Two important chemicals born in times of war, DDT and ammonium nitrate, probably saved thousands of people from painful death and starvation as the world was struggling with mass destruction and hunger. But they harmed generations of people, who would suffer from diseases that had never been seen before.
People have been producing organic food and using organic ways of farming for thousands of years. But the arrival of synthetic fertilizers and agrichemicals during World War II opened a path for heavy mechanization and chemically dependent farming methods so large in scale that they overshadowed centuries of organic-production practices.
DDT was born in the 1940s as a modern synthetic insecticide that was used by the military for public health purposes to control malaria, typhus and other insect-borne diseases. It helped decrease the cases of malaria from 400,000 to almost zero. But growers started using it on crops as well—beans, cotton, sweet potatoes and many others. In the 1970s it was banned in the U.S. due to its harmful effects, such as liver cancer and damage to the nervous and reproductive systems. But although it was prohibited in the U.S., it was legally produced and sold outside the country, according to the National Pesticide Information Center.
Ammonium nitrate, on the other hand, was used for munitions during wartime. When World War II ended, it became available for commercial use. When its explosive properties are reduced, many growers prefer it as an immediately available nitrate source for plant nutrition, according to the International Plant Nutrition Institute. It is not extremely hazardous when used as a fertilizer, but it raises many concerns because of its use as an illegal explosive.
After the ban on DDT, organic farming practices started re-emerging. However, the use of fertilizers became so prevalent that people almost forgot the centuries-long tradition of organic farming. Today, organic farming is new and trendy. It has grown into a billion-dollar industry, with strong consumer demand for organic produce. Not only did the wartime inventions have immediate physical effects on populations, but they also altered mindsets in terms of agricultural practices for generations to come.
The organic farming movement in the U.S. was also born during the war, and its growth and commercialization have been constant. Organic food chains such as Trader Joe’s in the 1960s and Whole Foods Market in the 1980s showed that this food industry was ready to have its own supermarkets. Organic-labeled products, which began at the same time as agrichemicals, were intended to improve people’s health, but are now so expensive that people have to pay much more at the supermarket to afford them.