The early Soil Association’s warnings about the danger of pesticides

Erin Gill

05 November 2010

The early Soil Association played a key role in drawing attention to the potential threats posed by the emerging widespread use of pesticides in agriculture, helping laying the ground work for future restrictions on their use. 

Ask a member of the public about the history of pesticides and if s/he has anything to say it will probably consist of two words: Silent Spring.

Popular history about efforts to protect humans and the environment from risks posed by pesticides begins and, for most people, ends with Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring. Carson’s beautiful prose and careful presentation of unimpeachable scientific evidence forced governments the world over to question the safety of the unregulated and rapidly expanding use of newly commercialised chemicals. Her book set in train a painfully slow process (that continues to this day) of seeking to control the sale and use of substances, some of which have the power to persist in the environment, contaminate food chains and to undermine the functioning of animals’ (including humans’) basic physiological systems.

What few people are aware of is that Carson’s concern about the post-Second World War marketing of new ‘wonder’ chemicals was not unique. Silent Spring was brilliant – and brilliantly successful – and all the more so because it articulated the fears of a broader, largely underground network of concern, as well as tapping into a latent public unease about the potential, unintended consequences of what was an almost fundamentalist obsession with the eradication of insects. The early Soil Association was part of this network of concern that sought to draw attention to the possibility that new, heavily-promoted agrochemicals might be more dangerous than manufacturers, leaders within the scientific community and government officials were willing to consider.

From the very beginning of its history, the Soil Association circulated information and debated the potential threats posed by new pesticides, focusing primarily on dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT. In the second introductory issue – published in 1947 – of what was to become the Soil Association’s quarterly journal, Mother Earth, DDT is discussed twice. Well-known farming journalist and founding Soil Association member, Lawrence Easterbrook, contributed an article entitled “Insecticide or Homicide?” in which he argued that: “It is not good for the name of science that such unknown potentialities for harm should be given to the man in the street... with so little warning after so little research”. In the same issue, an extract from American magazine Organic Gardening was reproduced, speculating on the impact of DDT on tomato cultivation.

From then on, the Soil Association regularly reproduced extracts from publications questioning the safety of DDT and other new pesticides, continuing to do so throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s. From as early as the winter 1947–48 edition of Mother Earth, the Soil Association was highlighting growing concern about the potential for DDT to accumulate in food chains, particularly dairy and meat products. Later, it aired fears that DDT might persist in the environment and contaminate human bodies. In addition to reproducing extracts from press reports questioning the safety of organochlorinated pesticides – of which DDT was the best known – Mother Earth also included first-hand accounts from Eve Balfour of her two visits in the early 1950s to the Texas Research Foundation, a private agricultural research station that was the source of early evidence about DDT’s tendency to “bioaccumulate” and to contaminate food chains.

Mother Earth also drew attention to early reports of growing immunity by some insects to these new chemicals, as well as their negative impact on beneficial insects, especially pollinators such as bees. The early Soil Association consistently argued that alternative, less harmful solutions to agricultural pests could – and should – be found.

None of the warnings that the early Soil Association circulated about DDT and other new agrochemicals were wholly original. Instead, the organisation was disseminating information about disquiet felt by many scientists, naturalists and others in the face of what amounted to the entirely unregulated use of a large number of substances that had not been proven as safe. The Soil Association’s call for the application of what today is termed the “precautionary principle” looks, in retrospect, both prescient and admirable. The impacts of decades of mass use of organochlorinated pesticides were enormous, although there is little public knowledge about the damage done and its continuing legacy. For this reason, it is worth stating a few facts clearly.

The use of organochlorinated pesticides during the post-Second World War period resulted in the contamination of the global environment, all food chains, all animals and all humans. The bodies (particularly the fat) of all readers of this publication are contaminated with organichlorinated pesticides or their ‘breakdown’ products. Because of the persistence and bioaccumulative properties of substances such as DDT, every human being is now contaminated – regardless of the location of his/her birth and/or the ‘purity’ of his/her environment and food. Biologist Sandra Steingraber argues that chemical contamination of our bodies should be viewed as an issue of social justice.

The human health impacts of contamination by organochlorinated compounds are many and significant. While DDT is often referred to as a human carcinogen, which it is – thus representing one factor in the increase in global cancer rates in the twentieth century (particularly, cancers affecting male and female reproductive organs and the thyroid) – this is only the start. Other impacts include developmental and reproductive toxicity, meaning that DDT and related substances are thought to be one factor in falling fertility rates and a myriad of other problems affecting human development, including cognitive (ie. intellectual) impairment. The list of impacts is a long one and much still remains to be understood about the effects of organochlorinated compounds on human health.

