David Wood Reviews Fighting for the Future of Food

David Wood spent over twenty years working in agriculture and living in developing countries of Latin America/Caribbean, Africa and Tropical Asia). He was a Lecturer in the Faculty of Agriculture, University of the West Indies, Director of  Aldabra Atoll Research Station (now part of a World Heritage Site nature reserve), and a specialist in economic botany, crop genetic resources, and biodiversity conservation.  He pioneered the term ‘agrobiodiversity’ to focus attention on the ecological management and utilization of agricultural biodiversity in agroecosystems. He was manager of three key global crop genetic resource collections – tropical fruits in Costa Rica, farmers’ landraces in Ethiopia, and beans in Colombia. Current interests include the role of international NGOs in the agricultural policies of developing countries, and the role of fire in the ecology of the origins of cereal crops.

Here is David’s review of Fighting for the Future of Food: Activists versus Agribusiness in the Struggle over Biotechnology by Rachel Schurman.

A colleague drew my attention to this book with the resigned question: “Why do sociologists hate agbiotech?”  Before reading the book I could have replied: ‘Because sociologists are concentrated in North America and Europe; because they assume that GM crops disadvantage already-poor farmers in developing countries; and because capitalistic exploitation of the poor is always bad.’  But after reading this book I am sure that my reply – which accepts that sociologist are left-wing ‘nice guys’ caring for the world – is not even remotely accurate as a generalization.

My main purpose in reading and reviewing this book was to seek to understand and explain how the book leads up to its conclusions in the final Chapter 6: “Biotech Battles and Agricultural Development in Africa.” Conclusions about Africa are a reasonable target for the authors, both based at US universities, where one (Schurman) is a sociologist with a background in studying anti-biotech activism in the United States and Europe, and the other (Munro) a political scientist with an interest in African development.

My own concern for African agricultural development started in the 1960s when I lived in Kenya and worked for the East African Agriculture and Forestry Research Organization, continued in Ethiopia in the mid-1970s establishing seed collections of traditional crop varieties, and continued with extensive fieldwork with a dryland farming institute in Kenya collecting drought-resistant crops from traditional farms. Farmers always treated me with courtesy and kindness. Over this period in Africa the Green Revolution was making some impact but farm productivity was scarcely matching rapid population growth: recurrent droughts caused recurrent famines and deaths – some of which I witnessed.

The authors set the scene in a long introduction (almost one sixth of the text of the book). We are asked to accept that that the conflict between anti-GM activists and corporate culture was both caused and made worse by their two drastically different ‘lifeworlds’ (Lebenswelten), explained as stocks of “…culturally transmitted background knowledge that people bring to a situation and that provides them with a common cognitive and normative frame of reference.”  In the last sentence in the introduction Schurman’s claims her intuition on contrasting lifeworlds was reinforced by being told that they represented “Just two very different ways of seeing the world.” While this duopoly of actors may make matters simpler for the reader it raises problems of both inclusion and balance. Are there more actors involved in the ‘fight?’ May there be other complementary or conflicting ‘lifeworlds,’ for example, those of farmers and consumers? To my mind the situation probably is vastly more complicated than just two ‘lifeworlds’ can encompass. And what about balance? This too is suspect. Towards the end of this introduction Schurman describes two back-to-back conferences she attended in St Louis. Schurman’s accounts of these contrasting conferences of activists and big business leaves no doubt where her sympathy lies – evident by her less-than-flattering portrayal of Norman Borlaug at the agribusiness conference.

There are sufficient flags in this introduction alone to demand caution of the reader. For example, an early mention of the activist ‘Cremate Monsanto’ campaign to prevent the introduction of Bt cotton in India is not followed up. In fact the campaign in India massively failed. Local activists, partly funded from the US, could not stem the rapid spread of Bt cotton and a large increase in Indian cotton production. Another complicating factor – beyond the two ‘lifeworlds’ that the authors restrict themselves to – is the damage that Bt cotton did to the sale of insecticides in India. The ‘lifeworld’ tendency of capitalist pesticide manufacturers would be to join forces with the anti-GM anti-capitalist activists: did this happen in India?

