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From Collection to Cultivation

A photograph of maize cobs

Lead researcher: Helen Anne Curry

This book project was supported from 2017–2020 by Helen Anne Curry's CRASSH Pro Futura Scientia Fellowship.

Since the late nineteenth century, an ever-expanding consensus has emerged—among scientists, policymakers, farmers, eaters—about the diminishing biological diversity of the plants we grow for food. This idea has spawned eclectic and sometimes contradictory efforts to protect crop varieties understood as endangered, distinct undertakings that are nonetheless bound together by an unwavering insistence on endangerment and loss.

The book project Endangered Maize: Industrial Agriculture and the Crisis of Extinction explored the history of maize cultivation to trace the origins of and motivations behind accounts of diversity's loss, and to show how these shaped the methods and tools of conservation adopted by scientists and states. This research reveals interests and concerns that are often obscured, or deliberately masked, by simple declensionist tales. It shows how 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 communities and cultures. 

In revising the history of today's conservation toolkit, the project contributes to new understandings of endangerment and alternative strategies to protect and preserve crop diversity.


Helen Anne Curry, Endangered Maize: Indigenous Corn, Industrial Agriculture and the Crisis of Extinction (University of California Press, 2022)

Helen Anne Curry, 'Breeding Confusion: Hybrid Seeds and Histories of Agriculture', The Journal of Peasant Studies 50, no. 3 (2023): 1037–1055.

Helen Anne Curry, 'Hybrid Seeds in History and Historiography', Isis 113, no. 3 (September 2022): 610–617. [OA Repository.]

Helen Anne Curry. 'Taxonomy, Race Science, and Mexican Maize.' Isis 112, no. 1 (2021).

Helen Anne Curry, 'From Working Collections to the World Germplasm Project: Agricultural Modernization and Genetic Conservation at the Rockefeller Foundation'History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 39, no. 5 (June 2017), special issue on 'New Perspectives in the History of the Twentieth Century Life Sciences', ed. Kärin Nickelsen and Robert Meunier. [OA Repository.]

Helen Anne Curry, 'Breeding Uniformity and Banking Diversity: The Genescapes of Industrial Agriculture, 1935–1970'Global Environment 10, no. 1 (April 2017), special issue on 'Manufacturing Landscapes: Nature and Technology in Environmental History', ed. Helmuth Trischler and Don Worster. [OA Repository.]