Seeds, Context, and Environment: the Relationship Between Seed Testing Scientists and Their Object of Study

Have you ever held seeds in the palm of your hands?[1]

You look at those tiny seeds that others have previously harvested, you are about to sow them. If you have some knowledge—from experience, practice, or theory—you know that these seeds come from a parent plant, you know that they are alive and that if you sow them, they will give life to new plants of the same species and variety as the one from which they came. Small correction: actually, you do not know for sure. You assume this. There are still a lot of uncertainties. In fact, if you sow them, there is a chance that you might not get the plants you expect. Maybe the person who gave you the seeds somehow didn’t give you the right ones, perhaps by accident. It could also be the case that the transmitted batch contains mostly diseased seeds or weeds.[2] In the worst scenario, you might have acquired not seeds, but dyed stones, and you have clearly been fooled.[3] In other words, you would be in the shoes of a farmer in the late 19th century—or so 19th century scientists would have you think.

When farmers went to grain merchants for supplies, they had no choice but to trust the salesperson they were talking to.  Many articles and sources from English and German scientists suggest that many grain merchants were dishonest. During the period 1890-1915 in the USA, for example, many adulterations were recorded on various forage seeds.[4] One of the objectives of my thesis is to emphasize that one should not take at face value the very dark picture that these sources suggest. Farmers should not be seen as mere duped victims who were defenceless against the seed trade. On the contrary, the latter could rely on elements such as experience, intuition, or word of mouth to find their way.[5] In any case, the farmers of the 19th century put their trust in the good faith of the person from whom they bought their seeds. However, considering the importance of the quality of the seeds in obtaining a future harvest, and the economic stake that results from it, there are nuances and complications relative to the uncertainties of this trade. Did the seeds sold have the right botanical identity? Were they pure? Were they diseased? Were they able to germinate both quickly and evenly and produce vigorous plants? It was in response to these uncertainties that seed science emerged.

In 1869, Friedrich Nobbe, a German agronomist, decided to create the first seed testing station in Tharandt (Saxony), in order to provide scientific answers to the questions raised by seeds. His initiative was rapidly emulated, and new seed testing stations appeared in other countries. Thus, in 1896 there were some 119 seed testing stations—also called seed testing laboratories—in 19 countries including Germany, Austria-Hungary, Denmark, the United States, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. This movement went hand in hand with early regulatory debates around seed issues by the states, which sought to control and regulate national seed markets, while supporting and developing national agriculture. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the seed testing stations became the linchpins—or sword arms—of this state approach at scientific level.

I aim to historicize the agronomic specialty of seed testing from the nineteenth century to the present day, especially through the figure of scientists who test seeds. I am particularly interested in the links between these scientists and their object of study, i.e. the seeds, and the way this relationship influences their scientific work, whether theoretical or practical.

My thesis’ sources of seed testing practice and knowledge provide a useful insight into the relationship of these researchers to their object of study. My main corpus of study consists of scientific articles written by researchers publishing in the journal of the International Seed Testing Association in the 1920s. In order to understand how these researchers practiced and thought about seed testing as a normative scientific system whose objective is to organise and rationalize seeds, I first wanted to study their epistemological and philosophical framework, and in particular their relationship with their environment. Scientists do act on the environment. But how can we understand how environmental factors and representations affect scientific research? Thanks to the database I created and on which I have worked for two years, I will be able to count the number of occurrences of particular terms, and to highlight concepts linking seeds, researchers and environment that appear in the titles of these articles.

I have found, for example, that before the 1960s, authors rarely used the term ‘environment’ and, when they did, ‘environment’ referred to all the external factors surrounding the seeds and other biological phenomena studied. For example, in a 1957 article entitled ‘The Effect of Environment and Agro-technical on Dormancy in Lathyrus Ochrus Seeds’, the author (who studies the phenomenon of dormancy in the herbaceous plant belonging to the Fabaceae family) distinguishes between environmental factors, such as types of soil or agro-technical factors (e.g. fertilizers).[6] This means that the scientist understands ‘environment’ as different natural pedological contexts. Thus, for this author, the environment becomes a study parameter that scientists must consider in order to rationalize the phenomenon of dormancy in an agricultural perspective.

By comparing with other examples, we could show which terms and expressions scientists use to describe their environment, and question the relationship of these life scientists with their environment over time and up to the present day.

Scientific iconography is another type of source of particular interest to my study. I note that scientists who published their illustrated papers in the Proceedings of the International Seed Testing Association use the representation of seeds and seedlings in three ways.

First, seeds are often presented alone, in plates of a single species or in a comparative way. This first organization is aimed at scientific identification, just like the image below.

Caption: seeds of three species of plantain (Plantago rugelii, Plantago media, Plantago major), 1930s  Description: A black and white photo showing three different species of plantain (Plantago rugelii, Plantago media, Plantago major). These plates made it easier to recognise seeds of the same variety by observing their morphological characteristics.
Seeds of three species of plantain (ca. 1930s). These plates made it easier to recognise seeds of the same variety by observing their morphological characteristics.[7]
[Image description: A black and white photo showing three different species of plantain., with under each specimen the Latin name printed; from left to right, “Plantago Rugelii,” “Plantago media,” “Plantago major.”]

