Toxic to the Tongue


“Frontier communities had a quick and certain remedy for anyone who poisoned the town’s well: they hanged the son-of-a-bitch. Today, though, when the ag economists draw up their efficiency equations, well poisoning is not even marked down as a cost charged to the poisoners — instead, it’s dismissed as an “externality.” Did people get breast cancer? Did the pesticides run off into the bay and shut down the fishing industry? Was a farmworker’s baby born with birth defects? Hey, pal, stuff happens, life ain’t fair, not our fault, get out of the way of progress… and if you’re so prissy about poisons, maybe you oughta start boiling your water.”

— Texas radio commentator Jim Hightower, from Fatal Harvest

To step into the gallery of photos in Fatal Harvest, a most unusual coffee-table book, is akin to spiraling downward into Dante’s nine circles of hell. Avarice and deceit take on the characters not of Dante’s Malacoda or Geryon, but of industrial agriculture’s multinational corporations: Monsanto, Philip Morris, Archer Daniels Midland. The book tells the story of how in the years after World War II, food-producing corporations found a renewed purpose for the noxious chemicals developed to protect soldiers from insects (including DDT and malathion): As pesticides, they would expand industrial agriculture. For decades these corporations doused the soil on massive farms with these toxins, with the aim of growing more food, more efficiently, and reaping vast profits. In the meanwhile, they have often knowingly and gradually poisoned countless generations of plants, animals, and humans.

Fatal Harvest is an oversized handbook for those who would fight back. Packed with statistics and anecdotes, both verbal and visual, this collaboration between design and prose makes concrete the problems of industrial agriculture, and dramatizes the disconnect between what we eat and how it is created. There is some fine writing here, with essays by prominent environmental thinkers such as Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Jerry Mander, and Vandana Shiva. The essays are short, but not light; some are preachy, some shocking. But Fatal Harvest is not merely strongly worded. The 11 3/4-inch by 12 1/4-inch book literally illustrates America’s current food crisis, with some 250 sweeping photographs of pesticide-soaked industrial farms, rivers filled with chemical runoff, and the like. And it contrasts those bleak images with more familiar coffee-table fare — lushly diverse organic farms, the 50-odd types of tomato you’ll never see at Food Emporium.

That the politics of food, and in particular, the organic food movement, are moving steadily forward into the mainstream consciousness is evidenced by the bestseller status conferred upon two excellent recent books, The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan and Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, and by the decisions of a growing number of supermarket chains to offer organic foods.

Fatal Harvest is divided into seven parts. Of particular interest is Part Two, which provides a rousing response to myths perpetuated by multinational agricultural corporations. A sample:

Large-scale industrial farms help feed the nearly “800 million people who go hungry each day.” No, argues Fatal Harvest. “World hunger is not created by lack of food but by poverty and landlessness, which deny people access to food.”

Industrial food is safe, healthy, and nutritious. No, argues Fatal Harvest. “Since 1989, overall pesticide use has risen by about 8 percent, or 60 million pounds… in 1998, the FDA found pesticide residues in over 35 percent of the food tested… the average hamburger… may receive the equivalent of millions of chest X rays in an attempt to temporarily remove any potential bacterial contaminants.”

Biotechnology will solve the problems of industrial agriculture. No, argues Fatal Harvest. Genetically modified foods and high-tech, pesticide-resistant crops will “consolidate control of the world’s food supply in the hands of a few large corporations… destroy biodiversity and food security; and drive self-sufficient farmers off their land.”

Part Three of Fatal Harvest speaks to the eyes with large-format pictorials that document the illusion of choice (you can buy beefsteak tomatoes at the supermarkets, but how about fresh-picked Golden Pandoras and Early Girls?) and contrast the appearance of industrial and organic farms. To emphasize the difference, two odd but effective postage-stamp-sized graphic eyeballs look back at the reader from sidebars on the outer edges of each page. In the iris of the “industrial eye,” one sees long, deep straight lines of a one-crop field; in the other, the “agricultural eye,” one sees zigzag patches and tufts of a many-crop field. The eyes, superimposed upon full-page photos of produce fields (industrial and organic) project a bad trip versus a good trip, a barcode pattern versus a gently rolling landscape, a zoned-out state of mind versus an alert one. The sidebars themselves summarize information from previous essays. In one example, “industrial eye” points out that Florida, the nation’s top tomato producer, was cited by the USDA for bathing tomatoes in 5 million to 8 million pounds of methyl bromide (a toxic nerve gas) in one year alone. After that, tomatoes are dunked in paraquat and Diazinon. Then the tomatoes arrive at the grocery store; finally they lie, tempting and succulent in your salad — until you eat one, and notice that it is rubbery and flavorless.

In this way Fatal Harvest drives home its message: Progress is about diversity, not monoculture; small, local farms will ultimately be safer and more efficient than large, industrial ones.

If organic farming has failed in any way, Fatal Harvest doesn’t let on. It remains steadfastly optimistic. Parts Four through Six deal with biodiversity and wildlife and the social and economic impact of industrial agriculture. Part Seven looks forward to ways organic farming can mitigate the problems created by industrial agriculture, and the book ends with a note on hope by Wendell Berry — but how can you feel hopeful when the power of industrial agriculture mutes numerous attempts to properly label genetically modified foods, squeezes out the organic farmer, and appears to have little concern for the rising incidences of cancer among Americans? It’s hard, but the point of the book is to keep demanding change armed with the information provided. What Fatal Harvest does best is make the invisible visible by transforming numbing statistics and hard-to-imagine pesticides into something concrete that the reader sees with many eyes.

Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture
Edited by Andrew Kimbrell
Island Press, 396 pp., $45.00