Then there follow six chapters leading to a Conclusion, Endnotes, References (oddly, including nothing of the authors’ own commodious and relevant publications), and an Index. The first chapter describes the events leading up to the initial protests. The question is asked as to why a biotechnological revolution in seed unleashed a storm of protest. There are repeated references to the growing hegemony of the United States in an increasingly competitive global economy based on open markets and Intellectual Property Protection (IPP) of innovations. The authors recognize that open markets make weaker nations vulnerable to domination by stronger, more efficient, or more technologically advanced competitors. Tellingly, but understated in this book, direct investment in foreign agriculture expanded, with multinational corporations consolidating the seed industry and establishing affiliates around the world. The chapter goes on to describe the growing activist opposition to the “dominant development paradigm,” that is, activists in North America objecting to patterns of third world agricultural development.

This first chapter tries hard to establish the international nature of protests – citing Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth: however both originated in North America and were later exported to Europe and onwards, complete with their anti-development rhetoric. The chapter claims that activists, especially in the global south, believed that the modern agroindustrial system was unsustainable and posed a threat to biodiversity. I dispute this threat on two grounds. Firstly, the supposed threat to wild biodiversity was spurious. Modern high-yielding agriculture can take pressure off the conversion of natural vegetation and its biodiversity. Secondly, over the past 50 years a very extensive network of national and international genebanks saved local crop biodiversity otherwise threatened by loss in farmers’ fields (I was part of this rescue operation in nine different tropical locations over 25 years). More importantly, activists in the global South were and are being sponsored and even paid by multi-million dollar anti-development environmentalist organizations, first in North America and later in Europe.

What this first chapter fails to do is to establish the unique nature of biotechnology to these early protestors. They were protesting about ‘patents on life’, the seed industry, genetic erosion, pesticides, and above all the ‘agricultural development paradigm’ – notably the Green Revolution. Their ‘lifeworld’ was not anti-GM activism but anti-agricultural development. It was not even anti-corporate and anti-patents, as the Green Revolution was an early target of activists but was public-sector and free of even Plant Variety Rights, never mind patents. When GM crops came along they were a binding force that united a range of disparate, by then institutionalized, anti-development activists. A notable new feature subsequently was the vehement attack on GM crops by the organic sector – but this was purely an economic battle for market share within the growers’ own countries.

The second chapter, “Creating an Industry Actor,” describes the involvement and actions of corporate America leading to extended criticism of Monsanto: regarded as an “arrogant and aggressive corporate actor.” The final sentence of this chapter reports the activists’ view that Monsanto was: “… disenfranchising farmers from their very access to seeds.”  Having spent more than two decades working with farmers and hundreds of thousands of samples of farmer-saved seed, this emotive claim has no meaning for me (but is oft repeated by activists). Farmers can access their own saved seed, seed from neighbors and markets, and seed from public-sector breeders without burdensome costs. Even seed protected by patents and plant variety rights is used freely by farmers (as initially with Monsanto’s Bt cotton in India and routinely in cross-border GM seed movement in South America).

The authors also seem to fail to see the significance of what they report: the global nature of corporate seed and agricultural biotechnology companies. The CEO of Monsanto claimed (p. 48) that he had: “…been buying seed companies around the world. In a short time we’ve pulled together the germplasm, the global market presence… to help us bring our genes to market.”

The business plan of Monsanto – designed in the company’s financial interest – was dominance of global seed markets in specific crops. However, most of the research base of Monsanto was initially generated in North America. To dominate global seed markets Monsanto would need to export North American crop breeding technology to global competitors of North American farmers. Monsanto did this with zeal and success, mainly in corn, cotton, and soybean. For example, in 2010 Monsanto cotton covered 26 million acres in India but only 10.9 million acres in the USA (although yields were far higher in the USA). While Schurman and Munro missed the economic significance of this export of US technology directly to competitors, the anti-GM activists in North America certainly had not and this was to lead to their intense demonization of Monsanto in subsequent years.