Second, seedlings are also presented, especially when they are the result of seed tests and experiments carried out in the laboratory.

Laboratory seedlings of Scots Pines (Pinus Sylvestris), ‘Control (uninfected) Scots pine seedlings’ (ca. 1960s). These uninfected seedlings served as a control in an experiment on the influence of some fungi on the germination of conifer species.[8]
[Image description: A black and white photo of growing laboratory seedlings in a petri dish.]

The third type of illustration depicts scientists obtaining seedlings from outdoor cropping in field tests.

Seedlings obtained in field seed tests, ‘Analysts couting the seedlings from Hard Seeds in the field tests conducted at the Swedish State Seed Testing Station, Stockholm’ (ca. 1930s).[9]
[Image description: A black and white photo of eight women analysts in white lab coasts working on their knees in a test field, and of a male supervisor with a rimmed hat bending over, watching their work.]

Also important is what is not depicted in these images: in scientific seed testing publications, seeds and seedlings are not represented in wild, indigenous or even peasant environments. They appear exclusively in a laboratory or test field contexts.

In conclusion, it appears that the relationship of seed testing scientists to their object of study and to their environment is fully in line with the rationalization approach, i.e.  to explain and organise living organisms for agro-industrial purposes, that were strongly developed during the twentieth century.[10] To these scientists, the environment was most often contextual, or descriptive of factors that must be understood and mastered. Since the authors studied mostly practiced an experimental methodology, it was easier for them to abstract their work from environment through laboratory settings.[11]

Moreover, these scientists exemplify how the process of specialization and development of scientific expertise that has taken place throughout the 20th century has also contributed to the fragmentation of scientific themes, and has helped to fragment approaches, thoughts, and concepts, even if this meant moving away from environmental realities. However, interviews with contemporary seed scientists have often shown that they have had a visceral and sensitive relationship with their object of study and their environment in general since they were very young, when asked why they chose to work on this subject.

[1] In the rest of this article, we will speak exclusively about seeds of cultivated plants, i.e. obtained by man after centuries of varietal selection.

[2] The question of weeds is interesting in itself, because it induces a hierarchy of living things between a cultivated plant seen as superior and a wild plant depicted as bad or even dangerous and from which it is advisable to protect oneself.

[3] Curry, H. A. (2019). Wanted Weeds: Environmental History in the Whipple Museum. in The Whipple Museum of the History of Science: Objects and Investigations, to Celebrate the 75th Anniversary of RS Whipple’s Gift to the University of Cambridge, (eds. Nall, J., Taub, L., Willmoth, F.), pp.223-236, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[4] Justice, O.L. (1965). Aims, Functions and Achievements of the International Seed Testing Association. Proceedings of the International Seed Testing Association, 30, 3-13.

[5] Fitzgerald, D. (1997) Mastering nature and Yeoman. Agricultural science in the Twentieth Century. in Science in the Twentieth Century (eds. Krige, J., Pestre, D.), pp.701-713, Harwood, Amsterdam.

[6] Gavrielit-Gelmond, H. (1957). The Effect of Environment and Agro-technical Methods on Dormancy in Lathyrus Ochrus Seeds. Proceedings of the International Seed Testing Association, 22, 276-281.

[7] Grisch, A. (1935). Plantago Rugelii Dcne, Plantago media L. und Plantago major L.. [Plantago Rugelii Dcne. Plantago media L. and Plantago major L.]. Proceedings of the International Seed Testing Association, 7, 49-53, p.50.

[8] Urošević, B. (1961). The Influence of Saprophytic and semi-parasitic fungi on the Germination of Norway Spruce and Scots Pine Seeds. Proceedings of the International Seed Testing Association, 26, 537-556, p.544.

[9] Eggebrechtg, E., Hahne J. (1938). Mittel und Wege zur Vereinheitlichung der Rübensamen Untersuchungsmethode auf Grund vorliegender Enquête-Versuche. [Means and ways to standardise the beet seed testing method based on existing study trials.] Proceedings of the International Seed Testing Association, 10, 75-94, p.93. 

[10] Bonneuil, C., Thomas, F. (2009). Gènes, pouvoirs et profits. Recherche publique et regimes de production des savoirs de Mendel aux OGM. [Genes, powers and profits. Public research and regimes of knowledge production from Mendel to GMOs], Editions Quae, Paris.

[11] Gooday G. (2008). Placing or Replacing the Laboratory in the History of Science? ISIS, 99, 783-795.

*Cover image: ‘Laboratory for Determination of Attacks of Fusarium-Disease and Shooting at Cereals’, Swedish State Seed Testing Station (ca. 1930s), in Witte, H. (1931). The New Building of the Swedish State Seed Testing Station. Proceedings of the International Seed Testing Association, 177-180, p.181.

[*Cover image description: A black and white photo of a group of five ladies in a room. One is in the background organising open boxes with seedlings on shelves, and the rest are on a table presumably determining if seeds are infected or not with Fusarium.]

Edited by Diana M. Valencia, reviewed by Emily Webster.

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