June 10, 2014

“First the Seed” – Science and Agriculture


Summary 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 the way economic forces act upon agriculture and farming. The basic drive of capitalism has been to separate input and processing systems from what was once self-sufficient farming, and present them to farmers as commodified needs. This kind of revolutionizing drive is constant within capitalism since the actors (by the time of today’s late capitalism, big corporations) must constantly strive to maintain and increase market share, and because the commodifier is always at war with the productive classes. The natural tendency is always for those who do the work to gain more of the fruits. Constant innovative assault is necessary in order for economic parasites to keep overriding this natural mechanism so they can keep stealing the fruits of what workers produce. Everywhere possible they enlist technology and science toward their power and robbery goals.
Technology was always easily harnessed by economic elites. Science was more difficult, and wasn’t readily enlisted till the latter 19th century. This required two developments.
1. Historically, technology had to be adapted to the physical ability of the worker to use it. Modern machinery could often replace the worker completely. Now technology was bound only by what machines could accomplish. Now “the conscious application of natural science” to economic development was possible.
2. The natural sciences developed unevenly. Chemistry and biology lagged behind other disciplines. That is, it took elites longer to develop the relevant technology which could help foster this scientific development.
Thus science has developed primarily in response to the needs of capitalism and according to the data made available by the practical technology developed by capitalism. Scientific disciplines do have inherent obstacles to knowledge, but economic factors are primary. Science initially lags behind technology, which itself is developed to serve a particular economic regime. A different kind of society would have developed a different system of technology, and perhaps a differently oriented science. Once science matures, it then acts back upon technological development, but largely along the lines of the pre-scientific trajectory.
Since the industrial revolution science as we have it has seldom formulated its ideas and conclusions by itself, but usually parallel to or in collaboration with technological development. To believe that this techno-scientific melding under specific economic and political circumstances is “science” as such is a core element of scientism ideology. Since we would commit the same offense if we called uncontexted scientism “anti-scientific” (though it is, according to the good civics textbook version of what science is), we can instead affirm that this point of view is fundamentally irrational and ideological, and has nothing in common with the ideal of the scientific method. 
In reality there is no such thing as “science” in the abstract, there’s only what scientists do, and this is a social process and a labor process – “the application of labor to the production of knowledge of the natural world”, as Kloppenburg puts it.
As science became able to contribute to capitalist development, it necessarily began to gear itself to this purpose. As science always takes on the qualities of the civilization in which it exists, so under capitalism science necessarily becomes capitalist science. Technicians brag about what economic production owes to science, but it’s really the other way around – technological development has been driven by the needs of production and depends upon the surplus of this production for its very existence.
According to Kloppenburg, in this way “scientific invention become business” is what “distinguishes the technical base of contemporary capitalism” from that of prior capitalist forms. Thus we have what Harry Braverman called the transformation of “science as generalized social property incidental to production [to] science as capitalist property at the very center of production”.
That concludes the overview of the relationship of capitalism, technology, and science. Kloppenburg then moves on to an extended introduction to what he identified in chapter one as the three main trends of economic and political development in modern agriculture: commodification, the division of scientific labor, and world flows of germplasm.
We start with commodification. The basic activity of capitalism is to commodify every possible natural resource and human activity including labor. (Commodity production means production for monetary exchange rather than for actual use.) Commodification requires the forcible separation of the producer from the means of production, the liquidation of small producers and their transformation into impoverished wage workers. This is a core aspect of what Marx called primitive accumulation.
This primitive accumulation toward commodity production is always aggressive and coercive and often violent. The late medieval enclosure of farmland and expulsion of the peasants is a classical example, and the same process continues in modern times as the “Green Revolution” launched an enclosure and mass explusion onslaught across the global South. Today the planned “second green revolution” in Africa intends to carry out a much vaster liquidation and expulsion into shantytowns of millions of African community farmers. The land-grabbing onslaught is a key part of this awesome crime.
Kloppenburg describes how this origin of commodification has worked historically and how new rounds of primitive accumulation are always necessary to keep the growth and profit machine going. The process includes forcing new modes of consumption, new buyer “needs”, into being. Wherever necessary primitive accumulation is coerced by governments.
Although capitalism will immediately and forcibly expropriate whatever it can, elsewhere it often has to operate alongside small-scale production. In such cases it tries to force all other parts of the sector economy into the commodity exchange form, and in this way gradually comes to control and then liquidate the small producer.
