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Agribusiness, biotechnology and war: Wartime profiteering and the disturbing expansion of chemical agriculture

by Brian Tokar

(Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Most of the chemical "tools" taken for granted by modern agribusiness are products of warfare. Is this merely an indirect consequence of the tragic history of the 20th century, or does it suggest that the currently dismal state of our soils, fresh water supplies and rural economies is an outgrowth of agribusiness' emergence from wartime in some important ways? Virtually all of the leading companies that brought us chemical fertilizers and pesticides made their greatest fortunes during wartime. How can this help us understand the ever-deteriorating quality of mass-produced food? And what does it tell us about the new technologies of genetic manipulation that every one of these companies posits as the centerpiece of the current generation of crop "improvement" technologies?

Since the earliest origins of modern industrial agriculture, agribusiness has been at war against all life on earth, including ourselves.

In 1998, as debates were heating up across Europe around the unlabeled imports of genetically engineered soybeans and corn from the United States, the editors of The Economist magazine in London published an impassioned defense of the biotech agenda in agriculture. "Agriculture," The Economist editors wrote, "is war by other means." Indeed, from its origins, chemical agriculture has been a form of warfare -- it is a war against the soil, against our reserves of fresh water, and against all the microbes and insects that are necessary for the growing of healthy food. Since the earliest origins of modern industrial agriculture, agribusiness has been at war against all life on earth, including ourselves. An examination of the origins of today's agrochemical technologies -- and the companies that first advanced them -- can reveal a great deal about where we may be heading.

During World War I, two German scientists named Haber and Bosch discovered an efficient means for the large-scale chemical synthesis of ammonia and its various nitrate derivatives. The BASF company -- now the world's fourth largest manufacturer of agricultural chemicals -- commercialized this process in 1913, and their products played a central role in the orgy of mass destruction that soon followed. Huge excesses of nitrogenous compounds that accumulated during World War I provided the basis for the beginnings of the mass production of synthetic nitrate fertilizers. DuPont -- now the sole owner of the world's largest seed company, Pioneer HiBred -- was the largest manufacturer of gunpowder in the United States during the early 19th century and the first World War. Monsanto increased its profits 100 fold during the World War, from $80,000 to well over $9 million per year, supplying the chemical precursors for high explosives such as TNT.

In the 1930s, chemists working for the German company Bayer discovered the highly poisonous properties of organophosphate compounds. Today Bayer has become the world's largest manufacturer of herbicides and pesticides -- and a leading source of genetically engineered seed varieties following its recent takeover of the biotech giant Aventis CropScience. As all of German industry became absorbed into the growing Nazi war machine, Bayer's organophosphate compounds were developed simultaneously as agricultural pesticides and as nerve gases for military use. These included such notorious chemical warfare agents as sarin, soman and tabun gases, all of which are still manufactured today. Organophosphates represent 40 percent of today's insecticide market, and are associated with some 20,000 cases of acute poisoning every year.

In the 1930s, scientists at the Swiss J. R. Geigy Company were searching for new compounds to disinfect seeds and prevent moths from feeding on wool. Geigy later merged with Ciba to form Ciba-Geigy, with Sandoz to form Novartis, and then merged its agribusiness division with the British Imperial Chemical Industries' offshoot Zeneca to form the agrochemical and biotechnology giant Syngenta in 2001. These researchers' key discovery was that DDT, which was first synthesized by an academic scientist in 1874, could accomplish both of their desired ends and more. Interest in DDT flared during World War II, when the U.S. Army faced two nearly incapacitating pest problems. Soldiers in southern Europe were facing widespread outbreaks of typhus from exposure to lice, and their counterparts in the south Pacific faced potential epidemics of malaria. The pyrethrum-based powders that were most often used had to be reapplied in a stringent and systematic manner every week, which was seen as far too inconvenient for battlefield conditions. The Army looked to Geigy's new product as the answer, and soon, 2 million pounds of DDT were being produced every month. DDT was seen as the "atom bomb of insecticides," capable of permanently eliminating various pest species.

After World War II, DDT became the most widely applied chemical in human history, and its commercial success led to a massive increase in the production and use of chemical insecticides of all types. The widespread use of DDT -- for both agricultural and household uses -- led to a dramatic shift in the chemical industry's approach to pest control, a shift in attitude that still plagues us today, and was in many ways a direct outgrowth of its wartime origins. DDT truly was seen as an ultimate weapon, the "atom bomb of insecticides," capable of permanently eliminating various pest species.

During the 1960s, Monsanto was a leading manufacturer of the herbicide "Agent Orange," which was used by U.S. military forces to obliterate the dense jungles of Vietnam. Today Monsanto's Roundup-family herbicides play a central role in the U.S. "drug war" via its widespread use to eradicate coca and poppy plants in Colombia and other countries. Colombian agronomists have uncovered the use of a new additive that increases herbicide exposures to more than 100 times Monsanto's recommended dosage for more typical agricultural applications.

Of all of Monsanto, DuPont and Dow's agricultural products, genetically engineered food crops might appear to be the least tainted with immediate wartime origins. But this technology emerged from a period when the future of chemical agriculture appeared very much in doubt. With the rapid expansion of the agrochemical industry during the post-World War II era, these companies and their European counterparts had established a profound degree of control over agricultural practices. But as public pressure and the weight of scientific evidence curtailed the use of DDT and many other chlorinated pesticides in the 1970s, executives and corporate scientists saw the potential for limitless advances -- and ever-expanding marketing potential -- in the incorporation of technological advances into the genetics of seeds. During the 1990s, Monsanto alone spent nearly $8 billion acquiring leading commercial seed suppliers in the United States and internationally; DuPont and others quickly followed suit, leading to today's widespread proliferation of genetically engineered food crops.

Today, as the Bush administration continues beating the proverbial war drum, and as scientific evidence increasingly affirms the ecological hazards of genetic engineering, it is imperative that critics and activists redouble efforts to counter these inherently uncertain and destructive technologies.

Brian Tokar is the author of Redesigning Life?: The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic Engineering. He teaches at the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont.

Editor's Note: This article, which ran in http://www.tompaine.com, is excerpted from a longer article in the September 2002 issue of Z Magazine.