Seeds are central to agrobiodiversity, and farmers have historically bred a rich array of crop seeds to sustain rural and urban communities. Over the past 150 years, however, trajectories in macroeconomic development, science and research, and agricultural policy have dovetailed with environmental changes to diminish seed diversity and the living agricultures it supports. While genetic erosion has emerged as a global challenge, access to that diversity has also come into stark relief: Industry consolidation, the development of transgenic crops, and intellectual property rights are now seen as constraints on free exchange of seeds and the ability of farmers and breeders to adapt and breed resilient crop cultivars. How can seed diversity – and access to it – be expanded once more?
To address this question, my dissertation develops a ‘political ecology of seeds.’ Building on the foundational account of seed primitive accumulation by Kloppenburg (1988), I examine several dimensions left underexplored in this and other accounts: new, countervailing forces of repossession working against primitive accumulation; the knowledge politics of seed production and of seed science; and the co-production of institutions, policies, discourse, and knowledge together. Using a constructivist theoretical framework, my project explores how knowledge politics and coproduction are instrumental in carving out new – and retracing old – territories for seed enclosures in the contemporary era. By examining how often-invisible discourses and practices underpin seed dispossession, we are better equipped to organize alternatives – not only to reject colonial and capitalist habits of thought/practice, but to revitalize communal, ethical, and economic strategies of repossession. My thesis includes three core papers, alongside introduction, theory, and conclusion chapters.
In the first paper, I critically interrogate meanings of ‘diversity’ via rivaling discourses of seed ‘loss’ and ‘persistence’ visible in the scientific, international policy, and farmer movement literatures over 40-plus years. On one hand, numerous studies and stories indicate that crop genetic diversity is rapidly eroding worldwide. On the other hand, much data suggests that far from disappearing, seed diversity persists – resisting homogenizing trends within industrial capitalism. Yet in lieu of binary analyses, a more accurate accounting, I argue, can come from investigating the epistemic practices and politics of agrobiodiversity: what is known – recognized, measured, valued – as being lost or maintained. Evaluating historical data on farmer naming systems along with newer methods of genomic and biochemical analysis, I develop a multi-dimensional framework for understanding seed diversity.
My second paper considers crop wild relatives (CWR) as a fast-emerging site for new seed primitive accumulation. Faced with imminent climate change, scientists and agribusinesses are vying to develop crops that can survive drought, floods, and shifting pest regimes. CWR offer breeders the allure of ‘climate-hardy traits,’ infusing genomes of modern crops with ‘lost’ genetic variety. Paradoxically, wild relatives themselves are endangered, propelling CWR into the limelight as an international conservation and food-security priority. I examine accumulation processes along two fronts: conservation policies, where in situ approaches, typically regarded as empowering alternatives to ex situ, instead may support appropriation; and breeding and biotechnology research, which produces new use values for CWR while profoundly shaping upstream conservation priorities.
My third and final paper explores the US-based Open Source Seed Initiative as one example of repossession. OSSI has created an alternative to intellectual property rights with a ‘protected commons’ for seed. Commons scholarship has contributed much on theories of institutional governance. But, I argue, attending to the practice of ‘commoning’ helps illuminate a more complex triad: communities who manage shared resources according to negotiated social protocols. Employing the metaphor of ‘beating the bounds’ – a feudal practice of contesting enclosures – I ask how OSSI defends the commons in intersecting arenas. First is legal, as OSSI negotiates a move from contract law toward moral economy law. Next is epistemic, as a ‘freelance’ breeder network revitalizes informal farmer-breeder knowledge, proving less structurally constrained than formal university breeders to lead commoning efforts. Third is seed sovereignty, as OSSI engages with global South movements whose diverse cosmovisions and seed cultures pose new challenges for constructing transnational commons.
I conclude by using spatial ‘centricity’ to conceptualize power relations in seed systems. CWR exemplifies ‘ex-situ centric’ flows of seed knowledge, power, and value away from local communities to centralized, often distant sites of recognizing and classifying diversity. Expertise is conferred primarily upon those scientists and industrialists who can produce commodity goods. By contrast, OSSI mobilizes breeder and farmer knowledge in a countervailing, ‘in-situ centric’ direction: towards local spaces, towards legitimizing farmer-breeders as knowledge makers. This movement, I conclude, is not merely an opposite force: it triangulates across three bases of ‘emancipatory’ action at the heart of agroecology, food sovereignty and commoning. Uniting politics of recognition (race, gender, identity), politics of redistribution (class and inequality), and politics of representation (democracy and citizenship), the question of seed diversity and access, I suggest, is ultimately a political one. It calls for recognizing diverse knowledge-makers, redistributing genetic resources as commons, de-centralizing seed reproduction to suit heterogenous agroecologies, and addressing base inequalities in power that drive dispossession.