Image of corn field
Cover of Endangered Maize by Helen Anne Curry

Opinion: Going Beyond Seed Banks

Rethinking why and how we conserve crop genetic diversity

A photo of author Helen Anne Curry
Helen Anne Curry

Helen is an associate professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, where she teaches the history of modern science, technology, and medicine....

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Jan 17, 2022

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Over the past 100 years, an ever-expanding consensus has taken shape—first among scientists and later among policymakers, farmers, and eaters—that we need to preserve biological diversity in the plants we grow for food. This need stems from the fact that, around the world, farmers have steadily transitioned from local varieties of many different crop species to globalized lines of a handful of staple grains and other agricultural commodities.

Concern about the loss of crop diversity has spawned eclectic efforts to protect “landraces,” “folk varieties,” “traditional strains,” “heritage vegetables,” and other unique genetic combinations understood as endangered. Today, crop conservation strategies include stocking seed and gene banks, holding local seed swaps, and establishing catalogs of culinary rarities. Despite their different methods and often divergent political and social visions, the individuals and organizations behind these conservation initiatives agree that the world’s once-immense diversity in cultivated plants is in grave danger. 

Although the disappearance of diverse crop varieties in the face of globalization and industrialization is an undisputed trend, generalized reports of diversity loss have not always reflected local realities. For example, blanket accounts of decline have tended to overlook the sites where diversity survives and thrives. These include the farms and gardens of small-scale and subsistence growers, people who have little, if anything, to gain from adopting wholesale seeds designed for industrial production.

Moreover, tallies of diversity also tend to fixate on the loss of existing crop varieties and overlook the appearance of new ones. Farmers do not just adopt various lines, they mix them to produce novel types. Professional breeders, too, create new varieties. As a result, even where older varieties are displaced, continuing innovation by farmers and breeders might maintain diversity at a steady plateau.

The point of identifying patterns like these is not to deny the reality of loss or the importance of conservation. On the contrary, we know there has been an overall decline in the diversity of crops we cultivate for food, and we have many reasons to resist and reverse this trend. But focusing too intently on the narrative of inexorable loss—to date, the dominant refrain in crop conservation—generates its own problems. For example, failure to see crop diversity where it survives or flourishes leads to missed opportunities for preservation. Meanwhile, emphasis on impending extinction creates urgency for emergency off-site salvage in seed banks to the detriment of longer-term investments in on-farm conservation programs that would keep crops, and cultivators, in place.

Given that a one-size-fits-all account of inexorable decline towards extinction does not fit all circumstances, it’s clear that we need to develop more-nuanced accounts. In fact, experts working to conserve crop diversity often insist that making better observations—on farms, in breeding programs, at local markets, or in gene banks—is essential in developing appropriate solutions. But we can go further still. Tackling the challenges of successful conservation also demands a close look at its history. 

In my new book, Endangered Maize, I draw on the history of one of the world’s most cultivated food plants—Zea mays, also known as corn or maize—to account for how scientists and states have pursued the conservation of crop diversity over the past 100 years. Of the many questions addressed in the book, one in particular demands attention, and it relates to the master narrative in which crop diversity is in relentless, inexorable decline. If this account isn’t always a good reflection of what’s happening in the world, then where did it come from? And why has it proved so powerful?

Endangered Maize reveals interests and concerns that are often obscured, and sometimes deliberately masked, by overly generalized declensionist tales. It highlights in particular how early conservationists forged their methods for preserving crop plants—their modes of collecting, classification systems, storage technologies, negotiation tactics—around expectations of social, political, and economic transformations that would eliminate diverse human communities and cultures. 

For example, in the 1910s, corn experts who hoped to study or sell Native American maize varieties undertook crash collecting missions at reservations, convinced that Native communities were doomed to extinction—and their corn, too, unless it was collected and maintained by settler scientists and seed sellers. In the 1940s and ’50s, agricultural development programs in Latin America sought to transform “traditional” peasant farmers—often Indigenous peoples—into “modern” cultivators complete with “modern” seeds and methods. Agricultural researchers participated in and celebrated these programs. They based their plans for new scientist-led conservation in seed banks on the expectation that “traditional” and Indigenous seeds would, like their cultivators, disappear.  

Until the 1970s, few attempted to resist the idea that farmers identified as traditional, peasant, or Indigenous would or must be transformed into so-called modern farmers or—far more likely—be displaced from their land by those with more money and power. As many accounts have shown, the result of top-down agricultural development was often human catastrophe. 

Several factors justified urgent interventions such as salvaging endangered varieties for seed bank storage. Conservationists introduced technical concepts such as the “genetic erosion” of crop species, constructed an ever-greater number of cold-storage facilities for seeds, and discussed abstract imperatives such as enhancing global food security. These concepts and tools allowed conservationists to ignore those seeds’ originators—typically peasant and Indigenous farmers whose lives and livelihoods were made precarious in the race to “modernize” agriculture.

Understanding this history is crucial. Whenever conservationists today rely on inherited ideas, tools, and strategies without questioning how and why they came to be, they risk perpetuating outdated narratives and, worse, the politics embedded within those narratives. 

So where should they, and all of us, begin anew when it comes to ensuring a future in which diverse crops—and diverse farmers—flourish? One place to start is in rethinking the master narrative of inevitable extinction. Rather than warning of irreversible loss, we can focus on those farmers who still experiment with their seeds and thereby sustain the evolution and adaptation of crop species. Or, we can support public breeders in restoring diversity from seed banks to field crops, work that remains woefully underfunded. And instead of only highlighting imminent destruction, we can emphasize the resilient crops and communities that survive despite decades of political and economic interventions aimed at their erasure—and invest our energy and resources in their regeneration and growth. 

We are so immersed in threat and endangerment with respect to the future of crop diversity that, as the historian Courtney Fullilove observes, “It’s hard to conceive of a style of preservation that eludes the[se] specters.” But we can and should try.

Helen Anne Curry is an associate professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge in the UK. Read an excerpt of Endangered Maize.

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