This is a review of Thomas Degregori’s Agriculture and Modern Technology: a Defense published by Iowa State University Press in 2001. Professor DeGregori is from Texas and he thinks eco-trendy urbanites “wouldn’t know the difference between a cow patty and a rice paddy if they stepped in one”. (1)
For starters, Degregori tells of a teacher who gave students a choice of homework assignments between either flipping a coin 100 times and recording the results, or simply making up the results. The teacher could spot the made up results because they were more “50/50” without runs of either “heads” or “tails”. The students presumed average meant uniform. Reality is filled with coins landing “heads” 8 times in a row or “tails” beating “heads” 61 to 39. Yet, we frequently hear medical problems within a certain area are “higher than average”. If a checker-board grid were laid over a map of North America, and each square examined for medical issues, many anomalies would appear from cancer rates in Kansas to broken ankles in Boca Raton. “Higher than average” doesn’t mean much. (2)
Degregori’s focus is food. He zooms in on what is best described as “Pesticide-Residue Molehill” versus “Germ Mountain”. Ingesting trace pesticides on food is not a significant health risk. Field-hands and others working with barrels of concentrated pesticide are at risk. Statistics on pesticide poisoning are completely skewed by the inclusion of both suicide-by-pesticide attempts and incidences of accidental drinking of pesticides. Emergency wards are not filled with people who have eaten herbicide residues on store bought produce.
On the other hand, emergency wards are busy helping people who have eaten germs or funguses with their lunch. Degregori cites a Center for Disease Control and Prevention (1999) study which used a variety of surveillance systems. They concluded: “food borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year”. Salmonella, listeria and toxoplasma are the worst of a catalogue of toxic food borne bugs. (3) In addition to germs there are natural poisons secreted by crop diseases. The scariest are “aflatoxins” emitted by a fungus common to corn, rye and peanuts. Aflatoxins are 100 times more carcinogenic than PCBs and “have brought untold misery to humans throughout history”.(4) Other grain moulds like rust and smut release toxins causing insanity, birth defects and immune system disruption. (5)
The issue here is “Food Safety”. Public attention should be rapt on the micro-organisms in our food, not pesticide traces. However, the reverse is true because the social movement sustaining chemical-phobia is not interested in a better food supply system. Their goal is technological suppression.
Degregori zeros in on the myth “organic means safer”. He believes the “counter-cuisine’s” preference for raw foods and its disdain for refrigeration is a dangerous disregard of dysentery and botulism.
Organic agriculture is a load of manure. The preference for manure-compost sludges over manufactured fertilizers is one of the defining features of organic agriculture. Organic fertilizer is loaded with harmful microorganisms and compost heat is often too low to kill them. 160 F is required to kill most bacteria. E. coli 0157 can survive higher temperatures for months. Degregori doubts organic farmers use thermometers. A 2000 study on E. coli and salmonella concluded “the biggest reservoir of these nasty bacteria” was manure in fertilizer. (6)
(Even kitchen composts “can be harmful to the health of household members unless special precautions are taken.” Kitchen composts are germ volcanoes. With typical hypocrisy, environmentalists fear-monger about Technology breeding super-bugs while promoting mass home-composting which is a colossal, cowboy experiment in microbe husbandry.)
Sadly, the sought after nitrogen compounds in filthy manure are the same ones in manufactured fertilizer. Degregori pines “urea is urea is urea”. Manure composts have a lower concentration of nitrogen (1.5% nitrogen on a dry-weight basis) than do manufactured fertilizers (processed urea is 47% nitrogen). Transportation costs render manure uneconomical for use outside the vicinity of stock-yards.
“Currently, (global) production of chemical nitrogen remains between 80 and 90 million tons, supplying better than twice as much of the world’s nitrogen needs for agriculture as does manure (about 35 million tons of nitrogen)...” (7)
If farmers stop using industrial fertilizers production will plummet.
