Sunday, February 6, 2022

Helen Anne Curry's "Endangered Maize"

Helen Anne Curry is an associate professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, and a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge. She researches and teaches the history of recent science and technology, especially as it relates to food and agriculture.

Since August 2020, Curry has led the project From Collection to Cultivation, funded by the Wellcome Trust. This team of researchers is re-writing the histories of how today’s food crops came to be.

Curry applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Endangered Maize: Industrial Agriculture and the Crisis of Extinction, and reported the following:
Open Endangered Maize to page 99 and you'll encounter a bit of background on an important institution in the history of efforts to conserve crop genetic diversity. After pinpointing the late 1950s as the period in which a new coordinated international response to concerns about the extinction of some crop varieties began to take shape, I introduce the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as a key site of this coordination. Since it is the first time I discuss FAO, I offer readers a brief account of its early history:
Founded in October 1945, the FAO was tasked with bettering human nutrition, food production and distribution, and rural living conditions. The years leading up to FAO’s founding had seen world leaders increasingly accept adequate diet as a human right and an issue deserving of international action. During World War II the Allies had gone so far as to erect “freedom from want” as one of the pillars they envisioned for the postwar world, and FAO took shape as a means to ensure this freedom. The first FAO director general was the Scottish nutritionist John Boyd Orr, who initially advocated direct interventions to address hunger. Boyd Orr wanted to reorganize commodity markets, deliver emergency food relief, and devise credit schemes to foster agricultural development. These ambitions were quickly curtailed, not least by officials from the United States, who wanted to promote free markets, retain food aid as a means of influencing foreign governments, and disperse grain surpluses in ways that benefited US farmers. Thanks in part to US obstruction, and that of the United Kingdom too, FAO never received the funding or powers it needed to tackle hunger head-on, as Boyd Orr and others imagined. In its early decades its role was limited to offering technical assistance and compiling statistics.
On a straightforward reading, the Page 99 Test does not work: the book's central actors (scientists, activists, and farmers) and concerns (the long-term safeguarding of "traditional" crop varieties) are largely absent. Although the text identifies FAO as an institution central to both, the information here develops a general picture of the context in which conservation took place. By comparison the book's key contribution lies in detailed reconstructions of how and why diverse individuals and institutions came to be interested in saving seeds. I follow seeds, crops, and people on globe-spanning journeys—and none of this comes through on page 99.

Yet considered from another angle the test works as well as could be hoped. The history of FAO encapsulates the broader history of postwar agricultural aid. The second half of the twentieth century saw successive failed attempts to resolve global hunger by advocating technical interventions rather than, for example, controlling markets or initiating land reform. Experts dispatched from foreign aid offices, philanthropic institutions, and international bodies like FAO urged new seeds, farm equipment, and chemical inputs on farmers and encouraged governments to facilitate the industries that would produce these products. The result was decidedly mixed. Today accounts either celebrate or decry a process of agricultural industrialization that unfolded across parts of Asia and Latin America as "the Green Revolution." There could hardly be a starker illustration of contingency of this trajectory than the FAO being denied the opportunity in the 1940s to intervene directly in markets for staple foods or take other direct action to alleviate hunger.

This trajectory of aid also determined how and why seeds of farmers' heterogeneous local varieties—hundreds of thousands of strains of maize, wheat, potatoes, rice, and more—first came to be salvaged and set aside for long-term preservation. These "traditional" varieties were considered the "genetic resources" needed by professional breeders to develop ever-better "modern" varieties. They were necessary for the delivery of technical aid and as products of private agribusiness, rather than resources to directly sustain farmers, their families, and their communities. This outcome too was contingent. Readers of Endangered Maize will understand what other options were—and are—available to those who want not just to save seeds but to seed justice.
Visit Helen Anne Curry's website.

--Marshal Zeringue