Activism and the new agricultural biotechnologies

This week’s author feature is from the authors of Fighting for the Future of Food: Activists versus Agribusiness in the Struggle over Biotechnology, which tells the story of how a group of social activists, working together across tables, continents, and the Internet, took on the biotech industry and achieved stunning success. Rachel Schurman is associate professor of sociology and global studies at the University of Minnesota, as well as coeditor of Engineering Trouble: Biotechnology and Its Discontents. William A. Munro is professor of political science and director of the international studies program at Illinois Wesleyan University. He is also author of The Moral Economy of the State.


Some people have asked whether our book is anti-biotech. In our view, that is not really the right question. The arguments over agricultural biotechnology are both deeply polarized and deeply polarizing (this is a key theme in our analysis). To characterize the book in terms of one or another broad label, such as ‘anti-biotech’ or ‘pro-biotech,’ is to adopt and to reinforce such polarization — it places our analysis in one of two possible categories. Yet, as we believe our book illustrates, such broad labeling obfuscates more than it illuminates.

To be sure, we offer a critical account of the agricultural biotechnology industry. But our purpose is to show that there are quite different ways of understanding technologies and their meanings, and that these different perspectives can be politically (and socially) consequential. In this case, it was the work of the anti-biotech activists that made these perspectives consequential. As social movement analysts, our aim is to show how and why they did so. Thus, while it is not uncommon to hear anti-biotech activists characterized as anti-science ideologues who don’t care much about the poor, we show that this kind of shorthand does not help us very much to understand the activists who constituted the anti-biotech movement. Their rejection of the technology was not simply visceral. They organized opposition on the basis of their personal and historical experiences, their deeply held values, and their political analysis of what the technology would mean for society and the environment. They developed their analyses collectively over time and in interaction with one another. In doing so, they observed and interpreted advances in science and technology that were associated with the emergence of scientist-entrepreneurs, changes in the legal system, the interests of the biotechnology industry, and the behavior of state regulatory agencies. We maintain that if one is to understand the roots of anti-biotech activism, as well as its political trajectory, it is crucial to understand these processes of “thinking work.”

This graphic appears in the introduction to Fighting for the Future of Food.

Moreover, in generating an analysis of these developments, activists acted not very differently from those in the industry, who also took a strong position though they stressed different values. The two groups drew opposing conclusions, the activists seeing peril where the industry saw promise. Our goal in the book is not to argue that one group is right or wrong, but rather, to reveal the concerns and motivations that both groups had and to show how these came into sustained conflict. As such, one of the key themes in our analysis is to show that, as political actors, both sets of protagonists in the struggle over agricultural biotechnology — activists and industry alike — were not only driven by, but also constrained by, what we call their “lifeworlds.” One can think of a lifeworld as a local culture and the people who constitute it. Lifeworlds are important for understanding the biotech struggle because they helped to produce shared accounts of the world and “normal” or commonsense ways of seeing and acting upon it.

Today, commentators sympathetic to the technology increasingly acknowledge that the technology has been ‘oversold.’ (See, for instance, this editorial in the July 2010 issue of Nature). As we show in the book, ‘overselling’ was a political mistake inasmuch as it gave the anti-biotech activists room to maneuver. But it was also culturally embedded in the industry’s lifeworld. In effect, industry scientists’ excitement about these new technologies was infectious; corporate managers felt this sense of excitement and promise and began to run with it. Then, acting as they would with any new product in which they had invested millions upon millions of dollars, they aggressively sought to market GMOs, which involved considerable hype and some hubris. The industry’s behavior not only outraged the activists but played into their hands. We argue that if we are to understand the struggle over biotechnology we must take the lifeworlds of both the activists and the industry seriously. Pasting a label on the book does not help to do that.


Find out more about Fighting for the Future of Food.

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