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|review: The War on Bugs : River Valley edition : Sunday, 23 February 2020 14:30 EST : a service of The Public Press|
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Humans Caught in Crossfire in the The War on Bugs
by A.C. Hutchinson
(This book is an eye-opener. I first met Will Allen more than a decade ago, when he was living in California and working on a project to promote sustainable cotton. The War on Bugs documents the consistent and systematic poisoning of humans that has taken place over more than the past century, usually under the guise of progress. When the ramifications of one poison become known and the substance banned, then another, hailed by marketers as the new miracle cure and more toxic than its predessessor, appears. It's a story oft-told and fated to be repeated. Buy organic! SM)933 words
Let's say you've chosen strawberry shortcake for dessert tonight, so you've purchased a supply of the bright red berries. Like many of us, you've bought them without giving serious thought to any health risks that might be associated with such a seemingly innocent purchase.
But read Will Allen's The War on Bugs (Chelsea Green, 2008) thoroughly documented examination of the use of pesticides in the California strawberry harvest and you may have some second thoughts. These juicy berries may not be as harmless as you think, although one might assume that they would not be available if the federal government believed they were a danger to our health.
"In 2004 California strawberry growers used 184 different pesticides," Allen, now relocated from California to Vermont, reports, adding that six of them accounted for more than 80 percent – or nearly 9 million pounds – of them. One, methyl bromide, remains on the market even though it supposedly was banned under an international treaty (the Montreal Protocol) more than 10 years ago, he reports.
In The War on Bugs other agricultural products are profiled in the same easy-to-read approach he applies to strawberries. You can find everything you need to know, and more, about the use of pesticides in the growing of carrots, watermelon, spinach, onions and peaches, for example.
Not surprisingly, the author is a co-manager of the organic Cedar Circle Farm in East Thetford, Vermont and serves on the board of Rural Vermont (he earned a doctorate in anthropology and has a long history, including time in jail, of fighting for civil rights, against war and, now, against the widespread use of dangerous chemicals). He notes that "an average of 335.40 pounds of pesticides were used on each acre to grow strawberries for our shortcakes."
But this is not just a book about popular desserts and their hidden dangers. It is a well-crafted, thoroughly researched literary polemic against the chemical companies and their customers (the farmers) who, by means of advertising, propaganda and other marketing techniques, have lulled consumers into unwittingly purchasing all kinds of farm produce that has been treated with often-dangerous insecticides.
In fact, The War on Bugs is also a truly fascinating history of agriculture not only here in the United States but elsewhere, and it is generously illustrated with documents that portray not just the progress of agriculture but the often-hidden costs associated with that progress.
"The goal throughout this book has been to advise consumers to protect their health and safety by being fully informed about the foods they choose and the type of farming that produces their food," Allen explains in the appendix. "An analysis of residues on foods is a valuable guide to know how many poisons are still lurking in your food when you eat it or cook it."
This is not the kind of book you grab for an evening's reading pleasure. For one thing, its format – 9 inches by 9 inches – makes it difficult to manage from an easy chair (although the format also allows for excellent depictions of documents that in themselves are extremely interesting, especially to readers who appreciate history).
No, this is a book that ought to be read with a certain seriousness of purpose, perhaps with a notebook and pencil nearby. It is a book of importance to all of us.
Speaking of history, consider this passage: "The earliest European pilgrims to North America (1607 to Jamestown) were forced to borrow certain techniques from … native farmers just to survive. However, almost no European immigrants adopted the Indians' complex tribal farming systems. This is because the survival of Dutch and English colonies depended on producing commodities for export and for local sale – in other words, on making a capital profit for their investors."
That last phrase, "on making a capital profit for their investors," resonates throughout Allen's book, for the profit motive explains so much of the behavior of the chemical companies marketing the pesticides and the farmers buying their products. That, of course, is how capitalism works, but the consumer seldom stops to give market economics much thought.
"My interest in how farmers became comfortable with using dangerous chemicals began more than thirty years ago, as many of us converted our farms from chemical to organic production," the author explains in the preface. "Along with several close friends, I had come to the realization that we did not need to use so many dangerous poisons on our farms since we were getting good yields and high quality without them. This realization was an epiphany for those of us brought up believing that chemicals were Necessary, Critical, Essential, Modern, Progressive, Profitable, Economical, Miraculous, even Heroic – all in capital letters."
The question is: How many will take the time to read this treatise on a subject that should be, at the very minimum, Necessary, Critical, Essential, Modern and Progressive?
A.C. Hutchison is retired as editor of The Times Argus. This review appeared originally in the Vermont Sunday Magazine.
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