Book Review: The Pesticide Conspiracy

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Book Review: The Pesticide Conspiracy

by Deborah Letourneau

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 3, May/June 1979, p. 37–38

by Robert van den Bosch. New York: Doubleday, 1978. $8.95.

Statements like: “the ‘superbug’ that last year destroyed $45 million worth of cotton is now attacking the nation’s 42,000-acre supply of winter lettuce, destroying 10% to 20% of the early plantings” and “It’s threatening maybe 50% of the crop and if we don’t get some kind of control, lettuce could go up to $2 a head”1 are more and more common in California newspapers these days. Insect pests which were rare a few years ago are becoming rampant. Why? Can these severe pest outbreaks be prevented? Who profits from this state of affairs? The Pesticide Conspiracy by Robert van den Bosch aptly deals with these and other important questions.2

The Pesticide Conspiracy is a blustery tale resulting from van den Bosch’s turbulent 30-year involvement in pest management, during which he was transformed from an insect-collecting applied ecologist to a political activist. As he states it, “the idyllic world of beetles and butterflies has largely slipped away as I have increasingly involved in the roaring pesticide controversy — a vicious, nerve-racking imbroglio that has turned my entomological niche into a veritable hornet’s nest.” 

Van den Bosch tells us that ” … 30 years ago, at the outset of the synthetic-insecticide era, when the nation used roughly 50 million pounds of insecticides, the insects destroyed about 7 per cent of our preharvest crops; today, under a 600-million-pound pesticide load, we are losing 13 per cent of our preharvest yield to the rampaging insects.”3 In fact, some entomologists have estimated that there would only be a 5% dollar value loss due to insects if insecticide use were halted this moment.4 Clearly, then, a heavy reliance upon pesticides for the control and eradication of insect pests on crops, the “pesticide strategy”, is a fiasco as far as sound pest management is concerned. 

In his book van den Bosch demonstrates the price we pay for the use, misuse and overuse of chemical insecticides: 

  1. Growers may suffer failure and bankruptcy. All too often, poorly directed use of insecticides leads to resistant pest populations which are no longer killed by an entire family of pesticides. The insecticide-selected insects then succeed in ravaging the crops, putting the grower on an “insecticide treadmill”; she/he is forced to spray either more often, at higher concentrations or with different (likely, more expensive) poisons. Another pesticide-aggravated condition is that of secondary pest outbreaks. This occurs when broad spectrum insecticides applied to fields disrupt the natural controls (kill the natural enemies) of previously innocuous insects, which then become pests. Pests created by pesticide usage! 
  2. Farm workers and pesticide production factory employees work in close contact with these biocides (see “Seveso”, SftP, Nov/Dec 1977). Van den Bosch describes several atrocities and goes on to reveal how public officials have colluded to bend the law and, Mafia-like, perpetuate the oppressive system. Referring to a court hearing in which farm workers attempted to acquire access to pesticide-use files, van den Bosch remembers “the fear and hatred that the dominant San Joaquin Valley middle-class establishment holds for Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers, and the impression that this middle class considers the Chicano, Okie and black rural population to be somewhat outside the pale of humanity … The sociology of pest control is indeed an ugly game.”5
  3. People everywhere (not to mention every other living thing) are subject to potential health hazards from the production of these chemicals and the subsequent concentration of the poisons in the food chain. Regulatory attempts in the U.S. are ineffective in preventing exposure to dangerous chemical pesticides as residues in our food. The situation in Third World countries is more severe. Van den Bosch cites many examples of poisoning by properly registered and labeled U.S.-produced insecticides sold to developing countries. 

He implores us to consider an alternative to the “poison ’em” strategy. Various pest control tactics can be effectively employed in combination to constitute an integrated pest management strategy.6 These include cultural pest control techniques, the use of natural enemies of pests (predators and also parasites, which are usually flies or tiny wasps that eventually kill the host), resistant plant varieties and the judicious use of pesticides which are specific to the problem and only applied when necessary. Examples of such programs which have been implemented in California include mosquito control, street tree pest control, citrus orchard pest control and even an integrated pest management scheme for cotton. These programs work! Not only are crop yields and quality maintained or improved, but pesticide use is drastically cut and the cost is often much lower. In the case of cotton, insecticide use and per acre control costs dropped by more than 50%, but rational pest control such as this is only practiced in 10% of the cotton fields. 

How do growers fall victim to the insecticide treadmill? Van den Bosch offers several routes of influence. First, growers are confronted with an onslaught of pressures promoting agrichemicals. Agmags are distributed to growers free of charge with chemical ads (eco-pornography) that may occupy a majority of page space. These companies “discourage” printing of articles on alternative pest control methods. Even Life magazine opted not to print an article on IPM when the editors were leaned on by agchem honchos. 

