Monocultures are one of the great projects of industrial modernity. From the corn fields of Iowa to date palms in the Sahara, from banana plantations in the Americas to eucalyptus trees in India – wherever we look, we find large production regimes that focus on a single commodity. They supply the lion’s share of the world’s food and create a plethora of economic, social, political and environmental problems. However, there is a great paradox behind the global hegemony of monocultures: they thrive in the absence of a clear paradigm. There is no biological theory of monoculture – and plenty of evidence for the benefits of biological diversity.
The project brings historical research to bear in a field that is traditionally the province of agronomists and activists. In the best tradition of global history, it reveals what isolated case studies have failed to see: problems, solutions and actors were surprisingly similar in otherwise different monocultures around the world. Based on carefully selected case studies and intensive communication with experts from forestry and the agricultural sciences, the project identifies the common patterns in the trajectories that monocultures followed around the world and uses that for a new interpretation of the growth and resilience of monocultures that only a historian can provide: a global narrative of recurring crises, of externalizing costs, and of an ever-growing path dependency. Monocultures are stumbling on in spite of the costs because the price of reverting course seems even greater.
Outputs include five monographs, culminating in a path-breaking synthesis. The project seeks to challenge existing boundaries between historical subdisciplines and explore the common ground between agricultural history, forest history, environmental history, economic history, and the history of science and technology. It also aims to make history relevant in a 21st-century world where organic production will face unprecedented challenges.
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