“Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called ‘insecticides,’ but ‘biocides.’ ”
For writing such things, Silent Spring author Rachel L. Carson was called a communist, a spinster, a hysterical woman, a junk scientist, and worse. But history—and science—would vindicate the harsh critique of agricultural pesticide she made in her landmark 1962 book. In it, Carson laid bare the chemical reality of our food system, condemning its consequences for the land, wildlife, and human health. President John F. Kennedy would quickly become “aware of Ms. Carson’s work” and launch a Science Advisory Committee to study the issue in 1963.
Carson would barely get time to enjoy the presidential committee’s report, released in May 1964, which agreed with nearly every point she made in Silent Spring about pesticide use. She died of breast cancer in June 1964—50 years ago this year. But her blow to the agrochemical establishment had been dealt. Silent Spring sold more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries. Americans were now conscious of the chemical residue lingering on much of their food—and they weren’t happy about it. Less than a decade later, in 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the agricultural use of the pesticide DDT—an especially toxic compound that was manufactured as a chemical weapon in World War II, and Carson’s main target in Silent Spring—for agricultural purposes. The ban brought on decades of new environmental regulations—laws that Patricia DeMarco, president of the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham University, says mostly sought to limit toxic exposure rather than output.
“Our laws treated the symptoms of polluted air, water, and land: We put corks in the smokestacks and stoppers in the emission pipes and liners in the toxic waste dumps,” she told a crowd last week at a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Carson’s death. “Yet today, 3.6 billion pounds per year of toxic materials are released by legal permit; 2.1 billion pounds of fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide drench our farmlands each year.”
But Carson’s last and what many consider to be her best book did more than just raise awareness of domestic pesticide use: It is now credited by many with launching the modern-day environmental movement, and it directly inspired the inaugural Earth Day—April 22, 1970. In the years since, organic agriculture became a viable alternative to the scenario Carson described, and in the last two decades alone, organic has exploded.
We are all too aware, however, that the work Silent Spring began is far from complete. The “chemical death rain” Carson warned against continues to fall. Pesticide use skyrocketed in the years following the book’s publication as chemical companies flooded the market with new compounds. Patricia Muir, professor in Oregon State University’s Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, reports that upward of 62 percent of all planted acreage in the United States is treated with some kind of pesticide at least once a year, including 93 percent of row crops. Robert K. Musil, president and CEO of the Rachel Carson Council—a nonprofit started by Carson’s friends and colleagues to carry on her legacy and activism—says Carson would be concerned with the amount of pesticides still in use. And he believes that she would be saddened by our continued hubris in dominating the environment around us.
“It’s our sense that we can control the planet, ecosystem, that we can fix it,” he says. “It is this sense that humanity had overweening pride, had become reckless, that we were the smartest critter and could control the environment and know what to do about it.”
Musil—whose biography, Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America’s Environment, was just released—adds that the United States continues to control pesticides by weighing the risks of chemicals to humans and the environment against the value of the food we can produce.
“We allow chemicals in our food to be innocent until proven guilty,” he says. “In Europe, they use a precautionary principle, which says that you don’t wait until the bodies are dropping to do something—you act on it.”
Meanwhile, the chronic health effects of exposure to pesticides have never been clearer. At the consumer level, up to 80 percent of the fruits and vegetables we consume contain surface pesticide residue. A 2012 study found that pesticides and other chemicals used in growing fruit and vegetables could be putting kids at risk of developing cancer. Then there are the freakish stories like that out of India, where nearly two dozen children perished last summer after consuming high doses of a common pesticide, organophosphate, in their school lunches.
Farmers and farmworkers, who have been exposed to such chemicals for many years, may be at a higher risk for certain cancers and even suicide. And get this: The government even considered increasing the amount of pesticide residue that can be found on the food we eat. Musil says these developments, including the threats posed by climate change, would have angered the soft-spoken Carson, who frequently called on humanity to apply its ingenuity to finding safer solutions for food production—including organic agriculture.
“You mean we can’t afford to have our farmers—or even big agribusiness—farm without chemicals?” Musil says. “Hogwash.”