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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge
March 2017: Meet Dr Helen Anne Curry

Helen Anne Curry is an historian of science who is fascinated with biology and biotechnology.

Her research relies on engagement with experts across the Cambridge Global Food Security Initiative community, from plant scientists, to conservationists, to archaeobotanists. She has just received a Wellcome Trust Seed Award to investigate the global history of seed banking, a practice that enables the conservation of genetic diversity through the collection and preservation of seeds.


Q: What’s the point of your research?

A: I’m beginning a project that will explore the global history of seed banking, especially of agricultural plants, to understand how our current conservation system came into being. I want to know how and why people became concerned about the loss of genetic diversity in crop plants, what solutions they debated, and why they decided on the ones that they did. One solution that has been especially important is the creation of seed banks - massive collections of genetic material stored as seed – which scientists and others have been trying to coordinate at an international level since the 1960s.

Q: What will you do with the Wellcome Trust Seed Award?

A:  This award supports me, along with a postdoctoral research associate Sara Peres, in exploring which individuals and institutions will be important case studies for understanding the global history of seed banking, in particular from the 1940s onwards. This will lay the groundwork for a bigger project. As a historian I can’t tell the story without primary source materials, such as institutional records and personal papers, so an important task is identifying where materials have been saved.

The Wellcome Trust funding will allow us to visit the archives of different sorts of organisations involved in seed banking, from grassroots, to national, to large international institutes. I've already been to the archives at the World Bank in the US, which was important in the early coordination of a global international seed network, and in a few weeks I’m going to the US National Seed Storage Laboratory, in Colorado. I’ll also be travelling to India to visit Navdanya, which organises seed saving amongst farmers and community groups, and to various other places. The funding will also support an international workshop, bringing together historians and sociologists of science working on seed banking in the past and present.

Q: What will you be looking at on these trips?

A: I don’t go to look at the seeds - although that’s also interesting! Sara and I are interested in the documentation that accompanies the collections at various sites. We've been told that the Commonwealth Potato Collection, for example, has documentation about where different parts of the collection came from, who collected them, where and when, and how the collection has changed over time. It also has the letters, notebooks and maps of the original collectors. That means it's likely to be a particularly rich place to investigate the practices of collecting, the motivations and interests of the people who were choosing to save certain things and not others, and the correspondence between the central institute and people in the field.

Q: How is this relevant to food security today?

A: Plant breeders depend on the genetic diversity of crop plants in order to develop new varieties, for example varieties that are resistant to emerging insect pests, that can tolerate drought, or that do well under changing climatic conditions. Fundamentally the work of saving crop genetic diversity is a future-oriented activity; we understand it to be essential for creating the crop plants of tomorrow, to provide food for the world.

Q: What’s the most interesting thing about your research?

A: I find it amazing how seeds travel. For example, I've worked in the archives of an early American seed company, the Oscar Will Seed Company of North Dakota. In the early 1900s the owner used to visit a local American Indian reservation to get corn varieties he could sell in his catalogue as locally adapted and therefore hardier varieties. Today at the US Department of Agriculture maize collection in the US, seeds from the varieties sold by the Oscar Will Seed Company are amongst the oldest accessions in the collection. Successfully conserved, these have in turn become varieties of interest to American Indian tribes searching for the crops of their cultures and communities, as well as to the heirloom grower community in the US. Seeing these movements and the connections between different communities is incredible. It makes you really appreciate the differing importance of the same crops to different communities.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?

A: The kinds of things I've researched as a historian aren’t necessarily mainstream topics, even within the history of science. When I was first looking for a job, and worried about this, one of my supervisors advised me just to be myself. He meant that in terms of my research - trusting myself to follow the stories I found interesting, and that I knew I could be interested in long enough to complete a large-scale research project on. You have to both trust yourself, and be yourself.

Q: Where do you have your best ideas?

A: In conversation with other people, often people who aren’t historians of science. In this seed banking project it’s incredible talking to people who are passionate about conservation. Their infectious enthusiasm for what they do gives me all sorts of new ideas about the kinds of stories I can tell through this history, and why it really matters to tell these stories.

Q: What is your favourite research tool?

A: It’s the archival materials that are crucial for my work – the kinds of documents that tell you about individuals’ lives, the decisions they made and the challenges they faced. The kind of history I write depends on understanding motivations at that scale. It’s not really a tool, but that’s the kind of resource I’m always searching for more of.

Q: What drives you to do this research?

A: The people. It’s about humanising something as big and inhuman as global industrial agriculture. I’m really interested in what drove people to do things; the values and hopes they attached to the things we tend to box off as ‘scientific decisions’. Why did some people in 1905 start worrying about German landraces disappearing? Why did some people conceive of a certain method – like storing seeds in a bank – as the best solution, while others got behind the idea that things need to be grown in a field and kept in cultivation year after year? Understanding individual decision-making can really bring you to a different kind of understanding about the big institutions and systems we live within. It helps to show how what each of us does in our daily lives might matter.


Dr Curry is the Peter Lipton Lecturer in History of Modern Science and Technology in the University of Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science. She has just published her first book, Evolution Made to Order: Plant Breeding and Technological Innovation in Twentieth Century America (University of Chicago Press).