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Resisting the Lure of the Elemental: Is the Seed Bank the Antithesis of a Multi-Species Future?

Fri, September 6, 8:00 to 9:30am, Sheraton New Orleans Hotel, Floor: Five, Grand Couteau

Abstract

The seed, the beginning, the origin, the kernel. On first glance, thinking of seeds as elementary origins of plants seems self-evident. Moreover, if seeds are the elemental building blocks of plant life, safe guarding them is tantamount to the future of plants and—since we need plants to survive—ourselves. What about the water, microbes, birds, soil, and humans that play a part in bringing forth living plants from seeds? In this paper, I suggest resisting the elemental view of seeds and ask, Who does it serve to see and know seeds as elemental? I consider seeds, specifically, those bred and consumed by humans, and stored in frozen vaults for the purported purpose of ‘biodiversity conservation.’ Seeds in these banks are fertilized embryos of plants that existed in the past, and at the same time are constructed as elementary origins of future plants. Their existence in this liminal state holds together the tension between hope and despair, so often a symptom of the Anthropocene. I study how seed scientists negotiate this tension through their entangled practices of care and violence. 
I argue that thinking of seeds as elemental requires mental gymnastics and the effacement of context and the social relations that bring seeds into being. Using ethnographic research at seed banking laboratories I show how scientists’ imbibition of seeds with meaning is a necessary precondition for the recasting of plants as “genetic resources.” Resources can be monetised and circulated through capitalist formations of control such as breeding programs.

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