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New agricultural biotechnologies: the struggle for democratic choice.

In the contemporary global agrifood system, the emergence of a plethora of new agricultural biotechnologies has radically merged questions of design at the molecular level with those of agricultural change, posing a series of far-reaching social, technical, and ethical consequences and contradictions. With more possible technological paths than ever before, the new biotechnologies have made technology choice central in the discourse over the future of agriculture. Implicit in the making of such choices is a redesigning of nature that could profoundly transform the agrifood system, ecosystems, and the social organization of agriculture. Indeed, global food production and consumption currently stand on the brink of a radical alteration in organizational form which conceivably could surpass the redistributional outcomes of twentieth century industrialization of farming, agriculture, and the food system.

For millennia, humans have been actively modifying nature to provide their sustenance. However, never before have the tools been available to redesign nature with the precision and speed that the new agricultural biotechnologies permit. For example, recombinant DNA techniques for conferring insect resistance in crops are both more precise and much faster than conventional plant breeding techniques, which require trial and error through many generations of plants. Similarly, DNA probes have been developed to allow for the identification of certain traits in animals, without going through the lengthy process of waiting for the offspring to be born. This will allow researchers to select out undesirable traits and add or enhance desired livestock traits with more speed and precision.

The new biotechnologies also allow the rapid movement of diverse genetic materials across previously insurmountable biological, chemical, and physical barriers to create microorganisms, plants, and animals in a manner desired and designed by humans and their organizations. In essence, genetic material can now be exchanged among virtually all living organisms. This makes all of the world's genetic diversity into raw material to be used in research and development. Expanded claims to intellectual property rights for genetic resources are privatizing what was once public. Likewise, in a global agrifood system the implications of the new biotechnologies are no longer limited by geography. The ability to produce cocoa or vanilla in a laboratory using cell culture techniques, for instance, could virtually decouple the manufacture of these foods from land-based production systems, bringing economic collapse for populations in developing countries.

This compression of time and space raises difficult issues about directing biotechnology policy. Much of the research and development (R&D) in this area is being carried out in the private sector with little public input or oversight. Companies are striving to develop novel biotechnology products as quickly as possible, while simultaneously lobbying to reduce as much as possible the public regulatory processes. They hope this will get their products to market ahead of those of competitors. This greatly reduces the opportunities for participation of those with concerns about the direction of biotechnology research and development.

The discourse surrounding emerging biotechnologies is often inadequate, in part because of the shortcomings of current thinking concerning the separation of science and politics. It is time to move beyond these limitations by questioning the very boundaries between science and politics. First, let us review some of the current developments in agricultural biotechnology and their social, technical, and ethical consequences and contradictions.

New Biotechnologies in Agriculture

The biotechnology industry declares itself to be one of the "cornerstone industries of America's future economic growth," and promises new agricultural technologies that will feed the world. In contrast, some critics warn that the primary fruits of agricultural biotechnology will be "Frankenfoods" and environmental havoc, spawned by technologies over which we will surely lose control. Thus far the developments in the field support neither of these claims. Rather, the story is much more complex. What is clear is that agricultural biotechnology, and the debates surrounding it, will be with us for the foreseeable future.

Biological research in agriculture was traditionally in the public domain. However, most investment in biological research in agriculture is now being done by the private sector. As a whole, the biotechnology industry - of which agricultural biotechnology represents less than 10 percent - spent $7.9 billion on research and development in 1996. In comparison, the federal government invested $234.2 million on agricultural biotechnology research in 1994. Clearly, industry leaders are betting heavily on agricultural biotechnology's commercial success.

Before turning to a discussion of specific technologies and their implications, there are two general issues applicable to all agricultural biotechnologies which should be addressed. First, biotechnologies can increase market concentration internationally. As with other products in a capitalist market, biotechnology developers rely on being the first to get their product to market so as to capture the largest market share. Thus, only countries in the forefront of biotechnology development are likely to reap the gains of research and development investment. Also, due to the increasing complexity of intellectual property rights on life forms, many companies avoid lawsuits by swapping patented material. Hence, companies that do not have many patents or are not connected into this network may be blocked from entering the market. Furthermore, the agricultural biotechnology industry is located in Western industrialized countries. Only about ten developing countries have biotechnology programs. This will only exacerbate the inequalities which currently exist between developed and developing countries.

Second, advocates of biotechnology focus on increasing productivity without questioning its distributional consequences. Typically, the argument that biotechnology will help feed the world is couched in humanitarian rhetoric and presented as the justification for biotechnology development. Advocates often use the (promised) results as a means to justify and legitimate the investment in R&D. These arguments, however, ignore the multiple dimensions of food security. Biotechnology addresses the amount and quality of food available, but it does not deal with issues of access and distribution. Indeed, given its potential to displace large numbers of people and to deny them access to the means of subsistence, biotechnology could in some instances actually be detrimental to helping the world feed itself. Let us turn now to specific examples of plant, food, and animal biotechnologies and their implications.


