The Golden Age of Pesticides
The 50s were the golden age of pesticides. But by the end of the 60s, the Golden Age had started to tarnish.
In the 50s, new and amazing products were being discovered, quickly tested and introduced to farmers and the general public. In these early days, there were no downsides to pesticides. After all, the public could see the miracles happening before their eyes. DDT had been used effectively during World War II to kill the insects that carried malaria and typhus, saving the lives of thousands of GIs. In the 50s, very little was known about any problems with these chemical miracles. The studies had just not been done, yet.
As you can see in the chart at right, real expenditures for pesticides in the equivalent of 1967 dollars shot up. Note that the scale on the chart is a logarithmic scale, so the actual increase would normally appear even higher.
- The total expenditures for pesticides increased tenfold between 1945 and 1972.
- Total pesticide production was below 100 million pounds in 1945. It jumped to about 300 million pounds by 1950. It jumped again by 1960 to over 600 million pounds.
- In 1952, 11 percent of the corn and 5 percent of the cotton acres were treated with herbicides. By 1982, these percentages had risen to 95 percent of the corn and 93 percent of the cotton.
- Between 1947 and '52, he USDA registered almost 10,000 new, separate pesticide products and the list continued to grow through the rest of the century.
- Analysis of data right after the war indicated that every additional dollar spent on fertilizer or pesticides generated increased output of between $3 to $5, on average. It's no wonder that farmers flocked to buy the new chemicals.
- According to the USDA in 1945, the average annual loss in farm income from pests and crop diseases was about $360 million [over $4 billion in today's dollars]. Even if this figure is debatable estimating the market value for crops never harvested is a tricky business crop pests were worth controlling.
The Golden Age of Pesticides was helped along by the unintended consequences of federal farm policies. In the 50s and 60s, controls were placed on the number of acres farmers could plant, not directly on the amounts of crops they could produce. So, the farmers took the worst land out of production and poured technology, including pesticides, into the remaining land to increase yields.
Dan Stork (left) now works as a salesman for a pesticides company and has seen a lot of change since the Golden Age. But he still believes in the value of properly used pesticides. "Without crop protection chemicals," he says, "production of food would be approximately half of what it is today, and prices would maybe be 60 percent higher."
Beulah Gocke (right) says it was hard in those early days to keep up with the pace of change in pesticides for her family's farming operation. "Every year, there's a new batch, a new bunch of names," she says. "And you want to say, 'Okay, what's this for?' I think it made for a crash course every year. You've just got to read and go the pesticide meetings. You cannot be a closed book. [You're] always looking for information."
Alex Martin (left) says that pesticides are just part of a symbiosis of technologies machines, hybrid crops and pesticides and other chemicals that play off of each other. "Synthetic pesticides wouldn't have made near as much contribution if it hadn't been for the other thing," Alex says. "the machinery developed that allowed us to capitalize on the technology that was developed. So, we wouldn't have been able to precisely plant, fertilize, and apply pesticides without the machinery. We needed the pesticides, obviously, to be developed. We needed the genetic improvement in the crop to capitalize on the fact that we no longer have rootworms eating p the crop and the weeds. So, a lot of things came together."
That symbiosis produced the Golden Age of pesticides.
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.