November 11 & 12, 2021: Synthetic pesticides are deeply woven into our landscapes and bodies, transforming ecologies and biologies in ways that we are only beginning to understand. Glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide, offers a window into the problematic of pervasive chemical compounds as agents in the Anthropocene, the geologic epoch in which humans have permanently changed the planet. This fall, join us for the conference, Global Glyphosate: New Challenges in Regulating Pervasive Chemicals in the Anthropocene.
Scholars will offer comparative, interdisciplinary, conceptually-related engagements with glyphosate in order to grasp and deepen the Anthropocene perspective and, by extension, to consider the ecological, economic and regulatory implications of the chemicalization of life. Space is limited, Conference registration is required.
The workshop is free and open to the public. Space is limited. Advance registration is required, here.
Marion Werner, Associate Professor, UB Department of Geography
Worldwide struggles over the production, international trade and use of highly toxic pesticides in the 1970s and the 1980s led to international conventions restricting circulation in global markets. In the wake of these regulatory changes, scientists and multinational agrichemical corporations introduced new generation compounds that held a double promise: to meet the economic demand for cheap and effective weed and pest control and to do so with substances that were safe for humans and the environment. Paradigmatic of this shift and its promise was the herbicide called glyphosate. Marketed by the US multinational Monsanto under the brand name Roundup, glyphosate was deemed to be non-toxic to humans and animals. Because glyphosate acted on plants systemically, rather than topically, it allowed for applications of smaller amounts and killed unwanted and yield-depressing weeds at their roots. Scientists and agronomists touted the compound to be a ‘revolution,’ a ‘once-in-a-century’ discovery.
Glyphosate use expanded rapidly in the late 1990s once it was packaged with genetically modified seeds that were resistant to its application. Rates of adoption for maize, soybean, cotton, and later, sugar beet, alfalfa and rapeseed (canola) reached over 90 percent in less than a decade in the United States; a similar process followed in Argentina, Brazil and Australia. When patents expired in 2000, low prices and mass generic production in China and India led to widespread adoption in emerging economies for a large number of conventional crops as well as genetically-modified ones. Today, glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the global food system. Three-quarters of worldwide application has occurred only in the last decade. While activists and environmentalists long challenged the mostly industry-backed science on glyphosate, controversy over the compound reached new heights in 2015 when the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer reclassified the compound as a probable carcinogen. In 2018, Dewayne ‘Lee’ Johnson, a school groundskeeper in California, won the first case against Monsanto (now part of the German Bayer Corporation) for failing to protect human health and was awarded $78 million in damages; over 8,000 lawsuits are now pending in US courts.
While the public debate over glyphosate continues to rage, the proposed workshop draws upon critical social science approaches to reframe the perceived problem. The workshop takes glyphosate as a window into the problematic of pervasive chemical compounds as agents in the Anthropocene, the geologic epoch in which humans have permanently changed the planet. Humanities and social science scholars have adopted the nomenclature of the Anthropocene to signal an alternative to the Nature/Society dualism at the heart of Western epistemology. We use the term here to highlight the conceptual shift that motivates our workshop. If the paradigm of regulating pesticides in the late twentieth century rested upon notions of Man-made toxicity that damaged a pristine Nature, today, alternative concepts and additional regulatory tools are needed. Synthetic chemicals are deeply woven into our landscapes and bodies, transforming ecologies and biologies in ways that we are only beginning to understand. The distribution of chemical burdens is highly uneven territorially and socially, and the conceptualization of toxicity itself rests upon narrow definitions derived principally from controlled ex situ experiments. Comparative, interdisciplinary, conceptually-related engagements with glyphosate offer an opportunity to grasp and deepen the Anthropocene perspective and, by extension, to consider the ecological, economic and regulatory implications of the chemicalization of life.
The workshop brings together three largely unconnected areas of debate surrounding glyphosate in order to deepen an Anthropocene perspective on the problem of pervasive chemicals. The first, centered in the global North, is the debate over product safety and the corporate control of knowledge production. Safety reviews by the US EPA and FDA face considerable industry resistance in a regulatory context weakened under the current Administration. Elsewhere in the global North, including the EU, the product safety debate also remains consumer-focused and disconnected from developments in the global South. The second area of interest is the contemporary ‘herbicide revolution’ underway in emerging economies. The adoption of glyphosate, along with other herbicides, is proceeding at breakneck pace. In countries with expansive monocropping such as Argentina and Brazil, glyphosate has already enabled a highly capital- and knowledge-intensive agriculture that has expelled manual labor en masse from farming, and fundamentally transformed rural livelihoods. In many other emerging economies, out-migration from rural areas has led to labor shortage in contexts where farmers have little choice but to turn to corporate-controlled agrichemical solutions. In turn, inputs are now more widely available as lower-priced and less regulated generic products have transformed the market. Thus, the intensification of a capitalist agricultural transformation for the world’s majority remains tethered to the adoption of agrichemical inputs – and glyphosate in particular – just as the safety of glyphosate is being questioned in its mature markets. The final area of debate cuts across these first two. Similar to antibiotics, the mass application of a single biocide has accelerated the development of weed resistance, now threatening yields by as much as 20 percent in Australia and the United States, a problem also making headlines in Argentina and Brazil. The consumer-centered regulatory framework of toxicity and exposure fails to account for such ecological transformations, where ‘harm’ to humans and the environment ultimately rests upon a modernist epistemology that reinforces the nature/society dualism.
