Saturday, 26 August 2017

Pesticides, the history of ... by Carol Drinkwater

Last night, while I was watering the land, I watched a small flock of ring-necked turtle doves gorging themselves on fruits in the fig tree, which have ripened very early this year. There were other birds feeding off the grapevines. A large toad crossed the driveway and paused to study me with bulging eyes. I greeted him but he simply plodded onwards into the shade and safety of the wisteria bushes.
These are ordinary every day sights; the to-ing and fro-ing of wildlife. We have eagles who nest up in our pine forest towards the summit of the hill. Sightings are rarer. An occasional red fox suns itself on  one of the terraces.
These ordinary activities, which delight me, sometimes bring to mind the opening chapter of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Its description of the death of flora and fauna.
And I ask myself, suppose all this were destroyed?

Here, in the south of France, we are living through what the French describe as ‘la canicule', a wave of scorching hot weather. The temperatures have risen to mid-thirties. In some areas inland of us, the figures have hit the forties. Are these summer temperatures escalating year by year? It certainly seems to be the case. Will we adapt and survive? Over the past month, there have been horrendous forest fires in the area. They have spread fast, taking hold, causing devastation, because the earth and vegetation are too dry to resist them.
Here, overlooking the Bay of Cannes, we have had no rain, not a drop, since April. The land is baked like a biscuit. Still, this time we have been fortunate to have not been - not as yet - caught up in any of the hinterland fires. One downside of the relentless heat for us is that insects are taking up residence on the plants, weaving nests, webs, damaging flowers, eating into the fruits. Our farm is organic. I usually count on the midsummer storms to wash the critters away, because I won't poison them, but there is no such redemption this year.

Why, you might ask, do I not just buy an insecticide and spray all the shrubs and trees? Well, because we are organic and have been so for almost a decade now. If we target one insect, we set off a chain reaction that damages other forms of life.

When we first purchased this Olive Farm it was a crumbling property perched halfway up a hillside nestling amongst a jungle of overgrowth. You could barely spot even the highest tips of the olive trees, while the vineyard spoken of by the estate agent had long since been overwhelmed by a million rogue plants. The estate, or what remained of the original estate since the land had been mostly sold off, needed everything doing to it. Due to lack of funds it took us two years to call in a gardening company with the required heavy machinery to cut back the land. Once achieved, our denuded hill was a revelation to us. There, growing in rows on drystone wall terraces, were sixty-eight, 400-year-old olive trees. Gnarled, majestic beings. Their silvery tops were high; they were desperately in need of pruning and reshaping but they were healthy and they were fruiting generously. Everywhere about them were butterflies, small song birds, insects I could not put a name to. Bees and myriad other pollinators were buzzing from one tall flowering shrub to another. The farm was alive, it was buzzing, working.
Bucolic bliss.

Jump cut to a handful of years later and we were beginning to farm our olive trees to produce olive oil. Serendipity had found us a local man, Réné, who, in return for a large percentage of the produce, was husbanding the trees for us. I was taken aback when, as the fruits, the olive drupes, began to plumpen, he arrived with a van laden with machinery and liquids. I watched on as he began to spray the trees. He advised me to go back indoors and close the windows as he donned face mask, a long-sleeved overall and gloves. The process seemed to take the best part of a day and it was repeated every six weeks or so throughout the summer and autumn months until harvesting had been completed. For hours after his visits, the land seemed to be cloaked in a rather foul-smelling cloud. When I questioned Réné about the product and its functions, he explained that there is no other method for controlling the fly that lays its egg in the drupes. It has to be destroyed. It is considered a serious pest in all areas where olives are cultivated. The fly's larvae live off the flesh of the fruits and cause them to fall, shrivelled and empty. He was adamant when I protested against the use of chemicals. Every farm, he argued, employed the same products and there was no alternative to Dacus oleae. Or yes, one alternative: no crop. I shut up and let him get on with it. This continued for several years. Each summer, I grumbled and growled and no one took any notice of me. It had to be done.

                                                            olives riddled with fly larvae

I remarked to my husband that the songbirds were gone. There were fewer butterflies, less life flitting about the land. The buzzing, the insect activities were being silenced.

