The Spraying of America
American agriculture dumps a billion
pounds of pesticides on food, producing a truly toxic harvest.
by Christopher D. Cook
Earth Island Journal, Spring 2005
When Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was
published in 1962, the American pesticide business was in full
postwar bloom. These "elixirs of death," descended from
World War II chemical warfare experiments, were suddenly ubiquitous
- growing fivefold from 124 million pounds in 1947, to 637 million
by 1960. Roughly 60 percent of these synthetic potions, some 376
million pounds, were applied on food. Toxic residues from pesticides
were found everywhere: in water systems; in animals, including
the "vast majority of human beings"; even in that most
sacred nectar, mother's milk. That now-infamous poison, DDT, was
"so universally used that in most minds the product takes
on the harmless aspect of the familiar."
Fast-forward 40 years: President George
W. Bush, campaigning for a second term, eases restrictions on
pesticide use by farmers and homeowners. In a move cheered by
agribusiness and pesticide producers, the Bush administration
enables the Environmental Protection Agency - often criticized
for issuing permissive pesticide standards to approve pesticides
on its own, without consulting other federal agencies about effects
on endangered species. Court-ordered "no-spray zones,"
established along rivers to protect salmon and other fish, could
soon be rolled back. Using toxins that may imperil life just got
The food industry benefits from a decided
hush when it comes to today's silent spring. With concerns about
genetically modified foods capturing the headlines - as well as
the attentions of most food-industry critics today - the grave
ecological effects of pesticides have been relegated to the back
After decades of activism and success
banning "dirty dozen" pesticides such as DDT and chlordane,
we are told a cleaner future lies ahead. In the brave new high-tech
world of bio-engineered crops, like the Monsanto potato that secretes
its own pesticide, it seems we needn't worry ourselves about poisoned
farmworkers, pesticide drift, and children munching on toxic apples.
Genetically modified crops are, according to USDA and corporate
biotech officials, helping to cleanse the environment by reducing
pesticides. As Bush's agriculture secretary Ann Veneman told a
UN Food and Agriculture Organization conference, biotechnology
promises to 'make agriculture more environmentally sustainable."
The facts clearly refute the happy claims
of Veneman and the politically connected GMO business: American
industrial agriculture today dumps close to one billion pounds
of pesticides on food crops, producing a truly toxic harvest.
Despite public assurances of a kinder,
gentler agriculture, the biotech and pesticide businesses march
hand-in-hand, two sides of the same corporate coin. The industry's
most prominent product, Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" soybean,
was designed to withstand intensive spraying, thus expanding sales
of the firm's highly popular - and highly toxic herbicide, Roundup.
Since the 1996 introduction of Roundup Ready, the use of glyphosate,
a key Roundup ingredient that studies have linked to non-Hodgkin's
lymphoma, has risen.
Roughly 85 percent of all cropland in
America relies on herbicides - a business which will remain stable
as long as agribusiness fights off new pesticide bans and maintains
the myth that biotech is eliminating toxins in the fields.
Since the publication of Silent Spring,
the amount of pesticides applied to our food has more than doubled.
In 1997, according to industry figures, US growers poured more
than 985 million pounds of pesticides onto their crops. The US
accounts for more than one third of the $33.5 billion in global
pesticide sales, the vast majority for farming. That's an $11
billion business interest for the petrochemical and biotech industries
They've protected it well, perpetually
- though not always successfully - fighting and delaying new regulations
to limit toxins in the fields. After a modest decline in the 1980s,
the amount of pesticides used each year has increased by more
than 100 million pounds since 1991. At the same time, there's
been a dramatic increase in costs borne by farmers, whose spending
on herbicides has more than doubled since 1980. Each year, over
100 million pounds of highly toxic active ingredients from pesticides
are released into the environment in California alone.
In the world's backyard
If it were merely a matter of waiting
for Rachel Carson's DDT ghosts of the 1960s to fade away, we might
one day be in the clear. Rivers, lakes, fish, and birds might,
over time, cleanse themselves of these toxins. But agriculture's
chemicals continue to flood our water and air with contamination.
What is particularly startling is the degree to which pesticides
have spread throughout the entire environment.
