Botanical illustrations of the early modern period (1550-1800), the “big science” of their day, served as documentation of useful plants found in colonial territories. Plants such as tobacco, sugar cane, cinnamon, cotton and tea were but a few items deemed reliable “cash crops” during this era of global economic expansion. Botanical illustrations led the way to commodifying these crops, which were now being structured around a rigid system of taxonomic identification developed by Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus in Systema Naturae (The System of Nature), 1735. The Linnaean system organised the natural world into seven identifying taxa: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. These identifying criteria created the first standardised language of the natural world that would become the universal key to global trade between colonial powers.
What allowed Linnaean taxonomy to thrive as a means to economic development was due in part to its simplification of nature. Namely, an inherent disregard of the environmental and cultural complexities of a living thing as it exists within an interwoven ecosystem. Environmental factors such as soil type, climate conditions, proximity to other living creatures, and cultural factors such as Indigenous uses (quotidian, spiritual, etc.) were irrelevant data points to the system. Linnaean taxonomy instead favoured a consistent, standardised code – a universal language that could be understood within the framework of European science. This inherent limitation created a hyper-rationalised way of isolating and extracting organisms from the complexity of their environments. It abstracted nature into raw, quantifiable data and imagined complex organisms as fixed and stable once catalogued and filed within the structure of the state.
Collections of rare and exotic life forms served as symbols of territorial expansion and control…
With the value of nature subjected to speculative profitability (and even more limiting, to the profitability of a select few), living things within the natural world were not seen as parts of complex ecosystems, but as extractable resources that could exist outside of those ecosystems. Profitable plants, aptly named “cash crops” were transported, transplanted and cultivated in botanical gardens and university greenhouses in the Metropole. These collections of rare and exotic life forms served as symbols of territorial expansion and control over foreign lands, resources, and people. Through this lens, colonial botany – the study, naming and cultivation of plants – became an extension of territorial expansion and governance by colonial powers such as the Dutch East India Company, the Catholic Church, state powers and universities. The collections of plants and botanical illustrations thus served as propaganda to these ends. While these natural collections appeared biologically diverse, the structure behind their existence suggested a type of globalising monoculture in the form of colonisation.
For the ongoing series CASH CROP (2017-present), I utilise the history and format of taxonomic painting from the early modern period to draw parallels between the profitability of colonial botany with that of today’s ever expanding and merging agri-chemical and bio-technology corporations – Bayer (Monsanto), BASF, Corteva (DOW/DuPont) and ChemChina (Syngenta). Through the production of transgenic (genetically engineered, GE) seeds and pesticides (herbicides and insecticides), these industries act as the ever-present hands guiding agriculture today. At the core of their business model is the cultivation of highly profitable “cash crops” – GE corn, cotton, and soybeans primarily, and the eradication of non-profitable “weeds” – ironweed, horseweed, bindweed, etc. The effect of this model is the cultivation of vast ecological monocultures in our fields.
In recent years, an uptick of herbicide resistant (HR) weeds have begun to infiltrate these monocultures at a rapid pace. Dr. Ian Heap, the director of the International Survey of Herbicide-Resistant Weeds, has tracked the numbers dating back to the 1970s. According to his research, there are roughly 160 unique cases nationally, and 510 documented cases of herbicide resistance globally today. Further, of the 26 different herbicides groups (each group containing a different “mode of action”), there are cases of weeds being resistant to 23 of these groups. This is due in part to how weeds are managed by agro-chemical companies.
In 1996, Monsanto released its first GE crop: RoundUp Ready soybean. The RoundUp herbicide, whose active ingredient is glyphosate, was sold alongside this new product. RoundUp could be applied to the crop without damage – the genetically inserted trait in the soybean would resist the mode of action of glyphosate. All other plants without the GE trait would die. However, by the next year in 1997, there was already a documented case of a RoundUp-resistant weed – rigid ryegrass. By the mid 2000s, the number of resistant weeds would increase throughout the United States to include horseweed, Italian ryegrasss, common ragweed, waterhemp, and palmer amaranth. Palmer amaranth, one of the most prolific weeds in agriculture today has been described as “an absolute enemy of the state” by Dr. Stanley Culpepper, a professor at the University of Georgia, due to its detrimental impact on cotton production.
