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Seeds for Survival: A Global History of Seed Banking

September 2016 – October 2017

Since the 1960s, governments, international organizations, NGOs, and private philanthropies have invested heavily in the conservation of genetic diversity in plant species, especially agricultural crops. The most visible marker of this investment has been the proliferation of 'seed banks', institutions dedicated to the collection and preservation of seeds. These serve as permanent repositories for the world's vast genetic diversity in food crops and, increasingly, its diversity in wild plants as well.

This project investigates the history of seed banking as a global conservation practice and human health imperative. Through this project, we seek to understand: how the genetic diversity of plant species came to be seen as a critical but imperilled resource essential to human survival; how seed banks came to be seen as the obvious solution to the threat of losing such diversity; and the consequences of these ideas – and the institutions and activities they inspired – for global food security and human well being in the present.

This work has been supported by the Wellcome Trust, the Rockefeller Archive Center and the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge.

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Publications

'From Working Collections to the World Germplasm Project: Agricultural Modernization and Genetic Conservation at the Rockefeller Foundation', forthcoming, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, special issue on 'New Perspectives in the History of the Twentieth Century Life Sciences', ed. Kärin Nikelson and Robert Meunier.

'Breeding Uniformity and Banking Diversity: The Genescapes of Industrial Agriculture, 1935–1970', forthcoming, Global Environment, special issue on 'Manufacturing Landscapes: Nature and Technology in Environmental History', ed. Helmuth Trischler and Donald Worster.