Review: Fighting for the Future of Food

Review of

Fighting for the Future of Food. Activists Versus Agribusiness in the Struggle Over Biotechnology

By Rachel Schurman and William A. Munro
Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. Number 35 in their Social Movements, Protest, and Contention series.

Reviewed by Ellen Messer
Visiting Associate Professor
Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy Tufts University


In 1987, I began following developments in agro-biotechnology.  As a hunger researcher and university-based activist at the Brown University World Hunger Program in Providence, Rhode Island, I was motivated to learn how the developers of these new technologies understood their significance for ending hunger, and how they made “ending hunger” a priority in deciding what crops and traits to work on, and what technologies to use in their development.  For the next decade I interviewed scientists and development experts in this arena, and published several articles summarizing the findings, which were organized according to anthropological “food systems” frameworks.  In the course of this research, I also followed anti-biotechnology trends, which formed part of a growing social movement around food.

Fighting for The Future of Food. Activists Versus Agribusiness in the Struggle Over Biotechnology picks up where my earlier research left off.  The authors, a sociologist and political scientist, pose two central questions: first, why and how did the two opposed camps in agro-biotechnology arise, and second, did social activists make a difference in this technology’s trajectory?  The introduction summarizes the approach and findings, which argue that contending pro- and anti-biotechnology camps live in separate cultural worlds, which make their opposing logics sensible to them, and obnoxious to others.  Chapter 2 reviews how industry leaders conceptualized and positioned their potential to carry innovations forward, with the asserted intent to produce grand benefits for the world and profits for their shareholders.  Chapter 3 describes how social activists, coming from anti-war, anti-corporate, environmental sustainability and biodiversity movements coalesced around this new issue and built momentum, based on increasingly sophisticated media campaigns and professional organizing and advocacy tactics.  Food touched a basic human cord, especially in Western Europe, where activists successfully thwarted biotechnology industry attempts to dominate national agricultures.  These food-safety, health-, and citizen-sovereignty campaigns are the subject of chapter 4.  The European theater of struggle, in turn, influenced resistance to genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and the companies that produced and promoted them, in the United States (US) (chapter 5) and in developing countries, especially in Africa (chapter 6).  The authors’ concluding assessment is that, had the companies been more attentive to social and citizen concerns, less arrogant and more willing to listen and modify their positions and priority products, technology scenarios might have turned out differently.  But instead, activists from these multiple anti-GMO perspectives were able to sabotage and divert business as usual, profit-oriented pathways, and constrain GMO seeds across Europe, the European trade sphere that influenced resistance in developing countries.  Resistance to GMOs in Europe and developing countries, in turn, influenced the US, where Monsanto, the largest stakeholder, had to abandon commercialization of GMO potatoes and wheat, because food processors, retailers, the restaurant industry, and ultimately farmers were afraid they would lose market share at home, in Europe and the developing world, where consumers were increasingly reluctant to accept GMO products.

Overall, the authors’ cultural context (“lifeworlds”) approach is subtly different from saying that these opposing camps frame issues differently, use different evidence to substantiate their positions, and purposely distort the logic and evidence presented by the other side.  Their analysis comes closest to anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s analysis of cultural symbol systems (world view, ethos, behaviors); although as a sociologist and political-scientist, the authors cite precedents in sociological and political theory, including their respective ideas of culture and the dynamics of social movements.  All key words that refer to these core and exemplary ideas are italicized for emphasis. The story is presented as a historical drama, showcasing increasing citizen (dis)trust of science and industry, in the context of additional global drivers, including relentless industry concentration, knowledge-intensive land and business management, but also countervailing “rights-based” social movements, which gave anti-GMO activists additional “right to know,” “right to choice,” and “right to safe food” language for mobilization.

One strength of this analysis are these “thick descriptions” within chronological narratives and institutional biographies, of which the Monsanto story is the most extensively developed, all enlivened with direct quotations from dozens of leading industry scientists, anti-industry activists, and policy makers situated in between.    Chapters, which carefully integrate evidence from interviews, company and advocacy organization archives, media, and secondary sources, alternate between pro-technology industry and anti-technology activist perspectives.  Although these authors are not proponents of GMOs, big science, or big business, they present intelligent, common sense analyses of the cultural motivations and contexts motivating industry as well as activist leaders, and effectively indicate key categories summarizing trends in values and actions.  This attention to data classification, set out according to standard sociological theory regarding activists’ motivations, networking, institution-building, and the dynamics of organizational life and social movements, however, is also a weakness from a historian’s or anthropologist’s perspective, because it eliminates attention to alternative categories, scenarios, or evidence that do not fit their interpretative scheme.

For example, the authors identify three classes of stakeholders of industry concern in the scale-up of technologies in the 1980s and 1990s: first and foremost, mid-Western farmers, the end-user clients who would have to like and sense added value of biotechnology value-added products.  Second were the regulators, who would have to be influenced to let GMO products go into field trials and commercial release without undue duress.  Third were Wall Street investors, who would have to fund their operations, and raise their stock prices.  However, an unmarked fourth category that emerges substantively across the interviews with scientists are these science and technology leaders themselves.  For some or many of them, it was not just industry hype or rhetoric to say that they were working to end world hunger, produce life-extending pharmaceuticals, find technical aids to ameliorate environmental deterioration, and also find ways to raise livelihoods everywhere through superior understandings and manipulation of life forms.  Although such expressions and sentiments betray a troubling arrogance or hubris, which would prove damaging to Monsanto, the ag-biotech company, these beliefs, which the authors categorize as “culture” energized and motivated the prime movers, and allowed Monsanto under a series of inspirational, “visionary” scientific leaders, to assemble top sets of scientists and huge amounts of cash to fund their research.  These scientists were part of the heady, self-actualization, “make a difference in the world” positive thinking generation, a historical context which the authors don’t entirely capture in their analysis. By contrast, the authors do recognize the analogous cultural environment of social protest movers in their chapters chronicling the activists, who coalesced around GMOs after honing activist skills around other social issues.  These concerns included anti-nuclear anti-war, anti-U.S. corporate hegemony, anti-Green Revolution anti-pesticide action movements, which altogether expressed concern for sustainable agriculture, food systems, environment, and biodiversity.

Will anthropologists find this work of value? If they are more interested in the GMO arguments and communications than in the cultural contexts in which they arose, they would do better to read Glenn Stone’s “Both Sides Now” (Current Anthropology, 2002) and his subsequent insightful and comprehensive reviews.  Anthropologists might furthermore find more illuminating alternative anthropological modes of analysis, e.g., symbolic analysis grounded in Geertzian descriptions of world view, ethos, and behavior, or schematic frameworks of time (chronology), space (place), and person (professional and moral identities) or anthropological linguistic semiotic analysis of semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics of communication.  Also, readers should beware; the volume is not a quick read.  The dense introduction (ix-xxx) is followed by 192 pages of main text, all in small print, accurately documented but slow going.  Such criticisms aside, the frameworks chosen by the authors provide clear and logical guidance through the chronology of persons, places, and events.  Thus, I recommend this volume to anyone who wonders why there was and continues to be such systematic resistance to GMOs and whether they should eat them.

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