In December of 2012, three young men were living in a claustrophobic apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, working on a technology startup. They had received a hundred and seventy thousand dollars from the incubator Y Combinator, but their project—a plan to make inexpensive cell-phone towers—had failed. Down to their last seventy thousand dollars, they resolved to keep trying out new software ideas until they ran out of money. But how to make the funds last? Rent was a sunk cost. Since they were working frantically, they already had no social life. As they examined their budget, one big problem remained: food.
They had been living mostly on ramen, corn dogs, and Costco frozen quesadillas—supplemented by Vitamin C tablets, to stave off scurvy—but the grocery bills were still adding up. Rob Rhinehart, one of the entrepreneurs, began to resent the fact that he had to eat at all. “Food was such a large burden,” he told me recently. “It was also the time and the hassle. We had a very small kitchen, and no dishwasher.” He tried out his own version of “Super Size Me,” living on McDonald’s dollar meals and five-dollar pizzas from Little Caesars. But after a week, he said, “I felt like I was going to die.” Kale was all the rage—and cheap—so next he tried an all-kale diet. But that didn’t work, either. “I was starving,” he said.
Rhinehart, who is twenty-five, studied electrical engineering at Georgia Tech, and he began to consider food as an engineering problem. “You need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself,” he said. “You need carbohydrates, not bread.” Fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals, but they’re “mostly water.” He began to think that food was an inefficient way of getting what he needed to survive. “It just seemed like a system that’s too complex and too expensive and too fragile,” he told me.
What if he went straight to the raw chemical components? He took a break from experimenting with software and studied textbooks on nutritional biochemistry and the Web sites of the F.D.A., the U.S.D.A., and the Institute of Medicine. Eventually, Rhinehart compiled a list of thirty-five nutrients required for survival. Then, instead of heading to the grocery store, he ordered them off the Internet—mostly in powder or pill form—and poured everything into a blender, with some water. The result, a slurry of chemicals, looked like gooey lemonade. Then, he told me, “I started living on it.” Rhinehart called his potion Soylent, which, for most people, evokes the 1973 science-fiction film “Soylent Green,” starring Charlton Heston. The movie is set in a dystopian future where, because of overpopulation and pollution, people live on mysterious wafers called Soylent Green. The film ends with the ghastly revelation that Soylent Green is made from human flesh.
Rhinehart’s roommates were skeptical. One told me, “It seemed pretty weird.” They kept shopping at Costco. After a month, Rhinehart published the results of his experiment in a blog post, titled “How I Stopped Eating Food.” The post has a “Eureka!” tone. The chemical potion, Rhinehart reported, was “delicious! I felt like I’d just had the best breakfast of my life.” Drinking Soylent was saving him time and money: his food costs had dropped from four hundred and seventy dollars a month to fifty. And physically, he wrote, “I feel like the six million dollar man. My physique has noticeably improved, my skin is clearer, my teeth whiter, my hair thicker and my dandruff gone.” He concluded, “I haven’t eaten a bite of food in thirty days, and it’s changed my life.” In a few weeks, his blog post was at the top of Hacker News—a water cooler for the tech industry. Reactions were polarized. “RIP Rob,” a comment on Rhinehart’s blog read. But other people asked for his formula, which, in the spirit of the “open source” movement, he posted online.
One of Silicon Valley’s cultural exports in the past ten years has been the concept of “lifehacking”: devising tricks to streamline the obligations of daily life, thereby freeing yourself up for whatever you’d rather be doing. Rhinehart’s “future food” seemed a clever work-around. Lifehackers everywhere began to test it out, and then to make their own versions. Soon commenters on Reddit were sparring about the appropriate dose of calcium-magnesium powder. After three months, Rhinehart said, he realized that his mixture had the makings of a company: “It provided more value to my life than any app.” He and his roommates put aside their software ideas, and got into the synthetic-food business.
To attract funding, Rhinehart and his roommates turned to the Internet: they set up a crowd-funding campaign in which people could receive a week’s supply of manufactured Soylent for sixty-five dollars. They started with a fund-raising goal of a hundred thousand dollars, which they hoped to raise in a month. But when they opened up to donations, Rhinehart says, “we got that in two hours.” Last week, the first thirty thousand units of commercially made Soylent were shipped out to customers across America. In addition to the crowd-funding money, its production was financed by Silicon Valley venture capitalists, including Y Combinator and the blue-chip investment firm Andreessen Horowitz, which contributed a million dollars.
Soylent has been heralded by the press as “the end of food,” which is a somewhat bleak prospect. It conjures up visions of a world devoid of pizza parlors and taco stands—our kitchens stocked with beige powder instead of banana bread, our spaghetti nights and ice-cream socials replaced by evenings sipping sludge. But, Rhinehart says, that’s not exactly his vision. “Most of people’s meals are forgotten,” he told me. He imagines that, in the future, “we’ll see a separation between our meals for utility and function, and our meals for experience and socialization.” Soylent isn’t coming for our Sunday potlucks. It’s coming for our frozen quesadillas.
Last month, not long before the first batch of Soylent was shipped, I visited Rhinehart and his team at their new headquarters, a large house in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles. (They moved from San Francisco six months ago, in search of cheaper rents.) Rhinehart met me at the door, dressed in jeans, a black V-necked T-shirt, and black tennis shoes. He was healthy-looking, which was encouraging—for the past year and a half, he’s been living almost exclusively on Soylent, drinking it for “ninety per cent” of his meals.
Rhinehart can seem like a young missionary: he has sharp features, a gentle voice, and an upright, stiff gait. Though he is a millennial, he has a slightly ageless quality—which makes sense, since Soylent upends many of the behavioral trends of the generation that invented the lunch shared on Instagram. Topics such as pop culture and gossip don’t come up much with him, and he seems unmoved by consumer culture in any form: I spent one long afternoon sitting in on a “journal club” meeting, where he and some friends asked one another questions like “Do you think microfluidics might have applications outside diagnostics?” But he has a bone-dry sense of humor. On his blog, he writes comedy sketches pitching imaginary inventions. (Genetically modified kittens: “The future is meow.”)
Before driving to the Soylent headquarters, I had stopped at an expensive California juice bar, and I was carrying a nine-dollar cold-pressed juice, served in a glass milk bottle. Rhinehart examined the drink as if it were a flint arrowhead. “It’s kind of archaic,” he said, and pointed out that it was mostly sugar. “Look at the design. It’s meant to be rustic and natural and comfortable. . . . In fact, it’s pretty bad for you.”
The notion that we can nourish ourselves with something purer and more effective than food has long been part of our collective fantasy life. The ancient Greeks wrote about ambrosia, the food of the gods, which conferred immortality on whoever consumed it. The dawn of the space age had people dreaming about “meal pills”: in Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles,” a character keeps several weeks’ worth of food pills in a matchbox; on “The Jetsons,” food pills produce delicious taste sensations but can cause indigestion. Rhinehart says that, in fact, he took the name Soylent from the science-fiction novel that inspired “Soylent Green”—“Make Room! Make Room!” (1966), in which a combination of soybeans and lentils becomes a solution to the depredations of overpopulation. Food dreams can easily turn into nightmares: there’s Willy Wonka’s disastrous three-course-dinner chewing gum, and, in “The Matrix,” humans are grown synthetically, in pods, where they are fed the liquefied remains of other humans, pumped in through umbilical cords.
Today, technological advances have created a new wave of anxiety about our edible present, and a growing nostalgia for a time before corporate food lobbies, genetically modified vegetables, industrial farming, and the weed killer Roundup. Soylent’s birthplace, in San Francisco, is across the bay from Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse, the seasonal mecca that has come to define bourgeois eating in this country. California’s farm-to-table restaurants serve diners ingredients out of fashion since our days as Bronze Age farmers. (I briefly considered buying a millet salad to go with my juice.)
But the farm-to-table ethos has essentially bypassed the working class, which is left, instead, to live with the fallout of the low-cost food industry—obesity, diabetes, and, ironically, malnutrition. A recent U.N. report warned that climate change is threatening the global food supply, and that its impact will worsen in ways that aren’t confined to the poor. (The restaurant chain Chipotle recently announced that, owing to climate change, it may have to phase out guacamole.) Tim Gore, the head of food policy and climate change for Oxfam, has noted, “The main way that most people will experience climate change is through the impact on food: the food they eat, the price they pay for it, and the availability and choice that they have.” And food is a major part of the problem: livestock cause almost fifteen per cent of all greenhouse-gas emissions. In California, which is suffering from its worst drought in a generation, about eighty per cent of all water goes toward agriculture.
Rhinehart is not a fan of farms, which he refers to as “very inefficient factories.” He believes that farming should become more industrialized, not less. “It’s really the labor that gets me,” he said. “Agriculture’s one of the most dangerous and dirty jobs out there, and it’s traditionally done by the underclass. There’s so much walking and manual labor, counting and measuring. Surely it should be automated.”
Rhinehart took me on a tour of the Soylent headquarters, which doubles as the men’s living space and resembles the slightly dated home of a drug kingpin on “Miami Vice”: shiny black floors, white sectional couches, immense windows, and a back-yard pool. But the huge bags of white powder being measured on scales in the basement were full not of cocaine but of nutrients—protein, potassium—and xanthan gum (a thickener). The kitchen was bare, except for a blender. Rhinehart opened the fridge and announced, “The college-student fridge of the future.” It contained Miller Lite, condiments, and a pitcher of Soylent. I noticed a bag of baby carrots: food! Rhinehart, who refers to food that is not Soylent as “recreational food,” explained that one of his roommates had bought them as a fun snack.
Rhinehart removed the Soylent. In the formula that he and his teammates have settled on, the major food groups are all accounted for: the lipids come from canola oil; the carbohydrates from maltodextrin and oat flour; and the protein from rice. To that, they’ve added fish oil (for omega-3s; vegans can substitute flaxseed oil), and doses of various vitamins and minerals: magnesium, calcium, electrolytes. Rhinehart is reluctant to associate Soylent with any flavor, so for now it just contains a small amount of sucralose, to mask the taste of the vitamins. That seems to fit his belief that Soylent should be a utility. “I think the best technology is the one that disappears,” he said. “Water doesn’t have a lot of taste or flavor, and it’s the world’s most popular beverage.” He hoisted the pitcher of yellowish-beige liquid. “Everything your body needs,” he said. “Do you want to try some?”
People tend to find the taste of Soylent to be familiar: the predominant sensation is one of doughiness. The liquid is smooth but grainy in your mouth, and it has a yeasty, comforting blandness about it. I’ve heard tasters compare it to Cream of Wheat, and “my grandpa’s Metamucil.” I slurped a bit, and had the not unpleasant sensation that I was taking sips from a bowl of watered-down pancake batter. Not bad. I slurped a little more—and then, all of a sudden, had to stop. I felt way too full. “How much did I just drink?” Rhinehart studied the glass. “A hundred and fifty or two hundred calories,” he said. “About the equivalent of a granola bar.”
Rhinehart’s bedroom is sparsely decorated, except for books on science and techno-utopianism: Steven Pinker, Isaac Asimov, R. Buckminster Fuller, the futurist and creator of the geodesic dome, whom Rhinehart admires for combining wild creativity with pragmatism. (He refers to him by his nickname, Bucky.) He pointed to a poster on the wall, showing the metabolic pathways in the human body. “This is life—a walking chemical reaction,” he said. “Bucky thinks of the body as a hydroelectric machine.” Politically, Rhinehart said, he’s a “fallen libertarian.” He believes in maximizing freedom, but he hates the waste of capitalism. “Things are worthless,” he told me. In an effort to optimize the dressing process, he alternates between two pairs of jeans, and orders nylon or polyester T-shirts from Amazon, wearing them for a few weeks before donating them. When the clothes get smelly, he puts them in the freezer, to get rid of the odor. “Sometimes, during the day, a couple of hours will do it,” he told me. “I’ll wear a towel.”
In what used to be the master bedroom, the rest of the Soylent team were working on laptops. They resembled a nerdy boy band: Matt Cauble has a surfer look; Dave Renteln, a onetime president of the Harvard rugby team, has big muscles; John Coogan is lanky and sweet; Julio Miles wears a Civil War-era beard. Like Rhinehart, the young men were all thriving examples of the Soylent life style. Renteln had lost some graduate-school weight (“I was experimenting with calorie restriction,” he said), and Coogan said that he’d experienced “healthy weight gain” since he started living on Soylent. He’s six feet eight and, back in the ramen days, found it hard to consume enough calories.
