Student Spotlight

Maywa Montenegro- SAEA Steering Council Student Member

From a total of 250,000 known plant species, approximately 7,000 have been used for human food since the origin of agriculture. Out of these, only 12 crops and 5 animal species provide 75% of the world’s food today. Meanwhile, six major companies now control some 63% of commercial seed and 75% of agrichemicals globally, with further mergers underway. What will these changes mean for local and global food security? How can we restore seed diversity – and access to it? What is seed diversity and whose diversity counts?

As a PhD student at UC Berkeley, I approach these questions by looking specifically at processes of agrobiodiversity dispossession and repossession. From mega-gene banks to on-farm plant breeding, I combine methods of science and technology studies, and political ecology to unpack how biotechnology, intellectual property, data sciences, and conservation biology are engendering new possibilities for further seed enclosure, or by contrast, democratizing seed access. This work has brought me to explore crop wild relatives in the crosshairs of climate change adaptation and open source seed as an emerging ‘commons.’

Before coming to Berkeley in 2011, I trained and worked as a science journalist in New York City. In covering sustainable development, I learned much about the political underpinnings of food security problems I previously understood to be mostly scientific or technical in nature – which ultimately led me to pursue a PhD. But I hold onto public writing as a catalyst for creative thinking and vehicle for public education. We need new and better storytelling, I believe, just as vitally as we need supply-control policies and more funding for research and development. To this end, I’ve written stories about agroecology, seed sovereignty, crop wild relatives, and CRISPR-Cas9 for venues including Gastronomica, Ensia, Earth Island Journal, Food First, and the Huffington Post (links here).

At UCB, I am a fellow of the Berkeley Food Institute and communications coordinator of the Diversified Farming Systems Center. In 2016, I helped coordinate the SAEA conference in Santa Cruz and the decolonizing foodways event therein. As a person of mixed indigenous-European heritage (my parents immigrated to the US as adults), I am particularly interested in anti-oppressive methods of pedagogy and practice. Although ‘decolonizing’ has already become a buzzword in academic spheres, I hope to keep it grounded in the experiences of people who have lived and known its effects most proximately. With this in mind, I welcome feedback from SAEA members on the methods and strategies you are using in your classrooms, communities, and beyond. What kinds of stories can we tell? Whose should be telling these stories, and how do we engage most effectively in reflexive and collaborative academic-activist work?

Free the seed!