Organic farming causes: “fecal contamination not only of food-stuffs but also of waterways, food poisoning, high levels of natural toxins and allergens, contamination by copper and sulphur containing fungicides.” (8)
What does organic farming gives us in exchange?: “the production of blemished, diseased, and irregular produce of low consumer and food processor acceptability, low productivity, and (the) creation of reservoirs of pests and diseases.” (9)
Nevertheless, Consumer Reports says enviro-zombies pay 57% more for “organic” food and for some products pay 3 times the regular price. (10)
Organic farmers are allowed to use old-fashioned, “hallowed by time”, pesticides such as Bordeaux Mixture (copper oxychloride), sulphur and organic toxins like rotenone without surrendering their “organic” certifications. Upon reading the copper in Bordeaux Mixture was potentially toxic at levels used, Degregori asked Consumer Reports if they tested for the presence of this pesticide in organic food. They only test for industrial pesticide residues. Degregori, a 40 year subscriber, had exchanges with Consumer Reports about their bias. National Resources Defense Council and Pesticide Action Network are involved in Consumer Reports governance. (11)
The insecticide of choice for environmentalists is the ‘natural’ pest-eating insect like the cutesy Lady Bug. Thus while preaching precautionary principle they disperse bags of exotic insects on crops around North America. The rewards have proven elusive while the risks are B movie stuff.
Real pesticides are wonderful tools! Farmers get a return of from $4 to $6 in increased crop yield for each dollar invested in chemical pesticides. (12) Pesticide use doubled corn yield per acre between 1945 and 1989. (13) If pesticide use is reduced, then food supply is reduced, and prices will increase.
Pesticide technology progresses; new pesticides along with better formulation and application caused:
“a fall in the typical application rates of herbicides from 3000 grams per hectare in 1966 to 100 in 1987, with insecticides falling from 2,500 grams per hectare in 1965 to 20 in 1982, and fungicides from 1,200 in 1961 to 100 in 1991” (14)
New pesticides are more targeted to specific pests and less persistent in the environment. The “precision farming” revolution is equipping farmers with sophisticated sensors to spot early outbreaks of pests so they can zap just the infected spot not their whole crop. The introduction of genetically engineered pest-resistant crops reduces the need for chemical spraying.
In the 1990s environmentalism launched the “Franken-food” campaign against the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture. In response to developments in science, and heightened concern among the British public, the Royal Society, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the House of Lords and House of Commons Select Committees each investigated GMOs. These studies credited current animal and plant breeding as the most cautious and regulated in agriculture’s history. They also noted GM technology created successful medicines such as: the modern hepatitis B vaccine, insulin, and growth hormones etc. The American National Academy of Sciences’ 2 major studies concluded GMO activity was “merely an extension or refinement of the kinds of genetic manipulation that have been performed for decades, even centuries.” The British media ignored these studies but went berserk over a single dubious experiment by the remarkably inauspicious Professor Pusztai.
“Lectins” are compounds which if present in plant tissue render the plant unpalatable to certain insects. Lectins were introduced into potatoes. To gauge their safety Pusztai fed lectin-enhanced potatoes to one group of rats and regular potatoes to another. Although rats are not fussy eaters, they’re not known as being big on potatoes (cheese maybe). Studies showed rats have difficulty digesting large volumes of starch. Pusztai fed all his lab rats nothing but potatoes. The diet was so low-protein the rats were slowly starving. The Royal Society and the Rowlett Research Institute reviewed the experiment and found it flawed because, even though the lectin-fed rats showed a higher incidence of intestinal problems and immune-suppression, there were too few rats in the experiment and not enough is known about how a rat fares on the all-potato diet.
Nothing would have come of Pusztai’s work had he not bypassed normal peer review procedures and gone straight to ITV television with his shocking conclusions. The British media ran amok with Franken-food horror stories. The reviews of the Pusztai’s experiment, referred to above, happened months after the hoopla. Pusztai called the Royal Society’s review of his work “unsolicited” and “clandestine”. He implied his detractors were agents of “biotechnology companies”. (15) (Pusztai’s website reveals he’s in league with Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Prince Charles.) (16)
The ever-delightful Monarch butterflies are migratory beasts summering on the North American prairie before flapping an amazing distance to their Mexican winter sanctuaries where their wings famously paint the landscape brilliant orange. As such, Monarchs were selected as poster species for an anti-GMO blitz claiming GM corn hurt the little marvels.