One might lament the plight of poisoned
farmworkers or the effects of pesticides on farming communities
and consign them to the realm of regrettable problems over which
one has little control. While few would openly counsel reckless
disregard for the health of farmworkers and their families who
pay a very high price for our pesticide-based food system - it
is all too easy to ignore and forget.
But according to a 1998 analysis by the
California Public Interest Research Group, nearly four million
Californians live within half a mile of heavy applications of
pesticides, a third of which are "designated by state or
federal regulatory agencies as carcinogens, reproductive toxins
or acute nerve poisons."
Spring, if not silent, is no doubt quieter.
Every year agricultural pesticides alone kill an estimated 67
million birds. An array of disturbing side effects is in store
for those lucky enough to survive a sublethal dose, including
'increased susceptibility to predation, decreased disease resistance,
lack of interest in mating and defending territory, and abandonment
of nestlings," according to a 1999 report by Californians
for Pesticide Reform and the Pesticide Action Network.
A key indicator of today's pesticide pollution
epidemic lies underground, in the hidden waters that ultimately
percolate up into rivers, lakes, and wells. Groundwater is the
source of 50 percent of America's drinking water, and it is intimately
interconnected with surface water.
Since the late 1970s, studies have found
more than 139 different pesticide residues in groundwater in the
US, most frequently in corn- and soybean-growing regions. One
study of a Nebraska aquifer found numerous pesticides at "lifetime
health advisory" levels. All of the samples contained atrazine,
the most commonly-used pesticide applied to America's cornfields.
In Iowa, toxic chemicals are found in roughly half of the groundwater.
Even closer to home were the findings
of a 1992 national pesticide survey by the EPA, which discovered
that ten percent of community wells "contained detectable
levels of one or more pesticides." Well water samples gathered
by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation show residues
of 16 active ingredients and breakdown products from agricultural
Groundwater pesticide presence, though,
pales in comparison with the chemicals' prevalence in surface
rivers and streams. In California, state regulators detected pesticides
in 95 of 100 locations in the Central Valley. More than half of
these sites exceeded safe levels for aquatic life and drinking
water consumption. In Kentucky, where farmers annually apply roughly
4.5 million pounds of the top five herbicides, these chemicals
showed up routinely in rivers. A two-year study by the state Department
of Environmental Protection discovered atrazine and metolachior,
both used heavily on corn, in a full 100 percent of the 26 river
sites they examined; another chemical, simazine, was found 91
percent of the time.
The spread of these toxins is a serious
matter affecting both environmental and public health. Atrazine,
found widely in drinking water across the Midwest and detectable
on many foods, is a "possible human carcinogen," according
to the EPA. Studies suggest it may cause ovarian cancer.
Nationwide reports are equally troubling
and reveal a bath of chemicals harmful to fish and the broader
freshwater ecosystem. In a ten-year study examining thousands
of streams across the country, the US Geological Survey traced
the proliferation of numerous agricultural pesticides: atrazine
was in 90 percent of the streams; deethylatrazine and metolachlor
were in 82 percent of all samples; others were detected at least
40 percent of the time. Still more disquieting was a 1999 USGS
finding of an average of 20 pesticides, mostly agricultural, at
each river or stream tested. Chemical concentrations of some compounds
were frequently found to exceed allowable levels in drinking water,
and one or more standards for protecting aquatic life were exceeded
in 39 of 58 sites.
In studies conducted over the past 30
years, nearly half of all pesticides targeted for research were
found in stream sediment, and some 64 percent in edible fish,
mollusks, and other aquatic life.
More and more, scientists are observing
important changes in hormones and reproductive systems among fish
and other waterborne creatures exposed to pesticides One study
of sex hormones in carp revealed that the ratio of estrogen to
testosterone in both males and females was "lower at sites
with more pesticides."
Pesticides may also be a factor behind
rising numbers of frog deformities, such as extra or missing limbs.
