The Idea for "Cropscapes' came from a wider collaborative writing piece, Moving Crops and the Scales of History, generously sponsored by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.

Moving Crops is a scholarly collective working at the intersection of global history, agricultural history, and the histories of science and technology, to play with scales of historical writing and historical space, time and agency. We selected crops as our device to rethink narratives of global circulations because  they are a very special type of human artefact, living organisms literally rooted in their environment.

Moving Crops is experimental in form, focus and method, beginning with our experiment in collaborative writing. The four co-authors specialize in the history of crops in Asia, the Americas, Africa and Europe, and work on a time-spectrum spanning the pre-modern, colonial and modern eras. We are all experts on history’s Big and Significant crops: cotton, rice, tea, wheat, oranges, tobacco. However, our goal was not to write yet another global history of emerging modernity, connecting the threads and integrating the networks structured around history’s winners. We wanted to write a more symmetrical and inclusive history, one that does not filter and flatten the variegated farming systems of past and present to trace a purified evolutionary line towards the contemporary “global food system.” Instead we wanted to show the much richer contributions of crops to history and their more complex temporalities. So we developed the concept of the cropscape. Like the landscape, of which it can be considered a variant, we propose the cropscape not as an object with strictly defined boundaries and components, but as a way of seeing and of looking, a multi-focal, multi-scale framing device.

Below we show some examples of cropscapes (quite separate from those that will feature in the book). We welcome contributions from others who have an exciting or suprising cropscape to share! Please contact me if you would like to contribute a cropscape to this page.

Weeds in wheat field;

Weeds in wheat field;



By Sam Smiley, Independent Scholar

What is a weed? Ralph Waldo Emerson described a weed as a "plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered."  19th century botanist Asa Gray wrote "Even the most useful plants may become weeds if they appear out of their proper place." In W.S. Blatchley's "The Indiana Weed Book", he wrote "Many weeds, like misery, love company."

I have worked for several years with another media arts collective, AstroDime Transit Authority on video productions. The following video is an ethnographic analysis done at the Weed Science Society of America (WSSA) conference  Portland, Oregon on 7-10 February 2011. Liberties have been taken with the sound track and it is a work in progress. The question asked at the conference is “What is a Weed?”

Weed Ontology (Draft):



by Francesca Bray, University of Edinburgh

Though most of us equate beer with its European variant, barley-beer, almost every human society produces some beer-like drink, a mildly alcoholic liquid brewed from locally available starches, one essential product of the local cropscape. Sometimes beer is made from the main food-staple: manioc in Amazonia, for instance. Or the beer ingredient may come from another plant, like Mexican pulque made from agave cactus. Animal sugars can also be used: honey for mead, or milk for koumiss. Whatever the raw materials, beers share two great virtues: they are safer to drink than most untreated water-sources, and they lubricate social intercourse, hence their near-universal popularity.



by John Bosco Lourdasamy, IITM

In an important case of South-to-South transfer, tea (as a crop) was introduced into India, starting the 1830s from China. It was to be found later that tea plant as such was not new to India as a variant of it was found in Assam. But tea plants and most importantly the culture and knowhow of tea entered India from China in a big way in the 1830s. Tea would never be the same again as this transfer entailed considerable transformations on diverse fronts—the scale of cultivation, nature of ownership, mobilization of labor; methods of processing, marketing techniques, social reach, etc.




by Barbara Hahn, Texas Tech University

Cropscapes offer new perspectives on the size of tobacco cultivation units over the centuries.  In other chapters we have analyzed the life-cycle flexibility of the tobacco plant—that is is a perennial grown commercially as an annual. We have also spoken of its geographical mobility.  Here we focus on a single location, the Virginia-Carolina border where tobacco has been produced consistently from at least the 1600s to the 2000s.



by Francesca Bray, University of Edinburgh

Water is an essential component of all cropscapes. Crops need water and so too do humans and animals; water slakes the thirst of living creatures, and human populations also use water to keep clean, and for almost every kind of processing and manufacture, from cooking and pot-making to nuclear cooling towers. In fact we can usefully think of water as a crop, carefully planted, tended and harvested by individual farmers, local communities or states.