Debates Surrounding Pesticides in 20th Century Texas

This blog post was composed by graduate student Joe Wilson.

Members of Congress received a lot of anti-pesticide correspondence, much of it on postcards like this one.

As the 20th century progressed, politicians and the public at large gave increasing scrutiny to the use of pesticides in American agriculture. Pesticides were an important driver of the boom of American agriculture in the mid-20th century, but by the 1950s more and more people were concerned of the possible health and environmental risks posed by the lightly regulated use of chemical pesticides. Many Texan politicians, including Representatives Bob Poage and John Dowdy were deeply invested in agricultural issues and took prominent parts in these debates. This post will examine the positions taken by some of these leaders and the input they received from their constituents about the use of pesticides.

As chair of the House Agricultural Committee, Bob Poage was at the center of the debate about the proper use of chemicals in agriculture. He received thousands of pages of correspondence both from within his Waco-area district and from concerned citizens around the country voicing their opinions. By the early 1970s, much of this correspondence focused on the chemical DDT, which had been a popular way to control crop-destroying insects and to combat insect-borne diseases. However, there were increasing concerns that DDT was dangerous, both to humans and animals. Representative Poage shared these concerns, but he was also sympathetic to the farmers who wrote to him concerned that they would lose crops if this chemical were banned without a safe replacement. Poage supported appointing a group of impartial scientists to study the matter and make balanced recommendations for congressional action. This was essentially the approach followed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when they eventually restricted the use of DDT in 1972.

DDT was used to combat insects such as the Gypsy Moth, and DDT defenders argued that bans would cause more environmental harm than good.

Poage was also concerned about the effect dangerous pesticides could have on American food quality. Although some pesticides had been banned in the United States, there was no prohibition on importing food from countries without the same health standards. Poage sponsored legislation to end such imports, arguing that they were dangerous to the American public and made it harder for law-abiding American farmers to sell their crops. He introduced H.R. 15560 in 1970 to prohibit importing food from countries without reciprocal pesticide laws and guided it through the Agriculture Committee, but it never got a vote in the full House of Representatives and died at the end of the legislative session.

Another Texan on the House Agriculture Committee also worked on the pesticide issue. Representative John V. Dowdy received a lot of correspondence about DDT and other pesticides. Many of his constituents were concerned about the impact DDT had on American wildlife. Several studies in the mid-1960s had linked the use of DDT with a decline in bird populations, especially birds of prey. This correlation drove much of the public outrage against DDT at the time, placing pressure on public officials to regulate the substance.

Alternatives to pesticides were developed and marketed as more natural and safer for humans and animals.

The use of pesticides has been a source of controversy in American politics ever since their health and environmental concerns were discovered. Politicians and public figures have had to balance the good that they did agriculturally with the harm that they could cause. Ultimately, regulations were put in place which aimed at producing safer pesticides which would accomplish the good without causing the harm. Through the legislative and regulatory process, government officials responded to public concerns about pesticides and worked to address them.

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