By Brian Wolf
Department of Sociology, University of Idaho
Theory & Science (2007) ISSN: 1527-5558
This theoretical work explores the interrelationship between science and industry by looking at a specific process of genetic modification and how it is related to a specific form of social organization: monopoly capitalism. A great deal of controversy and dissent has been generated in recent years as several agribusiness giants have pioneered a way to end a seed’s ability to reproduce itself. This so-called scientific advance has been dubbed “terminator” technology. This work links the science behind terminator technology with the requirements of the monopoly capitalist system and its quest to commodify and control all aspects of nature.
This is a synthesization of two theoretical works pertaining to a critique of the monopoly capitalist system and dialectical biology. It highlights the unsustainable problems with seed technology and the dangers of having living organisms’ biological codes monopolized by a few centralized industries. Additionally it underscores the importance of macro sociological theory in understanding the threats posed to the environment through the criminalization of the harvest.
Since the dawn of modern civilization humans have sustained themselves and the harvest by preserving seeds for sowing in subsequent seasons. Agriculture The symbiosis and co-evolution of humans and our crops form the cornerstone of modern civilization. The Aztecs, ancient Chinese, as well as dozens of other civilizations along the Fertile Crescent engaged in a process of selective breeding of preferred seed stock to produce crops with the most desirable phenotypes (Diamond, 1999). The process of cross-pollination and hybridization of seeds continues through current epoch, becoming increasingly sophisticated through the application of science and technology.
Today, science can alter the actual genetic makeup of a plant species. Along with these advances, multinational corporations who claim control over this technology (and subsequently, the plant’s DNA) have been seeking ways to protect this technology as intellectual property (Herring, 2007; Yoon, 2006; Clement, 2004). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the nearly commonsensical practice of seed saving is rapidly becoming criminalized and if a handful of agricultural giants have their way, staple grains of the human diet will be genetically rendered sterile and unable to reproduce themselves.
A recent biotechnological process of genetic manipulation called “terminator” prevents plant seeds from reproducing and giving the patent holder complete control and intellectual domain over the seed’s DNA. Proponents of this technology, through their global trade group, the International Seed Federation, laud this technology, indicating that it incentivizes the development of new and more efficient plant hybrids (ISF Press Release, 2003). Critics call the monopolization of seed DNA and the criminalization of replanting crop seeds a theft and an aberration of nature. Physicist and environmental activist, Vandana Shiva has linked the practice of criminalizing and claiming intellectual property on nature and seed DNA to the social relationships engendered under colonialism and dubbed the practice a form of neo-imperialism.
“A half-century after the Bengal famine [where, under British colonial rule, most of the food grown was exported for trade and for the UK, instead of feeding hungry local people], a new and clever system has been put in place which is once again making the theft of the harvest a right and the keeping of harvest a crime. Hidden behind complex free-trade treaties are innovative ways to steal nature’s harvest, the harvest of the seed, and the harvest of nutrition (2000).”
Since the genesis of capitalism and the enclosure of feudal and aboriginal lands for food production, the melding of science and industry has resulted in spectacular advances in agricultural production alongside potentially disastrous consequences to the environment (Foster, 1999). While there is nothing new in the relationship between technology and nature, this article explores how the manipulation of a plant’s genetic makeup and ability to reproduce is irreversibly unnatural and fundamentally disastrous. The forced expropriation of food is also not a new endeavor. The structural relationships fostered under colonial and imperial modes of production have seen indigenous people starve while they export cash and staple crops to the core of the world-system.
The complex set of social relationships that underlie science and society are difficult to grasp to the causal observer. Large agricultural firms such as Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland and ConAgra are some of the largest employers of botanists, chemists and other life scientists. Much of their research centers on engineering or facilitating the increase in larger quantities of food while using less physical labor. On the surface this seems to be a necessary and noble endeavor aimed at averting Malthus’ classical yet flawed claim that the earth’s bounty could only support a half-billion people (Preston, 1999). The global population is clearly expanding in terms of absolute numbers (as well as waistlines). Couple this with fewer people working on farms and the results lead to more people working in factories and labs manufacturing the next great gizmo.
To enforce the message that investments in science is for purely benevolent means, many of the agricultural firms public relations literature contains discourses discussing that they are working hard to meet the caloric needs of a growing world.1 This image construction seems aimed at preemptively averting criticisms of their scientific practices and easing the publics mind about the safety of their food. Beneath this veneer lies a much more complex set of relationships that reveals ecologically unsustainable ambitions. To fully grasp the logic and reasoning behind an otherwise illogical and unsustainable development, we must examine the material relationships that are behind this technology.
Here it is theorized that the seemingly unnatural development and application of terminator seed science is the necessary result of a late stage of capitalism termed “monopoly capitalism.” The scientific advances enabling terminator seed technology are best understood utilizing a contemporary Marxist perspective that examines the interrelationship between seed technology and monopoly capitalism. This ultimately unsustainable technology and unnecessary application of scientific knowledge is brought under new light when considered in relationship to the social processes that brought it into existence. To fully capture the criminalization of the harvest we must consider not only the intellectual efforts involved in creating an organism that lacks the ability to reproduce itself, but the structure of the global capitalist system it has emerged in.
Frankenstein’s Botanical Cousin
In monopoly capital’s quest for complete control over the world market, there has been a large amount of intellectual and material resources devoted to employing science and technology to commodify all food sources around the world (Foster, 1999). This has led to some disturbing technological developments in biotechnology and hybridization in “agricultural science.” These technologies threaten to disturb the primary interactions between humans and the environment in severely altering the planet’s ability to feed and sustain the human population. According to a press release issued by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a technology has been developed by Delta & Pine Land Company, a large commercial seed breeder, in corporation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that could potentially sterilize the seed produced by all crops, preventing the seed from being replanted (1998). More recently, the ability to control and police the modified organism has been brought into question (Herring, 2007). The technology of this terminator gene has profound implications for both food safety and the basic ecology of the global food supply.
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