June 1, 2014

GMOs Within Agricultural History: A Review of Jack Kloppenburg’s “First the Seed”


Many times I’ve made the point that GMOs comprise a doubling down on all the typical, malevolent features of corporate agriculture. There’s little specifically new about them, but in many ways they comprise a severe escalation of existing pathologies – socioeconomic, agronomic, environmental, health of humans and animals. Their abolition is necessary for many reasons, but primarily as a mortal blow to the continued expansion and domination of corporate agriculture.
To understand GMOs and develop a strategy to abolish them and to build the necessary new Food Sovereignty-based breeding and seed sector, we need to place them in their historical context and understand how they represent the escalated development of long-developing trajectories in agriculture and corporatism. For this, the best book I’m aware of is Jack Kloppenburg’s First the Seed. Originally published in 1988 and updated in 2004, this history and analysis gives us the perspective we need. For starters, I’ll give a brief review of each chapter.
The Introduction lays out the premises of the work. Agriculture is one of the core ways we change the world and to some extent make it “our” world. Plant biotechnology is the latest development following upon thousands of years of seed selection and improvement of cultivars. Modern plant breeding is “applied evolutionary science” which applies artificial selection to natural DNA change. Thus we have through breeding participated in the course of natural history and changed it.
Prior to the advent of genetic engineering this participation took place only within the bounds of sexual compatibility. This new technology comprises a radical break with natural development. Whereas conventional breeding operates on whole organisms, GE operates at the cellular and molecular level. Whereas conventional breeding uses sexual crossing, GE uses violent means to cross organisms completely alien to one another.
GE promised a brave new world of limitless possibilities. As cadre David Baltimore put it, “we can outdo evolution”. Throughout the book Kloppenburg endorses this hype. “The new technologies permit the modification of living organisms with an unprecedented specificity”, as he puts it in a typical sentence. It’ll achieve millions of years worth of change in days, and the change will be consciously chosen rather than through random selection.
Today we know that the promises of precision and predictability were nothing but hype, which has long since turned into lies. We also know that nature’s own selection process isn’t “random” but follows clear parameters. We’ve also learned that sexual compatibility is one of the basic parameters of nature which can’t be breached without multiplying one’s problems. And if transgenic insertion makes sense, why hasn’t nature evolved it?
It’s no surprise that GMO proponents continued with lies as their original dreams didn’t pan out. (In fact, GE practitioners and proponents were aggressively disdainful and insulting toward even the most modest questions and skepticism from the earliest days of its history. So they were always lacking confidence in the truth of their prognostications, and were always aware that they were seeking power rather than humanity’s well-being.) This is because, as the core thesis of First the Seed has it, this new technological transformation, like all such transformations, is taking place according to pre-existing social and economic conditions. However profound the socioeconomic effects of this new technology on agriculture, food, drugs, chemicals, energy, pollution, and waste management, they’ll be shaped by existing social relations.
So the purpose of the book is to place GMOs in historical context. The technology will proceed according to the pre-existing trajectory even as it alters this trajectory in various ways. Kloppenburg examines the social, political, and economic contexts, where biotech came from, its current trajectory when he wrote, where it was likely to go, and what strategic choices we have for affecting this trajectory toward the goal of “a sustainable agriculture responsive to human needs.”
K surveys the history of modern plant breeding and the curious fact that although the seed (and the variety) is the core input of agriculture, previous study of the socioeconomic effects of industrial ag had focused almost completely on chemicals and mechanization. The only major exception to the analytical neglect of the social effects of new plant varieties themselves was the study of tomatoes developed for mechanical harvest.
Oddly, variety development was usually seen dogmatically as always good, with few or no externalities. If breeding had no unfavorable side effects, that would be extraordinary given the spectacular effects of hybrid maize, the “food production story of the century” (USDA). Boosters claimed that hybrid corn made possible the Manhattan Project and the Marshall Plan. From 1935 to 1955 maize yields doubled. By 1985 the average US yield was c. 120 bushels an acre, six times that of the Depression era. From 1935 to 1985 the US yields of all major crops at least doubled, and at least half of this effect is due to breeding.
Corn hybrid triumphalism exalted this yield increase as a pure good with no social reverberations. But a look at the Green Revolution, whose malign socioeconomic effects have been extensively studied, reveals how unlikely it is that its predecessor in America didn’t have similar vast effects. Hybrid corn was America’s precursor to the international Green Revolution, therefore it’s likely that hybridization caused America to go through a similar profound social change. Kloppenburg develops and proves this thesis in First the Seed.
Starting from the premise that “scientific plant improvement has developed in the historical context of capitalism”, Kloppenburg proceeds to demonstrate how plant breeding and seed production became means of capitalist accumulation. This ongoing process of subordination to capital has changed the character of breeding and the seed sector, although capital has faced many barriers throughout.
The first thing we need to do is place science itself in its socioeconomic context. This means rejecting and combatting the scientistic ideology of “science” as some kind of pure free-willed endeavor and of technological determinism. As David Noble put it, technology is “an evolving range of possibilities from which people choose”, just as much as any other range of political choices. Therefore in describing technological developments we must always describe the encompassing social dynamics including opportunity costs and roads not taken, since in spite of the lies of the scienticians, there always exist alternatives to their cult technologies, often much better ones.
The basic mission of scientism (including its legions of useful idiots) has been to pretend that corporatized research and technological development has any goal other than corporate profit and power. That’s what the lies of the GMO hacks are about. But technological development doesn’t just happen in a predestined way, but must always undergo a dialectical struggle. Scientists, engineers, technicians are not ineffable photons but wrestlers in a muddy struggle, for and against social, economic, and political forces. Today the vast majority of them fight more or less actively for corporate control and profit.
