The bug war
Author details foggy history of pesticide use
Will Allen remembers exactly when he got the idea that led to his book about pesticides. It was 12 years ago, and he was working with the Sustainable Cotton Project, a nonprofit whose mission was to raise awareness about the use of pesticides on cotton fields and help cotton farmers switch to organic growing methods.
During a talk at Lyon Books on April 16, he said one of his jobs was to lead tours of both organic and pesticide-using cotton farms. These tours were offered during growing season, when the largest amounts of pesticides were being used. The number of cropdusting planes in the air was “staggering,” he said, “like an aerial assault.”
The low-flying planes roared over the farmlands, spraying everything in the immediate area with toxic chemicals, including houses, animals, and even Allen’s tour bus, in addition to the crops. The pesticide clouds cloaked everything around them in a heavy fog, obscuring the landscape and coating everyone with a thick chemical film.
Allen, who is a Vermont farmer and grew up in Southern California, just had his book, The War on Bugs, published by Chelsea Green Press. The book examines not only the current state of pesticide use in the country, but also looks at the history of pesticides and where the endless “war on bugs” began.
Allen said one of the most popular questions during the tours was one that at the time he did not know the answer to: How and when did people become comfortable with having toxic chemicals so heavily sprayed over everything?
To answer the question, Allen went to the farmers themselves, who directed him to old issues of the Farmer’s Almanac. At UC Davis, Allen found magazines from the 1800s that even then contained advertisements for pesticides. “Pesticide use began in the 1830s,” Allen explained. “By the 1870s, lead arsenic was being used on crops to kill the gypsy moth. And arsenic is still used today on cotton, corn and soy beans.”
After doing this research, Allen made a display of his findings to use on his bus tour. As it happened, an editor at Chelsea Green took one of the tours, and after seeing the display and listening to Allen’s presentation, he advised him to write a book about his discoveries.
It took 12 years, but now The War on Bugs is on bookshelves across the country.
“I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned or distort the story by not doing all the research,” Allen said. So he and his friend Ed DeAnda, who helped with much of the research, spent many long days at the UC Davis library, going over old farming magazines.
“Sometimes we would get to the library at 11 in the morning and we wouldn’t leave until 8 in the evening,” Allen said.
One of the most surprising things Allen discovered was that famed children’s book author Dr. Seuss was once one of the most successful pesticide salesmen in the country.
“Seuss was hired by Standard Oil to draw cartoons in favor of using pesticides and was one of the major spokesmen for DDT when it was first introduced,” Allen said. “I’m not saying he was a bad person. A lot of people at the time really believed that pesticides were harmless.”
Allen discovered that the organic movement also reached back to the 19th century. For example, he found a book published in the 1830s titled Eat, Drink and Beware that warned consumers about the dangers of pesticides. The message of that book, Allen said, is nearly identical to the message of his own book: “Buyer beware.”
The War on Bugs follows the history of both pesticides and the organic movement up to the present day and includes copies of historic pesticide ads spread throughout the book—just as they would have been in one of the farming magazines. The book also includes a description of pesticide use and organic farming today.
“When people say they prefer nonorganic food because it’s cheaper, my question is always, ‘How cheap does poisoned food have to be to be attractive?’ “ Allen said. “And I hope that people will respond that they would never want poisoned food.”