Well, that does it. From now on, I plan to buy mostly organic produce. I know that it will cost me a bit more, but after watching the new Rachel Carson documentary, this is a small price to pay for food that is certified to have no pesticides or herbicides used in its production. And if this small gesture helps to slow down the use of such chemicals, so much the better.
I remember when “Silent Spring” came out in 1962, and how it caused such an uproar. It was a dramatic story: A single woman gathering information and patiently putting it all together to call attention to the biological effects that so many of these chemicals have on all forms of life. In this documentary, there are many shots of airplanes swooping down on fields; spraying clouds of pesticides on crops; forested land, rivers and lakes; and footage of people being thoroughly dusted with DDT, covered from head to foot. It was horrifying and disturbing.
Having grown up on a farm, these images are not abstract for me. I remember farm boys and men covered with dust and chemicals because back in those days, we all believed in modern practices, and our community was heavily involved in the many layered hierarchy of food production and selling of agricultural products, from growing to running produce stands. Since American Japanese were such successful farmers, they were often contacted by salesmen and were given the job of trying out new products and methods. One image stuck in my mind, of men outfitted with big canisters of pesticides strapped on their backs and a pump operated by hand, which spewed out clouds of chemicals on the tomato plants. I don’t remember anybody worrying about the effects of all those pesticides, and most of the farm workers were Mexicans, often undocumented. Nobody seemed to care much about them.
So, I think we all had contact with these poisons, probably eating food that contained them and also using them as bug killers and in all sorts of other ways, like on our pets and lawns, and who knows what else? The government encouraged the development of products that made it possible for us to have the great abundance of food that Americans have come to take for granted. And we on the West Coast have so much variety and choice in foodstuffs, we are almost overburdened by choice. Well, that cornucopia of good things to eat has had costs, and this unlikely woman, Rachel Carson, who loved nature and wanted to be a writer, had the insight and the smarts to see things that others ignored. Being a dogged researcher, she put together the findings of many other scientists to decisively show how the government and the corporations had gone ahead with the wide use of substances that had not been properly “vetted,” or studied for side effects and long-term hazards for human beings and the environment. She died of cancer at the age of 56, but her work brought about a total turnaround on our understanding of things like the balance of life, the fragile ecosystems in nature and chemical damage to our core beings, like our DNA.
I know that we’re now faced with the possibility that government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency will be gutted and rendered powerless, that regulations will be loosened and the work of many years to clean things up and monitor industries may be discarded. It seems like what looked like progress could be lost. We may be in for endless fights to maintain the safeguards that we have enjoyed since the government decided that it should take measures to study long-term effects of the thousands of chemicals that are used in industries.
I also donated to an organization for the fight to stop the use of certain pesticides, which are known to poison bees. Bees, it turns out, are essential for the production of crops like almonds, and there has been such a die off of bee populations that biologists are alarmed. What will happen if bees disappear? It seems so symbolic of the conditions that prevail right now. Bees, and bats, and elephants, and whales, and polar bears. And then, there’s us.
Chizu Omori, of Oakland, is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.