Greenwashing Agricultural Biotechnology

analysis by tom athanasiou

To generalize is to be an idiot.
--William Blake

Submitted by ludd on December 9, 2010

A specter haunted the Third National Agricultural Biotechnology Conference (NABC-3), held earlier this year in Sacramento California -- the specter of ecology. One felt its presence almost immediately, when a more-or-less generic industry hack, Ralph W. Hardy, president of Boyce Thompson Institute, gave an obviously well-rehearsed rant against radical environmentalists. Nothing special -- just your standard environmentalists-as-anti-technology-Luddites-who-want-us-to- freeze-to-death-in-the-dark stuff -- but the crowd loved it.

As the day wore on, though, it became obvious that Hardy's old-school ideology wasn't the only item on the menu. This sterile hotel conference center was host to some notably up-to-date, even experimental, forms of greenwashing. Biotechnology was no longer, as in the early 1970s, being framed in Promethean, steal-god's-thunder, engineering-of- life terms. Now it's just a science of genetic ""modification,'' not so very different from brewing or bread making. As one recent volume, Agricultural Biotechnology: Issues and Choices, put it: ""biotechnology is around us every day, just as it was for our ancestors.'' Today's techniques, from gene splicing to industrial cloning, are just a bit more precise, but this is only an evolutionary -- not be a revolutionary -- difference.

Still worried? Better get used to it! There were lots of midwestern research homeboys here to explain that in a time of rising population and famine, productivity is the only important fact of agricultural life. The world needs more food, and biotechnology is the only practical way to provide it. Ask British multinational ICI Seeds, which has devoted an entire publication, Feeding the World, to arguing that biotech ""will be the most reliable and environmentally acceptable way to secure the world's food supplies.'' Or ask Eli Lilly, a transnational drug company that's diversifying into biotech: ""We will need dramatic progress in the productivity of agriculture to limit starvation and the social chaos which overpopulation will bring.''

Biotechnology has its critics, of course, but they are largely naive urban dwellers who don't even realize they're speaking for starvation! In fact -- and this is the real kicker--biotechnology is the key to making the ""sustainable agriculture'' we all want more practical. It'll even make it possible to phase out dangerous chemical pesticides and herbicides (in favor of new ""biopesticides'') without suffering catastrophically reduced yields.

Ecology was, in other words, the theme of NABC-3. Once, we were even shown a slide of some agricultural research buildings surrounded by high cyclone fencing, and invited to bemoan the precious funds wasted protecting such facilities from marauding bands of ""technology-hating Luddites.'' Then we got a report on progress towards ""more efficient cows'' able to produce more protein per measure of fodder. This is an especially twisted homage to ecology, for the realization that cows are ""inefficient'' producers of usable protein, and that there would be plenty of food to go around if people ate less meat, traces directly back to Francis Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet, first published in 1971 by Friends of the Earth.

Welcome to the future, where ""sustainability'' -- the vaguest term in the environmental lexicon -- joins ""productivity'' as the basis of the campaign to once again equate technology and hope. And why not? Sustainability is like apple pie -- everyone loves it. The tough questions concern how the apples are to be grown, and if the wheat in the crust should be a mix of native varietals or a high-tech hybrid. The answers to these questions are significant both as propaganda and as agricultural technique. In fact, it's beginning to look like the biotechnology industry has, to some extent, chosen research programs suitable for backing up its new claims to be environmentally friendly.

If you doubt these claims, don't make the mistake of assuming that others share your suspicions. As Walter Truett Anderson put it in the NABC-3 keynote address, ""Environmentalists tend to be very suspicious of technological fixes, but the general public has no such reservations. Technological fixes will do fine. They will not only be tolerated, they'll be demanded.''