Then several things happened more or less at once or over a short period of time. I got chatting to a local gardener, André, who came to lend us a hand. He mentioned in passing that a series of new pesticides were causing concern to beekeepers. It seemed that these products, known as neonicotinoids, a relatively new class of synthetic insecticides, might very well be harmful to honey bees. This was somewhere around 2001/2002. We had hives on our land at that stage and I was keen to know more about this little-known concern. I began to research the subject. There was not too much information out there, which in itself caused me to persist. What I found out after considerable delving and investigation because back then this information was not easily accessible is the following:
Neonicotinoids are a relatively new class of insecticide. They were first put on the market in the mid 1990s. They all share a common mode of action, which is that they affect the central nervous system of insects, resulting in the creature's paralysis and death.
Here are some of the insecticides that come under the heading of neonicotinoids: imidacloprid, clothianidin, nithiazine and quite a few others.

I had not heard of any of them. These names were like another language to me but I set about trying to educate myself.
The conversations I was having with André were taking place in the early 2000s. So, not a great deal of research had been undertaken to discover the longterm effects of the chemicals' use. It was a little too soon for scientists or environmentalists to grasp the far-reaching damage being caused by neonicotinoids. 

The product being sprayed onto our olive trees, did it come under the heading of neonicotinoids? In fact, it didn't. We were using a crystal soluble in water known as dimethoate. It was patented in the 1950s by an American chemical company, American Cyanamid. Its function is to disable an enzyme which is essential for the health of the central nervous system. Its health hazard was rated as HIGHLY TOXIC. It  has since, in France at least, been more or less withdrawn from the market.
I stood on the land and stared at the trees. These trees were being sprayed to protect their fruits against a fly. Fruits which were being harvested to be pressed into oil. An oil which is one of the cornerstones of the Mediterranean diet. A basic food product. An oil which man has used and revered and respected for millennia.
Something is this system seemed to me to be very wrong. 
André leant me a book that is only available to registered farmers, professionals. We did not/do not qualify. This book, known in France amongst agriculturalists as Le Bible, lists every chemical product available for use on the land. It also lists its properties, its toxic rating and the effects it has on flora, fauna and on humans. The book, a rather heavy tome, made horrifying reading. Various cancers were listed, hormone disruption, skin problems, burning, nervous system damage, genetic defects.
On the hazard warning scale, for example, if you see a product which has H351 on its label, it means the product is 'suspected of causing cancer'. H360 means 'may damage fertility or the unborn child'.

I was about to embark on what turned out to be an odyssey of a research trip. Seventeen months travelling, circumnavigating the Mediterranean in search of the history, the culture of the olive tree. The travels produced two books: THE OLIVE ROUTE and THE OLIVE TREE. The two books inspired a five-film TV series, also known as THE OLIVE ROUTE.

It was during these trips that I discovered the word 'desertification' and its meaning. I saw for myself the effects of desertification. One of the The Olive Route films concerns itself with the subject. 
What is desertification? 
In a nutshell desertification is the degradation of land caused by aridity and the loss of vegetation and wildlife. These losses can come about through overuse of chemicals, overexploitation of the soil, depletion of nutrients in the soil. It is soil death, you might say. Desertification is becoming a significant global problem. I visited olive farms in southern Spain of immense sizes. They were kingdoms of olive production boasting thousands and thousands of olive trees. To protect their potential product, planes were flying over the groves disgorging the chemicals necessary to combat the olive fly and any other nuisance. Here, I saw the effects of desertification: the earth was cracking open. Great fissures splitting open the arid, stony ground. There was not a weed to be seen in a hundred kilometres.  There was nothing to hold the top soil. When it rained, the chemical residue on the trees was washed to the ground. Any top soil still remaining, now polluted with chemicals, was also being washed away, into the rivers. Rivers used to stock reservoirs. Reservoirs that feed into cities and towns for drinking water. The water is contaminated with the chemicals being sprayed all over the farms, the olive trees, the land. In parts of southern Spain, desertification is a swiftly-developing environmental crisis.

