Agribusiness, Biotechnology and War




This article originally appeared in Z Magazine, September 2002.

Virtually all of the new, technology-based industries of the past century have been products of wartime. World War I ushered in the widespread use of mechanization and the beginnings of aviation. World War II brought us nuclear power, modern rocketry and cybernetics. The corporate giants of the automobile, chemical and electronics industries all made massive fortunes profiting from war and helping fuel the 20th centurys unending arms race.

While some may view the growth of these industries as social benefits emerging from warfare just as we were instructed during the 1960s and seventies that we should be grateful for the space program because it brought us Tefloncritics of technology advance a more skeptical view. Technologies are rarely neutral tools that can be applied equally to socially useful or destructive ends. Technologies are embedded in their particular social matrix. The priorities that shape the design and implementation of a given technology will significantly determine what ends it may or may not be used to advance. Therefore technologies designed to advance wartime agendas may become the means by which those agendas are entrenched in other social domains.

The case is most compelling where technologies have been developed to advance very specific capitalist priorities. Since the 19th century, for example, new technologies have been introduced into manufacturing in order to minimize the need for highly skilledand often well organizedworkers. In one instance, Cyrus McCormicks son introduced pneumatic molding machines at exorbitant cost into the plant that manufactured his fathers famous reapers, even though this innovation increased production costs and decreased the quality of iron castings. The goal was to facilitate replacing unionized iron workers with unskilled, unorganized labor.

This pattern continued throughout the 20th century. Historian David Noble has documented in detail how design choices governing new semiautomated machine tool technologies after World War II were made to both repress labor militancy and advance Cold War military agendas. This was the beginning of the permanent war economy in the U.S., and also the period when military norms of command and control became most firmly entrenched in industrial production, transforming industrial design practices for at least a generation. In agriculture, hybrid seeds were introduced to farmers on a large scale in the 1930s, and a rapid increase in crop yields soon followed. But other innovations in plant breeding and cultivation were equally available at the time that may have offered even greater benefits for farmers; the alternatives, however, were far less amenable to creating commercial monopolies in marketable seeds.

When we examine how our food is grown today, it becomes clear that most of the chemical tools taken for granted by modern agribusiness are products of warfare. Is this merely an indirect consequence of the tragic history of the 20th century, or does it suggest that the currently dismal state of our soils, fresh water supplies and rural economies is an outgrowth of agribusiness emergence from wartime in some important ways? Virtually all of the leading companies that brought us chemical fertilizers and pesticides made their greatest fortunes during wartime. How can this help us understand the ever-deteriorating quality of mass produced food? And what does it tell us about the new technologies of genetic manipulation that every one of these companies posits as the centerpiece of the current generation of crop improvement technologies?

Since last September, such questions have become even more urgent. The U.S. government is seeking to spend billions of dollars over the coming years on so-called biological defense, and is looking to the biotechnology industry to provide the tools to defend populations from biological attack. At the same time, the U.S. military is seeking vastly expanded offensive biowarfare capabilities. Senior researchers, such as Mark Wheelis of the University of California and the staff of the international Sunshine Project, have documented how new developments in genomics, proteonomics and other biotechnology applications vastly increase the capacity for identifying new toxic biochemical agents. Indeed many of the techniques that are supposed to help pharmaceutical researchers identify therapeutically useful compounds may prove far more useful for developing new chemical warfare agents.

The handful of companies that over the past decade have used biotechnology in an attempt to radically reshape food production have their roots in wartime, have profited tremendously from war throughout their histories, and have long collaborated with military establishments to make the world a more dangerous place. Clearly these companies are not going to make responsible decisions about our food and our health, much less protect us from bioterrorism. Indeed, an examination of these companies histories suggests that the genetic engineering of food may indeed be nothing less than an extension of their wartime agendas.

War By Other Means?

In 1998, as debates were heating up across Europe around the unlabeled imports of genetically engineered soybeans and corn from the United States, the editors of The Economist magazine in London published an impassioned defense of the biotech agenda in agriculture. Agriculture, The Economist editors wrote, is war by other means. Indeed, from its origins, chemical agriculture has been a form of warfareit is a war against the soil, against our reserves of fresh water, and against all the microbes and insects that are necessary for the growing of healthy food. Since the earliest origins of modern industrial agriculture, agribusiness has been at war against all life on earth, including ourselves. An examination of the origins of todays agrochemical technologiesand the companies that first advanced themcan reveal a great deal about where we may be heading.

The story begins with nitrogen. Since ancient times, people have been aware of the importance of nitrate salts for maintaining soil fertility. The traditional source of supplemental nitrogen was saltpeter, a form of potassium nitrate that was found in soil scrapings alongside roads and old buildings. Later, it was harvested from large deposits of seabird guano, particularly in South America. The Chinese discovered in the 12th century that saltpeter, when combined with sulfur and a carbon source, can also have tremendous explosive capability, and used it to manufacture the first gunpowder.

