Chemical industrial farming is unsustainable. Why poison ourselves when pesticides don’t kill more pests than in the past?

Pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides destroy soil, ecosystems, and a third of the crop is still lost to pests, just as in the many millennia of farming before chemicals.

[ This is a book review of Dyer’s “Chasing the Red Queen”, and I have added additional information and  conclusions.  This book is not technical and could be read by both high school and undergraduate students as an introduction to soil ecosystems and the damage done by agricultural chemicals, and the science of why this is ultimately not sustainable.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Dyer, A. 2014. Chasing the Red Queen. The evolutionary race between Agricultural pests and poisons. Island Press.

The chemicals used to kill pests have grown increasingly lethal over the past 60 years.  Yet today’s farmers have no more success against pests than in the past. Back then and today farmers still lose about a third of their crops to pests.  But unlike in the past, millions of tons of toxins are dumped on the land every year, killing helpful soil organisms, beneficial insects and predatory arthropod’s by ruining the ecosystems that used to provide crop resistance in the past.

In 1951, as the world began using synthetic chemicals, Dr. Reginald Painter at Kansas State University published “Insect Resistance in Crop Plants”.  He made a case that it would be better to understand how a crop plant fought off insects, since it was inevitable that insects would develop genetic or behavioral resistance.  At best, chemicals might be used as an emergency control measure.

Before planting, farmers try to get rid of pests that survived the winter and apply fumigants to kill fungi and nematodes, and pre-emergent chemicals to reduce weed seeds from emerging.  Even farmers practicing no-till farming douse the land with herbicides by using GMO herbicide-resistant crops.  Then over the course of crop growth, farmers may apply several rounds of additional pesticides to control different pests. For example, cotton growers apply chemicals from 12 to 30 times before harvest.

Manufacturers of pest killing chemicals make huge sums of money because their products stop working after about 5 years, so farmers have to constantly pay top prices for new chemicals since they don’t last long enough to become generic.    And it takes on average eight to ten years to identify, test, and develop a new pesticide, though that isn’t long enough to discover the long-term toxicity to humans and other organisms.

Currently, the potential harm is only assessed for 2 to 3 years before a permit is issued, even though the damage might occur up to 20 years later.  The current Republican administration would like to get rid of or weaken the EPA to get rid of any protections.

The United states uses a hell of a lot of chemicals on crops:

  • Over 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used in the United State (US) each year and approximately 5.6 billion pounds are used worldwide (Alavanja 2009).
  • Since 1974 in the U.S., over 1.6 billion kilograms of glyphosate active ingredient have been applied, or 19 % of estimated global use of glyphosate (8.6 billion kilograms). Globally, glyphosate use has risen almost 15-fold since so-called “Roundup Ready,” genetically engineered glyphosate-tolerant crops were introduced in 1996. Two-thirds of the total volume of glyphosate applied in the U.S. from 1974 to 2014 has been sprayed in just the last 10 years. The corresponding share globally is 72 % (Benbrook 2015).

The United States uses almost 40% of all herbicides and insecticides sold in the world, and 66% of all pesticides (most of them made in the USA since a good many pesticides sold in other nations are illegal here).  This use is increasing, because the U.S. is the largest exporter of food in the world despite the amount of land declining per capita from 1.5 acres to 1.25 acres per person from 2001 to 2011 alone.  And above all, like a drug addict, American agriculture has become the most dependent in the world on a constant fix of toxic chemicals.  Meanwhile, pests become resistant in the U.S. faster than anywhere else in the world, and we shoot up ever more herb- and pesticides

Although these chemicals appear to be just like antibiotics, that isn’t entirely true.  We develop some immunity to a disease after antibiotics help us recover, but a plant is still vulnerable to the pests and weeds with the genetics or behavior to survive and chemical assault.  If pests could talk, they’d sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator as they shouted  “I’ll be back!” before they overwintered.

Although there are thousands of chemical toxins, what matters is how they kill, their method of action (MOA).  For herbicides there are only 29 MOAs, and in insecticides, just 28.  So if a pest develops resistance to one chemical within an MOA, it will be resistant to all the thousands of other chemicals within that MOA.  This is happening to glyphosate, considered a once in a century herbicide, and one of the few that lasted long enough to become generic and cheap.

Corn is planted on over a hundred million acres. Yield has gone from 40 bushels an acre to 150. In the past, 40% went to livestock. Now 44% is converted to ethanol. And of course, this demand for corn has accelerated the war between pesticides and insects.  And as usual, the insects are winning.

