Would Rachel Carson Eat Organic?


Published:

Rachel Carson speaking before Senate Government Operations subcommittee studying pesticide spraying.

Photo via Library of Congress

Rachel Carson, who launched the modern environmental movement with her 1962 book “Silent Spring,” was a highly private person. But on one occasion she allowed an interviewer to ask, “What do you eat?” Her sardonic answer: “Chlorinated hydrocarbons like everyone else.”

Carson was referring to a family of chemicals used for insect control that included DDT, the principal target of her book. Even though Carson tragically died of cancer just 18 months after publication of “Silent Spring,” her best-seller had powerful and lasting effects. Congress moved to create a new federal Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, and two years later that agency banned DDT for agricultural use.

Did “Silent Spring” also launch our modern organic farming movement, as many organic advocates and businesses often suggest? Actually, no. That movement began in Austria in 1924, led by a mystic philosopher named Rudolf Steiner. Organic farmers use no synthetic chemicals at all, but Carson found this approach needlessly strict. In my research, I learned that she favored a restrained use of pesticides, but not a complete elimination, and did not oppose judicious use of manufactured fertilizers – which are prohibited in organic farming.

As a scholar focusing on food and agricultural policy, I respect Carson’s careful distinctions regarding agricultural chemicals. By not making these distinctions, I believe the organic farming movement has constrained its own potential not just to expand, but also to benefit the environment.

A 1963 CBS documentary on Carson and the impact of ‘Silent Spring.’

An Arms-Length Relationship

When “Silent Spring” became a sensational best-seller, advocates for organic farming were torn at first over how to respond. The leader of America’s organic farming movement at the time was J. I. Rodale, publisher of a magazine he had founded, called Organic Farming and Gardening. Rodale was jealous of Carson for having made such a splash criticizing DDT in 1962, since he had made roughly the same case 20 years earlier in the second issue of his magazine, but to little notice. He also chided Carson for not taking on chemical fertilizers as well as pesticides.

Rodale’s son Robert, who was editing the magazine in 1962, shared his father’s view that Carson was not fully on board with strict organic rules, but couldn’t resist trying to depict her as a supporter. He called her book a “masterpiece” and described her as presenting “the organic point of view.”

 

 

Carson, however, intentionally distanced herself from the organic community. She refused to speak before organic groups, and on one occasion even canceled out of an event after learning J. I. Rodale had been booked on the same panel without her approval. Carson considered Rodale, who had no scientific training and very few scientific instincts, to be “an eccentric.”

This he was. Rodale had once raised doubts about the value of the Salk polio vaccine, pushing for a dietary cure instead, and had argued that drinking artificially softened water would cause cancer. When researching her book, Carson did correspond with some followers of Rudolf Steiner, who shared incriminating evidence they had gathered on DDT, but she did not acknowledge their help in her book.

Synthetic Fertilizer Boosts Food Production

The organic farming movement was suspect in Carson’s eyes because most of its early leaders were not scientists. Steiner, the first prominent advocate for renouncing manufactured nitrogen fertilizers, was a mystic who believed in human reincarnation, the lost world of Atlantis, and an earlier lost continent named Lemuria.

Carson, who earned a master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University, disliked the nonscientific absolutes embraced by the organic movement. Instead she favored the central tenet of toxicology: It is the dose that makes the poison. In “Silent Spring” she framed her position on pesticides this way: “The ultimate answer is to use less toxic chemicals so that the public hazard from their misuse is greatly reduced.” When Carson testified to Congress in 1963, she said, “I think chemicals do have a place.”

Carson rejected the organic proscription against synthetic nitrogen fertilizer for good reason. Interdisciplinary scholar Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba has estimated that without nitrogen fertilizer, 40 percent of the increase in food production achieved in the 20th century could never have taken place. Smil also has shown that for at least a third of humanity in the world’s most populous countries, the use of nitrogen fertilizer made the difference between an adequate diet and malnutrition.

