Biotech on the Farm: Mississippi Agriculture in an Age of Proprietary Biotechnologies
Pechlaner, Gabriela, Anthropologica
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. Despite these rapid changes associated with the technology, we know little of the experiences of those who actually use it. Important work can be found on structural shifts occurring in the agrifood system and on how agricultural biotechnologies increasingly affect these structural systems (see, for example, Kloppenburg 2004; Mascarenhas and Busch 2006; McMichael 1992; Wilkinson 2002), but studies that include the perspectives of farmers in developed countries are largely lacking, with some few exceptions (for example, Mauro and McLachlan, 2008; and, related, Müller 2008).
This paper seeks to address this gap by seeking the perspective of farmers from Mississippi to answer: to what extent have the proprietary aspects of agricultural biotechnologies facilitated a social reorganizing of agricultural production, and what effect does any such reorganization have on farmers' control over their production? Intimately related to the discussion of a social reorganization of agricultural production are the questions of the technologies' broader social worth and potential negative environmental and health impacts, and even their long-term viability in the face of weed and insect resistance. While these are important considerations for a social evaluation of the technologies, they are beyond the scope of this paper.1
The research for this paper was conducted as part of a larger, comparative investigation between Saskatchewan, Canada and Mississippi, U.S.A. These regions were selected primarily because there was important litigation between farmers and technology developers which could be revealing of the direction in which the proprietary framework for agricultural biotechnologies was developing. In Mississippi, Monsanto Co. …