The spraying of America

American agriculture dumps a billion pounds of pesticides on food, producing a truly toxic harvest



When Rachel Carsons Silent Spring was published in 1962, the American pesticide business was in full postwar bloom. These “elixirs of death,” descended from World War II chemical warfare experiments, were suddenly ubiquitous – growing fivefold from 124 million pounds in 1947, to 637 million by 1960. Roughly 60 percent of these synthetic potions, some 375 million pounds, were applied on food. Toxic residues from pesticides were found everywhere: in water systems; in animals, including the “vast majority of human beings”; even in that most sacred nectar, mothers milk. That now-infamous poison, DDT, was “so universally used that in most minds the product takes on the harmless aspect of the familiar.”

Fast-forward 40 years: President George W. Bush, campaigning for a second term, eases restrictions on pesticide use by farmers and homeowners. In a move cheered by agribusiness and pesticide producers, the Bush administration enables the Environmental Protection Agency – often criticized for issuing permissive pesticide standards – to approve pesticides on its own, without consulting other federal agencies about effects on endangered species. Court-ordered “no-spray zones,” established along rivers to protect salmon and other fish, could soon be rolled back. Using toxins that may imperil life just got easier.

The food industry benefits from a decided hush when it comes to todays silent spring. With concerns about genetically modified foods capturing the headlines – as well as the attentions of most food-industry critics today – the grave ecological effects of pesticides have been relegated to the back burner.

After decades of activism and success banning “dirty dozen” pesticides such as DDT and chlordane, we are told a cleaner future lies ahead. In the brave new high-tech world of bio-engineered crops, like the Monsanto potato that secretes its own pesticide, it seems we neednt worry ourselves about poisoned farmworkers, pesticide drift, and children munching on toxic apples. Genetically modified crops are, according to USDA and corporate biotech officials, helping to cleanse the environment by reducing pesticides. As Bushs agriculture secretary Ann Veneman told a UN Food and Agriculture Organization conference, biotechnology promises to “make agriculture more environmentally sustainable.”

The facts clearly refute the happy claims of Veneman and the politically connected GMO business: American industrial agriculture today dumps close to one billion pounds of pesticides on food crops, producing a truly toxic harvest.

Despite public assurances of a kinder, gentler agriculture, the biotech and pesticide businesses march hand-in-hand, two sides of the same corporate coin. The industrys most prominent product, Monsantos “Roundup Ready” soybean, was designed to withstand intensive spraying, thus expanding sales of the firms highly popular – and highly toxic – herbicide, Roundup. Since the 1996 introduction of Roundup Ready, the use of glyphosate, a key Roundup ingredient that studies have linked to non-Hodgkins lymphoma, has risen.

Roughly 85 percent of all cropland in America relies on herbicides – a business which will remain stable as long as agribusiness fights off new pesticide bans and maintains the myth that biotech is eliminating toxins in the fields.

Since the publication of Silent Spring, the amount of pesticides applied to our food has more than doubled. In 1997, according to industry figures, US growers poured more than 985 million pounds of pesticides onto their crops. The US accounts for more than one third of the $33.5 billion in global pesticide sales, the vast majority for farming. Thats an $11 billion business interest for the petrochemical and biotech industries to protect.

Theyve protected it well, perpetually – though not always successfully – fighting and delaying new regulations to limit toxins in the fields. After a modest decline in the 1980s, the amount of pesticides used each year has increased by more than 100 million pounds since 1991. At the same time, theres been a dramatic increase in costs borne by farmers, whose spending on herbicides has more than doubled since 1980. Each year, over 100 million pounds of highly toxic active ingredients from pesticides are released into the environment in California alone.

In the worlds backyard
If it were merely a matter of waiting for Rachel Carsons DDT ghosts of the 1960s to fade away, we might one day be in the clear. Rivers, lakes, fish, and birds might, over time, cleanse themselves of these toxins. But agricultures chemicals continue to flood our water and air with contamination. What is particularly startling is the degree to which pesticides have spread throughout the entire environment. One might lament the plight of poisoned farmworkers or the effects of pesticides on farming communities and consign them to the realm of regrettable problems over which one has little control. While few would openly counsel reckless disregard for the health of farmworkers and their families – who pay a very high price for our pesticide-based food system – it is all too easy to ignore and forget.

But according to a 1998 analysis by the California Public Interest Research Group, nearly four million Californians live within half a mile of heavy applications of pesticides, a third of which are “designated by state or federal regulatory agencies as carcinogens, reproductive toxins or acute nerve poisons.”

Spring, if not silent, is no doubt quieter. Every year agricultural pesticides alone kill an estimated 67 million birds. An array of disturbing side effects is in store for those lucky enough to survive a sublethal dose, including “increased susceptibility to predation, decreased disease resistance, lack of interest in mating and defending territory, and abandonment of nestlings,” according to a 1999 report by Californians for Pesticide Reform and the Pesticide Action Network.

A key indicator of todays pesticide pollution epidemic lies underground, in the hidden waters that ultimately percolate up into rivers, lakes, and wells. Groundwater is the source of 50 percent of Americas drinking water, and it is intimately interconnected with surface water.

Since the late 1970s, studies have found more than 139 different pesticide residues in groundwater in the US, most frequently in corn- and soybean-growing regions. One study of a Nebraska aquifer found numerous pesticides at “lifetime health advisory” levels. All of the samples contained atrazine, the most commonly-used pesticide applied to Americas cornfields. In Iowa, toxic chemicals are found in roughly half of the groundwater.

Even closer to home were the findings of a 1992 national pesticide survey by the EPA, which discovered that ten percent of community wells “contained detectable levels of one or more pesticides.” Well water samples gathered by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation show residues of 16 active ingredients and breakdown products from agricultural pesticides.

Groundwater pesticide presence, though, pales in comparison with the chemicals prevalence in surface rivers and streams. In California, state regulators detected pesticides in 95 of 100 locations in the Central Valley. More than half of these sites exceeded safe levels for aquatic life and drinking water consumption. In Kentucky, where farmers annually apply roughly 4.5 million pounds of the top five herbicides, these chemicals showed up routinely in rivers. A two-year study by the state Department of Environmental Protection discovered atrazine and metolachlor, both used heavily on corn, in a full 100 percent of the 26 river sites they examined; another chemical, simazine, was found 91 percent of the time.

The spread of these toxins is a serious matter affecting both environmental and public health. Atrazine, found widely in drinking water across the Midwest and detectable on many foods, is a “possible human carcinogen,” according to the EPA. Studies suggest it may cause ovarian cancer.

Nationwide reports are equally troubling and reveal a bath of chemicals harmful to fish and the broader freshwater ecosystem. In a ten-year study examining thousands of streams across the country, the US Geological Survey traced the proliferation of numerous agricultural pesticides: atrazine was in 90 percent of the streams; deethylatrazine and metolachlor were in 82 percent of all samples; others were detected at least 40 percent of the time. Still more disquieting was a 1999 USGS finding of an average of 20 pesticides, mostly agricultural, at each river or stream tested. Chemical concentrations of some compounds were frequently found to exceed allowable levels in drinking water, and one or more standards for protecting aquatic life were exceeded in 39 of 58 sites.

In studies conducted over the past 30 years, nearly half of all pesticides targeted for research were found in stream sediment, and some 64 percent in edible fish, mollusks, and other aquatic life.

More and more, scientists are observing important changes in hormones and reproductive systems among fish and other waterborne creatures exposed to pesticides. One study of sex hormones in carp revealed that the ratio of estrogen to testosterone in both males and females was “lower at sites with more pesticides.” Pesticides may also be a factor behind rising numbers of frog deformities, such as extra or missing limbs. In a 2002 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, biologist Joseph Kiesecker compared frogs in several Pennsylvania ponds, with and without pesticide runoff. The rate of misshapen frogs was nearly four times higher in the ponds with pesticides.

Environmentalists and scientists are not the only ones complaining. Fishing enthusiasts are angry about the poisoning of their prey. Randy Fry of the Recreational Fishing Alliance of Northern California has written that pesticide pollution “seriously impacts the estuarys food-web and thereby limits the productivity of Central Valley populations of salmon, steelhead, striped bass, and sturgeon while increasing the pollutants carried by these fish.” Fry has noted declines in fisheries throughout the Valley.

Something in the air
Perhaps the greatest – yet most elusive – measure of pesticides long reach is their presence in the air we breathe. “Nearly every pesticide that has been investigated has been detected in air, rain, snow, or fog across the nation at different times of year,” says the US Geological Survey. Given just a lazy breeze, toxins can migrate for miles. A seemingly innocuous spraying or fumigation of a rural farm field can let pesticides drift through air currents for hours, even days, ending up as residue in nearby towns, ruining organic crops downwind and further polluting waterways. Diazinon, a highly volatile agent sprayed widely on nuts and stone fruit, actually increases its drift concentrations as time passes, the greatest amount of drift showing up two to three days after spraying. Although levels generally diminish, pesticide drift can last for weeks, and sometimes months after application.

The epicenter for the pesticide drift problem, particularly its human effects, is California, where decades of suburban sprawl – and intensely consolidated agriculture – have wedged burgeoning population centers up against farms. Blending agriculture with suburbs would seem a fine rural-urban complement but for the rampant use and drift of pesticides, which are exceedingly toxic, even at low levels, for children. “Pesticides in air are often invisible and odorless, but like second-hand cigarette smoke, inhaling even small amounts over time can lead to serious health problems, especially for children,” reports Susan Kegley, staff scientist for the Pesticide Action Network.

More than 90 percent of pesticides used in California (including non-agricultural pesticides) are likely to drift, and roughly a third of those are highly toxic to humans, according to a 2003 study by Californians for Pesticide Reform. Samples of two pesticides, chlorpyrifos and metam sodium, taken near sprayed fields, produced residues that were, respectively, some 184 and 111 times the acute exposure standards set by government for a one-year-old child.

The Gulf of Toxins
The Gulf of Mexico is afflicted with a “dead zone” stretching across several thousand square miles along the Louisiana-Texas coast. A massive algae bloom feasts on a steady diet ofpesticide application nitrogen and other nutrients flowing downstream from the Mississippi River. In summer, when the rivers flow peaks, the bloom spreads and chokes the Gulfs northern coasts, cutting off oxygen that supports sea life. In 1999 the zone ballooned to nearly 12,500 square miles – the size of New Jersey. The depleted water near the bottom of the Gulf contains less than two parts per million of dissolved oxygen, not enough to sustain fish or bottom-dwelling life.

One of the chief contributors to this dead zone is American agriculture and its countless tributaries of petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and animal feces overflowing from giant factory farms. The Mississippi River Basin, which drains an area representing about 41 percent of the contiguous US, is home to the majority of the nations agricultural chemicals. About seven million metric tons of nitrogen in commercial fertilizers are applied in the Basin each year, and the annual load of nitrates poured from the Mississippi River into the Gulf has tripled since the late 1950s, when pesticides and synthetic fertilizers began to dominate the agricultural scene. Another key ingredient is on the rise: billions of tons of factory-farm animal waste, overloaded with nitrogen and other potentially damaging nutrients.

In 1999, when Congress, the EPA and environmental groups pressed for cuts in farm pollution to clean up the Gulf of Mexico, some agricultural trade groups raised the specter of farm closures and diminished food production. “Crop yields in the Midwest could shrink if federal regulators try to reduce use of fertilizers to cut pollution in the Mississippi River and in the Gulf of Mexico,” the Associated Press reported, summing up the agribusiness argument. Asking farmers to reduce fertilizers would be “basically asking them to go out of business,” said Cliff Snyder, representing the Potash and Phosphate Institute. “It would have a significant economic impact if producers were required to reduce nutrient input… at a time when the farm economy is dismal.”

