Plants: From Roots to Riches episodes 2-16: I trust you’ve all been listening!
It’s turning out to be an increasingly interesting series. Motivations for the scientific work discussed in each episode have revolved around collection, organisation, and the improvement of the world. These are topics that can be further illuminated by some of the most recent and ground breaking work in the history and philosophy of science. Those of you who are enjoying the series might want to try John Pickstone’s Ways of Knowing, which is always a rewarding read, and draws together the above themes in an exciting and very ambitious way. On this blog we will be focussing on the ways in which agriculture has featured so far in the programme, which is often (whoop!) but not always necessarily very nuanced (boo!) The really important thing however, is that you are all being drawn into these issues through history and biology in tandem. This is a cornerstone of the Cultivating Innovation mission, so BBC, Kathy Willis, and Jim Endersby, we salute you!
There is a great deal here worth unpacking, though this post is purely dedicated to the most important point to make (one which was no doubt in Endersby’s mind during the interview), which is - there are plenty of people around the world who think more or less just like this.
Within the group of people classed 'scientist', there are perhaps fewer who think like this who actually work in those sciences directly engaged with agricultural development, disciplines that have attracted a good deal of scrutiny from researchers outside of those sciences, many voicing considerable concern (to put it mildly) with the results of such development programmes. Bringing our biology and history together; the enclosure acts were not just ‘the most sensible thing to do’, they were definitive political actions, with social and economic consequences hotly debated to this day. We cannot simply hold up Banks as a visionary reformer (which was by no means the point of the Roots to Riches programme, though neither did it make these subsequent cautionary points), without knowing the assumptions his ideas were based upon (so that we might assess them), and without knowing the history of their consequences (so that we might assess them). Sabine Clarke is an historian currently taking the history of development programmes, and the histories of the disciplines that pursue them, very seriously indeed, most recently in a project on cane sugar production soon to be released as a book. More specifically on the plant breeding side of things, of particular inspiration for Cultivating Innovation has been Jonathan Harwood’s Europe’s Green Revolution and Others Since: The Rise and Fall of Peasant-Friendly Plant Breeding. Using the case study of Germany in the nineteenth century, Harwood draws out the ways in which different kinds of plant breeding system are more or less encouraging to different kinds of industrial system, and thus to different kinds of farming (some requiring much wealth, some requiring very little). To make the point very simply: scientists and politicians have had designs on nature for a very long time indeed. Before setting out to continue this work, even if we believe that enough consideration is now given to the needs of indigenous populations, it’s probably still worth having a look at that history (even if all you're doing is following a hyperlink on a dinky little blog post.)
That’s all we can manage this time around! Stay tuned for more as the BBC programme continues. For instance, we have something to say about Vavilov, but it will have to wait, and so shall you. Don’t forget to get in touch if you have suggestions, advice, or questions for us.