The dangers posed by what are now known as 'persistent organic pollutants' (POPs) are so serious that a global treaty banning their use (except for some instances of anti-malarial control in tropical environments) was finally introduced in 2001 via the United Nations. Following Carson’s 1962 best seller, Silent Spring, individual nations began to control and, eventually, ban the marketing and use of POPs. However, because these substances contaminate the global environment and global human population even if they are used in only a small number of locations, governments eventually recognised the need to join forces to protect their citizens. Now, the most dangerous substances are outlawed thanks to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. It is worth reproducing two sentences from the convention’s website:

“Exposure to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) can lead to serious health effects including certain cancers, birth defects, dysfunctional immune and reproductive systems, greater susceptibility to disease and even diminished intelligence. Given their long range transport, no one government acting alone can protect is citizens or its environment from POPs”.

The early Soil Association was part of an international network that tried to act as an early warning system about the dangers of new, untested pesticides. While it did not succeed in stemming their use in Britain or convincing the government to introduce effective regulation, the early Soil Association educated its own membership. Looking back, discussions in 1959 editions of Mother Earth are particularly noteworthy. These included information about a lawsuit brought against the US Department of Agriculture by a group of Long Island state residents who argued that aerial spraying of DDT in 1957 to combat an alleged infestation of gypsy moth infringed on their property rights. Aerial spraying of large areas of the USA and Canada with DDT and other similar substances mixed with kerosene or other hydrocarbons became routine in the 1950s. The Soil Association both reported on this lawsuit and sent a donation to assist with the plaintiffs’ legal costs.

The October 1959 edition of Mother Earth was a “special pest control number” and, in addition to carrying articles about potential alternatives to pesticides, it included an essay by Soil Association founding member Lord Douglas of Barloch. A wartime MP and post-war governor of Malta, Douglas was deeply concerned about unregulated pesticide use. His ten-page essay, “Mass-Spraying of Pesticides: A Growing Menace to Human Health”, teased out the contradictions inherent in official explanations about the alleged safety of mass spraying programmes. On the one hand, American regulations forbade “the sale of milk and its products containing any residues whatever of DDT and other insecticides”, stated Douglas, while promoting simultaneously the view that if used “in accordance with manufacturers’ directions”, the substance was “innocuous”. Douglas’ essay ends with a question:

Is not the time overdue when government should take more active steps at the least to warn the public of the risks they are running, and preferably to prohibit the sale of food containing residues of pesticides and to prohibit the mass-spraying of insecticides upon non-consenting individuals, their plants and livestock?

In recent years, the Soil Association has sought to communicate similar warnings about the risks posed by the over-use of antibiotics in modern livestock production. In September 2010, Richard Young, the Soil Association’s long-standing campaigner against excessive use of antibiotics by livestock farmers, drew attention to the issue once again, publicising a conference at Warwick University at which scientific evidence would be discussed. Young stated:

There has been little public scrutiny of farm antibiotic use for over a decade, yet during that time we have seen farmers dramatically increase their use of antibiotics classified by the World Health Organization as ‘critically important in human medicine’ and we have also seen the development of several serious antibiotic-resistant bugs in farm animals which are passing to humans on food and in other ways. It is high time that the government took this problem seriously.

It is impossible to know what will attract much-needed attention to the misuse of antibiotics in farming – or when. As the history of campaigning against the use of persistent organic pollutants such as DDT teaches us, a campaign can appear unsuccessful for years, yet sound research and repeated dissemination of rational arguments can build an informed network of individuals and groups capable of turning a brief campaign breakthrough into a lasting transformation in policy. When Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962, Carson was already a well-known and respected popular science writer. Her existing public profile was instrumental in the success of the book. Yet it was not Silent Spring on its own – or Carson herself – that led to global regulation of persistent organic pollutants. Carson died of cancer soon after her book was published and the scientific evidence in her book was soon overtaken by new research. Carson’s genius was to articulate the well-grounded fears of many, not least the fears of early Soil Association members, and to do so in ways that the chemical industry found extremely difficult to undermine.

Since Carsons’s death, a great many have worked painstakingly to translate the warnings in her book into regulations that appear dull but, in fact, are designed to reduce gradually the harm caused by the post-Second World War love affair with untested agrochemicals. The hope is that these regulations will lead to some decrease in rates of cancer, infertility, compromised immunity and developmental malfunctioning on a global scale. The Soil Association can be proud of the small part it played in ensuring such policies exist.

Erin Gill is an environmental journalist and an historian specialising in the history of environmental protest and campaigning. She sits on the Mother Earth journal editorial board.

This article was first published in Mother Earth, the Soil Association's journal of organic thought and policy. We hope you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share this with your contacts. If you wish to support the production of Mother Earth in future, and receive the latest issue direct to your door, then please subscribe to Mother Earth, for just £12 a year.

Further reading

Living Downstream and Having Faith by Sandra Steingraber 
Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants 
DDT entry in Wikipedia 
DDT, Silent Spring and the Rise of Environmentalism, edited by Thomas Dunlap:




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