the chemical companies gave out the first sample for free. Once a farmer has used the free sample, he or she kills all of his or her soil life and beneficial insects - as well as the pests. With proof of the pesticide's effectiveness, the farmer buys more. Then, as pests evolve resistance, the farmer has to buy even more. Ultimately, the pesticide fails and the farmer has to move on to a new pesticide to repeat the cycle. If the farmer quit spraying cold turkey, it would take a few years to build back up the biodiversity and beneficial insects that he or she once had, and the farmer WOULD experience decreased yields as a result. So the farmer keeps spraying.

A few decades back, as the environmental movement was picking up steam and science was making major advances in genetics, chemical companies switched to a new tactic. They began promising genetically modified organisms that would take care of farmers' pest problems and save them from using so many toxic chemicals. The advertising onslaught for GMOs began decades before they even had a viable product. Biotech companies have worked with journalists, universities, and the government to try to manage public opinion so nobody ever questions the risks of their products. However, Allen points out a major flaw in their arguments. Assuming one gene controls one trait, then a genetically modified organism might have some logic. Plug in a new gene and the resulting plant or animal will have one new trait. Unfortunately, scientists have found that one gene controls MANY traits. So when you plug in a new gene for a trait you want (like resistance to an herbicide), who knows what else you are getting along with it. Furthermore, GMOs are not very well tested before they are sold commercially and this has sometimes had devastating results for farmers. The deregulatory environment of the Reagan era allowed for GMOs to gain a fast track to legalization without much testing or scrutiny, and that continues today.

All in all, as you can tell, this book provides a wealth of information, from the point of view of a farmer who has farmed with and without chemicals and who has an in-depth understanding of the danger of farm chemicals. I highly, highly recommend everyone give this one a read.

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And it's the same old song, eh? (4.00 / 2)
Fantastic history, I'll check it out.

Dump, ignore, deny, spin, ridicule opponents.  Deal with the consequences after it's much too late, and they've already made their fortunes.

The great cycle of what industries have done with their toxic wastes seemingly every time, huh?  I wish there didn't have to be people like me who could make a living for years cleaning up sites of such historical tragedies like Radium Dial in West Orange, NJ, or Boarhead Farms in Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania, or Kin Buc in Edison, NJ, or the Hercules / Green Tree plants scattered throughout NJ, or any other of hundreds of places like those...

Surprisingly, the person who single-handedly "helped" the American people get comfortable with putting toxic chemicals on our food was Dr. Seuss. Standard Oil employed him to advertise their pesticide, Flit, and he drew clever and funny cartoons, similar to those in his children's books. Just as he is popular with children the world over, his pro-pesticide cartoons had an enormous impact on grownups in gaining their acceptance for pesticides.

Dr. Suess, eh?  Maybe we need a children's illustrator on our side.  I may know just the guy (ahem)...


I must say that I'm disappointed (4.00 / 2)
that the guy who wrote "The Lorax" sold out thusly.

"If God were to appear to starving people, he would not dare to appear in any other form than food." - Mahatma Gandhi

[ Parent ]
enzymes (4.00 / 2)
For example, Monsanto's stearidonic (SDA) soybeans involve

introduction of two desaturase genes that encode for the proteins, Primula juliae delta-6 desaturase and Neurospora crassa delta-15 desaturase.

(page 10 of 169)

Both proteins are enzymes.

Several things are interesting about that document, a GRAS notice. Monsanto never applied for approval. Monsanto, not FDA, determined that oil from the plant was GRAS. Monsanto merely notified FDA of the determination, and of their decision that it didn't require pre-market approval. Isn't that sweet?

The pdf is 169 pages, but more than 100 pages consists of the pedigrees and publication lists of the four people Monsanto hired to say the product was good to go. Much of the rest is section cover pages and repetitious material. Testing was shockingly minimal.


[ Parent ]
oh, crap (4.00 / 2)
These comments should have been appended to my "traits" comment. I'm having a somnambulent day.

[ Parent ]
Will is fighting for the return of hemp farming (4.00 / 3)
I used to grow when I was young and foolish (4.00 / 2)
Once some friends of mine went out in the middle of the night and planted a six inch plant next to the Chief of Police's mailbox. Took him about three days to notice it. Meanwhile one of the guys would check on it every day. "He's not taking care of it! It's wilting! Last time we give HIM a pot plant."

"If God were to appear to starving people, he would not dare to appear in any other form than food." - Mahatma Gandhi

[ Parent ]
it's still possible to get seabird guano (4.00 / 2)
it's not cheap, but the results are impressive and you don't need much. I had some I was using for a few years; I can't remember where it was from, though (although I probably have the email from Ebay around still).

There are concerns about histoplasmosis, so one should be careful not to breathe the dust. Also it can be processed to some extent - I think by steam? to cut down the risk of that, so it's good to look into how it was prepared.

Shit rocks!

"If God were to appear to starving people, he would not dare to appear in any other form than food." - Mahatma Gandhi


LOL the rule of thumb I heard (4.00 / 2)
is:
The bigger the animal, the more the poop
The smaller the animal, the stronger the poop

So seabird poop must be pretty good. But that's also why I want chickens, and why I keep worms. And the potting soil I use has bat guano in it too.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman


[ Parent ]
I'd love to have chickens too (4.00 / 2)
I hope to move somewhere that I can keep them.

"If God were to appear to starving people, he would not dare to appear in any other form than food." - Mahatma Gandhi

[ Parent ]
To be honest, I'm getting more and more impatient (4.00 / 1)
I might ask my bf if he's willing to get a few chicks before they are officially legal. But for now I'm just getting the hang of gardening so it can wait.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
traits (4.00 / 2)
You wrote

one gene controls MANY traits

The correct statement is

"mucking about with one gene affects many traits."

The difference might not be obvious, but I think it's important.

One gene codes the manufacture of one and exactly one protein, many of which are enzymes. Human biochemistry depends on a couple of thousand enzymes.

Genes comprise a surprisingly small fraction of genetic material. The non-gene material governs the operation of the genes - when they turn on, when they turn off, how a gene interacts with neighboring genes, in which parts of the organism a gene is expressed, etc. Without going to the complexity introduced by the addition of a new gene, merely relocating a gene within its own chromosome has unknown and unforseeable consequences, both for its own expression and the expression of neighboring genes. Introducing a new gene, any new gene, has different consequences depending on where the gene is inserted into a genome, both which chromosome and intrachromosome location.

The complexity is multiplied if the protein produced by a new gene is an enzyme because, once produced, the enzyme can participate in and alter an unknown number of biochemical reactions, not just one.

Conventional breeding to increase yield results in an exquisitely balanced genetic choreography. Introducing any new gene anywhere into the genome alters the balance, which is why (so far) all GM varieties decrease yield.

Am I just being pedantic? If so, I apologize.


relationships (4.00 / 1)
Perhaps this is only a restatement of a comment I made in Jill's Haiti diary -

Everything is related to everything else.


[ Parent ]
gene insertion (4.00 / 2)
Furthermore, my understanding is that other genetic material is inserted along with the gene - the procedure just isn't all that pristinely precise and clean.

Jill, is this understanding correct, or do you think I might be wrong about it?


[ Parent ]
yes they have to include (4.00 / 2)
a marker - some way of knowing that inserting the gene actually worked.  

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
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