In a previous diary, I wrote about the effects of the two World Wars on pesticide use from an economic point of view. That tells about half the story. Here is the rest.
World War I
Prior to World War I, there was limited pesticide use - mainly Pyrethrum (made from chrysanthemum petals) and arsenicals (Paris green and lead arsenate). If you just cringed at the thought of using arsenic on food, I'm with you.
At that time, Germans dominated the chemical industry. World War I changed all that. Because we were on the opposite side of the war, we cranked our chemical industry into high gear to fulfill increased demand at home and abroad. One of the American "war heroes," DuPont, remains a major player throughout the story, from World War I, to DDT, to the present.
Also, due to the war, cotton demand increased; however, at the very time they needed to increase production, the boll weevil endangered their crops. For two decades, entomologists had recommended cotton growers burn cotton stalks at the end of the season to solve their pest problems, but they had not done so due to expense and delayed benefits. In 1917, cotton farmers began using calcium arsenate to control the boll weevil.
Another way the war led to pesticide development was when an explosive or a by-product of an explosive could be used as a pesticide as well. For example, PDB (paradichlorobenzene, not Presidential Daily Briefing), a by-product of the highly demanded explosive picric acid came into use during World War I. It was first tested as a pesticide in 1915-16 and later sold as one.
At the end of the war, the United States did not by any means have a "mature" pesticide market or even a broad range of "effecive" pesticides. They were still kind of fumbling around with a handful of pesticides, some of which worked, some of which didn't. They started to discover what happened when a pesticide took out beneficial insects, birds, bats, and fish, in addition to the pests they actually wished to eliminate. Darwinian evolution was controversial at the time, but a few people recognized that that played a role too - a pesticide took out the weaker pests, leaving the stronger ones to breed and evolve the species.
For whatever reason, a small group of committed sick fucks really took a liking to chemical warfare during World War I. We Americans did not prepare for fighting with gas prior to entering the war, but after getting gassed Tom Delay-style once or twice, we caught on.
The main group to pay attention to is the Chemical Warfare Service and its main cheerleader was a man named Amos Fries. During the war, they were incredibly effective at catching up to the Germans and beating them at their own game. Fries claimed he favored gas as a weapon because it was a humane way to fight.
After the war, public opinion was not with the Chemical Warfare Service. While Fries and other advocates struggled to expand and continue weapons development during peacetime, various international treaties and other roadblocks intervened. Finally, chemical warfare lovers found a solution: they would continue weapons development by developing "peaceful" uses for their weapons. In other words, they would develop pesticides.
During the interwar years, pesticide use still did not expend to the levels today. By 1925, the word "insecticide," developed as a friendlier term than "bug killer," was not popularized yet. Manufacturers of insecticides complained that housewives feared that insecticides posed the same danger to people that they do to insects.
World War II and DDT
During World War II, our needs for pesticides changed. At the beginning of the war in the Pacific, malaria took out American troops faster than the Japanese did. Now we didn't need insecticide to kill house flies or boll weevils - we needed it to kill mosquitoes and halt the spread of malaria in order to win the war. If we could do that and the Japanese couldn't, we would have a significant advantage.
DDT was the silver bullet that beat malaria for us. Given to us by Geigy, a Swiss company, we initially thought it was "relatively non-toxic to man and animals." It killed lice and mosquitoes at low doses for a long time. With that information in hand, we started using it in the war.
There is a vast difference between the usage of a devastating pesticide on a battlefield (where all forms of life are already being destroyed) and usage of the same pesticide in civilian agriculture. Yet, that distinction was never made at the time.
Jingoistic posters promoted DDT as the hero that helped win the war. Regular Americans thought DDT was safe to use at home. Scientists continued to research DDTs toxicity on animals and humans. In addition to direct toxicity to animals and humans, if all of the insects in an ecosystem died, then species (such as birds) that ate the insects also died. Scientific research revealed increasingly disturbing results during and after World War II, but their studies were published in scientific journals so they did not permeate pop culture.
How did DDT translate into post-war civilian uses? In other words, how did WMDs become VMDs? This paragraph in the book War and Nature really struck me because it validated the previous diary I wrote.
Under the pre-World War II regulatory system no government agency had the authority to keep pesticides off the market. The Department of Agriculture had the power to enforce labeling requirements, and the Food and Drug Administration had the authority to seize foods with pesticide residues above specified levels. But neither agency had the power to stop a company from selling an accurately labeled chemical.
Moreover, the War Protection Board had announced that it wanted to avoid surpluses and would make conversion to civilian use a priority. (After World War I, the United States had cut back sharply on military production with little provision for switching to civilian production, and the country had tumbled into depression.) The DDT producers' decision followed that policy.
-Russell, p. 162-163
In other words, greed won out over caution and safety. We dreamed of total bug annihilation and we weren't going to wait for some pesky lab results before we got to work. To those out there who are not concerned with genetically modified organisms - THIS is my concern. It's not that the technology is inherently evil, it's that our attitude is unchanged since the good old days of DDT.
DDT is a chemical in the chlorinated hydrocarbon family. Another family of chemicals, organophosphates, was used as pesticides as well, often in combination with DDT. Organophosphates are not as "safe" as DDT, but once we disrupted ecosystems so violently with DDT, we wanted to bring it back into balance and we thought organophosphates were the way to go.
DDT killed insect predators along with pests, but it did not kill all insects. The surviving pest insects were free to breed, totally unchecked, so farmers sprayed those insects with organophosphates. Make sense? Yeah, not to me neither.
The flipside of DuPont and other corporations' desire to sell DDT was the increased demand for food. Demand increased for several reason: the baby boom was on, we wanted to keep inflation down, we wanted to feed other nations to prevent the spread of communism, we wanted to build food reserves during the Cold War, etc. For all of these reasons and more, we used pesticides.
The tide started to turn for pesticides in the late 50's and early 60's. Several acute poisoning incidents occurred in farm workers from organophosphates, and aerial spraying (remember North by Northwest?) did not sit well with people. Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, an immediate bestseller, showcasing the public sentiment against pesticides and scaring those who made their livings from pesticides.
The EPA did not ban DDT until 1972. A new idea, integrated pest management, arose, promoting the idea that all pests need not be exterminated; farmers need only take action when pests surpassed certain thresholds.
The military-industrial complex continues to look for better and smarter and more profitable ways to kill pests. They will always be there, but we, the consumers and the voters, are a part of the picture as well. We can take action so that Monsanto and DuPont are not the only ones who can dictate the future of pesticide use.
--> If you want to control pests without pesticides, try a few of these ideas:
- Weed your garden or yard by hand
- Grow native plants - they will be better adapted to grow in the presence of local pests than non-native plants (more info here)
- Use a mixture of plant-based soap (like Dr. Bronner's) and water to kill aphids, sawflies, spider mites, and more.
- Leave your grass clippings on the lawn and compost to reduce or eliminate your need for synthetic fertilizers
- Add other ideas in the comments... I got the ones here from a Natural Home & Garden magazine and I can't claim any expertise in this topic at all!!!