Volatility

June 10, 2014

“First the Seed” – Science and Agriculture

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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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June 1, 2014

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

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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.

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