When Did We Start Using So Many Pesticides?

Natural Prophets outlines how organic pioneers pushed against the chemical farming boom in America.

February 26, 2014

The theory of using chemicals on the farm dated back until at least the 1800s. Justus von Liebig was a German chemist and teacher who had studied in Paris with one of the pioneers of modern chemistry, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac. Liebig focused his work on soil fertility, and in particular the importance of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and a few other minerals. A depletion of these nutrients below a certain minimum, argued Liebig, adversely affected crop yields.

Through enthusiastic promotion of his sometimes rather narrow and specious theories (which ignored factors such as microorganisms, pH levels, and crop rotation), he became what author Will Allen called "the first great propagandist for chemistry and for chemical-industrial agriculture."  Liebig's 1840 book, Organic Chemistry in its Applications to Agriculture and Physiology, was the essential text on the subject. For a time, Liebig exerted considerable influence, especially at the scientific schools at Harvard and Yale. The work of one of his disciples, August Wilhelm von Hoffman, also led to breakthroughs in the development of chemical pesticides and fertilizers by the German companies Bayer, BASF, and Hoescht.


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Nevertheless, as Allen showed, the pointy-headed academics aside, those who actually tilled the soil in the United States were resistant to "book farming," and Liebig’s theories fell out of favor.

But everything changed in 1939, when a Swiss entomologist named Paul
Müller discovered that a chemical compound called dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane—DDT—was perhaps the most potent broad-based insecticide ever seen, effective even on pests that had developed a resistance to the old standby, arsenic. This was a breakthrough discovery that would ultimately lead us on a path from the blissful ignorance of our agricultural idyll, to "better living through chemistry," to a book that awakened a generation, to the natural foods revolution it all spawned.

DDT had first been synthesized in 1873, but no real use had been found for it until Müller's discovery. During World War II, the U.S. military and the War Production Board used DDT to control the spread of "louse-borne typhus" in Europe and malaria in the Pacific, to great effect. It was then released from military control for farm and household use right after the war, and quickly became the standard for insecticides.

"Painted or sprayed on the walls of a cow barn, it will kill every fly that lights there for the next 30 to 60 days," read one giddy editorial. "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. "The great expectations held for DDT have been realized," the ad continued.

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"During 1946, exhaustive scientific tests have shown that, when properly used, DDT kills a host of destructive insect pests, and is a benefactor of all humanity." The 1949 book Principles of Field Crop Production contained 15 separate mentions of DDT and recommended it for use in controlling such pests as the Australian wheat weevil, saw-toothed grain beetle, Indian meal moth, European corn borer, Great Basin wireworm, potato leafhopper, and velvet bean caterpillar—albeit with some cautions, such as avoiding feeding DDT-treated hay to dairy cows "because the DDT consumed by cows is secreted in the milk."

In 1948, Müller was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on DDT. By the mid-1950s, DDT became the most widely used pesticide in the country, replacing arsenic. DDT was not the only by-product of the war machine that would rapidly transform the food supply:

•British scientists at the Rothamsted Experimental Station, working to improve crop yields to help feed a hungry nation at war, developed an herbicide called 2,4-dicholorophenoxyacetic acid, also known as 2,4-D or Tributon, which would have revolutionary effects on weed control after it was released in 1946.

•Pharmaceutical companies that commercialized penicillin to treat war wounds would parlay that work into the development of antibiotics for livestock.

•Chemical companies that produced weapons like napalm bombs for the Air Corps turned their attention to agricultural uses after the war, and would churn out all kinds of new potent broad-spectrum pesticides.

•As the tide of fighting turned in Europe, more and more chemical secrets and processes from the highly regarded German industrial sector fell into Allied hands. Research done for the production of nerve agents—much of it by the members of the German chemical conglomerate I.G. Farben—led to the development of a whole new class of organophosphate agricultural chemicals (including the soil fumigant DD and the insecticides parathion and malathion), as well as to carbamates, among the deadliest substances ever produced.

Throughout 1944 and 1945, government committees were working on plans to transfer the remarkable military production capacity—which by war's end would produce more than 41 billion rounds of small arms ammunition and 5.8 million tons of aircraft bombs—away from materiel and over to peacetime production.

Agriculture was the primary beneficiary.

For example, the huge munitions plant in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which was left with a surplus of ammonium nitrate from the production of explosives, was converted in 1947 to a factory for the production of fertilizer. It was, as a DuPont Farm Chemicals brochure of the 1950s boasted, "Man against the soil ... [a] rise from savagery to civilization."

Most of these new agricultural chemicals were known to be highly toxic, although the specific risks—such as bio-accumulation in humans, development of birth defects, creation of algal blooms in the oceans, and destruction of the stratospheric ozone layer—would not be discovered for many years. As a result, a culture of acquiescence and blind faith in science permeated much of society.

The Depression and Dust Bowl were distant memories, the horrors of war were over, televisions were everywhere, and Uncle Miltie was there to make us laugh. This optimism and toe-the-line Levittown loyalty were part of a postwar consensus that, according to author Mark Hamilton Lytle, "encouraged social and political conformity, respect for governmental and community authority, uncritical patriotism, religious faith, and a commitment to a vague notion of an American way of life defined by prosperity, material comfort, and a secure home." Thus, weren't the chemicals that were starting to generate miraculous gains in productivity on the farms just part of the inevitable American march of progress?

Want to learn more about the industrialization of farming—and the subsequent move back to truly organic food? Debrow's got the inside story on how the natural foods revolution remade the American plate and transformed socially conscious business. Get your cropy of Natural Prophets from your favorite bookseller:

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