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Frederick Rowe Davis

The history of DDT and pesticides in America is overshadowed by four broad myths. The first myth suggests that DDT was the first insecticide deployed widely by American farmers. The second indicates that DDT was the most toxic pesticide to wildlife and humans alike. The third myth assumes that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) was an exposé of the problems of DDT rather than a broad indictment of American dependency on chemical insecticides. The fourth and final myth reassures Americans that the ban on DDT late in 1972 resolved the pesticide paradox in America. Over the course of the 20th century, agricultural chemists have developed insecticides from plants with phytotoxic properties (“botanical” insecticides) and a range of chemicals including heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, chlorinated hydrocarbons like DDT, and organophosphates like parathion. All of the synthetic insecticides carried profound unintended consequences for landscapes and wildlife alike. More recently, chemists have returned to nature and developed chemical analogs of the botanical insecticides, first with the synthetic pyrethroids and now with the neonicotinoids. Despite recent introduction, neonics have become widely used in agriculture and there are suspicions that these chemicals contribute to declines in bees and grassland birds.

Article

In September 1962, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) held its first convention in Fresno, California, initiating a multiracial movement that would result in the creation of United Farm Workers (UFW) and the first contracts for farm workers in the state of California. Led by Cesar Chavez, the union contributed a number of innovations to the art of social protest, including the most successful consumer boycott in the history of the United States. Chavez welcomed contributions from numerous ethnic and racial groups, men and women, young and old. For a time, the UFW was the realization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s beloved community—people from different backgrounds coming together to create a socially just world. During the 1970s, Chavez struggled to maintain the momentum created by the boycott as the state of California became more involved in adjudicating labor disputes under the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA). Although Chavez and the UFW ultimately failed to establish a permanent, national union, their successes and strategies continue to influence movements for farm worker justice today.

Article

President Abraham Lincoln signed the law that established the Department of Agriculture in 1862 and in 1889, President Grover Cleveland signed the law that raised the Department to Cabinet status. Thus, by 1900 the US Department of Agriculture had been established for nearly four decades, had been a Cabinet-level department for one, and was recognized as a rising star among agricultural science institutions. Over the first half of the next century, the USDA would grow beyond its scientific research roots to assume a role in supporting rural and farm life more broadly, with a presence that reached across the nation. The Department acquired regulatory responsibilities in plant and animal health and food safety and quality, added research in farm management and agricultural economics, provided extension services to reach farms and rural communities in all regions, and created conservation and forestry programs to protect natural resources and prevent soil erosion and flooding across the geographical diversity of rural America. The Department gained additional responsibility for delivering credit, price supports, supply management, and rural rehabilitation programs during the severe economic depression that disrupted the agricultural economy and rural life from 1920 to 1940, while building efficient systems for encouraging production and facilitating distribution of food during the crises of World War I and World War II that bounded those decades. In the process, the Department became a pioneer in developing the regulatory state as well as in piloting programs and bureaucratic systems that empowered cooperative leadership at the federal, state, and local levels and democratic participation in implementing programs in local communities.

Article

The Sacramento Delta is an agricultural region in northern California with deep historic significance for Asian Americans. Asian American laborers were instrumental to the development of Sacramento Delta, transforming the swampy peat bog into one of the richest agricultural areas in California. Beginning in the mid-19th century, Chinese laborers constructed levees, dikes, and ditches along the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers before breaking the fertile soil to grow fruit and vegetables including pears and asparagus. Asian Americans continued a permanent and transient presence in the Sacramento Delta on farms as migrant farm laborers, permanent farmworkers, and overseers, and in the small delta towns such as Isleton that emerged as merchants, restaurant operators, boardinghouse operators, and other business owners catering to the local community.

Article

“Twenty and odd” Africans arrived in Virginia aboard a Dutch vessel in 1619 shortly after permanent colonization of the English Americas began. There has been significant academic debate about whether the enslavement of peoples of African descent in England’s early 17th-century colonies was an inevitable or “unthinking decision” and about the nature and degree of anti-black racism during the 17th century. The legal and social status of African peoples was more flexible at first in the English colonies than it later became. Some Africans managed to escape permanent enslavement and a few Africans, such as Anthony Johnson, even owned servants of their own. There was no legal basis for enslavement in the British Americas for the first several decades of settlement and slave and servant codes emerged only gradually. Labor systems operated by custom rather than through any legal mechanisms of coercion. Most workers in the Americas experienced degrees of coercion. In the earliest years of plantation production, peoples from Africa, Europe, and the Americas often toiled alongside each other in the fields. Large numbers of Native Americans were captured and forced to work on plantations in the English Americas and many whites worked in agricultural fields as indentured and convict laborers. There were a wide variety of different kinds of coerced labor beyond enslavement in the 17th century and ideas about racial difference had yet to become as determinative as they would later be. As the staple crop plantation system matured and became entrenched on the North American mainland in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and planters required a large and regular supply of slaves, African laborers became synonymous with large-scale plantation production. The permeable boundaries between slavery and freedom disappeared, dehumanizing racism became more entrenched and U.S.-based planters developed slave codes premised on racial distinctions and legal mechanisms of coercion that were modeled on Caribbean precedents.

Article

During the Holocene, the present geological epoch, an increasing portion of humans began to manipulate the reproduction of plants and animals in a series of environmental practices known as agriculture. No other ecological relationship sustains as many humans as farming; no other has transformed the landscape to the same extent. The domestication of plants by American Indians followed the end of the last glacial maximum (the Ice Age). About eight thousand years ago, the first domesticated maize and squash arrived from central Mexico, spreading to every region and as far north as the subarctic boreal forest. The incursion of Europeans into North America set off widespread deforestation, soil depletion, and the spread of settlement, followed by the introduction of industrial machines and chemicals. A series of institutions sponsored publically funded research into fertilizers and insecticides. By the late 19th century, writers and activists criticized the technological transformation of farming as destructive to the environment and rural society. During the 20th century, wind erosion contributed to the depopulation of much of the Great Plains. Vast projects in environmental engineering transformed deserts into highly productive regions of intensive fruit and vegetable production. Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, access to land remained limited to whites, with American Indians, African Americans, Latinas/os, Chinese, and peoples of other ethnicities attempting to gain farms or hold on to the land they owned. Two broad periods describe the history of agriculture and the environment in that portion of North America that became the United States. In the first, the environment dominated, forcing humans to adapt during the end of thousands of years of extreme climate variability. In the second, institutional and technological change became more significant, though the environment remained a constant factor against which American agriculture took shape. A related historical pattern within this shift was the capitalist transformation of the United States. For thousands of years, households sustained themselves and exchanged some of what they produced for money. But during the 19th century among a majority of American farmers, commodities took over the entire purpose of agriculture, transforming environments to reflect commercial opportunity.

Article

In the 20th century, US policymakers often attempted to solve domestic agricultural oversupply problems by extending food aid to foreign recipients. In some instances, the United States donated food in times of natural disasters. In other instances, the United States offered commodities to induce foreign governments to support US foreign policy aims or to spur agricultural modernization. These efforts coalesced during the 1950s with the enactment of Public Law 480, commonly known as the Food for Peace program, which provided for a formal, bureaucratic mechanism for the disbursement of commodities. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, successive presidential administrations continued to deploy commodities in advance of their often disparate foreign policy objectives.