I have to admit that discussions of genetic modification of foods is an issue I’ve never been interested in addressing. It seems as though the issue is confronted from every angle and from global governance to local grassroots groups. Further, it would seem that the debate is part of everyday discussion in households, neighborhoods and workplaces all over. With documentaries like Food, Inc., The Future of Food, King Corn, and so on, even people who hate reading those cover stories in their mainstream news rags covering the controversy can supplement their news viewing covering the issue on nearly any channel.
It would seem to make sense that the issue has become commonplace. About half the hectares in the world that are planted with genetically modified seed are in the United States. Genetically modified corn and soybeans are rapidly becoming the supermajority of those crops grown in this country.
Considering the global picture, 74% of GM crops are in affluent nations. That’s interesting considering that GMO advocates argue that genetic modification is a boon to the world’s poor. While intellectual property contributes to this situation, the significant cost of R&D and development of technical expertise require significant infrastructures that advantage the global rich. Progressive liberals and socialists might suggest that the barriers to the benefits of GM foods reaching the world’s poor is a matter of political economy, this argument depends on a very simplistic understanding of bureaucracy and technology.
As mentioned above, some GMO crops account for the majority of those grown in the U.S., but add to that an increasing rate of organic crops contaminated with invasive GMO seed and pollens. The U.S. has done almost nothing to protect non-GMO farmers and invested millions in protecting Monsanto and other large firms, not only to invade ecosystems and other farms with their experimental crops (for which the longterm effects are unknown), but also to open up other markets around the world for both production and consumption.
While many pay much justified attention to the wars fought against deterritorialized enemies that end up costing millions of lives and trillions of dollars, and many raise the reasonable concern for health and environmental risks of GMOs, we haven’t done enough to recognize and discuss genetic modification as a contemporary form of biopower or to address a new form of imperialism that colonizes organisms and ecosystems in addition to human geographies.
Vandana Shiva has done much to point in this direction, but her essentializing of a pure state of nature that is invaded upon is added to her transcendental discourse to rub many critical theorists the wrong way, and for good reason. But she’s on to something that may be a slight translation away from a useful analysis of the biopolitical situation in genetic modification. Food politics is not an area I’m interested in investing much specific attention, but I would urge those who are to develop this kind of analysis (in concert with others — I wouldn’t suggest any one approach is complete).
And while I think the political economic often misses both the technological dimension and matters of the physical control of bodies, the biopolitical often combines with the political economic in productive ways. So, while most acknowledge that the oil economy is fully dependent upon the war machine, we should recognize that similarly the food economy is dependent upon a violent, colonizing complex that functions much like war. This consideration is only amplified when we recognize that agribusiness and the oil economy are intimately wedded to one another.
What do we do with this? Well, I think we need to develop a critical analysis that better understands the political dimensions of genetic modification. The issue has been framed in ways that either essentialize a natural condition or are wedded to progressive liberal politics. (I’ll just assume my reader is following with me on why both of these are unfavorable.) It would be a political and analytic failure to say that what we need is government intervention and regulation, because the existing development of GMOs and agribusiness was and is heavily dependent upon a very involved government — it could not have existed otherwise.
It has often been small farmers and radical environmentalists who have disrupted business-as-usual and sparked the initial debates that have captured so much attention. This is one avenue where support is needed and worthy. In addition, we also might consider the origins and motives behind contemporary biopower and recognize where there are connections between instances, for instance between mass incarceration (of millions of human bodies in the U.S.) and the over 115mil hectares of land planted with GM crops.
My colleague at RPI, Jon Cluck, noted yesterday a curious connection in what he referred to as the “microbiopolitical”: ‘shooting beams of radiation into things means “safety” for both the TSA and the USDA.’ This considerations give a whole new dimension to micropolitics that need to be explored intellectually — and intervened in politically.