Biocide Resistant Crops and

the Capitalist World-System

By Mia Sandgren|October 21, 2016


Collage by Mia Sandgren

Readers be warned: bringing up genetically modified organisms (GMOs) at a dinner party could just be the 21st century equivalent of bringing up feminism or conscientious objection in the early 1900s. I have committed this techno-era faux pas and it did not end well. Rather than the productive, multi-faceted philosophical discussion I was envisioning, the gathering turned into an aggressive, emotionally-charged, economics-focussed verbal fist-fight. However, this issue is one that ought to be discussed widely, openly and in a considered fashion.

In this article, I will present one argument about GMOs. I will not tell “the whole story” but I will present a considered perspective based on peer-reviewed literature from the sciences and social sciences. Specifically, I will address how biocide resistant crops (that is, GMOs not designed to be high-yielding) serve the interests of global agricultural companies and do not promote justice on a global scale. Integral to my argument is the idea that while GMOs themselves may have benefits, the companies that develop, market and promote them are very problematic. The companies and the GMOs themselves must be clearly distinguished in any GMO debate.

Global agricultural companies such as Monsanto (soon to be merged with Bayer) and DuPont are key players in the GMO field (excuse the pun) (Gonzalez 2007, p. 603; Ribeiro & Shand 2008, p. 497). These companies spend astronomical amounts of money developing herbicides, pesticides and GMOs that are resistant to those herbicides and pesticides (Ribeiro & Shand 2008, p. 501; Scanlan 2013, p. 368). Subsequently, these companies make astronomical amounts of money by selling these products (Kalam 2014, p. 543; Wolfenbarger et al. 2004, p.154; Gonzalez 2007, p. 603; Bennett et al. 2013, p. 267).

Commonly cited benefits of biocide resistant GMOs are reduced tillage, reduced crop loss to pest invasion and, thus, higher yields (Bennett et al. 2013). However, these benefits are not confirmed by all studies of GMOs (Shrader-Frechette 2005, p. 137; Ribeiro & Shand 2008, p. 498; Bennet et al. 2013, p. 257). There is concern in the research community that studies questioning the benefits of GMOs are blocked by global agribusinesses. Consequently, there are many “unknowns”, particularly in regard to the risks of GMOs (see below).

Even if GMOs do provide some environmental and efficiency benefits, numerous studies have shown that these benefits are not justly distributed (Bell 2004; Martin 2013, p. 100; Gross 2014, pp. 37-38). The benefits tend to accrue to already wealthy farmers in developed nations, who can afford the products, and to agricultural companies themselves (Gonzalez 2007, pp. 597, 604, 606, 610; Ribeiro & Shand 2008, p. 496; Bennett et al. 2013, p. 261; Komparic 2015, p. 607). Food grown using GMOs is often used to feed the wealthy or livestock, produce biofuels or is wasted in the global supply chain (Ribeiro & Shand, 2008; Scanlan 2013, p. 358).

Small-scale farmers in developing nations tend to be unable to afford the global agricultural companies’ products, be harassed by the companies (Bustos 2008, p. 66; Estok 2015, p. 224) or forced off their land by the expansion of larger farms (Scanlan 2013, p. 373; Gonzalez 2007, p. 606). Ribeiro and Shand (2008, p. 498) cite the example of Argentina between 1998 and 2002. While the area of GM soybeans tripled, a quarter of farmers were forced out of business, traditional food supplies were undermined and malnutrition, as well as rural poverty, increased.

Furthermore, corporatised agriculture advances a single notion of “development” that is based on advancing ecological modernisation and free markets. This fails to acknowledge local knowledge, forms of food production, values, ethics and norms (Wolfenbarger et al. 2004, p.159). This results from the central role of Western moral and scientific philosophy in the academic GMO debate (Komparic 2015). Consequently, many refer to corporatised agriculture as a new type of colonialism or imperialism (Scanlan 2013, p. 374; Kalam, 2014).

In addition, farmers using these products are exposed to high levels of risk (Hazell 2002; Shiva, 2004; Shrader-Frechette 2005; Gonzalez 2007; Ribeiro & Shand 2008; Bennett et al. 2013; Scanlan 2013; Estok 2015). The health consequences of prolonged biocide exposure are still unknown. In addition, we do not know how genetic resistance induced by genetic modification will influence biodiversity or how biocides will influence soil productivity over the long-term (Gonzalez, 2007; Bennet et al. 2013). If these risks are realised, the biggest impacts will be on the poor. Those without capital will struggle to adapt their production processes to biological changes. Ultimately, we do not know how global agricultural companies’ products will affect the people underpinning the global food systems or the capacity of the biosphere to support life on Earth into the future.