For my Olive Route books and films, I had transported myself back as far as 4,000 years BC in Lebanon and Syria where I had found olive trees of that venerable age, 6,000 years, still growing, still fruiting. Now, in Spain, I was staring at the future. The possible future if we do not heed the signs.
By the time I returned from my travels, the plight of the honey bee, its disappearance, was escalating and growing as a topic in public awareness and I was returning full of new knowledge. Our farm has since been run as an organic enterprise. We produce less oil but there are no chemicals in it and the insects, songbirds have slowly returned to the land. We are not endangering nature. Nor are we, through the consumption of our produce, poisoning ourselves.

On 1st June of this year, the US President announced that the US will be withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation. I have read that he has now confirmed this decision in writing although the withdrawal cannot, due to the terms of the agreement, be made effective till 2020. 

The history of the use of some form of pesticide dates back before even the Romans who recycled the paste left over after their olives had been crushed into oil. Roman farmers laid this paste at the feet of the olive trees as a repellant against pests.

                                                     Map of Mesopotamia 2,000 - 1600 BC

Farming, the practice of agriculture, began some 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, The Fertile Crescent. The name Mesopotamia comes from the Greek, meaning in between two rivers, The Euphrates and Tigris.  Roughly-speaking it was situated in what today is Iraq, and also included parts of Syria, Iran, and the tip of modern Palestine. Until then, man had been a hunter-gatherer, a nomad, taking/hunting what he needed as he travelled, when he needed it. The decision to create a more sedentary lifestyle and plant food for consumption was a major turning point in our history as a species. In fact, this move towards a more sedentary, agricultural lifestyle was beginning to take place all over the planet. One of the challenges that arose was how to avoids crops being attacked by pests and causing famine within the community. The first recorded use of a pesticide is by the Sumerians about 4,500 years ago. Theirs was a sulphur compound or bricks of sulphur used as a fumigant. As there was no chemical industry, all pesticides had to be of plant or animal derivation or a few from mineral sources. There is quite a bit to be found in Greek and Roman records. Various mixtures of dried plants were smoked to keep insects out of vineyards. Tar was applied to the base of tree trunks to trap creepy, crawling creatures. Pyrethrum, derived from the dried flowers of a chysantheum, Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium, has been used as an insecticide for over 2,000 years. I came across it on several occasions during my Olive Route travels. There are even some small communities of olive farmers in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean who were, when I met them, using it to repel the olive fly by planting up their groves with this daisy. Crusaders brought these dried daisy heads back from the wars to use against head lice.

During the 1850s in Bordeaux in France, a vineyard producer was having problems with people pilfering grapes from his vines. Thinking that he could make the grapes unattractive to the thieves, he applied a mixture of copper and lime to a section of his vineyards. The result not only deterred thieves, but it was also noticed that where the copper-lime mixture was applied, there was no disease incidence. This copper-lime mixture came to be known as Bordeaux mixture, a commonly used fungicide, even today. The discovery was the beginning of modern fungicide use.

1874, in Strasbourg, Austrian chemist, Othmar Zeidler and Berlin-born, Nobel laureate Adolph von Baeyer, an organic chemist, first synthesised a colourless, tasteless and almost odourless crystalline organochlorine called Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane, better known as DDT. However, its use as an insecticide was only discovered by the Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Mueller in 1939.

Orchard spraying with lead arsenate circa 1900. It was used in orchards in US until 1947 when most farers switched to DDT.

The use of natural repellants continued more or less in the same manner until the second half of the nineteenth-century when lead arsenate was discovered to be useful in the protection of crops. The Chinese in fact had been using arsenic since 900 AD to control their garden insects. In the United States, in 1907, the pest control industry began production of lead arsenate. The birth of one of the world's biggest and most profitable industries was underway. By the beginning of the 1920s, small planes were being used to spray the crops with it.
It was officially banned as an insecticide in August 1988. Studies were showing a high mortality rate, frequently through respiratory cancers, amongst farm labourers who were in direct contact with lead arsenate.
Replacements, alternatives needed to be found.

