The Sociology of Agriculture in Transition: The Political Economy of Agriculture after Biotechnology

Article excerpt


In 2007, a global food crisis made media headlines and brought the topic of agriculture back into the public eye. Hunger, starvation, and volatile civil unrest in numerous countries occurred in the context of record breaking profits for agrifood corporations. While the triggers of the food crisis were multifold, and included some natural factors, such as droughts, many of them were structural and arose from societal decisions about the role of agriculture and food. Agricultural trade liberalization, agrofuels, and a preference for commercial over subsistence agriculture in developing countries are a few cases in point. This article addresses another structural change affecting agriculture--the introduction of agricultural biotechnologies. More specifically, it addresses the social changes prompted by its proprietary aspects, as "to focus too much on the tools rather than on who is using the tools and for what the tools are being used is to misapprehend the problem" (Kloppenburg 2004:352). The tools of agricultural biotechnology represent an important step in the industrialization of agriculture. There is significant evidence that the legal and regulatory framework associated with the technologies is being used as a new capital accumulation strategy in agriculture, one that expropriates farmers' control over the production process and shifts it to the corporations that are the technologies' developers. Though still evolving, this accumulation strategy has important local and global implications given the high salience that agriculture has for both farmers and for a public concerned with food access. In this context, the role society chooses for the tools of agricultural biotechnology is of central importance.

Sociology and political economy of agriculture literatures have provided numerous insights into historical capital accumulation trends in agriculture. While some scholars cast agriculture under the broad scope of theoretical perspectives of industrialization, the majority pay heed to the piecemeal accumulation strategies that have accompanied the natural limitations to its full-scale industrialization. In particular, the conceptual tools of appropriationism--the replacement of elements of the production process with industrial ones--and substitutionism--the replacement of agricultural end products with industrial ones--developed by Goodman, Sorj, and Wilkinson (1987) provide an analytical framework through which many historical and current developments in agriculture can be viewed. New agricultural biotechnologies have now brought a significant number of changes to agriculture, however. The blossoming of a network of legal obligations associated with the technologies--prohibitions on seed saving, grower contracts, patents on seeds, and even incentive programs--suggest that important aspects of control over agricultural production may be shifting from agricultural producers to biotechnology developers, with an associated shifting of economic benefit.

While technology-induced change is not new to agriculture, biotechnology's proprietary aspect adds a new component that could instigate a social reorganization of agricultural production. Given this proprietary emphasis, I suggest that a reconceptualization of some of the main tenets of political economy of agriculture scholarship is required. Specifically, the two theoretical concepts of appropriationism and substitutionism identified by Goodman, Sorj, and Wilkinson need to be joined by a third--for which I suggest the term "expropriationism"--to explain new capital accumulation strategies emerging with the advent of agricultural biotechnologies. While the former two terms emphasize accumulation strategies in the spheres of production and processing, the latter is proposed in response to an emerging accumulation strategy based in the network of legal mechanisms associated with the new technologies.

In this article, I will first provide a brief look at sociology and political economy of agriculture literatures regarding capital accumulation in agriculture. …