I suggest, in line with many academic commentators on this issue, that the reason why GMOs tend to benefit the wealthy is because the global food system is couched in a system of capitalist economics where profit accumulation and indefinite growth are the key goals. Despite food being a biological necessity and the provision of nutritious diets being a public good with innumerable co-benefits, our society treats food as a commodity, as a means to make money (Gonzalez 2007, p. 603; Bustos 2008, p. 67; Silvia and Shand 2008, p. 498; Bennett et al. 2013, p. 267; Scanlan 2013, p. 360, 365, 375; Estok 2015, p. 224). This means that global agricultural businesses invest in products that will sell and that will continue to sell (hence, they have developed terminator genes which render the seeds from crops unviable, forcing farmers to purchase seeds every year) (Kalam 2014, p. 543; Wolfenbarger et al. 2004, p.154; Gonzalez 2007, p. 603; Bennett et al. 2013, p. 267).

This leaves products that will produce wide-spread social benefit, such as high-yielding or drought-tolerant varieties, to be developed by public, under-funded research agencies and universities (Bennett et al. 2013, p. 607). In Australia, for example, CSIRO and the Australian National University have just opened a new collaborative research centre to address this issue funded by the Science Industry Endowment Fund (SIEF). The entire SIEF budget, supporting numerous current projects, is just over $23 million while the Monsanto’s income, just one of several global agricultural companies, is in the range of $15 billion.

After I had explained as much as I could in the heat of the moment, one of my fellow guests at the dinner party asked pointedly, “Do you have a solution for this problem?” I referred to three solutions that are often cited in the literature.

Firstly, promote ecologically-sensitive farming techniques, such as organic or low-input agriculture which are less risky and would allow the adequate production of food for, by and near those who need it (Shiva, 2004; Gonzalez 2007, p. 595; Tscharntke 2012; Bennett et al. 2013).

Secondly, enhance and promote local food production so that consumers can become involved in production and understand the consequences of their consumption (Hornborg 2001, p. 185; Shiva 2004; Ribeiro & Shand 2008, p. 501). Involved consumers are more likely to demand a just food system.

Finally, those who support neoclassical economics suggest reducing trade barriers so that farmers from developing nations have access to markets (Scanlan 2013, p. 358; Estok 2015, p. 225; for a detailed explanation of possible regulatory reforms, see Gonzalez 2007).

While these are important steps towards a more socially and environmentally sound food system, none of these arguments address the underlying problem: the capitalist world-system.

If we are going to address the injustice of global agricultural companies, we need to reform the capitalist underpinnings of the food system. This is because capitalism is based on principles that are not compatible with fair, just and sustainable production and distribution of food. As I mentioned above, capitalism assigns economic value to and makes commodities of goods and services. In the case of food, this is problematic because access to food should be a right, separated from notions of affordability (Anderson 2008).

Capitalism is profit-focussed. In the global food system, value is added at each stage of the supply chain. Those at the beginning of the supply chain receive only a fraction of what end-consumers pay for products. This means that farmers will always be pressured to produce more at a lower cost, in order to have any chance to make money or live well. This is where global agricultural companies come in, offering ethically and environmentally questionable products that will supposedly increase production and definitely increase profits.

Thus, decoupling food from profit is essential. Food systems should be based on providing food in a biosensitive (Dyball 2015) and socially just manner (Anderson 2008). Such food systems would distribute production throughout society (Christensen 2015) to create links between producers, consumers and the environments that produce food. Food would be produced because it is a social good rather than because it is a means of capital accumulation. There would be less need and demand for large-scale, high-input agriculture, and thus less need for and money to be made from biocide resistant GMOs.

Most readers will dismiss this suggestion as unfeasible (the dinner party guests certainly would have thought I was going beyond idealism). Indeed, there are many implications of this conclusion that are beyond the scope of this article (Christensen 2015 is a good example of how some of these implications can be reconciled and discussed). Yet, these are the conclusions that result from assessing the global justice concerns of biocide-resistant GMOs produced by global agricultural companies. I acknowledge that assessing other components or types of GMOs may produce different conclusions. However, I hope that the next time GMOs are discussed at a dinner party, the discussion will recognise that the food on the table is a product of a complex, global, capitalist system that has hidden consequences for people and the environment in very far-away places.

Mia Sandgren is a Demos Subeditor


Bibliography and Further Reading

Anderson, MD 2008, ‘Rights-based food systems and the goals of food systems reform’, Agriculture and Human Values, vol. 25, pp. 593-608.

