Harbinger Vol. 2 No. 1 — Radicalizing the Debate




Brian Tokar

Over the past year, news of the hazards of genetically engineered foods has finally broken into the U.S. mainstream media. The contamination of taco shells and other products with a variety of engineered corn not approved for human consumption, the gathering of 4000 people last March to demonstrate against the biotechnology industry convention in Boston (an event initiated and partly organized by the Institute for Social Ecology), and continuing direct actions against fields of genetically engineered crops, have helped made it impossible for the corporate media to continue to ignore this issue. For those of us at the ISE who have been working on biotech issues for many years, this is clearly an important breakthrough, but it also makes it imperative that we continue working to broaden and radicalize the debate.

Evidence for the unique dangers of genetically engineered foods continues to mount. Even though research on the problems with these products can hardly keep up with 20 years and hundreds of millions of dollars devoted toward accelerating their commercialization, each new independent study appears to confirm what biotech critics have been saying all along. From the threat of increased food allergies, antibiotic resistance and more serious metabolic and developmental problems, to the widely-reported hazard to monarch butterflies and numerous varieties of agriculturally beneficial insects, the evidence increasingly supports the need for caution.

There is an emerging consensus that the burden of proof must be shifted onto the proponents of this radically disruptive new technology. But it is crucial that the debate continue to push beyond the limits of what can be documented scientifically, beyond what social ecologist Chaia Heller has described as the discourse of risk. The more that officials of the U.S. government, and of global institutions such as the WTO, insist that only known, quantifiable risks are legitimate areas for public policy, the more imperative it becomes for activists and other concerned citizens to insist upon raising the larger questions: What does this new technology mean for our society, for the exercise of political and economic power and for the possibilities of actualizing a genuinely free society? How can we fully comprehend all the disturbing social consequences of the new genetic technologies?

A meaningful discussion of the implications of the new biotechnologies needs to begin with the concept of commodification. In the 19th century, Marx introduced the notion of the commodity as an “external object,”1 a product of human labor that has been torn asunder from the ages-old means by which people work to satisfy their basic life needs. Capitalism creates “exchange values,” divorced from traditional, social “use-values,”2 and tied to the disciplines and strictures of the commercial marketplace. The commodification of basic needs, including the appropriation of land and human labor as principles of exchange, was a central development underlying the founding stages of capitalism. It is a main tenet of the long-range ideological project of dominating and controlling external nature.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the processes of commodification were extended to all spheres of social life, popular culture, and even the most intimate realms of personal experience. The Frankfurt School critiqued the fast-growing culture industry as an extension of the larger project of domination in society; for Horkheimer, Adorno and others, the domination of humanity and nature appeared to be a regrettable, albeit sometimes horrific, historical necessity, while social ecology casts ideas of “dominating nature” as a direct consequence of patterns of domination in society. Murray Bookchin, in Re-enchanting Humanity, described the all-pervasive qualities of commercial culture:

“Today, the unbridled expansion of the market transforms nearly all traditional personal relationships into commodity ties, fostering a belief in the merits of consumption and a highly synthetic image of ‘the good life.’”3

While the roots of organized persuasion and the creation of artificial needs can be traced back to precapitalist institutions, 20th century capitalism extended its reach far deeper into private life and everyday consciousness:

“From the 1950s onward, the market economy has not only imperialized every aspect of conventional life, it has also dissolved the memory of the alternative lifeways that precede it.”4

The project of modern biotechnology takes this process of commodification many steps further, extending its reach to literally encompass all of organic life. It is perhaps the apex of the capitalist project of domination and control over human and non-human nature. Biotechnology literally seeks to bring all of life, down to the cellular and molecular levels, into the sphere of commercial products. From microorganisms that lie deep within the boiling geysers of Yellowstone National Park — found to be the subject of a secret agreement between the U.S. National Park Service and a San Diego-based biotechnology company — to the human DNA sequences being mapped by both public and private agencies, all of life on earth is being reduced to a set of objects and codes to be bought, sold and patented under the domain of the capitalist marketplace.

Furthermore, biotechnology seeks to alter the fundamental patterns of non-human nature so as to better satisfy the demands of the market. Wherever natural patterns are not well suited to continued exploitation, biotechnology raises the possibility of redesigning life forms to satisfy capitalist demands. Where soil fertility and plant health are undermined by monocropping and chemical fertilizers, biotechnologists make crops tolerant to herbicides so growers can use more noxious chemicals to destroy weeds, and also make them secrete bacterial toxins to attack various crop pests. Where industrial-scale irrigation lowers the water table and makes the soil saltier, they offer to make food crops more resistant to drought and to salt, perpetuating our society’s ability to ignore the underlying causes of these problems.

