Biotech on the Farm: Mississippi Agriculture in an Age of Proprietary Biotechnologies

Article excerpt

Abstract: Agricultural biotechnologies have been introduced with a number of proprietary mechanisms: patents on seeds, grower contracts, incentive agreements and even litigation. Scholarly research on this proprietary framework's impact on power relations in agriculture has primarily focused on developing countries. This article draws on 40 interviews conducted in the agricultural community in Mississippi, United States, to investigate the technologies' impact on agricultural production, and farmer's response to this impact. I find that farmer's control over their production is reduced in important ways, limiting their opportunities for strategic response, but some acts of resistance in the legal forum are having a limited impact.

Keywords: biotechnology, agriculture, proprietary, patents, political economy

Résumé : Les biotechnologies agricoles ont été implantées avec un certain nombre de mécanismes de propriété intellectuelle : brevets sur les semences, contrats de culture, conventions incitatives et même poursuites judiciaires. La recherche académique sur l'impact de cet encadrement de propriété intellectuelle sur les rapports de pouvoir en agriculture s'est concentrée principalement dans les pays en développement. Le présent article s'appuie sur 40 entrevues menées dans la communauté agricole du Mississippi, aux États-Unis, pour qualifier l'impact des technologies sur la production agricole, et la réponse des agriculteurs à cet impact. J'ai trouvé que le contrôle des fermiers sur leur production s'est trouvé restreint de manière importante, ce qui limite leur capacité de réponse stratégique, tandis que certains gestes de résistance dans l'arène légale obtiennent un impact limité.

Mots-clés : biotechnologie, agriculture, propriété intellectuelle, brevets, économie politique


The phenomenon of globalization is contested on the grounds of its extent, inevitability, and even novelty. Even if globalization is an ideologically driven political project, as many increasingly now characterize it (for example, McBride and Shields 1997; McMichael 2004; Urmetzer 2005), subscription to it nonetheless entails some very real ground-level conditioning. Regulatory reform for trade liberalization is at the heart of this conditioning. With respect to agricultural biotechnologies, this is evidenced in a strengthening of intellectual property rights, a retrenchment of public breeding, and an overall weakening of regulatory oversight. Seemingly nowhere has this reform been so unrestrained as in the U.S. Nonetheless, research on the potential social impacts of agricultural biotechnologies has largely focused on developing countries. Scholars and social movement actors have highlighted numerous inequities from introducing high capital agricultural biotechnologies to developing countries: the capture of developing country genetic resources as a form of recolonization, the technologies' unsuitability for developing country needs, and the inappropriateness of their proprietary aspects for low income countries, to name a few (see Arends-Kuenning and Makundi 2000; Barton and Berger 2001; Fitting 2008; Gonsalves et al. 2007; Howard 2000; Shiva 2001; Teubal 2008).

Given that the U.S. is a driver of the new biotechnologies - both with respect to being at the forefront of technological development and with respect to their rate of adoption - it appears to be in an assumed position of privilege, and impacts in that country have garnered far less scholarly attention. New laws and contractual obligations associated with agricultural biotechnologies indicate that significant changes are occurring in the agricultural systems of developed countries such as the U.S., however: patents on seeds, prohibitions on seed saving, grower contracts, and a rise in litigation between technology developers and agricultural producers all suggest that a social reorganization of agriculture may be occurring, whereby ownership and control over agricultural production is expropriated from farmers and shifted to corporations. …


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