Bell, D 2004, ‘Environmental justice and Rawls’ difference principle’, Environmental Ethics, vol. 26, no. 3, pp. 287-306.

Bennett, AB, Chi-Ham, C, Barros, G, Sexton, S & Zilberman, D 2013, ‘Agricultural biotechnology: economics, environment, ethics and the future’, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, vol. 1249, pp. 104-117.

Bunker, SG 2005, ‘How ecologically uneven developments put the spin on the treadmill of production’, Organization & Environment, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 38-54.

Bustos, K 2008, ‘Sowing the seeds of reason in the field of the terminator debate’, Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 77, no. 1, pp. 65-72.

Christensen, CB 2015, ‘Two kinds of economy, two kinds of self – toward more manageable, hence more sustainable and just supply chains’, Human Ecology Review, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 3-21.

Cooley, DR 2004, ‘Transgenic organisms and the failure of a free market argument’, Business Ethics: A European Review, vol. 13, no. 4, pp. 354-371.

Dyball, R 2015, ‘From industrial production to biosensitivity: the need for a food system paradigm shift’, Journal of Environmental Studies Science [online]. Available from: (accessed 23 September 2015).

Eaton, E 2011, ‘Contesting the Value(s) of GM Wheat on the Canadian Prairies’, New Political Economy, vol. 16, no. 4, pp. 501-521.

Estok, SC 2015, ‘Bull and barbarity, feeding the world’, Cultural-International Journal of Philosophy of Culture and Axiology, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 221-232.

Gonzalez, CG 2007, ‘Genetically modified organisms and justice: the international environmental justice implications of biotechnology’, International Environmental Law Review, vol. 19, no. 4, pp. 538-642.

Goodman, J 2009, ‘From global justice to climate justice? Justice ecologism in an era of global warming’, New Political Science, vol. 31, no. 4, pp. 499-514.

Gross, C 2014, Fairness and Justice in Environmental Decision Making, Routledge, London.

Hazell, PBR 2002, Green revolution: curse or blessing?, International Food and Policy Research Institute, Washington, D.C. Available from: .[20 March 2015].

Hendrickson, MK & James, HS 2005, ‘The Ethics of Constrained Choice: How the Industrialization of Agriculture Impacts Farming and Farmer Behavior’, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 269-291.

Hornborg, A 2001, The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment, Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, California.

Kalam, I 2014, ‘Patent Rights to Genetically Modified Crops as a New Form of Colonialism’, Filozofska Istrazivanja, vol. 136, no. 34, iss. 4, pp. 543-558.

Komparic, A 2015, ‘The ethics of introducing GMOs into Sub-Saharan Africa: considerations from the Sub-Saharan African theory of Ubuntu’, Bioethics, vol. 29, no. 9, pp. 604-612.

Malm, A 2016, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, Verso, London.

Martin, A 2013, ‘Global environmental in/justice, in practice: introduction’, The Geographic Journal, vol. 179, no. 2, pp. 98-104.

Mohai, P, Pellow, D, & Roberts, JT 2009, ‘Environmental justice’, Annual Review of Environmental Resources, vol. 34, pp. 405-430.

Phalan, B, Balmford, A, Green, RE, Scharlemann, JPW 2011, ‘Minimising the harm to biodiversity of producing more food globally’, Food Policy, vol. 36, pp. S62-71.

Ribeiro, S & Shand, H 2008, ‘Seeding New Technologies to Fuel Old Injustices’, Development, vol. 51, pp. 496-503.

Scanlan, SJ 2013, ‘Feeding the Planet or Feeding Us a Line? Agribusiness, ‘Grainwashing’ and Hunger in the World Food System’, International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture & Food, vol. 20, no. 3, pp. 357-382.

Shiva, V 2004, ‘The future of food: countering globalisation and recolonisation of Indian agriculture’, Futures, vol. 58, no. 6-7, pp. 715-732.

Shrader-Frechette, K 2005, ‘Property rights and genetic engineering: developing nations at risk’, Science and Engineering Ethics, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 137-149.

Tscharntke, T, Clough, Y, Wanger, TC, Jackson, L, Motzke, I, Perfecto, I, Vandermeer, J & Whitebread, A 2012, ‘Global food security, biodiversity conservation and the future of agricultural production’, Biological Conservation, vol. 151, pp. 53-59.

Wolfenbarger, LL, Andow, DA, Hilbeck, A, Nickson, T, Wu, F, Thompson, PB & Ammann, K 2008, ‘GE crops: balancing predictions of promise and peril,’ Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 154-160.

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