In particular, the big capitalism seeks to turn independent small producers into dependents, by inducing them to purchase inputs from it and gradually monopolizing this input market; and by becoming a monopsony buyer of the commodity, thus turning the independent small proprietor into a de facto laborer. As we see with agriculture contracts today, the buyer eventually gains complete control over the production process, and the laborer (as we should now call the “independent” farmer) is left with nothing but his nominal “ownership” of the land/facility and his massive debts.
Other obvious examples from today’s agriculture are farmers buying seeds from an oligopoly seed sector instead of producing and exchanging their own seeds; buying fertility and pest control from similarly concentrated sectors (often from the same corporations) instead of providing these themselves; requiring massive artificial irrigation to maintain these high-maintenance inputs.
All this inherently goes along with technologized commodity production under today’s globalization. We can see how self-evidently fraudulent the claims are that any of it is “sustainable”, or that it could possibly do anything but wipe out small farmers. It’s easy to see how corporate agriculture couldn’t possibly “feed the world”; it doesn’t produce food and doesn’t seek to. It only produces commodities. Meanwhile small farming using organic and agroecological practices clearly goes best with sustainable, use-based production. This is food-based farming rather than contract growing for commodifiers.
The indirect commodification process leads to economic stratification among the small producers. Marxism thought that this would inevitably liquidate all small producers and leave only a handful of big capitalists facing the vast mass of wage workers.
For a long time this analysis seemed not to apply well to agriculture. Smaller farmers seemed to persist alongside rapid stratification in other sectors. Kloppenburg defines the issue with three questions, 1. Are independent farmers being liquidated and turned into wage workers? 2. If not, what are the obstacles to the commodification of farming? 3. If obstacles exist, are they enduring barriers to exploitation, or can capitalism, which today should more properly be called corporatism, find indirect ways to control and extract from the nominally “independent” producers?
A few paragraphs back I anticipated Kloppenburg’s position, which is that corporatism has for the most part attained effective control of farming, and de jure liquidation is proceeding as well, but slowly. Some nominal, and even real, independent production continues, as there are some obstacles to the liquidation of this small-scale production. Indeed, the fact of this achieved control may itself be a barrier to de jure liquidation. (But the liquidation is indeed proceeding. See the new GRAIN report, Hungry for Land, for a more pessimistic appraisal of the status of small farmer landholdings than the UN continues to report.)
One of the obstacles inherent to the farming sector is the requirement to amass large landholdings in order to construct corporatized factory farm. For various reasons it can be difficult to procure enough contiguous land. Another is the peculiar (from the capitalist point of view) timing of sowing vs. harvesting, the difficulty in centrally controlling the labor, the perishability of the product, the unique vulnerability to the weather and environment. Then there’s the selfless labor-of-love mindset of many farmers, their willingness to farm at a loss and even support themselves by taking off-farm jobs, because they find farming so meaningful. And there’s the state’s historical policy of subsidizing the mass of small farm proprietors in order to help legitimize itself. We give you the land, you provide soldiers for the army. It was a holdover neo-feudal arrangement which expired with the modern separation of the people from the land which in the US largely proceeded not because farms were directly liquidated, but for other socioeconomic reasons. Although the causality and proportion of causes is hard to determine, on the whole these explain why capitalism was delayed in fully commodifying farming in itself.
We can see why the Stalinist attempt to forcibly and quickly collectivize agriculture had to be so violent and was still only partially successful. Neoliberal corporatism’s more gradual, less brutal campaign has also been only partially successful, but has been gaining ground. (It’s only relatively less violent than Stalinism, but highly murderous nonetheless. Violent dispossessions of peasants and indigenous tribes across the global South and the coerced mass suicide of Indian farmers are typical examples of corporate agriculture’s crimes against humanity.)
But by the 1980s the predicted stratification was proceeding, with a few corporate megafarms doing the bulk of commodity production, a vast mass of beleaguered small farms increasingly dependent on off-farm income, and a shrinking number of the true independent commodity farms, and these too increasingly controlled by contracts, debt, monopoly markets.
Perhaps the most important phenomenon has been the way elements of agriculture are separated from farming and isolated in commodity systems. Over the last 150 years labor and capital have reversed their respective contributions to agriculture. Kloppenburg includes tables which demonstrate how agriculture went from being the most labor-intensive, capital-efficient sector to being the most capital-intensive, labor-efficient. (“Efficient” by capitalist measures.) This is exemplified in how dependent farming has become on the purchase of inputs manufactured off-farm – machinery, fertilizer, chemicals, and increasingly seeds.
