Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Surrender of Seed Sovereignty through Commodification

I firmly believe in the absolute necessity and importance of an historically informed (largely ‘classical’) “political economy” perspective in addressing topics in agriculture, science, ecology, (especially intellectual property) law, and politics itself. I find much of the “economics” of science and agriculture naïve or ideologically mired in a neoliberal philosophy and neoclassical economics that precludes the sort of critical distance necessary for a values-infused social scientific examination of subjects that approaches the “truth” (or truths) of contemporary social reality (yes, I believe the truth of matters remains a desideratum). In fact, with John Quiggin, I would characterize the cluster of ideas associated with that philosophy and economics as the “zombie economics of market liberalism,” in other words, there are economic ideas that continue to rule the minds of the social scientists, pundits, and decision-making elites of our world despite having “proved themselves wrong and dangerous.”[1] While an abundance of evidence would appear to have put to rest these ideas once and for all, they continue to haunt us, hence their status as “neither alive nor dead; rather, as Paul Krugman has said, they are undead, or zombie ideas:”

“The zombie ideas that brought the global financial system to the brink of meltdown, and have already caused thousands of firms to fail and cost millions of workers their jobs, still walk among us. They underlie the thinking of those who are responsible for the crisis and, to a large extent, of the commentators and analysts who assess those responses.”[2]

We won’t here address the specific ideas that make for “zombie economics” or explore in detail the nature of neoliberal politics as an ideology that animates (or provides the semblance of a moral apologia for) much of this economics. Rather, I will attempt to occasionally provide alternative economic and social scientific approaches to the subjects that fall within the compass of this blog.

In that vein, I recently finished a book that, presumably, anyone well-versed in agricultural law will have read, although I can’t recall references to it here (of course I might have missed them, so please let me know if that’s the case), namely, Jack Kloppenburg’s remarkable work of history and political economy, First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology (2nd ed., 2004). I had been doing research on the “Green Revolution” when I came across several citations to this work and decided it was something I should read for myself. I may later discuss the book in some depth but for now I simply want to introduce it by way of one vivid illustration of how the progressive “commodification of the seed” (as an instance of the ‘primitive accumulation’ of plant germplasm) determined by the triune powers of corporate capital, science—as biotechnology—and law—in particular, intellectual property rights—has left us with ecologically unsustainable agricultural practices and the loss of “seed sovereignty,” both here and abroad (although in the so-called developing nations of the southern hemisphere, this loss of sovereignty is more aggressive, coming in the form of the neo-imperialist ‘biopiracy’ that first took shape with the Green Revolution, the irony being that the commercial seed trade grew out of, and has always depended upon, germplasm ‘freely obtained’ from the Third World):

Bacillus thuringiensis [Bt] has long been a useful tool for vegetable growers who have not wanted to use synthetic pesticides for the control of certain caterpillars. Insects did not develop resistance to this natural pesticide because it was used sparingly in widely dispersed fields, accounting for a relatively small total acreage. When the Bt toxin gene is incorporated into crop plants, however, the toxin is expressed in every cell of the plant and that plant makes the toxin available throughout an entire growing season. The prospect of planting millions of acres of Bt corn and other Bt crops generated concern among entomologists and ecologists whose experience with the ‘pesticide-treadmill’ led them to anticipate widespread development of insect resistance to Bt toxins if they were indiscriminately introduced. Writing in Science, William H. McGaughey and Marke E. Whalon bluntly declared that what was at stake was preservation of the efficacy of ‘the most scientifically, environmentally, and sociologically acceptable pest suppression tools of this century and possibly the next.’[3]

But the companies’ need for revenue confounded efforts to design a considered, socially rational approach to the introduction of Bt corn and cotton. After extensive negotiations, the EPA was at least able to require that various farmers using Bt crops plant a portion their fields in ‘refuges’ of non-Bt varieties so that resistant insects might mate with susceptible partners surviving among the conventional plants. Refuge requirements are poorly publicized by the EPA, and widely ignored by farmers. If the refuge strategy is a sham, Monsanto is developing its own solution to the anticipated emergence of resistant insects. The company’s vice president for regulatory affairs told Michael Pollan, ‘there are a thousand other Bts out there…. We can handle this problem with new products’—that is, more commodities.

If the experience of herbicide resistance is any indication, the appearance of Bt resistance insects should not be too distant. Contrary to corporate claims that adoption of herbicide resistant varieties would reduce the need to spray, it is now clear that farmers growing Roundup Ready soybeans are using two to five times more herbicide (in pounds applied per acre) than those using other weed management systems. It is not now unusual to find Roundup Ready corn and Roundup Ready soy being grown in rotation. One result is the doubling of the use of glyphosate since the introduction of GM varieties in 1996, another is the appearance of Roundup resistant weeds. The gene for Roundup resistance now is embedded in some 70 percent of the soybeans, 65 percent of the cotton, 55 percent of the canola, and 10 percent of the corn grown in the United States. It will likely soon be available in wheat, alfalfa, and turf grass. This is an impressive level of genetic uniformity. The short-run interests of farmers and biotechnology companies converge to produce a situation in which the new technical possibilities are used not to seek truly innovative and sustainable solutions to production problems, but to patch and reinforce a system whose characteristic attributes—monoculture, chemical intensity, genetic uniformity—are widely regarded as unsustainable.”[4]


[1] John Quiggin, Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010): 1.
[2] Ibid., 2.
[3] Science, 258 (27 November) 1992: 1454-1455.
[4] Jack Ralph Kloppenburg, First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2nd ed., 2004): 315-316.

Further Reading:
  • Aoki, Keith. Seed Wars: Controversies and Cases on Plant Genetic Resources and Intellectual Property. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2008.
  • Bennett, Jon (with Susan George). The Hunger Machine. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1987.
  • Bernstein, Henry, et al, eds. The Food Question: Profits Versus People. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990.
  • Brock, Gillian. Global Justice: A Cosmopolitan Account. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Drèze, Jean, Amartya Sen, and Athar Hussein, eds. The Political Economy of Hunger: Selected Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Frankel, Francine R. India’s Green Revolution: Economic Gains and Political Costs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971.
  • Gottleib, Robert and Anupama Joshi. Food Justice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.
  • Hope, Janet. Biobazzar: The Open Source Revolution and Biotechnology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
  • Kenny, Martin. Bio-technology: The University-Industrial Complex. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.
  • Marx, Karl. Capital: Volume 1. London: Penguin Books (with New Left Review), 1990 (first ed., 1867).
  • Mgbeoji, Ikechi. Global Biopiracy: Patents, Plants, and Indigenous Knowledge. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.
  • Miller, Richard W. Globalizing Justice: The Ethics of Poverty and Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Mirowski, Philip. Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
  • Murdoch, William W. The Poverty of Nations: The Political Economy of Hunger and Population. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.
  • Patel, Raj. Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2007.
  • Perkins, John H. Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Schurman, Rachel and William A. Munro. Fighting for the Future of Food: Activists Versus Agribusiness in the Struggle Over Biotechnology. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
  • Shiva, Vandana. The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics. London: Zed Books, 1991.
  • Shiva, Vandana. Protect or Plunder? Understanding Intellectual Property Rights. London: Zed Books, 2001.
Image: Grant Wood, “Young Corn” (1931)

(This was originally posted at the Agricultural Law blog, hence a couple of the references made in the post.)


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