Adam M. Romero is Assistant Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell.
The toxicity of pesticides to the environment and humans is often framed as an unfortunate effect of their benefits to agricultural production. In Economic Poisoning, Adam M. Romero upends this narrative and provides a fascinating new history of pesticides in American industrial agriculture prior to World War II. Through impeccable archival research, Romero reveals the ways in which late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century American agriculture, especially in California, functioned less as a market for novel pest-killing chemical products and more as a sink for the accumulating toxic wastes of mining, oil production, and chemical manufacturing. Connecting farming ecosystems to technology and the economy, Romero provides an intriguing reconceptualization of pesticides that forces readers to rethink assumptions about food, industry, and the relationship between human and nonhuman environments.
How did you become interested in this topic?
As an undergraduate student, I was part of a couple research projects that involved chemical agriculture on California’s Central Coast. One focused on developing biological and cultural alternatives to soil fumigation, while the other examined the chemical loads draining from America’s Salad Bowl.
For two years, I had a front row seat to some of the most intensive agriculture on the planet: the lines of refrigerated trucks waiting to disperse the berry crop across the world, the blur of machines and brown bodies that delicately ravaged a lettuce field, the million-dollar homes and elementary schools abutting strawberry fields being fumigated.
I did not become the environmental scientist that I thought I would back then. Nevertheless, that time was formative for me simply because it was where I first began to recognize that to understand agricultural pollution, I had to think outside the laboratory. While watching chemical agriculture performed day in and day out, I began to ask why we use pesticides in the first place— this same question lies at the heart of Economic Poisoning.
What was something unexpected that you learned over the course of your research?
My biggest surprise in the research process ultimately became the thesis of my book: that industrial waste played a crucial role in the chemicalization of agriculture. I did not begin the project with that idea in mind. The more I learned about the early history of pesticides, the more apparent it was that most of them originated in the toxic waste piles of non-agricultural industries. A farmer’s use of pesticides, in other words, served two functions: to kill pests and to dissipate toxic industrial waste.
One of the other things that really surprised me, but perhaps should not have, was the unrelenting faith that scientists and policy makers have in industrial chemicals. It is hard for me to imagine, as they so often did, that industrial chemicals would free humanity from the resource and labor demands that have informed all civilizations. I think about this a lot when I hear similar proclamations today about AI or synthetic biology.
What is the main message you hope readers take away from the book?
I hope that readers take away a couple of things. First, that the type of chemical-intensive agriculture we currently have was not inevitable and second, that the development of chemical agriculture was not necessary for the U.S. to produce sufficient food. In fact, pesticides have often exacerbated the opposite problem: surplus production. Together, these points are important because they upend mainstream narratives about the history, present, and future of humanity’s relationship with the environment.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a book about the history of abundance in American agriculture. I am currently writing a chapter on the history of the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC). A federal corporation created in depths of the Great Depression, the CCC shaped agriculture and diets in the US and across the world. The chapter examines the CCC in relation to the history of financial capitalism, agrarian democracy, and the thorny issue of chronic surplus production. I am particularly interested in how the CCC, in its quest for farmer parity, not only underwrote American farmers but also the producers of agricultural inputs, like pesticides.