In 1942, DDT was made available to the US military. It was only a matter of time (1945) before it was put on the market for civilian use. In that same year of 1942, the herbicidal properties of phexoxy acetic acids were being described. This product used predominantly in the United States as a herbicide and grass defoliant contained the component dioxin, which was soon to be used in Agent Orange during the Vietnam War era. Even in 1942, scientists, chemical specialists, were aware that dioxin could easily penetrate the soil and contaminate groundwater.
Big businesses were getting heavily involved. Warfarin was brought onto the market for rodent control. Over the next twenty years a devastating variety and tonnage of chemicals were sprayed, dripped, dropped onto the land, onto fruit farms and agricultural enterprises of every sort. Synthetic pesticides were the new order. Although no one had as yet sounded the alarm bell, food was already being contaminated and the consumers of those foods - beast, man and wild life - were also being contaminated. Our environment was under threat. And many scientists and experts were aware of it.

                                          DDT as a pest control in cities and on beaches. Early 50s, USA

As early as 1945 when DDT was being heavily used as an agricultural and household pesticide, there had already been concerns about its dangers. Findings support DDT being classified as an endocrine disruptor and a trigger for breast cancer. Its Hazard Rating is "high risk".
Yet, it is still used, today, in Africa as a deterrent - 'disease vector control' - against malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Olga Owens Huckins's letter to the The Boston Herald

In January 1958, a woman, Olga Owens Huckins, wrote a letter to the The Boston Herald stating that the birds around her property had been found dead after an aerial spraying of DDT. She sent a copy of her letter to an eminent scientist friend of hers, Rachel Carson.
A couple of extracts from the letter:
All bees in a large section of the state were killed.
The "harmless" shower hath killed off seven of our lovely songbirds ...
... the grasshoppers, visiting bees, and other harmless insects are gone ... died horribly ...

Carson began to look more deeply into the issues cited. She found a body of scientists who had been documenting the physiological and environmental effects of synthetic pesticides. Unsurprisingly, the material was all classified. Through personal connects she managed to find allies and gain access to the materials.
The public alarm call was sounded on 27th September 1962, which was the publication date of Rachel Carson's now classic book Silent Spring.  Today, fifty-five years later, the book is cited as the seed that gave birth to the environmental movement.
Carson wrote:
"What we have to face is not an occasional dose of poison which has accidentally got into some article of food, but a persistent and continuous poisoning of the whole human environment."

Not surprisingly, the book was met with fierce opposition from the chemical companies. Still, it did achieve something amazing; it led to a ban on the use of DDT in the United States. Banned by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001, it remains in use in small quantities in Africa, for example, as a mosquito repellent. even though exposure even at low levels can have disastrous heath results.

Carson's book, her work, brought a new awareness to the general public. People began to ask themselves: what cost insect-free fruits. But it has not stopped the spectacular growth of the agrochemical companies. Monsanto, recently purchased by Bayer in Germany, has caused devastating damage worldwide with its Round-up Ready soya beans and Round-up weedkiller, first put on to the market in 1996. As I wrote above, dimethoate-based products were patented in the 1950s by the American chemical company, American Cyanamid. The company, founded in 1907, grew to be a leading conglomerate into the 1970s and 80s. It pioneered the development of feed additives which contain antibiotics and are given to cattle and pigs and can be added to drinking water. The subsequent widespread use of the feeds began to create concern that a resistance to antibiotics was taking place. This is an ongoing and very hotly debated subject. Resistance to antibiotics in animals reared for their milk or meat can/are causing a worldwide resistance in humans to antibiotics. Imagine life before penicillin.
In its later years, American Cyanamid was involved in a series of legal issues related to earlier environmental pollution. Yet, still, right into the twenty-first century, we were able to buy and use products with a base of dimethoate crystals.

It has now been proven that neocinotinoid insecticides, first produced in the 1990s, are threatening the existence of the honeybee; dramatic numbers of hive losses have been recorded in Europe and the United States.  By the 1990s, we should have known better. Science did know better. But we have not listening to the warning bells as far as synthetic agents are concerned. Why are they still being produced? The chemical giants, such as Bayer and Sygenta, have a great deal of power. Greenpeace claimed in 2016 that both Bayer and Sygenta had both chosen not to publish certain research papers which proved that their neonicotinoid products are killing bees. Sygenta went further. It posted on its website: "there is no direct correlation between neonicotinoids use and poor bee health".