In a 2002 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy
of Sciences, biologist Joseph Kiesecker compared frogs in several
Pennsylvania ponds, with and without pesticide runoff. The rate
of misshapen frogs was nearly four times higher in the ponds with
Environmentalists and scientists are not
the only ones complaining. Fishing enthusiasts are angry about
the poisoning of their prey. Randy Fry of the Recreational Fishing
Alliance of Northern California has written that pesticide pollution
"seriously impacts the estuary's food-web and thereby limits
the productivity of Central Valley populations of salmon, steelhead,
striped bass, and sturgeon while increasing the pollutants carried
by these fish." Fry has noted declines in fisheries throughout
Something in the air
Perhaps the greatest - yet most elusive
measure of pesticides' long reach is their presence in the air
we breathe. "Nearly every pesticide that has been investigated
has been detected in air, rain, snow, or fog across the nation
at different times of year," says the US Geological Survey.
Given just a lazy breeze, toxins can migrate for miles. A seemingly
innocuous spraying or fumigation of a rural farm field can let
pesticides drift through air currents for
hours, even days, ending up as residue
in nearby towns, ruining organic crops downwind and further polluting
waterways. Diazinon, a highly volatile agent sprayed widely on
nuts and stone fruit, actually increases its drift concentrations
as time passes, the greatest amount of drift showing up two to
three days after spraying. Although levels generally diminish,
pesticide drift can last for weeks, and sometimes months after
The epicenter for the pesticide drift
problem, particularly its human effects, is California, where
decades of suburban sprawl - and intensely consolidated agriculture
- have wedged burgeoning population centers up against farms.
Blending agriculture with suburbs would seem a fine rural-urban
complement but for the rampant use and drift of pesticides, which
are exceedingly toxic, even at low levels, for children. "Pesticides
in air are often invisible and odorless, but like second-hand
cigarette smoke, inhaling even small amounts over time can lead
to serious health problems, especially for children," reports
Susan Kegley, staff scientist for the Pesticide Action Network.
More than 90 percent of pesticides used
in California (including non-agricultural pesticides) are likely
to drift, and roughly a third of those are highly toxic to humans,
according to a 2003 study by Californians for Pesticide Reform.
Samples of two pesticides, chiorpyrifos and metam sodium, taken
near sprayed fields, produced residues that were, respectively,
some 184 and 111 times the acute exposure standards set by government
for a one-year-old child.
The Gulf of Toxins
The Gulf of Mexico is afflicted with a
"dead zone" stretching across several thousand square
miles along the Louisiana-Texas coast. A massive algae bloom feasts
on a steady diet of nitrogen and other nutrients flowing downstream
from the Mississippi River. In summer, when the river's flow peaks,
the bloom spreads and chokes the Gulf's northern coasts, cutting
off oxygen that supports sea life. In 1999 the zone ballooned
to nearly 12,500 square miles - the size of New Jersey. The depleted
water near the bottom of the Gulf contains less than two parts
per million of dissolved oxygen, not enough to sustain fish or
One of the chief contributors to this
dead zone is American agriculture and its countless tributaries
of petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and animal feces overflowing
from giant factory farms. The Mississippi River Basin, which drains
an area representing about 41 percent of the contiguous US,
is home to the majority of the nation's
agricultural chemicals. About seven million metric tons of nitrogen
in commercial fertilizers are applied in the Basin each year,
and the annual load of nitrates poured from the Mississippi River
into the Gulf has tripled since the late 1950s, when pesticides
and synthetic fertilizers began to dominate the agricultural scene.
Another key ingredient is on the rise: billions of tons of factory-farm
animal waste, overloaded with nitrogen and other potentially damaging
In 1999, when Congress, the EPA and environmental
groups pressed for cuts in farm pollution to clean up the Gulf
of Mexico, some agricultural trade groups raised the specter of
farm closures and diminished food production. 'Crop yields in
the Midwest could shrink if federal regulators try to reduce use
of fertilizers to cut pollution in the Mississippi River and in
the Gulf of Mexico," the Associated Press reported, summing
up the agribusiness argument. Asking farmers to reduce fertilizers
would be "basically asking them to go out of business,"
said Cliff Snyder, representing the Potash and Phosphate Institute.
"It would have a significant economic impact if producers
were required to reduce nutrient input.., at a time when the farm
economy is dismal."