Anderson as keynote speaker is itself notable. Anderson is a regular at the Pacific News Service, a left-liberal outfit with a love for the offbeat, but not necessarily radical, angle. An ""environmentalist'' with career ambitions in apolitical mainstream futurism, Anderson is the author of To Govern Evolution: Further Adventures of the Political Animal, a book in which he steps back and takes the big picture of biopolitics, counting it as encompassing everything from ecosystems restoration to genetic engineering, industrial policy to the dilemmas posed by emerging medical technologies. Anderson was speaking at NABC-3 because he sees biopolitics in a way that, if not altogether flattering to the biotechnology industry, is actively hostile to the radical green culture, which he claims makes ""a religion out of being frightened.'' The inevitable reality, according to Anderson, is that from now on nature must fall explicitly within the ambit of politicals. Evolution must be managed, whether we like it or not! It's an abstract assertion, though true enough -- the problem is that Anderson was clearly speaking, at this conclave of industry functionaries, as one manager to his fellows.


In 1986 a group of radical greens stole onto the grounds of Advanced Genetic Sciences and destroyed a strawberry field that had been sprayed with a ""genetically manipulated organism'' named Ice Minus. The media attacked them as ""Luddites,'' but they were hardly offended. I know one of them, and he wears the label ""Luddite'' proudly. Not that my buddy (a graduate of MIT) is the enemy of ""technology'' in general. Better to say that he opposes biotechnology because he sees it as embodying the interests of a dangerous and perhaps insane society. In fact, the real difference between him and all the millions of others who harbor fears about high-tech society may be one of degree -- and, of course, that he has found occasion to express his feelings on a few benighted strawberries.

Is Anderson wrong, then, to claim that most members of the ""general public'' will welcome technological fixes -- especially if things get much worse? It's impossible to say. Technological utopianism, an old and well-established tradition that thrives in apolitical America, endures despite the decidedly bad reputation that science and technology have picked up in the last 20 years. The spirit of the day is ambivalence, composed of equal parts of dread and techno-fixism. Terminator II, the killing machine as good guy and responsible father, is our perfect mascot.The fog of fear and television within which we live keeps most of us from getting a clear fix on the core institutions of society, the institutions that shape the machines. But the machines are right before our eyes -- easy to admire, to desire, to fear. They promise ease and comfort, or at least images of ease and comfort. But, as the agents of a new and threatening world, they seem to be out of control. What better response than confusion and ambivalence?

Among environmentalists, science and technology are topics of daily conversation in a way that would have surprised the early radical critics of technoscience -- Lewis Mumford for example, or Herbert Marcuse. In fact, the ideas of such thinkers find an unprecedented popularity in the green movement, though their precise histories are rarely known. The odd thing is that among the greens these ideas find a strange company of fine, strong radicalism and bucolic simplemindedness. Regrettably, green radicalism seems to somehow depend on the simplemindedness, to lean on it for support and fortitude.

The perfect case in point is Jeremy Rifkin, the man whose inspired fusion of legal activism and highfalutin' anti-biotech proselytizing has virtually defined the battle against genetic engineering in the United States. A self-styled ""heretic'' who has made it his mission to lead a prohibitionist campaign against biotechnology, Rifkin has worked hard to find solid theoretical ground for his politics of almost complete refusal. He has found this ground in a theory of ""species integrity'' and the morally transgressive nature of biotechnology -- and, not coincidentally, this theory has been widely influential among biotech's deep- green foes. It's difficult to criticize Rifkin's ideas without seeming to fall into league with an industry that would happily see him dead. And yet it is important to do so. Rifkin has come to stand for the politics of technological taboo, and has defined the issues raised by biotechnology in an overblown way that -- though catalyzing both attention and opposition -- has also led us into a ideological backwater from which it will be hard to escape.

