Crisis of PESTICIDES in AGRICULTURE Eugene M Walter & Dale L Schurter
The good earth is under siege. Its crops are being attacked by increasing myriads of insects. Fighting back is man. His weapons a bristling arsenal of more than 50,000 commercial chemicals. How did it happen? Is there no way out of this unending struggle?
CHEMICAL warfare" is a fact of life. It is, today, man's last arsenal against crop-destroying insects. These chemicals affect not only insects but man himself. They affect everyone — and that includes you. No matter who you are or where you live, you consume, in your food, pesticides originally meant for insects. And you carry these chemicals around in your body. More than a billion pounds of pesticides have already accumulated in the earth's air, water, soil, living plants and animals; and the amount grows daily. What these poisons are doing to the entire web of life — and to personal health — is only beginning to be known. But what is already known ought to tell us that, unless we drastically change our ways, we are heading for disaster.
Life Chain Threatened
The most common of the pesticides are DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbons. These are especially vicious pollutants. They are very stable compounds and are not easily broken down. And because of their persistence, they cause dangerous biological concentrations in the food chain. They end up ultimately in the human body. Here is what happens: Ocean water, for example, contains phytoplankton — the producer of over half the world's oxygen supply and the first link of the chain of life in the sea. Not only does DDT decrease oxygen-producing photosynthesis, it has a tendency to be accumulated in biological organisms and passed up the food chain — from phytoplankton to zoo-plankton, shrimp, small fish, larger fish and then fish-eating birds. By the time we get to the birds, the concentration may have accumulated an astounding 10 million times over the original amount present in the ocean water. Likewise on land, these poisons are extremely destructive to microorganisms and other minute forms of life and life-processes in the soil. Interference with these little-understood — but vitally important — links in the ecological cycle have profound effects. Land birds, for example, accumulate DDT by eating DDT affected earthworms, caterpillars, etc. Since man eats some animals high up on the food chain, the potential danger to man is obvious.
Chemicals of Extinction
Chemists had something great, they thought, when they introduced these highly toxic chemicals. Insects perished by the millions when DDT and related chlorinated hydrocarbons were first applied. Chemists of course knew that the chlorinated hydrocarbons are almost insoluble in water, but highly soluble in lipids (fats or fat-like materials). Since all organisms contain lipids, the chlorinated hydrocarbons — including DDT — always move from nonbiological, inorganic substances into biological organisms where they are retained. That is why animals in every part of the earth — including penguins in the Antarctic — have traces of DDT in their body fat. Man is no exception. The average Briton has 5 ppm (parts per million) DDT in his fatty tissue, the average American 10-12 ppm, and the average person in India 25 ppm. Collectively, more than 20 tons of DDT is being carried around in the fatty tissues of Americans. Research on the subtle or long-range effects of chlorinated hydrocarbons is just beginning — especially in regard to man. But what is happening to birds and animals ought to sound the alarm. Pesticides have virtually wiped out certain bird species by upsetting an intricate hormone-enzyme relationship which causes thin-shelled eggs that crack and fall apart easily. They have caused fatal nervous breakdowns in wildlife by interrupting the nerve communication system. Recent research indicates DDT causes a marked alteration in the sexual mechanisms of rats and a proneness to cancer in animals from mice to cattle. Dr. Charles Wurster, one of the leading authorities on chlorinated hydrocarbons, says of these chemicals: "All are nerve poisons. They cause instability or spontaneous 'firing' of nerve cells, and increased doses result in tremors or convulsions — typical symptoms of acute poisoning that can occur in organisms ranging from houseflies to man. In general, if an organism has nerves, the chlorinated hydrocarbons can kill it" (Weeds, Trees and Turf, August 1969). Dr. Joseph J. Hickey, professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin puts it bluntly: "DDT is a chemical of extinction." Stanford biologist, Peter Raven, asserts: "There is rock-solid evidence on what these chemicals do to other animals. It would be a bad mistake to think that man is unique." As the harmful effects come to light, many around the world are beginning to speak out against the use of DDT and the chlorinated hydrocarbons. But has this public outcry — and even limiting or outlawing DDT in certain states and countries — curtailed the use of pesticides as a whole? Not at all! Man heedlessly and recklessly develops and uses new and more potent pesticides than ever before with little or no concern for the ultimate outcome.