“I think we look handsome,” Rhinehart said.
I asked if they really planned to call their product Soylent—which, in my unofficial field research, had evoked, at best, unpleasant associations with “soy” and “soil,” and, at worst, alarmed recitations of the movie catchphrase “Soylent Green is people!”
“Everybody has suggested changing the name,” Rhinehart said. “Investors, media people, my mom.”
“My mom, too,” Renteln said.
Rhinehart said that he liked the self-deprecating nature of the name, and the way it poked fun at foodie sensibilities: “The general ethos of natural, fresh, organic, bright—this is the opposite.”
Anyway, he said, a lot of young people never got the memo about Soylent Green’s being people. “If you Google ‘Soylent,’ we’re in front of the movie.” He added, “Remember, Starbucks was the guy from ‘Moby-Dick.’ ”
Liquid food has been given to patients in hospital settings for decades. Fifty years ago, when a patient was too sick to eat, doctors ground up regular food and put it into feeding tubes. Eventually, companies like Abbott Nutrition, the maker of Ensure, got into the game. Food replacements became more standardized and scientific. In the early nineteen-sixties, NASA made powdered drinks famous by using Tang in its space flights; according to Bruce Bistrian, the chief of clinical nutrition at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston, “the whole field exploded.” From the sixties to the nineties, liquid meal replacements became popular with the diet crowd, because they made it easy to quantify how many calories you consume. It was the era of Metrecal, Slimfast, and “a shake for breakfast, a shake for lunch, then a sensible dinner!” Today, aspiring bodybuilders drink Muscle Milk, a protein shake designed to add brawn. Bistrian, noting that the idea behind Soylent is “not rocket science,” said, “Any good nutritionist could put these ingredients in the proper amounts and make such a formula.”
Perhaps the main difference between Soylent and drinks like Ensure and Muscle Milk lies in the marketing: the product—and the balance of nutrients—is aimed at cubicle workers craving efficiency rather than at men in the gym or the elderly. From the perspective of its investors, this strategy might be sufficient for success. Sam Altman, of Y Combinator, mentioned Google and Facebook, and pointed out that search engines and social networks existed before both were created. “Most ideas, you can claim, are not new,” he said. “Often, they just haven’t been executed or marketed right.” Rhinehart tends to emphasize something else about his product: the idea that you could live on Soylent alone. Chris Running, a former C.E.O. of Muscle Milk, and an adviser to Soylent, called this suggestion “riskier.” He told me, “I don’t think it’s a position that people have ever taken before.”
The doctors I spoke to agreed that you could subsist on Soylent. But would it be a good idea? The debate, for the most part, revolves around substances found in real food, especially phytochemicals, which come from plants. Such compounds are not known to be essential for survival, but, in epidemiological studies, they appear to provide important health benefits. Lycopene, which makes tomatoes red, has been linked to lower rates of prostate cancer; flavonoid compounds, which make blueberries blue (and can be found in chocolate), have been associated with lower rates of diabetes. The science behind how our bodies use these chemicals isn’t precisely understood. But Walter Willett, the chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that it would be unwise to miss out on them. “It’s a little bit presumptuous to think that we actually know everything that goes into an optimally healthy diet,” he told me. You can live without plant chemicals. “But you may not live maximally, and you may not have optimal function. We’re concerned about much more than just surviving.”
Rhinehart, naturally, is doubtful about this line of thinking. “How many humans in history were even getting broccoli and tomatoes?” he asked. As part of his research into Soylent’s formula, he told me, he considered adding some phytochemicals, but after reading dozens of inconclusive and contradictory studies, he said, it didn’t seem like an efficient use of resources.
The Silicon Valley disrupter pose can seem contrived, but Rhinehart comes by it honestly: before he could blow up diet dogma, he had to shake off organized religion. He grew up in suburban Atlanta, with four older sisters. His father was a stockbroker at Merrill Lynch, and his mother stayed at home. His parents are both devout Christians, and, until he was eighteen, Rhinehart was, too. The trouble started in science class, at his small high school, Whitefield Academy. Rhinehart, who built computers in his spare time, had grown interested in astrophysics. Like everything at his school, science was taught according to creationist principles, which hold that the world is less than ten thousand years old. Rhinehart decided to write his senior thesis proving creationism from a scientific point of view. He began delving into Dawkins and Hitchens, and searching the Internet; he thought that he’d write, “‘I’ve been through this quest and found all this evidence for Christianity and now I don’t doubt anymore.’ But the opposite happened.” His paper, titled “Bad Religion,” was about “why I was no longer a Christian, why I no longer believed in God.” He got an F on it. And he was “ostracized” from the community, he says. His parents now accept that he holds different views. “They compartmentalize,” Rhinehart said.
Rhinehart’s background makes it easier to understand some of his guilelessness, as well as his devotion to evidence-based thinking. Organic-food nuts remind him of himself as a believer. “Everyone’s like, ‘The natural, organic way is the best.’ And it sounded a lot like fundamentalist Christianity,” he told me. When I asked how his loss of faith had changed him, he said, “I guess after that I’ve always been a skeptic.”
It was a hot day, and we were on the highway, a water bottle full of Soylent between us. Rhinehart had invited me to accompany him on a trip to El Segundo, to meet another food technologist: Ethan Brown, the C.E.O. of Beyond Meat, a company that uses the protein found in peas and soy to make chicken and beef substitutes. Brown had stationed a food truck outside a Whole Foods, where he was giving away tacos. The food truck had a party atmosphere: soul music played from speakers, and venders called out, “Free tacos!” Whole Foods shoppers stopped to stare. The truck had a sign on it: “REAL MEAT. 100% Plant Based Protein.” Rhinehart was wearing jeans, his black V-necked T-shirt, and a thin leather jacket. He put his bottle of Soylent in a messenger bag and we joined Brown, the aspiring fake-meat magnate.
Brown is a tall man in his forties, and he wore gym shorts and a baseball cap. He and Rhinehart traded tips about protein separation, and then Brown grabbed a taco and tore open a piece of “chicken.” The white substance was remarkably meatlike: it tasted slightly fatty, and the texture resembled muscle fibre. “See how this pulls?” Brown said. “This is really what sets us apart.”
Why go to so much trouble to make it meaty? Brown explained that the main challenge with food tech is cultural. “People have been eating meat for two million years,” he said. “They’re hardwired to love meat, and they love the trappings of meat—Thanksgiving, Christmas, ballgames.” The food truck was there to show that plant-based chicken and beef could be part of an all-American life style.
I asked Rhinehart if he had ever considered sponsoring a food truck. He seemed not to understand the question. “We thought about doing Soylent drone delivery,” he said, dreamily. “Where you just hit a button on your phone and a drone comes and drops a bottle of Soylent, and you refuel.”
A Whole Foods shopper, a middle-aged woman, stopped by to try a taco. Brown made his pitch. “You can enjoy everything you enjoy beef with,” he said.
She seemed receptive. “How’s it packaged?” she asked.
Rhinehart hung back a bit. He still had the Soylent in his messenger bag, but he didn’t seem ready to make a pitch. Finally, a bearded man in a sleeveless shirt and a camouflage hunting hat approached the taco truck. His name was Perry Gillotti. He tried the taco that Brown offered him, and announced, after a minute of chewing, “It tastes good!”
Rhinehart joined the conversation. Timidly, he asked Gillotti if he’d like to try some Soylent.
“It’s a meal replacement,” Brown said.
“It’s a little different from a meal replacement,” Rhinehart corrected him. “It’s kind of an over-all food substitute. In theory, you could live on this entirely. In fact, you’d be pretty healthy.”
Gillotti raised his eyebrows. “You could jettison me into space, and I could live on this stuff?”
“That’s the plan,” Rhinehart said. Adopting a slightly strained pitchman’s voice, he presented the water bottle. “It’s cheap, it’s easy. . . . You just add water; you don’t even need a blender.” He poured some into a plastic cup, and Gillotti tasted it. He seemed surprised.
“It’s pleasant; it’s not too gritty.”
“What do you do?” Rhinehart asked. Gillotti said that he was a construction worker in El Segundo. On the weekends, he paints nature scenes.
“Yeah,” Rhinehart said. “So you could have this during the day while you’re working.”
Gillotti pulled out an iPhone in a camouflage case and made a note. “I’m going to pick some of this up,” he said. He added that he was especially interested in Soylent because he’s a “prepper”—he keeps a six-month food and water supply at home, in case of apocalyptic disaster. Rhinehart seemed pleased. He held up the bottle of Soylent: “Under ideal storage conditions, this could last much longer.”
As I followed Rhinehart around, I started to worry about a possible flaw in his business proposal: how does he expect to make money from Soylent, when his formula is posted on the Internet? It’s difficult to imagine Coca-Cola doing that. But Alexis Ohanian, a founder of the Web site Reddit and an investor in Soylent, described it as “the most brilliant marketing strategy ever, even though they didn’t think of it that way.” The legions of people tinkering with their own Soylent formulas at home—called D.I.Y.ers—have become a fan base, improving the product and spreading awareness of it. “That’s the dream,” Ohanian said. Rhinehart has a more philosophical take: “If someone else figures out a better way to make it, that’s still a win for humanity.”
Given the enthusiasm for D.I.Y. Soylent, I knew that at some point I was going to have to make it myself. Manufactured Soylent arrives in powder form: a day’s supply comes in a plastic pouch containing fifteen hundred calories of beige dust. The oil, which amounts to about five hundred calories, comes in a separate bottle. The packaging is space age, with minimalist black-and-white lettering, reminiscent of Paul Mitchell shampoo. Two accessories are included: a metal scoop and a plastic pitcher with an airtight lid. To prepare your meal, you scoop powder into the pitcher, add water, oil, and (optionally) ice, and shake it up. Instructions on the pouch advise, unsentimentally, “Immediately dispose of any Soylent that you suspect to be rancid.”
D.I.Y. Soylent is a little more daunting. I enjoy cooking, but, as Rhinehart says, “We’re not making pie here.” You can’t throw in a dash of iron or potassium and hope it works out. (In the early days, Rhinehart experimented with underdosing and overdosing on nutrients. Too little sodium made him feel “foggy.” Overdosing on magnesium “was probably the worst. I just felt sharp pains throughout my entire body and couldn’t really move.”) I logged on to DIY.Soylent.me, a Web site created by Nick Poulden, a computer programmer in the Bay Area. To get started, you plug your height, weight, age, and activity level into the site and pick a nutrient profile based on various official and unofficial recommendations—“Fat Guy in his 30s,” for example.
Then you assemble a recipe. If manufactured Soylent is a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition, the D.I.Y. version is picky-eater heaven. On the Web site, I scrolled through more than fourteen hundred variations on Rhinehart’s recipe, a cornucopia of dietary tastes, allergies, hangups, and obsessions: Soccer Soylent, Cuckoo for CocoCocoa Soy Hemp, Cinnamon Manly Food Bar, Scrawny White Boy Mix, Eggman’s Sizzurp, Almonds and Hemp, Super Food, the Gorilla, Brian’s Brain Booster, Canadian People Chow, Food?, Standing Desk Diet, Soylent in Paris. Finally, I decided to go with Bachelorette Chow, a masa-based recipe that I chose because of its popularity—it’s a derivative of Bachelor Chow, one of the best-known recipes—and because it features chocolate. Accounting for my nutritional profile (“Female Sedentary”), I ended up with a target of fifteen hundred and thirty-one calories a day.
Nutrients are “like a puzzle,” Rhinehart told me. “You can put the pieces together in many ways.” A useful function of the D.I.Y. Web site is that it does the math for you. Once you know your nutritional needs, you can find many different ways to meet them. If you enter an ingredient—for example, twenty grams of chia seeds—the Web site fills in its nutrition profile. Then it shows you how close you are to meeting your daily requirements—calories, carbohydrates, protein, fibre, unsaturated fats, and vitamins—so that you can tweak your recipe accordingly. My ingredients included whey protein, oat flour, pre-cooked masa, soybean oil, brown sugar, and iodized salt. Weirder stuff came in the form of powdered minerals and vitamins—choline bitartrate, potassium gluconate—which I ordered from the Web site iHerb.com. I bought the cocoa powder at my local grocery store, and, like many people, I decided to take a daily multivitamin instead of grinding it into my formula.
It was time to “cook.” One night, at dinnertime, I measured my powders and oil, dumped them into a blender, and added water. The Bachelorette Chow turned out to be a thick, brown liquid that tasted and smelled overwhelmingly chocolaty, and just a bit sour. It was sippable—colleagues described it as “crappy brownie mix” and “Carnation Instant Breakfast”—but the idea of living on it was nauseating.
I was relieved when factory-made Soylent arrived in the mail. It was basically Rhinehart’s formula, which I’d tasted in L.A.: a thick, tan liquid that is yeasty, grainy, and faintly sweet. Compared with the taste of my chocolate version, regular Soylent was pleasant. (Office taste-test results: “Naked protein shakes that are made of husks”; “One step better than what you drink before getting a colonoscopy.”)
I lived on the mixture, more or less, for a three-day weekend. Many of the tips I’d heard proved true. Soylent tastes better when it’s been in the fridge overnight. (A D.I.Y. user told me that this is “because the ingredients have been able to congeal.”) It’s more appealing after physical activity—when you’re hungry, you find that you actually crave it. The smell is a downside. On Friday, after a few hours, the doughy fragrance seemed to be everywhere—in my mouth, on my breath, my fingers, and my face. And the stomach takes a while to adjust to liquid food: by the afternoon, I felt like a walking water balloon.
Living on Soylent has its benefits, though. As Rhinehart puts it, you “cruise” through the day. If you’re in a groove at your computer, and feel a hunger pang, you don’t have to stop for lunch. Your energy levels stay consistent: “There’s no afternoon crash, no post-burrito coma.” Afternoons can be just as productive as mornings.
But that is Soylent’s downside, too. You begin to realize how much of your day revolves around food. Meals provide punctuation to our lives: we’re constantly recovering from them, anticipating them, riding the emotional ups and downs of a good or a bad sandwich. With a bottle of Soylent on your desk, time stretches before you, featureless and a little sad. On Saturday, I woke up and sipped a glass of Soylent. What to do? Breakfast wasn’t an issue. Neither was lunch. I had work to do, but I didn’t want to do it, so I went out for coffee. On the way there, I passed my neighborhood bagel place, where I saw someone ordering my usual breakfast: a bagel with butter. I watched with envy. I wasn’t hungry, and I knew that I was better off than the bagel eater: the Soylent was cheaper, and it had provided me with fewer empty calories and much better nutrition. Buttered bagels aren’t even that great; I shouldn’t be eating them. But Soylent makes you realize how many daily indulgences we allow ourselves in the name of sustenance.
Rhinehart spends a lot of time in Soylent discussion forums, discovering how people have tweaked his formula. He told me that he relishes criticism, as long as it’s evidence-based, rather than “emotional”: “Putting a lot of eyeballs on the problem is only going to help.” In L.A., after our stop at the taco truck, I accompanied him to meet some D.I.Y.ers: a group of students in Ricketts House, a dorm at Caltech, who he’d heard were subsisting on Soylent.
It was the end of the day, and neither Rhinehart nor I had eaten any solid food all day, except for the fake-chicken taco. But we didn’t feel hungry: we’d been taking sips from the bottle of Soylent in Rhinehart’s messenger bag. We pulled up at Caltech in early evening and were met by Rachel Galimidi, a Ph.D. candidate in biology, who is the resident adviser for Ricketts dorm. Galimidi said that the dorm is home to “a lot of very busy engineering and physics students” who “don’t have time to do anything”—including eat. (The students who live there are called Skurves, a pun on “scurvy.”) Since Rhinehart’s formula was posted online, Galimidi said, the Skurves had talked of nothing else.
Rhinehart and I followed Galimidi into a Spanish-style courtyard, where music was blasting; there were bikes in a heap, and a student asleep on a couch, recovering from an all-nighter. In a dining area, most Skurves were laying out dishes and getting ready for dinner. Nearby, about ten students sat around a table surrounded by laptops and problem sets, ignoring the dinnertime commotion: Soylent drinkers. Several of them clutched water bottles filled with beige goo.
The students recognized Rhinehart, who seemed to be getting used to his nerd-celebrity status. They raved about his invention. “It fills you up for five hours,” Alex, a computer-science major, said. “It’s good for studying.”
They’d been experimenting with D.I.Y. Soylent since the beginning of the semester. “It’s a serious iterative process,” a student named Eugene said. “I bought a fifty-pound bag of corn flour on the first day and was, like, now I can’t back out.”
Nick, a math major, said that if you were a non-Soylent drinker it was hard to live in Ricketts. “I remember we’d go and hang out and people’d just be talking about their recipes,” he told us.
Each had his own signature formula. Erin, a mechanical-engineering major, is known for her green Soylent. (She uses spinach: “I was having a hard time fitting in three different nutrients. I looked up what spinach had, and was, like, Oh my God, this fits perfectly!”) Eugene is allergic to soy, so he uses a non-soy variant of Bachelor Chow. Alex likes to eat his Soylent as a porridge. His recipe is “pretty normal,” he said. “Maltodextrine, oat flour, olive oil.” Rhinehart nodded with approval.
I wondered if their parents were bothered by the fact that their children were living on synthetic food. Erin said, “I think about how shitty I eat when I’m not eating Soylent. There’ve been weeks when I’ve eaten nothing but cheesy pasta.”
I asked the Skurves if there had been any social repercussions from their use of Soylent. They looked at one another. Erin said, “So the first week can be pretty bad, because you fart pretty bad.”
“It’s a big issue,” JohnO, a computer-science major, said.
Eugene added, “There was, like, a week when I stopped going to class.”
(In my experimentation with the Soylent life style, I found this to be a major issue, too.)
The problem was worse, Rhinehart noted, when he first posted the Soylent formula online: he overestimated the amount of sulfur. For weeks, he and his acolytes emitted clouds of sulfurous gas. “I cleared out a jazz theatre once,” he recalled, nostalgically.
After a week or so, the students said, their bodies adjusted, and the problem subsided. Rhinehart said that they’d also removed the extra sulfur from the formula. “Upon further review, we found we were getting enough sulfur from the amino acids,” he said. “It was a bug. But we fixed it.”
During the next two months, Soylent plans to ship its product to all of its twenty-five thousand initial backers. The company has ten thousand dollars in new orders coming in every day, and has started to become profitable. U.S. military and space programs have asked to run trials on Soylent. Rhinehart’s real goal, however, is more ambitious: the company has been testing an omega-3 oil that comes from algae instead of from fish oil. Eventually, Rhinehart hopes, he will figure out how to source all of Soylent’s ingredients that way—carbohydrates, protein, lipids. “Then we won’t need farms” to make Soylent, he said. Better yet, he added, would be to design a Soylent-producing “superorganism”: a single strain of alga that pumps out Soylent all day. Then we won’t need factories.
Rhinehart brought up Buckminster Fuller again: “Bucky has a very important idea of ephemeralization, which is something almost as a ghost—as pure energy or information.” Soylent-producing algae would make food a little like that: there would be no more wars over farmland, much less resource competition. To help a village full of malnourished people, “you could just drop in a shipping container” full of Soylent-producing algae. “It would take in the sun’s energy and water and air, and produce food.” Mankind’s oldest problem would be solved. Then, he added, all we’d have to do is fix the world’s housing problem, “and people could be free.”
The Soylent dream is a strange one: a place where our food-related hopes mingle with our nightmares. If you spend enough time with Rhinehart, though, it can start to take hold. Perhaps its appeal depends on how you feel about the dreamer.
At Ricketts, Rhinehart asked the students if there were any more questions. Nick asked, “How do you feel about the fact that, after a lot of people eat Soylent, Soylent becomes people?”
Rhinehart smiled. “It’s pretty awesome,” he said. “I think about this a lot, actually.” He held out his arms, displaying his healthy torso. “I’ve been on it for a year now, and pretty much everything you see is built out of Soylent.” ♦
L. Herber [Murray Bookchin]
The Problem of Chemicals In Food;
Within the past few decades, tremendous quantities of chemicals have been introduced into the cultivation and processing of food products in the United States. The annual production of bread alone is estimated to involve the addition of about 10,000,000 pounds of chemical emulsifiers by thousands of bakers throughout the country. During the six-year period since the end of the war, at least 700 to 800 chemicals have been discovered for use in American food products. These substances cover nearly every aspect of production: from fertilizers and pesticides to substitutes for organic nutrients, preservatives, flavouring and colouring matter, and a legion of processing agents. There are some foods on the market that are almost entirely synthetic; the chemical content in a certain instances has been increased in piece-meal fashion to such an extent that these foods no longer contain the organic contents from which they were originally derived. This is the ad absurdum of chemicals in food; a natural product is converted by the continual addition of chemical materials into a synthetic or near-synthetic product. Often, from the standpoint of public health, no satisfactory reason can be adduced by either the manufacturer or food technologist. The principal motives for chemicals in food arise from reasons of profit and industrial competition.
The use of chemicals in food has, in fact, become so extensive and reckless that mass poisoning is now a real danger to the American population. Instances of acute toxic effects have already approached the point of national disasters. In one case, a marketed drug, Elixir of Sulphanilamide, killed over a hundred people before it was tracked down by governmental agencies. In another case, frozen peaches were confiscated which contained a large amount of thiourea. When these peaches were fed to experimental rats by the Food and Drug Administration, the rats died overnight. Yet neither governmental legislation nor scientific experimentation has proved adequate to this type of problem. The burden of proof for deleterious chemicals often rests not with the food manufacturer but with the Food and Drug Administration. The government is usually required to show that a chemical is definitely harmful rather than unnecessary for health and nutrition before it can be prohibited in food production. Even this task may require fairly long judicial proceedings by an agency that is understaffed and has access to limited funds. Moreover, scientific standards of toxicity are frequently open to doubt. Agene, for example, was used for decades in bleaching flour. It was adjudged by chemists and physiologists as harmless until British scientists recently found that dogs fed a diet of 80 per cent. white bread acquired running fits. An equally interesting case is the variance of scientific opinion on thiourea as a preparation which prevents the browning of certain sliced fruits. As late as 1943 this chemical was described as harmless to man. Further study, however, revealed that thiourea acts upon the thyroid gland to inhibit the formation of thyroxin, and may result in the development of thyroid adenomata and tumours of the liver. Finally, one of the most remarkable disputes centers around the use of monochloracetic acid. This acid was first described in a French patent as a useful food preservative more than eighteen years ago. After extensive pharmacologic tests, the use of monochloracetic acid was regarded as harmless even in continued daily ingestion by infants. Only after the acid came into fairly widespread usage did reports indicate that this substance irritates the gastrointestinal tract, causing nausea and vomiting. Yet Dr. Franklin C. Bing, an eminent authority on nutrition and food chemistry, testified that one of the food scientists who originally characterized monochloracetic acid as harmless to human beings, still holds that monochloracetic acid is perfectly harmless and ought to be used. Dr. Bing recounts the story of a food manufacturer who wanted to submit a product for consideration by our council [American Medical Association]. He had a little monochloracetic acid in his product as a preservative, and my duty as secretary of the council was to ask him what evidence he had as to its harmlessness, and he brought that in, and I told him I did not think that the council would accept it, and the council did not. And I remember vividly getting a couple of telephone calls from outstanding pharmacologists of this country saying that they thought we were wrong in not giving approval to that particular product.
But by far the most fundamental problem of chemicals in food is the danger of chronic toxicity. Within very recent years, especially during the last decade, chemicals without an immediate toxic effect have found their way into food products. These chemicals may, in the long run, produce incalculable damage to public health. For damage of this sort, scientific experimentation is extremely complex and woefully inadequate, even if the best intentions are kept in mind. Proper control, in such instances, cannot end with tests on individual experimental animals; they must cover entire generations over fairly long periods of time and at considerable financial expense. More must be learned of animal physiology than is to-day even faintly suspected by the most eminent biologists in the United States. I have spoken to students many times about the newer knowledge of nutrition, declared Dr. Bing in his testimony to the House Select Committee to Investigate the Use of Chemicals in Food Products (U.S. Congress), and I use the term somewhat glibly, but in the final analysis, I think I would have to admit that we know very little compared to what remains to be found out.
Some of the things that we do know are that the body has mechanisms by which it can handle substances commonly or naturally found in food materials, and it may have some difficulty in handling substances which are not naturally found in foods, even though they differ only slightly in chemical configuration. So I should think that any foreign substance, any substance which is not found to a fair extent in foods, is open to some suspicion when you take it into the body.
In the meantime, the use of chemicals in food tested, for the most part, only for acute toxicity, and this often with extreme superficiality has increased by leaps and bounds. Dr. Bing observes: You can pick up almost any issue of the technical magazines which come to the attention of the chemists in the food industries, and find some little advertisement in them about new emulsifying agents, or something that is a plasticizer, or food improver, as they sometimes call them. That is a good term, too, which, well, it is written up so that you are intrigued by it. And it seems that just as human beings like to take a pill to relieve their illnesses or their lack of sense of well-being, so it seems to be typical of a man in the food industry when something comes along, some problem in technology, he likes to have chemical aids to solve it. That seems to be inherent in human nature, perhaps. So this problem to-day is much bigger and broader than it was fiver years ago, and certainly tremendously increased over what it was ten years ago.
Chemical Fertilizers in Agriculture
The danger of chronic toxicity, to-day, arises at a fairly remote point from the industrial processor and consumer. It beings in agriculture and cattle-breeding, with a vast array of fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides, fruit colouring matter, hormones and growth stimuli. These chemicals (some of which are little understood by industrial chemists, still less by physiologists) are allowed to enter into great natural cycles whose ramifications touch upon the processes of life itself. Since natural processes are intricately tied together, an isolated view of the effect that any single chemical has upon life and nature is scarcely a basis for knowing how several of these chemicals will react together. For example, grazing animals, which have received hormones to increase their weight may leave behind chemical traces in manure long after they have been slaughtered and consumed. How the soil, as well as the public, is affected is little known. If, as often happens, the same area of land is treated with chemical fertilizers and sprayed with insecticides, these substances may very well combine to produce a totally unpredictable effect. The dangers inherent in this problem cannot be overestimated. Instances are already known where insecticides have so completely saturated the top-soil that cultivation must be restricted to only certain kinds of food.
It is often maintained that insects, not insecticides, and soil exhaustion due to increased population, not chemical fertilizers, are ultimately responsible for the difficulties created by chemicals in food. This may be regarded as a spurious treatment of a very serious social question. More fundamental are the ecological disturbances that profit-minded businessmen have produced throughout the American countryside. For decades, lumber companies and railroads were permitted a free-hand in destroying valuable forest lands and wild life. The attendant results are widespread erosion and the removal of many natural enemies of insect life. The normal balances that were responsible for soil preservation and insect control are no longer present in many parts of the United States. At the same time that irreplaceable top-soil is washed into the rivers of the country, it is accompanied by industrial wastes that probably abet the multiplication of insects and diseases detrimental to crops.
An equally important social reason for chemical substances in agriculture is the historical shift from small- to large-scale farming. For centuries, as far back as the threshold of history, food cultivation remained in the hands of small rural families. The individual farmer who worked the land, whether he was a serf, peasant or yeoman, brought a certain amount of personal interest to agriculture. The care of crops usually fell within the horizon of an individual, who felt himself more implicated in the quality of agricultural food than large-scale absentee land-owners. Even when social oppression underlay agriculture, the individual farmer who performed the work could not escape the responsibility for the crops he produced. Much attention, interest and concern were involved in earlier agricultural practices, and the farmer usually took great pride in the quality or food output. Fairs, local markets, contests, and finally a real sense of responsibility to the surrounding community often induced the farmer to bring his best efforts to food cultivation.
Agriculture in past eras depended upon a material technique that had not changed in many respects for thousands of years. Labour was arduous and famine remained a continual threat. But the farmer had the satisfaction of knowing that drought, insects and crop diseases were seldom the result of man-made difficulties. Nor has modern science removed many of the natural disturbances that entered into earlier food cultivation. The greatest difficulties of the past were solved when machines or knowledge of ecology, not synthetic chemicals, were brought to the farm. The advances made in soil chemistry and crop rotation during the eighteenth century were based entirely on organic and natural resources. Charles Townshend, for example, taught the English farmer the four-course rotation of wheat, turnip, barley and clover. Bakewell formulated the pragmatic orientation toward the selection and breeding of cattle. There is no better description of the agricultural advances of the eighteenth than the world husbandry. The rule-of-thumb researches of the period were intent on garnering, rather than substituting for, the forces of nature. The conquest of nature meant a rational use of natural resources, not a disruption of the biological processes around man.
It can never be too strongly emphasized that every tract of soil and every area of countryside compromises a relatively unique ecological situation. Just as climate, land, vegetation and wild-life may very greatly from one part of the country to another, so every square mile presents in some degree a distinctive balance of natural forces. Food cultivation by man, which must be regarded as a form of botanical domestication imposed on what was originally virgin and wild land, always threatens to upset this balance. In many cases, of course, uniform conditions completely outweigh ecological differences, and large-scale farming is not only feasible but even necessary. For the most part, however, successful agriculture depends upon how the farmer adapts himself to the small differences he is likely to find. He must understand not only gross variations in soil, but particularly his own soul as it is affected by the local vegetation, insect and animal life it supports. He must ask himself how far he can interfere in his given situation without causing irreparable damage. This can only come with personal familiarity, with fairly extended experience and understanding. The farmer must bring not only insight to the specific characteristics of his land, but also sympathy, interest, and a socially-responsible attitude.
With the shift to large-scale farming, the emphasis of agriculture changed from the quality to the quantity of food cultivation. This meant that the land was to be exploited like any other resource under capitalism in a drastic and one-sided manner. The success of large-scale, quantitative farming depended upon a uniformity of resources, and average in the agricultural situation. Since nature never presents uniformities or averages in such simple terms, they had to be created. To a large degree this task devolved upon chemicals. Thus fertilizers were used to compensate for differences in soil; chemical hormones were employed to standardize the size of crops; and growth stimuli were discovered to replace the results of variations in climate. The most elementary lessons of mans relationships to the soil and nature have since been abandoned for synthesis for artificiality not only in agriculture but also in nature. In short, husbandry has been replaced by chemistry.
But just as capitalist farming has created an average agriculture, so it has created an average farm worker. Wherever the farmer has been dispossessed by huge corporate growers, he has also been replaced by rural labourers who view the intimate problems of crop management with complete indifference. On large estates to-day, farmers often include aviators who spray insecticides, tractor drivers and sales agents; not to mention harvesters who never sow and sowers who never harvest. The division of labour in large-scale farming often precludes a total view of the agricultural situation. Even the agricultural technician, who can provide an over-all view, must change his orientation to meet the needs of average farming. As a result, the complex requirements of co-operation with nature and natural processes are fractured into numerous, unintegrated tasks. Management is often supplied at least in motivation from remote heights above, by business interests which include little appreciation for the problems of the soil. Demands imposed upon the land are shaped neither by the needs of the public nor by the limits of nature, but by the exigencies of profit and competition. All the gaps in the picture from the variations of the land to the indifference of farm labourers are filled by chemicals.
Fertilization by organic and inorganic (chemical) fertilizers plays a decisive part in altering various soils for average farming. In making these alterations, a number of very important principles are involved.
Under natural conditions, the fertilization of land by organic materials is a process in the course of which complex substances are broken down into simpler plant nutrients. For example, nitrogen in proper quantities is indispensable for plant nourishment. Ordinarily, this element is provided through the well-known nitrogen cycle. When proteins decay, they are eventually reduced to carbon dioxide, water, ammonia, and free nitrogen. Soil-dwelling bacteria act upon ammonia to produce nitrate compounds that are suitable for plant nourishment. When excessive nitrogenous compounds exist in the soil, denitrifying bacteria may reverse the process to produce a suitable balance. Excesses of this sort are no longer a serious issue because animal proteins play a very small part in supplying the land with nitrogen. Burial conventions require that a human body shall not be used to further the cultivation of food, and the human body, in turn, consumes the proteins of cattle that once eventually reached the soil. But other means exist. Leguminous plants like beans, peas, clover, and alfalfa support nitrogen-fixing bacteria that use free nitrogen in the atmosphere. Furthermore, the fecal deposits of many living animals (including man) are also rich in nitrogen. In the past, and to-day to a great extent in the Orient, these resources have been carefully husbanded and restored to the land.
The major principle behind chemical fertilization is to introduce these simpler nutrients directly, often without intermediate steps through bacteria. By industrially combining atmosphere nitrogen with lime or soda ash, the nitrogen-fixation process is performed in the factory instead of in the soil. Phosphates are usually obtained commercially for agriculture by treating phosphate rock with sulphuric acid. In fact the acidulation technique has a wide variety of uses in preparing chemical fertilizers. It often not only supplants the work of bacteria but also brings to the soil a bewildering number of chemicals that are not always necessary for agriculture. The added chemicals often play no role whatever in soil fertility. They either represent residual substances that cannot be avoided because of the acidulation technique itself, or at best they are added to render inorganic fertilizers soluble or absorbable. Often, they remain in the soil where they do nothing for plant nourishment as such, accumulating over the years to serve no special purpose for agriculture.
Do these new accretions harm the soil? Do they play any role in human health? Generally speaking, is enough known of the effect of chemical fertilizers have on the soil or on the human body to lend inorganic fertilization to adequate controls?
Behind each of these questions are even more obscure problems.
During the hearings of the Select House Committee, for example, Mr. J. I. Rodale of the Soil and Health Foundation suggested the complexities that are introduced by inorganic fertilizers as part of his objections to such fertilizers. In some cases they (chemical fertilizers) are caustic. They actually have a burning quality that will kill bacteria. In other cases they are too soluble. It is as if an individual were forced to eat when he were not hungry. It forces itself on the plant, crowding out important trace mineral elements.
The most important reason why some chemical fertilizers are harmful, continued Rodale, is because they contain more than one element. The one element that they need to feed the plant in order to make it soluble is tied in with some other element which gives it that solubility and which is there practically only for that purpose.
An example is a very common fertilizer called superphosphate. What they are after is to feed the plant phosphate. But is it mixed with sulphuric acid to give it that solubility. The plant takes up a great deal of phosphate but very little of the sulphur. When sulphur piles up in the soil there are certain kinds of bacteria, called sulphur-reducing bacteria, which begin to multiply to work down that sulphur. As they work they have to feed. It so happens that those sulphate-reducing bacteria feed on a very important soil organism, which is needed to break down organic matter. Therefore when you have a lot of sulphur piling up in the soil there are bacteria multiplying which are killing off certain organisms which the farmer needs to break down organic matter. This problem, which was first introduced because of the acidulation technique, reaches even further back. When you grow a crop of anything, concludes Rodale, that root that remains in the soil must break down for the next crop. The roots are very valuable. The roots of the preceding crops give nourishment to the next. If the soil does not contain enough of this breakdown bacteria it will not be able to furnish the food in time for the next crop.
Rodales testimony may be regarded as a very unorthodox view in the United States. It was opposed at the hearings by a battery of experts who vehemently argued for chemical fertilizers, judiciously mixed with organic substances. Although the experts freely acknowledged that organics keep the soil friable, easy to work and permeable to water, they pointed up transport difficulties and, in fact, the entire arrangement of modern society as objections to supplying the land with enough organic materials for agriculture. It is neither economically feasible nor physically possible to rely upon organic manures exclusively in our present-day agriculture, observed Dr. Richard Bradfield of Cornell University, who particularly tried to place inorganic fertilizers in perspective from the specialists standpoint. Organic gardeners make a great deal of what they call the law of returns, by which they mean the return to the soil of all the elements which the crop removes from it. Such a system is feasible in a primitive, sparsely populated area in which practically the entire population is engaged in farming, and in which there is a high proportion of the population which can collect and transport city wastes to the farms which feed the cities. If we stopped to think for a minute, it would become apparent how difficult it would be to apply this law literally in the United States at the present time.
In support of inorganic fertilizers, Bradfield insisted that such fertilizers supply elements in the same form that they are released by organic substances. In fact he found organic fertilizers of very limited value because the organic matter which is generally available for use on soils does not contain these elements in the proportions in which they are needed to give the best growth of crops on most soils. Now we may reserve the social problems raised by the exclusive use of organics for later discussion. But Bradfields unfavourable comparison of organic with inorganic fertilizers may be regarded as resting on entirely spurious premises.
Dr. A. F. Camp, Vice Director in charge of the University of Florida Citrus Experimental Station makes the observation that the difference between trees fertilized with organic fertilizers and those fertilized with chemical fertilizers lay primarily not in the field of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and calcium but in the lack of the so-called minor or secondary elements such as magnesium, manganese, copper, zinc, and boron which were present as impurities in the organic materials but not present in appreciable amounts in the chemical materials. Thus, in the case of bonemeal which was credited with containing only nitrogen, phosphorous, and calcium, it was found that one of the most important elements it supplied was magnesium which is universally deficient in Florida citrus soils and for which citrus trees have a very high requirement. Superphosphate contained only traces of magnesium and when substituted for bonemeal resulted in trees that were acutely deficient in magnesium. All of these so-called minor elements which are actually as necessary to the development of citrus as the so-called major elements were found as sizable impurities in the natural organic materials because, just as in citrus, they were necessary to the growth or development of the organisms from which these organic materials were derived.
Indeed, it hardly tells us much to criticize the efficacy or proportions of organic fertilizers that are generally available. What is available has a very restricted meaning in the lexicon of experts to-day. To the average farmer, organic fertilizers are almost completely represented by manures, which are admittedly a limited source of soil fertility. Even if we include the best composts in use to-day (and this being exceptionally generous) the term organic fertilizer, as it is currently employed, would ignore a wide range of potentially valuable substances which could be brought to the soil. Curiously enough, the experts carry the greatest responsibility for this situation. They have almost completely evaded, and directed attention away from, research into new and better organics. Indeed, the current emphasis on inorganic fertilizers in agricultural laboratories and projects has reduced organic substances to an indispensable but entirely ancillary position in food cultivation.
Bradfield went on to deny that valid evidence exists to show that crops grown with chemical fertilizer are more attractive and nutritious to insects and plant pathogens. This too will be discussed elsewhere. His denial, however, that evidence exists as to whether crops grown with chemical fertilizers are less nutritious to men than those grown with organic fertilizers is extremely questionable. Slowly and in the face of extreme hostility from the experts, a number of soil scientists and practical farmers are producing evidence that inorganic fertilizers may seriously reduce the quality of crops. The discussion is still being cast in a strictly adaptive framework, as part of a general reconciliation to the use of chemicals. It is widely accepted that the contemporary social scene renders the use of inorganics necessary and few are willing to abandon chemical fertilizers as such. But, as Dr. K. C. Beeson pointed out, Fertilization with large quantities of nitrogen can also result in some lowering of certain nutritive constituents in the plant. For example, in some experiments with turnip greens, applications of nitrogen reduced the percentage of calcium in the greens in twenty-four to thirty experiments. Fertilization with the ammonium salts of nitrogen has resulted in a reduction of vitamin C in plants, but fertilization with the nitrates under the same conditions did not affect vitamin C. The reasons for the difference are unknown.
Perhaps the most strongly emphasized point made by all the experts in favour of inorganic fertilizers is the conclusion that chemicals increase crop yield. The most important reason for the use of fertilizers, said Bradfield, is that they increase the yield of practically all crops on all but our most fertile soils. This point is so generally appreciated that detailed elaboration is unnecessary. Very well, then let us elaborate!
By leaning on poorly-evaluated experimental facts, the expert generally knows that the addition of certain chemicals to the soil can increase the size of crops. Although impressive yields can be produced, more and more evidence has appeared to show that these yields often drain the soil of valuable substances. Dr. William A. Albrecht of the University of Missouri astutely observed at the Hearings that a fertilizer balancing the supply of nutrients in the soil is merely a help to take all the other things out faster. So if you fertilize a soil with nitrogen, which is deficient, and grow a bigger crop, you merely have taken all the other things out faster and by virtue of that observation people will say, Oh, yes, fertilizers ruin your soil. Well, they have just helped you wear it out faster. That is all.
But is that all? We have built up the lime, the phosphorous, the potash, continues Albrecht, later in his testimony. Now we come along and shove under the nitrogen and that is very demonstrative for the first year or second year until we pull the other things down. We had the same thing with limestone. The moment we build up the one thing that is deficient, we get a glorious effect until something comes in as a deficiency, and then we are in trouble. . . . Lime is a necessity but like alone is not enough. Many years ago the farmer, who did not know any chemistry, gave us a very interesting jingle which is very true: Lime and lime without manure make father richer but son poorer.
A very find old truth, very fine, because when you lime, the calcium next to the hydrogen serves to push the other things out. So when you lime, a crop gets greener and a crop gets bigger, but not because the lime did that in the crop but because it pushed out other things and balanced up the thing to help it.
Before chemicals can replace organic substances without leading to disaster, more must be known of the factors which enter into soil composition, of the soil itself and finally of plant and animal nutrition; in short, of a stupendous natural process concerning which agronomists know surprisingly little. The soil, as Dr. Beeson has put it, is a highly complex dynamic system of minerals, inorganic chemical compounds, organic compounds, living organisms, air and water. Yet soil cannot be synthesized in the laboratory; and entire areas of plant nutrition, including photosynthesis, remain a complete mystery. In fact, as Beeson tells us, There is no known laboratory method or group of methods by which all the nutritive constituents in food can be measured and evaluated in terms of the nutrition of man or animals. Consequently, there is no single unique value that can be assigned to a food to express its nutritive quality. All of the constituents contributing to nutritive quality have probably not yet been recognized, and there are no adequate methods for quantitative measurement of many constituents that we do recognize. Therefore, no measurement of the over-all nutritive quality of a food has ever been made.
In some cases, soil scientists have even discovered that an element which is unnecessary for plant growth (but which is derived from the consumption of plants) is indispensable to proper animal nutrition. Soil deficiencies of cobalt, for example, have resulted in nutritional disturbances in cattle and sheep. Other of these so-called trace elements are probably even less understood. The point is that whereas the experts tend to break up, simplify and crudely manipulate the agricultural situation, supporters of organic farming usually predicate themselves on the complexity and far-reaching character of food cultivation. There is more than a difference in technique. It is a basic antagonism in outlooks toward natural phenomena. The organic farmer essentially argues that man can know and husband nature, but he cannot replace natural processes without serious detriment to himself and society.
Insects, Insecticides and the Human Bug
If the rejection of chemical fertilizers rests on the complexity and obscurity of the agricultural situation, there are very direct reasons for regarding other chemicals in agriculture as detrimental to human health. Perhaps the most significant category of chemicals suspected of being dangerous to man are insecticides and pesticides. The problem that these substances presents is very simple: All are poisonous to one or several forms of lower life. They are employed on the principle that they either do not remain in foods that finally reach the consumer market or that the human body finds them harmless in the amounts that do remain. Both principles are now open to grave doubts by physiologists and biochemists.
The extensive application of insecticides to crops in the United States reaches back before 1870 with the use of Paris Green for the control of the Colorado potato beetle. Afterwards, a number of extremely toxic chemicals came into use. Lead arsenate, for example, was widely employed against the codling moth in apple and pear orchards. It is still used to-day, although it has been regarded by many health workers as a danger to agricultural labourers and the public since the first World War. The use of insecticides has now grown to incredible dimensions. With the passage of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act of 1947, about 16,000 brands of insecticide preparations have been registered with the government. These brands range from poisons absolutely deadly to man to very questionable hormone herbicides like 2, 4-D dichloro phenoxy acetic acid. One of the disturbing things about the recent advance in insecticides, in the discovery of new insecticides, said Dr. Dunbar to the Select Committee, has been that a great many very potent and valuable insecticides have been developed on which very little is known, either about their chronic or acute toxicity or about their fate after they are applied to food.
In many cases we do not know whether the insecticide after application is absorbed into the body of the food, whether it is destroyed on weathering, were even insecticides put out for which no chemical method of identification or analysis is known.
Many insecticides and pesticides are known in some way to affect higher animal organisms, including man. Hydrogen cyanide, a fumigant commonly used on grains and cereal foods, is described by a Food and Drug official as moderately to extremely poisonous; however, under normal conditions of use the fumigant volatilizes so that no significant [ ! L.H.] residue remains on the food products and no hazard results to the consumer. An exception [ ! L.H.] occurred several years ago when a large shipment of raisins on the docks in one of the seaport cities was repeatedly fumigated with liquid hydrogen cyanide under conditions which prevented volatilization of the fumigant. These raisins were distributed and resulted in numerous illnesses to consumers. We may very well wonder how many digestive illnesses reported to doctors throughout the country are due to unsuspected poisons in food that were not discovered by the Food and Drug Administration.
It is maintained by may experts, that when insecticides are produced from simple compounds they can be washed away and kept from directly affecting the public. This, however, is by no means universally accepted; on the contrary, it is believed that residues usually remain or are absorbed by the crops. According to Dr. Francis E. Ray, Director of the Cancer Research Laboratory (University of Florida), arsenic in the form of copper arsenate or lead arsenate is commonly used as an agricultural insecticide and fungicide. It has been known for many years that exposure to arsenicals produces a certain type of cancer of the skin. More recent evidence is that inhalation of arsenic dust and sprays may cause cancer of the lung. It is possible that other types of internal cancer may be caused by the long-continued ingestion of so-called non-toxic doses of arsenicals. It is suspected that the arsenicals used in growing tobacco contribute to the high incidence of lung cancer among heavy smokers. Arsenical sprays on tobacco and food should be prohibited.
Another simple chemical (indeed, an element) that has come into widespread use against insects is selenium. Experimental study by the Food and Drug Administration indicates that selenium and its compounds are highly toxic and are capable of producing insidious poisoning. When as little as three parts of selenium (in the form of selenized corn) was added to each million parts of the diet of rats, it produced liver disease (cirrhosis) in the majority of the animals within a year. Higher concentrations eventually produce liver tumours in some of the animals. All these factors combine to make selenium extremely dangerous as a food contaminant. Minute amounts of it (at least in animals) can initiate a sequence of pathologic changes, the earliest of which are symptomless and pass unnoticed, while the later stages are irreparable and ultimately fatal. These facts combined with our conviction that the use of selenium-containing sprays could be avoided, have been the basis of our reluctance to set any tolerance whatever for selenium residues on fruit.
In 1942, the Food and Drug Administration initiated a series of experiments and studies to ascertain the extent to which ordinary packing house washing removed selenium from oranges, and the degree to which this substance accumulated in the soil after repeated usage. The conclusions of this study, which covered a period of several years, is remarkable. Washing as ordinarily practiced removed little or none of the selenium, dryly observes a memorandum of the agency to the Select Committee. Soil in groves with a history of repeated spraying showed a selenium level ten or more times that of unsprayed groves, and the flesh of oranges grown on the soil showed the same selenium level as above, even though no spray had been applied to this crop. As of the hearings, however, the Food and Drug Administration has not been able to remove this substance from the market. Even State agencies, with whom the Administration discussed the insecticide on 17th January, 1950, were of the opinion that a selenium product was necessary under certain conditions to control mites.
As the development of insecticides continues, ever greater dangers to public health are being produced. Perhaps one of the gravest hazards arises from recent insecticides developed around hydrocarbons the organic insecticides like the chlorinated hydrocarbons (chlorinated camphene, etc.), the organic phosphates (parathion, etc.), and so on. Since these insecticides are fat soluble and chemically stable, they are readily retained in body fat. The human body can acquire parathion, DDT and similar hydrocarbons from any number of vegetables, fruits, milk, and even the flesh of sprayed fowl and cattle. No limit has been agreed upon by the experts on how much of these substances can accumulate in the fat of the organism. Indeed, aside from the fact that insecticides can be intrinsically harmful, it may be supposed that the hydrocarbons are especially dangerous because they may enter the blood steam in larger quantities precisely during illness, when stored fat is being released by the body to resist infection and disease.
According to an article by W. A. Brittin, head of the food laboratory of the Beech-Nut Packing Co.: These organic insecticides reached the market for general use before adequate information was available on the acute or chronic toxicity of the chemicals involved with the exception of one or two insecticides, methods of analysis were lacking which were specific for these various organic spray residues. When chlordane was introduced for use in agriculture, for example, one manufacturer described the insecticide as being half as toxic as DDT. Afterwards, the belief was expressed in sales literature that chlordane is among the safest of all available organic insecticides. According to Dr. Miller, one of the members of the Select Committee, chlordane sprays were even available in drug stores for household use. If we are to accept the opinion of Dr. Lehman of the Food and Drug Administration, however, the truth appears to be that chlordane is one of the most toxic insecticides we have to deal with First of all, it penetrates the skin very readily. Therefore, anyone handling it could be poisoned. Or of it is used as a household spray, the potential hazard to living in these houses is quite great because of the ability of chlordane to penetrate the skin and because of the volatility of the insecticide and the possibility of poisoning by inhalation. More to the point is that it is very toxic to the liver and kidneys of an individual. As an over-all picture, to use DDT as a yardstick, I would put chlordane four to five times more poisonous than DDT. Yet at the time that the Food and Drug Administration conferred with a manufacturer of this substance, (23rd September, 1947) it was reported that 700,000 pounds of chlordane had been sold, and another company had sold approximately 300,000 pounds. When Lehman was asked if chlordane was employed extensively as an insecticide he replied that based on poundage it must have been quite widely used. Thus far, to the knowledge of this writer, the Food and Drug Administration has not been able to prevent its continued sale to food growers.
Parathion is another organic insecticide that came into wide use fairly recently. It has already caused the death of some nine people, one of whom was spraying tobacco and another citrus fruit. Although Dr. Lehman believes that this insecticide is quite safe for use and that no evidence exists to show it is harmful to consumers eating foods sprayed with parathion, he was obliged to make the following judgement: Parathion is a liquid. It penetrates the skin. It is very poisonous. Very small amounts will produce fatal poisoning. This order of opinion that a substance is very poisonous but no evidence exists to show that it will harm consumers when used on crops is often the most favourable response that can be elicited from governmental agencies like the Food and Drug Administration. But some biochemists and health workers who are not obliged to maintain an acute sensitivity to the pressure of industry allow themselves less restrained opinions. Dr. Franklin C. Bing, in conjunction with a committee on food and nutrition, has made the more sweeping observation that, Contrary to previous beliefs, it now seem likely that a substance which is poisonous to one form of life is very apt to be found to some degree toxic for other animals, including man.
This observation appears to have received its most striking confirmation with the use of DDT, an insecticide which for years was heralded as completely harmless to man and extremely effective against insects. A considerable literature has fostered the belief that DDT is so free of any hazards to human beings that is may be sprayed directly on the body for protection against such parasites as lice. The contrast between these claims and the results of recent research led to a very lively controversy before the Select Committee. Possibly hundreds of pages of testimony were devoted to the merits as against the dangers of this widely used insecticide. It is interesting to note that few experts were prepared to maintain that DDT is completely harmless; the dispute actually centred for the most part, on whether DDT, once regarded as without any hazard whatever, is to-day responsible for an epidemic of nervous and physical disorders!
This controversy reached its most acute point in the testimony of Dr. Morton S. Biskind, who has devoted himself to extensive research into the pathological symptoms of DDT poisoning. According to Dr. Biskind: The introduction for uncontrolled general use by the public of the insecticide DDT, or chlorophenothane, and the series of even more deadly substances that followed has no previous counterpart in history. Beyond question, no other substance known to man was ever before developed so rapidly and spread indiscriminately over so large a portion of the earth in so short a time. This is the more surprising as, at the time DDT was released for public use, a large amount of data was already available in the medical literature showing that this agent was extremely toxic for many different species of animals, that it was cumulatively stored in the body fat and that it appeared in the milk. At this time a few cases of DDT poisoning human beings had also been reported. These observations were almost completely ignored or misinterpreted DDT is as lethal in repeated small doses as in larger single doses. In low-grade chronic poisoning in animals, growth is impaired, and the implication of this observation for the growth of children should be given serious consideration. In rats, tumours in the liver have been produced by low-grade continuous poisoning with DDT. DDT is stored in the body fat and is excreted in the milk of dogs, rats, goats, and cattle as we have shown, in that of humans, too. Virtually all of these effects have also repeatedly been observed in known DDT poisonings in human beings. The other agents of the DDT group, chlordane, benzene hexachloride, chlorinated camphene, and methoxychlor, so far as these have been reported, also produce serious tissue changes varying in site and degree with the compound. Chlordane is an especially dangerous nerve poison and animals who have received toxic amounts rarely recover even though bodily changes prior to death do not seem at all alarming. Fortunately in my own limited experience with chlordane poisoning in man, I can report that with stringent avoidance of further exposure and intensive nutritional therapy to help repair the tissue damage, recovery does occur, though this may not be complete. Benzene hexachloride changes the chromosomes of plants and probably, too, those of animals. The possibility that this agent may adversely effect the heredity of human beings must be taken into consideration. Already in one report from Europe, seedlings treated with benzene hexachloride were so altered in their heredity that it was suggested that nondegenerated stocks be used for seed subsequently We are dealing with double-edged swords, for the very substances now promoted to increase the size of our crops in the long run turn out to be detrimental to agriculture itself. All these substances and the fantastically toxic parathion, too, inhibit the growth of certain plants, and compounds of the DDT group also persistently poison the soil, so far as present evidence goes, for five or six years and possibly indefinitely.
In the course of his testimony, Dr. Biskind carefully elaborated the symptomology of DDT poisoning. A comparison of these symptoms with alleged virus epidemics in many American communities has suggested to him that many of these epidemics may actually result from mass DDT poisoning. Biskinds experience with individual patients suggests that this belief is by no means as reckless as it first appears. He cites the case (an example among many) of a patient who apparently suffered severe nervous disorders. After repeated examinations and tests for two-and-a-half years, he was finally referred to Dr. Biskind for treatment. When I saw this patient, observes Dr. Biskind, he had an enlarged tender liver, sings of nutritional impairment, reduced ability to feel vibration in his legs and a reduction in his pulse pressure. Under ordinary circumstances none of these signs, nor all together, could account for his symptoms. When he was advised to give up his job as seek less toxic employment, to remove all traces of DDT and chlordane from his environment, was given nutritional therapy to alleviate the liver damage and put on a diet low in insecticide residues, he showed prompt improvement within a week. Four months later he was almost free of symptoms. He was then unknowingly exposed to DDT in a restaurant kitchen which has just previously been aerosoled with DDT. Within half-an-hour the entire syndrome returned and required more than a week to subside. It may be noted that Dr. Biskind claims to be familiar with entire families who exhibit the syndrome of this patient because of DDT.
Experimental evidence favourable to DDT ordinarily rests on situations where a group of people are voluntarily exposed to a few repeatedly large doses of the insecticide. Since no acute pathological findings are reported by these experiments, it is assumed that DDT is harmless to human beings except in cases of individual sensitivity. Thus the tendency is to regard all admitted cases of DDT poisoning as exceptional, where an individual rather than a public reaction is at stake. This approach is slowly being reversed by a number of researchers. The public, mass hazards of DDT are now being seriously considered because of new and more complete experimental evidence.
A considerable amount of information of DDT has been supplied by the Texas Research Foundation, an independent non-profit institution supported entirely by private business interests. According to Mr. John M. Dendy, head of the analytical division of the foundation:
1. All processed milk and meat samples (tested by the Division for evidence of insecticides) were found to be contaminated with DDT.
2. The degree of contamination ranged from 3.10 parts per million of DDT in lean meat to 68.55 parts per million in fat meat. In milk the contamination ranged from less than 0.5 parts of DDT per million in 13.83 parts per million.
3. Both corn and sunflowers sprayed with insecticides were found to absorb the chlorinated hydrocarbons in unchanged form.
4. The rate of absorption was found to be cumulative, the degree of contamination increasing with each spraying. The extent of absorption in corn ranged from zero parts per million where there was no spraying to 8.11 parts per million after two sprayings with insecticide. Contamination of the sunflowers ranged from zero for no spraying to 3.72 parts of insecticide per million after one spraying and 7.40 parts per million after two sprayings.
Mr. Dendy concludes as follows: one of these insecticides [a reference to several organic insecticides tested by the Division, including DDT], when sprayed on a crop such as corn is absorbed by the corn. The dairy cow or beef cow which feeds on the corn in turn absorbs a portion of the chemical in its fat, and the insecticide is passed on to the human being who consumes milk or beef from the animal. In experiments in the laboratories of A. J. Lehman, M. I. Smith, and H. J. Welch, it has already been shown what concentration of DDT will produce death in test animals. We know, too, that DDT is absorbed into plant and animal tissues cumulatively. Therefore, we can only conclude that the continued indiscriminate use of DDT and other chlorine hydrocarbons holds an ever-increasing hazard to the public health. Later in his testimony, Mr. Dendy points out that, Milk containing small concentrations of DDT has been found by most of the investigators in the field. Even though the intake is small, the fatty accumulation in the tissues as the result is magnified as high as thirty-four times the original intake. In other words, with a diet of ten parts per million you could expect, in some instances, 340 parts per million in the fat. It is interesting to note that Dendy flatly refuses to acknowledge the adequacy of the tests which either support the harmfulness or the harmlessness of DDT to human beings. As I see it, in this particular field, he observes, we exposed almost everything to the indoctrination of DDT. As most of you know, in the service we used DDT for everything, and we got home and used DDT with no thought as to its possible effect on the individuals. Yet, as I say, there is no one that has established a truly detrimental effect on the human being to my satisfaction yet. There has been no elaborate human test made yet. Someone has to authorize, delegate and carry on such experiment, to ascertain whether or not all this wealth of information is going in the wrong direction. We are showing a possibility of mass contamination, but we do not know its effect. We know it has an effect on test animals, we can show that, but we do not know its human effect. Perhaps we have misunderstood Mr. Dendy, but this is the same acme of the positivist method: animals are known to respond adversely, but since no test has been made on man, Dendy is not satisfied that DDT is detrimental to human beings! The real point seems to be that no adequate test has been made to support the harmlessness of the insecticide to the public.
In the meantime, DDT is ubiquitous. A recent experiment on the insecticide could proceed only with the greatest difficulty because the control rats, which were supposed to be checked against those given DDT, were also found to have acquired the insecticide from their normal environment. Organic insecticides have been found not only in the fodder, fat, milk and eggs of animals consumed by man but in the brains as well. The dangers of DDT to public health have been echoed in the reports of Dr. Lehman, who acknowledges under questioning by the Select Committee that the potential hazard of DDT has been underestimated But few remarks sum up the meaning of DDT to the public health more vividly than the following quotation from a British food journal (cited by Dr. Biskind):
Atomic bombs and DDT will be regarded by many as the two most notable scientific developments of the war. They have now been brought together in a more direct and scientific sense by recent British research carried out by the Pest Infestation Laboratory. Radioactive isotopes produced as the Harwell Atomic Pile have been used to study the biological movement of DDT residues After reporting that an insecticide almost identical to DDT has been found in the gizzard, the liver and the kidney, the tissues of the heart and brain, and the sciatic nerve fibre of test hens, the quotation concludes: These new results give strong confirmation for the view that DDT is a hazardous contaminant of animal and human foodstuffs. Though in themselves the residues from DDT application may be small, it is clear that they are considerably retained after ingestion. Toxic effects of a harmful if not lethal nature could arise from the cumulative absorption of DDT residues.
