From the Series: An Anthropogenic Table of Elements
If seeds are elemental to plant life, safeguarding them is tantamount to the safety of plants and, by extension, humanity. Saving seeds saves the planet. This logic motivates a monumental technoscientific undertaking, a response to the overwhelming loss of plant life in the wake of the Anthropocene: seed banking. This endeavor takes seeds from their lived environment and holds them in frozen vaults until the unknowable, but certainly apocalyptic, future. These banked seeds are the fertilized embryos of plants that existed in the past and, at the same time, are constructed as the elementary origins of future plants. Who does it serve to see and know seeds as elemental? What must be willfully ignored to maintain the illusion of elementality? My observations from seed bank laboratories and greenhouses leads me to suggest that framing seeds as elemental requires effacing the contexts and social relations that bring them into existence, flattening them into legible data.
The existence of seeds cultivated for food and industry, and their supposed separation from “wild” seeds, marks the onset of agriculture—a contender in the pageant for the Golden Spike that marks the Anthropocene’s starting date. Large-scale, industrial agriculture can certainly be read as a human imposition on an idealized imaginary of human-less nature. By saving seeds of “wild” plants, the regime of seed banking attempts to capture an imaginary nature outside the contaminating influence of humanity, before it disappears altogether. In this way, the effort resembles a botanical cousin of early salvage anthropology that scrambled to record so-called disappearing cultures. Famous seed banks like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership self-fashion as natural guardians of the future. Colonial remnants (Prince Charles) and celebrated nature popularizers (David Attenborough) proselytize the virtues of seed banking. The collective Western impulse toward the project of seed banking responds to the loss of plant life as it threatens one way of life rather than the lives of those for whom the apocalypse is already reality (Swyngedouw 2013). Iconic structures that evince hope, seed banks are always already symbols of despair because the very need for them signifies a failure to manage the Edenic garden—that is, Nature.
The relationship between seed bank locations and the parts of the world from which seeds are collected renews paternalistic colonial relations. This asymmetry is legitimized by naturalizing the split between the supposedly biodiversity-rich developing world that is purportedly underfunded and ill-equipped to care for their seeds, and the so-called biodiversity-poor but industrialized nations that have the prerequisite wealth and infrastructure to act as caretakers. Michelle Murphy (2017) reminds us that colonial relations never really went away, and helps me see how concepts like biodiversity and ecosystems services serve as foils for continuing projects of extraction and alienation. While colonial legacies of extraction supplied a substantial portion of currently banked seeds, nowadays, seed collecting is a political act shaped by an ever-changing swirl of regulations that limit the flow of living things across international borders.
What of the sunlight, water, microbes, birds, soil, elevation, latitude, and human activities that also contribute to bringing forth living plants from seeds? Living things neither recognize nor adhere to the borders created by humans to control their flows. At a large seed bank, I spoke to Stacy, who struggled to grow plants from seeds that had been stored for over ten years. Some plants wouldn’t grow further than a few centimeters, others refused to flower; yet others stopped short of forming fruits. While frustrated at their stubbornness, she was not surprised and asked, “Why should we expect these plants to thrive without their ecological companions?” She suspected a missing symbiotic relationship between a bird or an insect that she could not approximate in the lab.
Across from Stacy’s greenhouse was a laboratory where I spent time with seed curators, whose labor scaffolds the edifice of seed banking by rendering seeds legible through the lens of future value. Their seed preparation practices enact “intermingled violence and care” (van Dooren 2015, 1). On the one hand, seed curators inscribed meaning, hope, and value to the seeds through world-making layers of labeling, sorting, cleaning, screening, counting, and testing. This care practice is what María Puig de la Bellacasa (2012, 197) would call “a vital affective state, an ethical obligation and a practical labour.” On the other hand, to be legible in the seed bank world, the seeds were stripped of their local identities and material connections and reduced to “bare” future potential life (Agamben 1998). Only knowledge about the seed that can be translated into the Western scientific paradigm was retained; local names, uses, and multispecies genealogies were all effaced. When seed collections are cleaned, parts of the seed body not deemed “germable material”—seed casings, tufts of hair—are reclassified as debris and incinerated for fear of pathogens. Again, the value of the seed that must be saved is juxtaposed against the ever-killable debris. The idea that these microbes, or parts of the seed body could be allies of the future plant cannot be entertained because it undermines the seed bank logic of only saving seeds.
After being cleaned, screened, and counted, seeds are stored in the frozen vault until they are withdrawn and thawed, either for use or viability testing. A seed collection's potential liveliness in a future world is measured by counting how many of a sample number germinate in a climate-controlled chamber of the seed bank laboratory—not in soil or outside. This, too, is willful ignorance. All this purposeful forgetting that the regime of seed banking requires could be avoided by keeping plants alive where they are already living. Since this blasphemous suggestion will never catch on, seeds will continue to be frozen, reduced to pure immanent potential, and held together by the tension between hope and despair that is so often a symptom of the Anthropocene.
Agamben, Giorgio, 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Blaser, Mario, and Marisol de la Cadena. 2018. “Pluriverse: Proposals for a World of Many Worlds.” In A World of Many Worlds, edited by Mario Blaser and Marisol de la Cadena, 1–22. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Murphy, Michelle. 2017. The Economization of Life. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Puig de la Bellacasa, María. 2012 “‘Nothing Comes without Its World’: Thinking with Care.” The Sociological Review 60, no. 2: 197–216.
Swyngedouw, Erik. 2013. “Apocalypse Now! Fear and Doomsday Pleasures.” Capitalism Nature Socialism 24, no. 1: 9–18.
van Dooren, Thom. 2015. “A Day with Crows: Rarity, Nativity and the Violent-Care of Conservation.” Animal Studies Journal 4, no. 2: 1–28.