By Evaggelos Vallianatos, 27 January 2013
Western civilization suffers from the delusion of replacing peasants and traditional culture with industrialized farmers. This goes hand-to-hand with another hazardous practice: privatizing and ruthlessly exploiting the natural world.
This hubris has been infecting more than private corporate executives and governments, which, after all, have the models of nineteenth-century robber barons in mind. Scientists eat from this fruit of ignorance, too. They and their engineering colleagues modernized the infrastructure of exploitation. They made it “science based.”
Chemistry, for example, developed petrochemicals and plastics and thousands of other deleterious substances that now threaten the entire life of the world with deforms, extinction, nay death.
Agricultural scientists and engineers also justified the violent system of industrialized farming and food production that, in irrigating crops alone, uses about 70 percent of the world’s drinking water,1 about 19 percent of fossil fuel energy,2 and emits considerable amounts of the global warming gases.
According to “Livestock’s long shadow,” a 2006 report of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in carbon dioxide equivalent; 37 percent of methane (which is 23 times more lasting than carbon dioxide); 65 percent of nitrous oxide (which is 296 times more potent than carbon dioxide); and 64 percent of ammonia (which contributes to acid rain).
FAO says that the ecological impact of livestock is very substantial: “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” Animal farms have been severely damaging the environment “on a massive scale.” They contribute to global warming, air pollution, and land, soil and water degradation. Animal agriculture, says the UN report, is also responsible for reducing biodiversity in the world.3
Farm animals (primarily chicken, hogs, and cattle) are now separate from the growing of crops. They spend their short lives very close to each other in concrete bunkers and factories eating largely genetically engineered soybeans and corn grown in massive plantations in Argentina, the Amazon of Brazil, Paraguay and the United States. Their grain food is laced with pesticides and antibiotic drugs. Their food may also include the flesh and bones of other animals. Their urine and feces fill huge lagoons that contaminate streams and rivers and, eventually, leak into groundwater. The Natural Resources Defense Council, America’s premier environmental organization, concluded in 2001 that, “Animal waste from large factory farms is threatening our health, the water we drink and swim in, and the future of our nation’s rivers, lakes, and streams.”4
Crops, fruits and vegetables also grow in abnormal circumstances, alien to the traditional agrarian methods and culture of my father, for example. I was a teenager in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the Greek Island of Kephalonia in the Ionian Sea. I remember my father, assisted by my older cousin, growing lentils, wheat and hay on very small strips of land without any chemicals or machines. We also had more than 200 olive trees for olive oil and enough vineyards for more than 100 gallons of wine. We also had chickens, sheep and goats. We worked hard but we were self-reliant in food. Our animals and crops were inseparable. Harvesting our grapes in late August is still alive in my mind, a picture that was almost identical to the harvesting traditions of Homeric Greece.
Most soy and maize in North America is now genetically engineered (genetically modified, GM). GM crops may be hazardous to both humans and wildlife.5 Indeed, GM crops are responsible for increasing the amounts of pesticides being sprayed over crops. According to Charles Benbrook, a former Capitol Hill staff scientist, in the United States GM crops have increased the use of pesticides by about 7 percent or 404 million pounds in the first sixteen years of use, compared with a scenario in which the same acres would be planted with non-GM crops.6
The GM moratorium in the EU is crumbling. Monsanto, the American protagonist for the worldwide farming of genetically engineered crops, is having tremendous influence in the US government. The result of this power is the spreading of the message of Monsanto by the US government as if Monsanto’s agenda were part of the strategic interests of America. The US threatened successfully the EU to open its agriculture to the GM crops of Monsanto.8 Not only that, but European countries are copying American agricultural and environmental policies. According to Rosemary Mason, a British physician and fierce environmentalist, the UK has been dismantling its wildlife labs and ecological monitoring8 so that, like the US, it can silence environmental dissent emerging from the abuse of the natural world.
One such abuse, decades old, is the ceaseless use and misuse of pesticides. Cancer is now a pandemic disease and pesticides are one of its major pillars. But pesticides, being biocides, are threatening our honeybees that pollinate about a third of what we eat.8 They are equally responsible for the devastation of wildlife, including endangered species.
