I’ve been washing fruit and vegetables for as long as I can remember. My formative understanding was this: I was washing away chemicals used on farms, and cleaning my food of any dirt or germs, before I ate it.
When I first came across Silent Spring a couple of years ago – originally published in Britain in 1963 – I began wondering how much it had informed my long-held, but origin-less, assumptions about pesticides. Press quotes on the book’s cover tell you that it “changed the world” and “brought ecology into popular consciousness”.
After reading Silent Spring in February 2022, I understood why it had such an impact, and how it could have infiltrated public consciousness to such an extent that it influenced my early sense of the potential harm pesticides can cause. Reading it also helped confirm a long-held suspicion that washing fruit and veg, while essential for washing away dirt, was somewhat futile when it came to removing the risk posed by pesticides.
Carson documents in detail the far-reaching, unintended impact of the mass spraying of landscapes to kill pests, primarily in the USA, but citing examples from around the world, drawing on a collection of robust sources. And, importantly, it offers an emotional, sensitive account of the impact this was having; chapter 3 is headed ‘Elixirs of Death’.
The book takes the science, humanises it and is neither apologetic nor wavering in its conviction of the errors being made by chemical pest control.
The book takes the science, humanises it and is neither apologetic nor wavering in its conviction of the errors being made by chemical pest control. It may be scientifically dense and detailed in places, and but its spirit runs through.
That Carson died of ill health in April 1964 is incredibly sad. She was unable to see the environmental victories that have been won against the post-World War II boom in industrial nature management and intensive agriculture. We’re arguably on the cusp of the greatest reappraisal of that approach yet in the UK.
Carson’s conviction and belief that such an approach to farming is everyone’s business is a lead to follow.
At the same time, her ecological project continues. On 2 March 2022, the UK government approved the strict use of a neonicotinoid pesticide on sugar beet grown in Britain, a decision heavily criticised by the Wildlife Trust because of the proven impact such pesticides have on bees.
In Silent Spring, of the breed of pesticides in use during the ‘50s and ‘60s, Carson wrote: “Several hundred species of wild bees take part in the pollination of cultivated crops…Without insect pollination, most of the soil-holding and soil-enriching plants of uncultivated areas would die out, with far-reaching consequences to the ecology of the whole region.”
That fight for ecological consciousness goes on. We should all be washing fresh produce knowing it is safe for us and our environment. But buying pesticide-free fruit and vegetables isn’t a viable option for many people. If 21st century farming junks the intensive agriculture model of the recent past, in favour of a true ecological approach, that viability could become a reality. Carson’s conviction and belief that such an approach to farming is everyone’s business is a lead to follow.
Photograph of Silent Spring in heather | Paul Dicken
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