UVM Theses and Dissertations
Isbell, Carina Viola
Community Development and Applied Economics
Visions for the future of the global agri-food system are often polarizing. Facing such issues as climate change, social and political unrest, and decreasing biodiversity, communities are increasingly facing critical decisions relating to how food systems can transform to better meet the needs of society and the environment. Seeds -- an often-overlooked input that, throughout history, have encapsulated agri-food system paradigms as well as hope for how they might be changed -- sit at the nexus of many of these decisions. In the last half-century, increasing privatization and industrialization across the agricultural sector have profoundly transformed seed systems globally. In much of the Global North, including the United States (US), seed systems are marked by the near hegemony of the formal sector through which commercial seed flows. Through such mechanisms as seed hybridization and intellectual property rights, seed itself has also fundamentally changed from what was once considered a 'common good' to a universally exchangeable commodity. However, even in this highly commercialized context, opportunities exist to re-embed social value into seeds and, in doing so, increase resilience across agri-food systems. Through a mixed-methods exploration focusing on concepts of resilience and commodification, this thesis explores how pluralistic seed systems within the United States can foster positive change. Recognizing that the COVID-19 pandemic has had an illuminating effect across nearly all industries, the first article concentrates on the pandemic's effect on seed sourcing in the state of Vermont as a way to understand seed system resilience. I use a mixed-methods approach which includes data from online surveys (n=158) and semi-structured interviews (n= 31) with seed growers and farmers who grow crops from seed in Vermont. Findings from these growers suggest that while more than half of those sampled had some sort of difficulty obtaining seed during the first year of the pandemic, growers were able to respond positively to these challenges. Furthermore, as illuminated by both quantitative and qualitative findings; growers seemed to have the most difficulty with pervasive problems which (although compounded by the pandemic) points to the need to address systemic issues to reduce the vulnerability of seed systems in the state. More broadly, the insights from this study illuminate the importance of supporting both commercial and non-commercial seed systems in the US to enhance resilience across various groups and to help growers meet and adapt to manifold challenges. Following findings from the first article that suggest embracing multiple value systems is important to seed system resilience and sustainability, the second article seeks to focus on the viability of plurality by interrogating the spectrum of commodification within informal and formal seed systems in the US. As informed by Margaret Jane Radin's concept of incomplete commodification which attests that something can have a price and be priceless, this paper argues that seed growers who vary in involvement within informal and formal systems seek to reintegrate non-economic value into seeds, principally through seed saving. Qualitative insight from interviews with 31 commercial and non-commercial seed growers in the state of Vermont suggests that, although often acting separately, seed savers work to protest the commodification trajectory and instead foster individual and community autonomy, resilience, and democratization -- all of which are important to the future sustainability and equitability of agri-food systems in the US and elsewhere.
Access to this item embargoed until 08/17/2023.