Beyond commercial advertising considerations lies a second impetus. A great percentage of farm advisors are employed by pesticide companies, and are nothing else than commissioned pesticide salespeople. Van den Bosch likens this to pharmacists giving medical advice rather than doctors. An example of such ludicrous advice-practice involves pressure toward pesticide insurance (that is, the use of spray calendars which schedule pesticide treatments to assure pest-free crops instead of monitoring pest populations and treating only when necessary — when pest populations are above the economic threshold). 

Thirdly, bank loan and government subsidy procurement can indeed be influenced by whether or not the grower includes pesticide insurance in his/her management plans. Fourthly, the prevailing attitude is such that we are compelled to kill bugs. A Washington State researcher sums up the problem van den Bosch calls “agri-macho techno-fascination” in a phone conversation: “It’s crazy, Van: you just can’t get some of the growers to follow the integrated program, after 10 years of success. It seems like it’s in their blood to crank up their rigs and go out and spray the groves. And when they do this they foul things up. I don’t understand it. They completely forget that just a few years ago the apple orchards of central Washington were burning up with spider-mite infestations created by excesses in spraying practices”. Finally, the ever-prevailing mystique of science is used to maintain the insurmountable gap between grower and researcher. The privileged information phenomenon places the grower at the mercy of the “experts”, such as farm advisor salespeople and U.S.D.A. or land-grant university researchers (see van den Bosch’s chapter entitled “Science for Sale”) who often serve agrichemical industry interests as well. 

Well-protected vested interests plus a popular social attitude of entomophobia, combine to explain why pesticide support is perpetuated. Since the U.S.D.A. and land grant colleges are under the thumb of what van den Bosch calls the pesticide Mafia, what about the Environmental Protection Agency? In his chapter “The Rape of the E.P.A.”, he sadly relates a progression of imposed legal restraints resulting from chemical industry backlashes to the early banning of DDT and a handful of other environmentally hazardous agchem products.7

The concluding chapter of The Pesticide Conspiracy reviews the obstacles against improving pest control practices in the U.S. and stresses the importance of social awareness of the problems involved. The book, written in non-technical lively prose, will be a step toward this goal by clearly illustrating the political and economic controls and constraints not only in the pesticide issue but the applied sciences in general. Van den Bosch, as mentioned previously, did not enter the pesticide arena from a political standpoint. There is some confusion in his book as to who the enemy really is. His approaches to an analysis of the pesticide-Mafia political economy are cut short with discussions of what he considers to be inherent flaws of human nature. A broader perspective presents itself in considering the agribusiness industry concept in general. van den Bosch tells us that California shoulders So/r of the world pesticide load. Corporate farming is a huge industry in the state. What are the political and social implications of the connection? A dependence on insecticides not only creates a booming market for the products of multi-national petrochemical operations but, along with other facets of agribusiness technology, operates to force the small grower (not capable of meeting capital-intensive demands) off the land. Just as the prohibitive cost of mechanization is designed to effect channeling of production toward agribusiness conglomerates, so the pesticide investment, inexpensive at the outset, can become an insecticide treadmill, producing a situation in which increasingly larger percentages of the profit margin are fed into satisfying the chemical habit. 

Van den Bosch is angry. His stance is straightforward and his book is a strong and important contribution. It also provides a starting point for a deep analysis of our prevailing political state of affairs.

Deborah Letourneau is a graduate student in biological control at Berkeley, who is active in Berkeley-Oakland SftP. 

>> Back to Vol. 11, No. 3<<


  1. Los Angeles Times, 4 December, 1978.
  2. Robert van den Bosch died soon after his book appeared on the shelves. He was a fighter. His inspiration has led many people, determined to carry on the struggle.
  3. This is a quote from van den Bosch, Chapter 3, and the statistics are from a paper by D. Pimentel, E.C. Terhune, W. Dritschilo, D. Gallaghan, N. Kinner, D. Nafus, R. Peterson, N. Zareh, J. Misiti, and O. HaberScham, (1977), Bioscience 27: 178-85.
  4. “Benefits and Costs of Pesticide Use in U.S. Food Production.” (1978). D. Pimentel, J. Krummel, D. Gallahan, J. Hough, A. Merrill, I. Schreiner, P. Vittum, F. Koziol, E. Back, D. Yen, and S. Fiance. BioScience 28: 772, 778-784.
  5. from van den Bosch’s Chapter 7, “Sticking it to Cesar – The Sociology of Pest Control.”
  6. van den Bosch provides a clear, thorough explanation of the integrated pest management concept in Chapter 15, “Integrated Control- A Better Way to Battle the Bugs.”
  7. A very recent article in Science exposes some of the problems in EPA functioning: “Toxic Substances: EPA and OSHA Are Reluctant Regulators.” ( 1979). Science 263(4375):28-32, by R.J. Smith.