Dis/Continuities of Extractivism in Conservationism: The Case of Seed Banking

Conservation measures secure not only a wealth of natural resources that are in danger of being lost, but also the world and the way the world is produced. Hence, structures and mechanisms are being secured that caused the very loss in the first place, Franziska von Verschuer argues in her contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism,” exploring the case of seed banking.


A multiplicity of socio-ecological crises currently challenges the foundations and conditions of human and more-than-human life on Earth. While climate change today is ubiquitous in the public discourse, the accelerating loss of an ever-greater diversity of life forms is only recently (again) beginning to attract a similar amount and quality of attention. This is due, not least, to an increasing number of projects in species and ecosystem conservation taking on the responsibility to care for the persistence of more-than-human life on Earth.

There are many forms of conservation corresponding to the many forms of ecological loss we are now witnessing. Here, losses of species in the animal and plant world as well as losses of habitats and ecosystems on which these species depend attract most attention, whereas another layer of ecological loss that proves to be increasingly existential is conspicuously underrecognized: loss of genetic diversity within species. This kind of ecological loss has grave consequences, especially for agriculturally relevant plants and their adaptation to changing environmental conditions – an issue that becomes ever more critical in light of the rapid ecological changes of the present.

The loss of genetic diversity within species

In the international agropolitical arena, loss of plant genetic diversity was first recognized as a global-scale ecological problem in the second half of the twentieth century, when the destructive long-term effects of post-war modernization of global agriculture began to take shape. After World War II, global agricultural production was industrialized and homogenized in the course of a US-led agricultural development program that later came to be known as the “Green Revolution.” Beginning in Mexico and soon spreading throughout other countries in Latin America and then Asia, the breeding and large-scale monocultural cultivation of so-called high-yielding varieties was promoted to ward off hunger crises and the perceived threat of “red revolutions.”

While high yields were successfully achieved at first (not least in response to the massive application of chemical fertilizer, which is why critics prefer to speak of “high-response varieties”), these processes also engendered a de-cultivation of diversity and a concomitant vulnerability of ecosystems and agricultural production. In the 1960s and 70s, the vulnerability of crops and croplands arising from their genetic uniformity resulted in massive harvest losses around the world, thus revealing what one could call the “darker side” of agricultural “modernization”.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) declared the loss of plant genetic diversity a global ecological problem during an International Conference in 1967. Since most members of the FAO considered industrial and monocultural agriculture non-negotiable due to its high productivity and efficiency, though, preserving the greatest possible diversity of plant genetic resources in genebanks became the key strategy to ward off this problem.

The politics of genebanks

Over the following decades, however, it became clear that the conservation of plant genetic resources in genebanks is not a failsafe measure against agrobiodiversity loss. Genebanks and their collections are constantly exposed to a variety of threats. These range from natural and man-made disasters, such as Hurricanes and floods or terrorist attacks and wars, to rather mundane and more common threats arising from management, technical or infrastructural, or financial issues and suchlike. Still, conservation of plant genetic resources ex situ that is outside ecological habitats and in genebanks, remained the strategy of choice – and thus began the history of backup conservation.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

Today’s “place to be” for the backups of seed collections worldwide is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the Arctic Island of Spitzbergen in the Svalbard archipelago. It is the first and currently only international repository for the world’s agricultural plant genetic diversity, open and operative since 2008. It promises to provide the safest possible storage space there is in the world today due to its remote location in what counts as a geologically and politically stable environment and due to the Arctic cold and permafrost, deep into which the vault is built, which provide uniquely optimal conditions for long-term conservation. According to the Crop Trust, one of the three partners behind the Seed Vault, it is “the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply, securing millions of seeds representing every important crop variety available in the world today and offering options for future generations to overcome the challenges of climate change and population growth.”

The professed goal of long-term conservation in the Seed Vault, therefore, is not so much to act as a “doomsday vault” securing the world’s plant diversity for a post-apocalyptic world, which is a popular image especially in the media. According to the partners behind the Seed Vault, conserving plant genetic diversity for the long term rather serves to make available the largest possible stock of genetic resources in order to ensure continuous adaptation to changing environmental conditions.

Technological solutionism

Insofar as the adaptive potential of plant species diminishes with the decrease of genetic diversity within species, maintaining it becomes all the more crucial in view of increasingly unpredictable and uncertain socio-ecological futures. Importantly though, the adaptation that ex situ conservation makes possible is not one that will be accomplished by plants themselves in situ, that is, within the changing ecological habitats they are supposed to continue to thrive in. The agent of adaptation, in this scenario, is the human – or rather plant science and technology – performing the adaptation process through breeding. In other words, the path to securing future agricultural production and food security that ex situ conservation facilitates is one of ongoing technological “improvement” of plants expected to come under increased environmental stress – rather than adapting agriculture itself to the stressed environments past agricultural practice has conjured up.

