Spring 1999, Volume 16.3
The Soil Inside Us
Tim Gilmer graduated from UCLA and received a master's degree from Southern Oregon State College. He lives near Portland, where he farms, writes, and teaches writing at Clackamas Community College. He is the recipient of an Oregon Literary Fellowship in literary nonfiction and has published fiction, essays, and articles in Writers' Forum, The Oregonian, and New Mobility magazine.
…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.—Genesis 3:19
As young boys my best friend and I played next to a cotton field irrigated by open ditches. We scooped dirt from the main ditch until water spilled out and created a muddy floodplain which we molded into castles and moats, or—if we were in a combative mood—airstrips and supply depots for our combined armies of little green soldiers with their jets and jeeps and artillery. We were the Creators working the clay, imbued with a sense of power and destiny, limited only by our imaginations, lost in our world of mud…until our mothers called us for dinner, at which time we would stage one last battle, annihilating everything we had worked so hard to create. Sometimes as we played late in the evening or early on a Saturday morning, a crop duster buzzed low over telephone lines, spewing a foggy trail over the cotton. We were mesmerized by the old biplane, oblivious to what was being sprayed.
At the age of twenty-nine, I finally left the San Joaquin Valley and moved north to Oregon, to a land where crops in blocks of tens of thousands of acres no longer dominated the landscape. From a jet you could look down and see the true character of the land. Rivers, fed by creeks and streams which carved the ground into unusual shapes, flowed down from mountains. Gone was the checkerboard quilt of greens, yellows, and browns that covered the valley floor of California. Oregon land west of the Cascades resembled a jigsaw puzzle, the kind where fine variations in green make it difficult to distinguish one piece from another. East of the Cascades was dry and vast by comparison.
I settled first in the Rogue Valley in Southern Oregon, west of the Cascades, and the first thing I did after unpacking my things was plop down in the brownish-red soil outside my rural apartment and work my hands in the dirt. It was April of 1974, time to get my first garden going. I scooted around on my butt, childlike, digging with a short-handled shovel, breaking up clods with my bare hands. Days later I had fashioned a garden-sized farm, complete with beds, furrows, and irrigation ditches.
My companion—my future wife—and I had come north with a dream. We wanted to live sensibly on a small acreage in the country: grow our own food, can fruits and vegetables, raise livestock, and live in harmony with nature. To us that meant forsaking pesticides, if possible. We were not alone. More than ten years had passed since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring had spawned a modest revival in organic gardening and farming methods, and all over the nation people (young people, especially) were "going back to the earth."
It took us six years before we had a chance to taste the dream. In the fall of 1980, we purchased a small farm two miles east of the Willamette River and about a half-hour drive from Portland. By now we were married and thinking of starting a family. The setting seemed to activate our need to continue the circle of life.
Our first year we grew a large garden and discovered how prolific weeds can be. Pigweed and lambsquarter overran the lettuce and peas, grass grew like crazy everywhere, and down in the wild woods by the creek, tansy ragwort and thistle marched through grazing land like soldiers bent on destruction. I learned the difference between Russian, or bullthistle, and Canadian thistle. Bullthistle grew to enormous size and looked ferocious enough to swallow whole children, while the Canadian variety seemed harmless. The following year, working an acre for our first U-Pick plot, I made the mistake of tilling under a patch of Canadian thistle—three times. Each time the patch doubled in size. Finally, an old-timer across the creek informed me that Canadian thistle sprouts from root fragments. I had chopped long taproots into thousands of potential thistle seedlings. In self-defense I broke my organic pledge and resorted to spraying Weedmaster (2,4D), mainly in the runaway U-pick patch and down by the creek.
I drew the line at spraying chemical pesticides directly on vegetables and fruits. For insect control, I brewed cedar tea concentrate to spray, pureed garlic for the same purpose, or used Safer's soap. This worked fine with soft-bodied bugs like aphids but didn't seem to affect cucumber beetles, so I employed three teenage boys to handpick the spotted devils for a nickel a bug. They carried flat pieces of bark as "squishing fields." In all, they killed well over a thousand cucumber beetles in four hours, and my total "pesticide" bill for the day came to fifty-two dollars—expensive for one acre, but not if it saved a tender young crop from destruction.
