Plants and their peasants: a more-than-human approach to plant breeding and seed politics in Brittany, France

Leila Rezvani

Research output: Working paperAcademic

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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.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationDen Haag
PublisherInternational Institute of Social Studies (ISS)
Number of pages65
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2020
Externally publishedYes

Publication series

SeriesISS General Working Paper series


  • ISS Working Paper-General Series


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