Farming without nitrogen fertilizer, using things like composted animal manure instead, makes growing food far more expensive. This is one of the reasons why organic salad mix costs on average 60 percent more than a conventionally grown mix; organic milk, 72 percent more; and organic eggs, 82 percent more. These high prices, in turn, explain why organic food sales make up only 5.3 percent of total food sales in the United States today, and why certified organic cropland makes up less than 1 percent of total cropland.

Environmental Progress Without Organic

Despite the small size of the organic sector, pesticide and fertilizer use have long since stopped growing in the United States, even as crop production has continued to increase. Total insecticide use peaked in 1972 and has fallen by 82 percent since then. Fertilizer use initially peaked in 1981, and applications have remained essentially flat for more than three decades now, even as total crop production has grown by 44 percent. Our stunted organic sector did not bring us these benefits. When it comes to reduced insecticide use, the credit goes to Rachel Carson.

To be sure, farm fertilizer runoff is a serious threat to water quality today. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported in 2017 that the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River had grown to cover an area of 8,776 square miles, the largest ever recorded in 32 years of monitoring. But I believe the solution has to come from continued improvements in conventional farming, such as planting more buffer strips between fields and waterways to trap chemical runoff. Most commercial farmers will not accept the unrealistic organic approach of switching to zero use of manufactured fertilizers.

Scaling up organic production could actually harm the environment, since it would require so much more land per bushel of production. USDA survey data in 2014 revealed that output per acre on organic farms was on average only 80 percent of conventional yields. This means that if the United States had raised all of its crops organically in 2014, we would have had to cultivate an additional 109 million acres of land – an area equal to all parkland and wildland area in the lower 48 states combined. The result would be a different kind of silent spring, caused not by chemicals but by needless destruction of wildlife habitat.

Robert Paarlberg, Adjunct Professor of Public Policy, is an independent scholar and consultant specializing in global food and agricultural policy. He received his BA in government from Carleton College and his PhD in government from Harvard. Paarlberg has been a member of the Board of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the National Research Council and a consultant to the National Intelligence Council (NIC), USAID, COMESA, IFPRI, the World Bank, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

This article was republished from The Conversation.

See also:
Setting the Record Straight on GMOs
Authentic Organic: Always The Best Choice

The Conversation

Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Daily Astrology

June 17, 2019

Can’t sleep? It may be because the Full Moon crescendo peaks shortly before dawn. Optimism as well as restlessness are fired up by Jupiter’s proximity to the Moon. Be aware of those who take a “holier than thou” approach. There is always something to…
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Alternative Health Directory

Browse all listings »

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Calendar

June 2019

Sunday Reiki treatments with Reiki master and practitioner Linda Simons in Brookline, MA. Start your week off on a more balanced note with a Reiki treatment on a Sunday afternoon. Please join me...

Cost: Sliding Scale $25-45

Where:
233 Harvard Street
Suite 36
Brookline, MA  02446
View map »


Telephone: 617-304-2205
Contact Name: Linda Simons
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

In celebration of the summer freshness, vitality and joyfulness, this is a spring pamper yourself DIY strawberry body care flower project that you will go home with. Time permitting you may go...

Cost: Pre-reg $35, $40 at the door, materials included

Where:
The Healing Power of Flowers—Heaven and Earth
68 Stiles Rd
Sute #A
Salem, NH  03079
View map »


Sponsor: The Healing Power of Flowers—Heaven and Earth
Telephone: 603-275-7688
Contact Name: Stacey Smith
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Join us for an exclusive workshop and wine tasting. This event is free! Attorney Lisa Cukier, partner at Burns & Levinson, will lead an informative workshop on divorce impacted by...

Cost: Free

Where:
Total Wine & More
321 Speen Street
Apt 802
Natick, MA  01760
View map »


Sponsor: Vesta: Redefining Divorce
Telephone: 508-744-6014
Contact Name: Deanna Coyle
Website »

More information

Part 1 - Animal Communication Tue 6/18 (10-6pm) and Wed, 6/19 (10-1 pm)  Fri, 6/21 *Optional morning off-site visit w/live animals  Learn how to communicate with your...