It is seventy two years since DDT was give the green light for civilian, public use. Recent research into the longterm effects of DDT show several concerning results including that girls who were exposed to DDT before puberty are five times more likely to develop breast cancer in middle age.

In 2067, seventy years after neonicotinoids were first put on the market, what will be our post mortem?

We are poisoning ourselves, we are destroying our planet, we are preparing to leave a legacy for future generations that will give them untenable living conditions. Weather patterns are crazy. This summer in Europe the temperatures have been hitting the mid-forties. Way above the norm for these areas of the Mediterranean.

One hundred and ninety five countries came together in Paris in December 2015 to sign COP21, adopting the first ever universal, legally-binding global climate deal. The COP21 is a bridge to a better, cleaner planet. It is not specifically about the reduction of chemical use on the earth but agrochemical products have a major part to play in the dangers our planet is currently facing.

This is a massive issue. Thanks to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, her evidence brought about the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. But all bodies, agencies, are only as efficient and as honest as though who are managing them. A denial of Climate Change by one of the most  influential nations in the world is a vote for the agrochemical companies, it is a vote for those making fortunes out of fossil fuels. It is not a vote for a cleaner, safer planet.

One courageous woman in her time gave her voice. Rachel Carson made a monumental difference.  Yet, still, fifty-five years on, we remain at the mercy of synthetic chemicals - newer, more advanced chemicals - and our problems have escalated. I have seen on our own tiny patch a transformation, a return towards something healthier. The giant chemical companies who state that they are about 'feeding the planet' are lying to us, fudging facts. They are about greed and money. They do not have our planet's best interest at heart.

I do not believe we can sit back and remain silent. We have little time left. There is no time to remain silent.


Susan Price said...

Can't thank you enough for having the courage to stop using insecticides.

I often think that the sooner the human race joins its own Great Extinction, the better.

Lesley Downer said...

Fascinating piece!

AnnP said...

This should be required reading for all politicians and policy makers. So important and beautifully expressed - thank you.

Michelle Ann said...

A most interesting post on the long term effect of these chemicals. I would also have been interested in hearing about how your olive trees have reacted to the withdrawal of pesticides. Has it drastically reduced the crop, and are you using any other pest deterrents?

Andrew Preston said...

I was just about to ask much the same as Michelle has.

What now, do you wait for nature, and for when the rains come ?

I'm partly asking because what the Romans did, does look on the face of it, somewhat similar to a remedy rather than pesticide. In the philosophy that an antidote can be found nearby...., docks, nettles..

Unknown said...

What an impressively researched and well written article! I remember DDT and can still smell it to this day - we used it when I was a kid. Like all such it was intended to avoid hard work and tedious labour but we should never forget the hard won lessons of the past! Thank you Carol.

Sue Purkiss said...

We were in Sicily this summer and in the garden of one of the places we stayed was a gnarled old olive tree - I had a go at drawing it. I thought of you! Our own very youthful olive tree looks very well but still has no fruits...

Unknown said...

Great piece, but there are several errors and typos.

Carol Drinkwater said...

In answer to Michelle and Andrew, we produce smaller harvests which are organic harvests. I learnt during my travels of an olive farmer in Sicily who hangs Mediterranean sardines in bottles of water from the branches of the olive trees. I saw something similar in Malta too. We use this method now and it works. It is not as hundred per cent efficient as the pesticides we used BUT we have organic oil. I prefer less quantities and purer quality. I think the stink of the rotting fish attracts the female flies who go to the bottle and, of course, are drowned. Or, the smell repels them. I am not sure which, but it does work. It is also much cheaper than the cost of the expensive chemicals and the labour to spray.
Candy, thank you for writing that this is a 'great piece'. The typos - do point them out - are possibly due to haste. These blogs are monthly and they take time. I apologise. I do check for typos. As to the errors, please can you be a little more precise? Are you meaning historical errors? If so, I would be very grateful to know them.