Critics find fault with the vault – and with the primacy of ex situ strategies in seed conservation more generally – arguing that it “gives a false sense of security in a world where the crop diversity present in the farmers’ fields continues to be eroded and destroyed at an ever-increasing rate.” What they call into question is ex situ conservationism’s logic of techno-solutionism – the development of technological solutions for problems that are, in fact, political problems. By creating a sense of security, these alleged technological solutions, for one thing, stand in the way of other, more systemically oriented approaches to counteracting ongoing agrobiodiversity loss gaining attention, approval, and funding.

For another, their promissory quality also diverts attention from developing an understanding of the world from which the problem arises. This world, importantly, is not only a world of endangered biological diversity. It is also a world – more precisely, a praxis and politics of world-making – that puts biodiversity in danger in the first place. What is suspended in the urgent rush to solutionist action is an attentiveness to this world respectively world-making and thus to the (agri)cultural roots of the agrobiodiversity crisis.

Nothing comes without its world”

One might object, as many of those do, who support and practice ex situ conservation, that as long as systemic solutions are not being developed, the conservation of agrobiodiversity in genebanks is a reasonable if not indispensable response to the aggravating loss of plant biodiversity. It is certainly right that plant varieties no longer cultivated in situ will be irretrievably lost if not conserved ex situ and that, accordingly, in the current global (agri)cultural landscape, ex situ conservation is an important emergency measure against the irretrievable large-scale loss of plant biodiversity.

It is not the “life itself” of the seeds inside the vault and the plant species whose life they secure, however, that the critique of techno-solutionism targets. Instead, what it brings (back) into focus – just as the socio-ecological crises of the present do, as well – is the world within which plants and seeds exist as what they are. After all, as feminist biologist and philosopher of science and technology Donna Haraway has been admonishing for a long time: “nothing comes without its world.” (Haraway 1997, 137)

A plant’s world is, for one thing, of course, the ecosystems that generate and sustain plant life, within which plants thrive and whose thriving they are part of – ecosystems that become increasingly undone in the context of the same economic-ecological complex that has been decultivating plant genetic diversity for decades. Beyond that, bringing the world in which plant genetic resources thrive back into view, in an important sense, also refers to the more-than-ecological world within which they exist; which values plant genetic diversity, considers its loss a threat and its conservation an asset.

A plant’s world, in this sense, is the cosmological configuration within which it exists as the life form it is considered to be; within which seeds exist as bits and pieces of plant genetic diversity and, as such, as a resource exploitable for and adaptable to the purposes of its more-than-ecological users.

Saving the world or transforming it?

The world of ex situ conservation, then, is (part of) a world that conceives and interacts with nonhuman life on the basis of what historians of science Mariana Fenzi and Christophe Bonneuil refer to as a “resourcist cosmovision.” (Fenzi & Bonneuil 2016, 78) This cosmovision sees the cosmos as a passive surface, a non-agentic environment, a purposeless reservoir of resources available for anthropocentric appropriation and exploitation. Contrary to its claim to naturalist objectivity, historians of science such as Donna Haraway, Londa Schiebinger, and many others have illustrated how the conceptualization and utilization of other-than-human life as a resource for anthropocentric purposes is characteristic of a very specific, universalist but not universal cosmology historically situated in Western-European thought.

It became universalized and naturalized in the wake of European imperial expansion beginning in the fifteenth century, as part of a colonization of not only space but also knowledge. It was “the invention of Nature” as Man/Human’s Other and resource, as decolonial philosopher Walter Mignolo (2018, chapter 7) describes this process, that paved the way for the depoliticization of a global extractivism that turned the cosmos into the very reservoir of resources it is assumed to be. Accordingly, both the notion of the cosmos as a reservoir of resources and its material existence as a multifariously exploited reservoir of resources arise from and constantly reinstate a particular cosmology and the extractive practices it sanctions, rather than being innocent universal givens.

Understanding “the world,” in this sense, as a process of continuous becoming in and through practices of world-making not only serves to put “the world” into cosmological perspective, but also re-politicizes these practices and their material effects. Considering ex situ conservation in terms of the world and world-making practices it is embedded in makes discernible the continuities of resourcist, extractivist world-making in ex situ conservationism. Preserved in seed banks, along with seeds, is their existence and identity as natural resources. Accordingly, what the ex situ world of conservation conserves and what the Svalbard Global Seed Vault reinsures is not only an abundance of natural resources in danger of being lost; it is also the world and modes of world-making that have produced this loss in the first place – by considering, exploiting, and thus making the natural world as a reservoir of resources.

Insofar as the global-scale loss of agrobiodiversity – the raison d’être for ex situ conservation efforts – is an effect of this world(ing), conserving it always also means conserving the conditions of possibility of the very socio-ecological crises whose solution ex situ conservation is supposed to be. Therefore, it can never be a solution for the repercussions of extractivism in itself, but always only a temporary and partial emergency strategy to secure species whose extinction comes faster than the urgently needed worldly changes that come after extractivism.

Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de

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