Viewpoint: Battling corporate takeover of agriculture? Activists who oppose GMOs and other forms of farming biotechnology hurt vulnerable populations they claim to want to protect

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Credit: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Credit: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Activist groups which oppose so-called ‘genetically modified organisms’ (GMOs) frequently affirm that they want to fight corporations and capitalism. While I do not discuss whether this legitimate ideological-political attitude is good or bad, right or wrong, I try to show that such avowed anti-industrial struggle in the field of green biotechnologies not only fails to hit the supposed target, but benefits and supports a sector of the industry whose products have a greater environmental impact than recombinant DNA (rDNA) cultivars.Therefore, GMO opponents are exploited by a part of the capitalistic front they are combating.

In the meantime, steadfast resistance to GMOs as an indiscriminate whole creates heavy collateral damage, impeding the development of public and philanthropic biotech outcomes; such crops would help those whom activists declaredly want to protect: the poor. This detrimental action is based on one counterproductive and enormous mistake: the indiscriminate rejection of GMOs takes away precious energies from productive environmental and social battles.

Helping the enemy

The anti-GMO struggle is deeply flawed because it creates various counterproductive effects compared to the stated aims of its supporters.

First of all, the never-ending propaganda causes some PR damage to the multinationals; but we have noted that the customers of big seed companies (from many small peasants to big farmers) pay no heed to the opprobrium to which their suppliers are constantly subjected.

Even where the opposition has managed to inhibit the cultivation of GMOs, the corporate target has not really been hit: since genetically engineered maize and soy cannot be legally raised in most of Europe, these products are massively imported from the Americas, accounting for several million tonnes annually: ‘Whilst less than 0.1% of the global acreage of GM crops is cultivated in Europe, more than 70% of EU animal protein feed requirements are imported as GM crop products’.

At any given moment, huge cargo boats, full of these commodities, are crossing the Atlantic: the revenues that seed giants are forbidden to make in certain regions are made in another part of the world. So far, nobody has ever calculated the added costs generated by this enormous long-distance trade for animal breeders and consumers, and for the environment as well. Indeed, maritime transportation has a huge environmental impact.

Credit: Reuters

Moreover, the insistent anti-GMO opposition favours the enemy by activating a peculiar socioeconomic dynamic, designated by the spot-on expression ‘bootleggers and Baptists’. Strange alliances are created by the action of groups or social organizations which, by working according to particular motivations and rigidly pursuing their separate and possibly opposing goals, push for the stringent regulation of a particular sector of the economy.

However, in doing so, they may find themselves de facto favouring their adversary. For example, during the short period of prohibition in the USA, the insistence of preachers on demanding laws to ban the sale of alcohol made the fortune of the illegal business of clandestine distilleries and taverns; liqueur smugglers, who were obviously completely indifferent to the moral value of abstinence, as promoted by priests, were very interested in a law to forbid its legal consumption.

In the same way, the ceaseless pressure of the anti-GMO groups for rigid and cumbersome regulation of rDNA cultivars has created appalling distortions: in the USA, between 7 and 14 million dollars, in the EU between 10 and 20 million Euros per product are needed just for bureaucratic costs which are additional to those for research and development; in almost all countries, for many years, such red tape has been causing problems for small companies and public or private institutes (universities and philanthropic foundations), thus restricting competition in favour of those large companies which the enemies of capitalism would like to hinder. This perverse dynamic has been recorded on numerous occasions: ‘Compiling and submitting regulatory dossiers would place an unnecessary burden on both the public sector and start-up companies and would, ironically, favour multinational corporations and hinder the advancement of science and technology’.

