DUCK SOUP: Good Intentions

After WWII scientific advances in chemistry coupled with swelling industrial capacity made chemical farming appear inexpensive. It looked to be the magic bullet that would save the world from starvation and save the family farm. Like most magic it turned out to be smoke and mirrors, and the bullet ended up in our collective foot. The use of pesticides has become standard procedure worldwide, yet crop losses from insect damage have increased over the past fifty years.Along the way, the small farm has become an endangered species. Chemical fertilizers have helped destroy our topsoil, and at the same time encouraged a capital intensive, mechanized agriculture industry that replaces farm communities with migrant labor camps.In a world with about twenty percent permanent unemployment we have turned the most important job, food production, into one of the lowest paid and least desirable careers -- at least for the great majority of farm workers. We have done all of that by relying heavily on imported subsidized oil, which runs farm equipment and feeds the fertilizer and pesticide manufacturing plants. In the process the United States has gone from being the world's chief exporter of food to a position teetering near the edge of self sufficiency. Our food imports now occasionally exceed exports.Something is a little haywire here. And "haywire" is the right word, referring as it does to a shaky contraption barely held together with baling wire. Now there is new evidence that we are mangling ourselves with farm machines.It seems that our chemical warfare on farm land is far more devastating to wildlife and ecosystems than anyone cared to admit. Rachel Carson's ominous ÒSilent Spring may be just around the corner. It is now apparent that one reason crop damage from pests hasn't declined is that we are killing natural predators in droves. A recent issue of Audubon magazine (Jan./Feb 97) documented the claim that, "Legally-used pesticides are killing tens of millions of American birds."David Pimintel, a researcher at Cornell University, offers a conservative estimate of 67 million birds per year killed by pesticides in the U.S. alone. That number, which is ten percent of the birds exposed to these poisons, does not include secondary deaths such as nestlings which starve when their parents don't return, those suffering from brain impairment which fly into windows, or vehicles, or others disabled to the point that they become easy prey. These are not accidental deaths caused by misuse or spillage. These animals die from EPA approved pesticides used as directed. In fact, it will probably surprise you to learn that the EPA doesn't pay much attention to wildlife poisoning, since their mandate involves only human health effects.Some of the toxins are so powerful that scavengers eating the poisoned birds, are themselves killed, and in some cases scavengers eating those dead scavengers die as well. The worst of the poisons include phorate, aldicarb, parathion, fenthion, diazinon and carbofuran. Diazinon is so nasty that the E.P.A. banned its use on golf courses and sod farms four years ago, yet it is still sold to home owners for lawns, where it kills or sickens wildlife, pets and children.A listener passed along a related newspaper story, from an entirely different perspective. Research on bug zappers, which are touted as an environmentally friendly alternative to poison, indicates that many more beneficial insects are killed than biting ones. In fact, a lot of the bugs zapped are the good guys who eat the bad guys that the zapper is supposed to zap.In this case the net effect is probably a few more mosquito bites, and a few less pollinating insects in your garden. In the agro-chemical war the net effect is catastrophic. The lesson is the same. It isn't what you think you are doing that counts.As toxicologist Linda Lyon, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, asks about the bird poisoning, "If we can't understand this -- when they're dropping on us from the sky -- how can we possibly deal with the subtle effects of pesticides on human health?"How indeed?Still hungry? Email THE SOUPLETTER:


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