In our grandparents’ era, virtually all food produced and consumed was natural. Then, in the blink of an eye, our food production system changed as the development and proliferation of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and food additives came to life. Today, the agriculture, forestry, and other land use economic sectors account for 24% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
The agriculture industry has a vast amount of emission components, which ultimately have a ‘slow violence‘ effect that creates lethal consequences for the environment and vulnerable communities. Given the externalities agriculture is creating within the environment and society, businesses need to hold themselves accountable for their actions by integrating more sustainable agriculture practices.
Homo Sapiens Ate “Organic:” The Wake Of Industrial Agriculture
The fact is that from the time Homo Sapiens first appeared on the planet at least 200,000 years ago up until nearly the present day, all of the food they ate was organic. By organic, we mean that it is found in nature, with the only modifications to it coming from either the preparation or cooking of the food. Since about the time of World War II, however, humans’ diet shifted to one composed of chemically treated crops and animal proteins and highly processed foods with lengthy polysyllabic ingredient lists.
The question remains, how did we get here?
Although agricultural products in the pre-war era may have been predominantly fresh and natural, the age-old farming methods used back then, such as weeding by hand, spreading manure as fertilizer, crop rotation, and scarecrows were back-breaking and inefficient processes. American agriculture was ready for major improvements of any sort. To enhance food production, scientists started looking at industrial chemistry labs.
In 1939, Nobel Prize winner Paul Muller discovered that a chemical compound called DDT was perhaps the most potent broad-based insecticide ever seen, effective even on pests that had developed resistance to other insecticides. Muller’s DDT greatly reduced the need for farm labor. Since the adoption of DDT, farm productivity across the world took off exponentially.
Since the discovery of the different uses of DDT in the agriculture industry, the pesticide gained strong momentum and support from society due to how much it facilitated farmers’ work and productivity. “DDT is good for me-e-e!” sang a group of cartoon animals, vegetables, and people in an ad run in Time magazine in 1947. Muller was awarded a Nobel Prize for his discoveries on DDT in 1948, as the farming gains obtained from DDT really did seem miraculous for Americans.
However, all of Paul Miller’s scientific breakthroughs came at a high price.
Farmers and environmentalists soon started to realize some of the negative impacts DDT was having on the environment and were voicing their preoccupations with the world. Fear, as it turns out, would be the strongest motivator to spark change. All of these events, and many more, were chronicled in Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring.”
How Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” Redefined People’s View on Pesticides and Industrial Agriculture
Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring,” brought growing awareness about the problem of pesticides, exposing people’s fear of their continued use. She talked about how puppies and little kids were dying due to exposure to DDT, how it destructed wildlife and biodiversity, and asked readers to imagine a future world in which “no witchcraft, no enemy, no action had silenced the rebirth… the people had done it themselves.”
Her book criticized the chemical industry for spreading flawed information and called out the government for its lack of diligent oversight. As Mark Hamilton Lyte wrote in his biography of Carson, her work “calls into question the paradigm of scientific progress that defined post-war American culture. She faulted the legion of scientists and corporate interests who, through arrogance or carelessness or willful ignorance, employed chemicals, a weapon as crude as cave man’s club… against the fabric of life.”
Some of Rachel Carsons’ key scientific discoveries revealed in “Silent Spring” that shocked the world included:
- Most pesticides have limited power, as they are capable of targeting one or two types of insects. DDT, on the other hand, had the capacity to hundreds of different pests all at once.
- DDT had the power to not only kill pests, but also to alter entire ecosystems.
- People eating food treated with DDT were exposing themselves to dangerous health issues.
- Falcons were unable to raise their chicks due to how harmful pesticides were on them.
Through her discoveries, Rachel Carson made it clear that nature was vulnerable to humanity’s technological and chemical innovation.
Rachel Carson’s book received a lot of criticism from capitalist leaders and the chemical industry. However, with more than 2 million copies sold, “Silent Spring” succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination. Before Carson, the natural and organic foods movement was small and ridiculed. However, in the decades to come, the movement grew so much that even large supermarket chains such as Walmart, Aldi, and Kroger are now carrying organic food.
“Silent Spring” helped create a change in people’s attitudes and ignite an environmental movement. Rachel Carson revealed how scientists overtrusted their own creations and how they themselves were implicated in a vast complex of private and public interests designed to produce profits for chemical manufacturers and the growing industrial agriculture sector.
The ecological interconnections between nature and human society described in “Silent Spring” went far beyond the limited concerns of the conservation movement about conserving soils, forests, water, and other natural resources. A generation of Americans found their perspectives widened and their activism inspired by Carson’s work.
