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The transformative potential of Seed Commons: Applying the social-ecological transformation framework to agri-food systems

The organic breeding association Kultursaat e.V., market gardens and farms based in Germany work together to preserve old vegetable varieties and develop new, freely usable varieties. This paper argues that such small initiatives can contribute to larger transformations if they challenge and unmake incumbent unsustainable paradigms. The authors demonstrate how the application of the social-ecological transformation framework helps to operationalize the analysis of paradigm shifts across different levels of transformation. Empirically, they assess the contribution of Seed Commons initiatives to agri-food systems transformations, taking the case of Kultursaat e.V. At the macro level, the analysis reveals that the paradigms of ‘materialistic culture and growth’, ‘control and autonomy of humans over nature’ and ‘expert knowledge and specialization’ are deeply embedded in the dominant agri-food system. Kultursaat challenges them by promoting alternative narratives such as agroecology, food sovereignty, farmers' rights and resilience. At the micro and meso level, we apply a set of evaluation principles that reveal the transformative character and partial transformative impact of Seed Commons. Applying the framework to agri-food systems can bring an enhanced theoretical understanding of dynamics of change into the agri-food transformation discourse, link small-scale initiatives to wider processes of transformation, and provide a systematic research approach to enhance comparability across case studies. The framework is well suited to bring together even evolving transformation literatures.

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