This thought-provoking essay was posted on December 3, by Christopher Bedford of The Center for Economic Security, to a sustainable food email group. I found it compelling as one of those defining moral questions: Can we move past the sins of Big Ag and work for a better future? Could I do this, let alone a victim of these incidents? Read for yourself and decide.
Today is the 25th Anniversary of the Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) leak at
the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. The number of people
affected, injured, and killed has been the subject of debate. But it
seems clear that a half a million were exposed to some degree to MIC
and other chemicals released and approximately 40,000 people died
either immediately or from injuries directly related to the accident.
MIC was a key ingredient in India’s petrochemical Green Revolution —
an intermediate chemical in the production of a number of
insecticides, some still in use today.
Union Carbide still claims the MIC release was an act of deliberate
sabotage and that “it” was the victim at Bhopal. This giant-chemical-
corporation-as-victim delusion is symptomatic of our time; the end-of-
free-market capitalism in which corporations have become too big to
fail, too powerful to be held accountable.
So why remember the Bhopal tragedy today on this 25th anniversary,
aside from respect for all its victims?
I believe the Bhopal tragedy offers us some insights and lessons in
our struggle to build true community food security today.
In the years after the tragedy, I encountered countless “near Bhopal
scale” incidents in the US chemical industry. At Bhopal’s sister MIC
facility in Institute, West Virginia, an emergency inspection of the
unit found three of the four redundant safety systems disabled — the
same as at Bhopal. A hydrofluoric acid spill in Texas City, Texas came
within 6 inches of killing 50-100,000 people downwind. The
petrochemical industry has a long record of valuing production and
profits over safety. I believe they have made a calculation that the
costs of an accident or an exposure are miniscule compared to the
career building profits possible from a kind of “what can I get away
with?” attitude towards production and safety.
Indeed, the record suggests they are right. No one has been held
accountable for the Bhopal tragedy. Token payments have been made to
some victims, but Union Carbide has never claimed responsibility for
the failure. This denial is part of an agrichemical industry strategy
to escape the costs of corporate irresponsibility or at least delay
them long enough to allow current management to retire blameless.
In Michigan, where I live, Dow Chemical (now owner of Union Carbide)
has fought a shameful battle against residents of the Midland and the
Tittabawasee River basin exposed to very high levels of dioxins and
furans. Dow’s goal has been to avoid responsibility for at least a
quarter century of contamination while claiming it now acts with the
highest standards of safety.
In the west end of Louisville, Kentucky in an industrial area known as
Rubbertown, Dupont exposed largely African-American chemical workers
to hazardous chemicals for decades. One Dupont manager reportedly said
that the corporation would resist settling a class action lawsuit
based on this poisoning until “all the plaintiffs were dead.”
I could go on and on with stories like these based on my two decades
of work investigating the petrochemical industry. What is important
for us today is to realize the large corporations that monopolize
conventional industrial agriculture today aren’t going to suddenly
change when they “see the light.” From the Dead Zone in the Gulf of
Mexico to the health of agricultural workers to consumer exposure to
unsafe ingredients, these corporations have too much liability, too
much to lose to engage in real negotiations about changing the way our
Petrochemical domination of conventional and industrial farming is
based on a fundamentally wrong paradigm of destruction of life in the
soil. Living soil is seen as the enemy. Their goal is organism-free
dirt that functions as a medium to deliver man-made inputs and
nutrients. This extraordinary mistake has produced record amounts of
production (not food) in the very short-term while reducing carrying
capacity in the long term and causing almost unimaginable damage in
If a realistic calculation were done to assess the total
environmental, economic, and public health damage done by agricultural
chemical and industrial corporations, the sum would exceed the book
value of the corporations responsible.
So, if the food security of our nation depends, in some critical
measure, on the scale and speed of a transition to sustainable farming
using 80% less petroleum, that protects water quality and conserves
water quantity through organic growing practices based on healthy,
living soil, what are we do to about the corporate inheritors of the
legacy of Bhopal?
I propose we look to South Africa for a solution. When apartheid was
abolished and Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison,
the new South Africa was confronted with legacy of repression,
torture, and death caused by its own citizens. There surely must have
been a very strong temptation to take revenge.
But a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created instead. The
goal was to make public the “truth” about what had happened under
apartheid — to grant amnesty to virtual all responsible for past
actions. The “truth” was important to help the new nation find a path
We are in a similar moment with regard to industrial, petrochemical
intensive conventional agriculture. Though its corporate proponents
still rule in Washington like South African President de Klerk ruled
in Pretoria, change from the ground (literally the soil, in our case)
We need our own version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for
agriculture, one that helps conventional farmers see not only how they
have been victimized by the agricultural petrochemical industry, but
helps them chart a new path ahead. We also need to grant amnesty to
those corporations that stop producing the most damaging, most
resilience destroying chemicals. Short of consumers marching on
agrichemical corporate headquarters with pitchforks and torches, I
don’t see any better way of making this change.
We need to acknowledge what has happened is wrong. Forgive and move
swiftly in the right direction (because of our survival requires it of
us). That is the lesson of Bhopal that I see.
I still dream of what it must have been like that night of December
3rd in Bhopal’s crowded neighborhoods pressed up against the Union
Carbide plant. The choking. The panic. The crush and trampling. The
long term suffering of those who didn’t die immediately. We must
remember those victims.
I propose that we use their memory to create light and life.
We must move forward.
Peace and good food and living soil,
CENTER FOR ECONOMIC SECURITY