Chapter 3 – ‘Forging a Global Movement’ – describes the genesis of anti-GM activism and offers a sociological interpretation of how the movement spread. It is a key chapter in understanding the viral spread of anti-GM activism to developing countries. Significantly, this chapter starts with an account of a key meeting Bogève, France in 1987 organized by the Canadian NGO, RAFI. At the time of the meeting I was living in Cali, Colombia, managing one of the CGIAR global genebanks. This was part of a global network of genebanks of exceptional value to Third World agriculture, feeding samples to public-sector plant breeders to produced Green Revolution varieties. RAFI was a constant, carping, critic of the CGIAR. The complaint then could not have been patents or even Plant Varietal Rights, as the varieties we stored and produced by plant breeding were quite free to all. At the same time in 1987 as RAFI was trying to render the entire CGIAR ineffective they were crafting the Bogève Declaration on agricultural biotechnology. With reference to biotechnology this concluded: “… in today’s world this most powerful new technology is more likely to serve the interests of the rich and powerful than the needs of the poor and powerless.” Agricultural biotechnology would: “… accentuate inequalities in the farm population, aggravate the problem of genetic erosion and uniformity, undermine life-support systems, increase the vulnerability and dependence of farmers, and further concentrate the power of transnational agribusiness.” Students of activism today may recognize that the exaggerated issues of 24 years ago are still with us. This was exactly the same rhetoric and conclusions that were used to critique the Green Revolution by a generation of sociologists working in developed countries: a rhetoric now known to be entirely misplaced. After Bogève loud warning bells should have been ringing in Ministries of Agriculture in developing countries. Questions should have been asked: “Why are activists in Northern, crop-exporting countries, trying to prevent the spread of modern crop production technology to our countries?”

Chapter 3 then drifts off into a fanciful and romanticized view of ‘thinking work’ with ‘thinking as social action’, the genesis of protest movements, talk of ethical concerns and moral sensibilities, the Vietnam War, Old Testament Prophets, concentration camps and fascism. This approach leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. It is an attempt to legitimize risk-free and well paid anti-GM activism by comparing it to valid protest and resistance movements.

However, the chapter then returns to and emphasizes the work of RAFI. At this point my own hands-on experience of what RAFI had begun dabbling in allows me to sharply differ from the interpretation of Schurman and Munro in their section ‘The “Development Critics” and the Seeds issue’.  The first issue of note is that the three members of RAFI are described as part of a growing community of international development critics. But none of the three had any experience of agricultural development: their main work initially was as sociologists and journalists raising concerns over seed industry consolidation, notably the buy-outs of US seed companies by Europeans. Indeed, on this issue RAFI’s Mooney had recommended to the US authorities that: “…the ‘Code of Conduct for Transnational Corporations’ specifically include provision that the seed industry be regarded as an area of vital national security, unappropriate [sic] for the involvement of international firms” (reported in Don Duvick 1986 Natural Science 7: at the time Don was senior vice president for research at Pioneer Hi-Bred International and knew what he was talking about). Mooney was trying to prevent what was about to happen: multinational seed companies would export North American seed-based technology to foreign farmers to the detriment of North American farmers – as the companies did. The second issue of note was that then RAFI began working on loss of genetic diversity associated with the spread of industrial-style agriculture. My view is that RAFI recognized that, as most genetic diversity of crops of importance to North American farmers was in developing countries, then these countries would have to be denied modern agriculture. And this is what RAFI tried to do over the following two decades.