Kloppenburg divides his analysis into three main parts.
1. The political economy of commodification. Capitalism is always in motion, always continuing the process of separating workers from their means of production, AKA primitive accumulation. This eternal aggressor always faces the resistance of those being dispossessed, as well as the structural resistance of some economic sectors. Agriculture has been one of these resistant sectors. The most advanced factor of agricultural capitalism is the commodification of inputs.
A corollary is the rise of agribusiness. Agribiz is an artificial appendage of agriculture which is conventionally capitalist, and which as monopolist and monopsonist constantly assaults the farmer, trying to encompass farming itself. By now the industrial owner-farmer is basically a contractor, a de facto employee with little more workplace autonomy than a Walmart greeter.
The reason agriculture has been so resistant to full capitalism is that the seed reproduces itself and is therefore difficult to enclose. The seed is both means of production and, as grain, the product. Therefore capital won’t naturally want to work on the seed, since it has a natural resistance to commodification.
Science has been co-opted for the mission of commodifying the seed. Kloppenburg sees agricultural research as “the incorporation of science into the historical process of primitive accumulation and commodification.” It helps remove the barriers to the capitalization of agriculture, especially with plant breeding and seed production.
The private sector developed two main lines of attack toward the goal of commodifying the seed: The technical means of hybridization, wherein the farmer was no longer able to reproduce his own seed; and the legal/political means of intellectual property protections like patenting.
2. Institutionally, capitalism sought a new division of labor within the plant breeding/seed production sector.
Historically, since many elements of America’s industrial development depended upon productive agriculture, and since the inept private sector was unable to contribute to this, public sector breeders had to do the work. From 1839 the US government systematically built up a program of germplasm acquisition and professional plant breeding. In the process they provided abiding proof that where it comes to plant breeding the public sector works. Meanwhile the work of the private sector was always more expensive and of much lower quality. Only once public breeding had laid the modern foundation and innovated hybridization did the free-riding private sector than move in to take over.
From the 1930s the private sector has sought to enforce a fraudulent line between “basic” breeding research, allegedly the proper province of public breeders, and “applied” research. This distinction has zero to do with science, but refers only to how directly the research seeks control over the seed as a profitable commodity. Specifically, public breeders were to get their hands off the completion and release of finished crop varieties. Instead they were to lay the whole groundwork, do all the heavy lifting, and all with public money of course, but leave the finishing touches to a private company which would then commercialize the variety and take all the profit. Typical “public-private partnership” stuff.
Since the 1930s corporations have increasingly been able to divert public research to activity that will provide the basis for their own profit and control, instead of activity that will benefit the public who pays for it, and humanity who shall depend on it for food.
3. At the level of global economy, there’s been an extreme asymmetry of germplasm transfer.
Agricultural germplasm has come mostly from the global South, but has been commodified and controlled by the West. To this day capitalism still “remains fundamentally dependent on constant infusions of plant materials from the Third World”. North America has no significant indigenous crops, and Europe very few. Pre-modern and modern history has been the West’s accumulation of the South’s germplasm “for processing in the scientific institutions of the developed world.” From 18th century botanical societies to 20th century Green Revolution agricultural research organizations and to the most recent operations like the Svalbard seed vault, the twin goal has been to bring capitalism to the South and to collect the South’s germplasm resources.
The global process of germplasm transfer has been fundamentally asymmetric in two main ways.
A. The Western industrialized countries have received vastly more material than they’ve provided.
B. The germplasm is considered to have a radically different social character depending on which way it’s flowing. When it’s extracted from the South and removed to the West, it’s considered (by the West) a free good of nature and a commons of humanity. But it’s then exported to the South in a commodified, proprietary, predatory form.
The most important thing in what technical work is done isn’t what’s technically possible, but political and economic factors. These three factors – commodification, capitalist division of breeding labor, and the world economy of germplasm transfer – set the stage for the next decisions which elites will make regarding technology. So it has been for biotechnology.
As biotech developed starting the 1970s, it was accompanied by a welter of mergers and acquisitions in the seed sector, promoted by the 1970 Plant Variety Protection Act and the subsequent escalation of the intellectual property regime in genetics and seeds. There was a parallel surge of biotech startups. As Kloppenburg describes them, “born of the passionate marriage of academia and venture capital, these companies [were] dedicated to the commodification of the research process itself”. The universities, including the land grant universities (LGUs) and state agricultural experimental stations, became increasingly ardent thralls of corporate biotech.
Actual crop improvement from biotech turned out to be a bust, but the corporations never cared about that anyway except insofar as biotech “improved the competitive position” vs. any alternative. The main goals have always been the physical and legal means of enclosing the seed. That brings us to the GMO era.
There’s the Introduction to First the Seed. Kloppenburg proceeds to develop these theses throughout the book. He also describes the vectors of criticism and resistance and offers his own ideas for what should be done. I’ll continue with a chapter-by-chapter review in subsequent posts.



  1. Off the specific topic, but consistent with the general concern about corporatism and monopolies: http://www.businessinsider.com/top-grocery-companies-2014-5

    Comment by taojonesing — June 2, 2014 @ 11:05 am

    • Thanks Tao. The book has extensive coverage of the history of agricultural IP and its effects.

      Comment by Russ — June 2, 2014 @ 5:59 pm

  2. […] and review of chapter two, “Science, Agriculture, and Social Change”. Part one.   Before proceeding with his history, Jack Kloppenburg takes chapter two to delve more deeply into […]

    Pingback by “First the Seed” – Science and Agriculture | Volatility — June 10, 2014 @ 5:09 am

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