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Threat of a ‘silent spring’ still looms large

News Icon 26/06/2014

“We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment equivalent to that posed by organophosphates or DDT.”

Pittsburgh, USA: Half a century ago, the world heard a stark warning about the perils of industrial agriculture from Rachel Carson and her milestone book, ‘Silent Spring’, firing the modern environmental movement and leading to a worldwide ban on the dangerous pesticide, DDT.

Last night, I was guest speaker at the Carnegie Mellon University, courtesy of the American Chemical Society and was privileged to be hosted by Dr Patricia De Marco Ph.D., former director of both the Rachel Carson Institute and Homestead Association. It was great to be amongst fellow admirers of Carson’s work.

What is really disturbing, however, is just how far we still have to go to heed her call.

Bees, butterflies and birds affected
Only this week, the world’s largest environmental organisation, the International Union for Nature Conservation (IUCN) released a new report concluding that the systematic use of pesticides today is causing “significant damage” to a wide range of beneficial wildlife like butterflies, birds and earthworms, and is a “key factor in the decline of bees.”

“The evidence is very clear. We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment equivalent to that posed by organophosphates or DDT,” said Dr Jean-Marc Bonmatin of The National Centre for Scientific Research in France, one of study’s lead authors.

The study focused on neonicotinoids and fipronil (neonics), harmful nerve poisons at both high and low levels. According to the IUCN, they are the most widely used insecticides globally, accounting for 40% of world market sales worth over US$2.63 billion.

Serious threat remains
In a chilling echo of Carson’s original warning, Dr Bonmatin said, “far from protecting food production, the use of neonics is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it, imperilling the pollinators, habitat engineers and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem.”

The copious use of pesticides is just one facet of industrial agriculture; animals caged, crammed and confined behind the closed doors of the factory farm being the aspect that I work with most closely.

While writing Farmageddon, I have seen what happens when we farm without proper care for nature; the far-reaching consequences of converting varied patchworks of fields into vast, monotonous food factories. From the grievous pollution facing the famous French beaches of Brittany, to the battle to preserve drinking water from toxic algal blooms in China, and the decline of the world-renowned Chesapeake Bay in the US, in each case intensive farming has been implicated.

I remember the eerie feeling of looking down from a helicopter on a factory farm rearing three-quarters of a million chickens with not a bird in sight; of driving through a Mexican valley producing a million pigs without seeing a single animal. I’ve seen the tears of people driven from their land to make way for soya, or suffering ill effects from the fumes of fishmeal plants, both to feed distant factory farms. I’ve wept too at the plight of a large-

scale intensive dairy farmer, crippled by debt, who shot himself and left five children fatherless.

Compassion in World Farming’s founder, Peter Roberts, started the organisation out of concern for both animal welfare and the wider interconnectedness of life. He strongly believed that factory farming not only entails systemic cruelty to animals but is also unsustainable. He saw the factory-farm ethos as: ‘if it moves kill it, if it doesn’t spray it’.

Rachel Carson and Peter Roberts were very much outstanding leaders from a generation of pioneers for a better food system. The torch now falls to us to ensure that the nightmare scenarios envisaged in both Silent Spring and Farmageddon don’t become reality.

Please help our campaign for a food revolution for animals, people and the planet; join us at

Thank you.

See the ‘Farmageddon on film’ series exploring the legacy of Rachel Carson:

1. Silent Spring
2. Maryland Muck Safari
3. Rachel Carson’s legacy

For your copy of ‘Farmageddon: The true cost of cheap meat’, click here.


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