Seeds are more than simply vessels for commodity-crop DNA; they are repositories of human history. This is Courtney Fullilove’s central message in this book about the evolution of Americans’ perceptions and practices regarding collection and preservation of seed. Fullilove shows how custodians of seeds, including nineteenth-century government officials at the US Patent Office and twenty-first century scientists in Norway’s Global Seed Vault, created germplasm catalogs that erased sociocultural histories of agricultural laborers. Stripped of these histories, seeds became static “products of nature rather than artifacts of accumulated knowledge and technological practice” (p. 65). Showing how scholars might read seeds as historical objects is the primary objective of this provocative and well-researched book that draws on diverse archival resources as well as field investigations in Armenia, Syria, and beyond. In Part I, “Collection,” Fullilove begins in the belly of the US Patent Office, a place that once served as America’s first seed bank. In the mid-nineteenth century, this Washington, D.C., agency housed seeds and plants collected overseas by participants in US naval expeditions. But according to Fullilove, the US Patent Office adopted a collection strategy that vastly reduced the informational data stored in seeds. Patent officials cataloging germplasm privileged “point of geographic origin,” not the cultural and social history of the communities that used particular seeds (p. 66). In doing so, expeditionary plant collectors and state officials “render[ed] non-Western and indigenous progenitors invisible as sources of technical knowledge” (p. 65). For many years, US Patent Office officials did not treat plant and seed collections as valuable commercial commodities. As Fullilove explains, “Perhaps ironically, the Patent Office, a temple to private property rights in invention, adopted a model of public research and free circulation of specimens that persisted in the autonomous USDA [US Department of Agriculture],” which took over this collection in 1861 (p. 44). Nevertheless, she points out that that the USDA ultimately saw seeds as “instruments of national growth,” funding extension service programs and other initiatives that promoted profitable commodity-crop production (p. 44). Thus although the US government did not officially sanction plant patenting until the passage of the Plant Patent Act of 1930, USDA officials were actively transforming germplasm from cultural artifacts into capitalist commodities beginning in the Gilded Age. The second and third parts of the book, “Migration” and “Preservation,” largely focus on ecological transformations wrought by the introduction of “Turkey wheat” in America’s Great Plains by Mennonite migrants in the nineteenth century (p. 11). Fullilove explores the international origins of America’s “amber waves of grain,” showing how German Mennonites who came from parts of southern Russia to the United States helped create the country’s breadbasket (p. 99). Fullilove challenges the idea that the potency of their wheat seed was what allowed them to be successful, detailing how accumulated “wealth, privilege, and property” gave them advantages over other pioneering families (p. 11). She then questions whether the proliferation of wheat on the plains was in fact progress, detailing how monocrop grain cultivation eliminated habitat for native flora used by Native American communities to treat a variety of health problems. Scholars interested in the history of weeds will find this section interesting, as she details the “marginalization of botanic medicine at the turn of the century, as large-scale agricultural development altered ecosystems and lay knowledge about domestic plants” (p. 153). The book’s subtitle, “The Global Seeds of American Agriculture,” suggests an expansive and comprehensive examination of America’s major commodity crops, but Fullilove’s work is ultimately much narrower in focus. It largely deals with one variety of wheat. Scholars interested in the history of maize cultivation, for example, will find little here, nor will business historians discover detailed accounts of early seed businesses. A complementary text that offers a much broader examination of plant breeding and international seed markets is Noel Kingsbury’s Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). Despite more modest deliverables than the book’s title promises, Fullilove’s work fits well with other transnational environmental histories that seek to illustrate America’s dependency on communities far beyond our borders. In an age in which the political slogan “America First” has gained widespread appeal, Fullilove’s research suggests that agricultural sustainability will involve recognizing our indebtedness to migrant communities that created the agricultural heritage on which we now feed. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 8, 2018
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