War on Nature

Man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself. (Rachel Carson)

The first farm that I was old enough, when my father worked there, to be able to remember now, only had one tractor, and still used horses. Farm workers lived in every house in the village, and some of the farming style remained unchanged from the traditional farming methods running right back maybe to the eighteenth century.

When my father changed jobs the move was just from a hop farm to a fruit farm, ten miles away but also almost another world. The farmer was a retired colonel using his demob grant and family money to establish a fruit farm, growing strawberries and apples. He knew nothing about farming, but he used a government advisory service set up in the post-war drive for agricultural ‘improvement’.

At the end of the World War II the manufacturers of explosives and nerve gases needed alternative markets for their products. German scientists and the industries in the USA powered by the plentiful electricity provided by the dams and turbines of the Tennessee River Authority to make these weapons, had already been dabbling with the possibility of using chemicals such as organophosphates both as weapons and as insecticides. Nitrate fertilisers chemically have much in common with explosives, as the IRA demonstrated with their fertiliser and sugar explosives, and turning production from nerve gas to pesticides was strangely straightforward. Everything was in place to turn the weapons of war onto the countryside, and that is what happened. The UK government, as usual quick to try to solve the obsolete problems of the recent past, wanted to ‘modernise’ agriculture; the chemical industry had new products to sell.

The Colonel, my father’s new employer, was quicker than the traditional farmers to ask for the advice of the new National Agricultural Advisory Service, so spraying chemicals on the apple trees was one of the main summer activities on the farm. We used to rub the bloom of spray residues off the apples onto our jumpers before we ate the apples. Sometimes I wonder how I’m still alive.

Around this time Shell Chemicals began sending extraordinary posters to schools. They showed British wildlife in luxuriant profusion, beautifully illustrated. Animals and birds and flowers were jumbled together, stoats, adders, butterflies all cosying up in a way that is never seen in nature, though in those days a lot of these creatures were still common, certainly in the village we had just left. Eventually they started publishing the well-known Shell Guides. My father, now spending his days hauling spray hoses and lances around the orchards, was sceptical. ‘They are only doing it to fool us so that we don’t notice that their chemicals are poisoning the countryside’, he used to say.

He was right.

When I watch nature programmes on the television I am strongly reminded of the Shell posters, and of my father. If you staff nature reserves with enough cameramen you can produce a beautifully illustrated television programme which creates the same kind of illusion as those posters. The reality, even in rural Herefordshire, is that many of the creatures that featured on the Shell posters, and that I spotted and wrote about in my Nature Diary as a boy, have virtually disappeared. The other day I told a couple of naturalist friends about my first  reaction on hearing that a little girl had been bitten by an adder in the deer park. I had initially, before feeling very guilty, been delighted. ‘Yes’, they said, ’that’s exactly how we reacted’. I had not seen an adder since I was a boy, which was why I was so pleased. I had begun to think that they were locally extinct.

The little girl made a quick recovery, by the way. Adders aren’t really that dangerous.


The idea that the chemicals and the wartime mindset and the commercial power of the military-industrial complex might have been turned against the countryside at the end of World War II has been with me a long time. It is of course fairly predictable, for example, that companies like Union Carbide might want to continue to profit from their wartime activities beyond the end of the war; and that countries like Britain might want to continue to solve the problems of wartime, such as food insecurity, by a programme of ‘agricultural improvement’ that was more informed by a wartime mentality than by a sensitive understanding of the complexities of ecosystems, and was aimed at solving a food security issue that was no longer as relevant as it had been during the war.

That I believe in this plausible scenario is not enough in an age of fake news and conspiracy theories.  You deserve better, and I like to think that I deserve more discriminating and critical readers too. So there follows a selection of quotations that I think back up my view that we turned our weapons against our own ecosystems at the end of the war. I am not an academic, and what follows is not maybe laid out academic-fashion, but I think it supports my view in an anecdotal kind of way and may provide you with some avenues to explore if you are interested in doing so. 