Mason is warning the world that insecticides, especially the extremely toxic nerve poisons known as neonicotinoids, manufactured by Bayer CropScience of Germany, are destroying honeybees and other pollinating insects. Neonicotinoids are also harmful to fish, amphibians, bats and birds.10 Furthermore, she claims that pesticide scientists “make false claims about monitoring [neonicotinoid] levels in water in Europe. Pesticides are devastating human health and global biodiversity. Pesticides industry holds key posts on prestigious scientific journals… it controls European Regulatory Authorities… [and it] rules environmental protection agencies around the world. Increasing use of genotoxic and teratogenic chemicals in the home and public places is causing sperm counts to fall, chronic illnesses and cancers. Cancers once seen only in farming communities are now spreading to us all.”11
A chemical is genotoxic when it damages the genetic stuff of life; when a chemical causes monstrous deformities to the newborn we call it teratogenic. Mason’s criticism of the pesticides industry may seem exaggerated, but it is fundamentally correct, though it is not easy to check the worldwide influence of the chemical companies producing pesticides. From my 25-year experience of working for the US Environmental Protection Agency I can state that, indeed, the pesticides industry, probably the most profitable part of the chemical industry, does exert an overwhelming influence in the making of agricultural and environmental policy in America.
After all, why would the United States and Europe still be hooked to toxins that, in exceptional circumstances, are only incidental to the growing of food? Organic and biological farmers are proof of the uselessness or negligible usefulness of pesticides.
Nevertheless, modern industrialized businesses introduced synthetic petrochemical pesticides and countless other synthetic chemicals into commerce, agriculture, and the environment. For several decades, argues Philip Shabekoff, former reported for the New York Times, these chemicals have been threatening humans not merely with cancer but with additional diseases that are crippling and deadly to our children.12
These diseases include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, autism, diabetes and obesity. According to Theo Colborn, an American zoologist and science writer with tremendous scientific and policy experience, “one out of every three babies will develop diabetes… one out of every 88 babies born today [in 2012] will develop autism.”
She included these dreadful predictions in a letter she wrote to President Barack Obama, October 26, 2012. She summarized the chemical tragedy striking America and the rest of the world. Colborn is the president of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange in Paonia, Colorado.13
In 1996, Colborn was the lead author of “Our Stolen Future,” a sort of “Silent Spring” for humans, especially babies and children. The enemy now was more than pesticides but countless additional synthetic chemicals related to PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyls. These chemicals are made from benzene and chlorine, both extremely toxic chemicals that last for long time in the environment. Benzene comes from oil and natural gas. PCBs became popular because they were heat resistors and fire retardants and, in the 1930s, facilitated the electrification of rural America. However, PCBs are extremely toxic so, in 1976, Congress banned them.
The industry liked PCBs so it simply reformatted them, replacing their chlorine with other equally toxic and persistent poisons: PCBs-like fire retardants made with bromine, and PCBs-like chemicals made with fluorine. Colborn argued in 1996 and in her 2012 letter to Obama that, in amounts too small to detect, these petrochemicals have been disrupting our endocrine system, which includes glands like pancreas and the thyroids, the sex organs as well as part of the brain and the intestines.
Few people paid attention to this “bad” news in 1996, so “Our Stolen Future” was buried while government agencies did nothing. Colborn, however, ever vigilant, followed the story of the endocrine disruptors and, in the last 16 years, became convinced the danger became even more menacing. She reminded Obama that the Earth is “saturated with manmade chemicals… that can interfere in the womb with the delicate endocrine system that makes possible the development and differentiation of that precious single cell in the womb into a normal healthy child.”
In addition, she said, “the odds that a baby born today will become compromised with one or more endocrine disorders are far more greater than the odds of getting malignant cancer. This has happened because of the old chemical safety standards that predominantly focus on cancer. Those standards are deeply embedded in the language of federal health regulations allowing corporations to continue to put dangerous chemicals into their products, into the food we eat, and into the air we breathe. Chemicals are now in wide use that were never tested using assays that can detect disturbances in the womb that eventually lead to diseases that might not appear until puberty or even later in life such as obesity, infertility, Parkinsons, and Alzheimer’s. Our laws have let this happen.”
