Dates: 28 > 30 June 2023
Venue: University of Cambridge - UK
Funding: FNRS, Faculté de Sciences Sociales de l’ULB, ERC STG, Fondation Wiener Anspach

Workshop Abstract

Caring for seeds has been crucial to the history of plant domestication and the development of agriculture (Curry 2016). In the twentieth century, the valence of conservation has been added to seed care due to fears of biodiversity loss, in part due to the widespread shift to monocultures. While tropes of loss have been used to legitimize genetic material extraction from cultivators’ fields for capitalization in centralized banks (Montenegro 2015), the widespread distribution of a restricted set of improved varieties, along with legal prohibitions on the commercial use of unregistered ones, has reshaped seed-saving practices across the globe, in farms, gardens and banks (Chacko 2019, van Dooren 2009, Chapman 2018). Scholars advocating multispecies ethnography (Nazarea 2005, Tsing et. al. 2016, Hartigan 2017) have offered avenues of attunement which, in this roundtable, we take up to shed light on the contrasting politics of seeds in our era of ecological destruction and conservationist zeal. Donna Haraway has called for the cultivation of ‘respect’ as a crucial interspecies tool of relationality (2008: 164). Respect, she explains, entails reciprocal consideration between subjects able to give responses in interactions. While Haraway’s seminal work focuses on animal response-abilities, her plea echoes tropes and practices ethnographically documented in disparate agricultural contexts (Angé 2018, Battaglia 1990, Miller 2019, Hoover 2017). Aiming to explore the diverse, and conflicting, seed ethics unfolding in the Anthropocene, this roundtable addresses the manifold forms of respect enacted in seed-saving practices. How is vegetal respect articulated within the instrumentalising targets of seed management?


  • Olivia Angé – University of Brussels
  • Xan Chacko - Brown University
  • Katie Dow - University of Cambridge


  • Susannah Chapman - University of Queensland
  • Helen Curry - Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Can Dalyan - College of Charleston
  • Terese Gagnon - University of Copenhagen
  • Garrett Graddy-Lovelace - American University
  • Elizabeth Hoover - University of California, Berkeley
  • Anna-Katharina Laboissière - University of Oslo
  • Virginia Nazarea - University of Georgia
  • Elaine Gan - Wesleyan University

Film Screening

A Womb of Things to Be and Tomb of Things that Were

Marleen Boschen & Charles Pryor, 2023, 28 min
Download: Film presentation (PDF)


Visit to University of Cambridge Herbarium on Thursday 29th
Link: Cambridge University Herbarium

Botanical Drawings

Visit to Fitzwilliam Museum botanical drawing collection on Thursday 29th
Link: Fitzwilliam Museum

Presentations Abstracts

Tuberous Seedness and Potato Motherhood in the Peruvian Domestication Center
Olivia Ange

Seeds are usually regarded as a certain kind of vegetal bodies. Considering the vegetative reproduction of tubers invites to shift focus from seeds to seedness, as a vegetal potential emerging in ecological relations. This paper explores the embodied encounters through which potato seedness is enacted by cultivators in the Peruvian domestication center. In the highland fields of the Cuzco region, potatoes kept as seeds are qualified as gestating bodies. As such, they receive specific treatments intended to foster their seedness over time, until motherhood is realised after sowing. This significantly involves storing tubers in the obscurity and mild temperature of a closed space. Protecting tubers under a cover of straw, contrasts with the practices of mother potato display by cultivators engaged in an in-situ conservation programme, the Potato Park. Inspired by David Graeber theory of value, I account for the relations brought forth by the contrasted practices of hiding and display through which potato seedness is cultivated in the conservation assemblage. Hiding and display entail two different modalities of respect, offering a chance for mother potatoes to respond back to their cultivators’ gestating expectations.

Disciplined Seed and Dividual Varieties
Susannah Chapman

Among Gambian farmers, it is common to describe plant bodies much like one would describe human bodies. Rice has a head, neck, and nose; it goes through a period of pregnancy, and it gives birth. It is common, too, for people to speak of the human work involved in bringing cultivars into being as a form of affectionate discipline applied to seed, much as people care for children. At the same time, people speak of cultivars only fully developing once they are distributed and shared with others. Where plant bodies and human bodies share similar growth cycles, in other words, cultivars come into and remain in existence by being given and received. When people speak of cultivars now lost, their accounts often evoke affectionate, commemorative narratives of past varieties. Farmers’ accounts of cultivar life and death thus depart from national assessments of crop diversity loss, wherein plants and seeds are described as vital ‘genetic resources’ that provide essential ‘ecosystem services’ to humans. Instead, farmers offer accounts of varietal persistence based on dividual (human-plant) relations and temporal care and respect, one in which loss sometimes happens but where emergence is predicated on the ongoing, everyday actions of humans and plants.