Understanding the rise of agribusiness, the oligopoly sellers of these inputs and buyers of the farm commodity, is essential to understanding agriculture and its political economy. It also seems to demonstrate that farming itself does present some barriers to corporate penetration, since in principle the capitalist wants to liquidate the small proprietor rather than sell to him and buy from him. But where it comes to inputs and processing the corporations can directly exploit their own workers in the factories which produce tractors, pesticides, and seeds and indirectly control and exploit the farmer by imposing monopoly relationships upon him. The farmer becomes what Marx called a “propertied laborer” who has only “sham property”.
How did the commodification of inputs proceed? With a lot of help from agricultural research: First technology, then science; at first and for a long time publicly distributed, later privatized and corporatized (but still dependent upon public funding). The commodification imperative was the driver, technology and science was the mechanism. In the 19th century, with the agricultural private sector incompetent and derelict, the public program was supported by other corporate sectors who were not able to fully exploit farmers but who wanted to build up agriculture and a food surplus for the sake of expanding and exploiting the rest of the economy. Thus the banks and railroads lobbied for public germplasm gathering and free seed distribution to farmers. Subsequent chapters go into far more detail about all of this.
Seed is the linchpin of the whole structure, the key input above all others. Seed is unique in that it constitutes both a finished product in the form of grain, and a means of the farm reproducing itself in the form of saved seed which is planted for the next crop. As K puts it, “Seed is grain is seed is grain.” I’ll add an analogy. Seed is like money earning compound interest, except that seed is real while money is a cult fiction. It’s a testament to the depravity of this civilization that it worships money as real while it officially views seed only through the seed’s intellectual property hologram. That is, the seed has to be fictionalized as well. That’s what’s involved in making anything a commodity for exchange rather than a product for human beings to use. A core purpose of GMOs, by any objective measure an inferior product, is to reinforce the fictionalization of the seed as commodity, in order to make it conform to the fictional monetary measure, for the sake of real power.
All this is nothing but a struggle for power, and as Kissinger put it “food is a weapon”. So is the propaganda of “feeding the world”.
Seed is a threat to capitalist control because, as Kloppenburg puts it, saving seed lets the farmer “short-circuit” the commodification process which seeks to force him to keep purchasing his means of production in the form of commodities from outside in order to be able to do his work. For capitalism to be able to function in this sector, it has to carry out its primitive accumulation and separate the farmer from reproduction of the seed. How this was done, Kloppenburg states, “is the central question of this book”. Only under the joint attack of corporatized science and law has the seed succumbed to commodification. The process has been all about using research, technology, science, with massive support from corporate welfare, advertising, and the law, to attain a fraudulent product differentiation among seeds and induce the farmer onto an indenture treadmill from which escape is difficult to impossible.
Both legally and technologically the corporate commodification of seeds has been completely dependent upon government support. Public sector research has generally been friendly to business needs, but wasn’t always a pure flunkey. On the contrary, business had to struggle for decades to get public research to do everything it wanted. The basic ideological aspect of this struggle was a fraudulent distinction between “basic” and “applied” science. I recall being taught this dichotomy as a kid in school, along with the bogus notion of “science” as a disinterested, self-driving entity. It all had its origin in the 20th century corporate takeover of scientific activity, which was already geared to capitalist production.
According to system propaganda “basic”/pure/fundamental science refers to an alleged idealistic, non-mercenary scientific mindset which seeks knowledge for its own sake. It’s therefore an ideological term. The whole terminological sham is meant to “focus attention on the search for knowledge rather than on the search for the commodity”. The researchers themselves are deeply emotionally invested in this ideology of “pure” science which allegedly can be separated from the economic and political uses to which it’s put.
To the extent this “Basic” scientific status can be identified in reality at all, it’s associated with an institutional setup like a university which allegedly lets a scientist work with no profit-seeking pressure upon him. Of course this is a sham. Universities increasingly seek profit directly. Even if a university researcher is on a schedule which is leisurely from the point of view of generating a patent, he knows he’s expected to produce something profitable as the end result. Even if he individually does not generate profit, the point is that grants like the ones he receives are expected to be profitable in the aggregate, like movies put out by a studio or albums by a record company (back when they still focused on albums). Another false distinction between so-called Basic and Applied science is how “useful” the results are alleged to be.
In reality, no one knows ahead of time what general theoretical results practical research may lead to, nor what practical results may come of a general line of inquiry. Most of all, research is always a process toward productive ends. “Pure” research and the productive results of research are always on the same continuum. The only question is who defines what’s “productive” and controls the research toward their own measure of productivity.  What kind of socioeconomy will desire which products and will distribute the products in which way. Under capitalism, scientific research will always seek the result of commercial commodity products.
