Seed care in the palm oil sector

Sophie Chao*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)
34 Downloads (Pure)


The palm oil sector is widely associated with the destruction of the environment in the pursuit of profit. Drawing from fieldwork in an oil palm concession in Riau, Sumatra, I highlight a heretofore unexplored dimension of the agribusiness nexus-the affective attachments of corporate actors to oil palm seeds. I begin by describing how nursery workers in their everyday practices adopt the role of motherly caregivers to seeds as their cherished "babies." I then explore how scientists conceive experimental breeding as a way of caring for the future of plants and the planet. This loving care contrasts with the violence entailed in seed selection, controlled breeding, and regular culling. Furthermore, tensions arise between breeders and workers on the one hand and corporate "money makers" on the other over seeds as objects of care and sources of value. I demonstrate how seeds reconfigure the relations among human corporate practitioners as they align with or run against each other over matters of care. These internal tensions, however, remain framed by a shared dependence on the well-being of oil palm. Divided as they may be over care, "caregivers" and "money makers" alike ultimately live off the same seed. I highlight that care for seeds enacted by corporate actors troubles the issue of how, and who, we should love, when it comes to a plant whose proliferation produces and depends on the extinction of other species, and which is itself subjected to coercive violence. I argue that the inarguably destructive external effects of the oil palm industry obscure the internal and conflicting affective attachments of corporate actors to seeds. I assess the ethical implications of attending to lively yet lethal capital as it emerges from situated practices of care with corporate assemblages.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)421-446
Number of pages26
JournalEnvironmental Humanities
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2018

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2018. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • care
  • corporations
  • oil palm
  • violence
  • seeds
  • capitalism
  • lively capital


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