Endangered Maize: Industrial Agriculture and the Crisis of Extinction

Over the past century, crop varieties standardized for industrial agriculture have increasingly dominated farm fields. Many people worry that we’re losing genetic diversity in the foods we eat.

Concerned about what this transition means for the future of food, scientists, farmers, and eaters have sought to protect fruits, grains, and vegetables they consider endangered. They have organized high-tech genebanks and heritage seed swaps. They have combed fields for ancient landraces and sought farmers growing Indigenous varieties. Behind this widespread concern for the loss of plant diversity lies another extinction narrative that concerns the survival of farmers themselves, a story that is often obscured by urgent calls to collect and preserve. Endangered Maize draws on the rich history of corn in Mexico and the United States to uncover this hidden narrative and show how it shaped the conservation strategies adopted by scientists, states, and citizens.

In Endangered Maize, historian Helen Anne Curry investigates more than a hundred years of agriculture and conservation practices to understand the tasks that farmers and researchers have considered essential to maintaining crop diversity. Through the contours of efforts to preserve diversity in one of the world’s most important crops, Curry reveals how those who sought to protect native, traditional, and heritage crops forged their methods around the expectation that social, political, and economic transformations would eliminate diverse communities and cultures. In this fascinating study of how cultural narratives shape science, Curry argues for new understandings of endangerment and alternative strategies to protect and preserve crop diversity.

Praise for Endangered Maize

“Maize seems to have found its best biographer in Helen Anne Curry. Other grains will be envious. Endangered Maize is a well-nigh comprehensive and nuanced account of the genetic, social, and agronomic career of this cultivar and its fraught future. It avoids all the clichés. Elegantly written, deeply informed, and technically meticulous.”

—James C. Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Professor of Anthropology, Yale University

“In this sweeping history, Helen Anne Curry does the great service of uncovering the money, the philanthro-capitalism, and the imperial assumptions behind doctrines of endangerment. Her solution demands a democratic transformation in the configurations of power that license the conservation business and its contemporary catastrophist narratives. But that’s as it should be. As she amply demonstrates, Indigenous and peasant stewardship of maize has long subverted the policing of genetic purity that state and capital have imposed.”

—Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System

“Curry’s story of maize is a fresh, provocative, and sharply argued critique of the plant genetic scarcity myth. Her keen assessment of agribusiness machinations is one of the best ever.”

—Deborah Fitzgerald, author of Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture

“Curry’s book is an engaging, thought-provoking, carefully researched history of maize varietal collections, classification, and breeding projects. By exploring shifts in the narratives about maize varietal diversity over time, and in different contexts, this book raises compelling questions about how we understand and measure biodiversity more broadly.”

—Elizabeth Fitting, author of The Struggle for Maize: Campesinos, Workers, and Transgenic Corn in the Mexican Countryside

About the Author

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, she’s 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. Follow her on Twitter at @hacurry.