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Banks, Bunkers, and Backup: Securing Crop Diversity from the Cold War through the Internet Age

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Present-day efforts to preserve endangered crop varieties emphasize “safety duplication”—a strategy better known as backup—as an essential step in conservation. Important collections of seeds or other plant genetic materials are copied, in whole or part, and sent to physically distant sites to provide security in the case of local disaster. This talk traces the history of seed banking to understand how, why and with what consequences copying collections came to occupy this central place. The intertwined histories of the central long-term seed storage facility of the United States (opened in 1958) and the international seed conservation system developed in the 1970s reveal how changing conceptions of security, linked to changing economic, political and technological circumstances, transformed both the guiding metaphors and the practices of seed conservation. Seed banking gave way to seed backup: whereas early long-term cold storage facilities vested security in robust infrastructures and the capacities of professional staff, between the 1960s and 1990s, this configuration gave way to one in which security was situated in copies rather than capacities. This history ultimately raises questions about the security promised and achieved through present-day infrastructures for crop genetic resources conservation.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Philosophical Society series.

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