Written by Tanya Matthan
1. Can you tell us how the special issue came about? What prompted this inquiry into the history and sociology of seed banking?
A few summers ago, we held a workshop on this topic at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. The workshop, which was part of the Wellcome Trust-funded project “A Global History of Seed Banking,” brought together historians, ethnographers, philosophers, plant scientists, and other scholars interested in why and how we conserve plant genetic diversity. Each of the papers in this special issue was first presented at that event (along with others not in this issue). The papers, like the workshop, reflect the increased attention to conservation of plant genetic diversity and also seek to widen the horizons of this scholarship – for example, by bringing the ethnographic tradition that’s been used so successfully to understand gardeners who save and share seeds to explore technicians working in seed banks, or by tracing the politics of cold storage practices as a complement to existing institutional histories of cold storage facilities.
2. What explains the tremendous popular attention to seed banking currently?
Undoubtedly, some of this attention has been a response to the now iconic Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and its wild plant corollary, Kew Millennium Seed Bank. Svalbard’s frosty façade in particular, and the dramatic vision of security it projects, has captured the imaginations of many. It seems safe to assume that most people would not otherwise have encountered the science of seed saving, despite its being an internationally coordinated activity since the 1970s.
But there are other important influences that help explain a current fascination with seed banks. Against the heightened drama of seeds sequestered in ice, there are those who locate salvation in seed saving of a more ordinary kind. Anthropologists have been documenting the intricacies of local seed exchange for at least four decades, a span that’s also seen grassroots organizations promote this form of seed keeping, rather than seed banking, as the solution to dwindling crop diversity. As with the attention to seed banking, and perhaps in part because of it, these bottom-up modes of conservation are receiving ever-more notice.
The dynamic relationship between internationally organized and professionally managed seed storage, on the one hand, and grassroots seed exchange and cultivation, on the other, traces to a still more fundamental concern, also dating to the 1970s: intellectual property rights in crop varieties and the consolidation of the seed industry that this has enabled. I suspect that attention to seed keeping, whether in banks, on farms, or via exchanges, will continue to draw attention as long as people remain concerned about the power that a handful of corporations exercise over global seed supply.
3. The seed itself is a critical point of connection between environmental pasts and futures. What kind of ecological, political, and ethical questions does seed banking raise in the current moment?
Scientists have estimated that one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture.[i] It will be no surprise to readers of CAFE that this outsized contribution to humanity’s pre-eminent existential threat is just one among many undesirable environmental consequences of capital intensive farming, from depleted water tables to ocean dead zones to poisoned farm workers. Confronting these environmental concerns demands changes in the varieties we grow, both to adapt to a changing climate and, ideally, to develop less destructive modes of agricultural production. In this sense, the seeds kept in seed and gene banks could indeed be the thread that connects environments past and future, with landraces created over millennia and collected over decades as the source material for crop varieties that leapfrog us over those of the blighted present. That’s certainly the story that advocates of crop seed banking tell us. And the tale that’s told with respect to wild seed banking is strikingly similar: the seed bank is an ark that will carry fragile species safely through the treacherous present to safer shores in the future.
Much as I hope that very story plays out, there is good reason to be skeptical, and not just because seed banks are chronically underfunded. It’s more to do with longstanding concerns about ex situ Most obvious is the danger that a safely stored variety or species can justify its abandonment or neglect beyond the walls of the bank. In this way, diversity in cold store can sustain monocultures in the field and forest. More subtle is the danger of trusting too much in our knowledge and technical capacities to save and restore living things—in this case, seeds, shoots, tubers, and other plant materials—once they’ve been separated from the cultural and ecological contexts that shaped them. It’s crucial that we interrogate the seed conservation systems that we’ve put in place, to understand whether they are in fact suited to the purposes set out for them.
4. The authors in the special issue draw from history, anthropology, geography, science and technology studies, and allied fields in their papers. What is the value of an interdisciplinary approach to this theme?
As with many aspects of conservation, most seed banking is a narrow technical response intended to quell broader social and economic concerns. It attempts to solve the question “What if our current ways of growing food or using land destroy plants we might need in the future?” without demanding that we change (or even examine!) how we pursue agricultural or industrial production. If, as scholars, we want to open up that neat technological fix to see where it came from and how it works, and especially to ask whether it really resolves the social concerns that created it in the first place, then we need tools to understand the science and politics behind it. And if we are committed to the project of creating a more livable world, then we have to be ready to address the potential consequences of our questioning. These tasks require bringing together different kinds of knowledge and different tools of analysis.
5. What future directions do you envision for research on this issue?
When I started working on agricultural seed banks, I was really surprised at the patchiness of existing accounts of these institutions, especially in light of the claims made for how important they are to the future of food. Back then, I would have told you that we need more detailed histories of the science and technology associated with conserving crop and wild plant genetic diversity, and sociological and ethnographic accounts to accompany these. Now that I’m immersed in this area, and have looked into the histories of various local, national, and international institutions, I can see more clearly that it doesn’t help to think of seed banks without taking into account the broader systems in which they are embedded.
Conservation, whether it takes place off-site in cold storage or via cultivation on farms, is just one part of the investment that many societies make in crop diversity. We also train collectors and develop maps and methods for locating diversity in the field, we have sophisticated systems for monitoring plant health at borders and tracking the spread of crop diseases, we invest in database development and standardize crop descriptors, and we subsidize “pre-breeding” to make seed bank materials more useable. We do all of this to put genetic diversity at the disposal of breeders. That’s quite an investment. And if professional breeding is dominated by private interests, then we might rightly ask who benefits from it. Do our investments in crop diversity contribute to more robust and resilient food systems? If they don’t, how could and should they be rethought? I hope the next chapter will see researchers (myself included) move past a curiosity about seed banks to grapple with the broader landscape of publicly funded agricultural research in which these are situated.
6. What drew you to publish this special issue in the CAFE journal?
CAFE was the first choice of all the contributors when it came to publishing some of the workshop papers as a collection—and not just because recent issues of CAFE have featured accounts of seed banking and genetic conservation that complement our own. The research we contributors had to share concerned both agricultural crops and wild landscapes, and followed actors at every level from grassroots organizations up through international scientific bodies. In addition, we identified with different disciplinary backgrounds: ethnobotany, anthropology, history, geography, and STS. It is no doubt obvious to anyone who follows CAFE why the journal would appeal to a group of researchers at this intersection of agriculture and environment. I’d go so far as to hazard that it is the one journal where, even with our mix of interests and methods, we would all be confident of discovering innovative research that speaks to our own projects and interests. So we’re happy our collected work has found a home here.