From Biological Revolution to Biotech Age: Plant Biotechnology in British Agriculture since 1950

My thesis examines the development of plant biotechnology and its application to British agriculture since 1950. Six means of manipulating crop plants are examined: hybridisation, mutation breeding, cell fusion, electrophoresis, graft hybridisation and recombinant DNA technology (rDNA).

Harnessing previously unexamined archival material from multiple institutions, the success or failure of these technologies is explained partly in terms of technical difficulties and commercial uptake, but also as inseparable from wider national and international factors: from Cold War divisions to the rise of the environmentalist movement.

By recognising that different ways of engineering life are inseparable from specific historical contexts, it becomes clear that the successful uptake of crop plants produced by new biotechnologies is highly dependent upon social, political, economic and environmental factors. Moreover, the failure of certain biotechnologies, as much as the success of others, has shaped British agriculture.

Yet these technological failures have contributed to the belief that genetic biotechnology is different from all that has come before it. An expanded history of twentieth-century plant biotechnology and its application to agriculture therefore opens up new opportunities for dialogue on technologies such as  genetic modification (GM) and genome editing.

I am ably assisted in my work by the staff and students at the University of Leeds Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science. Keeping me on the right track is my energetic and enthusiastic supervisor, Professor Greg Radick.


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