Subject: RE: Food Biotechnology: Promising Havoc or Hope for the Poor? [was: Re: Rain]

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Nov 23 16:57:33 MST 2000

Brian James:
>I don't understand your persistent refusal to concede that emerging and
>conventional methods of agriculture could be used differently under a
>socialist guidance, and indeed would be necessary to it.

Look, it is not just a question of socialists taking over existing
technologies in the agrarian sphere. If it was that simple, Marx never
would have warned:

"The moral of the tale is that the capitalist system runs counter to a
rational agriculture, or that a rational agriculture is incompatible with
the capitalist system (even if the latter promotes technical development in
agriculture) and needs either small farmers working for themselves or the
control of the associated      producers." (Capital vol. III, chapter 6,
section 2).

Stop and ask yourself why Marx challenged the premise that "technical
development" was sufficient or why he thought that "small farmers working
for themselves" was one *rational* approach.

This is because factory methods applied to farming do not work. It is one
thing to use the most advanced technology to create integrated circuits,
etc., but you have a different set of problems with food production. It
falls within the general rubric of the "metabolic rift" that preoccupied
Marx to such an extent that he studied the soil chemist Liebeg for answers.
He saw the answer in overcoming the separation between town and countryside
that capitalism had produced. A way had to be found to reunite organic
fertilizers with the fields. This was codified in a series of demands in
the Communist Manifesto:

--Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state;
the bringing into cultivation of waste lands, and the improvement of the
soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
--Equal obligation of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies,
especially for agriculture.
--Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual
abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable
distribution of the populace over the country.

In a nutshell, all advances in agricultural technology have produced
environmental side-effects that militate against productivity gains. The
Monthly Review put out a special issue on agriculture that I urge everybody
to look at, now that it is available in book form, titled "Hungry for
Profit" ( Here is a brief excerpt:

A number of technological fixes have been proposed for the environmental
problems of agriculture and food. For example, instead of solving food
safety problems by shortening the distance between the point of production
and the point of consumption, and producing animals in a small-scale,
stress-free, pleasant and clean environment, industry has been promoting
irradiation of meat as a cure to bacterial contamination.

A good example of misplaced priorities is that of "precision farming." Over
the past few years chemical and farm-machinery companies have been pushing
precision (or "Prescription") farming, whereby through the use of global
positioning technology (developed by military contractors as part of
Reagan's "Star Wars" initiative), yield monitors, extensive field sampling
and mapping, and variable application rate machinery, it is possible to
apply agrichemicals according to the supposed needs of different parts of a
field. It is clearly the case that for decades many fertilizers and
pesticides have been applied at higher rates than are economically
justifiable. Proponents of precision farming believe that this technology
can tailor doses of chemicals to the specific characteristics of small
parts of a field, and thereby avoid overusing chemicals on plots of land
where the chemicals result in little additional yield. There is little
evidence, however, that the precision technology brings any better
environmental results than could be obtained with common sense reductions
in the use of agrichemicals based on previously available methods. And in
many cases it has been found that farmers employing precision farming
techniques use a greater overall level of chemicals than they did before.

The push toward biotechnology is being driven by corporations looking for
ways to expand their profit-making potential. While the quest for profits
is hardly unique to biotechnology firms, the way that the biotechnology
industry developed historically has made this quest a particularly frantic
one. The agricultural biotechnology industry dates from the early 1980s.
With a very few exceptions, the billions of dollars invested in crop and
livestock biotechnology research since the early 1980s yielded virtually no
commercial products by the mid-1990s. Thus, with staggering investments but
no significant revenues, agricultural biotechnology firms have been
particularly intent in the 1990s on the need to speed up the introduction
of products into the market. The tendency has been for these corporations
to release as many products as possible, many of which have some
significant shortcomings, and then convince farmers that they need the
particular products that have been developed. Bovine growth hormone, for
example, can increase milk production by 10 percent or more per cow. This
is a dubious advantage, however, when the price of milk received by farmers
has declined in real terms (corrected for inflation) by over half since the
early 1980s, and when the number of dairy farmers is already declining by
about 40 percent each decade. As noted by Lewontin, other first-generation
biotechnology products, such as Bt-engineered and herbicide-tolerant crop
varieties, have significant liabilities as well. Even the more
environmentally benign "identity-preserved" biotechnology products, which
can potentially increase the quality of food products, are likely to serve
as the newest frontier for capital to extract profits from agriculture, and
through "integration" will serve to convert more farmers into essentially
being a proletariat that nominally "owns," but has lost control over, its
own land.

Louis Proyect
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