(subject to change)
Panel 1: Toxicity, Exposure and Health: Working papers in this panel will address one or more of the following questions. How has the agrochemical industry shaped regulatory knowledge about risk, health and glyphosate? How was the notion of a safe herbicide established? What can be learnt about changing notions of risk and safety from the recent, particularly controversial debate around the regulation of glyphosate use in Europe? What does an Anthropocene perspective offer for conceptualizing toxicity and exposure?
Panel 2: Human Labor/Development/Work of Nature: Working papers will address one or more of these questions: How is the spread of generic herbicides affecting rural economies and ecologies? In what ways is glyphosate implicated in the global land rush and the dispossession of traditional peasants and farmers? What are the implications for worker health, water quality, soil life, and conservation efforts? How is weed resistance shaping labor relations and alternative agrochemical solutions?
Panel 3: Global value chains, environmental regulation and herbicides as commodities: Globally, agrochemical capital has undergone unprecedented consolidation into a handful of firms, while, simultaneously, a host of new actors, especially from emerging markets, are becoming more important players in formulating, exporting and marketing glyphosate and generic agrochemicals broadly. What does the global glyphosate value chain look like? What are the regulatory, technological and social shifts that make the global glyphosate market work? What are the regulatory implications of the changing dynamics of the global value chain in herbicides?
The Workshop Program is forthcoming.
Aniket Aga, Fellow, Assistant Professor, Ashoka University, Sonipat, India. Dr. Aga is an anthropologist interested in environmental justice and sustainable agriculture. He examines the ongoing controversy over genetically-modified crops and the social relations of the petty pesticide trade in southern India.
Fernando Rafael Barri, Professor, Center for Ecology and Renewable Natural Resources, National University of Córdoba, Argentina. Dr. Barri is a conservation biologist and ecologist. He analyzes the environmental effects of economic development processes in Argentina’s principal frontier agricultural region.
Christian Berndt, Professor, Department of Geography, University of Zurich. Dr. Berndt engages with the geographies of marketization and global commodity chains. He has investigated Argentina’s soy production complex with a focus on the role of biotechnology and herbicides as important drivers of the soy boom.
Soledad Castro, PhD Student, Environmental Science and Technology Institute (ICTA), Autonomous University of Barcelona. Castro is a tropical ecotoxicologist from Costa Rica. Her doctoral research examines the changing regulation of pesticide trade and use in export agriculture in Costa Rica, with a focus on water and conservation.
Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, Senior Scientist, Pesticide Action Network North America. Dr. Ishii-Eiteman directs PANNA’s Grassroots Science Program and leads PAN campaigns to strengthen agroecology movements and policies globally and in the US, while countering corporate power and influence in agriculture, with a focus on the biotech/pesticide industry and genetically engineered herbicide-resistant seeds.
Ryan Galt, Associate Professor, Department of Human Ecology, University of California at Davis. Dr. Galt examines the challenges of pesticide regulation at multiple scales, including global-scale conventions and pesticide use in south-to-north fresh fruit and vegetable commodity chains.
Becky Mansfield, Professor, Department of Geography, Ohio State University. Dr. Mansfield writes on nature-society geography, with a focus on chemical geographies, the politics of toxicity, and the production of knowledge and regulatory science in the Anthropocene.
Adam Romero, Assistant Professor, School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, University of Washington-Bothell. Dr. Romero studies the political economic origins of agricultural chemicals, with a focus on the transformation of the US agrichemical industry into a key consumer of industrial waste byproducts.
Annie Shattuck, Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, Indiana University--Bloomington. Dr. Shattuck studies the pesticide boom in Southeast Asia, with a focus on Laos. She is an expert in food sovereignty, agroecological movements, and alternative food movements. Prior to completing her PhD, she worked for Food First.
Anne Tittor, Post-doctoral Researcher, Bioeconomy and Social Inequalities Research Group, Institute of Sociology, University of Jena, Germany. Dr. Tittor examines the socio-environmental effects of biofuel production in Argentina. Her current research is on social conflicts around pesticide use from an environmental justice perspective.
Marion Werner, Associate Professor, Department of Geography, University at Buffalo, SUNY. Dr. Werner examines the effects of international trade agreements and global value chain relations on workers and farmers. Her current research project examines the development of generic pesticide markets in relation to agrarian transformations in the Caribbean.
Brian Williams, Assistant Professor, Department of Geosciences, Mississippi State University. Dr. Williams examines how race and nature shape pesticide usage, the continuities between plantation agriculture and contemporary industrial agriculture, and the implications for contemporary agro-environmental justice in the US.
Li Zhang, Assistant Professor, University of California-Irvine. Dr. Zhang’s research focuses on pesticide regulation in agro-food production in China based on ethnographic research with local officials, food merchants, peasants and other stakeholders in Guangxi and Henan provinces.
Participant papers are available by logging into secure folder hosted by UBBox (access forthcoming).