Aarhus Universitets segl

Online - Dr Xan S. Chacko: Rendering Life Intangible: The Unruly Meta-Data of Seeds

A guest talk organised by the Design and Aesthetics for Environmental Data research project and the Humans and IT Research Program at Aarhus University.

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Mandag 3. oktober 2022,  kl. 15:00 - 17:00

Rendering Life Intangible: The Unruly Meta-Data of Seeds


Data created to maintain knowledge of seed collections in frozen vaults play a role in the meting out of intellectual property rights. Until the twentieth century, local farmers and breeder societies controlled crop selection, breeding, and improvements. However, after the discovery of Mendelian genetics the improvement of crops was now understood to hinge on the discovery of useful plants that could be mined for their genes. The law that governs the acquisition and patenting of biological materials has moved in the direction dictated by industry and states’ national interests. For instance, the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity recharacterized plants from ‘living things’ to ‘genetic resources’ that were sovereign national property. The mode that the information around genetic resources travels is through stories around the data rather than the objects themselves. Adding to the swirl of botanical extraction, digital DNA sequences also circulate as objects of inquiry.

Within my larger project on the history and practices of seed banking for conservation and food security, this paper focuses attention on the role that data play in understanding and maintaining collections of living things. With multiple possible systems of cladistics or phylogenetic classification, I show the archival strategies used to sort and store meta information about the plants. I ask, How do varying forms of relating to data prioritise plants, traits, and genes differently? Moreover, I dwell on the tenuous relationship between the physical objects that are stored in the banks and the data about them that are stored on servers. The complex systems that structure the data around banked seeds affect the security of the collection and the usefulness of the collection in the future.

Bio: Xan S. Chacko is Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Program of Science, Technology, and Society at Brown University. Her work complicates practices and narratives of conservation to show that concepts like 'biodiversity' and 'ecosystems services' are but recapitulations to colonial pathways of extraction and accumulation. Her current book manuscript, The Last Seed: Botanic Futures in Colonial Legacies, follows the histories and practices of cryogenic seed banking in the twentieth century. https://www.xanchacko.com/