Where marketable fish species like salmon have difficulties surviving year round in far northern hatcheries, genetic engineers seek to splice in frost resistance from cold-water species such as flounder, and also make them grow dramatically faster. If naturally bred livestock cannot satisfy the demand for ever-increasing profit margins, commercial breeders aim to offer clones of their most productive animals. Timber companies want to raise plantations of genetically engineered trees that grow faster, and have an altered biochemical makeup that may be more amenable to chemical processing for paper pulp. In each instance, biotechnology dramatically furthers the process of replacing the organic with the synthetic, perpetuating the myth that the inherent ecological limitations of a thoroughly nature-denying economic and social system can simply be engineered out of existence.

The biotechnology industry is also at the forefront of patenting living things, having mobilized the power of the World Trade Organization to impose regimes of life patenting on all the world’s legal systems. At the same time, corporate “bioprospectors” (many call them “biopirates”) are surveying the entire biosphere, from the arctic to the tropics, in search of plants, animals and DNA sequences — including millions of fragments of human DNA — to study, manipulate and patent. The ownership of life is proceeding on a macroscopic scale as well: For-profit fertility clinics purchase human eggs and sperm from willing “volunteers” and offer them for sale. Recent breakthroughs in animal cloning have suggested the very real possibility that an above-ground market in human cells, tissues and even laboratory-created organs may soon complement the shadowy but lucrative international trade in human organs for transplantation.

This unprecedented commodification of life has very real and immediate consequences. In economic terms, the biotechnology industry represents an unprecedented concentration of corporate power over our food and our health. The late 1990s saw a heretofore unimaginable wave of corporate mergers and acquisitions in virtually every economic sector, and now the three pivotal areas of seeds, pharmaceuticals and agricultural chemicals are increasingly dominated by a small handful of transnational giants, all centrally committed to the advancement of biotechnology. By 1999, five companies — Monsanto, AstraZeneca, DuPont (owner of Pioneer Hi-Bred, the world’s largest seed company), Novartis and Aventis — controlled 60 percent of the global pesticide market, 23 percent of the commercial seed market and nearly all of the world’s genetically modified seeds. Farmers face an increasingly monopolized seed market, along with increasing integration of the entire food industry; one recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece suggested that farmers will soon become “more like Detroit’s auto parts makers,” mere subcontractors to a tiny handful of global corporations.

When the food biotech sector began running into problems with investors in 1999, many of the “gene giants” began divesting their agricultural divisions into separate companies. The once seemingly-invincible Monsanto, for example, is now a much smaller, agriculturally-focused company 85% owned by the pharmaceutical giant Pharmacia. The financial links between these sectors, however, remain largely intact, and the project of creating a comprehensive, worldwide “life science” industry controlled by many of the world’s largest chemical companies continues, albeit in an institutionally weakened form. Commercial seed production worldwide is still increasingly dominated by companies that specialize in chemical production and biotechnology.

The leading institutions of global capitalism, particularly the WTO and the World Bank, along with the new Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, also play a central role in the proliferation of biotechnology, and are heavily supported by the biotech industry. Biotech companies played a key role in formulating the WTO’s “TRIPs” (Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights) provisions, and TRIPs has become the main leverage for imposing life-patenting regimes on those countries where the opposition is the strongest. The WTO’s “dispute settlement” mechanisms have been used by the U.S. government to try to compel European governments to accept imports of hormone-treated beef, Central American bananas and other unwanted products. Only the fear of political isolation in the face of massive public opposition has kept the biotech industry from utilizing the same direct pressure tactics. World Bank development loans are often tied to “capacity building” aimed at shifting recipient countries toward biotech agriculture, and U.S. food “aid” shipments to impoverished regions are often tainted with genetically engineered products, including the “Starlink” corn that is deemed unfit for human consumption in the United States.

A radical critique of biotechnology also needs to encompass the various new human genetic technologies that are most often described — often misleadingly — as breakthroughs in medical research. While some research using modern biotech methods has proved fruitful, and the sequencing of the human genome has in some ways broadened critical discourse on the genetic aspects of human identity, we are still in the midst of a massive diversion of scientific resources toward a narrow focus on genetics. Capitalist medicine prefers to remain largely ignorant of the underlying causes of disease, preferring to identify genetic correlates that can be tested for, and used to weed out those who may be most susceptible. The rhetoric of alleviating suffering is appropriated in the interest of isolating potential sufferers, so that the engines of capitalism can roll on unimpeded. Commentators on the right have been ahead of much of the left in labeling human cloning and steps toward “designer children” as harbingers of a new form of slavery, even as they wax enthusiastic about steps toward a new, largely market — rather than state-driven form of eugenics.