The alleged culprit was “Bt” corn. Bacillus thuringiensis-modified corn has a toxin protecting the crop from Corn Borers whose larvae are a scourge. Monarchs don’t eat corn. They munch on weeds, particularly Milkweeds, under whose leaves they stash their eggs. The eco-theory posited that Bt corn pollen was blowing from corn-fields and poisoning the Monarch’s Milkweed nurseries. A single laboratory experiment was conducted where Monarch larvae were placed on Milkweeds dusted with “Bt” corn pollen (from an unusual strain of corn, no less). The larvae got sick and so did the media.
Against the conclusions drawn from this single lab study were the following facts. The concentration of “Bt” in commercial corn (0.1 parts per million) is not strong enough to kill even the Corn Borer larvae; it merely retards their growth. Studies show butterflies in general are not vulnerable to “Bt”. Field studies showed that 90% of corn pollen lands within 15 feet of the corn field and 95% of this pollen hits the dirt before Monarch larvae hatch. There are vast amounts of natural Bt and similar toxins floating around the Monarch’s habitat. Finally, “Bt” corn was 30% of the US corn crop when the Monarch Hoax began and field studies did not show any decline in Monarch population. 1999 was a banner year for Monarchs. (17)
Monarchs were not actually endangered by “Bt” corn, nor were they likely to be, but the public was largely convinced otherwise.
A similar campaign was launched against hormone-fed beef. As with the anti-GMO campaign, the anti-hormone drive was a product of Euro-protectionism. In the heat of this trade fracas one EU official blurted there was a scientific experiment underway proving hormone-fed beef to be harmful. He knew the experiment’s results in advance. This “experiment” was one of 17 the EU was conducting in support of their exclusion of North American beef. Degregori quotes scientists involved in the dispute:
“After 10 years and two WTO rulings against it, the EU continues to search for the ‘right’ scientific evidence to support a political prejudice against beef raised with growth hormones.” (18)
At the same time in Canada, after considerable environmentalist pressure the federal government convened a panel of leading scientists to investigate GMO safety. A Greenpeace Canada spokesperson said his organization would oppose GMOs regardless of the scientific findings.
A Friends of the Earth International spokesperson dismissed a study showing GM crops were not likely to generate “super-bugs”. He said the study was “interesting” but not “a definitive piece of research”. This comes from knee-jerk champions of any study supporting the Cause.
Degregori takes aim at the “natural” food fad. There is nothing “natural” about vegetarianism. Our ancestors were meat-eaters. The same goes for cooked food versus raw. The shish-ka-bob is older than Homo sapiens. True “natural” foods have “high caloric density”. We evolved into seed and nut eaters because wild cuisine boils down to how much energy and protein is there per handful. It’s why we love fatty meat. We covet ripe fruit and berries for their concentrated sugar. The “natural” diet is high in fat, sugar, red-meat and starch. Offer a caveman a choice between a handful of organic lettuce and a bacon double cheeseburger.
Alongside environmental organizations and organic farmers is a complex of businesses involved in health foods, herbal remedies and alternative medicines, etc. It’s big business. Tens of millions of consumers spend $billions every year on their products. This industry is bogus. Degregori notes:
“Health food faddists who look with horror on the minutest trace of any chemical (read manufactured chemical) nevertheless will ingest mega doses of natural products (such as herbs) that contain substances known to be toxins or untested compounds...”(19)
A study done in 2000, by a group involved in the herbal-health food industry, conceded 12 million Americans have experienced adverse reactions to herbal remedies. Several million have developed problems from dietary supplements. (20)
To Degregori “it is ludicrous to label a bottle of amino acids ‘natural’” because “the amino acid pills are a synthetic product produced in large vats in chemical factories using microbial fermentation”. (In 1989 the amino acid pill L-tryptophan inflicted severe muscle disorders on 1,500 consumers - killing 37.) (21) Similarly, he challenges the “organic” and “natural” labels on vitamin pills which are mass produced and to some degree synthetic.
