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10 November 2014

Agricultural disarmament

The so-called industrial revolution of the nineteenth century was a perverse revolution. It knocked down small-scale traditional industries and boosted giant monopolies. Millions of people were forced off the land and into cities of factories, disease, and hunger.

Rural people and ancient traditions suffered the most from the violence of few men armed with large machines. This mechanized new class wants all power. Its bosses purchase their way into legislatures, demanding subsidies and a free hand in the use of technologies, especially chemicals.

In the United States the effect of industrialized agriculture has been thoroughly bad. The country has lost its character. Rural and urban have become nearly indistinguishable. America looks more like a homogenized territory rather than a society with great urban and rural towns and villages with distinct cultural and architectural assets.

"Rural" America has become an alien country within a country. One sees an expanded depression-era landscape: empty and abandoned households and "farms" as large as the eye can see. Millions upon millions of acres of land produce corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa, hay - and fruits and vegetables. Not far from these mega farms, there are numerous and, equally, gigantic animal factories holding millions of chicken, hogs, and cattle for fattening and slaughter. Under these conditions, rural people either live a life of suffering and disease or migrate to the cities. In the twentieth century, small white farmers "declined" by about 60 percent; black farmers almost disappeared: about 98 percent of them were forced out of agriculture.

The devastations of agricultural industrialization spilled over America to Europe and the rest of the world. The propaganda message was "feeding the world" for which, American corporations and foundations and land grant universities said, a "green revolution" was necessary. But this "green revolution" had nothing to do with agrarian equity but everything with tractors, synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides and one crop farming – exactly like in Iowa.

Add the cold war of the twentieth century to the "green revolution" crusade of global corporations and the results have been awful: agrarian wars, slaughters and hunger in Latin America and Africa; the stealing of land from the peasants for cash crop cultivation; and the decimation of rural traditional seeds and knowledge. These disastrous confrontations also left the natural world in peril.

In addition, landless peasants are fleeing the end of their culture, creating massive rivers of internal and external refugees. The tragedy is so large in Central America that dozens of thousands of children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are inundating the borders of America.

An equally pernicious effect of making small and large farms one-crop factories is the uncontrolled use of synthetic pesticides, supposedly to assist farmers in "producing" food. These chemicals are products of chlorine and petroleum – and war. Chlorine gas was the most terrible weapon of World War I. World War II scientists perfected neurotoxin agents, which became the backbone of neurotoxic chemicals for the industrialized farmers.

Our Daily Poison by Marie-Monique Robin (The New Press, December 2014) is a powerful and timely book that urges a revolt against the influence of the industry-government-academic complex running the poison empire of giant farmers and the chemical industry.

Robin, a French award-winning journalist, filmmaker, and muckraker, explains the toxic reach of the industrialized farming in France and other regions of the world. She is also the author of The World According to Monsanto, an equally important book on the global power of Monsanto, the world's "most controversial company."

What astonished me the most in reading Our Daily Poison were two things. One, a global dogma among farmers and bureaucrats on the presumed safety and need for pesticides; and, two, the almost "perfect" replication of the American agricultural industrial system in France. Here you have France with a millennium of agrarian civilization now ditched for the sterile and deleterious one-crop farming of Iowa.

How could this happen so thoroughly and so fast? Future historians will have hard time explaining the drop of France from civilization. Unfortunately, Robin, in this instance, is not of much help either. However, she describes the American-like French government-academic regulatory bureaucracy. Because France borrowed so heavily from the United States, the pesticides danger may be worse in France than in America.

The hubris of the chemical industry in France is stunning. It imposed its way on France even in the language one uses to talk about pesticides. Robin reports that the industry's "euphemization process" has effectively replaced pesticide by the Greek word for plant ("phyto"). So the French describe pesticides as phytosanitary or phytopharmaceutical products.

Robin also summarized scientific studies from all over the world showing long-term toxic effects of pesticides. For example, Robin documents that pesticides in France cause "neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson's disease, types of cancer, like blood cancers – leukemia or non-Hodgkin's lymphoma – cancer of the brain, prostate, skin, lung, and pancreas." Indeed, the French farmers, like the American farmers, suffer from more Parkinson's disease, more brain and more prostate cancers than the rest of the population. A very sick French farmer, Paul Francois, tells Robin time has come to break the taboo about the danger of pesticides.

Our Daily Poison does break the silence. Time has come to disarm farmers and others hooked on deleterious pesticides and other dangerous toxins. Robin's book justifies that disarmament. It shows a global industrial system radiating corruption and danger. Our Daily Poison covers pesticides, additives, and plastics contaminating our food.

Robin quotes two American professors, David Egilman and Susanna Rankin Bohme of Brown University, in explaining the dangerous system of industrialized agriculture.

"This system produces disease because political, economic, regulatory and ideological norms prioritize values of wealth and profit over human health and environmental well-being," wrote the professors.

Our Daily Poison is a necessary political introduction to our world. It's full of facts, stories, and wisdom. And despite its translation from the French into English, this muckraking expose is a great read.