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  • Chemical Lands: Pesticides, Aerial Spraying, and Health in North America's Grasslands since 1945 by David D. Vail
  • Christopher R. Laingen
Chemical Lands: Pesticides, Aerial Spraying, and Health in North America's Grasslands since 1945. By David D. Vail. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2018. ix + 180 pp. Illustrations, map, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95 cloth.

I applaud David Vail and the University of Alabama Press for having written and published a book that dared to do anything other than demonize farming—in general—and the use of agricultural chemicals—specifically—and pretend that our country's agricultural production systems could have been created and continue to function without them. Vail's book is truly a breath of fresh air insofar as that many social scientists, social science programs, and academic presses preach increasingly partisan worldviews about large-scale conventional agricultural practices.

Farmers are, by and large, keen stewards of the land. Their livelihoods largely depend upon the health of the ecosystems within which they operate. In his book, Vail expertly explains how practices employed by "Ag pilots" evolved over many decades as they carefully considered their target landscape(s), non-target crops, and the people, animals, and surrounding environments affected by their work; they worked diligently, more often than not, alongside their clients and other stakeholders to minimize risks to these local and regional ecosystems. While many farmers were initially reluctant to adopt aerial application methods, over time, collaboration and "precision became the answer" (7).

In 1950 the convergence of federal officials, agriculturalists, aeronautical engineers, and pilots to design and build the Ag-1 "flying tractor" marked the arrival of the "first plane ever designated and built exclusively for super safe and efficient crop control flying" (88). "By considering the target landscape, non-target crops, people, and animals, and the larger environment together, Ag pilots minimized risks to local ecosystems while also keeping crops safe" (128). By the 1960s a patchwork of state regulations, a growing emphasis on federal oversight of chemicals, and the release of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring placed Ag pilots, landowners, and weed scientists—overwhelmingly, people who were doing their dead-level best to reduce harm to the environment—on the side of what was viewed by the general public as an environmentally destructive industry.

Are there shortcomings to these practices? Absolutely. Are there alternatives? For sure, and in certain locales—largely outside the Great Plains and Midwest— nonindustrialized and nonconventional agricultural production and pest-control practices might even prove to be more logical and optimal solutions. Vail's book, however, curbs any notion that America's food production system could have been created or sustained without the help of industrialization and nonorganic—sometimes dangerous—chemicals.

Efforts that began in the mid-twentieth century aimed at improving precision in agricultural chemical application were the building blocks upon which farmers' labors continue today (e.g., Global Positioning System [GPS] technology and precision agriculture). Such efforts, many of which originated on the American Great Plains, have helped consumers get what they want out of agricultural production: to keep the cost of agricultural products as low as possible, so that we do not spend a penny more of our disposable income than necessary on the food, fuel, and fiber that our country's farmers produce. The proliferation of aerial spraying was driven not by American farmers or by "Big Ag," but by the growing demands of American consumers. All of us.

Dr. Vail and the University of Alabama Press: this was a job well done! [End Page 87]

Christopher R. Laingen
Department of Geology and Geography Eastern Illinois University


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