During World War I, two German scientists named Haber and Bosch discovered an efficient means for the large-scale chemical synthesis of ammonia and its various nitrate derivatives. The BASF companynow the worlds fourth largest manufacturer of agricultural chemicalscommercialized this process in 1913, and their products played a central role in the orgy of mass destruction that soon followed. Huge excesses of nitrogenous compounds that accumulated during World War I provided the basis for the beginnings of the mass production of synthetic nitrate fertilizers.

The DuPont Chemical Companynow the sole owner of the worlds largest seed company, Pioneer HiBredwas the largest manufacturer of gunpowder in the U.S. during the early 19th century. During the first World War, DuPont supplied 1.5 billion pounds of explosives to the Allied military forces, according to the companys official history. During the same period, the German dye-maker Hoechst which merged with the French chemical company Rhone Poulenc in 1999 to form the biotech giant Aventisaltered several of its formulas to facilitate the manufacture of explosives and mustard gas. Decades later, DuPont and Hoechst would share the distinction of being the manufacturers of most of the ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that are responsible for the hole in the earths protective ozone layer.

World War I also saw the rise of Monsanto as a major player. Founded in 1901 to bring the production of the artificial sweetener saccharine into the United States, Monsanto increased its profits 100 fold during the World War, from $80,000 to well over $9 million per year. Monsanto supplied the chemical precursors for many high explosives. They manufactured phenol, which is a precursor of TNT (trinitrotoluene), and was also used as a battlefield antiseptic. They also made the nitric acid used to nitrify the phenol-derived toluene, as well as sulfuric acid, various precursors for the production of poison gas, and additives to strengthen rubber (and later synthetic rubber) for many military applications.

New Synthetic Pesticides

In addition to chemical fertilizer production, todays food biotech giants have their origins in the production of chemical pesticides, perhaps the most ecologically damaging factor in todays industrial agriculture. In the 19th century, agricultural pest control was an eclectic enterprise, utilizing a wide variety of soaps, herbal preparations, and hand-removal of insects. Late in the century, botanical herbicides such as pyrethrum and rotenone began to be imported from sources halfway around the world. Entomologists began studying the life cycles and ecological interactions of insects, seeking to develop more sophisticated biological controls.

In the 1860s, various byproducts of the chemical dye industry were found to have insecticidal properties. With exotic-sounding names like Paris green and London purple, these substances became increasingly popular. Their common ingredient was arsenic; arsenic-based compounds were popular during the Victorian era as pigments for candles and wallpaper, as cosmetics and patent medicines; only later were the lethal properties of various arsenic derivatives more widely recognized. Lead arsenate was overwhelmingly the most popular insecticide throughout the early 20th century; it often killed plants, bees and livestock as readily as it killed insects. Still its popularity remained uncontested for several decades. There was considerable opposition in Europe to the import of food from North America that had been sprayed with lead arsenate, but these concerns were widely dismissed by the founding fathers of American agribusiness.

In the 1930s, chemists working for the German company Bayer discovered the highly poisonous properties of organophosphate compounds. By then, Bayer had already merged with BASF, Hoechst and other companies to form the huge chemical conglomerate I.G. Farben; today Bayer is poised to become the worlds largest manufacturer of herbicides and pesticidesand a leading source of genetically engineered seed varietieswith its recent takeover of the biotech giant Aventis CropScience. (Aventis is the company responsible for the Starlink variety of insecticidal GE corn, which was never approved for human consumption and thus forced the recall of some 300 name-brand processed food products during 2000-01.) As all of German industry became absorbed into the growing Nazi war machine, Bayers organophosphate compounds were developed simultaneously as agricultural pesticides and as nerve gases for military use.

Some 2000 new organophosphate compounds were discovered, including such notorious chemical warfare agents as sarin, soman and tabun gases, all of which are still manufactured today. Later organophosphate pesticides included the livestock spray phosmet, which some researchers have associated with the emergence of mad cow disease, as well as malathion, parathion, diazanon, dursban and lorsban; the latter three of these have finally begun to be phased out during the past two years. Organophosphates still represent 40 percent of todays insecticide market, and are associated with some 20,000 cases of acute poisoning every year. Organophosphates severely interfere with normal nervous system function, impeding the breakdown and recycling of acetylcholine, one of the main carriers of excitatory nerve impulses; its uncontrolled accumulation at the site of nerve synapses can force the nervous systems of both insects and humans into a virtually uncontrollable state of overdrive.

