Jerome Rodale, the father of the Organic movement, published ‘Organic Farming and Gardening’ magazine in 1942. ‘Mr. Organic’ would go on to publish several books and another magazine about organic gardening. For most of his life, Rodale championed ‘non-chemical’ based farming techniques as better for the human health.
Although he started publishing back in the 1940s, he was the person who popularized the use of “organic” to mean food that had been grown without pesticides, nearly 40 years before the first organic grocery store would open its doors.
Rodale himself did not live to see the organic movement embraced by big business. During an un-aired TV interview on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971, he boasted that his organic diet would enable him to live until 100 and that he “had never felt better”.
In the same TV interview, Rodale died from a heart attack.
Despite his unfortunate yet memorable death, his legacy, Organic, lived on aided by the villanization of its nemesis: non-organic or ‘Chemical agriculture’.
The public hysteria surrounding ‘Chemicals’ or non-organic agriculture that Rodale had helped to build was exacerbated by events that would take place in the decade before Rodale’s death and every decade since. Monsanto produced “Agent Orange” for the US government to use in Vietnam, a deadly defoliant made from combining two pesticides that were common back in North America. The exposure to dioxin for so many people resulted in a litany of diseases and birth defects, for both the Vietnamese people and US soldiers.
Back home in the 1962 United States, the book “Silent Spring” was published by Rachel Carson, and it provided an unflinching look at what Carson considered excessive use of synthetic pesticides, made even more dramatic by reports of thousands of birds dying in midair in afflicted areas.
“Along with the possibility of the extinction of mankind by nuclear war,” wrote Carson. “A central problem of our age is the contamination of man’s total environment with substances of incredible potential for harm—substances that accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals, and even penetrate the germ cells, to shatter or alter the very material of heredity, upon which the shape of the future depends.”
The imagery invoked by Carson was that of a pure, almost pristine world, being contaminated by human greed and negligence. It worked well because it was a piece of environmental literature, but written almost as a call to arms, very unlike a standard scientific publication.
Carson conflated pesticides with the threat of nuclear war and radiation poisoning, effectively tapping into Cold War panic. And while she was right about DDT and its derivatives, it’s important to remember that aggregating fear was the most effective way to raise awareness of the issue.
The commercial success of Silent Spring and other literature that would follow had been fostered by a fear of chemicals, a fear that had been growing since Rodale first began publishing. This concern culminated in the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, which finally banned the use of DDT (the pesticide of concern in Carson’s book) as one of their first actions.
However, at this point, justified fear of specific chemical compounds, such as DDT or Agent Orange, started to become blurry. Instead of focusing attention on the details, the public began to respond to any compounds being criticized, not just those specific chemical compounds known to be harmful. Any mention of the word “chemical” evoked images of acid-burned skin, deformed infants, dead birds or genetic mutations.
Once the narrative that chemicals were dangerous was planted in the public psyche, only one step remained: the villainization of the corporations who created and used them.
And corporations did themselves no favors.
On the world stage, corporations, committed to maximizing profit and satisfying stakeholders, and wholly failed to convince the public of their goodness. In fact, the actions of a few arguably damned the lot. Shortly after Rodale passed away in 1971, the apolitical international organization “Greenpeace” started in Vancouver, Canada with a rock concert and a boat headed towards a nuclear testing site. They were stopped by the US navy, but their mission made the front cover of newspapers worldwide.
As public interest in the environment took hold, the villainous behavior of corporations and their trusty steed “chemicals” grabbed headlines. In 1974, holes in the ozone layer were discovered to be caused by CFC’s leaking from refrigerators, and the Love Canal toxic waste dump was discovered near Niagara Falls. In the 1980s, the public was rocked by the devastating chemical disaster in Bhopal India and the discovery of a new and even more frightening hole in the ozone above the Antarctic. The 1990s was no exception: five time Oscar nominated film, Erin Brockovich, tugged at the public’s heartstrings through illuminating the inhumane effects of pollution while the first GM crop (a tomato called Flavr Savr) was sold to the public later acquired by Monsanto - an offshoot of the company that produced Agent Orange during the Vietnam war.
With each following decade, the EPA passed more acts that would limit the actions of corporations yet, simultaneously, the mounting stacks of cash hoarded by these institutions gave them greater political power and, as such, the destruction of the earth and those who inhabit it continued.
At this point, one might question the point of this article. One might argue that any fear of chemicals is a perfectly justified response to a dangerous entity wielded with relentless force by powerful institutions.
Yet, at this point, ask yourself: what is a Chemical? What does this word ‘Chemical’ mean? Is it, as Organic would have you believe, necessarily evil?
The word ‘Chemical’ is an especially simple term, yet, it is nevertheless suffocated by heavy, negative implications.
Strictly speaking, a chemical is a combination of elements - the fundamental substances that make matter. For example, water (H20) is a combination of hydrogen and oxygen. It is also a chemical. Our bodies are entirely composed of chemicals, as is everything else we can see or feel.
Yet, despite this definition, the word chemical is now understood as something quite different. When a fast food restaurant promises that their burgers are ‘free from chemicals’, they are not using the word chemical in it’s true form, as a burger free from chemicals is impossible. Instead, chemical has been redefined as any substance that is unhealthy, artificial or potentially harmful.
However, using the word chemical in this way renders it meaningless. This is a goldmine for marketers who can now label items with broad, meaningless phrases that lull the consumer into believing that their products are, in some unfalsifiable way, better for their health and the environment.
Fear mongering regarding a meaningless word such as Chemical, is arguably doing as much damage as conventional agriculture. Much like how any pervasive fear of of something woefully misunderstood and largely intangible obscures real concerns, a rampant fear of ‘Chemicals’ steals the public interest away from the details of the issue, which are of paramount importance.
This can also be capitalized upon by marketers who use this fear as a more effective way to advertise their products.
In all, the more the public’s fear of Chemicals is spread, the more money and attention flows in the wrong direction. Therefore, the rhetoric of the Organic movement is perhaps more harmful to the environment at this point as it overshadows new information. In demonizing the overarching chemical elements of modern agriculture, it obscures the real villains: unscrupulous corporations, unsustainable practices, and the unfair treatment of farmers at the hands of those same corporations. The villains we can actually fight.