The World Was Their Garden: Plant Introductions at the US Department of Agriculture, 1898–1984
In 1898, the US Department of Agriculture established the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction (SPI) to systematically collect and introduce plants of economic interest to US soil. Employing a group of trained “agricultural explorers” to collect plants from all over the world, the office is credited with introducing a mouthwatering array of new fruit industries–mango, avocado, date palm, and citrus, to name just a few–as well as securing billion-dollar staple crops that combat diseases, pests, and drought with infusions of genetic material for breeding improved varieties. Yet, traditional accounts of federal plant introduction often leave out what it took to integrate these collections into the agricultural landscape: systematic experimentation that inhered in monumental recordkeeping practices, imperial relationships, and the ravenous need for industrial agriculture to reproduce itself at scale–thus motivating continual investment in seeds as experimental capital.
This project resituates the SPI’s administrators and explorers as actors in the US imperial environmental management state emergent at the turn of the century. It examines the infrastructure built to manage plant genetic resources as the living substrate of industrialized monocultures. First, it attends to the SPI’s paper technologies and media artifacts–bulletins, inventories, photographs, and films–as a recordkeeping system constitutive of its scientific authority and reputation, but also as productive of a modern national identity. Next, it situates federal plant introduction work in the geography of southern Florida, mapping out its impact on an agricultural frontier through the establishment of the Fairchild Tropical Garden. Finally, it follows the material traces of the USDA’s 1929–31 soybean collection expedition to East Asia to explore how living plant germplasm endures across changing institutions and landscapes. Through these living and non-living material traces, this thesis elaborates how the SPI serves as a conceptual and material precursor to contemporary practices of biodiversity preservation and environmental politics.