The Third Reich, under its Fuhrer’s rule from 1933 to 1945, but especially during the second world war, was in more ways than those most obvious to us, masterfully devastating in the scope and effects that would have its scientific research programmes.
One of the branches in which laboured a great deal of keen scientific minds was that of biological warfare with the use of poisonous chemical agents. What could be the most effective means to impede, disable, neutralise or completely remove someone’s abilities to fight or even resist? It would be to sever the connection between the central nervous system and a vital organ: pretty simple and definitely very effective.
German determination, dedication, focus, methodology and efficiency is well recognised and highly appreciated all over the world. This is true today as it was then, and if in this day and age it means to us more in terms of German technology—great industrial machinery and equipment, great cars, great appliances, great electronics—together with the fact that, on the world’s stage, we can trust their government’s word and commitment to seeing things through unwaveringly to the end, it certainly would have had a different connotation to the millions who suffered under the Germans during the great war, be it directly or indirectly. Regardless of these considerations, however, these qualities of determination, dedication, focus and efficiency are excellent qualities, well established in German culture and society, and obviously foundational in making the country a powerful and stable industrial and political leader.
It was to be expected that those scientists tasked to identify, develop and refine the biological and chemical technologies necessary to accomplish their intended function of quickly, silently and as effectively as possible disable the human target without as much as a single drop of blood being shed in the process, was indeed accomplished, and masterfully so. The result was chemical agents that were called ‘nerve gas’.
Nerve gas worked exactly as it was intended: it broke the biochemical connection between the brain and the heart. More specifically, it inhibited the enzyme cholinesterase whose critical function is to break down excesses of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine that enacts the brain’s messaging to the heart in order to avoid overstimulation. Acetylcholine is there to trigger the firing of neurons that control heart and bowel function. It sits in the synapses, the gap between neurons, and does this. The mechanism to ensure that there is enough but not excessive acetylcholine nerve stimulation, is the enzyme-depended breakdown of any surplus acetylcholine. Without optimal function of the enzyme cholinesterase, acetylcholine accumulates between neutrons and induces overstimulation, which can quite effectively bring the heart to a stop without bloodshed, without pain, without any noise, and without any drama: just quickly and effectively.
How does nerve gas work today? Precisely in the same way it did in 1945. It was recognised early on in this research that most, and maybe all animals, no matter how large or small, share if not identical, very similar biochemical and hormonal pathways, especially in terms of nervous system function. Can you see where this is leading?
The technological developments during the era of the second world war were tremendous: the planes, the cars and trucks, the tanks, the guns, the bombs, and all the physics and engineering, the chemistry and the biochemistry involved. It really was revolutionary in regards to the power available at our fingertips to do whatever we could imagine or whatever was needed to make things simpler, easier, more efficient. What came of all this was global, widespread use of large , complex machinery and global, widespread use of chemical for anything and everything we could think of.
The shift from traditional family farming, which since it began 10000 years ago was always done on really very small scales, and naturally with the largest workable and sustainable variety of plant species being grown together, to the modern ways that could best accommodate the limitations imposed by using great big machines instead of our hands to tend the fields, gave way to huge monocultures, which in turn, gave way to huge problems with insects attracted to these particular species of plants being grown without the natural balancing effects of competing or antagonistic insects attracted to different plants growing side by side in the small space of the family garden.
Just follow this impeccable human logic: nerve gas kills humans by blocking the action of the enzyme cholinesterase required to regulate the amount of stimulation triggered by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine that controls heart function by adjusting neuron firing and breakdown rate; all higher animals, including insects, have similar functioning nervous systems because we all evolved from the same primitive ancestors whose most essential function were controlled by their nervous system, whatever form it took; we want to cultivate huge fields of monocultures because it is efficient in producing large quantities of food without much time or labour by using large machines to take care of these field; unfortunately, large monocultures attract disproportionally large numbers of the same kinds of pests that then have free reigns over the plants cultivated because they have no other insects to compete against; insects are affected in similar ways as we are by nerve gas, but because they are much smaller, because we are so much larger and stronger than they are, they would be lethally affected by small quantities of nerve gas while we would not, or at least not very much.
It’s perfect! Amazing! We spray diluted nerve gas on our large mono-cultured crops, kill all these awfully annoying insects that are trying to eat our food, and then simply collect everything intact and in perfect condition. This is the magic of industrial chemistry. What do we call this diluted nerve gas, these chemical agents? Pesticides, of course. Very popular right from the start, but incredibly more popular today than 70 years ago.
In fact, pesticides are more than 30 times more popular today than they were in 1945. Every year we dump more than four billion pounds of pesticides on the soil of the Earth. Four billion pounds worldwide, and one quarter of this—one billion pounds—is used in the US alone!
As can be expected from our amazing human ingenuity, cleverness, tenacity and industriousness, there are now tens of thousands of different kind of ‘nerve gases’ with different purposes, different functions, different effects and different potencies. We are so darn good, so clever at improving things, making them longer lasting, more effective, more targeted, more concentrated, and naturally… more lethal.
The obviousness of the truth is painful and so we look away: all pesticides are neurotoxic because this is how they function to kill pests. But since we are also a pest of sorts, they are neurotoxic to us in the same way as they are to those insects we want to get rid of. As a result, we are killing the insects, and we are killing ourselves. Moreover, we are doing it better and better each year and with every passing day. That’s the long and short of it. Sorry to be the bearer of such bad news.
Yes, we can eat our own home-grown stuff, and exclusively organic and pasture raised food—I do and have been for the last 18 years since graduating from McGill in the spring of 1996. But pesticides are in the rivers, oceans and water tables, as well as in the air, the clouds and the rain. And this, in ever-increasing concentrations. What we can do is try to protect ourselves as best we can by minimising our ingestion of and exposure to such poisons by all the means available to us, integrate continuous detoxification practices in our daily life, and do whatever we can to shift the balance of policymaking towards the support of small scale organic farming and away from the industrial monoculture model pervading over so much of the planet. Maybe the trends will change, and maybe sooner rather than later, but it’s hard to tell.
With the opportunity and truly great privilege we have to be alive and able to look back onto the past, and consider anew the circumstances, events and developments that took or might have taken place with a fresh perspective encompassing a multitude of informative elements available to us now but that were not at the time, I believe that nobody could have foreseen that the chemical technology of biological warfare agents developed during the second world war in Germany would become so incredibly popular as to pervade the entire planet to the extent of reaching virtually all ecosystems from the poles to the equator, up and down and all around to the most isolated and distant. And although seldom recognised as such, it is this, one could argue, that has had the most important and pervasive negative impact on humankind, one of the most devastating consequences of Hitler’s lethally poisonous legacy: the gift of pesticides.
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