Nerve Gases Used as Pesticide
In many areas, organic phosphors are being substituted for DDT and chlorinated hydrocarbons. These were originally developed in World War II as German nerve gases. Chemically, they are cousins to the nerve agents GD and VX involved in the current chemical and biological warfare controversy. Some fifty million pounds of organic phosphors are being spread unchecked as pesticides on America's farms and gardens annually. Because these pesticides break down much more quickly than chlorinated hydrocarbons, many assume they are safer. The truth is that these odorless and colorless chemicals are potentially even more dangerous. Dr. Alice Ottoboni, California State Public Health Department toxicologist, says of organic phosphors : "As a class, they are more immediately harmful to man and animals than the persistent ones." Minute amounts can kill almost instantly either by contact or by being swallowed. Also, a nonpersistent pesticide does not just "disappear." As it breaks down "It becomes another chemical that may be less or more toxic than its parent," warns Dr. Ottoboni. Very little is known of the environmental fate of these degraded products of pesticides, either persistent or nonpersistent. But in spite of not knowing what the ultimate outcome will be, man blindly continues to use ever more potent chemicals in ever greater quantities.
The Vicious Cycle
Another major problem with using pesticides is that natural enemies of the pest are often killed along with the pest. Since these natural enemies were partially successful in controlling the pest population, wiping them out temporarily leaves the pest free of important natural restraints. Under these circumstances, the pest will develop a resistance through mutation and again multiply before the natural enemies can multiply to control them. This resistance of insects to pesticides is a mounting worldwide problem. Between 1908 and 1945 only 13 species of insects had developed resistance. Now the figure stands at almost 150! The current practice employed to control these new hardy pests is to develop a new, more potent pesticide. Instead of controlling or killing the insect pests, a vicious cycle is created — stronger insects, more toxic pesticides and an increasing threat to all life forms on this planet.
No Way Out?
Here then is our dilemma: We are told that if pesticides were completely withdrawn from use, crop and livestock production would drop from 25 to 50 percent — that commercial production of apples, peaches, cherries, grapes, cranberries, raspberries, strawberries, citrus and a host of other products would come to a halt — and that millions would have their diet drastically altered or reduced. But if we continue to use pesticides we also are in deep trouble. Survival is at stake. Not only will pollution reach critical proportions, but as insects develop resistance faster than new pesticides can be developed, it is just a matter of time until these insects will begin to destroy food crops wholesale. And mankind will be utterly unable to stop them. Some look to biological control to provide an out. But so little money and effort is being spent on research in this area — and progress comes so slowly — that this appears to be a false hope. In addition, there are whole categories of pest problems with no remote prospect of biological control. Have we then painted ourselves into a corner? Is there no way out? Is there no way that insect plagues can be stopped without using pesticides? The surprising answer is that there IS a way out. Let's begin to explore what the solution is by asking some very basic questions — and finding some very simple, yet profound answers. Do insects have a purpose? What causes insects to attack plants and become "pests"? Few seem to know.
