Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

How Are Genetic Enclosures Shaping the Future of the Agrifood Sector?

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

How Are Genetic Enclosures Shaping the Future of the Agrifood Sector?

Article excerpt

Abstract

The privatisation of the genetic material in seeds through the proliferation of genetically modified (GM) crops can be theorised as a form of 'enclosure' that draws genetic resources into the circuit of capital accumulation. These genetic enclosures, which are institutionalised through legal and technological developments, and consolidated through concentration of economic and political power, have tangible and practical impacts on the lives of farmers today. In addition, genetic enclosures and the institutional arrangements that facilitate them, constrain the future of the agrifood sector by favouring a particular trajectory for research and development. This article, based on a presentation at the 2012 Australasian Agrifood Research Network conference in New Zealand, offers a review of the critical literature on this subject and draws on some recent evidence from Australia which supports the continuation of previously identified trends.

Introduction

Around one hundred and fifty crops provide for most of our food needs globally and just twelve crops account for eighty per cent of our dietary requirements (Footer, 2006). Many countries are experiencing a trend towards increasing the scope and reach of intellectual property law regarding plants. These changes in the law, along with various institutional, economic and political factors, have enabled a handful of seed companies to exert considerable control over crucial plant genetic resources for this limited range of food crops. This enables those companies to influence agricultural research and development, and the lives and work of farmers. The privatisation of the genetic material in seeds through the proliferation of genetically modified (GM) crops can be theorised as a form of 'enclosure' that draws these genetic resources into the circuit of capital accumulation. Like other instances of enclosure throughout history, genetic enclosures are impacting on the relations of production and are shifting the balance of economic power resources, having the consequence of accelerating the accumulation and concentration of capital.

This article details the concurrent development of intellectual property rights and plant breeding technology, and the mutually reinforcing relationships between genetic enclosures, the privatisation of plant breeding research, and increasing corporate power and investment in this sector. The first section will explain the concept of 'genetic enclosures' and how these are institutionalised through legal and technological developments. The next goes on to explain how these enclosures facilitate concentration of market and political power, generating a particular trajectory for research and development. Finally, the argument is made that these developments are leading to a form of proletarianisation for some farmers.

What are 'genetic enclosures'?

Boyle defines enclosure as the "conversion of common property into private property, or attaching property rights to something which was previously outside of the property system" (2003:2). Importantly in the history of capitalism's development, it is also a separation of people from their means of subsistence that then creates an imperative for those people to enter the market in order to be able to meet their basic needs (Meiksins-Wood, 1999; di Muzio, 2007; de Angelis, 2001). The Enclosure Movement in Britain from the 1400s to the 1800s is perhaps the best-known and understood example of this process. A crucial step in the foundation of the capitalist mode of production, the Enclosure Movement meant a fundamental transformation of property and class relations through which people were compelled to buy and sell commodities on the market, including their own labour (Meiksins-Wood, 1999).

The enclosure process did not end in England in the 1800s and it remains central to the dynamic nature of capitalism, enabling the capture of resources into the circuit of capital accumulation and the encroachment of market forces into different areas of our lives (DeAngelis, 2001; Bonefeld, 2001; Peekhaus, 2011). …

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