The pesticide agenda

The War on Bugs explores the secret history of pesticide use

DDT: toxic for bugs, toxic for humans.

DDT: toxic for bugs, toxic for humans.

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UC’s Agriculture and Natural Resources program publishes a handbook, Pests of the Garden and Small Farm: A Grower’s Guide to Using Less Pesticide, which can be ordered from its Web site.


On Des Moines’ east side, near the fairgrounds in the marshy neighborhood by the Des Moines River, kids once played outside until after dusk in the summertime, chasing fireflies and each other.

They also ran through the mist of DDT that applicator trucks sprayed regularly to keep the mosquito population down.

DDT was one of the many purported chemical panaceas to all our pest problems. Most of those children probably suffered little in the way of ill effects, but we now know that the risks of DDT outweigh the benefits and that a lack of human toxicity doesn’t render a pesticide “safe.” We’ve established agencies (the Environmental Protection Agency and California’s EPA both regulate the use of pesticides in the state, with state regulations being, in many cases, even more stringent than federal rules) to protect consumers, farmers and agricultural workers and the environment from damage wrought by pesticides.

We’ve come a long way from arsenic-tainted food (arsenic and lead were popular pesticides for decades), but, as Will Allen rightly points out in his new book, The War on Bugs, our determination to slaughter pests and increase yields has had some far-reaching consequences on health—both ours and the planet’s.

Allen, who was raised on a traditional California farm and is now an organic farm advocate in Vermont, has written a valuable, if occasionally strident, history of the use of pesticides in farming. He’s got some opinions and he’s not afraid to share them—but that doesn’t make him wrong.

The War on Bugs weaves together a complex tale of medicine and chemistry, advertising, the rise of corporations and the industrialization of farming. It’s as much a story of our culture’s relationship to advertising as it is about food production, and Allen makes use of plenty of examples of pesticide advertising, including some DDT ads drawn by none other than Dr. Seuss. Who could hate a pesticide that Dr. Seuss supported, anyway?

A good number of the photographs and ads in the book, as well as his supporting research on the development and use of pesticides is from local sources, such as the UC Davis Shields Library Special Collections and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. It turns out—not surprisingly—that California farmers and consumers have been on the front lines of both pesticide use and its alternatives, including the move toward organic farming.

Allen’s main points are clear: Chemical pesticides are overused, poorly tested, and regulators are often hamstrung in their efforts by corporate interests. What’s more, just as antibiotics have lost their effectiveness over time as antibiotic-resistant strains of those bugs develop, so, too, do pesticides lose their punch as resistant strains of pests evolve. In fact, he suggests DDT’s fall from grace had almost as much to do with its loss of effectiveness as with the growing concern about its risks to the environment. He includes his own DDT stories, as his mother sprayed Flit all over him to keep the flies off—and all over the house to keep them out.

What’s really effective about this book, though, is the historical perspective. We’ve always struggled with pests, some more deadly than others. No one wants a return to the days when pest-borne epidemics reached plague proportions (and Allen’s discussion of rat catchers’ roles in public sanitation is fascinating). A little balance is in order; malaria, bubonic plague and yellow fever are mostly memories—at least in the United States—thanks to pesticides.

But Allen clearly shows how the rise of chemical use in farming also contributed to the decline of farming as an occupation. The use of pesticides makes monoculture easier to accomplish, but it’s the opposite of sustainable. And he includes a chapter on livestock confinement as a source of antibiotic resistance that is certainly thought-provoking.

At a time when the colliding crises in energy (cheap oil makes industrial farming possible) and global climate change are putting more stress than ever on our agricultural systems, Allen offers up a new way of looking at farming. It’s a big-picture view, one that requires us to become more mindful of where our food came from, how it was produced and what we’re going to do with it.