Cost: $540

Where:
Circles of Wisdom
386 Merrimack Street
Suite 1A
Methuen, MA  01844
View map »


Sponsor: Circles of Wisdom
Telephone: 978-474-8010
Contact Name: Cathy Kneeland
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
No Events

Are you going through a divorce, contemplating divorce, or recovering from divorce? Come to our Divorce Boot Camp, and we’ll help you get into shape! Join us and learn about the finer...

Cost: Free

Where:
Leading Edge Real Estate
2 Mount Vernon Street
Winchester, MA  01890
View map »


Sponsor: Vesta: Redefining Divorce
Telephone: 508-744-6014
Contact Name: Deanna Coyle
Website »

More information

Are you separated, divorced, or in the process of divorce? Whatever stage you are in…just considering divorce or many years post divorce… our Divorce Resource Nights have...

Cost: Free

Where:
Skylark Law & Mediation, PC
9 Main Street
Southborough, MA  01772
View map »


Sponsor: Vesta: Redefining Divorce
Telephone: 508-744-6014
Contact Name: Deanna Coyle
Website »

More information

June 20–23 For more info, please contact us at 336.574.1121 or aptaoffices@polaritytherapy.org www.polaritytherapy.org Keynote Speaker: Christina L. Ross, PhD, BCPP Wake Forest...

Where:
Hilton Long Island/Huntington
Melville, NY


Sponsor: American Polarity Therapy Association
Website »

More information

This development group is for students of mediumship looking to enhance, expand and practice their mediumship abilities. Traditional and progressive mediumship development techniques, topics and...

Cost: $25 per person

Where:
Moth and Moon Studio
173 South River Road
Suite #4
Bedford, NH  03110
View map »


Sponsor: Moth and Moon Studio
Telephone: 603-782-3674
Contact Name: Danielle Dionne
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

June 21–23 Medical Qi Gong for Health Care Practitioners and Tuina Treatment Strategies for Cervical Spine and Lumbar Spine with Bill Helm Join us Friday–Sunday, June...

Cost: See details

Where:
Roots and Wings Yoga and Healing Arts
317 North Main Street
Natick, MA  01760
View map »


Sponsor: Eastern Medicinal Therapies Education Center
Telephone: (617) 435-3586
Contact Name: Lauren Paap
Website »

More information

Networking / Supervision / Support  We are a varied group of holistic practitioners in metro-west Boston and we welcome new practitioner-members. We invite any local practitioner,...

Where:
Lincoln, MA


Telephone: 781-738-1920
Contact Name: Jai Kaur Annamaria

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Saturday and Sunday, June 22nd & 23rd plus Saturday, July 27th A path to reconnecting with your true self and expressing your full human potential. Summer 2019 Reiki...

Cost: $450

Where:
Northeast Reiki Center
61 Nicholas Road, Suite B2
Framingham, MA  01701
View map »


Sponsor: Northeast Reiki Center
Telephone: 508-808-5696
Contact Name: Lou Orsan
Website »

More information

At Elemental Energies with Chris Ann and Jeff Come see a wide collection of psychics, artists, healers, etc. from all over New England. Come buy tickets at the large raffle table. 100% of the...

Cost: ​Free admission

Where:
27 N. Berwick Road
Wells, ME
View map »


Telephone: (207) 641-5070
Website »

More information

Explore Your Psychic Awareness In This Fun And Informative Workshop Designed specifically for people who are awakening to their own psychic senses, this class will provide you with personalized,...

Cost: $125

Where:
The Mills at Salmon Falls
3 Front Street
Lower Mill
Rollinsford, NH  03869
View map »


Sponsor: Raylene Sousa Medium LLC
Telephone: 207-956-0220
Contact Name: Raylene Sousa
Website »

More information

Celebrate the longest day of daylight and the summer season with us! Come detox, relax and renew yourself for the summer celebration in our sanctuary! A great way to really dig in a get fully...

Cost: Special 3-15 min services $60 or 1-15 min service $25

Where:
The Healing Power of Flowers - Heaven and Earth
68 Stiles Rd
Sute #A
Salem, NH  03079
View map »


Sponsor: The Healing Power of Flowers—Heaven and Earth
Telephone: 603-275-7688
Contact Name: Stacey Smith
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags