Seventy years ago, it wouldn’t have even occurred to anyone to ask the question above—because all farming was organic.
In other words, for nearly the entire history of mankind, it’s been common practice to grow food without the use of artificial pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and other chemical replacements for natural processes.
What changed everything was World War II. Military-driven research invented modern pesticides—most notably DDT—and produced them in mass quantities to protect troops from mosquitoes spreading malaria and lice transmitting typhus. The results were enormous reductions in both diseases—so much so that chemist Paul Hermann Müller was awarded a 1948 Nobel Prize for recognizing DDT’s effectiveness at combating insects. After the war, DDT was redirected to protecting crops, and its use became widespread in farms and gardens around the US
World War II was also responsible for the mass production of ammonium nitrate, which was a key ingredient in explosive weapons. Afterwards, the abundance of ammonium nitrate made it a very cheap nitrogen-based chemical fertilizer, and it also became used in farms and gardens across America.
These chemicals were inexpensive and effective, and so were embraced by thousands of farmers. They were followed by numerous other products—herbicides, fungicides, other chemical fertilizers—that were also quickly adopted by farmers seeking to reduce costs and increase productivity.
The government assured everyone that while these products were strong enough to kill insects and trigger explosions, they were too mild to affect humans, pets, fish, and wildlife. So children used to follow DDT trucks servicing gardens around their neighborhood...chasing and inhaling the trucks’ toxic spray.
The truth, however, is that these products were rushed to market without adequate testing of both their short- and long-term health effects.
It wasn’t until 1962, with the publication of Rachel Carson’s landmark book Silent Spring, that large numbers of people began to question the safety of these new farm practices. Carson’s book documented the detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment, accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation, and pointed fingers at public officials accepting industry claims uncritically.
Ten years later, the US banned the use of DDT as a pesticide but still allowed, and continues to allow the use of many other chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
Our government also allows produce to be irradiated, genetically manipulated, and treated with chemical additives and preservatives.
Plus it lets livestock (e.g., cows, pigs, chickens) be given growth hormones, massive doses of antibiotics, and feed that is at times hideous (e.g., the ground-up carcasses of their own species—including ones that died of disease).