It felt good to know our vegetables were free from chemicals. We advertised our U-pick vegetables as "no-spray," but few people came out to pick. We were too far off the beaten track. With the help of friends and neighbors, we harvested peas and beans, boxed them, and drove them into a few restaurants in downtown Portland. The chefs seemed interested in buying more, so the next year we added a second acre and delivered regularly to about seven or eight restaurants—peas, beans, squash, tomatoes, and peppers. Because we were still using commercial pelleted fertilizers in the soil instead of organic materials, we could not call our produce "organic." But that did not bother us, for we were convinced that our vegetables were squeaky clean; after all, they had never been sprayed with anything stronger than soap or garlic or cedar tea.
A few years passed and we doubled in size again—acreage as well as customers. Now we were starting to think of ourselves as truck farmers rather than ambitious gardeners. Everything was progressing nicely until one day, checking my young crop of snow peas, I noticed all the leaves had notches in them. I found a suspect—the pea leaf weevil—a barely visible dusty bug which I took back to the house and identified with the help of a microscope and an insect guide. The next day the pea seedlings looked half their initial size. I was losing my crop right before my eyes.
I gathered a few weevils and took them to my torture chamber and sprayed them with Safer's soap, my most potent weapon. When I put a sprayed weevil under a microscope, it lay motionless. Encouraged, I went outside to check my stock of Safer's soap. When I returned, the weevil was gone. I called Jim Baggett, plant breeder and pea expert at Oregon State University, and told him what had happened. "Oh yes," he said, "they'll fool you. They know how to play possum. They're not as dumb as people think. You'll need something stronger than soap to kill them." I asked if he knew of an effective organic insecticide and he referred me to an extension agent who recommended rotenone. The problem, I soon discovered, was there was none to be bought anywhere. There was an untimely shortage of the South American derris root from which rotenone is made. I called the extension agent again and he suggested I use a synthetic pyrethrin to save my crop. It was the safest manmade chemical pesticide he could think of. Immediately I went to the nearest farm store and bought an expensive metal container of Pounce and sprayed early the next morning. The pea leaf weevils stopped chomping right away, fell off leaves, and curled up and died in the soil. My crop was saved.
Two weeks later I read an article in the Oregonian about synthetic pyrethrins that nearly made me choke on my coffee. Someone was claiming that this particular pesticide, which went under a variety of trade names, was a carcinogen. What was particularly disturbing was the disclosure that the FDA had approved the chemical without conducting independent research. All the testing had been done by the company that manufactured the product. When the extension agent had told me the product was safe, he was taking the word of the company that stood to gain the most from selling it. I did not want to believe the article. This stuff was ten times as effective as Safer's soap and easy and inexpensive to spray. All it took was two liquid ounces mixed with one hundred gallons of water to cover an acre. I had just purchased about one hundred fifty dollars' worth, which would last the entire year or longer.
I had grown tired of reading about the latest carcinogen every week in the newspaper, so I decided it was time to throw idealism to the winds and use whatever controls were legally available. Using chemicals made sense economically and satisfied my need for control. It was easy to rationalize my retreat back to chemical insecticides. I did not want to lose the battle to bugs when the weaponry to win was at hand.
I expanded again. Now I had nearly thirty accounts in downtown Portland and had added lettuce, basil, baby corn, Japanese cucumbers and other specialty items. Lettuce became the staple, but weeds threatened to overtake each crop before it could be harvested. Once again an extension agent came to the rescue, telling me what everyone else already knew—Balan and Kerb were the herbicides of choice. I mixed the two with water and sprayed them directly on the soil and later tilled them in to a depth of about four inches, then planted. Sure enough, the lettuce came up, and the weeds were greatly reduced.
After a couple years of growing lettuce, I began to notice a particular weed seemed to be immune to these herbicides. Groundsel, also known as ragweed, began to take over wherever I had grown lettuce. What I had read—that pesticides can selectively favor certain weeds or insects—seemed to be coming true right before my eyes. My farm was a learning laboratory, if only I had eyes to see all that was happening: now, instead of having a diverse population of weeds, I had ragweed everywhere, and it was nearly impossible to kill.
