The industrialization of agriculture began to take form during what has been coined the ‘Green Revolution’. Between the 1930s and 1960s, many wealthy and developed countries, became very active in the research and development of industrial agriculture science and farming techniques. One of these techniques was bioengineering. Shortly after the onset of the Green Revolution, the first genetically engineered crop was created. In the early 1970s, a genetically altered bacteria was created to imbue strawberries with frost resistant genetic characteristics. Concerned about the disastrous spread of genetically engineered bacteria to other crops, environmental groups protested vehemently. The planting of the newly engineered strawberries was postponed for two seasons. When the crops were finally planted, the results were disappointing. Some frost protection was evident, and no ecological damage was reported. Neither the bacteria or the altered genes were found to be a hazard. (Lappé & Bailey 1998). In the United States, just 20 years later, agricultural crops derived from bioengineering were marketed and planted on over 30 million acres. These included herbicide resistant crops such as canola, corn, cotton and soybeans; insecticide resistant crops such as potatoes, corn, cotton; delayed ripening tomatoes; genetically altered soybeans with high-oleic acid oil; alkaline-tolerant corn; and virus resistant squash (Lappé & Bailey 1998). Today, we now have multi-national corporations—such as Dupont and Monsanto (United States), Rhône-Poulenc (France), and Ciba (Switzerland)—responsible for the monopolization of transgenic seeds and the dissemination of industrial agricultural technologies throughout the globe.
This paper will attempt pick up on the industrialization of agriculture and genetic-engineering and place it within the context of the 2011 Peruvian moratorium on GMOs. In doing so, the paper will highlight the predominance of the neoliberal economic hegemony in modern industrial agriculture and how this dominant ideology has the potential to (1) manipulate agricultural governance; (2) inform scientific debate, controversy and knowledge production; and (3) marginalize and transform traditional agricultural practices generally and Peruvian lifeways and biodiversity more specifically.
A Brief History: Genetic Engineering and Industrial Agriculture
Modern genetic engineering is the product of ancient selective breeding techniques used in raising agriculture and animal husbandry. For thousands of years humans have been intentionally manipulating the genetic properties of plants by preferring certain species over others. Perhaps the most common example is corn, a genetic mutation derived from teosinte. It began as an unwitting process of selecting certain types of teosinte that were more easily harvested and eaten due to their physical characteristics. Eventually this process transformed into a deliberate decision to pick, pollinate and replant the most easily accessed and edible species. This eventually resulted in the perfectly packaged and easily processed corn we eat today; a process that has rendered corn defenseless on its own and utterly reliant upon human inputs and labor. Standage (2009) describes this process, explaining that maize as we know it today “is the result of human propagation of a series of random genetic mutations that transformed it from a simple grass into a bizarre, gigantic mutant that can no longer survive in the wild” (p. 5).
The same sort of process occurred with the domestication of certain animals. Beginning in 8000 B.C. humans began domesticating sheep and goats, eventually moving onto cattle and pigs (Standage 2009). “Most domesticated animals have smaller brains and less acute eyesight and hearing than their wild ancestors. This reduces their ability to survive in the wild but makes them more docile, which suits human farmers (Standage 2009:11). Through this process, humans became dependent upon these types of animals and vice versa. Nowadays, chickens and cows, many of which are manipulated to mature faster and produce more meat and milk, cannot survive on their own.
The modern genetic engineering procedure looks a lot different from the selective breeding processes of antiquity. Since the 1970s, humans have had the ability to move genes from one species of plant or animal and transplant them into different species. By doing this, humans are able to bestow the recipient organism with the characteristics associated with the newly introduced gene (Kinchy 2012). For example, in Peru, the Centro Internacional de La Papa (CIP) has successfully transferred a biotech gene into a new variety of potato. The new biotech gene transfers resistance to the potato tuber moth, Phthorimaea operculella. This new variety of potato can now be grown and stored without the threat of contamination (Nolte 2016).
The production of genetically modified organisms, also known as transgenics, have made important accomplishments. For many scientists and agriculturalists, the tuber moth resistant potato is the epitome of successful genetic engineering. Other transgenics have also been deemed feats of modern science, some with the capability of building resistance to insect pests, mitigating weed control (therefore diminishing the usage of herbicides) and preventing plant diseases. It has also been argued that GMOs can potentially increase the nutritional content of foods and increase drought resistance (Wu and Butz 2004). Critics on the other hand are very skeptical about the wide usage of genetically engineered agriculture.
Opponents to genetic-engineering argue that GMOs have the possibility of introducing new allergens into food. Additionally, critics are concerned about the medical consequences of using antibiotic resistance genes in the GE process, inadvertently increasing the toxin levels in plant materials (Union of Concerned Scientists 2002; Center for Food Safety 2000). Some articles indicate that GE foods could potentially have negative health implications (Dona & Arvanitoyannis 2009; Ewen & Pustazi 1999; Pelletier 2005, 2006). Other opponents of transgenics are concerned about preserving biodiversity and heirloom varieties of crops. GMOs have been known to infiltrate non-GE crop fields and slowly take over the previously organic and endemic species. Anthropologist Birgit Muller echoes these worries when he writes, “Although engineered by man to serve human purposes, from the moment onward when genetically engineered plants are released into the environment they escape human control and develop their own agency” (2006).
The risk of threatening the rich agricultural biodiversity is the central argument that GMO activists, scientists and scholars in Peru support. Tied closely to this endemic biodiversity are the traditional, often rural livelihoods of Peruvian farmers; protection of the former constitutes protection for the latter. In the case of Peru, the debate and conflict over the usage of GMOs has been ongoing since the early 1990s. More recently, the Peruvian government signed and executed a ten-year moratorium on transgenics. The neoliberal context in which this executive decree is occurring very interesting and worthy of scholarly research. More specifically, the recent moratorium poses questions about ideologies of agricultural governmentality and regulatory philosophies (Quark 2012; Kinchy 2010), the “politics of knowledge” (Goldman and Turner 2011), the intersectionality of politics and science (Kinchy, Kleinman & Autry 2008; Habermas 1970; Beck 1992), and the articulations of indigeneity and indigenous politics (Muehlmann 2009; Kuper 2003; Hale 2002). Moving forward this essay with attempt to set the stage of the Peruvian moratorium on transgenics, including its multitude of actors and audiences, and flesh out the complexities of its political and value-laden controversies.