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Agricultural Toxicology and the Development of Economically Efficient Mass Death


Contemporary scholarship on the history and politics of toxicology has advanced significantly over the last two decades. What this scholarship shares in common is that it focuses on what I call defensive toxicology, science and policy conducted under the auspices of keeping people from harm. Indeed, this is pivotal scholarship, yet the history of toxicology is also more expansive than these works reveal. For example, agricultural toxicology was not about protecting people but about creating knowledge specifically for offensive purposes. As such, it focused on making non-human mass death as reproducible and efficient as possible. That is why some of agricultural toxicology’s earliest pioneers argued that the agricultural study of poisons should be called economic toxicology as a way to distinguish it from the studies that aim to prevent unreasonable human harm.

This paper begins an investigation into the historical development of agricultural toxicology. I use the pre-WWII history of cyanide fumigation and the first generation of petroleum-based pesticides (and the first petroleum-based endocrine disrupting chemicals) as my narrative threads, highlighting the connections between the development of agricultural toxicological knowledge, pesticide use, and the creation of the dose-response criteria that guided the discriminate poisoning of the world.


Adam Romero is an Assistant Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Bothell. His current research project delves into the political economic origins of agrochemicals in US agriculture. Drawing from 16 archives across the US, this project tells a story of a critical agroecological state-change – a state-change in which toxic chemicals became necessary for industrial agricultural production. By tracing the biogeochemical fate of industrial waste, he demonstrates how pre-WWII agriculture served as a profitable sink for industry’s toxic byproducts. He argues that industrial agriculture can serve as a threshold of waste’s transmutation, whereby the burden of point source waste disposal is transmuted into widely distributed inputs and non-point source pollution.