Can public universities play a role in fostering seed sovereignty?

University of British Columbia, University of Toronto

Publication Release Date: March 23, 2021
Date Posted: May 4, 2021
Submitted by: Tessie Devlin
Content Type: Publications
Discipline: Agriculture
Periodical Name: Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene
Type: Journal Article


Across Canada and the United States, public universities were founded with a mission to contribute to broad societal well-being. Yet, the capacity of public research institutions to develop and disseminate flexible and accessible tools for resilient agriculture has been challenged in recent decades. The role of universities in advancing extractive, rather than regenerative, economies has been amplified by the privatization of public agricultural research and extension of knowledge to farmers, particularly in plant breeding and plant genetics. In this article, we examine the history of public research for seed systems in North America through a “seed regimes” framework, arguing that a narrow focus on commercialization of public research has exacerbated inequalities inherent in the founding structure of public agricultural research, including the displacement of Indigenous land and seed relations. We then discuss how community organizations are challenging the enclosure of seed through seed sovereignty organizing and freelance plant breeding, in some cases through the development of community–university partnerships based on the principles of the cocreation of knowledge. We conclude by offering a reimagined public seed research agenda that focuses on strengthening links between public research and grassroots seed movements, as an opportunity to build more resilient seed and food systems.