Plants and their Peasants

We are pleased to alert you to ISS working paper 653, entitled Plants and their peasants: a more-than-human approach to plant breeding and seed politics in Brittany, France, by Leila Rezvani, one of the ISS MA Research Paper Award winners for the academic year 2018-2019.

“Conceptually strong it draws on different fields of critical agrarian studies, plant ecologists and feminist and political ecology and makes a strong argument for the mutually constituting role of human-non-humans. It presents an excellent discussion of A. Tsing’s concept of scalability and explores whether the biological specificities of peasant seeds guarantee their resistance to capitalist appropriation and accumulation through a critical assessment of the linkup between farmers producing peasant seed in symbiotic interaction with plants with a supermarket.” (as formulated by the evaluation committee 2018-2019).

This research paper investigates the articulation of agriculture, plant breeding science and capitalism through the lens of semences paysannes (peasant seed) in Brittany, France, using Anna Tsing’s concept of “scalability”. From the early to mid-19th century, the French state instituted an industrial, productivist agricultural paradigm, based in part on a system of seed standardization and certification which illegalized seed produced by farmers. Today, peasant farmers are pushing back, asserting their right to select and produce their own seed as part of the larger movement for peasant agriculture. Evolutive, heterogeneous, freely reproducible peasant seed is viewed as politically transformative, capable of rebuilding barriers to accumulation in agriculture that were broken down with the modernization process and the spread of hybrid seed.

While challenging capitalist appropriation of the seed is central to the movement, the question of how and to whom to sell produce remains fraught. This paper focuses on a group of farmers who have entered into a contract with multinational supermarket chain Carrefour to sell their vegetables produced from semences paysannes at premium prices and with an exclusive label. Using ethnographic material based on 5 weeks of fieldwork with farmers in northern Brittany, this paper questions if the biological specificities of semences paysannes guarantee their resistance to capitalist appropriation and accumulation. By analysing Carrefour’s incorporation of vegetables from peasant seed, it is possible to understand how biological barriers to appropriation at the input stage of agriculture can produce value for supermarket capital. However, producing peasant seed reintroduces the unpredictability of plant life onto the farm, countering the way modern plant breeding has suppressed the liveliness of nature. In conjunction with organic practices, seed production help constitute farms as multispecies refugia, connecting farmers and plants in caring relationships and helping to address environmental harm wrought by industrial agriculture. Peasant seed production also necessitates collaboration between farmers, building a form of autonomy that is collective rather than individualistic. Thus, peasant seed production retains its subversive potential in the way it transforms farmer livelihoods and production practices, both materially and affectively.

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