The RAFI triumvirate and anti-biotech activists since have played the card of loss of traditional varieties as an inevitable consequence of what they called ‘industrial monoculture agriculture’ and the privatization of hitherto freely-available seeds. These are repeated themes of chapter 3. Yet RAFI came very late and ill-prepared to the genetic erosion debate – “in the late 1970s”.  By this time the issue was firmly under control, with the publication of a comprehensive technical workshop in 1970 and a subsequent establishment of a network regional genebanks (by the late 1970s I had been manager of two of these and had never heard of RAFI). Seed samples in these genebanks were entirely freely available. For example, I could offer duplicates of the entire global collection of Capsicum (chilli) peppers to India, the largest consumer of chilli in the world. Chapter 3 reports of the international seeds networks of ICDA and GRAIN (both offshoots in Europe of RAFI). These were paper networks of no value to farmers – rather the reverse.

From what was a small group of activists in the 1970s chapter 3 reports a boom in the 1990s, mainly in North America. A steady flow of financing is reported to come from ‘liberal private foundations’ – otherwise unspecified. Some of this found its way to partner activists in Europe and in developing countries.

Chapter 4 – on the struggle over biotechnology in Europe – is depressing. The majority of biotech firms were in the United States (p. 87). The majority of activists were initially North American but then exported their activism to Europe, and within 15 years had wrecked the emerging biotechnology industry in Europe. North American activists exploited a major weak point in Europe – the existence of Green Parties. For example, the German Green Party actually hired an associate of Rifkin in the USA to work from Brussels to make biotechnology a central issue for the Greens. Multimillion-dollar activist organizations had offices in Europe. The book repeatedly notes that the impact of (exported) activism was more severe in Europe than in the USA, where consumers trusted their food and farmers were more than happy with GM crops. A key part of the campaign in Europe was opposition to patents of living organisms. ICDA Seed Campaign (another link to RAFI) had obtained an advanced copy of an EU ‘Life Patents Directive’ in 1988 and over seven years had successfully mobilized against it: the Directive was rejected by the European Parliament. A subsequent handing of biotechnology policy to the Directorate-General for Environment was a nail in the coffin for EU science. Activists were clever (at least at first): one activist noted that Monsanto had been demonized very heavily (p. 114). This plays successfully to the endemic anti-Americanism in much of the world: “Monsanto is American, therefore do not buy Monsanto seed.” In my view a more intelligent view from Europe would have been that Monsanto is exporting top-class US agricultural technology and therefore let’s grab it with both hands and better compete in global agricultural commodity trade. The rise of Green parties in Europe blocked this. Also contributing to agricultural stagnation in Europe was the adoption of ‘multifunctional’ agriculture, allowing environmental and socio-economic considerations to influence decisions of agricultural productivity and subsidies.

But as a result of activist meddling, Europe not only stopped growing GM crops but stopped importing them (with the exception of animal feed): the US and other GM countries lost markets. My view of this event is that it was one of the many unintended consequences of anti-GM activism that indiscriminately targeted environmental problems but also food safety concerns of policy-makers and consumers. Another unintended consequence was the use by activists of the ‘biopiracy’ argument: patenting would encourage privatization of the genetic resources sourced from developing countries. This concern made such countries aware of past abuse and the shutters came down on the free movement of genetic resources from the large stocks in developing countries – a restriction that continues to the present. The biopiracy issue – closely associated with anti-biotech activism – had been a flagship campaign of RAFI in the 1980s. The end result was developed countries being starved of the genetic resources needed for future plant breeding at a time of possible climate change. This is a disaster for North America, dependent for around 95% of its crop production from introduced crops. This was a RAFI own goal. Two complex and expensive (and formerly unnecessary) UN treaties attempted to repair this shut-down with no success. In my view North American anti-GM activism, initially focused on preventing the export of advanced seed technology, progressively began to damage the long-term interests of North American farmers in better crop varieties.

Chapter 5 moves back to the United States. There was some activist success – mainly in questioning the safety of food prepared from GM ingredients. There were cases on unapproved GM maize being found in human food prepared from corn and potatoes. However (p.118) the chapter reports that anti-biotech activists in the United States, after a high point around the year 2000, were not having the same degree of impact that their European counterparts did across the Atlantic. The U.S. activism was felt most powerfully outside the country. U.S. consumers were generally indifferent to food scares: a reflection on the trust that U.S. consumers placed in government regulators. U.S. farmers had adopted GM crop varieties faster than they had adopted any other industrial technology in the nation’s history.