DDT: The Ultimate Weapon

Another new development in pesticide technology emerged from corporate-military collaboration during World War II, and this was to have even more dramatic long-term consequences. In the 1930s, scientists at the Swiss J. R. Geigy Company were searching for new compounds to disinfect seeds and prevent moths from feeding on wool. Geigy later merged with Ciba to form Ciba-Geigy, with Sandoz to form Novartis, and then merged its agribusiness division with the British Imperial Chemical Industries offshoot Zeneca to form the agrochemical and biotechnology giant Syngenta in 2001. These researchers key discovery was that DDT, which was first synthesized by an academic scientist in 1874, could accomplish both of their desired ends and more.

Still, there was only limited interest in DDT until World War II, when the U.S. Army faced two nearly incapacitating pest problems. Soldiers in southern Europe were facing widespread outbreaks of typhus from exposure to lice, and their counterparts in the south Pacific faced potential epidemics of malaria. The pyrethrum-based powders that were most often used had to be reapplied in a stringent and systematic manner every week, which was seen as far too inconvenient for battlefield conditions. Also, Japan had by then become the leading supplier of pyrethrum. So the Army looked to Geigys new product as the answer, and soon, 2 million pounds of DDT were being produced every month.

Throughout the 1940s, scientists discovered the usefulness of DDT for combating a wide variety of agricultural pests quickly and with long-lasting effect. A variety of household and public health uses were implemented as well. DDT was used against potato beetles and other crop pests, but also against flies, mosquitoes, bedbugs, scabies, dog flies, Dutch elm fungus, and also to combat malaria, typhus, yellow fever, dengue fever and a wide variety of forest pests. It was the ultimate killer, the atom bomb of insecticides. Monsanto began manufacturing DDT in 1944, along with some 15 other companies. DDT became the most widely applied chemical in human history, and its commercial success led to a massive increase in the production and use of chemical insecticides of all types. Revenues from insecticide production in the U.S. rose from $10 million in 1940 to $100 million in 1950 to over $1 billion today.

The commercial success of DDT also led to a dramatic shift in the chemical industrys approach to pest control, a shift in attitude that still plagues us today, and was in many ways a direct outgrowth of its wartime origins. DDT truly was seen as an ultimate weapon, capable of permanently eliminating various pest species. Professor John H. Perkins of Evergreen State College in Washington, who has studied the history of entomology in agriculture, writes, DDT and the other new chemicals elicited proposals for a concept of control seldom considered in prewar times: permanent control by eradication of a pest species. . . The power of the new chemicals to evoke quests for final solutions became an important part of entomology that lives with it to the present day.

The irony of Prof. Perkins invocation of the Nazis genocidal final solution is clearly intended here. But unlike the Nazi genocide, these cannot be dismissed as the crimes of an outlaw totalitarian regime. This quest for permanent eradication of pests became the norm in agribusiness practice, and continues to this very day. With the increasing use of DDT, basic research in entomology came to a near standstill, as scientific expertise was diverted from studies of the life cycles and ecological relationships of insects toward maximizing the effectiveness of new chemicals. Farmers were informed that time-tested methods of biological and mechanical pest control, including crop rotation and other means of controlling habitat, were archaic and simply needed to be replaced by the new, more scientific chemical approach.

Of course people soon discovered a vast array of problems with DDT. While its acute toxicity to mammals is comparatively low, especially as compared with organophosphate insecticides, DDT accumulates in fatty tissues and in milk. It contributes to the degeneration of the liver and kidneys and is a potent disrupter of the central nervous system. Researchers soon discovered that university campuses that were experimenting with DDT were losing their entire population of songbirds. DDT caused a catastrophic thinning of eggshells, and was found to be a potent carcinogen. In 1972, the U.S. Congress banned the use of DDT in domestic agricultureit is still manufactured for exportand further bans on related organochlorine pesticides such as aldrin, dieldrin, chlordane and heptachlor soon followed.

The tremendous public outcry around the toxic effects of DDT and other pesticides during the 1960s and early 70s was a crucial factor in the decision by Monsanto and other agrochemical giants to begin shifting their research efforts toward the brand new technology of gene manipulation. The first successful splicing of foreign (transgenic) DNA into the chromosomes of a living cell was demonstrated in 1973. By the late 1980s, Monsanto, Ciba-Geigy (now Syngenta and Novartis) and others were heavily invested in the genetic engineering of basic food crops. While the companies insist that GE crops are a safer alternative to pesticides, most independent evidence suggests that this is far from the case. In the words of agronomist and agricultural policy consultant Charles Benbrook, Both herbicide tolerant and Bt-transgenic varieties entail novel mechanisms to enhance the ability of farmers to more fully rely on pesticides. Pesticide production, pesticide use, and pesticide profits continue to increase as genetically engineered varieties of soybeans, corn, canola and cotton are planted in ever larger acreages in the United States and Canada.

