The Dispersal, Evolution and Commodification of Seeds and Plants in a Warming World

Symposium at the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities

Villagatan 3, Stockholm.

November 14-15, 2018

A conference note by Martin Skrydstrup

It is unknown, exactly when, how and why tea came to Africa. We know tea – Camellia sinensis – originates from China and spread across Asia. However, we know very little about the introduction of tea to East Africa somewhere between the late 19th Century and early 20th Century.

This intriguing question was one of the reasons why I accepted an invitation in mid-November to chair one of the sessions at the Symposium: Seedways: The dispersal, evolution and commodification of seeds and plants in a warming world, convened by Professor of Anthropology at Stockholm University Bengt Karlsson and hosted by the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities.

The Stockholm Symposium was a response to the resurgence of interest in the pathways of plants within contemporary frameworks of ecological globalization, multispecies ethnographies and reconfigurations of culture-nature relations, brought along by global environmental change and notions such as the “Anthropocene”. Terms such as “invasive species” and “indigenous species” are part of this analytical register, which attempt to capture the trajectories of trade, colonization and agricultural development interventions across the globe and how these remade/remake ecologies.

Inside the Royal Swedish Academy

As a cultural anthropologist and as the PI of larger project on the infrastructures which enable the production, trade and certification of sustainable tea (SUSTEIN), I am interested in the particulars (material and discursive), which enabled the introduction of tea in Africa, as a new specie. What did the introduction of tea displace? Did it disrupt existing ecologies or did it create new ones? This question is significant as a pretext to my research team’s focus on what sustainable Kenyan tea might be.

With three keynotes and nine papers, the two-day conference program was dense. The presentations engaged seeds and plants in various ways posing questions such as how people select, breed, exchange, store, trade and travel with seeds. One might also say that through following seeds and plants and their more-than-human entanglements, the Symposium explored the various connections between people, plants and places. All the papers were extremely rich in empirical details and conceptual reach. However, for the sake of brevity, I will only touch on the three keynotes and the paper directly relating to Kenya.

The pathway to the Royal Swedish Academy

A highlight for me was Prof Jack Kloppenburg’s (University of Wisconsin-Madison) presentation First the Seed, Still the Seed (a pun on the title of his first book), which exposed critical political questions about control and ownership of seeds in global trajectories. Prof. Birgit Müller’s (EHESS, Paris) presentation Affect and Power in Seeds followed farmers in their fields in Canada and took us directly into the contemporary court struggles (the Schmeizer case) and controversies produced by seed commodification writ large. The keynote by Rami Zurayk (American University, Beirut) entitled Of Seeds and Wars, proposed a new approach to sovereignty and seeds, arguing that seeds are machines to make machines as opposed to making goods, but to establish sovereignty you must have both machines that make machines and machines that makes goods. Surely, this represents a fresh take on Marx’s classic “Agrarian Question(s)”. Finally, as an alternative to macro-histories of agrarian transformations,  Prof. Bengt Karlsson (Stockholm University) took us to Kenya, where he followed the traces from the Caine Brothers, who planted tea in Limuru, just outside Nairobi, in 1903, according to a large sign. Having worked for decades in Northern India, Prof. Karlsson is interested in the movements of Assam Tea from India to Kenya and the type of cultivation practices tea brought to Africa: the plantation. Honing in on this particular site, Prof. Karlsson posed the question if we can think about the monolithic and mono-cultural plantation in terms of multispecies ethnography, arguing that there are multiple forms of life going on and taking place in the plantation.

Vellagatan 3: The entry to the Royal Swedish Academy

Generally, the Symposium was significant, because it addressed ongoing debates about “invasive/indigenous” species, bringing political economy, micro-history and anthropology into closer dialogue with genetic/biological research on seeds. In doing so, the Symposium was carving out a new intellectual field of inquiry, which brings the humanities/social sciences to address the urgent issue of environmental change; in this case how specie introduction is often entangled with colonialism, culture and commerce. My Sustein team aims to advance this new field of inquiry by conducting a new set of ethnographies on the political, social and natural histories of what enables sustainable tea production in Kenya – histories partly shaped by a new specie introduction about a century ago.