This chapter has some ammunition for those puzzled, as I was, by the apparently centralized decision-making process of North American anti-GM NGOs. In 1996, at a UN conference on genetic resources in Leipzig and after a heated argument, a RAFI staffer said he would report me to the NGOs: this to him was a serious threat; to me it seemed Orwellian. In 1997 an Association of Environmental Grantmakers in the USA established a funding group on biotechnology and over the next three years poured two to three million dollars into what the Schurman and Munro call the ‘cause’ (p. 134). There is nothing more about who the ‘grantmakers’ were or just what they were paying activists to do but very obviously activists were for hire – that is, were mercenaries with opaque sources of funding. Some of this funding inevitably spilled over to foreign associate NGOs, when US-based activists contributed resources and ideas to other anti-biotech movements (p. 145). Around this time Losey published his paper linking deaths of iconic monarch butterflies to Bt pollen. This is reported as a ‘gift from heaven.’ An activist explained to the authors: “It didn’t matter whether the science was good or bad…” (in fact it was bad).  This opened the gates for a rash of pseudo-scientific papers on the environmental, food safety, and human health issues surrounding GM crops, publications that continue to this day.

Chapter 6 reports on the impact on Africa (actually sub-Saharan Africa) caused by anti-GM activism exported from North America and Europe. It does not make happy reading. There is a description of local activist organizations “…trying to beat back the behemoth of biotechnology.” Earlier it is claimed that industry created “…a juggernaut of biotechnology” – loaded language indeed. The word ‘inchoate’ crops up several times: not only is the authors’ reasoning unfinished but also difficult to understand. The chapter blames the closing of European markets to GM crops (“engineered by anti-GM activists”) for the subsequent aversion to GM crops in Africa. But this chapter’s reasoning about exports can be challenged on two grounds. Firstly, Europe does not ban GM imports: there are substantial and necessary imports of animal feed (mainly soy and maize). Secondly, what food that is genetically modified would Africa export to Europe? Most imports to Europe from Africa are from crops that are, as yet, not GM, for example, green vegetables, cut flowers and a wide range of plantation crops (tea, coffee, cacao).

A more contentious and recriminatory issue was the rejection by some African governments of GM maize supplied by the USA at a time of famine in 2002. This rejection has been blamed on European environmental groups but the chapter subsequently (p. 149) points the finger to “… activists in the global North” and their affiliates in poor countries. Here I admit to some puzzlement over the ethics of the process this book describes: the emergence of North American-based activism, its spread to influence Europe, and its negative impact on agriculture in Africa. With what moral justification can foreign activists influence the decisions of African leaders, farmers, and consumers that are so vital to African food security? Surely northern activists buying into affiliates in Africa (just as seed companies bought foreign affiliates to extend their influence) is a form of covert neo-colonialism that should have been recognized as such by African leaders.

For no obvious reason related to Africa this chapter has an extensive coverage of the Cartagena Protocol. This is described as calling for governments: “… to adopt a precautionary approach in designing mechanisms to regulate biotechnology and to carry out stringent risk assessments of it.” However, the precautionary principle came from the earlier ‘Rio Declaration.’ In contrast, the main intent of the Cartagena Protocol is a specific focus on transboundary movements – that is, mainly agricultural trade of GMOs. The Cartagena Protocol to my mind does far more harm than good, except perhaps to the short-term financial interests of the many activists who tried to influence its content. Subsequently activists can prove their worth to their funders by – as this chapter says – demanding: “… that their governments live up to their international obligation.”  Neo-colonial activism from abroad was patent. The negotiating Africa Group: “…would not have functioned … without friends.” (p. 155).

