THE BLOG

Cold War, Ruthless Power, and Toxic Agriculture

07/02/2014 12:47 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2014

Aside from giving us cancer and other diseases, pesticides are responsible for another assault on the fabric of our civilization -- the poisoning of the natural world. For several decades, the top gun in this ecocidal war was DDT.

Morton Biskind, a physician from Westport, Connecticut, documented the corruption of the political class, especially those working with agricultural poisons.

At the peak of the cold war, in November 1953, he published an article in which he connected DDT to countless diseases among animals and humans.

What made Biskind angry was America's thoughtless defense of DDT. He wrote:

[F]ar from admitting a causal relationship [between DDT exposure and disease] ... virtually the entire apparatus of communication, lay and scientific alike, has been devoted to denying, concealing, suppressing, distorting and attempts to convert into its opposite, the overwhelming evidence. Libel, slander and economic boycott have not been overlooked in this campaign.

And a new principle of toxicology has, it seems, become firmly entrenched in the literature: no matter how lethal a poison may be for all other forms of animal life, if it doesn't kill human beings instantly, it is safe. When nevertheless it unmistakably does kill a human, this was the victim's own fault - either he was 'allergic' to it (the uncompensable sin!) or he didn't use it properly.

It's possible that the government's Cold War imperatives merged with those of giant agriculture. The government was testing nuclear weapons aboveground. With the blessings of the government, large farmers and agribusiness were conquering rural America, fighting a war against small family farmers.

Pesticides were at the heart of all these conflicts. They became the weapon of choice for the control of nature. They also enabled large farmers to lay claims to plantations.

Rachel Carson denounced pesticides in her 1962 book, "Silent Spring." She saw pesticides as "the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world - the very nature of its life."

She said America's single-crop farming clashes with how nature works. Instead, "we allow the chemical death rain to fall... The crusade to create a chemically sterile world seems to have engendered a fanatic zeal on the part of many specialists and most of the so-called control agencies. On every hand there is evidence that those engaged in spraying operations exercise a ruthless power."

Like Biskind, Carson caught the violence of her age: use poisons freely, ask questions later.

This explains the silence of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which nurtured agribusiness and pesticides. No wonder that the Environmental Protection Agency, brought into being in December 1970, had to start from the beginning with toxic chemicals some twenty years after Biskind's complaint.

Political and economic forces at work -- what president Ike Eisenhower shrewdly called "the military-industrial complex" -- made cold war profitable. The so-called "new" approach to toxicology is still with us. It reigns supreme among the practitioners of conventional agriculture, government regulation, science, law, and politics in the early twenty-first century.

In 2014, instead of DDT, which thankfully EPA banned in 1972, we have the neonicotinoid insecticides (neonics) to satisfy the toxic addiction and practices of agribusiness men. These "new" poisons are like DDT but considerably more powerful. According to a June 2014 report of the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, some of the neonics are about 5,000 to 10,000 times more toxic to honeybees than DDT.

The Task Force on Systemic Pesticides is a group of 29 independent scientists who spent four years studying 800 peer reviewed reports about the effects of neonics: nicotine-based brain and nerve poisons introduced to farming in the 1990s. Neonics are systemic chemicals because they are taken up by the crop with the result they poison the entire plant (leaves, roots, nectar, pollen, food).

The farmers use neonics so extensively that, according to the Task Force, they are by now the global elixir against insects. They make up about 40 percent of the insect poisons worldwide. Their manufacturers pocketed more than 2.63 billion dollars in 2011.

The Task Force warned the world that neonics destabilize land and water ecosystems, meaning they cripple, give disease or kill so many insects and animals that they risk the survival of a livable world. Just like DDT, these neurotoxins last months and years in the environment, killing all insects chewing a plant, sipping its sap or nectar, and eating its pollen and fruit. They also affect birds and other animals. According to the Task Force:

[B]ird populations are at risk from eating crop seeds treated with systemic insecticides, and reptile numbers have been known to decline due to a depletion of their insect pray. Microbes, fish and amphibians were found to be affected after high levels of or prolonged exposure. Samples taken in water from around the world have been found to exceed ecotoxicological limits [of neonics] on a regular basis.

The scientists of the Task Force also raised alarm why we don't know the amounts neonics have been sprayed in the global environment in the last 20 years or so. They questioned the science and regulation of these hazardous chemicals. And they recommended "a global phase-out or at last... a strong reduction of the global scale of use."

It looks to me, however, that this second life of DDT (now played out by these warfare agents in a more broadly defined cold war) should not be allowed to continue. Chemicals threatening honeybees with extinction, as the neonicotinoids do, do not deserve more "studies" or "stricter" regulation. Ban them immediately.

We should no longer allow the chemical death rain to go on.