The film Cultivating Abundance enquires the ethical and aesthetical relations to cultivated plants entailed by the so-called 'modern' and 'traditional' methods of plant breeding.
With the establishment of the Swedish Seed Association in Svalöv in 1886, a modern method for plant breeding was invented that still today is in use by more or less all plant breeding industries across the globe.
The film departs by a series of restored photographs from the very first plant breeding experiments in Svalöv. Further, it follows plant breeder Hans Larsson and the association Allkorn’s work to re-cultivate those grains of traditional farmer-bred varieties that were abandoned with the introduction of modern farming.
The film opens for reflection on the consequences this shift in method would come to have for human and more-than-human relations. How can the cultivated relations, that have become so vital to humans, be understood?
In dialogue with plant breeder Hans Larsson and the seed association Allkorn (Common Grains), a film by Åsa Sonjasdotter.
Editing by Matilda Mester.
Sound design by Jochen Jezussek.
Production by potatoes' perspective in 2022.
If you want to get in touch about the film, send an email to office@potatoperspective.
A contextualising essay
on the film Cultivating Abundance, Away from Monoculture
By Åsa Sonjasdotter
Written as a contribution to a zine following the symposium Alterstories from the soil – exploring ecological un/belongings hosted by Reader Maria Puig de la Bellacasa and colleauges at CIM, Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, The University of Warwick, in June 2022, within the context of the project Ecological Belongings: Transforming Soil Cultures with Science, Art and Activism:
I’d like to share with you a story from soil that has been accumulated at the fringes of the vast ice cap that covered the Northern Hemisphere until some 12,000 to 10,000 years ago. In the particular place of this story, the retraction of the ice left behind heavy, clay-based soil that is rich in minerals and other foodstuffs for living organisms.
I know this soil intimately. I’ve grown up by its habitats and waters, fed year-round from my family’s backyard garden. The houses of our scattered village on the South Scandinavian plains were surrounded by vast plantation fields that we, as kids, were strictly prohibited to enter. We were also forbidden to drink the water from the wells, which had become poisonous due to modern farming practices.
Having grown up so close yet at such a distance from these plantations, I began looking into their histories some 15 years ago. One of the sites I visited during my research was a local centre for plant breeding. When the janitor recognised that I was a practising artist, she brought me up to the attic. Silver-gelatine photographic glass plates were stacked all over the floor and covered by pigeon droppings. These plates, I would later learn, documented the very first iterations of monoculture plant breeding in the way it is practised by the global seed industry today.
I continued researching this history as well as its counter-movements. The outcome of this research has been processed in various formats, among them the 2022 film Cultivating Abundance – Away from Monoculture, made in dialogue with the local seed association Allkorn (Common Grains) and the plant breeder Hans Larsson.(1) The film revisits the archived photographs and moving images recorded at this plant breeding centre, which was later called the Swedish Seed Association. Further, it follows Larsson’s and Allkorn’s work to restore and regenerate the peasant-bred grains that have survived since monoculture took over.(2)
Tracing these events with respect to the soil, I’d like to mention one decisive moment that brought about a shift in relation to the land – one that in many ways enabled monoculture farming to become a thinkable and even credible concept. In the 1820s, some 70 years before the formation of the Swedish Seed Association, the state imposed land reforms on this region.(3) For about a thousand years before the reforms, the land had been in the custody of peasant communities, even when the grounds were eventually owned by the church, crown, or lords. In this older system, each farming village formed a legally responsible entity, and thus all of the village’s inhabitants were collectively responsible, for example, for tax payments. However, through the reforms, the land was compartmentalised into enlarged units, and each farmhouse of the village was relocated to one unit. Most often, a man in each farming household became the private, legal owner of both the farmhouse and the land. The remaining people in the household had legal rights only through this person.(4)
The people behind the formation of the plant breeding centre in 1886 were farmers that had gained wealth through these reforms. The following excerpt from the film’s voice-over introduces the purpose of the silver-gelatine photographs:
These glass plates document the very first years of the Swedish Seed Association in Svalöv. It was here that crop breeding for a monoculture was systemized, becoming the approach practised today by the global seed industry.
This new system involved “the complete reversal of the old method.” And this “old method” involved keeping plants in flux. The new system was built on the concept that all living organisms have an original form – one from which all variation stems.
For this reason, traditionally bred varieties were removed from their contexts to be studied up close in a clinical setting. And with the aid of a camera, the breeders searched to find the ideal shape of each plant, something they also implied was “original”.
