The War on Bugs by Will Allen

The history of humankind might also be said to be the history of warfare. From Roman times to the present day, human conflict has been the hallmark of our historical progression. But the fight against ourselves isn’t the only war we’ve embarked upon.

Organic farmer Will Allen’s beautifully illustrated and eye opening account of the US War on Bugs is an incredible story of the 100 year war against organic agriculture and small-scale farms - a war waged on two fronts: the chemical attack on bugs and the war for the hearts and minds of the US farmer.

Allen’s book charts the history of pesticides and reveals the collusion between scientists, corporate chemical advertisers and farm magazines in the promotion of chemicals in food production. Using a number of original advertisements and photos to illustrate his case, Allen delves headlong into the history of American farming, before embarking on a detailed look at the farm journals and publications that led the way in changing the fate – and land – of American farming. The introduction of guano fertiliser (literally thousands of years old bird shit, mined from the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru), DDT, cyanide, arsenic, and methyl bromide read like a litany of toxicological traumas. Yet the toxicological analysis of farm chemicals is neither required to be on the labels or in the advertisements for the products, Allen tells us. This and the anecdotal information about what Allen calls ‘the deep-seated acceptance of chemicals’ amongst farmers makes for fascinating reading.

Allen is particularly adept at stating his argument. Having trained as a chemical warfare paramedic in the Marine Corps, lived with forest farmers in Peru while studying anthropology at university, before eventually becoming a full time farmer his detailed research and wealth of information is backed by a keen sense of advocating change. When he states that the chemicals used on crops are similar to the ones Saddam Hussein used on the Kurds in Iraq and that were used in war in Vietnam it really makes you think.

But the counter-insurgency exists and Allen is careful to highlight the attempts made to oppose what he calls ‘the rural disaster’. Looking at the organic farming and the anti-factory-farm movements, Allen sees hope and opportunity for farmers to unhook themselves from their addiction to poisonous chemicals.

An absolutely fascinating read that encompasses the cultural, technical and economic challenges faced by US farmers, Allen’s story is of one hell of a drug trip, revealing the illusions – and dangers - perpetuated by such an addiction, while indicting those who seek to gain from it. Mandatory reading for anyone wishing to take a closer look at what’s actually in their meal!

The War on Bugs by Will Allen (Chelsea Green, £25)

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2008

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