REVIEW: Fatal Harvest
Industrial farming is bad
The Foundation for Deep Ecology, which published Fatal Harvest, makes a not-so-subtle point

Reviewed by Laurie Milford


Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture

Andrew Kimbrell, ed.,
The Foundation for Deep Ecology, by arrangement with Island Press, 2002; ISBN 1-55963-940-7; 384 pp.

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September 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 health.

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 hand.

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, WY.