Seed Care in the History of a Seed Industry
Helen Curry

This paper considers the role of respect for seed in relation to industrial development via a historical case study. I examine the role played by farmer education in seed care in the creation of the hybrid corn seed industry in the United States. I examine the early career of the farm extension agent Martin Mosher, who worked with corn farmers in Iowa and Illinois and through that effort participated centrally in the industrial transformation of corn seed production. In the 1910s, Mosher helped develop educational programs for midwestern farmers focused on careful observation, storage, and planting of corn seeds—typically at the level of individual ear and even individual seed—as means to enhance farm-level productivity. As I show, his early demonstration programs, centered on exact practices of seed care, led him to identify farmers whose extraordinary attentiveness to seed over many years had produced seeds that yielded more grain regardless of who grew them. Locating these seemingly inherently better seeds ultimately overtook the aims of farmer education in corn seed demonstrations by Mosher and others. The widespread dissemination of such seeds, first as commercially produced open pollinated lines and later as inputs into F1 hybrids, not only deskilled farmers (as the historian Deborah Fitzgerald astutely observed) but also eliminated the year-on-year care for seed that had generated good inputs for industry in the first place.

To Have and to Hold: The Entangled Lives of Seeds and Antiquities in Turkish Heritage Regimes
Can Dalyan

Based on multiyear anthropological fieldwork at the Turkish Seed Gene Bank and across ex-situ seed conservation institutions in Turkey, this paper discusses how the parallel sociocultural histories of cultural and biological property in Turkey shape seed conservationists’ approach to their work. As kindred objects of longing and desire, plants and antiquities frequently feature together in Turkish metanarratives of loss, sovereignty, and modernization. And in the last two decades, their safeguarding and management as national biological and cultural property has been the defining feature of Turkish antiquities repatriation and plant conservation policies. Moving away from popular critiques of these policies as nationalist, reactionary, and against the universalist norms of conservation, I analyze in this paper how seeds and antiquities come together in the everyday work of seed conservation, and discuss how an anthropology of conservation can take seriously the relationships between conservationists and the beings in their care without losing sight of the political, historical, and cultural contexts that these relationships are embedded

‘There are No Seeds Here’: Severing Seed Sovereignty in Mae La Camp
Terese Gagnon

Here I illustrate the ways in which the process of becoming refugees in Mae La refugee camp, technically a “temporary shelter”, severs Indigenous seed sovereignty and inter-generational agricultural memory for forcibly displaced Karen people. This severing occurs in the camp in large part through agricultural forgetting: the process by which linkages between people and plants are broken generationally. Along with dispossession and exile, such enforced forgetting is facilitated by the enclosure of the commons and commercialization. I argue that agricultural forgetting emerges in especially forceful ways in the camp, where the ruptures caused by displacement clear the slate for new more-than-human social arrangements. Such an account of agriculture in the camp is a necessary corrective to upbeat discourses of livelihoods programs promoting refugee ‘self-reliance’. This is because livelihoods programs and their discourse of self-reliance in the context of closed encampment obscure the enforced epistemological and bodily forgetting taking place. This forgetting, I suggest, takes place across generations of both people and plants in this space of exception.

Key Words: refugeehood; Indigenous food sovereignty; the commons; collective memory; Karen people

Collecting as Worlding
Elaine Gan

There are many ways of collecting seeds. Each practice imagines, invites, and sets in motion a particular kind of world that in turn alters the conditions of possibility for farming, feeding, and making kin. In this paper, I work through my encounters with two practices of collecting, both of which have haunted my research on rice varieties over the last decade, opening up difficult questions about agricultural industries and ecologies—or, naturecultures in short. First, practices of collecting rice plants from the Ifugao mountains of northern Philippines. These plants were originally gathered and recorded by American anthropologist Harold Conklin and Ifugao collaborator Buwaya from 1961-1963 and are presently stored in herbarium collections at the Natural History Museum of the Philippines. Second, practices of collecting rice seeds from around the world, performed by the International Rice Genebank at the International Rice Research Institute, established in the Philippines, also in 1961. My paper resists the urge to juxtapose the two in order to reduce them into a binary relation (for example, local—international, organic—technoscientific, collaborative—extractive, and goddess forbid, traditional—modern). Instead, I engage with their complexities, connections, and temporalities, tracing how each and both might tell us something extraordinary about worlding.