I had to admit that my herbicide program had substituted one problem for another. But what about the bug war—at least I was winning that, wasn't I? The truth was not easy to accept. Cucumber beetles, even though I had killed millions, seemed to emerge from the soil every year in greater numbers. Apparently those that survived had developed a resistance to synthetic pyrethrin. I began to feel that I had been betrayed. I was doing what was expected—listening to and trusting the FDA, the petrochemicals industry, the farm store salespersons, and extension agents. I was doing everything by the book, but I was losing the battle with weeds and insects. The problem became more than an economic one. I began to worry about the potential cost to the health of my family (my wife and my four-year-old daughter), as well as those who consumed our produce at restaurants in Portland.
I decided to shelve the Pounce and go back to an organic rotenone spray which had become available. I would use up the Balan, then switch herbicides. One day, after spraying down Balan prior to planting lettuce, I instructed Jose, my hired man, to flush out the spray tank. Next, I added in fresh water and rotenone to spray cucumber beetles. I sprayed beans, basil, and a mature lettuce crop that was getting chomped badly, then happily left with my family for a weekend in the Wallowas, in northeastern Oregon. When I returned, I made my rounds to check the crops. Everything looked green and tender and under control. It was one of those mornings that make you feel glad to be alive—a few wispy clouds in the blue sky, plenty of sunshine, fresh air, the smell of basil in the gentle wind. I noticed once again how the new growth on basil and lettuce appears as a slightly lighter green. Everything seemed unusually colorful this morning.
The next morning the new growth seemed even lighter green. On the third morning, with the new growth verging on yellow, I began to worry. Over the next few days, two plantings of beans, all the basil, and two plantings of lettuce turned yellow, then brown. Eventually, it all died. I felt sick, but not literally; I did not want to calculate the economic damage.
I reconstructed the day I left for the Wallowas. It turned out that Jose did not understand the concept of flushing as I had intended it (my Spanish only allowed for the words lavar or limpiar—to wash or clean). He had run water in the tank, then sprayed it out—three times. He did not flush the tank by continually running fresh water through it while simultaneously spraying. Could it be whatever residue of Balan that remained in the bottom of the tank was responsible for killing my crops?
I turned to my bookshelf and found the answer. Balan was indeed a contact defoliant when sprayed on leaves. When it was incorporated into the soil, however, it inhibited the sprouting and growth of certain weeds but did not harm lettuce. What amazed me was how little residue, diluted with fifty gallons of water, had done the damage. I calculated that approximately 1/1000th of the amount recommended to incorporate into the soil had, when sprayed over the tops of plants, killed off about 20 percent of my annual production. That would mean that 1/200th of the recommended amount for one acre could have wiped out everything growing on five acres.
That did it. No more chemical insecticides.
I decided I could live with bugs and weeds. Any pesticide as powerful as Balan could not be entirely "safe," no matter what the experts said. In my research to uncover the cause of my spray disaster, I came across a term called "LD 50"—the amount of a given pesticide that it takes to kill 50 percent of laboratory test animals. The more lethal chemicals were capable of accomplishing this with as little as one milligram per kilogram of body weight. (Rachel Carson, writing in Silent Spring, told the story of one chemist who died after purposely ingesting .00424 of an ounce of parathion. He had prepared antidotes as a precaution, but became paralyzed instantly and died before he could reach them).
For the next five years I did not spray one drop of chemical pesticide on my vegetable ground. I changed from pelleted fertilizers to organic materials—chicken and cow manure and nitrogen-fixing cover crops. I forsook the use of chemicals in farming for four good reasons: (1) my daughter, who plays in the soil everyday and will spend eighteen or more years of her life in what is "normally" a chemically-dependent environment; (2) my wife and myself, both with family histories which include cancer; (3) those who buy and eat produce grown on my small farm; and finally, (4) whoever may inhabit this land in the future.
But that is only the beginning of the story.
In May of 1995, an employee of Tilth, an organic certification program in Oregon, took samples of my soil for laboratory testing. When the results came in, I thought there must be a mistake. None of the substances I had used had been found, but one substance I had never used in the fifteen years I had lived here had been found. Diana Tracy, the chemist who tests soil for Tilth, informed me that dieldrin, a dangerous chlorinated hydrocarbon, exists in one section of my farm in amounts which are unsafe for the growing of certain vegetable crops, namely squash, pumpkins, and cucumbers.
Tracy told me that recent research has established that cucurbits take up dieldrin from the soil in ways that other crops do not. Carrots and other root crops have been considered the most likely chemical residue "traps" for decades, but squashes, pumpkins, and cucumbers exhibit dieldrin residue uptake ratios ten times greater than carrots.
