Apples from Chile, bananas from Latin America, almonds from California, cardamon from India – when we trace the daily cornucopia in our supermarkets and look at the places that produce our food, we typically find production regimes whose economic viability hinges on only one species. During the modern era, food producers all around the world have gravitated towards monoculture – first in a patchy and tepid way, then, particularly after 1945, in the form of a deluge. Some producers have explored strategies that left room for biological diversity, most notably those who ended up in organic farming, but most went for large, technology-heavy monocultures that supplied distant, faceless markets. Even the rise of modern environmentalism since the 1970s did not change much in the overall trend, and in the twenty-first century, monocultures look more powerful than ever. But why did different producers in widely different parts of the world follow the same path? That is the question at the core of the ERC Advanced Grant Project “The Making of Monoculture: A Global History” (MaMoGH).
Monocultures rule the world of food, and yet there is a gaping conceptual vacuum at the heart of the endeavor. There is no convincing theory of monoculture, a rather exceptional situation in the age of global modernity: monocultures are probably the greatest project that modern societies have embarked upon without a decent paradigm. What we do have is plenty of conceptual and empirical evidence for the opposite: the case for biological diversity is sound, and a sprawling literature has documented the social, political, economic, and environmental problems of monoculture. The basic idea of the MaMoGH project is to bring in the tools of history where the tools of other disciplines have failed. If we cannot explain the global spread of monoculture in conceptual terms, maybe we can arrive at a better understanding if we trace the paths that monocultures have taken.
The MaMoGH project is dedicated to a bottom-up approach. By studying different monocultures in different parts of the world, we trace recurring patterns in the minds and motives of stakeholders, the contexts that encouraged specialization of production, and the tools that allowed monocultures to stumble on against all odds. The MaMoGH team engages with almonds, grapes, grains, citrus groves, and eucalyptus trees, and it is wide open for scholars working on other production regimes. After all, the ultimate goal is about more than individual regions with individual products: the MaMoGH project seeks to develop an analytical framework that works for monocultures worldwide.
The MaMoGH project comes down to a new history of food and agriculture that reflects the experiences of the twenty-first century. It is a history of perennial and overlapping crises: there is no such thing like stability in the modern world of food. People and corporations along complex commodity chains struggle to make things work, and a broad range of issues can disrupt the flow at any moment. From such a point of view, the global food system looks like a kind of global improvisation theatre whose outcome is eminently undecided. Perhaps the global world of monoculture will unravel over the next decades – or perhaps monocultures will become even more brutal than they are in our time. Either way, it is more than a matter of historical research to understand the path that we have taken.
After receiving my Ph.D. in 2001, I worked and taught at universities in Bielefeld, Munich, and Birmingham. I launched the MaMoGH project at the University of Birmingham in 2021. I moved to Ruhr University Bochum in June 2023, and the project now operates with teams in Birmingham and Bochum. I will write a concluding synthesis for the MaMoGH project, but I also engage in archival work of my own: without a deep plunge into the sources, writing world history easily turns into a rather lofty affair. In making choices about case studies, I seek to complement the work of my research fellows, as the project seeks to capture as much of the tremendous diversity in the world of monoculture as possible. At this point, I have worked with varying degrees of intensity on Florida’s citrus industry, mushrooms from Pennsylvania, tobacco from southern Africa, and the making of factory farming in Germany.
For more information on my career, please click here.
The following is a list of all books and articles that the MaMoGH team has published with support from the European Research Council. In line with the ERC’s open access policy, all publications are available for download free of charge.
Frank Uekötter: "Den Habitus der Wachsamkeit verstehen. Annäherungen an eine globale Geschichte der Monokultur. Ein Gespräch auf der 'Grauen Couch'," Alltag – Kultur – Wissenschaft. Beiträge zur Europäischen Ethnologie/ Empirischen Kulturwissenschaft 10 (2023): 135-151. Download