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Insecticides, agriculture, and the Anthropocene

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Over the course of the past 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 ecosystems and wildlife alike. In the process of knowledge and technology transfer of the Green Revolution, industrial agriculture as practiced in the US spread to Mexico, China and India, and around the globe. In the constant search for novel insecticides, chemists returned to nature and developed chemical analogues 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. The past and present of pesticides use resonates with themes of the Anthropocene and in particular the Great Acceleration following World War II. Along with chemical fertilisers, pesticides contribute to the conversion of natural ecosystems into human-dominated landscapes.
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Keywords: Anthropocene; agriculture; chemistry; pesticides; unintended consequences

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 April 2017

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  • The half-yearly journal Global Environment: A Journal of History and Natural and Social Sciences acts as a forum and echo chamber for ongoing studies on the environment and world history, with special focus on modern and contemporary topics. Our intent is to gather and stimulate scholarship that, despite a diversity of approaches and themes, shares an environmental perspective on world history in its various facets, including economic development, social relations, production government, and international relations.
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