13 , 2004: Environmentalists use many tools to protect
our water, air, soil, and wildlife, and one of them is marketing.
But environmental advocates are constantly at odds as to whether
the message should be positive or negative. The dominant school
says, “Show only pretty pictures.” In other words,
images of pristine wildlands and tidy, bucolic farms will
encourage the public to defend the possibilities of a clean
environment. The other school, considered less-mainstream,
advises advocates to “tell it like it is.” The
logic here is that only ugly pictures will compel viewers
to fight environmental destruction. Rhetorical strategies
almost always assume the public will react to a positive message
and shut out a negative one.
That’s what makes Fatal Harvest so unusual.
Editor Andrew Kimbrell has chosen not to hide the realities
of large-scale corporate farming. The bulk of the book (which
weighs five pounds) is dedicated to the results, actual and
anticipated, of technology-intensive monocultural farming.
Some of these images and much of the text represent a reality
that is ugly indeed: We have lost one-third of the earth’s
arable land in the past 40 years due to erosion (42). Half
a billion rural people can neither buy food nor buy enough
land to grow their own food (51). Around the world, five million
tons of pesticides are released into the soil, air, and water
every year (281), devastating wildlife populations and human
Though I commend the editors for their stark view, this approach
requires an especially strong editor to guard the boundary
of polemics, a line this book crosses freely. Moreover, note
citations would be useful. Although a selected bibliography
is present, there are no individual citations for statistics
and studies, and trends are often presented in vague terms.
For example, in a discussion about the corporate push to use
genetically modified soybean seed, the editors write, “In
1999, 60 percent of the U.S. soybean crop was genetically
altered. A survey of grain elevators in 2000 revealed that
only 20 percent plan to separate genetically engineered soybeans
from natural soybeans” (134). I don’t doubt that
elevators are failing to separate their beans, but if I wanted
to learn more, I’d have to find the study on my own.
The fact that some statistics are tied to emotional language
makes me even more interested in having the references at
Fatal Harvest does sound an urgent alarm. Among
the many problems with industrial agriculture, the level and
type of chemical use is astounding. Methyl bromide, for example,
damages the central nervous system, disrupts endocrine function,
and depletes the ozone layer. The United States intended to
ban the substance in 2001. But the strawberry industry and
other agricultural lobbyists protested, and Congress delayed
the phase-out to 2005. The use of organophosphates (which
block an enzyme that transmits nerve impulses and are acutely
toxic to wildlife) and organochlorines (tied to breast cancer)
is equally alarming. DDT is an organochlorine, and although
it was banned in the United States in 1972, it and other organochlorines
are still in use.
Equally threatening are the rates at which genetically engineered
crops are replacing traditional varieties; the dirty politics
involved in farm subsidies—especially for sugar production
but also corn and soybeans; the number of birds, amphibians,
and other wildlife killed each year by chemical and mechanical
operations; the rate at which agriculture depletes water supplies,
and the number of migrant field workers killed or injured
worldwide each year.
But how many times do we need to hear that pesticides are
toxic? As a coffee table book, perhaps Fatal Harvest is
intended to be read in fits and starts. Reading cover to cover
reveals serious errors in organization, including themes that
are overstated. The worst culprit is the section titled “The
Industrial and Agrarian Visions: Learning to See What You
Are Looking At,” which contrasts industrial and sustainable
farming methods for individual crops. When I first flipped
through the book, I thought this section seemed the most promising.
Are strawberries really the most pesticide-intensive crop?
What does an industrial lettuce patch look like? Yet in an
effort to explain the problems of individual fruits, vegetables,
grains, nuts, and fibers, the editors repeat the premise—and
even the specific language used to argue that premise—until
I can’t hear it anymore. By that time, I’m finished
with the “ugly pictures,” not because I can’t
stomach them but because—enough already—the point
has been made.
Fatal Harvest offers some highlights, including
the chance to read some of the most talented thinkers on agriculture
in one collection: Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Vandana Shiva,
Miguel Altieri, Gary Nabhan, and others. The original chapters
“Wildlife Health,” by Kelly Tucker of the American
Bird Conservancy, and “Artificial Fertility,”
by organic farmer Jason McKenney, are especially cogent. The
book mentions a few specific organic farms, and these are
inspiring, though much of the space used to repeat the chorus
of problems could be used to flesh out these examples.
According to Fatal Harvest, there are two kinds
of farmers: those who direct industrial production from skyscraper
suites and care nothing for the farm, and those who plant,
harvest, and thrash their own crops next to a backdrop of
charming woods. This dichotomy may hold some truth, but I’ve
seen certified organic farms that are in no way lovely. Fatal
Harvest is an unprecedented attempt to look behind the
scenes for the sources of our food. Unfortunately, weak editing
and lack of rigor make this effort fall short.
Laurie Milford is a writer and fundraiser living in Laramie,