New distinguished professor of environmental history

KU History Professor Ed Russell, studies environmental history at KU.

Bite into a slice of bread, and the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t World War I.

However, chemical weapon use in the war and modern food production are inextricably linked.

That, at least, is the conclusion of Kansas University environmental history professor Ed Russell’s research.

Russell specializes in understanding how human behavior and technology have shaped the food we eat and the environment. Much of his work focuses on pesticides and sustainable farming practices.

So how do chemical weapons relate to bread?

“I concluded that chemical warfare development accelerated the use of pesticides,” Russell said. Chemical-weapon production during the war, and the introduction of dispersion methods such as planes and aerosols, paved the way for pesticide use in modern farming, he said.

That increased yields, and foods such as bread became cheaper. But at the same time, many chemicals entered into the food cycle, affecting farm workers, animals and the environment. To solve such issues, Russell advocates using more sustainable farming practices, such as alternating planting times, or crops, to deal with insect pests. The idea is to achieve similar yields but with fewer inputs.

Russell has served as a distinguished professor of environmental history since coming to KU from the University of Virginia in January.

“I came here for the chance to join one of the world’s best departments in my field,” he said. “That’s thanks to Donald Worster, who was one of the early pioneers in the field.” Russell replaces Worster, now professor emeritus, who founded the study of environmental history at KU. Russell will teach three undergraduate and graduate classes a year as well as continue his research on environmental history.

Russell said his research — understanding why and how people came to make the agricultural and environmental decisions they have — is especially important in Kansas.

“Kansas is a heavily agricultural state, so, in many ways, the future of Kansas is tied to the future of agriculture,” he said. “Those of us working on sustainable agriculture are looking for ways that will enable Kansas to be an agricultural state in the future,” he said citing the rapidly decreasing levels of the state’s Ogallala Aquifer.

“To be effective in the future, we need a good analysis of the origin of the problems and for that we need to look at the past and the present,” he said.