The demand for chemicals has also grown due the high level of bioinvasive species.  It takes a while to find native pests and make sure they won’t do more harm than good.  In the 1950s there were just three main corn pests. By 1978 there were 40, and they vary regionally. For example, California has 30 arthropods and over 14 fungal diseases to cope with.

It’s been known since the beginning of the chemical race that immunity will always develop, so why anyone thought that engineering plants to have genes that can express toxic chemicals would be any different is beyond me.   For a little while the ability of plants to resist glyphosate worked, but predictably, weeds have grown tolerant.

When I was learning how to grow food organically back in the 90s, I remember how outraged organic farmers were that Monsanto was going to genetically engineer plants to have the Bt bacteria in them.  This is because the only insecticide organic farmers can use is Bt bacteria, because it is found in the soil. It’s natural. Organic farmers have been careful to spray only in emergencies so that insects don’t develop resistance to their only remedy.  Since 1996, GMO plants have been engineered to have Bt in them, and predictably, insects have developed resistance.   For example, in 2015, 81% of all corn was planted with genetically engineered Bt.  But corn earworms have developed resistance, especially in North Carolina and Georgia, setting the stage for damage across the nation.  Five other insects have developed resistance to Bt as well.

GMO plants were also going to reduce pesticide use.  They did for a while, but not for long.  Chemical use has increased 7% to 202,000 tons a year in the past 10 years.

Resistance can come in other ways than mutations.  Cockroach bait is laced with glucose, so cockroaches that developed glucose-aversion now no longer take the bait.

Chemicals give us a short-term gain, but in the long run destroy the soil ecology and will eventually make food impossible to grow when there are no more chemicals available and the soil has been ruined by chemicals.  Here is a good explanation of why chemicals and other practices are ruining the long-term viability of agriculture by Dyer:

“Ultimately the practice of modern farming is not sustainable” because “the damage to the soil and natural ecosystems is so great that farming becomes dependent not on the land but on the artificial inputs into the process, such as fertilizers and pesticides”.  “In many ways, our battle against the diverse array of pest species is a battle against the health of the system itself.  As we kill pest species, we also kill related species that may be beneficial, we kill predators that could assist our efforts, we reduce the ecosystem’s ability to recover due to reduced diversity, and we interfere with the organisms that affect the biogeochemical processes that maintain the soils in which the plants grow.

Soil is a complex, multifaceted living thing that is far more than the sum of the sand, silt, clay, fungi, microbes, nematodes, and other invertebrates. All biotic components interact as an ecosystem within the soil and at the surface, and in relation to the larger components such as herbivores that move across the land. Organisms grow and dig through the soil, aerate it, reorganize it, and add and subtract organic material.  Mature soil is structured and layered and, very importantly, it remains in place.  Plowing of the soil turns everything upside down.  What was hidden from light is exposed.  What was kept at a constant temperature is now varying with the day and night and seasons.  What cannot tolerate drying conditions at the surface is likely killed.  And very sensitive and delicate structures within the soil are disrupted and destroyed.

Conventional tillage disrupts the entire soil ecosystem. Tractors and farm equipment are large and heavy; they compact the soil, which removes air space and water-holding capacity. Wind and water erosion remove the smallest soil particles, which typically hold most of the micronutrients needed by plants.  Synthetic fertilizers are added to supplement the loss of oil nutrients but often are relatively toxic to many soil organisms.  And chemicals such as pre-emergents, fumigants, herbicides, insecticides, acaricides, fungicides, and defoliants eventually kill all but the most tolerant or resistant soil organisms.  It does not take long to reduce a native, living, dynamic soil to a relatively lifeless collection of inorganic particles with little of the natural structure and function of undisturbed soil”.

Think about it – how did we grow food before chemicals?  We used the natural resistance of the microbes, insects, fungi, and other living matter in soils to fight off pests.

And exactly what have we gained by poisoning our land, air, and water?  About a third of industrial crops are lost to pests, but that was roughly what farmers lost as well before we used chemicals.

When I told my husband this, he said “Farmers aren’t stupid, that can’t be right!”

I think there are a number of reasons why farmers don’t go back to sustainable organic farming.

First there’s the sheer momentum. This has been going on for 60 years.  There is far too much money to be made in the chemical herbicide, pesticide, and insecticide industry to stop this juggernaut.  Plus the chemical industry a great deal of economic and political leverage.  They’ve infiltrated regulatory agencies via the revolving door, and now it is time for an attempted assassination: the EPA is now headed by Scott Pruitt, who would like to get rid of the EPA.