A 1998 editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine hit the nail on the head:
“What most sets alternative medicine apart is that it has not been scientifically tested and its advocates largely deny the need for such testing.”(22)
Health food activists have a “long history of opposing any regulation or even monitoring of these so-called dietary supplements”. The people protesting in the streets for stringent regulation and labelling of GMOs consistently “oppose even simple truth-in-labelling requirements for their beloved natural products.” The International Advocates for Health Freedom and Life Extension Foundation claim efforts to impose honest labelling on herbs and supplements are part a “secret conspiracy of international pharmaceutical empires”. (23)
At the beginning of the 20th century scientists had identified only 3 nutrients: protein, carbohydrates and fat. Doctors believed the symptoms of scurvy, rickets, beriberi, and pellagra were caused by infections unrelated to nutritional deficiencies. In the post-WWI era we discovered “vital amines” (vitamins) and minerals. This was followed by food fortification programs and growing awareness about the benefits of micro-nutrients. Seventy years ago health problems caused by micro-nutrient deficiency were common in America; now “it is difficult to find a case for study”. The greatest success story is the use of vitamin D-enriched milk and juices to eliminate the rickets epidemic among the urban poor. (24)
Swiss scientists genetically engineered a rice rich in Vitamin A and Iron. Vitamin A and Iron deficiency remain major health problems for poor Asians restricted to a nearly all-rice diet. People who ‘don’t eat their carrots’ suffer visual and immune system impairment. An estimated 500,000 Asian children are blinded every year from vitamin A deficiency. The death of 2 million Asian infants every year from measles and diarrhoea is partially attributable to lack of Vitamin A. Over a billion women, mostly in Asia, suffer iron-deficiency anaemia. If Asian farmers switch to “golden GM rice” these medical problems would be reduced. Vitamin A boosted canola also has been developed. Greenpeace and others seek to suppress these technologies.
Vitamin D was first manufactured in the 1920s the same way our bodies make it - by beaming ultra-violet light onto cholesterol. At the time, “Sunshine Vitamin D by Irradiation” and “Irradiated Milk” were popular advertising logos. Degregori promotes food irradiation, not for Vitamin D production, but to reduce food spoilage during transit and storage. He’s not some irradiation crank - food irradiation is endorsed by the American Medical Association, the Food and Drug Administration, World Health Organization, the Institute of Food Processors and the American Dietetic Association. Yet spirited irradiation opponents peddle the usual horrors.
Chlorination and fluoridation are “triumphs of the 20th century”. Chlorinating the American public water supply reduced cholera by 90%, typhoid by 80%, and amoebic dysentery by 50%. (25) These illnesses are Grim Reapers in the developing world. Likewise, every dollar spent on public water fluoridation saves $80 dollars in avoided dental treatment. The trend toward non-fluoridated bottled water worries the American Dental Association; even the International Bottled Water Association recommends customers talk to a dentist about fluoride deficiency. (26)
Pasteurization, fluoridation, chlorination, fortification, pesticides and fertilizers are tremendous boons. GM crops, irradiation, and the next generation of pesticides, fertilizers and hormones promise benefits but implementation is a struggle. Degregori fears, given re-engineered public opinion, advances on the previous scale may no longer be doable. He quotes a British government official boasting how modern eco-regulations would have prevented the potato from being introduced into England.
Degregori relays an argument between an organic farmer and a scientist wherein the organic farmer complained “pasteurization has only been around for hundred years or so; what do you think people did before that?” The scientist’s response “they died young”. (27)
Finally, kudos to Degregori for linking William Blake, John Ruskin and company to environmentalism - a rare observation. Likewise his chapter “The Nazis and the ‘Natural’” spotlights the 20th century’s pre-eminent eco-regime.
1. Degregori, Thomas Agriculture and Modern Technology: A Defense, 2001, Iowa State University Press, Ames. (page 127)
2. Ibid p. 61
3. Ibid p. 92
4. Ibid p. 92
5. Ibid p. 91
6. Ibid p. 91
7. Ibid p. 88
8. Ibid p. 91
9. Ibid p. 91
10. Ibid p. 90
11. Ibid p. 86
12. Ibid p. 140
13. Ibid p. 142
14. Ibid p. 138
15. Ibid pages 113-116
17. Degregori pages 106-110
18. Ibid p. 122
19. Ibid p. 164
20. Ibid p. 168
21. Ibid p. 164
22. Ibid p. 167
23. Ibid p. 165
24. Ibid p. 93
25. Ibid p. 173
26. Ibid p. 176
27. Ibid p. 95
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