Global Links Plant Breeding and Nation States

Britain and the United States have heavily contributed to the development of plant breeding. In the early part of the 1900s, agricultural scientists were located almost entirely in industrialized countries. By 1980 many third world countries had acquired a cadre of trained agricultural scientists, many of whom had received their advanced work in the United States, Europe, or another third world country. Plant breeders in each country worked to create and find the varieties that were suited to their locations, to the skills and aspirations of their farmers, and to the palates of local populations. Plant breeding, therefore, was a highly "site-specific science," that is, its detailed events were tied to the specific conditions where it was used. Explaining the yield transformation, therefore, requires a detailed look at specific events that are considerably less than global in scope. At the same time, it will be important to understand the links between events in different places in order to comprehend the universal features of the yield transformation.

Plant-breeding networks now facilitate the exchange of people, seeds, and ideas across national boundaries and among different crops. Industrialized countries, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, played a fundamental role in the creation of the most important networks. How are we to understand the concerns of nations that developed the global network of plant breeders? Nation-states are the creations of Mars, and their histories are often tied to the changing tides of war. Nation-states can also be understood through their role in protecting property interests of a particular class (Marxist scholars) or by their role in promoting individual enterprise (liberal democratic theorists). Pluralists see the state as the balancer among competing groups so that all are happy enough with the compromises achieved.

Thus there are many theories about the nation-state, but plant breeders have generally ignored them. Concurrently, those who theorize about the state have usually ignored the work of plant-breeding scientists. Food supply, however, figures prominently in the strength and stability of a nation-state. Internal stability in times of peace is heavily dependent upon a safe and steady food supply, to both urban and rural people. Advent of war brings the question of food supply into critical focus. Neither armies nor urban workforces nor farmers can function to defend the nation if their food supply is interrupted, inadequate in quality or quantity, or unsafe. Targeting the enemy's food supply, a practice used more than once in the many bloody wars of history, demonstrates the strategic importance of agricultural production.

Plant breeders and other agricultural scientists became part of the strategic personnel of a modern economy in the twentieth century as they developed the ability to increase and stabilize yields per hectare. Their work was critical to assuring the food and industrial supplies of the nation. Moreover, they helped develop yet new accumulations of capital in the form of agricultural surpluses, which enabled ever more people to forsake agricultural labor. The time scale on which plant breeders work, often five to ten years to create a new variety, was disjointed from the time frame in which national security matters were settled between nations, usually in months or a few years. Nevertheless, the long-term health of the plant-breeding enterprise became one foundation of a nation's security.

Not only did plant breeders find themselves part of the modern economy, but also they became indirectly immersed in struggles over who would control land within nations and who would farm. Agriculture's story in the twentieth century is one in which landowners tended to replace human labor with capital inputs in the farm production process. The plant breeder contributed to the process of capital substituting for labor because it was the plant breeder who identified the plant varieties that did best with other capital inputs such as fertilizer, irrigation, pesticides, and machinery. A modest yield transformation could have occurred without the efforts of plant breeding, but the magnitude of what actually happened was critically dependent upon the breeder.

Farmers and other businesspeople who mastered the technical and financial aspects of the capital-intensive innovations were able to use their skill to control the land. Other farmers who were not so technically proficient often sold or lost their land. As a result, modern farms became large, quasi-industrial firms characterized by large yields per hectare and per person-hour of labor. Small farms, providing modest but dignified employment to family labor, increasingly became a relic of the past. This process has been characterized by economists as the operation of an agricultural treadmill.19 Farmers who did not keep up with the changes in technology eventually saw their farms go out of business.

An explanation of the significance of plant-breeding science must therefore incorporate its importance for both the external and the internal political economy of the nation-state. A country's position and strength in the world depended in part on the plenty of its harvests. A farmer's position and strength in society depended in part on the magnitude of yields. Plant breeding played an important role in shaping the external and internal destinies of nations. It thereby also affected the details of human ecology: where people lived, what they did for work, and how they tapped into photosynthetic energy were all impacted by the results of plant breeding.

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