An anti-Monsanto crop circle made by farmers and volunteers in the Philippines. Credit: Melvyn Calderon/Greenpeace

Thus, the anti-capitalist activists are facilitating the oligopolistic efforts of a few multinationals, which ‘have actively and aggressively lobbied in favor of certain major regulatory or legislative initiatives that often are more restrictive even than those sought by regulators themselves. The industry’s goal is ostensibly to placate anti-biotech activists and provide reassurance to consumers’. The big agribusiness players thus pretend they want to concede something to appease the protestors and the public, but de facto they gain an advantage: they do have to absorb those additional costs which they would not have faced if the regulation was more balanced; but it is a good investment, if it damages the competition so much.

The second and third negative side effects to which the anti-GMO protestors contribute are therefore clear: not only is the market altered to favour the oligopoly, but they throw a spanner in the works of products which have been publicly researched and hamper the initiatives of philanthropic foundations.

So, here we have a strange case of ‘regulatory capture’: this expression, which is typical of political economic language, indicates the excessive pressure often exercised on those who establish the rules (lawmakers, control authorities, ministerial bureaucracies) by those who will then have to follow those rules. The phenomenon more often occurs in opposite terms to those described here: sector-specific lobbies (usually groups and associations of industrialists or dealers across a range of sectors) normally tend to convince the regulators that lighter regulation is preferable; in the case of GMOs, starting from the USA, the very opposite has happened, due to the combined and convergent efforts of leading biotech companies and anti-biotech groups.

Casualties in the ‘anti-GMO’ war: The poor

The last, but certainly not least, harmful counterproductive effect of the anti-GMO action is that the neediest fall under ‘friendly fire’, i.e. the populations of the Third World, which anti-capitalists are willing to help. This is confirmed by a leading African scientist, who was a senior director of the Convention for Biological Diversity:

Critics of biotechnology argue that the industry is controlled by a few large corporations, which they incessantly demonize. But their actions have resulted in developing countries unnecessarily raising the regulatory bar so high that only large corporations have the resources needed to get new crops approved by the restrictive regulatory bodies. In practice, anti-biotechnology activists inadvertently promote monopoly of the biotechnology sector by large corporations.

At the same time, the opposition to GMOs has simply shifted the production areas of commodities (mostly from Europe to the Americas). However, while consumers in rich nations can afford to buy many available non-GMO foods, it is not so in the Third World, where new cultivars could improve yields and nutritious properties, but are frequently forbidden: ‘Farmers in poor countries rely almost entirely on food crops, not on crops for animal feed or industrial use, so today’s de facto ban on GMO foods is specifically damaging to those poor farmers’. Such a dichotomy in the outcomes of the war to certain applications of advanced agricultural biotechnology is very clear: ‘When it comes to GMO food crops, anti-GMO campaigners have thus won a remarkable yet dubious victory. They have not prevented rich countries from using GMO animal feed or GMO cotton, yet farmers and consumers in poor countries need increased productivity for food crop’.

The preconceived refusal to approve and encourage partial and limited solutions, which could contribute to lessening the serious agricultural, food and health problems of the poor, can be traced back to an old Marxist attitude: ‘All or nothing’, anti-capitalist critics seem to proclaim, as they often did in the past; the real revolutionaries had to oppose partial solutions and limited interventions, because they delayed the longed for socio-economic rebirth.

So, no to Golden rice and similar products designed for the Third World, because it is necessary rather to confront underdevelopment in general: ‘The fight to poverty and hunger will not be won and people will still go hungry if the fundamental causes of hunger and food insecurity are not tackled, whereas genetically modified technology is not based on this assumption’.

Credit: GRAIN

According to this way of thinking, we should not believe we are helping the indigent by giving them access to agricultural machinery: the mechanisation of agriculture started in rich countries a technical advancement which is not ‘based on the as sumption’ of combating hunger. Instead, we must underline that herbicide-tolerant cotton, which is cultivated in the endless fields of America, is also useful in the half acre worked by the peasant family in Vietnam: the use of such seed avoids the back-breaking labour of hand weeding, which frequently falls upon women and children.