Unable to curb my curiosity and concern, I did some research of my own and discovered the following facts: dieldrin is a soil by-product of aldrin, both of which were banned as suspected carcinogens in 1974. In tests involving quails and pheasants, dieldrin has been shown to be more than forty times as toxic as DDT. Like other chlorinated hydrocarbons, it can and does accumulate in fat cells, harms the nervous system of applicators who have been poisoned, sometimes resulting in convulsions, and can cause severe damage to the liver. Dieldrin (aldrin) was one of the most widely used pesticides in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Its residues are notorious for their persistence in soil. Contaminated cucurbits tend to concentrate dieldrin in their flesh, especially near pulp and seeds, which means that washing is ineffective.
I suspected the culprit was my neighbor, who had grown strawberries seven years earlier. Aldrin had been a commonly used insecticide for decades prior to being banned. Could he have used it anyway? Could it have washed onto my land from his? Diana Tracy informed me that this was not a possibility. Dieldrin binds to soil particles and is not water-soluble. It stays right where it is applied. Someone incorporated it into my soil perhaps as many as thirty years ago, she said, and it is still unsafe for pumpkins, squash and cucumbers!
By contacting prior owners, I confirmed that in 1960 the then-current proprietor had indeed applied aldrin (which changed to dieldrin when it reacted with the soil) prior to planting strawberries. This occurred thirty-five years before it was detected and was entirely legal at the time. Not only was it legal, Smucker's (Jellies and Jams) told growers to do it if they planned on processing their berries; everyone was using it—on strawberries, potatoes, mint, orchards, even gardens. My mind reeled when I imagined the hundreds of thousands of acres in the Willamette Valley alone which had been contaminated. And what about the rest of the agriculturally-rich West? What about Florida? What about the nation? What about those farms where aldrin had been applied over a number of years? In the case of my farm, this once-popular pesticide had been applied only one time, and still, in terms of parts per million, the contamination hovered right at the level which FDA considers "safe" for cucurbits. Only a few hundredths of a part per million more dieldrin and the level of contamination is considered "unsafe."
Compared to the FDA, the organic food industry enforces a stricter standard. Most labs, according to Diana Tracy, set their detection limits at 10 percent of FDA's safe levels because they are interested in detecting all pesticide residues as well as allowing for error. Oregon's organic certification program—Tilth—sets its detection limits at only 5 percent of FDA levels. According to Tracy, Tilth may be the only program in the nation that routinely tests soil samples as well as produce. The purpose is to prevent certified organic farmers from growing susceptible vegetables on contaminated ground. This approach makes sense, especially if you consider the prevalent hit-or-miss logic of random FDA or state inspections at the produce dock. If you are serious about curing a disease, why not eliminate the cause, not just the symptoms?
I called an extension agent at an Oregon State University agricultural experiment station to learn more. "There is soil all around here [Oregon] where dieldrin levels are at or above FDA safe levels for cucurbits," he said, "but cooking has been shown to reduce the levels. For me, I'm satisfied it is safe to eat them, especially when cooked. Still, environmental groups are skeptical and want to eliminate FDA's `safe' levels altogether. They feel there is no definitive proof as to what levels are really safe. In my opinion, elimination of the current FDA safe level would be an overreaction resulting in economic disaster for farmers."
I have heard this reasoning before, and while sympathetic (after all, I was raised in a farming region and derive most of my income from farming), I cannot help but think that agricultural producers or the government that regulates them should exercise responsibility to know what is in the soil. Where potential Ismael Garcia carcinogens are concerned, shouldn't we take a preventative approach?
The family farm in the United States is being plowed under. This is old news. While the number of farms in the United States has diminished alarmingly in the last forty years, the average acreage per farm has increased tremendously. This means that agribusiness conforms to the national paradigm—big fish consuming small fish. In terms of pesticide residues, this is especially bad news. The bottom line for large corporate farming interests is predictable: production rules. Regulation of any kind is the enemy. While small organic farmers (the average size of organic farms in the United States is a tiny fraction of the average corporate farm size) feel a responsibility to their environment, their customers, and their children and grandchildren, agribusiness feels a responsibility to the corporate pocketbook. To these business giants, who influence agricultural policymaking at the national level, soil testing for pesticide residues represents an economic drain, if not a potential marketing disaster.