But foreign friends of local activists can harm national interests. For example, Andy Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety (cited on p. 10) has claimed to me that his DC office houses and is the fiscal sponsor for Vandana Shiva’s organization in India. Shiva notably failed with her ‘Cremate Monsanto’ campaign, attempting to prevent the massively successful uptake of GM cotton in India. India has now pushed the U.S. to second place in global cotton exports. If Shiva had succeeded there would have been huge economic costs to India (and associated benefits to US cotton exporters). This book admits the export of activism: U.S.-based activists have contributed resources and ideas to other anti-biotech movements (p. 145) but neglects to question why.

Although the authors have all the details at their fingertips they have not examined the glaringly obvious: that funding of foreign activists to prevent the spread of GM crops could be an economic bonus to the subsidized exports of the U.S. and other developed countries many of whom also subsidize their exports. The anti-GM African Center for Biosafety is an example from South Africa of foreign association and the potential damage to South African agricultural economy. Its Director once worked for Greenpeace and is now of the Board of RAFI in Canada; another RAFI Board member is from SEARICE in the Philippines – a thorn in the flesh of the Green Revolution International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

What this chapter mentions but regrettably does not expand upon is the increasing role of ‘supranational organizations’ such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. The authors are partly right when they say that the role of states and the nature of sovereignty in the international system have shifted as power and agency have leaked both upward towards multilateral organizations and downward toward nonstate actors, such as multilateral corporations. I would argue that the downward leak was far more to unaccountable NGOs such as the anti-GM activists.  These activists are major players in UN environmental meetings discussing a range of new Treaties. National sovereignty has gone to the wall – a major recent example being the FAO Seed Treaty, which transfers national sovereignty over genetic resources to FAO, with massive involvement of the same anti-GM activists that this book seemingly approves of.

One other purpose of the Cartagena Protocol is to protect national biodiversity. Again, national agricultural development interests can suffer from transboundary anti-GM activism. One mechanism of this is NGO insistence that GM crops should not be introduced into areas of crop origins. The chapter mentions to apparent ‘contamination’ of traditional maize in Mexico by GM maize. Following this logic, Africa, the Centre of Origin of sorghum, would be prohibited from developing GM sorghum. African farmers should maintain the purity of their sorghum – but for whom and at what cost for development? Farmers are being treated as outdoor museum curators without their knowledge or permission. But this logic of imposed conservationism is based on a series of false suppositions. Firstly, that ‘contamination’ would reduce the value of sorghum genetic resources in future breeding: false. Next, that GM sorghum would inevitably replace traditional sorghum: false – no more than any improved sorghum or even any other crop would. Finally, transnational activists and not national institutes should in charge of crop breeding strategies. In fact, unbeknownst to activists, the genetic ‘contamination’ issue is only slightly relevant for Africa, as 70% of crops grown in Africa originated either in South America of Asia.

The book has a final Conclusion. This still attempts to apply the ‘lifeworlds’ tool to understanding the conflict over biotechnology.  My view is that this fails: there is a simpler explanation. Biotech companies were exporting North American seed-based technology; the anti-GM movement, originating in North America, was attempting to stop this threat to American farmers (and seems to have received substantial foundation funding to do so).  Money has driven both courses of action. Fortunately for future food production, the book admits that it is impossible to escape the conclusion that agricultural genetic engineering is here to stay and will continue to be an important component of global agriculture (p. 180). In the fading embers of the final paragraphs the authors accept a source of weakness of the anti-GM movement: an incapability of seeing any conditions under which agricultural biotechnology might be beneficial (p. 192). But perhaps the authors’ comment in the previous paragraph (p. 191) is the real reason for activist failure. “Industry actors believed implicitly that property protection was essential for innovation. Activists, by contrast, saw intellectual property protection as inimical to promoting the public good and as a violation of one of their most deeply held values, that is, that life itself should not be subject to private property relations.” But the protection of innovations is a matter for national governments and democracy to decide, not transnational activists.

If this had been acknowledged early on and activists had confined their objectives to pressuring their own governments, a lot of hunger, hard work weeding, and dangerous work spraying insecticides by poor peasant farmers in the Third World could have been avoided.