Actually, the coupling of atomic bombs with organic insecticides as the most noted scientific developments of the war is not a helpful amalgam. Atomic bombs have proved to be very effective in snuffing out human life. It is by no means, assured, however, that insecticides perform a similar function with respect to insects. If we are to accept a number of very remarkable facts brought out before the Select Committee, it would appear that not only do insecticides often fail to provide a long range solution against insects, but they may even result in the widespread appearance of new pests. It is ironic but apparently true that the use of many insecticides leads to the development of resistant varieties of insects, while producing new pests by destroying their natural enemies. The New York Times last April (1950), claims Dr. Biskind, carried items indicating that because the wheat crop was threatened by green bugs and red spiders, more than 200,000 acres has been sprayed with parathion by airplane. What was omitted from the news dispatch was that the crop was threatened only because prior use of DDT had killed off the normal predators of these two resistant insects, permitting them to flourish uncontrolled. Apparently the remedy for too much poison is still more. A similar situation has been reported by leading entomologists like Dr. Charles E. Palm of Cornell University. As far as the same number of insects, declares Dr. Palm, we probably has most of them before, but we have cases in our own experience where we have some minor pests that have become of major importance I say possibly through the use of insecticides, I think of the red-banded leaf roller on fruit. It was always a minor problem, and as long as we used lead arsenate for control of the codling moth, it was no particular problem to the commercial fruit grower. But there is the possibility that DDT has reduced the parasites of the red-banded leaf roller as a problem that we have to contend with because we still have to control the codling moth with DDT. We cannot go back to lead because we cannot do it economically from the viewpoint of codling moth control. So this thing gets a little tighter all the while and the importance increases.
This type of problem has become so acute in recent years that there is a tendency for experts to juggle the effectiveness of an insecticide against the natural predators of other pests which may also be destroyed. Dr. V. B. Wigglesworth, of the Agricultural Research Council in Cambridge, England, was obliged to suggest that an insecticide which kills 50 per cent. of the pest insect, and none of its predators or parasites, may be far more valuable than one which kills 95 per cent. of the pests, but at the same time eliminates its natural enemies. Perhaps this is where the future of chemical insecticides lies, not as a substitute for, but as a complement, to the more subtle and more remunerative methods of biology. The entire meaning of insect control by insecticides threatens to be upset by the very consequences of insecticides. In an article, appropriately called The Philosophy of Orchard Control, A. D. Pickett of the Dominion Entomological Laboratory in Nova Scotia writes that when a chemical is used for some specific purpose, such as the control of a fungus disease, it may increase the survival potential of one or more pests which were unimportant before the spray was applied. An example of this is the increase in population of oyster shell scale and European red mite following applications of elemental sulphur.
The British have tried to show some moderation in the use of insecticides; the Americans, however, work on the principle that the bug must be bludgeoned or else! The difference in national attitudes reflects itself in the fact that while British experts are thinking of reducing insecticides and, in some measure, getting nature to work with them, the American experts continually increase the dose of an insecticide as the pest grows more and more resistant, until complete resistance has been achieved. At the same time, the increased dosage adds to the contamination of food and tends to complete the destruction of natural enemies, including not only other insects which are helpful to man but also wild life and birds.
Insects, to-day, destroy more than $4,000,000,000 worth of crops a year. The problem of controlling them, as Dr. Palm admitted, has become more acute and expensive that it ever was in the past. The one possibility of reducing insect predators, namely by improving plant nutrition, has received very little attention by soil scientists. Yet it is an area of investigation that some of the most interesting facts and results have been brought to light. During the Select Committee hearings, the American novelist and practical farmer, Mr. Louis Bromfield, frankly stated his belief that the increasing attack by insects and diseases upon our agriculture and horticulture has arisen largely through poor and greedy agricultural methods, through the steady deterioration of soils and the steady loss of organic material with which nitrogen is closely affiliated, and the increasing unavailability of the natural elements though the loss and destruction of soil structures and content. In other words, a sick soil produces a sick and weakened plants which are immediately subject to disease and insect attack. In properly managed soils the necessity for using poisonous preparations injurious to animals and people is greatly diminished and in many cases disappears altogether. The general deterioration of most soils in the United States since the first plough entered them is closely related to the increasing attack of disease and insects and the consequent short-cut use of poisonous dusts and sprays later consumed by humans. Falling back on his extensive experience in farming, Bromfield went on to say: I myself farmed and gardened in France, on land that has been in use for 1,200 years, for seventeen years without every using a dust or spray. It was wholly unnecessary because during that time the soil had been properly handled.
According to Mr. Bromfield, the University of Missouri has found that sufficient amounts of the element nitrogen will control the attack of chinch bugs on corn. They found that corn not suffering from nitrogen starvation was simply not attacked by the pests. Similar experiences have been obtained in related to the attack of the green bug on wheat in Kansas. The green bug, observed Mr. Bromfield, does not start on one side of the of the field and work his way across. They always go to work on the yellowish spot in the field and they work out in a circle. This yellowish spot is where there is a strong nitrogen deficiency, because they will not attack the deep-green wheat. Bromfields remarks are a matter of record in the scientific journals and have even received confirmation from workers in the field who still regard the use of insecticides as indispensable to agriculture.
A Note of Prime Hormones
Chemicals substances are not only introduced into the soil and sprayed on crops, but they are also injected on an ever-increasing scale into cattle and fowl. An extraordinary example was cited by Dr. Clive McCay. As you are aware, Dr. McCay told the committee, some producers of chickens are introducing under the skin into the neck of the chicken diethylstilbestrol. Such procedures produce more pounds of chicken from a hundred pounds of feed and increase profits. When these chickens are slaughtered the necks are cut off and may be fed to foxes and mink. Some of these farms have reported substantial failure in breeding. Now the question arises whether enough of this compound finds its way into the flesh to affect the person who consumes the chicken.
The same type of problem arises when meat-producing animals are fed compounds to injure the thyroid so that the basal metabolism of the pig or steer will be lowered and more meat will result from each pound of feed. Does enough of the compound fed the animal remain in the meat so that the consumer will be injured?
Despite a furious attempt by manufacturers of cattle hormones to prove the contrary, some of the most eminent endocrinologists in the United States no longer regard stilbestrol as a problem to be decided upon either favourably or unfavourably. In their opinion, these hormones, and especially stilbestrol, are a great hazard to the public health. According to Dr. Robert K. Enders, chairman of the Department of Zoology in Swarthmore College, it is against the public interest to permit its [stilbestrols] use and sale under present conditions. The supporters of the use of diethylstilbestrol, observes Enders, who experimented with the hormone for three years, always cite that the drug is used in medicine with inference that it is, therefore, harmless. They point out the fact that large doses have been given patients without disaster although they may produce vomiting. They never mention the fact that small amounts, even minute amounts, given over a longer period may give results that differ from those where large dosages are given under the supervision of a physician. Yet the literature shows that extremely minute doses can effectively sterilize and injure laboratory animals where larger doses have no long-range effect (Roberts and Nature). These small doses do not produce vomiting. Nor do the supporters quote a leading endocrinologist who says:
In women there is evidence that oestrogens are concerned in the etiology of mammary cancer. Not only does the clinical evidence point to such a conclusion, but now, with the lapse of time, cases are being reported in which cancer of the breast has followed prolonged treatment with oestrogens.
Supporters of the use of diethylstilbestrol always say that in properly treated fowl there is no residue or if there is it is discarded with the head or that there is no effect of the drug detectable on humans. Apparently the definition of what constitutes a properly treated fowl and fowl as they reach the market are far from the same thing. Having examined the heads of poultry that has been killed for market, I can assure the committee that a considerable number of chickens contained unabsorbed portions of pellets of the drug What can and does happen is well illustrated by an examination of caponettes, as sold on the open market. An expert examined fifty heads from one well-regulated packing house. He found pellets in twenty-six of the heads. Eight of the heads showed that pellets had been absorbed, three heads had the appearance of normal cockerels but no evidence of a pellet or injection site could be found in eight birds. This means that in 16 per cent. of the chickens sold the site of implantation was in such a place that it was sold with the meat. Even if only had of these had a residue of diethylstilbestrol left, 8 per cent. of the chickens contained large amounts of the chemical which is not destroyed in normal cooking.
The reluctance of the trade to use animal charcoal to mix with the pellet to mark the site of the injection may be due to the fact that the site of injection may be included in the sale of the fowl.
Commenting on damage that stilbestrol can inflict, Dr. Enders warned that one two-hundredth of the dose, that is of a maximum dose, given regularly over a period of time will kill the (experimental) animal. Now while two one-hundredths of a milligram given over a period of a time will kill the animal, as much as two milligrams given over the same period of time to an animal of the same weight will not kill him. To me that can only mean one thing, that small doses are much more toxic than large doses. Enders observes that mink fed with stilbestrol were the poorest mink I have ever seen that were still breathing. That is, they lost their hair, they were fat and puffy, you could put your finger in the skin and dimple it and the skin would not come back, there were scales around the external orifices because something was wrong with the urine, and, as I say, the few survivors were the most miserable animals I have ever seen for animals that were still breathing. The testimony of Enders indicates that large enough doses of stilbestrol will stop ovulation in women, profoundly alter the blood picture in chickens and cause changes in the reproductive tracts of experimental animals fed on poultry waste shudders at this prospect. Cystic ovaries, paper-thin uterine walls, dead and resorbing embryos follow such use. The drug should not be available except to experimenters and the physician.
Dr. Carl G. Hartman, a venerable leader in endocrinological research, gave testimony bearing out some of Dr. Enders opinions before the Select Committee. Whenever you tamper with one gland you tamper with all the others, he warned. When the ovaries or the tests are removed, the physiological effect is profound in the organism. If you give too much thyroid, you injure the ovary or the testes. We have to think of the body as a whole, and when you have an excess of one hormone over another you get effects which reverberate with the entire organism. Hartmans testimony was centred around synthetic chemicals that have estrogenic effects, of which stilbestrol is the queen of them all. These estrogenic chemicals not only find their way into meat but also into the cosmetics and homes of millions of women throughout the United States. When Hartman was asked if the estrogenic chemicals destroy the fibrin and fibrinogin in the blood, he replied: I would not be able to say as to that, but I do know in the dog, for example, estrogen causes profound changes in the bone marrow where the red blood cells are made. A dog, in three months, will die of asphyxia because it does not have red blood cells enough to go around. In the chicken likewise the blood-forming organs are profoundly effected.
Although it is reported that the Canadian government plans to prohibit the use of stilbestrol in poultry, the use of this chemical has increased enormously in the United States over the past two years. The acceptance of the hormonized, or chemically treated birds, by the public has reached national proportions, reports Dr. Arthur D. Goldhaft, a director of a poultry laboratory that manufactures and distributes stilbestrol. The major markets in American report a substantial increase of sale of this type of poultry meat with an increasing demand for this product. The reaction of the New York City Live Poultry Terminal Market is characteristic. This market records a phenomenal gain in chemically treated birds in 1950; in fact, the hormonized birds have practically sounded the death knell of the legions of cross broilers that have been such a standby in the market for the past ten years. In the first ten months of 1950 they have gone from a low of 0.46 per cent. of total receipts less, turkeys, ducks, and geese in January to 25.77 per cent. in October.
We may, perhaps, compare these remarks with the reaction of Dr. Miler, a member of the Select Committee, to the report of Dr. Enders:
Dr. Miller. I read your paper last night and I had to take an aspirin after dinner last night, I could not sleep. It disturbed me for a while. It was disturbing to think what it may do to the human race.
Dr. Enders. That is what I say, the vegetarians may inherit the earth.
Dr. Enders expressed agreement with those endocrinologists who say that the use of the drug to fatten poultry is an economic fraud. Chicken feed is not saved; it is merely turned into fat instead of protein. Fat is abundant in the American diet so more is undesirable. Protein is what one wants from poultry. By their own admission it is the improvement in appearance and increase in fat that makes it more profitable to the poultryman to use the drug. This fat is of very doubtful value and is in no way the dietary equal to the protein that the consumer thinks he is paying for. The truth is that even more is involved. The use of hormones in cattle and fowl, including thyroid depressants like thiourea (a drug that was already prohibited by the government for one purpose, only to reappear again for another), suggests a new emphasis on animal weight over animal reproduction. Dr. Albrecht, noting the tendency to ignore the mineral quality of cattle feeds for the carbohydrate and fat content, remarks that the business of fattening cattle and pigs, more than reproducing and growing them, has been the much heralded agricultural success with livestock. In Missouri, the pig crop that goes to market is only 60 per cent. of that delivered by the sow in the litters of pigs at their birth. Dairy calves at weaning time are only 60 per cent. of the total conceptions. Diseases of the udder, of the reproductive organs, and others of the dairy cow so baffling to veterinary science as to call for legislation threatening to kill the very animals, are rampant.