Enter the current Congress of the United States. What has been the agricultural mission of the congressional majority? To remove FDA restrictions on carcinogens. Their way of thinking—perhaps rationalizing would be a better word—is simple: take the restraints off the food-processing industry. After all, there is no conclusive proof that these pesticide residues actually cause cancer in people, is there? (see sidebar) We may have animal studies which claim that this and that pesticide causes cancer, but in the absence of absolute proof concerning humans—they say—why not support the economy?
This is the American Way of dealing with potential health hazards, and the model should ring a bell (as in alarm) for anyone who considers the implications: the tobacco industry—for instance--fighting for its economic future, began using this same rationale decades ago.
In the last twenty years, our success at fighting cancer within our bodies has improved, yet our chances of developing various cancers seems to have risen. Perhaps some of this increase can be attributed to greater diagnostic success, but there can be little doubt that carcinogenic substances have accumulated in the environment over the past half-century of insecticide-based farming practices; nonetheless, we do not want to distrust the system which governs, regulates, and promotes agriculture in the United States, perhaps because it is so intertwined with our daily lives. We do not want to believe that commonly used substances might be carcinogenic. We do not want to worry about what we cannot see. We do not want to think about pesticide residues in our food, soil, or bodies. We do not want to worry about our children as a special class whose maturing bodies are more vulnerable than the FDA's "average-sized person." We do not want to question what the FDA considers safe. And we do not want to go to the cost of running laboratory tests on farm soil throughout the United States.
Yet how many farms which ship produce all over the nation harvest from soil with persistent residues of dieldrin or other harmful chlorinated hydrocarbons or organophosphates used liberally in the past? Only those farmers know who belong to an organic certifying body that tests soil for harmful residues, or traditional farmers who have taken it upon themselves to do the same. Once these farmers get their soil tested, they no longer live in ignorance. The knowledge they gain from residue-testing allows them to plant what, where, and when it is safe to plant. But they are a pitifully small group. A more-than-reasonable estimate is that 99 percent of all agribusiness products in the United States are shipped by companies and farms that are not required to know what is in their soil. Virtually no one knows. No one wants to know.
The book of Genesis tells us we are formed from dust. Although this is certainly arguable, even science would agree that our bodies contain many of the elements found in soil, including residues from manufactured chemicals. The great bulk of our food supply continues to be harvested from soil, or from animals fed from soil-grown crops. We claim to be a nation concerned about health; we buy and consume our food mindful of the maxim "we are what we eat." But our concern for health will not be clearly focused, nor complete, until we monitor harmful chemical residues in our agricultural soils with as much zeal as we now apply to knowing how many calories or grams of fat we routinely put into our bodies. If our own health is not reason enough to motivate us to want to know what is in our soil, then let us at least act responsibly with regard to the earth-borne legacy we are leaving to our children and future generations.
Organochlorine exposure and risk of breast cancer
Background: Some organochlorine compounds may have weak oestrogenic effectrs and are, therefore, suspected of increasing the risk of breast cancer. We assessed prospectively the risk of breast cancer in relation to serum concentrations of several organochlorine compounds.
Methods: In 1976, serum samples from 7712 women were obtained from participants in the Copenhagen City Heart Study as part of physical examinations and interviews about lifestyle factors. During 17 years of follow-up, 268 women developed invasive breast cancer. Each woman with breast cancer was matched with two breast-cancerfree women from the remaining cohort. We analyzed in 1996-97 the serum samples from 240 women with breast cancer and 477 controls.
Findings: Dieldrin was associated with a significantly increased dose-related risk of breast cancer (adjusted odds ratio 2·05 [95% CI 1·17-3·57], p for trend 0·01). ß-hexachlorocyclohexane increased risk slightly but not significantly (p for trend 0·24). There was no overall association between risk of breast cancer and p,p'-dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane or metabolites or for polychlorinated biphenyls. Exclusion of women with breast cancer diagnosed with 5 years of blood sampling strengthened the result for dieldrin, but did not affect the other results.
Interpretation: These findings support the hypothesis that exposure to xeno-oestrogens may increase the risk of breast cancer.—Annette Pernille Høyer, Philippe Grandjean, Torben Jørgensen, John W. Brock, Helle Bøggild Hartvig; Lancet 1998; 352: 1816-20