Industrial waste and the chemicalization of American agriculture
IAS faculty member Adam M. Romero has a bachelor’s degree in Biology and Environmental Studies, a master’s in Environmental Science, Policy and Management, and a doctorate in Geography. He teaches courses primarily in IAS’s Science, Technology & Society and Environmental Studies majors.
Romero recently published a new book, Economic Poisoning: Industrial Waste and the Chemicalization of American Agriculture. In the interview below, Romero discusses his research and explains how his work relies on an interdisciplinary perspective to understand how American agriculture came to rely on toxic waste.
How would you describe yourself as a scholar?
I consider myself an interdisciplinary scholar of agriculture and chemicals, particularly industrial chemicals. To even think about what a chemical is, you have to think much more broadly, beyond just its structure, to how it impacts the environment, to who created it, to imaginations of the future and technology. The questions are spread across all disciplinary boundaries. And that's my background—someone who has a lot of schooling in the sciences but has moved into social sciences and history in particular.
You know, if I’d written this book in another type of department, it might actually be very different because of the expectations of a traditional academic discipline. IAS allows me to be much freer in my approach to thinking about these questions, and even in the style of writing. That's quite different than other places.
Tell us more about your new book.
The book is a retelling of the history of pesticides in the United States going back all the way to the beginning of pesticide agriculture. I look at it not through a lens of farmers needing to kill things, but from a lens of where the chemicals are coming from in the first place. In this case, the chemicals come from industrial waste.
For instance, one of the chapters looks at arsenic. Arsenic is a pesticide in agriculture, and it's also used in medicine. But if you actually look where it's coming from, it's from the production of copper for the most part. So, I chart how arsenic waste is turned into pesticides. The book is really a rewriting of US agriculture and pesticides through the commoditization of industrial waste through the 1940s.
You said earlier that this book would look different if you were in more of a traditional department. What's interdisciplinary about this project?
I don't subscribe to one particular set of literature. I don't have one particular disciplinary focus that guides the book. Instead, the question drives methods and evidence I need. For me it's always been about the larger question of why pesticides were used in agriculture. And to answer that question, you of course have to think about the chemistry of them, and how they affect animals and the toxicology, but also policy, narrative, imaginations of the future, and fears of the other. It turns out all of that is wrapped up in pesticide use.
I worked in labs studying pesticides and toxicology for a while and we’re really good at figuring out where the stuff is coming from, how it was moved in the environment, how harmful it was. But the larger question of why we are doing this in the first place can’t really be answered in the lab. It requires knowledge and methods from very many different disciplines.
So how does industrial waste become part of the US agricultural system?
Agriculture is a biologically driven industry. And when you create a plantation-style agriculture, you create unnatural environments for disease and insects to flourish. One solution would be to change the system that’s causing the problem. But the solution became figuring out how to combat those insects. That’s where toxic waste like arsenic comes in. Agriculture becomes the only industry that needs waste specifically for its toxicity.
Waste is actually used in all sorts of other industries. But it's the toxicity aspect of the waste that's key for agriculture. The more toxic the waste, the better it is, and if you have a lot of it, that means it's cheap. Farmers have very low margins, so cheap and effective solutions are great. And that's why arsenic is such a good example. Mining companies would often give it away if you paid to have it shipped. Agriculture became one of the largest sinks for getting rid of this waste.
What does this history mean for us now?
It asks us to reconsider some of those most fundamental aspects of who we are, as Americans. We took over a piece of land that was very abundant. One of the biggest problems of American agriculture is that there has always been surplus production. But at the same time, the narrative around food has been that there's not enough food, we're running out of food. And that narrative of not enough food has always been a justification for the use of pesticides.
We have to rethink the narratives that we have about agriculture. We all fear running out of food, although we’re some of the best-fed people in the history of the world. We make so many decisions about our future based on some of these ideas that food is becoming scarce, but that's not the case.
The narratives we have about the future, about how we get our food, and why it’s grown in certain ways are really important to think about. The US was founded on the idea of agriculture being abundant and providing for everyone. Along the way we became so focused on food and forgot about people and farming itself.
I bring this questioning into my classes. For a lot of my students, it’s the first time they’ve been asked to think about food production in a critical way—from perspectives of technology and justice. I can't think about current day issues without thinking about history, so my students get that as well.