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Giant spray rigs are a common sight on country roads throughout the midwest.

Unmistakeable signs of spring and early summer include singing birds and greening fields. But if you live in farm country, particularly in the mono-cropped Midwest, there’s a more sinister sign of spring.

It rolls along country roads on gigantic tires, with metal wings folded tightly along each side. When it pulls into a field, it spreads those wings, fires up the pumps, and sprays pesticide cocktails that volatilize and drift, poisoning many life forms while contaminating our soil, air, and water. In fact, some say that agri-chemical drift is the new second-hand smoke.

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Round bales in the hay field, next to the catalpa grove, on the Brockman family farm in Danforth, IL.

My brother Henry’s farm is fortunate to be surrounded by farm families who have “just said no” to the chemical companies and are raising certified organic grains and livestock just fine without them. But many other fields in our rural central-Illinois county were being crisscrossed by spray rigs as we filmed A Season of Change on Henry’s Farm, a documentary about navigating life’s seasons while also attempting to navigate the changed climate that threatens our ability to feed ourselves.

Filming life and work on a biodiverse, organic vegetable farm nestled among the Midwest’s chemical-industrial corn belt brought the contrast between conventional agriculture and organic agriculture into sharp relief. And it got me thinking about the suffix “-cide” — as in genocide, homicide, fratricide, suicide.

Killer -cides

Although we call what the spray rigs and crop dusters spew out pesticides, they are more accurately bio-cides—“life-killers.” They kill not only the “pests,” but all living things within the target category, whether that is broadleaf plants, or fungi, or insects.

An insecticide, for example, kills not only the bean beetle or the corn rootworm, but all the beneficial insects that keep the problem species in balance. And it kills the many insects that feed our birds, and that feed us through their work pollinating our fruits and vegetables. It also kills the beauty and wonder of a monarch butterfly, a luna moth, and the fireflies that rise like blessings on a summer evening.

Similarly, herbicides kill not only broadleaf “weeds,” but as they volatilize (turn from liquid to gas) and drift, then descend again, sometimes miles away, they kill a neighbor’s grapes or a monarch’s milkweed. And as weeds have become resistant to commonly-used herbicides, more toxic cocktails are devised in the escalating arms race.

Pissing in the Cistern

The world we live in is a complex, interconnected web of life, so when we force it to drink the elixir of death—all those –cides—we humans, too, drink that same elixir. As Wendell Berry writes, “Most of us are still too sane to piss in our own cistern, but we allow others to do so, and we reward them for it. We reward them so well, in fact, that those who piss in our cistern are wealthier than the rest of us.”

Dumping herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides on nearly every square inch of farmland is pretty much the definition of “pissing in our cistern.” The poisons seep into our wells, and are directly delivered to the rivers, streams, and lakes that provide us with water.

Poison Rain

Not only that, but pesticides are now part of the hydrologic cycle, evaporating, moving across the country, then falling back to earth in raindrops and snowflakes. A U.S. Geological Survey study found that pesticides are quite literally raining down on us, with 75% of rain and air samples containing glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed-killer. Another analysis of rain in four agricultural areas (Indiana, Nebraska, California, and Maryland) found two herbicides, atrazine and metolachlor, in every single sample; and five other pesticides were found in over 50% of the samples.

It was quite a shock to realize that Shakespeare’s “gentle rain from heaven” is now toxic. And, sadly, not so shocking to learn that pesticide metabolites are found in our bodies, including in children’s urine and in mothers’ breast milk.  Even more damning, higher rates of birth defects (often fatal) are found in babies conceived during the months of heaviest agricultural chemical applications, adding yet another –cide to the list—infanticide.

And of course bio-cides make their way into the food we eat. Recently the maximum allowed residue levels for glyphosate increased 10-fold—not because it’s safe (quite the opposite, as it’s been named a probable human carcinogen), but because those are the residue levels now present in most processed foods made of non-organic grains. And it’s easier, and more industry-friendly, to simply raise the allowable levels than to require the levels to stay the same or be reduced.

Taking Action

Given all of the above, despair is a natural reaction. But action is the best antidote to despair, and there are many positive actions each one of us can take, whether on the producer or consumer side. For farmers, there is the time-tested practice of crop rotation. The long-running Marsden study in Iowa shows that simply putting a year of wheat or oats in with a corn/soybean rotation breaks pest cycles and vastly reduces the need for expensive pesticides and, as a result, the incidence of chemical drift.

Other farmers, such as my brother Henry and many of our neighbors, choose to farm organically, which reduces the overall contamination of soil, air, and water. And according to a comprehensive scientific analysis, organic food has more antioxidants, lower levels of toxic metals, and lower levels of pesticides.

The power of consumer choice is helping to swing the pendulum from toxic to clean agriculture.

On the consumer side, we are able to “pull” by voting with our food dollars, and “push” by voting with our votes. We can let candidates and elected officials know that how food is grown matters, and that just as second-hand smoke is no longer acceptable, neither is agri-chemical drift.

And we can we support organizations like the Union for Concerned Scientists and Pesticide Action Network, who provide information and advocate for policies that will lower agrochemical use.

Change is never easy, but life itself is a process of continual change, and it is time to kill the -cides before they kill us. In their place, we can put practices that mimic the bio-diverse, revitalizing, and vivifying ways of nature herself.