Now That We’re Dematerializing PGRFA: Agricultural Biodiversity As Physical & Metaphysical
Garrett Graddy-Lovelace

Longstanding deliberations and debates regarding conservation, use, and governance of ‘plant genetic resources for food and agriculture’ (PGRFA) have focused on explicitly material dimensions of seed, tuber, or stock, and sidelined seemingly more abstract cosmological or spiritual dimensions. The latter layers garner mentions as cultural context, but mostly as passing reference to sacred groves in the FAO’s 1st State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food & Agriculture (1997) and “non-material benefits obtained from ecosystems” in the 2nd (2010). The 2019 FAO State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food & Agriculture went further to cite the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in delineating these “non-material benefits” as including “spiritual enrichment.” Related international overviews of PGRFA may include textboxes describing a ceremonial use, but even these position the examples as objects of interest or study, rather than sources and methods of agroecological expertise. This long-simmering dichotomy of matter and spirit hierarchizes the former as more legitimate and relevant than the latter. Yet, in recent years, with the rise of digital sequence information and genomic science, the value of PGRFA has shifted to its composite data, and the mass digitization has come to be known as dematerialization. This paper addresses the irony of this epistemic—and political ecological—power move, and the ways Indigenous data sovereignty and agrarian justice movements are reclaiming this dematerialism to recover the more-than-material values and meanings of agricultural biodiversity in situ and in action.

Sending the Relatives Home: Seed Rematriation from Institutions to Communities of Origin
Elizabeth Hoover

Native American heirloom seed varieties, many of which have been passed down through generations of Indigenous gardeners or re-acquired from seed banks or ally seed savers, are often discussed by Indigenous farmers as the foundation of the food sovereignty movement, and as helpful tools for education and reclaiming health. These same seeds have also been collected over the past century and a half, featured for sale in seed catalogues, and stored in museums as a form of static material culture. There has been a growing movement among Indigenous seed keepers to reconnect with these seeds, and to protect seeds as both relatives and intellectual property through the theorization and enactment of “seed sovereignty.” This paper explores the methods that Indigenous seedkeepers and their museum staff allies have employed to rethink the status of these seed collections as living relatives, and to push for the “rematriation” of these seeds from institutions back to their communities of origin through utilizing federal legislation like NAGPRA, and museum processes like deaccessioning and ‘destructive analysis.’

Transformative Conservation and Wild Relatives
Anna-Katharina Laboissière

This paper will provide a brief introduction to the concept of transformative conservation, which guides my investigation of the marginal and sometimes controversial research projects conducted at the margins and enabled by ex situ conservation and seed banking. I argue that ex situ conservation institutions are now reinserting themselves into a lively topology of conservation spaces, and an ecology of practices, looking to collaborate with more emplaced modes of survival and world-making. In the process, they open up their collections of banked seeds to a variety of experimental usages, in which the bio- and cosmopolitics of conservation are renegotiated. The paper will illustrate this by discussing one case study: the Crop Wild Relatives Project conducted by the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership. It explores how this new extensions of seed banking and prebreeding practices reconstitutes wild and domesticated crop species, transforming both survival and wildness itself into a relational, positional matter, and replaying past and alternatives processes of domestication.

What We Carry Carries Us
Virginia Nazarea

This paper summons Ursula Le Guinn's notion of carrier bag and Ernst Bloch's of colporteur and colportage to examine the movement and gathering of and around seeds. Possessed of a lot of sentiment and little heft, this movement is very different from the systematic collection and cold storage of seeds or germplasm in formal conservation. I argue that conservation through emotional contagion, by way of gardens both rooted and moveable and kitchens both rustic and cobbled is more fundamental and enduring than conservation through containment in gene banks. The carrier bag incites us to imagine "just a little" as enough and the colporteur's backpack inserts the significance of alternative visions and stories in creating concrete utopias.