The breeders knew it was possible to grow a monoculture: Nearby, Copenhagen’s Carlsberg breweries had demonstrated this. Since the end of the 1880s, Carlsberg had cultivated a “pure” yeast culture from a single strain of fungus. This enabled them to predict the outcome of the brewing process, making large-scale production much more efficient.
So, the breeders in Svalöv applied the same method to plants. First, the plants were inbred for several generations. They more or less lost any genetic variation, and they became uniform. The parent and its progeny became nearly identical, genetically speaking. In the breeders’ own words, “pure lines” were created, “cleansing” any genetic “impurities”. Finally, these uniform varieties were interbred. The pollen sacks were removed and replaced with pollen from a different specimen. The breeders referred to the results as “elite” strains.
The method invented at the Swedish Seed Association would come to have a decisive impact, not only locally, but transnationally. It was used as evidence to demonstrate patriarchal and fascist ideals regarding “nature” and “purity”.(5) Furthermore, the technique would come to provide a “scientific basis” for criteria enabling “universally applicable” seed laws dictated by the globally operating seed industry that established in Europe and North America.(6) Today, plant breeders know that no life can remain stable. However, the legal setup by which intellectual property rights are constructed in relation to seeds requires this fiction in order to remain valid.
Another trajectory of the film follows the work of plant breeder Hans Larsson. In the early 1990s, Larsson initiated a research project on ecological farm systems at the Agricultural University’s campus in Alnarp, South Sweden. As part of the research, still surviving local peasant varieties of rye, wheat, oats, and barley were test cultivated. The grains had been stored in the Nordic Gene Bank’s deep freezers, located on this same campus.(7)
In collaboration with the farmers that would later form the seed association Allkorn, the on-campus project was extended to include tests on farms in various climate zones. Through this step, Larsson and the Allkorn members began a process to very slowly – so slow that it went unnoticed as an act of dissidence – move the peasant grains away from the system controlled by the monoculture industry, toward the hands and soils of farmers.
One decisive step in this process was the attunement of the crops to the current climate and soil conditions, which weren’t the same as when the grains had been put into the freezers. In the following excerpt from the film’s script, Larsson shares his experience of regrowing and attuning to the thawed grain samples. Larsson undertakes this procedure by departing from the concept of evolutionary plant breeding, which has become an established scientific approach to breeding using traditional techniques and varieties.(8) Central to this concept is that breeding involves a diverse range of varieties, that it is based on selection instead of imposed crossbreeding, and that it takes place with and by the surrounding habitat:
In order to breed plants, you need to find locations that emphasise the climate and the environment. Everything about the surroundings is important: the trees, the water sources, and the wild plants as well. You are, in fact, co-creating an environmental space.
This is a place that has become a breeding ground. Where the land itself and the trees play a part. Here, I have about a hundred different rows or varieties. You keep the material alive while you do breeding as well.
The process goes like this: An ear of grain is sown in each row. You start sowing from the base of the grain down here. By the time you get this far, you’ve come to the tip of the ear. In this way, you can follow the development of that particular ear. That’s how I test the evolutionary varieties.
By the time the plants are in blossom, the film team revisits the breeding ground. Larsson continues sharing the process:
The breeding of evolutionary material is a fairly recent approach. A variety has to be stable and uniform in order for it to be registered. And this is the total opposite. They’re not uniform, they’re not stable. Quite the contrary, these have evolutionary capacity in them. They’re a blend of many different varieties. And that mixture means that they have lots of resistance genes as well. So, these crops are healthy. And in truth, this is the only route that will lead to disease resistance in the future.
Rye is cross-pollinated, making it possible to develop an evolutionary strain faster. It’s possible to develop evolutionary strains from self-pollinating species such as wheat, but it takes longer. Some degree of cross-pollination is present even in self-pollinating plants, so it’s possible to develop evolutionary varieties in all kinds of species. Evolutionary varieties are characterised by this ability to evolve. They adapt to the climate and the soil, with the farmer.
Moving to the breeding ground’s collection of wheat varieties, Larsson demonstrates:
They’re in bloom right now; you can see the stamens. Here are the sacks of pollen. They’re protruding here. You need special climate conditions for the flowers to open. Heat and moisture. You can go out in a field when the wheat is blooming and you can tell... Certain conditions make the flowers open up more, and a heavy scent of pollen fills the air. When this happens, there will be massive cross-pollination.