Rifkin's attack on biotechnology is -- to use the jargon of the day -- essentialist. What he is telling us is that the fundamental techniques of the new science, those that mix genetic materials between animals and between species, are irredeemable expressions of a drive to subjugate nature and of a mania for ""efficiency.'' It is a position that is close enough to the truth to be dangerous, but not close enough to make real sense of our predicament. Rifkin, like almost everyone else who has tried to find a politics of technology that is both radical and popular, punts on the really tough question. How does one simultaneously focus on the momentous macro issues raised by the new technologies and the all-too prosaic social institutions that shape them? Instead, he draws a line in the sand, charging biotechnology with the sin of reducing species to information sequences and then going on to mix these sequences without regard to their ""sanctity.'' It is truth, but only in caricature -- all detail, political as well as scientific, has been banished. The issue becomes simply ""Should we play God?'' Thus, Stephen Jay Gould, one of our finest evolutionists, has described Rifkin's Algeny as ""a cleverly constructed piece of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship.'' In fact, Rifkin's work is so undermined by shoddy overgeneralization that its major points of interest may be its popularity and the part it has played in mobilizing a campaign against biotechnology.

At issue here is the politics of fear and exaggeration. The larger ecology movement often relies on campaigns much like those that Rifkin uses to organize resistance to biotechnology. So note well that while Rifkinite hyperbole backs an agenda most of us would probably support, it hasn't actually stopped, or even significantly slowed the overall development of biotechnology. In fact, it has helped to prompt the current effort by biotech's boosters to position it as a green technology, and worse, it has theoretically disarmed environmental activists in the bargain. The new ""we-feed-the-hungry'' line is a strong one, and may succeed is washing most of Rifkin's accomplishments off the map.

All of which is to say that a short-cut politics of refusal (Luddism, in a word) was never enough, and certainly will not do today. ""No nukes'' is not enough. ""No biotechnology'' is, at best, a sad joke. If you don't think so, ask a friend with AIDS. In fact, spend a few moments considering why AIDS activists and green activists -- who would seem by their common interest in the politics of science to be natural allies -- disagree so deeply about genetic research.The widespread anti-biotech politics is not and cannot be coherent. Better to see it as a statement of purpose, a seeking after a radical biopolitics that does not yet exist. Radical greens call for a revolt against the engineering mentality and the domination of nature by an exterminist industrial capitalism. Opposing biotechnology seems like the right thing to do.

Radical greens are trying to come up with a politics as revolutionary as technoscience itself. And why not? The daily papers are heavy with articles about synthetic growth hormone extending human lifespans, and even about plans for increasing the efficiency of photosynthesis. Meanwhile, the left press runs the odd piece about DNA as key to a new generation of biological weapons. A certain fear is appropriate, and only the industry's PR flacks think we should stop worrying and love the clone.

I can agree with Anderson's big-picture definition of the biopolitical battleground, if not the false impartiality in which it is framed. Biopolitics does include everything from the politics of extinction to the ethics of life extension and the economics of artificial growth hormones. And, as Anderson points out, agriculture -- where biotechnology meets ecology -- is on the front lines of the battle.

Shall we see biotech as do the radical environmentalists, the ones for whom that expensive chain-link fence was built? Is there any alternative in a debate defined on one side by reductionists like Rifkin who argue that biotech violates some essential sanctity of life, and on the other by an industry PR apparatus that seeks to frame biotechnology as high-tech beer making?

It is a tough question, because biotechnology is a product not of any magical inspiration, but of a long process of gradual refinement and innovation. Yet biotech really does seem to be revolutionary, more evidence for Hegel's old saw about quantitative changes adding up to qualitative ones. DNA is, at bottom, a script, and biotechnology a writing technology. We may never be able to equal the works of evolution, that grand playwright, but we do seem to be learning to read -- and to plagiarize -- and it's a prospect that should scare us, especially given the nature of the institutions within which these breakthroughs are taking place.


The biotechnology revolution is overwhelming in its implications; no argument here. Still, we must deal with the issues it raises without immediately falling back on abstractions like ""the sanctity of nature'' and ""technology.'' Such concepts put too much stress on the large and the mythic -- not always the wrong thing to do, but dangerous if specifics get pushed into the background. Who's doing what to whom? -- this is the primal question of politics, and biopolitics is no exception.