The response by the bio-tech / agri-chemcial companies is to produce new herbicides with new herbicide-resistant GE cash crops. As herbicide-resistant weeds evolve, new herbicides, along with new transgenic seeds, are engineered and produced at ever increasing prices. Farmers must buy these new technologies or be subject to decreased yields and rampant weed growth. This system creates an endless loop of compounding market power and product security for the bio-tech and agri-chemical corporations at the expense of the farmer, the land, and the environment.
In The Magnitude and Impacts of the Biotech and Organic Seed Price Premium, Charles Benbrook states:
Over the last 35 years, the average price of one hundred pounds of cotton seed has risen from $33.60 to $589, or 17.5 fold. But from 1975 through 1996, the year GE [genetically engineered] cotton was first sold, the price had nearly doubled. In the GE era from 1996 through 2010, the price skyrocketed from $73 to $589 per CWT.
The Economic Research Service of the USDA has suggested that the rising prices of seeds began in the 1980s along with the disappearance of cleaning and separating harvested seeds. The abandoning of this practice grew as more research was put into creating genetically engineered seeds that contained new traits – higher yield, drought tolerance, and specifically herbicide resistance which were protected from collection and processing through proprietary patients. This resulted in a 50-75% increase of off-farm seed purchases between 1982 to 1997. The effect of this on our agricultural system today is a co-evolutionary dialogue between genetically engineered crops and herbicide-resistant weeds. To be sure, this is a completely human-engineered circumstance. As GE crops are introduced into the environment, weeds respond, and as weeds respond, newer GE crops are introduced into the environment, so on and so on.
The botanical illustrations in the series CASH CROP respond to this cyclical dialogue by focusing on herbicide-resistant weeds that grow on my family’s farm. The illustrations consist of specifically identified plants, painted in whole, and are accompanied by relevant details to the plant such as leaf structure, cross section of a seed pod, flowering state, etc. The paintings are on 100% cotton paper and include the plant’s Latin identification and common name. The overall effect is a document similar to that made by an early modern botanist. To create the images, I use Monsanto’s genetically engineered cotton seeds, along with their liquid chemical herbicide, RoundUp, as paint medium. The seeds are crushed with a mortar and pestle until it turns into a fine powder, which is then mixed with water and RoundUp to form a paste. The final object is aesthetically tame – a traditional botanical illustration. The medium however, is somewhat toxic, suggesting a more complicated tone.
The imagery coupled with the medium attempts to complicate the traditional narrative pushed by agri-chemical / bio-tech corporations. That being, that corn, soybean, and cotton are the “cash crops” of modern agriculture and that weeds prohibit the efficiency and growth of these crops. Within this narrative, weeds are, as Dr. Culpepper stated, the “enemy of the state”. This project suggests instead that a new and significant “cash crop” for these multi-national companies is in fact the bearing on which their industry turns – the ever evolving weed. In doing so, CASH CROP identifies the way in which structures of power, in this case the modern agricultural sector, cultivates the circumstances for maintaining its power.
We must be wary when we see the industries of monoculture capitalising on their failures in this way. Unlike them, we must alter our perception of the world as a “cash crop” – as an unlimited resource to be managed and profited from. We must call out the false narratives of monoculture, abandon their crippling technologies, and reimagine the field anew, through diverse ideologies and ecologies. The world is wild, and so are we.
1-3: James Eric Simpson, CASH CROP (2017-ongoing)
Gallery (clockwise from top left):
4. James Eric Simpson, Resistance: Silverleaf Nightshade (2017). Monsanto’s Delta Pine DP1830B2XF™ & DP1612B2XF™ transgenic cottonseed pigment on 100% cotton paper.
5. James Eric Simpson, Resistance: Prostrate Spurge (2017). Monsanto’s Delta Pine DP1830B2XF™ & DP1612B2XF™ transgenic cottonseed pigment on 100% cotton paper.
6. James Eric Simpson, Resistance: Devil’s Claw (2017). Monsanto’s Delta Pine DP1830B2XF™ & DP1612B2XF™ transgenic cottonseed pigment on 100% cotton paper.
7. James Eric Simpson, Resistance: Field Bindweed (2017). Monsanto’s Delta Pine DP1830B2XF™ & DP1612B2XF™ transgenic cottonseed pigment on 100% cotton paper.
This is part of FIELDS, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring fields as natural and (agri)cultural, invisible and visible, poor and productive, created and creators. FIELDS is conceived and edited by Marloe Mens.