Project (2015-2016)

Agricultural Modernization and Biodiversity Conservation in the Twentieth Century

Helen Curry's research investigated the history of seed banking as a global conservation practice. Through this project, she sought to understand how the genetic diversity of plant species came to be seen as both a critical resource and an imperiled one, and how seed banks came to be seen as the obvious solution to the threat of losing such diversity. Although there are a number of historical studies that chart the establishment of individual seed banks, and scattered histories of interest in plant conservation, to date there has been no broad historical survey based on archival resources that considers efforts to collect and preserve plant genetic diversity from a global perspective.

In reconstructing this history, Helen Curry explored a fundamental dilemma of contemporary industrial agriculture: its reliance on biological diversity that it tends itself to destroy. The origins of seed banking efforts—arguably some of the most effective biodiversity conservation efforts carried out to date—lie in the relentless advance of modern industrial agriculture through the introduction of genetically uniform, high-yielding crop varieties, first across the United States and then around the world. These two activities continue to be deeply entangled. Today seed banks are touted as essential resources in a world that is both politically and climatically unstable. Given that crop pests and diseases evolve and climates change, breeders today cannot know with certainty what genes will be needed in tomorrow's varieties. The maintenance of genetic diversity, as a seed in a seed bank, is therefore seen as a keystone of global agricultural production and food security. However, this is not because these banks will provide material for the restoration of diversity that has disappeared from crop fields. Quite the opposite: it is the only way to continue responsibly in the creation of ever more uniform, and ever more vulnerable, agricultural crops. Conservation activities thus underwrite the further destruction or at least neglect of genetic resources as living crop plants in cultivation by diverse peoples under diverse conditions.