Plant breeding is dead, long live plant breeding

Like both of you (yes, I’m still using that joke) I’ve been preoccupied with preparing some material for ICHSTM, which now has a finalised programme. I’m on Tuesday the 23rd at 16:00, so come on down! Anyway, I’ve been mopping up a couple of lines of inquiry, and ended up producing something close to a resource. I place it here before you, so that I might collect a few more downloads on my page. What I did to create this resource was so dull that I’ve been putting it off for as long as possible. Anyone taking on a PhD will have faced such a task, the mind numbing, robotic, systematic, ceaseless crunching of some form of ‘data’ or other. Perhaps you could add yours in the comments below. Mine? I decided to go through the catalogues issued by private seed houses in the twentieth century between roughly 1920 and 1950. Fuckinay!!!!

Milns seed house, c.1930-1940, from one of their catalogues.

Milns seed house, c.1930-1940, from one of their catalogues.

Considering the scale of this task, I decided to thoroughly restrict the kind of questions I was asking. For instance, I have not attempted to track claims of innovation, or the stated pedigrees of plants. I have simply attempted to show when varieties dropped in and out of catalogues, and the way in which the identity of these plants was presented (i.e. if there were efforts to differentiate one firms stock of a variety from another). OBVIOUSLY this tells us nothing about whether these firms believed the claims they were making, whether the plants in their possession were those they claimed to be, or even whether they had access to these stocks to sell. It is perfectly possible that a seed house might advertise having a variety in order to look more impressive to their potential customers, when in reality the cupboard was bare. How has this exercise helped me?

Well firstly, it is well known that in our histories of twentieth century science, the place and the role of private industry has often been overlooked. Whether due to a paucity of archival resources, or some methodological prejudice, we know very little about privately funded science. This is certainly true of the commercial plant breeding industry in Britain, which is often used as either an early supporter of Mendelism, or a later antagonist of genetics. Focussing upon the developing seed market – as it was advertised – helps begin to tackle this problem.

Secondly, these documents constitute a very clear battleground in my thesis, and particularly in the paper I will be delivering in Manchester next week. Policing the varietal market to a large extent meant policing the contents of seed catalogues. Blue pencil has been used throughout these catalogues as one NIAB employee or another kept an eye on the ‘new’ varieties entering the market, and the claims to distinctness made on their behalf. In turn, the historiographical arguments made on behalf of the British seed industry can only begin to be prosecuted here.

Thirdly and finally I am very concerned about the changes that took place in the plant breeding industry following the introduction of intellectual property rights on plants in the 1960s. Often this development is seen as the ‘creation of a market’ in plant breeding, helping to finally encourage significant private investment in breeding. I think this is thoroughly misleading. Rather, one market was destroyed, and another created in its place, hence the title of this post.

I hope that’s tempted you to join my co-panellists and I during the hulking great bastard that is ICHSTM. It’s a very exciting panel to be involved in, as you can see here!


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