The chapter reproduces tables published by the National Science Foundation in 1986 detailing the distribution of research funding sources and recipients. The funding is split into the categories of “Basic”, “Applied”, and “Development” research. (Most assessments would have only the first two categories, with what the NSF is calling “Development” being part of “Applied”.) The takeaways are that government provides the majority of funding for university, NGO, and corporate research, while corporations dispose of most of the “Applied” and “Development” funding.
In explaining its data the NSF is forced to acknowledge the facts about research. It negatively defines Basic research simply as research “which does not have specific commercial objectives” (emphases theirs). Applied research is defined actively as “hav[ing] specific commercial objectives“. Development research is “directed toward the production” of commercially useful methods and products. The ideological bias is clear. Here the NSF drops the utopian eulogy of the individual researcher’s disinterested state of mind and admits that the whole thing is about “the relationship of the research to the commercial product, to the commodity-form” (Kloppenburg). The whole terminological sham is meant to “focus attention on the search for knowledge rather than the search for the commodity.” But it’s the latter which dominates the rest.
Finally, in order to understand the way germplasm’s been commodified we need to understand the global distribution of germplasm. The botanist N. Vavilov was the first to draw up a global map of botanical centers of origin. Vavilov was the first to systematically describe how and where agricultural crops were first developed, how the crops themselves and their thousands of landraces were the work of farmers selecting for certain traits over thousands of years. Historically, the goal was never to maximize production yield but production consistency and resiliency. The very concept of maximizing yield is alien to free, natural, food-based agricultural economies. On the contrary it’s a defining trait of profit-based commodification economies which, it must be repeated a thousand times, have ZERO to do with producing food at all, let alone “feeding the world”*. “Feed the world” is a perfect Orwellian term which means the opposite of what it says.
A glance at the map shows how twelve of the fourteen “Vavilov centers of diversity” span the global South while only two are located in the North. This distribution is even more lopsided than it looks, as the southern centers comprise far longer lists of crops than the meager centers of the North with just four each. This provides facial proof that the North’s domination of germplasm commodity flows has an imperialist character, and that the patents of the North are based on biopiracy, the systematic robbery of the farmers of the South who developed all these landraces in the first place.
(More recent maps show 11 rather than 14 of the areas described in the book. This includes omission of the two northern areas, whose original inclusion does seem to have been tendentious on account of how threadbare their contents were. But it’s good to be able to look at all the lists on one page to further highlight the lopsided distribution.)
Later chapters will give a more detailed indictment which philosophically and morally disproves the very concept of the patenting of plant and genetic material by Western corporations.
It’s appropriate that the ideas of Vavilov and others are disparaged and attacked today by the GMO regime. Similarly, Vavilov himself was purged and arrested in 1940 under the pseudo-scientific agricultural tyranny of Lysenko, who served Stalin’s power mania. So it is today with Big Ag, poison-based agriculture, and the whole pseudo-science which has been fabricated around the corporatist technology of genetic engineering.
[*Thus even though today’s corporate agriculture produces vastly more than enough food for everyone on earth, 1 billion go hungry. For as long as corporate ag continues to dominate, hunger will only spread and worsen. This is effectively a mathematical truth, since it’s based on numbers and the fact of what corporations do.
Conversely, agroecological practice within a food-based economy, as summed up in the concept of Food Sovereignty, is proven to outproduce industrial corporate agriculture acre for acre in terms of calories and nutrition.
This is common sense, since if you seek to produce food you’ll do a better job of producing food than if you seek to produce export commodities and hope that food will somehow trickle down from that as an afterthought.
Axiom: Corporate agriculture is about deploying as much poison as possible and concentrating as much wealth and power as possible. Food, where it comes out of the process at all, is an afterthought.
That, of course, is why the GMO cartel and its supporters simply don’t care about the health and environmental effects of the poisons. It’s because the poison is the whole point of the endeavor. As for the inexorable march of superweeds and superbugs, that’s premeditated obsolescence of the product, intended to generate the ever more profitable, ever more tyrannical poison treadmill.
Today what are called the agricultural and food sectors are really subsets of the chemical sector, more accurately the poison sector. To find the real agricultural and food economies one must look to the millions of small farmers across the global South who can benefit from agroecological knowledge but must be supported in their struggle to resist commodification and coming under the poison dominion. In the West, one must look to the rising Community Food direct retail sector which is striving to provide an alternative to this dominion and a vision of the only possible future.]


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  1. […] “First the Seed” – Science and Agriculture […]

    Pingback by “First the Seed” – Science and Agriculture | Todd DeanTodd Dean — June 10, 2014 @ 11:11 am

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