Bio

Rachel Steely is a scholar of the history of capitalism and commodities. Her research examines the political economy and political ecology of commodity frontiers, and her dissertation is an examination of the geopolitics of the global expansion of soybean frontiers across the twentieth century.

"From Bioprospecting to Biodiesel: Soybean Frontiers in the Twentieth Century" explores the forces propelling the rapid expansion of soy across the globe. Nonexistent as a commodity beyond East Asia at the dawn of the twentieth century, soy became the most rapidly expanding crop in world agriculture after World War II. By century’s close, soy fields blanketed vast swaths of the Midwestern U.S., Brazil’s southern states and savannahs, the Argentine pampas, the prairies of Canada, the Gran Chaco, and extensive areas in East and Southeast Asia. Soy is now the third-most valuable crop in the world and a leading export of emerging and developed market economies. This research maps the emergence and diffusion of soy frontiers, and analyzes the shifting configurations of government and corporate interests that facilitated their advancement. This project not only excavates the origin story of one of the most influential commodities of our time – it also highlights soy as an important geostrategic tool of states, reveals rural regions as dynamic, globally-enmeshed spaces, and demonstrates the enduring importance of agriculture and the countryside in the story of capitalist development throughout the last century.  

Rachel is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Harvard University. She is a Graduate Student Associate with the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs for the 2018-19 academic year.