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Melancholy Consequences: Britain’s Long Relationship with Agricultural Chemicals Since the Mid-Eighteenth Century

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Chemicals used to control agricultural diseases and pests have formed a significant aspect of rural life in Britain since at least the mid-eighteenth century. This paper argues that agricultural chemicals have long been subject to public health and environmental concern. Harnessing agricultural textbooks, periodicals and newspaper reports, this paper charts the use of arsenic and copper sulphate as means of preventing fungal disease in wheat over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During this time the dangers and benefits associated with chemical seed steeps – a mixture of water with arsenic or copper sulphate in which seeds were immersed – were thoroughly explored: landowners and agricultural improvers released their own recipes, suggested alternative remedies for fungal disease and even carried out crop trials to test the efficiency of chemical preventatives. Yet, by the mid-nineteenth century, seed steeps had become an issue of public health and government concern, as noxious substances poisoned game birds intended for human consumption. Embracing a ‘long-run’ history of agricultural chemicals enriches current debates on the use, regulation and impact of these products.
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Keywords: agriculture; pesticides; public health; wildlife poisoning

Appeared or available online: 23 March 2018

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