Agricultural Arsenic: Uncovering a Nineteenth-Century Pesticide Scare

In this blog, Matthew Holmes takes a long view on the role – and risks – of agricultural pesticides in the delicate balance between food security and environmental conservation. His article ‘Melancholy Consequences: Britain’s Long Relationship with Agricultural Chemicals since the Mid-eighteenth Century’ has been published ‘online-first’ in Environment and History.

The market for organic food and drink is currently worth an estimated £2.2 billion in the UK alone. Responding to news of a growing market, Liz Bowles, the Soil Association’s Head of Farming, stated that ‘it’s great to see that farmers continue to be rewarded for growing food as it should be, with no artificial additives, fewer pesticides, no GM and with the highest standards of animal welfare’.[1] For its advocates, organic farming is kinder to both the environment and consumers: not least thanks to its boycott of synthetic pesticides. In 1962 the biologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book which exposed the environmental damage and health risks posed by the excessive use of synthetic pesticides in the postwar era. Our troubled relationship with pesticides today is in part a consequence of this and other scandals. Yet where would a world devoid of pesticides realistically leave us?

If you had happened to find yourself on an ancient farm in the Mediterranean Basin, what options did you have to protect your crops from pests and disease? The Sumerians beseeched the goddess Ninkilim to protect their barley. Within the Babylonian tradition, incantations induced the sun and moon gods to protect grain from fungal disease. In Greece, Apollo and Heracles could aid you against vine-eating insects or locusts. Or if you wished to look slightly further afield, the Magi of Asia Minor were supposedly enamoured of the magical properties of the hyena. Its fat could repel snakes and its skin protect seeds. If gods or magic failed, the state could intervene. Pliny the Elder recorded that citizens of Cyrene, in North Africa, were required by law to destroy locusts. Failing to do so was recorded as desertion and was punishable by death.[2]

Such efforts may today seem hopeless or even laughable. But were they really the only option available? Was there some moment of transformation in our history where pesticides suddenly appeared as an effective form of defense against pests and disease? In my paper, I argue against an artificial division of agricultural history into a pre and post-pesticide era. During the nineteenth century, ‘Paris Green’, a popular insecticide based on arsenic, was deployed against such menaces as the Colorado potato beetle.[3] Yet the history of chemical pesticides goes back much further.

potatopests00rile_0021
Colorado potato beetle. From Charles V. Riley, Potato Pests (New York: O. Judd Company, 1876), p. 11. From the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
Paris_Green_(Schweinfurter_Grün)
Paris Green was used well into the 20th century. Source: Image by Chris Goulet, Wikimedia Commons.

One source of great angst was for eighteenth-century British farmers was the accumulation of fungal spores on wheat, an ailment most commonly known as ‘smut.’ Faced with a disease which could devastate entire harvests, some wheat growers added salt, lime or even saltpeter to their crops to drive out smut. Others took more extreme measures. As early as 1756, some farmers were reportedly adding arsenic to water and soaking their seeds in the resulting concoction. While arsenic was reportedly beneficial for the prevention of smut, many of their contemporaries saw its use as a dangerous practice or even a moral evil.

Fast forward a century and both the use and variety of noxious chemicals to combat smut was on the rise. Copper sulphate, or ‘blue vitriol’, was widely used to combat fungal disease in Europe and found great popularity in Britain and Ireland. Yet the use of noxious chemicals came at a cost. Accounts began to emerge of game birds, especially partridges, dropping dead of unknown causes. In Ireland, copper sulphate was blamed for a decline in the number of game birds. In 1848 deceased partridges were sent to a London physician, Dr. Henry William Fuller of St. George’s Hospital. Fuller fed the birds to his unfortunate cat, who ‘vomited almost incessantly for nearly twelve hours’.[4] Chemical tests revealed the presence of high levels of arsenic in the birds. An outcry followed as the Victorian press raised concerns that contaminated meat might find its way to market. The British Parliament belatedly stepped in to restrict the use of arsenic steeps in 1863. Yet despite the protests of sportsmen and naturalists, no legislative barriers were raised against copper sulphate.

britishgamebirds00morr_0088
High levels of arsenic were found in game birds. Image from Beverley R. Morris, British Game Birds and Wildfowl (London: Groombridge and Sons, 1855), pp. 60-61. From the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

What lessons can we take away from this episode of history? Chemical pesticides have clearly been a longstanding feature of farming. One could argue that this longevity implies that we should be less concerned about their use in agriculture. The antithesis to this conclusion would argue that the use of arsenic and copper steeps led to wildlife poisonings and threats to human health in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain. We should therefore continue to be concerned about pesticides like copper sulphate, which is still used as a fungicide by organic farmers today. Yet we can also find cause for optimism in the history of chemical seed steeps. Naturalists and medical professionals, backed by the Victorian press, were able to sound the alarm over the dangers of agricultural arsenic. Nineteenth-century campaigners and journalists were able to raise public consciousness of an environmental threat and challenge government to act. Even in unlikely times and places, there is always room for manoeuvre in the delicate balance between food security and environmental conservation.

 

 

[1] Rebecca Smithers, ‘Supermarket sales of organic food and drink continue to rise’, The Guardian, Tue 4 Sep 2018. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/sep/04/supermarket-sales-of-organic-food-and-drink-continue-to-rise Accessed 22/10/18.

[2] D.M. Secoy and A.E. Smith, ‘Superstition and Social Practices against Agricultural Pests’, Environmental Review 2 (1977): 2-18.

[3] John F.M. Clark, ‘Bugs in the System: Insects, Agricultural Science, and Professional Aspirations in Britain, 1890–1920’, Agricultural History 75 (2001): 83–114.

[4] Henry W. Fuller, ‘On the Use of the Arsenic in Agriculture-Poisoning by Arsenic, and Symptoms of Cholera-The Possible Effect of the Game Laws’, The Lancet 2 (1848): 648.


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