Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers: the side effects of war

When WWII ended, the United States had a stock of factories and chemists that had worked tirelessly throughout the war creating chemical weapons that far exceeded peacetime needs now that the fighting was finished. So a fantastic plan was hatched somewhere deep within the bowels of the government. Why not convert these facilities to making something we can use here at home? You know, turn from killing those dam Germans to killing those good ol’ American bugs that dip into our crops every year! And while we’re at it, we’ll toss in a liberal amount of chemical fertilizer to further increase crop yield. Americans will love it!

And love it they did. (It behooves me to add that this was not the brightest period in our country’s culinary history. This same generation that so heartily embraced these chemicals also gave us the Jell-O instant pudding mix and – yes, unfortunately – fast food.) Synthetic pesticides had been available since the 1930s and chemical fertilizers since the mid-19th century, but the increased availability following WWII meant that by 1950, there was unequivocal evidence that the wide-spread use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers was increasing crop yield far beyond pre-war levels.

Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech Pesticide Programs, "Bonham Bros. Orchard, Chilhowie, Virginia -- Mr. Bonham spraying. 1950."

As you may remember, the results haven’t been all springtime and roses, especially from the pesticide standpoint. Thanks to Rachel Carlson’s book (appropriately titled Silent Spring), which was published in 1962, the terrible harms from pesticides such as DDT were revealed. As she reported, some of these pesticides weren’t just killing those harmful pests, they were also taking out just about anything else that happened to be exposed – including people.

(A little historic anecdote for your day: Fritz Haber, who invented a process for reacting atmospheric nitrogen gas with hydrogen gas to make ammonia, creating the form of chemical fertilizer used on almost all crops, was the same Mr. Haber that invented gas warfare in World War I and then convinced Germany’s military leaders to use it.)

This is the first in a series of entries about chemicals and their use in agriculture. Please check back as I’ll be posting on this topic throughout the year.

No comments: