Food First Part 8




HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY BOSTON                          1977



Chapter 7: The Food versus Poison Trade-off? (Cont)

The human toll

Even after the American insecticide Phosvel had been associated with the crippling of some 1200 water buffalo in Egypt, the Velsicol Chemical Corporation in Texas continued to manufacture it. Phosvel was designed to attack the central nervous system of insects. Apparently it can do the same thing to humans. Former employees of Velsicol have brought a $12 million suit against the company for damage to their health, including muscle paralysis, nervous-system disorders, blurred vision, and speech and memory blocks. Raymond David, a former supervisor at the plant, reported that workers in the Phosvel section were dubbed “the Phosvel zombies” because of their obvious nervous disorders. “The company knew people were getting sick,” said David. But the management tried to dismiss the problem. “They told me all those guys smoked marijuana. They said the guys were acid freaks,” recalled David. In 1975, David quit, feeling that he could no longer take responsibility for the hazards his subordinates faced. But the Velsicol Corporation apparently did not share David’s reservations. In 1976 the company attempted to get Phosvel licensed in the United States.

  • On the Pacific Coast in Central America, thousands who pick the cotton crop are poisoned by insecticides and hundreds of documented cases of death are recorded each year.
  • In 1967-68 in Nicaragua there were over 500 reported cases of human poisoning by insecticides with 80 deaths.
  • The United States Embassy in Mexico in 1974 reported 689 poisonings and 7 deaths of agricultural workers due to insecticides manufactured by Shell and duPont.
  • In Asian flooded rice paddies pesticides are destroying fish – an important protein source of the rural population – cultivated as a cash crop.


The poison business

Why is it that such destructive cycles get set in motion over and over again in different parts of the world? The simple answer is that the pesticide corporations are finished on Wall Street unless they maximize profits and expand at a steady clip sales that are now at well over $2.5 billion a year.

Best environmental security, not to mention truly effective pest control, clearly points to the need to develop pesticides that are as target-specific as possible and to study fully the effects of each new pesticide on nontarget insects, other wildlife, and people; but a chemical corporation’s interests propel us in exactly the opposite direction. In order to maximize profit margins and expand sales, a chemical company seeks to minimize research and marketing costs and to come up with pesticides that kill the broadest spectrum of pests.

  • To maximize profits, the companies promote scheduled praying, instead of spraying in response to need.

While agribusiness corporations are trying to promote “blind” scheduled spraying in underdeveloped countries such as India, some farmers in the United States have realized that on top of environmental and health damage they were being just plain swindled. In Graham County, Arizona, cotton growers, working with scientists from the University of Arizona, proved they could save a lot of money by eliminating blind sprayings. Instead, they sent trained scouts out into the fields to measure pest levels. Pesticide expenditure dropped tenfold and so did pest damage. Even adding on fees paid to the “pest scouts,” the total pest control costs were less than a fifth of what they had been with the scheduled approach. The chemical companies brought enormous pressure on the highest level of the university’s administration to force the withdrawal of the scientists from the program.

  • Similar experiments on 42 cotton and 39 citrus farms in California reduced pesticide expenditures by more than 60%.
  • Farmers could reduce insecticide use 35% to 50% with no effect on crop production, simply by treating only when necessary rather than by schedule.


Poison for beauty

What we gain from pesticides turns out in many cases not to be higher yields or better eating quality. We pay a heavy price in pesticides for skin-deep beauty. Our notion of what an orange or apple should look like is largely the creation of millions of dollars spent on full-color ads depicting “perfect” fruit. In several Latin American countries the sharply increased use of dangerous and costly fungicides has nothing to do with efforts to grow more food for local people but with making sure that fruits and vegetables grown for export can pass the beauty standards of the United States.

Why do growers continue to release such deadly poisons into the environment and risk their own long-term welfare? Basically because advertising by giant grower associations such as Sunkist, Inc., have conditioned the buying public to expect their fresh fruit to be blemish-free. Growers get premium prices only for such fruit.

Any alternatives?

We are happy – and relieved, we might add – to report that there are alternatives, many of which have been hastily discarded as old-fashioned. Now that the implications of tampering with complex natural systems are becoming clear, such alternatives can be viewed in a new light.

  • For decades crop rotation proved effective.
  • Mixed cropping patterns have been found to reduce the pest problem as compared to monoculture.
  • Introducing populations of natural predators and parasites into the fields is another nonchemical method with potential.
  • In China, under the guidance of experienced agronomists, production brigades organize a pest early-warning system, reducing damage by wheat rust and riceborer to less than 1%.
  • Even in the United States most weed control is still accomplished by tillage.
  • Mulching, the practice of putting organic or even inorganic materials on top of the soil or incorporating it into the soil, can reduce weeds without using herbicides.

The best news is that effective pest control methods do not require what underdeveloped countries and small farmers have least of – money for imported pesticides. Rather, they create a demand for what is most available – labor power – and thereby involve more people in the production process.

The knowledge monopoly

Governments and farmers throughout the world continue to fall into chemical traps in part because they lack information and advice about alternatives. The FAO is supposed to offer a pool of independent experts discovering and disseminating plant protection information, including the proper uses of chemical pesticides and alternatives. In China experiments are being carried out, often by ordinary farmers, on nonchemical control of pests. Such research, publicly funded, is also going on in scattered centers in the United States and Europe. Will these advances be disseminated by FAO?

Not likely. Already institutionalized within the FAO structure is direct collaboration with agribusiness corporations whose profits are directly threatened by any nonchemical alternatives.

  • More and more FAO technicians see themselves as “brokers” linking up a multinational agribusiness firm and an underdeveloped country. “So, your country has a corn rootworm problem? Let’s see what advice we can get from our Pesticide Working Group.”

The likely thrust of such advice – in case you could have any doubt – is clear from the action paper printed on United Nations letterhead at the official “Consultation with Agro-Industrial Leaders” organized before the 1974 World Food Conference. Corporate executives stress how chemical pesticides are “necessary” to solve the hunger problem in underdeveloped countries. They argue for shorter delays in approval of new pesticides. Publicly funded international agencies should, according to them, carry out a long-range study of how much pesticides will be needed (read “marketed”) in each region. Public funds should establish an international stockpile of “essential pesticides” (DDT included). Corporations should work more closely in training government technical staffs in pesticides use. (Some pesticide firms already work so closely with governments that the two must be indistinguishable to most peasants. In Tanzania, Hoechst has become the advisor to the government on insecticides and spraying equipment. Hoechst even uses government agricultural extension officers to supervise the spraying, for which they get a salary over and above the one they receive from the government. Hoechst has the power to fire a government extension officer who does not supervise “properly.”)

We hope you now see through the false threat that poisoning our environment will be necessary if the hungry are to eat. Clearly pesticides are not being used by or for the hungry and, as will be abundantly clear from this book, lack of pesticides is not what is keeping them hungry. The real threat is that pesticide technology is in the hands of a few corporations that will profit only if they can continue to make farmers and “concerned” people everywhere believe that our very survival depends on the increased use of their products.

The threat is even more ominous since some supposedly impartial bodies that could form a counter force to the power of multinational agribusiness have become, instead, their agents. Organizations such as FAO, far from developing and disseminating suitable alternatives or even the knowledge of the appropriate use of pesticides, are becoming partners in promotion for the chemical corporations.

The first step to weaken the grip of agribusiness is to deflate the myth that chemical agriculture is “scientific,” “modern,” and the only way to high yields. Far from being the answer to hunger, increasing reliance on pesticides can actually lead to more hunger. And we will all bear the costs.

Chapter 8: Does Ignorance Breed Babies?

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