Yet, thanks in part to the defense of the scientific community, there was always another pesticide formulation hitting the market. Hormones for cattle were added to the farmer’s toolkit, as well as new food additives that were being developed to help food look prettier, taste better, and last longer. As such, the industrial agriculture industry continued to find its way in the US until today.
The Hidden Environmental Consequences of the Industrial Agriculture Industry
Industrial agriculture, with its reliance on mechanization, chemical pesticides and fertilizers, monoculture, biotechnology, and government subsidies, has made food abundant and affordable by improving the effectiveness of farming methods. However, pesticides’ ecological and social prices have been steep, as they have the potential to harm the quality of life of future generations.
The violence brought by climate change takes place gradually and often invisibly. “Slow violence” is a term created by Rob Nixon to describe the readily-ignored vulnerability of ecosystems and of people who are poor, disempowered, and often involuntary displaced. While industrial agriculture has helped double the rate of food production for humans, it disproportionally benefits big corporations and affects the most vulnerable.
Here are some ways in which industrial agriculture threatens biodiversity.
Impact on Clean Water Supply
Industrial agriculture has severe effects on people living near agricultural communities. On the one hand, in places where cattle farms play an important economic role, the combination of overgrazing and fecal wastes can contaminate communities’ water sources, compromising the quality of water available for families.
Industrial Agriculture Can Harm People’s Health
On the other hand, although pesticides were created to target specific insects only, if not used correctly, they can also harm human health. The toxicity of pesticides harms people differently – some people are more at risk than others depending on their age, gender, and individual sensitivity. People living near agricultural fields are more likely than urban residents to be exposed to farm chemicals.
Long-term pesticide exposure has been linked to the development of Parkinson’s disease, asthma, depression, anxiety, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cancer, leukemia, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Waste and Soil Degeneration from the Agriculture Industry
Many of the techniques and modifications on which farmers rely to boost output also harm biodiversity. For instance, in some places, stretches of forge land are consumed so extensively that grasses are unable to regenerate. Furthermore, concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) owners and operators spend millions of dollars on technologies that make it possible to produce massive quantities of milk, eggs, and meat, yet resist investing in technologies and practices to properly treat the wastes created in the production process.
The amount of urine and feces produced by the smallest CAFO is equivalent to the quantity of urine and feces produced by 16,000 humans. CAFO waste is usually not treated to reduce disease-causing pathogens, nor to remove chemicals, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, or other pollutants. Finally, recent studies confirmed that cropland irrigation has also been connected to the erosion of coastlines and other kinds of long-term ecological and habitat destruction.
Industrial agriculture’s slow violence effect has implications today, as well as the potential to harm the livelihood of future generations. As the population is expected to increase to 10 billion by 2050, humanity will need 56% more food to sustain the world. However, the lethal effects of industrial agriculture will put a cap on the amount of food that can be produced, as well as exacerbate rising food prices.
Industrial agriculture’s monoculture exhausts soil fertility, accelerates the reduction of biodiversity, creates poor drought resistance, and leaves the soil more vulnerable to erosion. Therefore, the cost to farm will rise, which will be inevitably reflected in consumer prices. The effects of industrial agriculture will be disproportionate depending on income level, further increasing the gap between low and high-income communities.
Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” sparked a new paradigm of scientific thinking, one where humanity and nature are in harmony. The legacy of “Silent Spring” continues today in the scientific community’s increased focus on environmentally friendly farming practices and the public’s heightened support for sustainability in all areas of our lives. Yet there is still a lot of work to do. Businesses, the chemicals industry, and farmers must be at the forefront of this change.
Businesses profiting from industrial practices must measure and act upon the negative impacts they are creating in the lives of the most vulnerable communities. Social justice must be addressed by studying the possibility of engaging in more sustainable agricultural practices, such as regenerative agriculture. If moral standards do not suffice to bring global leaders into the argument, businesses must take into account the long-term economic consequences industrial agriculture will bring upon them.
As sustainability is becoming a constant consideration in people’s minds, consumers will shift towards organic and regenerative food companies that abide by their commitment to environmental justice. Sustainable agriculture is the path to do good while doing well.
History exists to prevent humans from repeating their past. While chemicals can be a great tool for progress, we must think beyond their effectiveness and understand their implications for future generations.
If humankind’s efforts to reach mass production end up poisoning nature, nature would inevitably poison humans back. As Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” taught us, humanity shouldn’t be seeking progress by dominating nature, but rather by creating a healthy balance between innovation and sustainability.
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