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The Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST) at the University of Toronto is pleased to announce a

 Job Talk

 Endangered Maize: Indigenous Corn, Industrial Agriculture, and the Specter of Extinction


Helen Curry

Date: Monday, March 5, 2018
Time: 10:00 a.m. to 12 noon
Location: Alumni Hall (VC 112), 1st floor, Victoria College, 91 Charles Street West, University of Toronto


Today many people in different contexts, from plant geneticists to Indigenous farmers to industrial agriculturists, agree that the corn they tend is endangered. In this talk, I explore how a crop as dominant in global production as corn (or maize; Zea mays) has come to be seen as vulnerable and the subject of diverse conservation activities. I chart the early emergence of concerns about corn’s vulnerability and responses to these concerns through two examples: the collection and sale of “Indian corn” in the US northwest by the Oscar H. Will seed company in the early 1900s and the ambitious pan-American seed banking initiative of the Committee on Preservation of Indigenous Strains of Maize in the 1950s. In both cases, the growth of industrial agriculture fostered new appreciation of the diversity of earlier corn varieties as resources for expanding production. Yet those earlier corn varieties were by and large in the possession of Indigenous farmers, individuals whose communities and ways of life were thought to be fast disappearing. As I show, those who sought to conserve potentially valuable corn varieties were aware of and reliant on the knowledge of Indigenous peoples—and attempted to render this knowledge inessential to their work. I suggest that the history of these early corn conservation efforts, along with the contestation of their methods and assumptions in subsequent decades, offers a new vantage point from which to evaluate contemporary debates about the management of agro-biodiversity.

Dr. Helen Curry is Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. Her research expertise lies in the history of recent science and technology, especially biotechnology, agricultural sciences, and conservation biology, while her teaching experience encompasses a wide range of subjects in the history and sociology of twentieth and twenty-first century science and technology.