By Jean English, Editor, The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener
September 27, 2012, marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The book, prompted largely by effects of the insecticide DDT on birds, led to the ban of most uses of DDT, helped start the environmental movement, and led to increased regulation of pesticides.
It did not reduce pesticide use. In 1964, 540 million pounds of pesticide active ingredient were sold in the United States. In 2007 – the most recent year for which EPA has pesticides data – that figure was 1,133 million pounds.
“The chemical weed killers are a bright new toy,” wrote Carson. “… [T]hey give a giddy sense of power over nature to those who wield them, and as for the long-range and less obvious effects – these are easily brushed aside as the baseless imaginings of pessimists.”
That toy is no longer so bright but is widely wielded. In 2007, the U.S. used 531 million pounds of herbicides.
Carson quoted a British ecologist who called aerial spraying “an amazing rain of death.” Today, the herbicide atrazine comes down in rain, infuses fog and contaminates even treated drinking water.
Carson wrote, “Now clean cultivation and the chemical destruction of hedgerows and weeds are eliminating the last sanctuaries of … pollinating insects and breaking the threads that bind life to life.”
Genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant crops, today’s bright new toy, have only exaggerated that destruction of diversity.
“If we would divert to constructive research even a small fraction of the money spent each year on the development of ever more toxic sprays, we could find ways to use less dangerous materials and to keep poisons out of our waterways,” wrote Carson.
Poisons still pollute our waterways, but we did get that small fraction! Less than 1 percent of USDA’s research budget is devoted to organic agriculture, according to Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition; the rest subsidizes industrial agriculture. (“Time to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Industrial Agriculture?” by Tom Philpott, Mother Jones, May 2, 2012)
Carson quoted F.H. Jacob in England: “Ultimately only the biologist will provide the answers to the basic problems of pest control.”
Carson was enthusiastic about new biological controls being researched then, such as Bacillus thuringiensis, the bacterium commonly called “Bt” that produces a toxin that kills some insects. Little did she know that the ability to produce the toxin would be genetically engineered into every cell, for the life of the plant, of such widely grown crops as corn, cotton and soy. As with synthetic insecticides, this synthetic, overkill use of Bt in non-organic crops has led to development of resistant insects – and likely other “long-range and less obvious effects.”
Reductionist biology hasn’t worked.
Holistic, ecological solutions are out there, though.
Here’s one: Chef Dan Barber of New York’s Blue Hill restaurants believes that the tastiest foods, grown in quality soils, are the densest in nutrients. He is working with Dr. William Li of the Angiogenesis Foundation in Cambridge, Mass., to see if such nutrient dense foods can shrink capillary growth to tumors. When we're greedy for the best food, says Barber, we’re greedy for a world that is used in the proper way. He believes the emphasis on quality, flavorful foods is “the most exciting social movement in America today.” (See “Driven by Flavor, with Dan Barber,” an interview by Krista Tippett at www.onbeing.org/program/driven-flavor-dan-barber/transcript/4744#main_content)
The gardens at Avena Botanicals in West Rockport, Maine, offer another solution. Deb Soule has cultivated an awe-inspiring co-diversity of plant and insect (and hummingbird, and human) life there. More such havens would likely go a long way toward helping bee populations recover from Colony Collapse Disorder.
A third example: Florence Reed of Sustainable Harvest International in Surry, Maine, recent winner of the Peace Corp’s Sargent Shriver Award, says, “A farmer in a remote village in Honduras is providing us with organic coffee, providing winter habitat for our song birds, stabilizing our global climate, preserving the forests that are the source of most of our medicines, creating oxygen to breathe and protecting the coral reefs from siltation as a result of deforestation. So if a poor farmer in Honduras can do all this for us, what can we do for him?” (See www.peacecorpsconnect.org/2012/07/2012-shriver-award-winner-florence-reed/)
The Common Ground Country Fair is a celebration of ideas about what we can do to avoid pesticides, to eat tasty, nutrient-dense foods, to grow oases for bees, and so much more.