The Purpose of Insects
Insects constitute 70 to 80 percent of all animal species. They are so numerous that no one knows how many species there really are. More than 800,000 have already been classified and 10,000 more are being classified annually. There are almost as many insects on every square mile — three billion — as there are humans on earth. Insects multiply rapidly. A single pair of flies is potentially capable of producing 191,010,000,000,000,000,000 offspring in just four months! If they all survived, the earth would be covered to a depth of 47 feet! This cannot happen because the laws governing nature never permit a single species, plant or animal, to dominate any environment completely. Weather factors — such as temperature and rainfall — limit the distribution of an insect species. Toads, lizards, frogs, moles, snakes, birds, bats, shrews and other creatures feed largely on insects. Some birds eat their own weight in insects every day. Predatory insects prey on other insects. Larvae of parasitic insects develop in the eggs, the young or the adults of other insects. Viruses, fungi and bacterial diseases also help control the insect population. In fact, if the insects were not kept in check by these natural forces, it is doubtful whether any conceivable volume of chemicals could possibly keep down their populations. Yet we are seldom aware of nature's own controls. All these natural checks do their work without threatening man. Insecticides, which contribute only a very small part of the total controlling force over harmful insects, are threatening all life. Doesn't it make sense for man to encourage the balance of nature rather than devastate nature's natural controls at every turn? It is not generally realized that less than one percent of the insect species are considered pests to man. We can figure the crop loss due to these pests with a fair degree of accuracy (about $4 billion annually in the U.S.). But the positive benefits of insects are often overlooked because they are more difficult to estimate. It is easy to forget that bees, wasps, flies, butterflies and other insects pollinate plants that provide us with fruits and vegetables; or that some insects are vital links in the food chains of fish, birds and land animals; or that others act as scavengers of animal and vegetable debris and others as aerators of soil; or that still others are parasites or predators of damaging insects. Instead of studying the habits of insects and implementing natural control methods, many now simply mow them down with spray guns. For the most part, the function of "harmful" insects is all too little understood. Now, happily, some few scientists are beginning to realize the relationship between soil fertility, crop production and pests.
Why Insect "Pests"?
In his landmark book An Agricultural Testament, the famous British agriculturist Sir Albert Howard relates how in five years' time at a research station in India he "had learnt how to grow healthy crops, practically free from disease, without the slightest help from mycologists, entomologists, bacteriologists, agricultural chemists, statisticians, clearing-houses of information, artificial manures, spraying machines, insecticides, fungicides, germicides, and all the other expensive paraphernalia of the modern Experiment Station." In other words, Sir Albert worked with the principles any small farmer could use economically. From his experience, he observed that: "Insects and fungi are not the real cause of plant diseases but only attack unsuitable varieties or crops imperfectly grown. Their true role is that of censors for pointing out the crops that are improperly nourished and so keeping our agriculture up to the mark. In other words, the pests must be looked upon as Nature's professors of agriculture: as an integral portion of any rational system of farming. "The policy of protecting crops from pests by means of sprays, powders, and so forth, is unscientific and unsound as, even when successful, such procedure merely preserves the unfit and obscures the real problem — how to grow healthy crops" (p. 161). These conclusions are not dreams of a man who failed. Sir Albert was knighted for these very agricultural researches — for effectively proving the usefulness of the system. Many who have worked with the soil have noticed the tendency of insect pests to prefer plants that are weak, sickly, unhealthy, unbalanced or just a little "under the weather." This deficiency or imbalance may be so subtle or so slight that it cannot be measured or analyzed by present scientific methods. Because science cannot ascertain this imperfection — and, judging by the paltry amount of research being done in this area, is not interested in finding out — it usually pretends that no imperfection exists. But it does exist. And the bugs know it! Now take the cause-effect relationship a step further. What is it that causes plants to be weak and inferior — prone to insect attack?
Why Inferior Plants?