Herbicides and Warfare

Of course, the agrochemical giants close involvement with the military continued throughout the remainder of the 20th century. Monsantos research director Charles Thomas, along with DuPont scientists, supervised the purification of plutonium and polonium for the development of the first atomic bomb, and the two companies operated the Pentagons nuclear weapons laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee during the 1950s.

Also during the 1950s, Monsanto discovered that a byproduct of its chlorinated pesticide production was causing severe skin rashes, joint pain and nervous disorders in its production workers. This mysterious substance turned out to be dioxin, and the U.S. Army Chemical Corps immediately became interested in its potential usefulness as a chemical warfare agent. The herbicide “Agent Orange,” which was used by U.S. military forces to obliterate the dense jungles of Vietnam during the 1960s was a mixture of the herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. Seven different chemical companies supplied Agent Orange to the U.S. military, but Monsanto’s formulation had as much as 1000 times the concentration of dioxin.

Dioxins toxic and carcinogenic effects are still experienced on a daily basis by people in Vietnam, but it was a group of U.S. Vietnam War veterans who brought suit against the companies that were responsible for their own terrifying symptoms of Agent Orange exposure. When a $180 million legal settlement was reached in 1984 between the seven chemical companies and the veterans, the judge ordered Monsanto to pay 45.5 percent of the total, more than Dow Chemical, which was by far the leading supplier of Agent Orange by volume. Dow, of course, became most notorious during the Vietnam War for its production of napalm, the gasoline-based incendiary that set vast expanses of land ablaze, along with entire villages and hundreds of thousands of innocent victims. Today, Dow is also a leading player in biotech agriculture, having purchased the early biotech innovator Mycogen, as well as Cargills entire U.S. seed division.

The 1980s and 90s saw a rapid expansion in Monsantos herbicide production, in close parallel to its development of genetically engineered crop varieties. In the past decade, the contribution of Roundup-family herbicides to Monsantos operating revenue has increased from one sixth to nearly two-thirds of the total. Roundup plays a central role in the U.S. drug war via its widespread use to eradicate coca and poppy plants in Colombia and other countries. Colombian agronomists have uncovered the use of a new additive that increases herbicide exposures to more than 100 times Monsantos recommended dosage in more typical agricultural applications. Along with coca and poppies, U.S. aerial spraying of tons of Roundup over the Colombian countryside has led to the destruction of local subsistence crops such as manioc, bananas, palms, sugarcane and corn, as well as the poisoning of creeks, rivers and lakes and the destruction of indigenous fish populations.

Of all of Monsanto, DuPont and Dows agricultural products, genetically engineered food crops might appear to be the least tainted with immediate wartime origins. But this technology emerged from a period when the future of chemical agriculture appeared very much in doubt. With the rapid expansion of the agrochemical industry during the post-World War II era, these companies and their European counterparts established a profound degree of control over agricultural practices. Agrochemical companies set the agenda for changing farm practices, came to dominate agricultural policymaking and the information available to farmers, and later forged strategic alliances with the emerging global grain trading companies, such as Cargill, ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland.

As public pressure and the weight of scientific evidence curtailed the use of DDT and many other chlorinated pesticides in the 1970s, executives and corporate scientists saw the potential for limitless advancesand ever-expanding marketing potentialin the incorporation of technological advances into the genetics of seeds. During the 1990s, Monsanto alone spent nearly $8 billion acquiring leading commercial seed suppliers such as DeKalb, Asgrow and Holdens, along with shares in seed companies in Brazil, India and other countries; DuPont and others quickly followed suit. Only the expanding worldwide resistance to the genetic engineering of food has curtailed these companies ability to continue introducing new GE crops, including herbicide-tolerant varieties of wheat and rice.

Since the historic shutdown of the WTO meetings in Seattle in 1999, activists have been aware that genetic engineering is a central means by which global capitalism is consolidating its control over our food and our healthcare. Biotechnology has helped drive unprecedented corporate concentration in both the agribusiness and pharmaceutical sectors. The WTOs intellectual property regimes have forced countries to alter their legal systems to allow the patenting of life forms. The U.S. government continues to use the threat of WTO sanctions to pressure European, Latin American and Asian countries to accept GMOs, while the World Bank offers aid to promote acceptance of genetically engineered agriculture throughout the global South.

Today it is clear that opposing genetic engineering is also a key to countering the capitalist war against nature. As the world braces itself for a second year of the Bush administrations interminable war on terror, and as scientific evidence increasingly affirms the ecological hazards of genetic engineering, it is imperative that critics and activists redouble efforts to counter these inherently uncertain and destructive technologies.

Brian Tokar is the editor of Redesigning Life? The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic Engineering, and the director of the Institute for Social Ecologys Biotechnology Project. For up-to-date information on resistance to genetic engineering, see