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Silent Sky: A Case Study in Researching the Pesticide Industry

This post was written by Lynn Weinstein, Business Reference Librarian in the Science, Technology, and Business Division.

The sedge is wither’d from the lake,

 And no birds sing — KEATS

Rachel Carson speaking before Senate Government Operations subcommittee studying pesticide spraying, 1963. United Press International photo.

A recent Cornell Chronicle article reported that nearly 30 percent of birds in the North America have vanished since 1970.  Simultaneously, the population of raptors has tripled since then. The study’s authors attributed this increase to regulations that banned the pesticide DDT. Fifty-five years ago, Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, a best seller, which helped create the modern environmental movement, a ban on DDT and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. As a result of the recent developments in the decline of the North American bird population, I became interested in studying the pesticide industry and followed a process we often recommend to our patrons who are researching an industry.

I first consulted the Doing Industry Research guide, and its companion guide, Doing Company Research which include guidance on such topics as locating pertinent books, using classification codes to search electronic databases and other government data, identifying major companies in the industry, and placing the industry in historical context.

When researching a topic in a book catalog, it is important to understand how to do a subject search. The Library of Congress Catalog, like those of most academic libraries, uses Library of Congress developed subject headings, which include those for locating books in the pesticide and related industries: Chemical industry, Biological pest control agents industry, Fungicides industry, Herbicides industry, pests – integrated control, and Insecticides industry.

It is essential to brainstorm all the keywords and alternative terms that could potentially be associated with the topic to use in an online database search. Alternative words or synonyms for the pesticide industry could include: agricultural chemical manufacturing or farm supplies or contaminants. By tying keywords together in an advanced search in an article database using the Boolean operators AND, OR and NOT, I was able to locate resources showing how pesticides impact: agriculture or bees or birds or soil or food or farmers or lakes or rivers or waterways. I also considered the value of conducting research into other potential causes of bird population decline, including habitat loss, invasive species, and climate change.

Bridgeton, New Jersey. Seabrook Farm. Laying out the fields for dusting insecticide, 1943. (john Collier, Jr.)

In order to fully utilize some government publications or online databases, it is necessary to identify the appropriate North American Industrial Classification System Code (NAICS).  In this case, NAICS Code 325320  allowed me to zero in on information in the  Pesticide and Other Agricultural Chemical Manufacturing available in U.S. Census information. Many online research databases available onsite through the Library of Congress or through other subscribing libraries and institutions, employ NAICS codes in online searching, including those listed on the Look for the News page in our Doing Industry Research guide.

If you are interested in doing additional research in this area, you may want to identify and locate information on companies involved in current or alternative agricultural technologies. Consider using our Doing Company Research guide for contemporary company information and our Doing Historical Company Research for companies that are no longer in business. Looking at a company’s website is a key element in a search for business information. The Business in America Web Archive, maintained by the Library of Congress through the Science, Technology and Business Division, captures select web pages from Fortune 500 through the LC Web Archiving program.

It is meaningful to try to evaluate an industry in the context of its history as well as the costs and benefits of an industry. In the 1940s, the pesticide revolution was viewed positively as a scientific innovation.  Benefits of pesticides are seen by some as increasing food production, decreasing food cost, and enhancing the quality of foods,  There are currently areas in the world where DDT is being used because it has been determined that the benefits outweigh the costs, for instance, where malaria is a problem. Research has indicated that the Agriculture industry has been linked to climate change, and there are calls for moving towards a more sustainable food system and away from resource intensive factory farming industry that relies heavily on pesticides.

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