A number of factors may cause weak and inferior plants. But one of the most important factors is a depleted or unbalanced soil. A professional soils consultant for Brookside Laboratories of New Knoxville, Ohio has stated: "We are proving today that sick soils produce sick plants and sick plants produce sick animals and humans. There are about one hundred of us who work with about 10,000 farmers at the present time. The overwhelming majority of them have already discovered that in a truly healthy soil our crops are not attacked by insects because God created these pests to destroy sick plants so that they cannot reproduce themselves." In times past, this interrelationship of soil, plants and insects was recognized. In 1870 the American journalist Horace Greeley reported: "Multiplication of insects and their devastations are largely incited by the degeneracy of our plants caused by the badness of our culture. I presume that wheat and other crops could not be devastated by insects if there were no slovenly, niggard, exhausting tillage methods used. But when the fields of western New York were first tilled there were few insects; but after crops of wheat had been taken from those fields until they had been well-nigh exhausted of crop-forming elements, we began to hear of the desolation wrought by insects." Mr. Greeley had understanding that most seem to lack today. In this day and age ever so few see any relationship between our depleted soils, the use of incomplete synthetic fertilizers and the alarming increase in insect pests. It is to their great shame that most agricultural institutions have been preoccupied with research involving palliatives such as pesticides. They have utterly neglected research into how to correct the CAUSE of insect pests. The information gleaned from the smattering of work that has been done, however, bears out the validity of the principles just presented. Dr. William Albrecht of the University of Missouri showed that spinach grown in fertile soil resisted the attack of thrips, while that grown on poor soil was destroyed by these insects. Dr. Leonard Haseman, also of the University of Missouri, found that the greenhouse white fly attacked tomatoes only where there was a phosphorus or magnesium deficiency in the soil. Chinch bugs thrive and multiply where corn is grown under conditions of nitrogen deficiency such as on eroded and poor hillsides (Journal of Economic Entomology, Feb. 1946). Work done at the University of Florida shows that both the rate and the source of nitrogen has a pronounced effect on the susceptibility of grass to chinch bug damage. Grass receiving high rates of inorganic nitrogen was severely damaged by the bugs, in contrast with the grass receiving nitrogen from an organic source (Wallace, Nematoligica 6, 1961). The Haughley Research Farms in England, operated over four decades, now under the world-renowned Soil Association, has found in actual practice that crops grown on soil built up by natural manures were much more resistant to pest-inviting weaknesses than crops grown with the aid of chemicals. We are observing the same results in our Ambassador College Agricultural Research Program. Even under the best conditions, insects may destroy a small percentage of the crop. But is this in itself bad? The loss of the weakest part of the crop assures the food value of the remaining part. You would think that the prospect of growing quality products which resist insects and render pesticides unnecessary would cause great excitement. But not so. This solution — the only REAL solution — runs counter to the greed of human nature and the vested interests of our social and economic system. And it appears that man would rather perish than change that! Now note another pest-producing practice which is so near and dear to modern agriculture.
Monoculture Upsets Natural Balance
In the natural state, the earth always raises varied crops. But in some areas of our modern world, it is a rare sight to see mixed-crop cultures. Yet it is well known that growing plants in large tracts of uniform crops is not natural and will attract abnormal amounts of insects. The greater the area under one crop and the extent to which that crop is grown exclusively year after year, reducing soil quality, the greater the potential problem. The Colorado beetle is an example of what happens when man begins to simplify agriculture and farm one crop exclusively. This beetle used to be harmless, feeding principally on smart weed which it hunted out from among many other plants. When huge fields of potatoes were newly introduced to Colorado, however, the beetle suddenly found itself in the midst of mile after mile of green potato fields — a beetle's "paradise." As a result, this beetle multiplied so rapidly that within a few short decades it literally ate its way 2,000 miles to the Atlantic coast! Similar examples could be repeated many times from all parts of the earth. Yet unfortunately, our entire modern farming method is geared toward extensive crop monoculture. To many it would be unthinkable to even suggest that this practice be changed! Yet many have successfully changed of their own free will. Other sound principles of agriculture which farmers often neglect are the failure to rotate the crop to minimize insect reproduction; or to observe the correct time for planting; or to grow trees and hedges which encourage insect-eating birds to visit the farm.
Weeds and Herbicides
Herbicides to kill weeds are another major segment of the poison-spray pollution problem in agriculture. In the U.S., crop losses from weeds equal the combined losses from insects and diseases and run second only to those caused by soil erosion. American farmers lose about $2.5 billion annually to weeds and spend another $2.5 billion fighting weeds. For example, corn acreage treated with herbicides rose from 10 percent in 1950 to almost 60 percent in 1966. Many other crops showed similar increases (1966 USDA Survey). Discovery and exploitation of herbicides — weeds killers — has been both rapid and recent. About half of the present commercial herbicides were unknown ten years ago! Some experts predict the number of herbicides will double in the next ten years and perhaps double again in the following decade. So we see here the same vicious cycle as with the pesticides.
