All Thumbs Book Reviews
Fateful Harvest: The True Story of a Small Town, a Global Industry and a Toxic Secret
By Duff Wilson,
HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
Review by Jane Greenleaf
Fateful Harvest details a story that is at once enthralling and horrifying, an almost unbelievable revelation of the use of toxic wastes as fertilizer and the contamination of our food supply.
“The grass is sparse, the corn is turning brown, the animals are getting sick and I’m not feeling well,” reported some of the farmers near Quincy, a small farm town in south central Washington. Patty Martin, mayor of Quincy, listened to these complaints. She felt a strong sense of responsibility for the safety of the town and its residents. She worried about the children–four of them her own. She began to suspect the chemicals in the fertilizer, and she observed the local company that sold fertilizers to the farmers. They got the chemicals from industries that needed to dispose of their toxic waste and saved a lot of money–enormous sums–by selling it to fertilizer companies. It was very expensive to put the wastes in disposal sites. Because of EPA regulatory loopholes, fertilizer companies could process it into granular form, blend it with dirt and sell it to unsuspecting farmers. And it was perfectly legal!
Martin asked reporter Duff Wilson to look into the scandal. Skeptical at first, Wilson wrote, “I think about the courage it takes to challenge a power structure like the fertilizer industry in a farm town. My own instinct had been to flee.” But Wilson did not flee, he dove into the story and after weeks of patient research, interviews and hard work in the face of hostility and disbelief in the community and stonewalling by the authorities, he published “Fear in the Fields” as a series of articles in the Seattle Times. His journalism won him a finalist award for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1997.
Duff discovered that the EPA had long encouraged the use of toxic waste “blending” in fertilizer in the name of recycling–the “dilution solution.” Although such practices have never been proven dangerous to humans, the recycled waste fertilizers do indeed destroy crops. Regulations have been left up to the states, which all have difference requirements (if any) in labeling and transportation.
Some of the chemicals that make their way into fertilizers include:
- Lead, which can cause seizures, mental retardation and behavioral disorders. The most vulnerable crops are fruits and grains.
- Cadmium may cause cancer, kidney disease, neurological dysfunction, diminished fertility and birth defects. It has a half-life in the soil of 15 to 100 years. The most vulnerable crops are lettuce, corn and wheat.
- Arsenic is carcinogenic and highly toxic to animals. The plants most vulnerable are root crops like onions, carrots and potatoes.
Chemicals needed in small amounts but which can be toxic in excess include chromium, copper, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, selenium and zinc.
Interestingly, the book describes one farmer who was able to restore his fields to reasonable productivity with the manure of 150 cows.
As environmentalist Michael S. Northcott says, “Topsoil is more vital to human survival than almost any other resource, for without topsoil, we cannot feed ourselves.” Fateful Harvest provides a cautionary tale that could happen anywhere.
What has happened since Martin first looked into the problem of failing crops and sick animals? Not much on the federal level although her efforts have been instrumental in amending Washington State fertilizer law such that all commercial fertilizer products for sale in that state must be analyzed for nine heavy metals (arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, mercury, molybdenum, lead, nickel, selenium, and zinc). These heavy metal concentrations in over 3000 fertilizer product are now listed on the web, at http://agr.wa.gov/PestFert/Fertilizers/default.htm. But other states have been slow to change their fertilizer labeling laws.
Martin has recently launched a website, www.safefoodandfertilizer.org and has partnered with Studio Geochimica to offer low-cost testing of home and commercial fertilizers and house dust samples for twelve hazardous metals.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2004.