The list of new biotechnologies on the market has grown extensively in the past few years (see Table 1). In plant biotechnology, herbicide resistant crops (HRCs) are one example of commercial developments. HRCs allow herbicide application after the crop has emerged from the soil, extending the period in which the chemical may be used. Expectations are that by 2000 the annual value of herbicide tolerant seed will be about $2.1 billion. With the top four chemical companies controlling 53 percent of the market, it is not surprising that 30 to 50 percent of industry R&D spending is presently going towards HRCs.

In 1997, an estimated eight to ten million acres of Monsanto's herbicide-tolerant (Roundup Ready) soybeans were planted - roughly 15 percent of the total soybean acreage in the United States. Their transgenic soybean (with inserted genes from other organisms) is resistant to the company's leading herbicide, Roundup, the largest selling weed killer in the world. Farmers who use the seed must sign a contract requiring them to use only Roundup and allowing Monsanto to inspect their fields at any time. Currently, Roundup accounts for 17 percent of Monsanto's total annual sales. For Monsanto, HRCs like Roundup Ready soybeans represent an opportunity for the company to increase its overall share of the agricultural inputs market by introducing genetically engineered seed that is tied to the use of their herbicides.

Today, all major seed companies have been bought or are tied to chemical companies. The consolidation of the chemical and seed industries has allowed a few companies to gain a large share of the agricultural inputs market. Concentration in the industry has generated considerable criticism of the control which agribusiness is gaining over the agrifood system. The concern here is that, as the market is increasingly dominated by fewer input suppliers, the choices that farmers have before them will become more restricted. A few products will be heavily pushed as the industry standard. This can promote a narrower genetic base for agriculture, as well as restrict the types of farm enterprises and the range of choices available to farmers.


The commercialization of HRCs raises other long-term environmental issues as well. Some studies have shown that herbicide tolerance engineered into crop plants can spread quite easily into weedy relatives of the crop. Thus, widespread use of HRCs could lead to hardier weeds. Of course, these consequences are shared by everyone; they are not only experienced by direct users of the technology.

Another plant biotechnology currently in use is identity preserved (IP) crops, which have been engineered with specific altered traits, such as tomatoes with delayed ripening, as in the case of the Flavr Savr tomatoes, or canola with high lauric acid (an ingredient in cosmetics), such as Calgene's Laurical. IP crops are a way of adding value to a crop because the altered trait commands a premium in the market. Yet, for the developers to maximize profits they must maintain ownership or control of the product from seed to market. This encourages, and is certain to promote, contract farming. Contract farming has some advantages for farmers. For instance, farmers may not have to incur a large debt to finance the crop under contract. However, farmers entering contracts also lose autonomy as they no longer are permitted to make basic production and marketing decisions. Moreover, contract farming may also continue the shift toward larger and fewer farms, because the contracting company will face increased transaction costs as the number of contracts into which it enters increases. For example, if Calgene wishes to contract out 1,000 thousand acres of their anti-sense tomato, they would seek out a larger, more capitalized producer for the full 1,000 acres, rather than enter into ten contracts at 100 acres each, to keep their transaction costs down.


Many food biotechnologies have been developed with little public awareness or discussion. In part this is due to the fact that most consumers know very little about research and development in food processing. For example, scientists have produced chymosin, an enzyme used in cheese making, from genetically engineered organisms. The first commercial product, a recombinant chymosin called Chymogen, can be found in approximately 60 percent of all hard cheeses in the United States. Yet, most people in the United States have never heard of this genetically engineered enzyme.

Food biotechnology also includes the use of enzymes in fermentation, as well as in starch processing. Today, the value of the world fermentation market is estimated at between $20 and $40 billion annually, while the market for starch enzymes is approximately $200 million annually. One of the first products made with starch enzymes was High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). HFCS is produced by using biotechnologically produced enzymes to convert corn into sweeteners. Corn converted into a sweetener by this method has attained widespread use in major food products such as soft drinks. Other products not yet commercialized include vanilla and cocoa produced in vitro (by cells grown in a large vat). In principle, any commodity that is consumed in a highly processed, undifferentiated form could be produced using these techniques. The result would be large batches of the commodity that are completely aseptic and require far less processing.