Despite the economic trap, some forward-looking farmers are contemplating ways to either use less synthetic fertilizer, which itself is quite costly, or at least drain their fields away from rivers, perhaps into wetlands that could hold the nitrogen until it evaporates.

Fertilizing sterility
Beyond the Gulf case, chemical fertilizers – laden with nitrogen, ammonia, and phosphorus, as well as trace toxic metals like cadmium – are a serious environmental problem. Overshadowed in the public mind by pesticides, synthetic chemical fertilizers severely deplete and erode soil and drain toxic nutrients into the water supply. They have become a perilous crutch – with over 14 million tons applied annually, seven tons per square mile in the upper Midwest – injecting excessive nutrients into the ground, and ironically, robbing soil of its fertility. A 1984 World Bank report concluded that American agricultures growing reliance on synthetic fertilizers “has allowed farmers to abandon practices – such as crop rotation and the incorporation of plant and animal wastes into the soil – which had previously maintained soil fertility.”

The petrochemical addiction
Why has pesticide use increased even in this time of growing ecological awareness? In Living Downstream, scientist-author Sandra Steingraber describes the political economy that has driven agriculture into a self-feeding cycle of poison. First, the arrival of synthetic pesticides following World War II

The produce looks good, but what’s in it?

reduced labor on the farm. Simultaneously, profits per acre began to shrivel. “Both these changes pressed farmers into managing more acres to earn a living for their families.” Bigger farms, and federal subsidies promoting mono-crop agriculture, “further increased the need for chemicals to control pests. And the use of these chemicals themselves set the stage for additional ecological changes that only more chemicals could offset.”

The decline of crop rotation in favor of monocropping – the planting of the same crop year after year – enables insects to adapt and recover, continuing the upward chemical spiral. Through Darwinian natural selection, the strongest few insects able to resist insecticides “become the progenitors of the next generation as their more chemically sensitive compatriots are killed off,” explains Steingraber. Thus pesticides ultimately create insects that are less susceptible to them. During the postwar pesticide revolution between 1950 and 1990, the number of insect species resistant to pesticides mushroomed from fewer than 20 to more than 500. In roughly the same period, the amount of crops lost due to insect damage doubled.

It doesnt have to be this way. Agriculture can be prolific and efficient without pesticides. The miraculous march of American agriculture toward unparalleled productivity long before the postwar pesticide revolution is a compelling testimonial to the possibilities of organic farming. Before agribusiness petrochemical addiction, farmers used crop rotation and diversified agriculture to replenish soils and keep pests on the run. Crop diversity supplied sustenance for farm families and livestock and a natural insurance policy against pest outbreaks or weather disasters.

While many so-called “conventional” growers have bravely made the transition into organics – itself a lengthy and costly process for which there is virtually no government support – the wider food economy and the profits of agribusiness rely on farmers continued deployment of chemical warfare in the fields. The near-perennial American surplus fueled by petro chemicals keeps farm crops cheap, not so much for consumers as for the intermediary complex of food processors, fast-food chains, and supermarkets.

Back in the days of Silent Spring, the US had for years been stockpiling food, requiring ever-larger subsidy payments and growing pressures on exports and food aid. As Carson remarked then, “We are told that the enormous and expanding use of pesticides is necessary to maintain farm production.” Yet, she said – noting that American taxpayers were paying more than $1 billion a year for this surplus food storage – “Is our real problem not one of over-production?” Excess supply is primarily a problem for farmers, both here and abroad, who are forced by price-depressing surpluses to “get big or get out.” For the petrochemical industry and its close partner, the biotech business, todays economy of surplus production and exports, and of a mono-crop industrial agriculture stripped of its natural sustainability, is not a problem at all. Except that they, too – and their children – must inhabit a poisoned world.

Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes for Mother Jones, Harpers, The Nation, and elsewhere. He is author of Diet for a Dead Planet: How the Food Industry Is Killing Us, published November 2004 by the New Press. This article was adapted from the book. (For more information, visit

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