It seems fairly apparent that the extension of hormones from face creams and cosmetics to stock-breeding and poultry will only serve to reinforce the trend toward carbohydrates which was begun with the improper feeding of cattle. The use of hormones in this connection is still relatively new. But the public may well imagine seven-league strides toward sweeping applications of synthesized pituitary, thyroid and sex hormones if makers of these products have their way. Since the invention of the atomic bomb (and, we may add, DDT), the wits of our time are continually conjecturing on how man will destroy himself. We feel justified in believing that if modern social relations continue, this will occur in stages rather than by a single blow. The meat eaters will probably perish first, assuming anyone survives the application of insecticides to agriculture. After the vegetarians take over, most of them will probably die from improvements in new and better insecticides. Those who survive will undoubtedly kill themselves with the atomic bomb and, finally, to complete irony by irony the insects will inherit the earth.
Thus far we have examined the function and possibilities of chemicals in agriculture and stock-breeding. Now, we shall attempt to accompany our product sprayed by poisons and injected with hormones to the next great stage: the processing of food products for the market. Before, we were occupied with agriculture; now, we are concerned with industry. But since agriculture simply reflects industry to-day, since both are thus oriented toward quantity instead of quality, the reader will not be surprised to learn that the prevalence of commercial over nutritive ends originates in the processing of foods. In this connection, Dr. McCay assures us, we are guided by a great tradition. Since very early times, in the interests of making more profits, men have attempted to introduce chemicals into foods in order to make a cheaper product appear like a better one.
The Fate of Bread
In accord with great traditions, let us take the fate of bread. Ecclesiastical literature describes bread as the staff of life. So profoundly has the importance of bread been etched on human civilization that our great divines often contrast the body with the spirit by saying: Man does not live by bread alone. At the very least, this implies that man also cannot live without bread. The implication was true until fairly recently. It is now an open question whether the product which currently passes for bread in the United States is any longer the same food that inspired many earlier sermons, aspirations, dreams indeed, vast historical movements.
Bread traditionally was made from flour, yeast and salt, profoundly avers Dr. William B. Bradley of the American Institute of Baking, and that is what it is made from in most countries other than this one. These are memorable words. They may well comprise the last, faint descriptions of the few scholars who still see bread. Indeed, bread seems to be traveling on the road toward extinction, for in this country, at least, it is being made with the addition of many synthetic substances and chemicals.
Do these chemicals mark any improvement? Do they serve any beneficial function? Perhaps we may answer these questions by contrasting trends in the improvement of bread with the substances out of which many breads are now made in the United States.
We know what enters into traditional bread. Now a better, more nutritive bread is one to which has been added milk, eggs and or/butter. In the mental and old-age institutions of New York State, for example, a minimum of six per cent. fluid milk and two per cent. wheat germ is required for an acceptable bread. This bread, according to Dr. McCay, costs only a half-cent more than the worst. Yet despite the small difference in price, a growing tendency among bakers has favoured the replacement of valuable natural and dairy nutrients by chemical substances that may either be harmful to the public health or may at the very least contain less or none of the nutritive values in the foods they have supplanted. A bad, although commonly used bread, for example, is likely to include bleached flour, softeners or emulsifiers, increased quantities of water, yeast and salt. Dairy products will have been successfully removed.
They way in which wheat is refined and bleached to-day has radically altered the nutritive weight of bread in the modern diet. Research shows that a greater proportion of mineral richness in wheat is to be found in the outer layers of the berry. Yet it is usually this part that is removed for the baking of bread and cake, while the less valuable endosperm is retained. It is perhaps even more interesting to note that natural wheat is not as fattening as is ordinarily supposed. A pound of red winter wheat has about 1,471 calories. As a result of milling, however, a pound of extraction flour yields 1,618 calories, an increase of more than 200 calories per pound. For every eight pounds of white bread consumed, the caloric equivalent of a pound of natural wheat is unnecessarily added to the diet. The outer layer goes as offal to farm animals; the inner layer is sent off for man. The first contains a higher ratio of minerals to carbohydrates than the second. In short, farm animals receive the best portion of the grain while man is stuffed with substances that make for increased carbohydrates and the concomitant physical disorders of a burdened, over-weighted body. The bread industry in the United States has tended to become a modern Circe: turning men into swine in appearance if not in habits.
But the problem does not end at this point. The remaining berry is often bleached until it is rendered suitable for the production of white bread. To-day this may mean that the berry is subjected to oxides of nitrogen, chlorine, potassium bromate, bitrosyle chloride, benzoyl peroxide or any permitted combination of these chemicals. Are these chemicals harmful? Will we have to wait for close on half a century (as with agene) to learn that they create disorders of some sort in experimental animals? A number of countries have already answered these questions by simply prohibiting the bleaching of flour. Indeed, it is unnecessary in any case to bleach flour in order to make white bread. When flour is stored and permitted to age, it will turn white naturally. The use of chemical maturing agents arises principally because storage facilities are too expensive, insects have increased as a problem for stored foods generally and contemporary methods of distribution favour quick processing as against traditional techniques. Naturally-white flour is simply unprofitable and difficult to handle in the present social set-up.
Another development in bread is the introduction of emulsifying or softening agents. The typical method for determining whether bread is fresh or not is by feeling it, by playing the piano (as the industry puts it) on the bread rack in retail stores. Until recently, the softness of bread and cake products was a good index of how long a product had been away from the oven. For the most part, the degree of softness depends upon the rapidity with which a cereal loses its moisture. Surface-active materials like natural fats, lecithin in egg yolk, and some plant substances which are in themselves valuable to the body will retain air and moisture in grain foods and thus keep these products soft without necessarily keeping them fresh. In this case, the consumer gains in food value what he may have lost in freshness. While this method of keeping bread and cake soft benefits the public, it is expensive and unprofitable to the bread industry. Naturally, a way out of the horrible dilemma had to be found. Naturally.
During the thirties, enterprising researches discovered that chemical surface-active agents like the mono- and diglycerides and polyoxyethylene monostearates could achieve the desired end. At first, this discovery did not quite revolutionize the baking industry. At the time that emulsifiers were first put forward, observes Mr. George T. Carlin of Swift and Company, the bread-softness vogue had not become as pronounced as to-day and we never thought in terms of softness in 1937. In fact, we tried to patent their (emulsifiers) use as staling retarders but found our usage patent application had been anticipated by at least ten years. During the war, however, the emulsifier industry prepared an extensive sales campaign for the baking industry until the idea finally began to bear fruit.
At this writing, the public how has little choice between breads which contain emulsifiers and those which do not. According to G.F. Gauger of the Purity Baking Company, an estimated 75 per cent. of the bakers in the United States use emulsifiers in bread. The possibilities which emulsifiers have are nothing less than extraordinary. Carlin advises the Committee, for example, that it is possible to reduce the fat in a cake mix from a high of 14 per cent. to zero. The Swift Laboratories have made suitable mixes with 0 per cent. shortening content with the synthetic emulsifier. Not only could the fat content be manipulated at will but the reduction would make a cake that would be perhaps more appealing. Mr. Carlin adds that the egg content of a cake mix parallels the fat content. Fat makes a cake tender, eggs make it tough. In other words, the eggs, the coagulation of the eggs will offset the tendering influence of fat, so when you reduce fat, you may also simultaneously reduce the eggs.
Mr. Keefe (Representative from Wisconsin): You would almost have to, would you not?
Mr. Carlin: Unless you wished a tough, rubbery cake, you would.
If we are to accept the opinion of a number of food specialists, however, the principal danger of certain emulsifiers comes from the physical damage they have produced in experimental animals. Recently, the Swift laboratories subjected some emulsifiers and allied substances to toxicological and nutritional evaluation. The experiments centred on the effect which Myrj 45 and Sta-Soft (polyoxyethylene monostearate) have on rats, hamsters and rabbits. The results obtained were summarized by Dr. Edward Eagle as follows:
. . .Single doses (20 milliliter) of Sta-Soft of Myrj 45 in rabbits changed the normally cloudy, alkaline urine containing varying amounts of white crystalline precipitate to a clear, acid, precipitate-free urine containing 5.9 to 6.5 milligrams polyoxyethylene glycol per milliliter....
The rats fed Sta-Soft showed occult blood in the feces the Sta-Soft rats showed no unusual gross pathology; microscopically, however, they manifested unusual gastric, lymphoid, renal, and testicular involvement.
The level used in these experiments were five, ten, fifteen and twenty-five times the amount recommended for use in break and cake. According to Dr. Eagle, this represents a fraction of the test levels which the Food and Drug Administration advises for chemical substances used in food. Furthermore, observes Dr. Eagle, the Food and Drug Administration states in writing, in scientific journals, that in order to prove the non-toxicity of any substance, it has to be fed to animals at a level of 5 per cent. with no harmful effects. These materials cannot be fed to animals at 5 per cent. with no harmful effects There are some people who feed a small dose to a rat, for example, and say that since man, a 70-kilo man weighs 350 times as much as a 200-gram rat, then man can take 350 times as much as a rat can take. That is very poor reasoning.
The best example I think you can give for that is aspirin. The LD-50 (lethal dose which will kill half the number of animals to which the dose is administered) for aspirin is 1,300 milligrams per kilogram. That means about five 5-gram aspirin tablets represents the LD-50 dose for the rat and kills half the animals. If a man weighs 350 times the weight of that rat, then 350 times 5 aspirin tablets is 1,750 aspirin tablets, and no one would ever say that a man can take 1,750 aspirin tablets and survive . If you can cause harm to any animal with anything, that material is not good for man, and that is the reasoning behind a good many of the discussions with Food and Drug people. Man is the most sensitive of animals at least, they regard him so so that any material which is toxic to a rat or a hamster or a rabbit is unsafe for man.
Independent experiments by Dr. B. S. Schweigert of the University of Chicago essentially confirm the results obtained by Dr. Eagle. Schweigert submits the following summary:
The effects of feeding 5 or 15 per cent. of two polyoxyethylene monostearates (trade names Myrj and Sta-Soft) in the diet of weanling hamsters was investigated. Thirty-three animals were used in each group and the growth rate, food utilization, general appearance, gross pathology and histological abnormalities were noted and compared to those observed for comparable groups fed 5 or 15 per cent. prime stead lard. The basal diet was designed to be adequate in all known nutrients. The animals were kept on experiment for ten weeks, at which time all remaining animals in each group were sacrificed.
A significant reduction in the rate of gain was observed for the groups fed either 5 or 15 per cent. Myrj or Sta-Soft as compared to the groups fed lard. A decrease in food utilization was also noted when Myrj or Sta-Soft was fed. Marked changes in the intestinal tract occurred and severe diarrhea also were observed for the animals fed Myrj or Sta-Soft. Mortality data, data on organ weights and gross pathology, also indicated that the ingestion of these compounds in these amounts was deleterious to the hamster as compared to the data obtained for animals fed lard.
Animals fed 5 or 15 per cent. Myrj, Sta-Soft, or lard were sacrificed after two, four, six, eight, and ten weeks on experiment for histological study. Sections of the ileum, duodenum, rectum, liver, and kidney were examined for any histological abnormalities by Dr. Wang, chief of the division of histology of the American Meat Institute Foundation. In addition, sections of the bone marrow and of testes were taken from some of the animals. Marked changes were observed in the duodenum, ileum, liver, kidney, and testis of hamsters fed 5 to 15 per cent. Myrj or Sta-Soft after two to ten weeks on experiment. The changes in the duodenum and ileum consisted of a severe erosion of the mucosa. Necrosis of the liver, decreased spermatogenetic activity of the testis, and tubular degeneration of the kidney were also observed.
A Food Miscellany
The fate of bread is only part of an entire industrial and profit-mad pattern. Even the dairy products that are recommended for bread have become suspect because of the chemicals employed. Butter, for example, was relatively pure food until recently. To-day it is common to dye this food a sickly-yellow colour. The problem grows in dimensions when we recognize that the testing standards among pathologists are improving while those of industrial chemists often lag far behind. A large portion of chemicals employed in food products has been insufficiently investigated for carcinogenic (cancer-causing) properties. They have been tested primarily for acute toxicity. Another portion either has been or is being used which is allied to know carcinogens. Still others are poisonous under some conditions and less toxic under other circumstances.