The Sociology of Agriculture in Transition: The Political Economy of Agriculture after Biotechnology
Pechlaner, Gabriela, Canadian Journal of Sociology
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. Second, I will outline how these literatures apply to the current case of agricultural biotechnology, and where they fall short in explaining developments related to it. I argue that biotechnologies change the way in which capital interacts with agriculture in three ways: they extend the potential for appropriationism and substitutionism; they increase the concentration of input suppliers and processors; and lastly, and perhaps most significantly, their associated proprietary framework initiates a new means of capital accumulation. While the first two are extensions of existing capital accumulation relations in agriculture, the latter suggests a new "social" means of capital accumulation, in the manner articulated by Kloppenburg (2004). I will then provide examples of these proprietary elements, drawn from my dissertation research on the extent to which agricultural biotechnologies are facilitating a social reorganization of agricultural production, and what effect this reorganization has on the control farmers have over their production (Pechlaner, 2007). I approach this question comparatively, through two regional case studies--in Saskatchewan, Canada and Mississippi, United States--based around four lawsuits between technology developers and farmers. Last, I will offer some conclusions.
I. THE INDUSTRIALIZATION OF AGRICULTURE? CONCEPTUAL TOOLS IN THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF AGRICULTURE
From the classics to contemporary scholarship, political economy of agriculture literature provides numerous insights into historical capital accumulation trends specific to agriculture (see for example, Berlan 1991; Buttel and LaRamee 1991; Friedland 2002; Friedmann 1995; Kautsky 1988 ; Lenin 1964 ; and Thompson and Cowan 1995). The literature has identified trends in industrialization common to agriculture: increased capitalization, concentration of agricultural input suppliers and output purchasers; substitution of independent producers with agribusinesses; increased productivity; the externalization of environmental costs; and the transformation of consumption patterns, among others. In some cases, the parallels with industrialization are drawn to the extent of rejecting agriculture's analytical separation from industry (Goodman and Watts 1994:3).
Many aspects of agriculture deviate from typical capital accumulation patterns because it is a nature-based process. Consequently, while some early political economy of agriculture scholarship found resonance with broader theories of industrialization, it was often at a theoretical cost. Goodman, Sorj, and Wilkinson (1987:145), for example, state that classical attempts to theorize agriculture's position in capitalist development resulted in conceptual distortions and debates inappropriately focused on social relations of production or on the relative benefits of peasant versus capitalist modes of production. Such attempts to drape agriculture in the conceptual cloak of industrialization, they argue, overlook the central problematic of agriculture in capitalist development--its status as a natural process. Where agriculture's natural aspects produce impediments to wholesale industrial transformation, capitalist development finds other ways of incorporating agriculture into its processes; notably, by incorporating discrete elements of agrarian production into industrial processes, as will be discussed.
The attempts to draw agriculture into broader theories of industrial restructuring did not stop with classical approaches. Goodman and Watts (1994), identify the concept of "Fordist agriculture" as one such attempt, whereby political economy and regulation theories overstate agriculture's industrialization in an effort to reject its exclusion from industry. They argue that the Fordist agriculture concept fails under empirical assessment, however. While aspects of the processing and input sectors of agriculture demonstrate Fordist tendencies (e.g., high volume, standardized production, and consumption), the concept cannot be sustained with respect to labour at the point of production or to regulation. The significance of such conceptual slippage is not minor. Rather, Goodman and Watts argue that washing over agriculture with the "gloss of Fordism" overlooks important exceptions that need to be explained, and consequently distorts a significant analytical question: "how does the organization of agricultural production and rural space change under different regimes of accumulation and modes of social regulation?" (1994:15). This way of thinking, in contrast, puts agriculture firmly under the umbrella of its broader political economic context, but without creating a forced marriage of industrialization concepts and empirical evidence.
Using a similar method of analytical specificity, Lewontin (2000:95) argues that classical capitalist concentration failed in farming because of the sector's financial and physical characteristics: the ownership of farmland is financially unattractive; labour is hard to control because farms are spatially extensive; economies of scale are limited; and it is largely impossible to reduce the reproduction cycle. Similar to Guppy's (1986) assessment of limited capital penetration in the commercial fishing industry, Lewontin argues that the risks involved in farming--such as weather, disease, and pests--made direct ownership in agriculture unattractive to capital. As a result of these limitations, capital concentrated on the farm inputs and processing sectors in order to capture profits:
The problem for industrial capital, then, has been to wrest control of the choices from the farmers, forcing them into a farming process that uses a package of inputs of maximum value to the producers of those inputs, and tailoring the nature of farm products to match the demands of a few major purchasers of farm outputs who have the power to determine the price paid. Whatever production risks remain are, of course, retained by the farmer. (Lewontin 2000:96)
The concepts of appropriationism and substitutionism developed by Goodman, Sorj, and Wilkinson (1987) provide a means of accounting for this piecemeal approach to capital accumulation. While their book is now somewhat empirically dated, the concepts hold their explanatory value for many processes in agriculture today, an indication of their usefulness. The two concepts overcome the aforementioned theoretical errors precisely because they focus on the way in which agriculture is exempted from traditional industrialization. Goodman et al. argue that agriculture, as productivity rooted in the natural processes of the earth, could not be brought wholesale under the control of capital due to the …
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Publication information: Article title: The Sociology of Agriculture in Transition: The Political Economy of Agriculture after Biotechnology. Contributors: Pechlaner, Gabriela - Author. Journal title: Canadian Journal of Sociology. Volume: 35. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2010. Page number: 243+. © 1997 Canadian Journal of Sociology. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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