Drift 27, Eetkamer 25 Jul 2019 Organized Session
Technology 16:00 - 18:00

Historians of science have widely investigated the impact of the atomic bomb on the development of post-WW2 life sciences, thoroughly documenting how the dissemination of scientific resources associated with nuclear energy shaped biological knowledge, laboratory instrumentation, and medical practices. In this burgeoning historiographic context, the application of nuclear science in agriculture has hitherto attracted relatively little scholarly attention. In particular, despite the pioneering contributions of Helen Anne Curry, Jacob Darwin Hamblin and Karin Zachmann, the development of mutation breeding in other national contexts different from the United States and, more in general, the global spread of atomic agriculture remain uncharted territory. The aim of this session is to partially bridge this gap, by providing a broader perspective, both geographically and analytically. First of all, the session will examine the transnational dimension of atomic agriculture, drawing attention on little known, yet fundamental, national case-studies, such as Sweden and Italy, but also exploring the transnational circulation of research methods, technological systems, irradiated organisms, from the United States to Europe (and vice versa), as well as from Europe to the Middle East and Central Africa. Secondly, the session will explore the complex interaction between the establishment of mutation plant breeding as a transnational scientific field, on the one hand, and the global geopolitics of atomic agriculture, on the other, involving conflicting actions and relationships between different United Nations' organizations, such as the FAO and the IAEA.

Organized by Francesco Cassata

"Atomic Spaghetti": Nuclear Energy and Agriculture in Italy, 1950s-1970s
16:00 - 16:30
The presentation will focus on the mutagenesis program in agriculture implemented by the Italian Atomic Energy Commission (CNRN-CNEN), starting from 1956, through the establishment of a specific technological and experimental system: the so-called “gamma field”, a piece of agricultural land with a radioisotope of Cobalt-60 at the center. The Cobalt-60 would emit constant radiation, primarily gamma rays, which would bombard the specimens planted in concentric circles around the source, inducing genetic mutations. The CNEN gamma field went into operation in May 1960 at the Casaccia Laboratory, about twenty miles north of Rome, with a radiation device made available by the US Government for the Atoms-for-Peace program. Among the many research projects of the Casaccia Laboratory, the durum wheat program, strictly connected with the industrial production of Italian pasta, was particularly relevant. The extensive durum wheat mutation breeding work resulted in fact in the obtention of eleven registered varieties. In particular, “Creso” became the leading Italian variety with the highest percentage of durum certified and distributed seed. This presentation will analyze, first of all, how the American-Swedish experimental model of mutation breeding was translated into the Italian context, becoming instrumental for the modernization of Italian agriculture as well as for the establishment of plant genetics within the local academic system; secondly, it will describe how the FAO/IAEA network of durum wheat trials in the Mediterranean region contributed to the controversial diffusion of mutation plant breeding technologies in the developing countries.
Artificial Evolution: Åke Gustafsson and the Development of Mutation Breeding
16:30 - 17:00
In the late 1920s, Åke Gustafsson and Herman Nilsson-Ehle started experiments of induced mutations at the Svalöf Plant Breeding Station in Sweden. Already in the mid-1930s, the first viable mutations appeared, and in 1940 an extended research program was set up. Gustafsson devoted much of his scientific career to mutation research. With funding granted by the Swedish government, he established a large national research group with the aim to investigate theoretical and applied aspects of induced mutations. During the 1960s, he became increasingly involved in the FAO/IAEA Joint Division. In opposition to many contemporary geneticists and plant breeders, Gustafsson never doubted the value of induced mutations for plant breeding, which according to him dealt with the artificial evolution of crop species by changing and accommodating them to human needs and demands. He was dubbed the “father of mutation breeding”. In this presentation, I will outline Gustafsson’s research on induced mutations by using Sheila Jasanoff’s concept sociotechnical imaginaries. I will argue that Gustafsson’s view on induced mutation was part of a sociotechnical imaginary in Sweden that emphasized the close links between basic research and its practical applications and the value of science for the development of society and the welfare state. This imaginary promoted the advancement of science-driven plant breeding technologies to improve crops, increase productivity and achieve national food security. During the 1960s, the sociotechnical imaginary of plant breeding was extended beyond the national borders to include the developing countries, which further stimulated Gustafsson’s engagement in the FAO/IAEA activities.
Semantics of Biofacts: Introducing Atomic Agriculture in Africa
17:00 - 17:30
The proposed paper will narrate the story of projects to establish nuclear techniques in agriculture, focusing in particular on Africa. It aims at exploring how arrangements of nuclear and agricultural things gave birth to a third class of objects, i.e. biofacts (irradiated organisms). The questions at stake here are firstly, whether and how irradiated organisms as biofacts acquired meaning on the basis of the competing grammars of both nuclear and agricultural systems, and secondly, to what extent biofacts (of the nuclear age) have impacted the semantics of its constituent realms (nuclear technology and agriculture). Arrangements of nuclear and agricultural things, each emerging from distinct technical and spatial contexts and each based on differing rules/principles of composition, require processes of translation and mutual adaptation, resulting in transformations such as irradiated organisms. The paper will explore how these transformations gave rise to new grammars as techniques of composition, enabling the biofacts of the nuclear age to work. This will help us to understand the success or failure of nuclear projects in agriculture because these projects will only work when they build on a new grammar that imbues agricultural biofacts with meaning and significance. The paper will first introduce the historical context and one main actor for the development of nuclear techniques in agriculture. Then, two applications – radiation breeding and the sterile insect technology – will be highlighted. Special attention will be payed to attempts to install these applications in Africa, based on sources from the IAEA, especially with respect to Ghana and Nigeria.
Commentary: Reshaping Nature: Atomic Agriculture in the Cold War Era
17:30 - 18:00

University of Genoa (Italy)
Lund University, Sweden
Technical University of Munich
Princeton University
Princeton University


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