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.


Xan Chacko is a feminist science studies scholar who studies the history and practices of the production and diffusion of botanical knowledge in the twentieth century. Xan joined the TC Beirne School of Law at the University of Queensland, Australia, in 2018 as a Research Fellow in the Australian Research Council Laureate project ‘Harnessing Intellectual Property to Build Food Security’. Her current research compares different approaches to seed banking by studying the everyday tasks of collecting, sorting, and saving seeds, as well as, the organization of physical, digital, and intellectual property of the banked seeds.

About Anthropology Working Papers

The Working Papers in Anthropology seminar series provides a forum for dissemination of anthropological research and ideas among UQ scholars and invited researchers. All students are invited to attend the series and postgraduate students, from honours upwards, are invited to present their research. The aim is to provide opportunities for students, staff and those from outside UQ, to present and discuss their work in an informal environment.


Michie Building (09), The University of Queensland, St Lucia