Finally, it is important to understand the ways biotechnology has become a centerpiece of today’s information-centered capitalism. As the profitability of conventional industrial capitalism began to decline in the late twentieth century, investors sought out new forms of information-centered production as the basis for renewed economic expansion. In her chapter in the new collection Redesigning Life?, Chaia Heller describes the central role of biotechnology in the consolidation of a new, postmodern form of service-oriented, flexible, “organic” capitalism, in which dispersed, interchangeable and culturally-mediated forms of economic activity are largely supplanting conventional modes of industrial production and profit extraction. In this respect, biotechnology is essentially “the systematic conversion of biological nature into informational capital,” according to Heller, and all the gene sequencers and gene hunters (i.e., “biopirates”) are merely “attempt[ing] to map out future colonial territories within the cells of human beings [as well as] within the biological nature of plants, animals and other organisms.”5

If we believe that a free, ecological society is possible, then our activism against biotechnology needs to fully reflect that understanding. Many well-known and widely-supported organizations are focused entirely on getting genetically engineered foods labeled, or petitioning government agencies to require independent testing, and perhaps more comprehensive regulation, in place of today’s thoroughly dubious “consultations” between the US Food and Drug Administration and the biotech and agribusiness industries. Today’s non-regulations are founded on a myth of “substantial equivalence” — the transparently false notion that there is nothing qualitatively different about a genetically engineered variety of a given crop, no discernable health and environmental problems that are unique consequences of this technology. But exposing and overturning this myth, and even eliminating GE foods entirely, are only first steps toward a democratic society that can feed everyone fresh, healthy food in an ecologically sound manner.

Demanding justice from an inherently unjust system can be a step toward creating a free society, or it can merely perpetuate self-defeating attempts to reform the system strictly on its own terms. It depends on whether the movement is ready to view its immediate goals in the context of a broader reconstructive social and political vision. Is our goal merely the labeling of GE food — or even its abolition — or is it a truly ecological food system that abolishes the stranglehold of agribusiness megacorporations on our food supply and our lives? What kinds of strategies can serve to dismantle the unaccountable and life-denying power of these institutions and the system they serve? How can our opposition to genetic engineering be grounded in a political strategy aiming at genuine community empowerment and a society freed from the confines of the capitalist war of all against all? There have been important successes in the past few years; the hegemony of companies like Monsanto over our food, our health and our future has been seriously shaken, but we clearly have much further to go. We need to ground our opposition to biotechnology in our dreams of community empowerment, of the triumph of citizenship and human liberation over consumption and the stranglehold of the capitalist market.

Will we have biotechnology in a free society? This question has often arisen in our discussions of biotechnology at the ISE. Perhaps we will, but as with all the other technologies social ecologists have discussed and critiqued over the years, an ecologically-informed biological technology will be a fundamentally different kind of undertaking than the biotechnology that dominates today’s discussions. Today’s biotechnology industry has flourished largely at the expense of more benign, ecological technologies, from sophisticated refinements of organic food raising and permaculture methods to holistic approaches to medical care that are grounded in both traditional knowledge and a non-mechanistic outlook on the inner ecology of the human organism. We have seen how research into alternative technologies has been systematically devalued and de-funded in recent years, even in our theoretically public land-grant universities; now we need to envision a society where these technologies can flourish.

Technologies are always a product of their social context, and powerful technologies serve to reinforce the social and political structures that produce them. Today’s biotechnology is fundamentally about manipulation and control — that is what capitalism thrives upon. Future biological technologies, on the other hand, can aim to work with the patterns of nature and enhance human participation and harmony with the rest of the natural world. Genetics will likely play a role, as will a wealth of whole organism-centered approaches to scientific research that have been largely relegated to the margins of academia in recent decades. And, perhaps most important, communities of people will reclaim decision-making power around what kinds of technologies are most amenable to the creation of an ecological future. Communities can debate and decide how to allocate resources toward research and discovery in a free, open, and directly democratic forum, instead of corporate executives and government bureaucrats deciding largely in secret. As we continue to explore the wider implications of today’s biotechnologies, social ecology will continue to look toward the development of a science — and a social and participatory political context for that science — that truly represents the full realization of human possibilities.


  1. Karl Marx, Capital: Vol. 1 (New York: Vintage, 1977) , p. 125.
  2. Ibid, p. 131.
  3. Murray Bookchin, Re-enchanting Humanity (London: Cassell, 1995), p. 155.
  4. Murray Bookchin, “Moral Economy or Market Economy,” in The Modern Crisis (Philadelphia: New Society Publisher, 1986), p. 82.
  5. Chaia Heller, “McDonalds, MTV and Monsanto: Resisting Biotechnology in the Age of Informational Capital,” in Redesigning Life? The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic Engineering, Brian Tokar, ed. (London: Zed Books, 2001), p. 413.