The Food of our Food: Microbial Lessons from the History of Growth Promoters

Hannah Landecker is the Director of UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics. With a background in Science and Technology Studies, her work explores both the history of, and contemporary developments in, the life sciences – with a particular focus on the metabolic sciences.

Abstract: After a century of nutrition science primarily focused on questions of growth, microbiome science is reorienting the way we looks at eaters, eating, and ecology. However, this is not just a change of concepts or ideas; we are increasingly coming to realize that microbiomes are historical, culturally, and materially shaped by the chemical and nutritive milieu that humans have built over the twentieth century. This talk explores current research into the metabolic functions of the human microbiome, and uses these insights to think about how and why microbiomes today are in part products of human social history. In particular, I focus on the history of development of arsenic and arsenical medications, whose use in animal husbandry was established in the early 1940s and set the stage for the later introduction of antibiotics as growth promoters. The long arc of arsenical use allows insight into how past practices in animal feeding focused on growth promotion are impacting present microbial ecologies in animal and human bodies, via rather unexpected routes.