Second, about half of farmers are hired guns.  They don’t own the land and care about passing it on in good health to their children.  They rent the land, and their goal, and the owner’s goal is for them to make as much profit as possible.

Third, renters and farmers both would lose money, maybe go out of business converting an industrial farm to an organic one.  It takes years to get the soil from being as dead as the Australian great barrier reef to a soil that can sustain plants and help them fight off pests.

Fourth, it takes time to learn to farm organically properly.  So even if the farmer survives financially, mistakes will be made.  Hopefully made up for by the higher price of organic food, but as wealth grows more and more  unevenly distributed, and the risk of another economic crash grows every day since meaningful reforms weren’t made and the U.S. and most of the world are in even greater debt than before 2008, and the Trump administration going to try to remove as many protections from Americans as possible, making fraud once again legal, well it’s not looking good.

Fifth, industrial farming is what is taught at most universities with agricultural programs.  Just as universities are dominated by libertarian professors who ignore energy and natural resources as part of the economy, it is hard for organic farming academics to get faculty positions at agricultural schools.

Industrial farming dominated all courses at the University of Illinois in the mid-1970s. I was a total city slicker back then but I was aware of and admired organic farming. Nothing has changed.  I just looked at the course catalog.

Most universities are still industrial farming schools, but organic agriculture is taught at the following schools: Oregon State, Cornell University, UC Davis, Washington State, Oberlin college, Utah State, University of Vermont, Prescott college, University of Idaho, University of Wisconsin (River Falls)

Farmers will have to go organic whether they like it or not

But no worries, peak oil, natural gas, and coal guarantee the chemical ecosystem destroying industry is going to decline within the next few decades, and eventually disappear.  Fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide, insecticide and so on are made out of fossil fuels, which provide the energy to make them as well.  Farmers will be forced to go organic at some point.  Wouldn’t it be easier to start the transition now, rather than a crisis?  Far less people would die.

Declining fossil fuels will also solve the problem of heavy tractors permanently compacting the soil and future crop production for a millennia.  As long as there isn’t a sudden permanent oil shortage, agriculture should be able to make the transition, because they’ll have first dibs on whatever fuel is available.  At least that was the Department of energy plan for oil rationing plan back in 1980. Given all the greed and control of the political and economic system now by the corrupt elite, there’s no guarantee anymore that that is still the plan.

Nor will people easily be able to go back to horsepower.  Before cars came along, 20% of the land was set aside for horses to graze on.  Now we’ve built cities, towns, and shopping malls on that land.  This is a shame, because when Cuba was cut off from oil after the Soviet Union fell, nobody died because organic farmers quickly bred their oxen as well as taught city dwellers on how to grow food in nearby plots of land and containers.

What about electrifying farming?

It is unlikely we can electrify tractors – they are too heavy for batteries. Nor can we string an overhead catenary wire system over hundreds of millions of acres of cropland.  It is also very likely that a 100% electric grid is even possible.  Of course you don’t believe me, but consider how far we are from replacing the 66% of electricity generated by coal and natural gas on the electric grid now.  But without fossil fuels, the electricity used in transportation, manufacturing, business, and residential uses also needs replacing.  This is all explained at greater length in “When Trucks Stop Running” and on energyskeptic.

What to do

We already know what to do.  There are hundreds if not thousands of books and journal articles on how to convert an industrial farm to an organic one, such as

  • Use pesticides less often, and only when absolutely necessary using integrated pest management guidelines
  • Stop growing just one crop, or rotating just two crops, because insects can easily develop resistance. For instance, the western corn rootworm used to just attack corn, but some of them mutated to eat soybeans as well.  Rotation forced them to cease being corn specialists and learn to like soybean plants as well.  In addition their behavior changed.  Instead of laying eggs on nearby corn plants, they dispersed to also lay eggs on nearby soybean crops.
  • Surround farms with wild land to increase biodiversity and provide more niches for birds, insects, and other natural predators of crop pests.
  • Restore the natural fertility of soil with manure, crop resides, compost, and cover crops.
  • Improve crop biodiversity and pest resistance by growing more varieties of corn, wheat, potatoes
  • Educate farmers like Ray Archuleta at the natural resources conservation service. He’s been teaching classes on how to restore soils in as little as two to three years.

For some pests like the green aphid, which has grown so resistant to so many chemicals that farmers are running out of options, a healthy ecosystem approach may be the only thing left to try.


Alavanja, M. 2009. Pesticides Use and Exposure Extensive Worldwide. Rev Environ Health.

Benbrook, C. M. 2015. Trends in glyphosate herbicide use in the United States and globally. Environmental sciences europe.

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