Demystifying Agriculture's Past Can Help Us Adapt to an Uncertain Future

Posted April 17, 2023

The future of crop diversity, biotechnologies, and food security presents pressing concerns for researchers, policymakers, businesses, and consumers worldwide. Understanding the history of agriculture can help them prepare for a changing and uncertain future, says Helen Anne Curry, the Kranzberg Professor of the History of Technology in the School of History and Sociology.

“To pursue sustainability moving forward — to adapt to climate change, to address issues of global equity and structural racism — requires that we pay attention to agricultural systems,” Curry says. “And efforts to address the social and ecological sustainability of how we farm and eat must start from a clear understanding of the past, especially the recent past. Agriculture has changed so much in the past 50 years, and knowledge of what has changed and why will be critical in how we plan for doing things differently.”

Curry is a historian of science and technology whose research focuses on the history of food and agriculture. She studies the history of crop diversity and efforts to conserve it.

In a new paper, she examines how activists have used compelling historical examples to successfully mobilize against genetic technologies, the expansion of intellectual property in crop varieties, and the consolidation of corporate ownership in food and agriculture. Curry found it intriguing that one crop's history has been an influential resource at so many different junctures, and began to study the effects of its widespread use.


One Crop’s Outsized Influence

Until the 1930s, farmers growing corn in the United States typically saved seeds that resulted from one harvest to plant the following year’s crop. However, the introduction of F1 hybrid corn seeds changed all that. The new seeds — produced through recombining distinct and often proprietary lines — helped farmers grow more corn. But they also required farmers to return to purchase seeds year after year rather than save and regrow their own.

The change reshaped American farm fields as farmers transitioned to the new corn seeds, abandoning more diverse local varieties in pursuit of higher yields. Meanwhile, seed companies gained power and profits and eagerly sought to replicate the success of hybrid corn seed in other crops.

Thanks to its association with the industrialization of farms and seed production as well as the loss of crop diversity, hybrid corn would prove to be a powerful cautionary tale for the further privatization of seed development and all forms of genetic technology that followed.

For example, as Curry shares in her paper, activists “coined an evocative and enduring label for a subset of biotechnologies that involved genetic barriers to seed saving (‘terminator’ seeds), again explaining the function of such seeds through a comparison to F1 hybrid corn. Using hybrid seeds to mobilize concern about ‘genetically modified’ and ‘terminator’ seeds proved effective – so effective that today many people fail to see meaningful differences between these categories of seed and stand steadfastly in opposition to them all.”

The simplified history of hybrid corn, which activists still use to illustrate the dangers of new crops and new genetic technologies, has helped shape an increasingly pervasive understanding that plant breeding, in general, is a negative thing, Curry says.

"This is perhaps especially true in seed saving and heritage food movements, conversations I'm very much a part myself," she adds. "We privilege heritage and heirloom vegetables or grains, and there's a thought sometimes that a pedigree outside of recent plant breeding or crop science means a more desirable plant."


Proliferation of a Negative Narrative — and the Importance of Plant Breeding

Such attitudes could have the unintended consequence of undermining public support for breeding programs beyond industry, Curry warns.

"If you're interested in diversifying the food system so that it's not just a few companies with this incredible control over what we eat, then you should want greater public investment in plant breeding. You should be advocating for research and development that addresses the needs of diverse farmers, consumers, and ecologies — including needs that are not solely reducible to maximizing profit," Curry says.

Public investment that leads to new crop varieties as public goods could open new horizons for molecular genetic technologies, which to date have been used chiefly to benefit corporations and not farmers or consumers, she adds.

"Plant breeders have extraordinary tools at their disposal, but by and large, they have not been able to work in contexts where these can be deployed to address the world’s most pressing needs,” Curry says.


More Diverse Research for More Biodiversity

Curry’s work is another example of how researchers in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts engage across communities and disciplines, using social science lenses to help advance technology and improve lives.

In addition to her recent work on the histories of crop diversity conservation and hybrid seeds, Curry also leads a team of researchers exploring the multifaceted history of modern agricultural research. The five-year Collection to Cultivation project, funded by the Wellcome Trust and based at the University of Cambridge, is “re-writing the history of how today’s food crops came to be” by expanding the scope of storytelling around seed science and agricultural technologies.

Traditionally, histories of innovation in crop plants — whether corn, wheat, apples, or any of the hundreds of plants central to contemporary diets — have emphasized the contributions of plant breeders and the importance of genetic recombinations.

However, Curry’s project works from the notion that a much wider set of research activities underpins crop development and is critical to understanding our recent agricultural history. These activities range from searching for wild relatives of domesticated crops to building seed banks that store and circulate crop diversity to orchestrating plant health infrastructures that ensure disease-free exchange of seeds. 

“Historians of science and agriculture haven't necessarily thought systematically across those domains,” Curry says. “One reason is the prominence of the science of genetics in the 20th and 21st centuries. Our histories have followed other institutions in privileging genetics as the site of greatest interest.”

Intellectual property rights go to those who create successful genetic modifications through their expertise in plant breeding, which makes them influential within the larger food system and natural subjects for historians.


Creating Opportunities, Fostering Agricultural Diversity

Curry’s research aims to rebalance this focus on breeding and genetics.

"There's a whole research system around crop development that we need to invest more public dollars in, nationally and internationally. If my research team can participate in calling attention to its importance as historians, we can also contribute to an argument for how to better support research moving forward," Curry says.

Curry keeps returning to the question of how to foster research trajectories that support diverse cultural and economic needs and increased agricultural diversity.

“It's about creating opportunities for a greater number of actors within the agricultural research system,” Curry says. “We're not going to foster diversity if this work is left to corporations pursuing a bottom line."

"I support global activism in defense of food sovereignty and against ownership of plant genetic resources," Curry says. "I think it's essential to slow the behemoths of agro-industry and to address environmental issues, social justice, and global equity in relation to food and agriculture. And I think histories that grapple better with the complexities of hybrid corn and other ‘modern’ crops can help us do that." 

Curry's paper, "Breeding Confusion: Hybrid Seeds and Histories of Agriculture," was published on March 1, 2023, in The Journal of Peasant Studies. It is available at

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