Colborn then urged Obama to go after the “stealth” petrochemicals because they are the real “terrorists,” posing “the most imminent threat to our nation and our economy.”
After all, petrochemicals cause global warming. James Hansen, America’s foremost climate scientist, is convinced global warming is putting the Earth “in imminent peril.”14 Petrochemicals also cause “endocrine-related epidemics.” “By drilling deep into the bowels of the earth for coal, oil, and natural gas,” Colborn said, “we have unwittingly and catastrophically altered the chemistry of the biosphere and the human womb.” She pleaded with Obama to launch a Manhattan-like project to deal with the chemical threats that dehumanize us “on a global scale.” “Let’s face it,” she said, “humankind is in the midst of a dire health crisis that requires immediate intensive care to survive.”
Theo Colborn’s warning, just like the warnings of James Hansen and Rosemary Mason, is a wake-up call to the entire population of the world. But what is happening in America is illustrative of a civilization asleep at the wheels. After all, the United States boasts material wealth, technological prowess, and Western culture. If America with the knowledge and the wherewithal fails to clean up its environment, what hope is there for other countries, which are simply catching up to what they see in the United States?
Time has come for the United States to wake up. Global warming makes the current danger from petrochemicals even more acute. The United States must either regulate or ban the myriad untested petrochemicals in our environment. End the exploitation of the natural world for fossil fuels: ban destructive fishing practices and stop chemical pollution. Return to family farms where animals and crops are raised together. Use its enormous scientific and technological skills to seek energy from the sun and, otherwise, create the standards for environmental and economic sustainability for its industry and society. Such a model might diminish the peril from global warming and, in fact, might save the world.
Evaggelos Vallianatos, historian and former US Environmental Protection Agency analyst, is the author of several books, including “Poison Spring” (forthcoming, Bloomsbury Press). He teaches at Pitzer College.
1. Wenonah Hauter, “Agriculture’s Big Thirst,” in Water Consciousness, ed, Tara Lohan (San Francisco: AlterNet Books, 2008) 73-81.
2. David Pimentel, “Reducing Energy Inputs in the Agricultural Production System,” Monthly Review, July-August 2009.
3. Henning Steinfeld et al., Livestock’s Long Shadow (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006).
4. Robbin Marks, “Cesspools of Shame” (New York: Natural Resources Defense Council and the Clean Water Network, July 2001).
5. Bill Lambrecht, “World recoils at Monsanto’s brave new crops,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 27, 1998; Don Lotter, “The Genetic Engineering of Food and the Failure of Science,” International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food,” Volume 16, Issie 1 (2009) 50-65; Michael Antoniou et al., “GMO Myths and Truths,” Earth Open Source, June 2012); Colin Todhunter, “Deadly GM Food,” Deccan Herald, December 26, 2012.
6. Charles M. Benbrook, “Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. – the first sixteen years,” Environmental Sciences Europe, September 28, 2012.
7. “WikiLeaks Cables Reveal U.S. Sought to Retaliate Against Europe over Monsanto GM Crops,” Democracy Now, December 23, 2010.
8. Dr. Rosemary Mason, “Open Letter to the Director General of the BBC” (December 10, 2012, private communication).
9. Evaggelos Vallianatos, “Honeybees in Danger,” Truthout, April 12, 2009.
10. Rosemary Mason et al., “Immune Suppression by Neonicotinoid Insecticides at the Root of Global Wildlife Declines,” Journal of Environmental Immunology and Toxicology, in press, 2013.
11. Dr. Rosemary Mason, “Open letter to the Director General of the BBC” (December 10, 2012, private communication).
12. Philip and Alice Shabecoff, Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children (New York: Random House, 2008).
13. http://www.endocrinedisruption.com/home.php The letter of Colborn to Obama is on this site. Colborn reads the letter.
14. James Hansen, Storms of my Grandchildren (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011) ix.