If successfully commercialized, in vitro biotechnologies - also called "cell culture" techniques - will have an impact well beyond merely the technical aspects of their development. These technologies permit the global displacement of markets. Market displacement has always occurred due to product substitution, but biotechnology accelerates the process and leaves developing countries' populations in a precarious position. For instance, when HFCS attained widespread use it captured a large share of the cane sugar market from developing countries, threatening the livelihoods of an estimated eight to ten million people in the South. Presently, vanilla and cocoa are still cheaper to import than to produce in factories. But if such factory production can be done economically, people who depend on the export of these crops for their livelihood may see a significant loss of market share.


Unlike food biotechnologies, animal biotechnologies have created significant controversy. The fact that animals are sentient beings creates very different issues for biotechnology development. The issues are further complicated because the information about animal biotechnology R&D is not readily available. Almost all research on animal biotechnologies is funded by private industry. Furthermore, due to the controversy over the use of animals, much research is undisclosed. Often, only after research is completed do the results become public knowledge. Dolly, the lamb cloned in 1997, is a prime example of both the secrecy surrounding the industry and the controversy which animal biotechnology creates.

Early animal biotechnologies involved reproduction, particularly the ability to select certain desired livestock characteristics. Recent research has shifted towards 1) increasing the milk production of cows (e.g., bovine growth hormone), 2) improving or changing meat characteristics (e.g., porcine growth hormone), and 3) using animals to produce pharmaceuticals. Pharmaceutical manufacturing, also called "transgenie pharming," is the leading area of transgenie animal R&D investment. If successful, transgenie "pharming" will allow pharmaceutical companies to use an animal much like they would a laboratory. The animal would be engineered to produce a desired compound that would then be sold to treat various ailments. A partial list of transgenie animals that have successfully produced a desired drug or drug ingredient includes pigs that produce human hemoglobin; sheep that produce an amino acid lacking in some humans; and rabbits that produce an enzyme lacking in people with Pompe's disease, a genetic disorder. The intention is eventually to commercialize these products.

In addition to the issues noted above, certain concerns are specific to animal biotechnologies. Is it appropriate to treat animals as mere factories for human drugs? Will such animals suffer from their own health problems? Should we treat the patenting of animals in the same manner as we treat the patenting of a drug produced in a lab? Also, how will pharming affect the current structure of agriculture? These questions have received little public discussion.

The plant, food, and animal technologies discussed above and listed in Table 1 are merely the tip of the iceberg. There are many technologies still a few years from the market that will eventually reach commercialization. These include transgenie fish, such as salmon, tilapia, and catfish, which are being engineered for industrial aquaculture production. Also, there are many more developments in pharming in both plants and transgenie animals. This makes it even more urgent that society begin to grapple with how and who will decide what direction biotechnology takes.

Biotechnology as Politics by Other Means

Agricultural biotechnology is a striking example of politics by other means. There is a virtual absence of public participation in matters concerning agricultural biotechnology in the United States and elsewhere. Yet the consequences of developing the new technology under the direction of corporations are substantial and extend throughout the global agrifood system. Everyone is a participant in a global experiment with biotechnology, which promises to create local, regional, and global winners and losers. Despite the best efforts of advocates to portray biotechnology as the logical, inevitable direction of agricultural research and development, in reality it is a series of choices, each with associated consequences. Discussions of critical social, technical, and ethical aspects of these technologies are currently suppressed by the view that science and technology are beyond the boundaries of conventional political discourse. Nonetheless, choices are being made concerning the new biotechnologies - choices that will determine the kind of society we get.

The rhetoric of neutrality embedded in the science of biotechnology masks a series of social contradictions. When closely examined, technical choices are simultaneously political choices not necessarily congruent with the fuller aspirations of a free, democratic society. The current developments in biotechnology reflect a decision-making process in which commercial interests override societal and environmental concerns. This fundamental contradiction is at the heart of the politics of the new agricultural biotechnologies.

Biotechnology is one valid and reliable way of knowing, representing, and manipulating nature. In principle, there is nothing inherently harmful about this new set of tools. However, within industrial capitalism, biotechnology is tied to private profit, short-term control over nature, and neglect of short- and long-term social and environmental consequences. In part, this is reinforced by our society's faith in technological progress as the sole means to resolve human problems. At the same time, the institutional basis of industrial capitalism reinforces an increasingly illegitimate distinction between the political and technical. The legacy of this distinction can be traced back to the industrialization of agriculture and the industrialization of society.