In the case of agricultural biotech, the specifics are Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), pesticide- and herbicide-resistant crops and all the other high-tech farm products. The myths of the biotech revolution are best tested by examining such specific facts. Is BGH a violation of the metaphysical integrity of the cow, or as a fancy new way to make money? ($250 million has been spent on development alone, and some estimates peg annual sales at $2.5 billion.) The answer makes a difference.

In The End of Nature, Bill McKibben -- who hews to the deep-green line -- quotes a grotesque British work named Future Man in which future genetically-engineered farm animals are celebrated for their efficiency and productivity. The ""battery chickens'' of the future, ""whether they are being used to produce eggs or meat,'' will no longer look like birds. Biotech will allow us to design chickens without the ""unnecessary'' heads, wings and tails. ""Nutrients would be pumped in and wastes pumped out though tubes connected to the body.'' Lamb chops will be even better, since they will be grown on a production line ""with red meat and fat attached to an ever-elongating spine of bone.''

The more one knows about the marriage of biotech research and corporate agriculture, the clearer it becomes that -- despite its horror -- such a system of meat production would most likely be put into practice as soon as it was technologically feasible. Jonathan J. MacQuinty, the president of GenPharm (which has developed the ability to alter cows so that their milk contains human proteins like lactoferrin, useful for treating both cancer and AIDS), recently set us straight on the nature of farm animals: ""We think of them as cows, but these are actually self- feeding, self-replicating bioreactors.''

Some environmentalists are soft on biotechnology, though not as many as Monsanto would have us believe. To be sure, crops altered to resist pests without chemical pesticides have a place in a green future. There are even those in the environmental movement (more of Anderson's persuasion than of McKibben's) who have begun to talk about a biotechnological ""soft path.'' Still, the real question isn't if such a potential is there (it almost certainly is) but if there's any good reason to think that it can be realized in this society. It is a very different question indeed.Even herbicide-resistant crops could be helpful, depending on the herbicides they're resistant to. It doesn't take much research, though, to learn that real-world product development is running along lines altogether askew from those implied by the rhetoric of the greenwashers. New developments in herbicide tolerant crops, for example, are not limited to developing less toxic herbicides (the ""potential'' that the green critics of agricultural biotech are forever being reminded of). Rather, agricultural biotechnology is being developed in ways that almost guarantee that it'll become just another escalation in the ecological war between biochemicals and insects.

Margaret G. Mellon, Director of the National Biotechnology Policy Center of the National Wildlife Federation, also spoke at NABC-3 -- and it was clear that she in no way fit Anderson's stereotype of the emotional green Luddite. Mellon made the most important point of the day: biotech is being shaped not by the aesthetic joy of fundamental science, or even by the hard-headed practicalities of a world on the edge of mass starvation, but by ""the nature of its being a product.'' That is about as close as anyone can come, these days, to publicly saying ""by its nature as a commodity.''

In fact, that it is shaped by its ""nature'' as a ""product'' is the dirty public secret of biotechnology, as it is of information technology and energy technology and just about any other kind of technology you care to mention. The PR flacks may sputter about how bioscientists are hunched in their labs, working hard so that little Johnny and Juanita will have enough to eat in the dark days ahead -- but it's bullshit and they know it themselves. Agricultural biotechnology is being shaped by the corporate farms and the academic/corporate network that stands behind them. This is the world of chemical monoculture, of factory-floor farming and dying rural towns, of mealy apples and tasteless tomatoes that never ripen. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent developing BGH because some executives somewhere think they'll make a killing. End of story. Sustainable agriculture is only a convenient lie. Margaret Mellon didn't come right out and say all this, of course. Instead, she took industry rhetoric at face value, and argued that biotechnology can't lead us to a new, sustainable agriculture, and that by ""siphoning off scientific talent into genetics rather than ecology, I think it's actually going to make it harder for us to get to where we ought to go.'' She's right, but this is only the beginning of what could be said if there really were free speech. Her plea to directly pursue specific goals (like sustainable agriculture) rather than fixating on high-tech approaches to those goals (like biotechnology as a possible contributor to sustainable agriculture) is a soft, safe way of saying that we should be making social choices and then developing technologies to help us along the road to those choices. True, of course, but the matter is altogether too important to be left in such abstract terms.

