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Breeding uniformity and banking diversity: The genescapes of industrial agriculture, 1935-1970

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In the mid-twentieth century, American agriculturists began to fret about a growing threat to key economic crops: the loss or extinction of manifold local varieties, or landraces, resulting from the displacement of these in cultivation by recently introduced varieties that were better suited for industrial-style agriculture. Many breeders considered diverse landraces to be a valuable, and indeed essential, source of genetic material for their crop improvement efforts - and therefore an essential resource for the very system of agricultural production that appeared to threaten their continued existence. This paper explores how knowledge of this dilemma - that is, the reliance of industrial agriculture on genetic diversity that it tends to destroy - shaped efforts to conserve biological diversity and simultaneously shaped the landscapes and genescapes of twentieth-century agriculture. It takes maize (corn) as its central example, as it was changes in the landscapes of maize production, first in the United States and then across Latin America, which spurred an early international collaboration for the preservation of crop genetic diversity. As it shows with reference to this program and subsequent international developments in the conservation of crop diversity, the technology of the 'seed bank' was considered a crucial addition to the technologies of industrial agricultural production. It was understood to allow breeders to continue responsibly in the creation of high-yielding but ecologically vulnerable inbred crops by lessening the perceived risks inherent in the un-diverse landscapes of industrial monocrop agriculture.
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Keywords: biodiversity; genetic conservation; industrial agriculture; maize; seed bank

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 April 2017

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  • The half-yearly journal Global Environment: A Journal of History and Natural and Social Sciences acts as a forum and echo chamber for ongoing studies on the environment and world history, with special focus on modern and contemporary topics. Our intent is to gather and stimulate scholarship that, despite a diversity of approaches and themes, shares an environmental perspective on world history in its various facets, including economic development, social relations, production government, and international relations.
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