The Purpose of Weeds
As with insect pests, few seem to realize that weeds have a purpose. In the preface to his book Weeds, Guardians of the Soil, Joseph Cocannouer lists some of the purposes of weeds:
1. They bring minerals, especially those which have been depleted, up from the subsoil to the topsoil and make them available to crops. This is particularly important with regard to trace elements. 2. When used in crop rotation they break up hardpans and allow subsequent crop roots to feed deeply. 3. They fiberize and condition the soil and provide a good environment for the minute but important animal and plant life that make any soil productive. 4. They are good indicators of soil condition, both as to variety of weed present and to condition of the individual plant. Certain weeds appear when certain deficiencies occur. 5. Weeds are deep divers and feeders and through soil capillarity they enable the less hardy, surface feeding crops to withstand drought better than the crop alone could. 6. As companion crops they enable our domesticated plants to get their roots to otherwise unavailable food. 7. Weeds store up minerals and nutrients that would be washed, blown or leached away from bare ground and keep them readily available.
Obviously, these purposes and benefits are listed only as general guidelines and do not apply to all weeds under all conditions. F. C. King in his book The Weed Problem: A New Approach also reveals that weeds build up and protect the soil and, co-existing with domestic crops, can help make soil nutrients available to these crops. This author states that we are "hopelessly wrong in believing weeds to be useless plants and in devoting our energy to their suppression, instead of studying to employ them" (p. 17). In England it has been reported that when lawns become deficient in lime, daisies appear. The daisies are found to be rich in lime which they manufacture in their tissues. Lime is inserted into the soil when the daisies die and decay. When the soil becomes sufficiently enriched with lime, the daisy "problem" disappears. When weeds become so abundant that they interfere with crop production, it ought to be recognized that the cause of the problem is not the weeds, but the depleted soil which the weeds are trying to protect and build up. Instead of destroying such weeds wholesale with herbicides while our soil continues to be degraded, we need to get busy and build up the soil so the weeds will naturally reduce themselves.
Solving the Problem
Here, then, is where we stand in regard to the pollution problem caused by pesticides, herbicides and such chemicals. Is it possible to survive if we continue to use ever stronger chemicals in ever greater quantities? No! Is it possible to survive if we quit using pesticides? Yes! Many farmers — large and small — are successfully doing it! Will this be easy? For many, No! This is because the solution to the problem is to restore natural fertility to the soil. And as Professor Cocannouer has well stated: "Bringing a piece of land back to permanent fertility is probably the most difficult of all farm operations. Too often the farmer fails to make a go of his soil building because he doesn't acquaint himself thoroughly, before starting, with all the adverse factors he is going to have to fight. He gets discouraged because he does not see the size of the job of remaking land that has been weakened for fifty or a hundred years. He has more than likely been schooled to expect the quick response that land makes to stimulants. He forgets that now he is building for permanency, not merely stimulating." Obviously the biggest hurdle will be changing our attitudes and accepting the fact that the way to success is to WORK WITH natural laws, NOT DEFY them. Once this decision is made, the rest is remarkably simple by comparison. To build up our land in harmony with the natural laws of agriculture would temporarily disrupt every part of society. Food prices in some areas might fluctuate wildly for a season or so and there would probably be temporary shortages of certain items (though no starvation as many assume). Many have been surprised at how smooth and successful the transition can be when right principles are applied. Huge tracts of monoculture would have to be broken up and planted into smaller fields on a crop rotation basis. Because natural farming methods involve more intensive care that can often be given only by human hands, many millions from our crowded cities would need to move back to the land. A crash program in research and education to natural methods would have to be carried out immediately — and administered by the highest-level governmental agencies — in order to make a successful transition on a national level. Such a national program would take far more cooperation than putting a man on the moon — but it would also be far more rewarding. And it could be done! And the beautiful part of it is that many scattered individuals are already sold on the idea and have already proved that the system works on the individual level. How much better would it be if a whole nation decided to use the right system.
Will We Choose the Right Way?
Pesticides and herbicides are only one aspect of the pollution problem in agriculture that must be solved if man is to survive. Future articles will deal with other aspects of the problem and will also explain further how a system of agriculture based on working in harmony with nature's laws could be made to work. Such a system, properly applied, could result in happy, healthy people, an abundant supply of wholesome food for all, a stable economy, an improved environment and a truly high standard of living. Will we choose this solution? Human nature being what it is, it is extremely doubtful. If this only real solution seems too difficult, ask yourself just one question: Is survival worth it?