Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 33, Issue 1, pp 3–26 | Cite as

Commercializing chemical warfare: citrus, cyanide, and an endless war

Article

Abstract

Astonishing changes have occurred to agricultural production systems since WWII. As such, many people tend to date the origins of industrial chemical agricultural to the early 1940s. The origins of industrial chemical agriculture, however, both on and off the field, have a much longer history. Indeed, industrial agriculture’s much discussed chemical dependency—in particular its need for toxic chemicals—and the development of the industries that feed this fix, have a long and diverse past that extend well back into the nineteenth century. In this paper, through the narrative of a late nineteenth century creation story, I go in search of a crucial linchpin in that longer history. I argue that industrial pest control has been imbued with the practices, discourse, materials, and ethics of modern chemical warfare since its inception. Faced with pest-induced collapse, Los Angeles citrus growers and scientists of the USDA and UC Agricultural Extension chemically fixed the citrus pest problem by developing and utilizing the cyanide gas chamber. Cyanide fumigation quickly became the toxic cornerstone of the citrus industry, enabling its intensification and expansion as the pest infection became systemic. By the turn the century, furnished with an economic poison made cheap and weapons-grade due to changes in the world gold mining industry, growers transformed cyanide fumigation into a necessary agricultural input. In chemically overriding an agro-ecological contradiction of capitalist agriculture, growers, scientists, and government officials amalgamated industrially organized agriculture to accelerating and endless chemical warfare. These suddenly necessary agricultural practices signaled a state change in world-ecology and agroindustrial organization, thus, the discovery of effective industrial control for citrus pests was not only a pivotal moment in the history of Southern California but it was also an event that has had world-historical implications.

Keywords

Citrus Chemical warfare Cyanide Chemicalization Southern California Chemical agriculture Gas chamber State-change 

Abbreviations

AOX

Alternative oxidase

CF

California Farmer

CSAS

California State Agricultural Society

DA

District Attorney

DAC

Daily Alta California

KCN

Potassium cyanide

LA

Los Angeles

LAT

Los Angeles Times

LAH

Los Angeles Herald

NYT

New York Times

PRP

Pacific Rural Press

R&H

Roessler & Hasslacher Chemical Company

SDU

Sacramento Daily Union

SFC

San Francisco Chronicle

SCH

Southern California Horticulturist

US

United States

USDA

United States Department of Agriculture

WWI

World War I

WWII

World War II

Notes

Acknowledgments

This project was funded in part by grants from the Martin Institute (Geraldine F. Martin, President) and the Chemical Heritage Foundation along with a graduate fellowship from the Bancroft Library. The author would like to thank the Sayre Lab group at UC Berkeley for their thoughts on an earlier draft and the reviewers for their comments.

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of GeographyUniversity of California, BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA

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