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Endangered genes and the International Seed Bank: conserving crop diversity after the Green Revolution

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In this talk I will explore the history of efforts to conserve genetic diversity in crop plants, focusing on a pivotal moment in the early 1970s when the perceived endangerment of this diversity reached new heights. The late 1960s saw a succession of “high yielding varieties”, especially of wheat and rice, sweep across regions of Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. This process was assumed to entail the rapid displacement, and potentially irrecoverable loss, of landraces (local varieties) of those same crops and all the genetic potential they contained within them. Although early conservation strategizing focused on the unification of scattered and mostly dysfunctional national and regional seed banks into an international operation with strict oversight, competing visions of conservation followed in rapid succession. Here I elaborate briefly on three alternative instruments proposed in the 1970s: data generation, community seed banks, and participatory breeding. As becomes apparent in the comparison, these varied approaches assumed different vulnerabilities of and threats to crop diversity.

This talk is part of the Political Ecology Group meetings series.

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