A number of developments in the twentieth century changed all that. Perhaps most important was the availability of plentiful cheap fossil fuels. This made possible the introduction of mechanization as well as the creation of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, greatly improving crop yields.
A profound shift to an agriculture based on fossil fuels swept much of the world starting in the 1950s. The so-called “Green Revolution” promised to “feed the world,” and to some extent it succeeded. The new synthetic fertilizers made it possible to cultivate a great deal of land previously considered unfit for agriculture. And pesticides helped control the insects that had been a scourge of earlier farming. Between 1950 and 1984 world grain output more than doubled.
This increased productivity came at a heavy price, however. One of the earliest problems to become apparent was a surge in dangerous pollution caused by widespread use of toxic herbicides and pesticides. Rachel Carson’s landmark book Silent Spring drew attention to the harmful effects of the insecticide DDT, eventually causing it to be banned in many countries. Unfortunately, however, dangerous pesticides and herbicides continue to be developed and widely used in agriculture. Those that are outlawed in the U.S. or Europe tend to find their way to developing countries, where a desire for high agricultural output often outweighs health and environmental concerns. Pesticide exposure doesn’t only harm wildlife; it’s associated with long-term human health problems ranging from respiratory ailments to cancer.
"we know that we can't keep this up for very much longer, but we're hooked... addicted... it seems only disaster can deter us from the logical consequences of our chosen path?"
This trend is particularly exacerbated by the increasing prevalence of processed food. Researchers at the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology found that the production of a single bottle of ketchup required 52 different stages of transportation and processing, involving raw materials from at least half a dozen different countries.
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