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Chemical Dependency

Will Allen's The War on Bugs takes pesticides to task


Published April 30, 2008 at 8:49 a.m.

The Upper Valley Food Co-op in White River Junction was abuzz last Tuesday, but the talk wasn’t about the rising cost of food. Will Allen of East Thetford’s Cedar Circle Farm was about to discuss his new book, The War on Bugs.

“Oh, that’s good,” a woman in the check-out line said to the cashier. “But does he spray things, or does he just talk?”

The answer, on both counts, is a resounding, “No.”

As it turns out, Allen’s book is not really about bugs, but it will make your skin crawl. A useful historical primer and a call to arms, The War on Bugs charts how Americans have grown “comfortable” with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers over the last two centuries. The book is also an attempt to “rekindle” the spirit of classic exposés such as The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s novel about early-20th-century meatpacking in Chicago; and Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, which led to the ban of the pesticide DDT in the United States.

Allen sees a parallel between the public outcry following the publication of Silent Spring in 1962 and today’s exploding demand for organic and locally produced foods. “There’s a whole new populist movement happening around agriculture again,” he says.

Allen, 71, has farmed organically for most of his adult life. He grew up on a farm in California during the 1940s, when a lot of people, including Allen’s parents, were using DDT. In 2000, he and his wife moved to 50 acres of land along the Connecticut River in East Thetford. It took three years to get organic certification for the couple’s Cedar Circle Farm. He wrote The War on Bugs while populating it with “beneficial insects” that serve as a substitute for pesticides.

America’s addiction to insecticides began way before DDT, which became popular during the postwar “Green Revolution.” As far back as the late 1800s, mining byproducts like potash were applied as fertilizer. By the 1930s, petroleum-based sprays that contained arsenic and lead were being marketed to homeowners and gardeners. One of the most popular, called “Flit,” was marketed with cartoon characters created by Theodore Seuss Geisel — a.k.a., Dr. Seuss. “He was very popular,” says Allen. “But people were still dying and getting sick.”

Seuss’ “Flit” cartoons are among many advertisements and newspaper stories, culled from archives at Dartmouth, UC-Davis and the University of Vermont, that are reproduced in The War on Bugs. All this primary-source material may lure readers away from Allen’s writing, which is folksy and unpolished, but it illustrates one of his more salient points: That corporate spin tactics are at least as old as Uncle Sam.

“The promise of pesticides and fertilizers that was held out to farmers in the 1800s and early 1900s has really turned out to be disastrous,” Allen says in an interview after his White River Junction presentation.

Allen was a chemical-warfare paramedic in the Marine Corps, and he writes about the military-industrial complex with a jaundiced eye. In his book, chemical corporations are the main culprits in the poisoning of consumers, although government agencies, newspaper publishers and the military also share some of the blame.

During both world wars, he says, synthetic fertilizers were being produced alongside bombs and other weaponry. “Zyklon B,” which the Nazis used to conduct mass executions in concentration camps, was a cyanide-based pesticide derivative. In the 1960s and ’70s, “Agent Orange,” a cousin of DDT that was developed by the Monsanto Corporation, was sprayed over South Vietnam. In 1984, Union Carbide killed and blinded tens of thousands after pesticide gas leaked from its manufacturing plant in Bhopal, India.

At turns, The War on Bugs reads more like a collection of essays than a coherent narrative. Nevertheless, Allen’s central thesis — that pesticidal elites have willfully sickened family farms and consumers — is crystal clear. After he’d shared anecdotes to illustrate his point, the White River audience fell into a contemplative silence. One elderly woman dropped her forehead into her hands.

“If you look at all the chemical companies over time, every one of them has this horrific history,” said Allen, who wears his long white hair pulled back. “They are world-class criminals.”

In Allen’s view, the United States still doesn’t adequately protect consumers from toxic food. The Bush administration has fought changes to European law that would have curtailed the use of some U.S. products and chemicals, and California is the only U.S. state that collects comprehensive data on pesticide spraying.

According to Allen, the new menace is genetically modified organisms. Right now, Allen says, unlabeled GMO ingredients are found in more than 70 percent of the food sold on the shelves of American supermarkets. Ironically, he says, GMO plants require extra pesticide spraying to overcome built-in resistance mechanisms.

Allen’s frustration, though, is balanced by his faith in the burgeoning organic movement. Despite resistance from chemical companies, he points out, organics sales are increasing, and consumers have more influence upon corporations than they did when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring.

Allen serves on boards of advocacy groups such as Rural Vermont and the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association, and he’s also a battle-tested veteran of the civil rights movement. Last week, he proposed that audience members slap “poison food” labels on supermarket strawberries.

The crowd stirred at the thought of guerrilla action. One woman said that she liked Allen’s idea — her friends had employed a similar tactic during an anti-GMO campaign. But a bearded guy wearing a batik T-shirt was apprehensive. “Do you mean, like, literally go into the stores with stickers?” he asked. “I’m sure you’d get arrested.”

Allen laughed and cracked a devilish smile. “It wouldn’t be the first time,” he said. Last year, the elder activist was one of six Iraq war protesters charged with trespassing in the Vermont office of Congressman Peter Welch.