The Environmental Movement Begins

Quietly, throughout the late 1940s and 50s, events in the public and private arenas heightened the concerns of more and more people. Gradually what would become known as the Environmental Movement gathered steam. But it was a slow process.

In the 1940s, the major “conservation” groups of the day displayed little if any interest in pesticides or the environment.

  • The Audubon Society was a relatively modest collection of affluent bird-watchers trying to convince women not to use feathers in clothing. It had the deserved reputation as a group of “old ladies in tennis shoes.”
  • The Sierra Club was a California group who rarely ventured beyond those borders. They were dedicated to land use projects in their state.
  • The National Wildlife Federation worked to create and maintain wildlife preserves.

None of the groups really considered lobbying Congress or the President, in part, because the Internal Revenue Service had issued rules. The rules said if non-profit groups engaged in “substantial” lobbying efforts their contributors would not be able to deduct their contributions from their taxes. Besides, at that time, almost everyone in the country was enjoying what was seen as clean, relatively cheap food.

The Golden Age of Pesticides continued. But that was about to change.

Fire Ant and Moth

First, it was the gypsy moth. In 1957, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) asked Congress for $2.5 million to eradicate an insect pest that stripped trees in northeastern forests – the gypsy moth. The plan was to spray up to three million acres with a mixture of DDT and oil. Within a month after the spraying started, residents on Long Island filed suit in federal court charging that the USDA planes were flying too low, were spraying too heavily and during high winds, and that the DDT was killing fish, birds, farm and garden crops. Later, it was reported that milk from cows in the area was banned from sale because of high levels of DDT.

The suit was denied, but in the process the Audubon Society and another governmental agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), got involved in the dispute. Audubon’s 1957 annual meeting was transformed from maps of bird migrations to nonstop debates about the dangers of pesticides. The FWS, a part of the Department of the Interior, disputed its sister agency and proposed its own long-term research program about pesticides.

Then came the fire ants. The ants had been migrating from Mexico up into the South. There were conflicting reports about the damage the ants were doing. Some studies said that the pests didn’t particularly bother farm workers and that land values were not affected. But other farmers – some of them with powerful political connections – complained that the ants built nests that created high mounds of dirt in the middle of fields and that their bites stung. Some claimed – without much evidence – that the ants attacked and even killed calves, pigs and chickens. The supporters found a case where one eight-year-old boy, who was extremely allergic to all kinds of insect bites, died from a fire ant bite.

Congress approved an eradication program in 1958. The USDA began seeding 20 million acres in the South with pellets of dieldrin, chlordane and heptachlor, persistent pesticides that were 40 times more toxic than DDT.

In response, the Audubon Society became even more engaged, calling the program a “chemical peril” to humans and wildlife.

In addition, the FWS used the controversy to convince Congress to approve a small research program into the long-term effects of pesticides. Even though their research was approved for only $280,000 when the fire ant program cost $2.4 million, for the first time there was a possible dissenting voice within the federal bureaucracy.

Then came the great cranberry scare, part one. Throughout the 50s, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had been concerned with pesticide use by cranberry farmers. The USDA had certified the herbicide aminotriazole for use on cranberry bogs after the fruit was harvested. But too many growers were using the herbicide before harvest because it produced better yields, and so pesticide residue was showing up in FDA tests.

In 1957, the FDA confiscated 3 million pounds of berries for high levels of the herbicide. In 1958, incidents of contamination dropped.

Then came the “Delaney Amendment.” Rep. James Delaney, a Democrat from New York, was a senior member of the House Rules Committee by 1959. He was concerned that cancer-causing substances – “carcinogens” like the aminoriazole on the cranberries – were getting into the nation’s food supply.

In 1958, he was able to insert a simple amendment into a bill about the FDA – “No additive shall be deemed safe if it is found to induce cancer when ingested by man or animal.” The sentence is short, simple, ambiguous … and sweeping in its potential consequences. For the first time, the FDA could ban any suspected carcinogen. Agriculture interests howled in protest. They argued that the USDA’s registration process for pesticides under the FIFRA law was enough protection. But Delaney was too powerful in the House for them to overturn the amendment.

Some historians mark the end of the Golden Age of Pesticides at the passage of the Delaney Amendment.

Then came the great cranberry scare, part two. In November 1959, the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare – the parent agency of the FDA – suddenly announced that some cranberry products on sale for the fast approaching holiday season were contaminated by aminotriazole, and that the FDA had evidence that the herbicide caused cancer tumors in rats. The Secretary advised shoppers to not buy cranberries unless they were certain about the product’s safety – which no one could be. He based his action on the Delaney Amendment.

Farmers howled. The USDA howled. The food industry howled. Both Vice President Richard Nixon and his future opponent for the Presidency John Kennedy ate generous portions of cranberries for the press.

But by then, television news had taken up the story. In an average year, 70 percent of cranberry sales come during the holidays. In 1959, sales fell by two-thirds, and the industry lost $15 -20 million. The USDA, later, reimbursed farmers for about $10 million of that loss.

Then came Silent Spring. Scientist and journalist Rachel Carson based several chapters of her influential book on the gypsy moth, fire ant and cranberry controversies. As you’ll see in the next story, her book brought the controversies into the public debate like never before.

At the same time, the traditional conservation groups – Audubon, Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation – were becoming increasingly radicalized. In 1959, the Audubon Society reported that the USDA fire ant program had killed up to 90 percent of some bird species in Texas. The newsletters and press releases of all three groups were more and more strident.

Finally, within the halls of the federal bureaucracy, there were now two voices – the Food and Drug Administration and the Fish and Wildlife Service – often opposing the views of the USDA.

The Environmental Movement had begun.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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