April, 2021

Three questions with...
2017 Fellow Bartow Elmore

Your Fellowship project, Seed Money: Monsanto's Past and Our Food Future, tells the history of Monsanto from making DDT to now manipulating DNA. Could you tell us why you chose to write this history?

I really stumbled upon this story. While researching my first book about the environmental history of Coca-Cola, I received permission from Monsanto to review the chemical company’s corporate records housed at Washington University in St. Louis. At the time, I was investigating the history of Monsanto’s caffeine contracts with Coca-Cola (Monsanto produced caffeine for Coke from broken and damaged  tea leaves). It was just supposed to be a chapter’s worth of research, but I soon got hooked. I left that first trip to St. Louis knowing there was a bigger story in those archives. So I went back to unpack the history of Monsanto, a company now merged with the powerful German pharmaceutical firm Bayer, which is the largest genetically engineered seed seller in the world.

Just two years into this project, everything changed. In 2015, news broke about links between Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and cancer. And this was just the beginning of the media frenzy that enveloped the company. Soon more lawsuits followed for other Monsanto herbicides and chemicals. Though none of these issues were front and center in my mind when I started the project, I knew I had to leave the archives and embark on a global journey to understand the history that was unfolding right before my eyes. Now, six years later, I’m excited to share with the public what I’ve found.

Your previous book, Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism, also took on a huge corporation. What draws you to these subjects? What is the research process like and what challenges do you face reporting on such behemoths?

If I was being honest, I’d say that after this book, I’d like to take a break from investigating large multinational firms. I’m kind of tired. It has really been a grind, in part because firms like Coca-Cola and Monsanto are information gatekeepers, carefully controlling what documents they release to the public. I’ve had to fight hard to get the records that serve as the foundation of this book, and it took roughly eight years to put all these materials together. But though I’m a bit weary, I also feel that I have an obligation to continue work in this area, in part because I have learned so much over the past 15 years from both journalists and historians about how to gain access to confidential corporate information.

I have to thank New America here because the organization put me in touch with some of the leading investigative journalists in the country, and these writers shared wisdom that helped make this book better. In graduate school, historians are rigorously trained in the art of dissecting an archive, but rarely do we learn how to talk to sensitive sources over encrypted phones or how to adequately protect vulnerable interviewees who want to speak about secrets inside big firms. In the years ahead, I plan to take lessons I learned at New America back to the classroom in hopes that the next generation of business historians can learn essential skills needed to investigate powerful corporations that wield outsized influence on our global economy.

You’re an Environmental Historian at Ohio State University. How did you find that speciality? What does it mean to be a historian of a quickly-changing environment?

When I went to graduate school I did not know the discipline of environmental history existed. Though the field dates back to the 1970s, when the modern environmental movement was taking off, scholarship in this concentration had not made it into my high school or undergraduate curriculum. But when I took a seminar on the subject in my second year of graduate school, I was immediately hooked. I’d always been someone deeply committed to environmental causes, and I was intrigued by a field that promised to use the past to help develop solutions for the future. I remember when I was applying to graduate school, one potential adviser mentioned that he thought I might have a “messianic complex” (at least that’s what I remember him saying). I felt his assessment was a bit much, but he was on to something. I was indeed passionate about writing histories that could be used by various stakeholders in our own time to better the world in which we live. I’m still driven by that conviction, precisely because the environmental challenges we face right now are so pressing. I’m not sure that drive will ever go away, especially now that I have two young boys, born during the writing of this book, who have to inherit whatever world we leave them.

Hot Off The Press

Driving While Brown: Sheriff Joe Arpaio versus the Latino Resistance

The story of how Latino activists brought down powerful Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Publication date: April 20th

Available for pre-order through our bookselling partner Solid State Books here.

By: Jude Joffe-Block, Class of 2017 and Terry Greene Sterling

Learn more

Two Cents

Part 2: Fellows on why they started their email newsletters.

To view Part 1 click here

1: I started my newsletter as a space for opinion and analysis on politics, law, and global human and women's rights issues. I write about issues that shape women's lives around the world and deserve more attention and a deep dive, but that aren't getting top billing in our national newspapers. For many Americans, the Trump era narrowed our focus and made us reactive. I wanted to create a space where I could take a more expansive view, and consider how to build, not just how to knock down. — Jill Filipovic, Class of 2019

2: I started my newsletter, Welcome Home, because when I moved back to my rural Arkansas hometown three years ago to work on my book, I saw that there was a real dearth of information about how people in rural areas of the country live their lives, process news, and respond to government and other institutions. There was too much parachuting in, making assumptions, and projecting ideals. I wanted to report more on how life is actually lived here, both from my own experience and from the perspective of people I live among. I thought this was especially important during the Trump era and the pandemic. — Monica Potts, Class of 2016

3: I started my newsletter for a few reasons. First and foremost, one of the things I've enjoyed most about social media has been sharing books, films, television, music, and podcasts that I've loved, and getting recommendations on those same things from smart, interesting people. That still happens to an extent, but sites like Twitter are saturated with so much other noise these days that it can be easy to miss. I wanted a space where I could write more at length about the different things I've been enjoying and put them in conversation with one another. And in the newsletter I never write about things I don't like, only things I like, which also makes the newsletter a more positive experience, at least for me, than scrolling down my timeline. The newsletter has also ended up being a great way for folks who are specifically interested in my work and writing to keep up with any new stories I've written for the Atlantic, podcasts I've been on, updates about my books or things I've been thinking about that maybe don't need an entire article written about them but also need more space than Twitter might be able to offer. I only send it out once a month so it's low stakes but I've really enjoyed it so far. — Clint Smith, Class of 2020


Katie Engelhart was interviewed on Fresh Air about her new book, The Inevitable. Reuben Jonathan Miller was also interviewed on Fresh Air about his new book, Halfway Home.

Yi-Ling Liu wrote a profile of Chinese science fiction author, Chen Qiufan, for WIRED.

Matthieu Aikins wrote about stolen Afghan antiquities for the New York Times Magazine. 

The film Nomadland, based on the book by Jessica Bruder, has been nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. 

Eve L. Ewing has been awarded the 2020 Gordon J. Laing award for her book Ghosts in the Schoolyard. 

Jonathan Blitzer wrote the lead editorial and a daily comment for the New Yorker about the crisis at the US southern border. He also was a guest on the Politics and More podcast to discuss the situation.

New America Events

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LANDFALL Discussion Series: Puerto Rico as a Handbook for Our Times

Join 2021 11th Hour Fellow, Cecilia Aldarondo, for a seven-week series of dynamic online discussions highlighting Puerto Rico’s colonial status and leadership in mutual aid and community-based recovery post-Hurricane María. Learn more


Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty

Join the Fellows Program, Future Tense, and Solid State Books for a conversation with Patrick Radden Keefe about his new book. Learn more


Driving While Brown: Sheriff Joe Arpaio versus the Latino Resistance

Join the Fellows Program for a conversation with Jude Joffe-Block, Class of 2017, and Terry Greene Sterling about their new book, Driving While Brown. Learn more

Reading this month

An engrossing book about modern Tibet whose historical sweep, intimate granularity, and journalistic rigor is just astonishing.
— Brian Goldstone,
Class of 2021

Learn more

South to Freedom expands our understanding of American slavery to Mexico, and how Black escapes to Mexico helped shape America's identity and policy. 
— Vann R. Newkirk II,
Class of 2020

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In fiction, Allende has captured the complexity of Central American immigration more clearly than most journalists. 
— Melissa Segura,
Class of 2019

Learn more

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