Similarly, rDNA corn bears fruit, protected from certain pests, not only in the immense open spaces of Argentina but also on the few dozen plants sown in the kitchen garden behind the suburban house in Kenya. In economic jargon, the technology embedded in the seeds is ‘scale-neutral’, i.e. the potential benefits of using rDNA cultivars (or any kind of better varieties, for that matter) are not necessarily linked to the size of the farm.

Indeed, the scale-neutrality of using certain crops instead of others, while generally recognized in the context of the Green Revolution in Asia, has been recently questioned in the African scenario. By the way, the new varieties which have been the central factor of the Green Revolution were not GMOs: yet, this does not matter.

Therefore, from a strictly empirical point of view, it makes no sense to identify agricultural genetic engineering as counterposed to broader social policies and the need to distribute wealth in developing countries. Many analysts recommend a detailed approach.

The situation is not black or white, but rather ‘grey’: a detailed reading is needed to avoid ‘opposing potentially beneficial agricultural strategies or technologies because they might impede a complete transformation of the agricultural system’.

In short: ‘Is it beyond the imagination of anti-GM activists that genetic modification could be used for public benefit instead of private profit? The activists may well be sincere in opposing social injustice but, all the same, they think that these problems arise from something inherent in the technology. In so doing, the complaint is in fact not the business practices of Monsanto, or even capitalism, but technology and progress itself’.

Embracing an uncompromising war-mongering approach, fighters seem not to realise that any war involves casualties, and therefore the intent to combat capitalism necessarily entails innocent victims. Such a strategy, as a matter of fact, does not work: it seriously damages the weak and poor, without inflicting on the enemy anything more than some minor scratches.

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A possible change of mind

The unselective anti-GMO battle line is a dead end, a lost cause, but those who defend it often believe they are fighting for a fundamental pillar of environmentalism and take such opposition as an important symbol: ‘The attitude a person adopts to GMO crops is the badge of loyalty that they show in
choosing one side’.

Yet, a few cases of reconsideration allow some cracks in the dogmatism: ‘Caution is reasonable. What needs to be rethought, however, is blanket opposition to the very idea of GMOs’.

Dave Hanson, an historic environmental leader and activist from California, says: ‘if the proposals for agri-food genetic improvement come from public research at a university, I think we will see some really interesting potential solutions with recombinant DNA that could show all kinds of benefits in health and agriculture and other things. So baby and bathwater are separate’; this shows a welcome ability to make distinctions.

Another situation shows that the hard-core anti-GMO front is not completely monolithic. It is well known that the increasing single-crop extensions of (‘non-GMO’) palm oil in South-Eastern Asia are realised at the expense of primeval forests; some companies are developing methods of synthetic biology (genetic engineering of algae through DNA sequences which are not taken from other organisms but are created ad hoc) to produce oil which is economically competitive with that from environmen tally invasive plantations.

An activist who for years has led the defence of tropical environments, says: ‘Palm oil has been such an extreme disaster for forests, and the environment more general ly, that if these synthetic organisms can produce large volumes of vegetable oil, we should celebrate them’. In stead, environmentally ‘bipolar’ organizations are putting forward their protests. If we were to find in nature a variety of algae that does the job, then those who are free of bias would have no concern about the related research into synthetic genes being abandoned; just as no-one should complain if, we argue, the current palm trees, which are not GMO, had their DNA recombined to produce double the oil while saving farmable land or virgin forests.


GMO is an intellectual weed, a mind-polluting meme that should have never been created; it is time to bury this semantic trap and its related wrong-headed policies, for the benefit of environmental movements worldwide and societies at large.

Dr. Giovanni Tagliabue is an independent researcher based in Italy who studies and reports on the philosophy of life sciences and political science. He specializes in epistemological, socio-political and legislative aspects of agricultural biotechnologies and is the recipient of the 2017 Innoplanta Science Prize.

A version of this article was originally published in Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics and has been republished here with permission. 

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