There's little hope without a reversal of the ecological crisis, and little chance of such a reversal in the First World alone. Sustainability means nothing unless it applies to the Third World, where populations are booming and ecosystems ravaged by hungry peasants and slum-dwellers turned pioneers. And in the very concrete social world of Third-World poverty there's no hope for sustainability without land reform on a grand scale. Massive cash-crop plantations must be broken up into small holdings where peasants can safely establish themselves. This is the forbidden truth behind the rhetoric of ""sustainability,'' the truth that will never be discovered while the conversation remains locked in technoscientific frameworks. Here, as everywhere, if you want the truth -- the social truth that shapes the scientific truth more deeply than most scientists imagine -- you have to follow the money.

In the real world, controlled by the planetary corporations and constantly reshaped to their benefit, biotechnology will have a starkly negative effect on Third World peasants -- just the opposite of a radical land-reform program that had nothing at all to do with biotechnology. The future is already visible in research now focused on coffee, chocolate, sugar, vanilla and other ""cash crops,'' research aimed at developing bioengineered substitutes for such traditional agricultural products. Most such substitutes are still very experimental, but even in the short term biotech can be expected to accelerate the shift from small farms to large-scale plantations by promoting techniques that smallholders cannot afford -- like machine-harvesting techniques based on bioengineered hybrids that all ripen in perfect, machine-like unison. In this, biotechnology's impact in the Third World is likely to be similar to the effect it will have here at home. BGH, for example, will increase the costs of doing business as a dairy farmer, thereby promoting larger herds and concentration of ownership.

The ""potential'' of a technology must be clearly distinguished from its likely applications, and science cannot be abstracted from either social context or technological form. The Human Genome Project is a fine example -- it is a frightening development, but not because it reduces life to ""information,'' as a die-hard Rifkinite might argue. It is, rather, frightening in its promise to further increase the power and hegemony of today's reductionist medical establishment. And this is true despite the fact that real improvements in therapy and healing, as well as some amazing science, can be expected to flow from it.


The original Luddites were skilled artisans, and smashed the automated looms of the encroaching factory system not because they hated machines but because they knew no better way to fight for their way of life. They were heroes, but the day was not theirs. They were destroyed.

It is a lesson today's Luddites should learn, and as soon as possible. The passions that fuel refusal are one thing, but the conclusion that refusal -- of compromise, complexity or technology -- is the only basis for radicalism is quite another. There is no future, not even any hope, in a politics defined by the rejection of advanced technology. If simple living is the only way, then there is no hope at all. The really radical Luddism knows this, and sees the tragedies of our time as results not of ""technology over the invisible line'' but of the social institutions that shape both our lives and our machines. In fact, a truly radical technopolitics would quickly put "technology'' aside in favor of more immediately social notions like "capitalism'' and "democracy.'' What is needed, in fact, is a democracy deep enough to function even at the level at which the machines are shaped -- from the uses to which those machines are applied to their design and construction and use, all the way down the pipeline.

The questions are legion. Why does technology always seem to betray its promise? Why are alternate paths so often ignored? Who, to ask the primal political question, decides? These are the questions that define a truly radical Luddism. Who decides that agricultural biotech research will focus on the development of herbicide-resistant crops? Who decides that autos are to be the backbone of the U.S. transportation system? Who decides if RU-486, the French ""abortion pill,'' is to be banned? Who decides that nuclear energy is the best answer to greenhouse warming? These are specific questions, and they yield specific answers -- the best kind.

--Tom Athanasiou