 Until the 1940s most pesticides were mineral compounds such as Bordeaux mixture, or extracts of natural products such as derris root or tobacco. The massive use of complex organic chemicals started in the 1940s, and is inextricably linked with war production. In fact, ‘organophosphate chemicals were first studied by German scientists working for I.G. Farben as potential nerve agents for use in warfare; the results were the infamous chemicals called tabun and sarin, whose production started in Germany in the late 1930s, many years before organophosphates were employed in pest control. The association between pesticides and warfare is not limited to these cases, as several papers included in this volume note (in particular, Guillem’s study of cyanide compounds). Further connections have been stressed by historians in terms of shared materials, discourses, institutions, and experts. Some industries developed both chemical weapons and pesticides, sometimes employing similar technologies, raw materials, and human teams. Many expressions used in pesticide advertising also bear striking similarities to military metaphors: “war against insects,” “extermination,” “menace,” “invasion,” and so on’. (Journal of History of Science and Technology Vol. 13, no. 1, June 2019, “ Before the Silent Spring; Pesticides in Twentieth-Century Europe” -José Ramón Bertomeu-Sánchez).

 I.G Farben, in case you have forgotten, invented and produced Zyclon-B which was used for mass exterminations in gas chambers in the concentration camps, and they employed slave labour from Auschwitz in their factories.

The same article (above) also points out that ‘In the Soviet Union, many chemical weapons plants were reassigned to pesticide production in the 1960s. The scale of pesticide application was intensive and the public health consequences were so serious that an extraordinary amount of research was performed on the impact of pesticide use. The results were kept secret until the 1990s. When the information was released, its analysis showed that “during the period of very high pesticide use, one out of every ten people who worked with pesticides was seriously ill.” The authors of the report affirmed that “tens of millions of inhabitants of the Soviet Union suffered pesticide overexposure for many years and inevitably were acutely or chronically poisoned.’

In the United States the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), often portrayed as a benign institution born of Roosevelt’s New Deal, was also heavily implicated. In the 1930s it was involved in making nitrogenous fertilisers to replace the use of imported bird guano, and it was involved also in the development of nuclear weapons. An article in the Christian Science Monitor in 1988 refers to ‘chemical weapons production facilities’ at a TVA facility called Muscle Shoals in Alabama. In 1954 the Chemical Engineering News reported that ‘NERVE gas intermediates for delivery to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal are being manufactured at the hitherto classified Army Chemical Corps plant at Muscle Shoals, Ala, says Maj. Gen. William M. Creasy, Chief Chemical Officer, Army. Chief intermediate ‘dichloro’ as referred to by Creasy. Plant is located on the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Wilson Dam Reservation and is known as the Muscle Shoals Phosphate Development Site’. Muscle Shoals produced both fertiliser and explosives. Union Carbide had facilities at Muscle Shoals and after the war, according to the city’s website, they were ‘quick to convert to peacetime production’. This eventually included their insecticide factory in Bhopal, India, where a leak in 1984 exposed 500,000 people to the highly toxic methyl isocyanate gas, killing 16,000 people fairly directly and causing further widespread and lasting health damage.

According to a document published by the TVA, ( ‘Muscle Shoals served the nation well, both during peacetime and war.  During WWII and the Korean Conflict, it supplied a major portion of the phosphorus needed by our armed forces for use in munitions. During the Cold War era, TVA made a phosphate-based component used in the production of nerve gas. In addition, TVA employees at Muscle Shoals developed new fertilizers and tested new farming methods that were adopted across the country and around the world. This reservation was TVA’s living agricultural laboratory. The programs developed here became the model for modern agricultural practices that feed us today’.  

The USA is likely to have ‘benefitted’ from German expertise after the war, particularly with the nerve agent Sarin and the related chemicals repurposed as insecticides, just as they did with rocket and nuclear technology. But the UK was not far behind. As J.F.M. Clark writes in ‘Pesticides, Pollution and the UK’s Silent Spring’, ‘The two world wars of the twentieth century fostered a massive increase in the chemical industry, with pesticides being a significant component of this expansion. The science, technology, institutions and language of chemical warfare were redirected to agricultural pest control during peacetime. Although natural inorganic poisonous pesticides had ancient roots, the mass application of synthetic organic pesticides was a twentieth-century phenomenon, often born of military priorities and research.