Large farms grew even larger during the mid-20th century. Advances in planting technology boosted yields thanks to chemical treatments—something scientists and researchers saw as a way to benefit production while increasing shelf life in fruits and vegetables.
However, the New Yorker magazine’s three-part series “The Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson in 1962 opened a proverbial can of worms, bringing to light farmers’ reliance on synthetic pesticides and insecticides, and exposing the threat that these chemicals could be found affecting all levels of the food chain.
Carson pushed for a stop to aerial spraying of DDT, the “wonder” chemical used to kill lice on soldiers during World War II and used to treat pests on food crops.
Stories about chemicals infiltrated the news, making consumers much more aware of growing practices than they had been previously. The produce industry faced calls to rescind Alar (used primarily on apples), ethylene dibromide and methyl bromide, among others.
National events made consumers hyper-aware of toxins, like the Three Mile Island nuclear radiation leak in Pennsylvania in 1979, and numerous reports of dangerous hazardous waste dump sites, like the Love Canal in New York in the 1980s. Toxins were top of mind for consumers during this era, so any news about chemicals that were cause for concern brought quick reaction.
In 1981, a Medfly infestation panicked growers, threatening as many as 200 varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables in California. Aerial spraying of the pesticide malathion above 40 square miles of suburban San Francisco had consumers concerned.
Three years later, the EPA suspended the use of ethylene dibromide (EDB) as a soil fumigant for items like citrus, pineapple, mangoes and papayas because of its carcinogenic properties and the fact that the chemical was showing up in groundwater contamination.
In the late 1980s, consumers faced the “Alar scare”—alarm over a chemical used to keep apples on the tree longer to boost shelf life. High-profile media exposure in 1989—including an infamous CBS “60 Minutes” interview and public messages by popular actress Meryl Streep—spread misinformation on a grand scale.
The message that consumers heard was that growers sprayed Alar on apples with the sole purpose of making them more cosmetically perfect—bigger and darker red, says John Rice, who was chairman of the board for the International Apple Institute (now the U.S. Apple Association) during that time and is now a retired Pennsylvania apple grower. In reality, Alar helped keep fruit on the tree longer, producing a firmer, sweeter apple with longer shelf life. (And, as a result, making them larger and redder).
“In the span of about a week, apples sales went down something like 45%,” Rice says. “Apples in many places were just sitting on counters with no one buying them, also applesauce and juices. Everyone at that point was losing money on everything they sold.”
The apple industry, and the fresh produce industry by default, learned some valuable lessons from the Alar scare during this time period, Rice says. “People were convinced by the media that kids were dying all across the county because of [Alar], and there was never anyone brought forward who was harmed by Alar. The Alar scare was created by the media.”
He notes, however, that the media still has that unprecedented sway.
Consumers Take Control
As is the case today, public opinion during these few decades forced action. Public outcry compelled the fresh produce industry to look for ways to use fewer chemicals while still ensuring strong production. Carson outlined a solution using “biological controls” for managing farm operations, which opened the door to the idea of organic growing practices on a large scale—an idea that is now big business in the fresh produce industry.
This entire period in history changed consumers’ focus on produce. Shoppers began to pay attention to how fresh produce was grown, and while initially this seemed like a negative thing, media attention spurred consumer interest in a variety of commodities.
During this generation, consumption of fruits and vegetables grew exponentially. The Packer noted that U.S. consumption of fresh produce jumped 23% from 1978 to 1989, and typical retail produce department offerings more than tripled from 1975 to 1988. By the late 1980s, stores were carrying more than 200 fresh produce items.
The far-reaching effects of Carson’s warnings about agriculture’s chemical applications essentially started the modern environmental movement in America, driving an interest in organics, food safety, integrated pest management and other topics that remain headliners today.