In many respects, the production-oriented arguments utilized by biotechnology advocates echo previous sentiments exhibited in the post-Second World War era development of industrial agriculture that produced the "green revolution." The green revolution focused on rapid production gains as a singular means to solve world food problems while stemming red revolutions. Indeed, the application of new technological packages, corresponding infrastructure development, and the growth of export markets are all legacies of the green revolution. This approach did lead to significant production gains. However, the contradictions arising from these developments also led to or exacerbated social, political, and economic inequalities within localities, nation-states, and regions of the developing and developed world. Moreover, the degradation of tropical agricultural resources has led to negative long-term environmental consequences resulting in profound ecosystem alteration, and in some cases the near extirpation of food production bases. The green revolution provides an important lesson with respect to the application of the new agricultural biotechnologies: the ideology of inevitable technological progress excludes consideration of the distributional and environmental consequences of such efforts.

Marx was ambivalent about technological choice. On the one hand, he envisioned that new technologies could help achieve human emancipation and lead to a society of abundant production and consumption. On the other hand, Marx realized that technologies could also create monotonous routine and drudgery that would alienate and demean those who used them. He foresaw the social conditions of industrial capitalism which currently relate to how the new agricultural biotechnologies have emerged and are taking shape. However, there is nothing which necessitates this outcome. The new biotechnologies can be beneficial to society, but not without democratizing the institutional bases for technology choice. These technical and political dimensions can no longer remain separate if a socially just biotechnology is to emerge.

The Struggle to Democratize Science and Technology

Increasing corporate control of the biotechnology R&D agenda raises a host of problems, not the least of which is a lack of public access to decision making in this arena. While opening the technology policy process to broad participation comes up against considerable structural constraints, a democratization of science and technology should not be seen simply as a utopian illusion. People normally think of democracy as limited to the political process and party politics. However, there have been notable attempts to extend democracy to technology choice. Several countries have made notable progress in this direction. While such efforts in the United States have received very limited support, in Western Europe institutional innovations aimed at a more inclusive technology policy process are being developed. These initiatives should by no means be considered a panacea for dealing with technology development, but they are one approach to challenging corporate and state hegemony over technology choice, and are at least beginning to open debate.

For example, for more than a decade the Danish Board of Technology has been running consensus conferences that have provided a forum in which ordinary citizens with diverse backgrounds are involved in technology assessment. The results of these dialogues between citizens and a panel of experts are widely disseminated in the media, and often acted on by legislative bodies. The DBT has held conferences on industrial and agricultural biotechnology (1987), irradiation of food products (1989), and genetically manipulated animals (1992), thus facilitating debates in these areas. It appears that this model of public discussion and involvement is now being more widely adopted in Europe.

Initial attempts at ascertaining how citizens could become more involved in the technically complex areas of technology policy are beginning to appear in the United States as well. In 1997 the Loka Institute, along with a number of other institutions, organized a pilot citizens' panel based on the consensus conference model. This particular panel dealt with issues arising from changes in telecommunications technologies and policy (especially relating to the Internet). Judging from the conference reports, the panel demonstrated that lay citizens are capable of meaningful participation in complex technical and public policy issues. Both this approach and the work of the Danish Board of Technology warrant further exploration.

These are just a few examples of ways to subject biotechnological change to greater public scrutiny through democratic involvement. It is useful to consider some of their shared principles. In all cases, the relationship between social priorities and technology choices is made explicit. A key principle of these efforts is that society must democratically define its priorities; only then should it ask how technologies might help to achieve those goals. This challenges the common assumption in science policy of a positive, linear relationship between scientific advance and social progress. Another guiding principle is that since all citizens experience the effects of science and technology, and since citizens ordinarily expect to have a voice in decisions that will affect the way they live their daily lives, they should be involved in deciding the direction of science and technology policy.

But we should not be too sanguine about such possibilities. Although it is clear that the depth of understanding already present in the citizenry is such that science and technology could develop democratically and in socially desirable directions, it is equally clear that within a capitalist system, companies continually fight any attempt to constrain their ability to pursue profits the way they see fit. The only way such a system can continue to function is for firms to produce new products (whether better seeds or hormones to boost milk production, various electronic gadgets, or new models of cars) and then convince people to buy these products. But in a truly democratic and socially just system that is also trying to be environmentally sound, there is no justification for all these new products. The only real basis for most of them under capitalism is the generation of corporate profits. Thus we are left with the question, can there be real democratic control over the direction of science and technology under capitalism? Perhaps not. Yet an attempt to forge such control is a necessary step in the radical linking of theory and practice, pointing beyond the current system.

Gerad Middendorf, Mike Skladany, and Elizabeth Ransom are doctoral candidates in the Department of Sociology at Michigan State University. Lawrence Busch is a University distinguished professor in the Department of Sociology at MSU.
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Author:Middendorf, Gerad; Skladany, Mike; Ransom, Elizabeth; Busch, Lawrence
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Jul 1, 1998
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