Dr Helen Anne Curry was an Early Career Fellow at CRASSH in Lent Term 2016. She has also been appointed as a CRASSH/SCAS/ProFutura Fellow for 2017-20.
Raising yields and losing genes: agricultural modernization and biodiversity conservation, 1935-1975
Since the late 1960s, governments, international organizations, NGOs, and private philanthropies—including the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations—have invested heavily in the conservation of genetic diversity in plant species, especially agricultural crops. The most visible marker of this investment has been the proliferation of institutions dedicated to the collection and preservation of seeds. These "seed banks" serve as permanent repositories for the world's vast genetic diversity in food crops, and, increasingly, its diversity in wild plants as well.
My current research investigates the history of seed banking as a global conservation practice. Through this project, I seek 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. This research reveals 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.
Curry is a university lecturer in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and a fellow and college lecturer at Churchill College, Cambridge. She has a PhD and MA in history from Yale University, where her research focused on the histories of biology and biotechnology, agriculture, and environmental change. Her first book, Evolution Made to Order: Plant Breeding and Technological Innovation in Mid-Twentieth-Century America (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming), traces the history of several early technologies used to modify genes and chromosomes, including their development as research tools in genetics and evolutionary biology, their application as novel methods of plant breeding, and their celebration in American popular culture as means of engineering life. Her current research considers the history of global conservation, in particular efforts made to preserve the genetic diversity of agricultural crop species.
CRASSH/SCAS/ProFutura Fellow 2017-20
September 2015 - June 2016