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.

Show Notes

2:23 | What is the “endangerment narrative”?

Key quote:
“There’s a whole history to the stories that we tell about what makes things endangered, what makes crops in danger of disappearing, that changes over time. These stories can tell us things about race, about imperialism… We have created a story about endangerment and it’s up to us to decide what elements of that story really are helpful.”

6:11 | Origins of endangerment in the early history of industrial agriculture

Helen situates the endangerment narrative in the early days of plant breeding in the late 19th century. The new science and practice of breeding “modern varieties” of crops created a paradox in which farmers were encouraged to abandon their old varieties, but breeders also became fearful that those “traditional” varieties (which they used to create new ones) would disappear.

Key quote:
“So you have breeders producing evermore predictable uniform varieties on the one hand, and then you have farmers abandoning the more diverse heterogeneous things that grew in different spaces, as well. And that’s the kernel of the early extinction narrative.”

14:35 | Endangerment as an outgrowth of settler colonialist & racist assumptions

The advance of settler colonialist agriculture in the Americas creates a sense of urgency around collecting or “salvaging” Native seeds before Indigenous communities inevitably (in the colonialist worldview) disappear.

Key quotes:
“Even though often not explicit, the endangerment narrative about crops has always been tied up with ideas about human communities disappearing or being transformed out of existence. So often the conservation work has focused on the plants, on the crops, on the seeds while assuming that the inevitable trajectory for their cultivators is one of disappearance.”

“[Native seed collections] were extracted from communities who didn’t receive the resources that they could have used to continue to develop their agriculture, to expand on the diversity that they already possessed. You then see how different people over the decades weren’t thinking about what it means to assume certain farmers will disappear—and the violence that is a part of that.”

19:01 | Defining ex situ (off site) vs. in situ (on site) seed conservation

What are the differences between these two conservation approaches and are they compatible? Helen talks about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic, calling it the “world’s sexiest seed bank” vs. the community seed bank model, which emerged in the 1980s.

Key quote:
“In situ conservation involves seeds being in the soil and cultivated and there being a relationship between the farmer and the diversity that we want to see conserved… as opposed to a relationship between a technician and a seed bank, which would be the kind of human-plant relationships more common in ex situ conservation.”

24:08 | Does diversity change and evolve over time? Is crop diversity inevitably declining or can we think about crop diversity increasing?

Helen talks about the difference between seeds being “frozen in time” in a gene bank vs. seeds being constantly transformed by farmers and environmental changes when preserved in the field. She also discusses how seeds conserved ex situ tend to select for seeds that “store well” (as opposed to having other desirable traits).

Key quote:
“I do think with respect to crop diversity, it does make sense to think of the possibilities of generating new diversity and making sure that communities have the resources and the support that they need to continue developing crops.”

28:00 | Crisis thinking & crisis narratives

Do narratives about endangerment or imminent crisis “block thought” and lead to hasty interventions that gloss over the interests of communities?

Key quotes:
“The fixation on the imminent crisis forestalled conversations about equity, about justice, about the troubling circumstances facing farmers in communities in many parts of the world.”

“If we can back off crisis talk even just a bit, does that create space for thinking in a more measured way about what it would take to make sure that justice is served as well as conservation achieved?”

34:03 | The story of glass gem corn

Helen shares the story of glass gem corn—the corn that broke the internet—and what it tells us about diversity and conservation.

Key quote:
“What I really like about the story of glass gem corn is that we so often have stories about varieties nearly lost and recovered in their historic form, seemingly unchanged, but here’s a kind of heirloom variety, a celebration of crop diversity that’s about something new, something different, about someone experimenting, tinkering, mixing—about a creative act.”

37:15 | Difference between conventional and food sovereignty approaches to seed conservation

Key quote:
“Seed sovereignty and the idea that it’s important for communities to have control over and the ability to develop seeds of culturally important crops, to feed themselves, and to sustain their communities… is conservation that puts the possibilities for human futures at their center.”

Additional Resources

To learn more about Helen Anne Curry, visit  http://www.helenannecurry.com/ 

Follow Helen on Twitter: @hacurry 

“Op-ed: Saving Heirloom Seeds Can Protect Crop Diversity” by Helen Anne Curry, Civil Eats, January 27, 2022

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Episode Credits

Host: Tanya Kerssen

Co-Producers: Tanya Kerssen and Tiffani Patton

Editor: Jaime Roque