The heirloom material is often more diverse with regard to colour. We don’t know why they come in different colours, but it appears to be tied to the plant’s antioxidant content. I’ve used it as a criterion for selection; I like to use the colourful varieties. I see it as a form of communication between the plants and the breeder. And that the plants are signalling something. I’ve often noticed that this colourful material develops nicely. It’s an indication that something is happening at a deeper level as well. And if there is a change at the genetic level, the colours shift as well.
Generally, when you’ve had 20 or 30 years of selection experience... you get an eye for it. It’s like all jobs: you need training. And in conjunction with selection, you need to be meticulous and take note of incredibly tiny differences.
Since a few years ago, Allkorn has been running a self-organised seed bank for storing and redistributing the grains regenerated and rebred by Larsson. This enables the association to operate autonomously, away from seed monopolies. However, according to the ruling seed laws, the members of Allkorn are not permitted to exchange their grains beyond the association. The law recognizes the association and its members as one and the same juridical body – not unlike the legal status of villagers prior to the land reforms. Within this legal body, exchange is allowed. But since the association is growing rapidly – at the time of writing it has come to include more than 450 members – Allkorn is forming a critical mass, moving away from dependence on the state-authorised agribusiness monopoly.
Allkorn is one example of the many powerful initiatives contributing to the global peasant movement that mobilises against the enforcement of industrial monoculture farming and its resulting erosion of ecosystems, social structures, and local economies. With La Via Campesina as one of the main coordinators, this movement is as well mobilising several unilateral legal complexes against the seed industries’ claims.(9) Breaking these monopolies is an important step towards opening up non-authoritarian and non-totalitarian agricultural relations by, with, and from the soil.
1. To view the film, send a request to firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. For further information about Allkorn, see allkorn.se.
3. Storskiftet (the Great Partition, from 1749 onward) and Laga Skifte (the Reform Partition of 1827) were agricultural land reforms imposed by the Swedish Crown.
4. The effect of this change is still tangible. Statistics from the Swedish Board of Agriculture show that 42 percent of people working in agriculture are women. However, women only own 5.5 percent of the land.
5. For more on this, see for example Maria Björkman and Sven Widmalm, “Selling Eugenics: The Case of Sweden”, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, vol. 64, no. 4 (20 December 2010): pp. 379–400.
6. Christophe Bonneuil and Frédéric Thomas elaborate the connection between patriarchal and fascist ideals and capital extraction with regard to plant breeding in mid-war Europe in “Purifying Landscapes: The Vichy Regime and the Genetic Modernization of France”, Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, vol. 40, no. 4 (Fall 2010): pp. 539–540 . In this article, Bonneuil and Thomas present evidence of how Nazi Germany gave the fascist Vichy regime the task to organise a centralised system to implement a set of criteria for the genetic composition of seeds. The aim of this system was to increase yield. After the war, this invention of a concept for genetic standardisation became permanent, since it suited not only industrial production methods but also commercial royalty interests. The alignment was manifested in 1961 when the first International Convention for the Elaboration of Regulations for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants was held in Geneva by the UPOV (International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants). UPOV still lobbies for the global seed industry to impose universally operative legal frameworks that prohibit farmers from freely saving and growing the industry’s seeds as well as their own.
7. The Nordic Gene Bank, today the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, was established on the campus of the Swedish Agricultural University in 1979. The Swedish Seed Association initially hired its scientific staff from this university as well. Gösta Olsson, ed. Svalöf 1886–1986. Växtförädling under 100 år (Svalöv: Sveriges utsädesförening och Svalöf, 1986).
8. See for example S.L. Philips. “Evolutionary plant breeding for low input systems”, The Journal of Agricultural Science, vol. 143, no. 4 (2005): pp. 245–254.
9. Central to these is Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas 2 (UNDROP). The declaration was adopted in 2018 by the Member States of the United Nations and marks a considerable shift in discourse. This statement defines and recognises peasants, for whom traditional seed relations are central, as fundamental for food and agricultural production throughout the world. Further documents protecting traditional seeds are Articles 5, 6, and 9.3 of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), negotiated by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) for open access to seeds stored in public seed banks, as well as Article 31 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. For further reading on the current legal status of the work of Allkorn, see for example Cloé Mathurin, ed., Incorporating Peasants’ Rights to Seeds in European Law (Brussels: European Coordination Via Campesina, 2021), pp. 15–18.