Despite the economic trap, some forward-looking
farmers are contemplating ways to either use less synthetic fertilizer,
which itself is quite costly, or at least drain their fields away
from rivers, perhaps into wetlands that could use the nitrogen.
Beyond the Gulf case, chemical fertilizers
- laden with nitrogen, ammonia, and phosphorus, as well as trace
toxic metals like cadmium - are a serious environmental problem.
Overshadowed in the public mind by pesticides, synthetic chemical
fertilizers severely deplete and erode soil and drain toxic nutrients
into the water supply. They have become a perilous crutch - with
over 14 million tons applied annually, seven tons per square mile
in the upper Midwest - injecting excessive nutrients into the
ground, and ironically, robbing soil of its fertility. A 1984
World Bank report concluded that American agriculture's growing
reliance on synthetic fertilizers "has allowed farmers to
abandon practices - such as crop rotation and the incorporation
of plant and animal wastes into the soil - which had previously
maintained soil fertility."
The petrochemical addiction
Why has pesticide use increased even in
this time of growing ecological awareness? In Living Downstream,
scientist-author Sandra Steingraber describes the political economy
that has driven agriculture into a self-feeding cycle of poison.
First, the arrival of synthetic pesticides following World War
II reduced labor on the farm. Simultaneously, profits per acre
began to shrivel. "Both these changes pressed farmers into
managing more acres to earn a living for their families."
Bigger farms, and federal subsidies promoting mono-crop agriculture,
"further increased the need for chemicals to control pests.
And the use of these chemicals themselves set the stage for additional
ecological changes that only more chemicals could offset."
The decline of crop rotation in favor
of monocropping - the planting of the same crop year after year
- enables insects to adapt and recover, continuing the upward
chemical spiral. Through Darwinian natural selection, the strongest
few insects able to resist insecticides "become the progenitors
of the next generation as their more chemically sensitive compatriots
are killed off," explains Steingraber. Thus pesticides ultimately
create insects that are less susceptible to them. During the postwar
pesticide revolution between 1950 and 1990, the number of insect
species resistant to pesticides mushroomed from fewer than 20
to more than 500. In roughly the same period, the amount of crops
lost due to insect damage doubled.
It doesn't have to be this way. Agriculture
can be prolific and efficient without pesticides. The miraculous
march of American agriculture toward unparalleled productivity
long before the postwar pesticide revolution is a compelling testimonial
to the possibilities of organic farming. Before agribusiness'
petrochemical addiction, farmers used crop rotation and diversified
agriculture to replenish soils and keep pests on the run. Crop
diversity supplied sustenance for farm families and livestock
and a natural insurance policy against pest outbreaks or weather
While many so-called conventional"
growers have bravely made the transition into organics - itself
a lengthy and costly process for which there is virtually no government
support the wider food economy and the profits of agribusiness
rely on farmers' continued deployment of chemical warfare in the
fields. The near-perennial , American surplus fueled by petrochemicals
keeps farm crops cheap, l-,4' not so much for consumers as for
the f intermediary complex of food processors, fast-food chains,
and supermarkets. Back in the days of Silent Spring, o the US
had for years been stockpiling food, requiring ever-larger subsidy
payments and growing pressures on exports and food aid. As Carson
remarked then, We are told that the enormous and expanding use
of pesticides is necessary to maintain farm production."
Yet, she said - noting that American taxpayers were paying more
than $1 billion a year for this surplus food storage - "Is
our real problem not one of over-production?" Excess supply
is primarily a problem for farmers, both here and abroad, who
are forced by price-depressing surpluses to "get big or get
out." For the petrochemical industry and its close partner,
the biotech business, today's economy of surplus production and
exports, and of a mono-crop industrial agriculture stripped of
its natural sustainability, is not a problem at all. Except that
they, too - and their children - must inhabit a poisoned world.
Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning
investigative journalist who writes for Mother Jones, Harper's,
The Nation, and elsewhere. He is author of Diet for a Dead Planet:
How the Food Industry Is Killing Us, published November 2004 by
the New Press. This article was adapted from the book. (For more
information, visit dietforadeadplanet. com.)
Index of Website