Taking Rachel Carson’s Message Home For Dinner


Today (thanks, Google) is the birthday of Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring and one of the major catalysts of the Environmental movement.  The internet is liberally scattered with articles tracing her important legacy of Environmental legislation and her seminal (irony intentional) role as a woman leader in the scientific community but it seems odd to me that so much of it focuses on conservation in the general and so little on her role in one of Strawville’s favorite topics, excellent food.  Her message couldn’t be more relevant today as we continue to search out organics and (probably fail to) avoid Monsanto et. al.’s plethora of GMA and pesticide resistant processed foods.

The Message of Silent Spring

The message of Silent Spring is that humans dangerously overlook the long term consequences of our actions with regard to nature and it is as relevant today as it was in 1962.  The major target of the book was the chemical insecticide, DDT, which was used world wide at the behest of the World Health Organization to combat the spread of Malaria during the 50’s and 60’s. From there it was adapted for agricultural purposes and by the 1960’s it was being sprayed wholesale across American neighborhoods to knock down nuisance mosquito population.  Unfortunately it was also decimating the populations of helpful pollinators and climbing the food chain to affect bird populations, even as it produced a healthy crop of pesticide resistant pests.

When she began Silent Spring, Rachel Carson was already a noted popular science writer with books on marine biology on the National best seller lists.  She was recruited by the Audubon Society to address the issue of aerial DDT spraying and its effect on bird populations.  When it was published she was met with aggressive attacks by the chemical industry which belittled her work as un-scientific  and alarmist and nearly a return to the dark ages.  Nevertheless, her writings drew attention to the issues of chemical side effects, bio-accumulation and carcinogens.  She is widely regarded as a lynchpin of the modern environmental movement.

Rachel Carson is Still Important Today!

Her message is particularly relevant to people trying to avoid pesticides in their foods.  Its still sadly true that most consumers of food don’t, and in many cases CAN’T, know where their food is coming from and under what conditions it is being produced.  Shopping at the farmers market is the best way to ensure a clear line of communication between farm and table but its not an option that available for everyone.  The culture of fast, cheap food is still very prevalent (what Wendell Berry refers to as an economy and culture of one night stands)

Note: Its also important to remember that Rachel Carson was by no means the first critic to sound the alarm on the dangers of modern agriculture.  In the 1940s, Sir Albert Howard criticized the industrial cost tracking approach to agriculture as a huge mistake with “disastrous” consequence and particularly decried the change in farming methods being directed by scientists with no input form farmers.  Because they lacked practical experience, they couldn’t have a holistic perspective and spent their time “busy on the periphery of the subject, and all intent on learning more and more about less and less,” a trend which has only increased in the seventy years since he wrote.

.Changing American Agriculture is an Uphill Battle

.The warnings of Silent Spring didn’t exactly halt industrial agricultural in its tracks.  Not only did american agriculture continue to develop its reliance on irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides and heavy duty machinery, it continued to hail that development as progress in the popular press.

.In 1970, while Joni Mitchell was singing “give me spots on my apples but leave me the birds and the bees,” and the EPA was being formed by the Nixon administration, National Geographic featured a cover spread entitled The Revolution in American Agriculture: food for our multiplying millions,” which is studded with section headings like, “Bounty Flows from Fewer Farms”, “A Factory in the Field”, “City Boys Now Become Farm Experts”, “When Machines Displace People”, and “’Do I Get Bigger or Get Out?’” it describes the condition of then-modern American farming with a laizzez faire attitude that is summed up in the article’s first paragraph: “but that’s modern agriculture for you!”  

farm of the future

.Eerily, the feature managed to mention every major problem with the modern agricultural system – salinity induced by over irrigation, soil compaction from phenomenally heavy machinery, erosion, pesticide poisoning and fertilizer abuse are all presented and then dismissed as no problem at all.  The finale is a two page color photo depicting a futuristic farm where cows are kept in glassy high-rise barns and the farm house is curvy roofed and sports a domed control tower from which the farm can be run remotely.  The caption explains that it is an artist’s rendering created with the advice of U. S. Department of Agriculture specialists.

And Where Are We Now?

.The world of industrial food production is still pretty inherently depressing today.  We continue to engage in an arms race with nature which seems to be about as effective as such tactics ever are.  When Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, she chronicled 137 pesticide resistant insect species.  In the late 1980’s there were more than 500.  Today  there are more than a thousand.  All of which seems a pretty thorough demonstration of the definition of insanity.

For all that, it does feel as if a sea change is being effected.  The blooming of farmers markets all over the city of Chicago (which we chronicled earlier this month) is an indicator of a renewed interest in the origins of our food.  Organic labels are popping up all over the place, grocery stores and food coops are beginning to identify the origin and travel distances of their produce, and even big restaurant chains (cough, Chipotle, cough) are talking a good game about more sustainable and ethical food production. People are raising chickens on city lots and growing vegetables in pot gardens and community farms.  And if we all continue to engage with direct sourcing of our food, we have a much better chance of understanding and controlling the way it is produced.

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”

Rachel Carson