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What we talk about when we talk about biotechnology


Abstract: Genetic engineering (GE) of crops is an apogee of corporatized and industrialized farming and the technology threatens food sovereignty. A group of organic producers from Saskatchewan, Canada, has taken Monsanto to court because its GE canola has contaminated organic fields. An ethnography of case participants points to an impasse between the dominant framing of GE—within the logic of science—, versus farmer’s evaluations of the technology—as a set of knowledge practices that is rearranging social relationships. The case is exemplary of the need for increased citizen participation in decision-making about science and technology, and its participants represent the hope of renewed democracy around wider social justice issues.

Keywords: Agricultural biotechnology; organic farming; culture; science and technology; ethnography; social movements.

Photos: Please visit to see the photographs which accompany this article.

AS MICHAEL POLLAN (2006) WRITES, the human desire to liberate food from nature via technological intervention is as old as eating. In 1960s North America, significant developments in breeding and chemicals catalyzed the transformation of agriculture into a highly technologized business. New nutrient-efficient hybrid seed varieties, mechanical innovations, and the introduction of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides prompted astoundingly higher yields of corn, rice, and wheat (Boyens, 2001). While these “efficiencies” succeeded in lifting both rural and urban societies beyond subsistence living, they rendered many farmers economically redundant. This technological change coincided with the liberalization of national markets, which placed Canadian farmers in competition with farmers from around the world. Since this time, farmers in Canada frequently face record-low commodity prices on the global marketplace and they face incredibly high costs of chemical and technological inputs due to a lack of competition among the transnational corporations who supply them (National Farmers Union, 2007). Canadian farmers are encouraged by the agricultural economic orthodoxy and government incentives to further increase the scale and intensity of their operations in order to try and recoup their costs. Many farmers in Canada have been encouraged to use genetically modified (GM) or genetically engineered (GE) crops as a way of hopefully increasing yields and profits.  At the same time, the Canadian government hopes to be a global competitor in the development of biotechnology (Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, 1999). The DNA of these GM varieties has been manipulated at the molecular level to give them traits advantageous to higher crop yields such as increased resistance to common diseases, greater durability to climate extremes, and a higher proportion of edible or useful plant parts. One such crop, “Roundup Ready” canola, is widely used on the Canadian prairies (see Phillips, 2003). The well-known U.S. multinational corporation, Monsanto, developed this technology to allow Canola to withstand the spraying of its powerful herbicide, Roundup, thus allowing farmers to spray unselectively.

While the structural tendencies unleashed by high-input farming have forced many farmers into a treadmill of increasing technological competition (Boyens, 2001; Goodman and Watts, 1997) not all farmers have been drawn into the fray.  Recent Statistics Canada (2006) data indicates that unfortunately many small family farmers have left the land because they are unable to buffer the high costs and risks associated with industrialized farming in a volatile global marketplace. Others have simply chosen not to buy into the newer technologies but continue to rely on more traditional seed varieties and farming techniques. More and more Canadian farmers are turning toward organic methods for ideological reasons but also as an economic strategy: although more labour intensive, the input costs for organic production are relatively negligible and the prices are higher for this value-added end product (Lighthall, 1995; Saltiel et al., 1994).

There is evidence, however, that the very presence of agricultural biotechnology [2]threatens the existence of non-biotech farming approaches, and as such the sovereignty of farmers and ultimately consumers to reject GM technology. A group of organic farmers in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan have taken Monsanto to court, alleging that “Roundup Ready” canola has contaminated organic pastures through seed and pollen drift to the extent that they can no longer sell their product as organic. I will draw on interview data from a two year long ethnographic study of the community of people involved in and around this lawsuit. My experience with this ongoing conflict suggests that agricultural biotechnology has not only colonized the material environment, but, more significantly in my view, there appears to be no official discursive space for evaluations of the technology outside of the language of science.  As a result, evaluations of the cultural and social implications of the technology are silenced with dramatic consequences.

On January 10, 2002, two organic farmers of Saskatchewan filed a statement of claim against Monsanto Canada on behalf of the province’s certified organic grain farmers (see The case rests on the argument that the genetically engineered canola produced by Monsanto and other biotech multinationals is contaminating canola crops across the prairies so extensively that certified organic farmers can no longer sell their product as organic, robbing them of access to a lucrative and growing market. The claim states that when Monsanto introduced their GE canola they knew (or ought to have known) that it would spread and contaminate the environment.

When I first heard about this lawsuit I was working in a genetics laboratory at Queen’s University and biotechnology applied to the food system was already controversial. When the first GE product entered the North American food supply in 1990 the public was wary (for a history of the technology’s controversy, see Smith, 2004). In late 2001 there had been public outcry against the Canadian government decision not to label foods containing genetically modified ingredients, and against the Consumer’s Association of Canada, which supported the government’s decision despite polls indicating that 95% of Canadians wanted labeling. Both industry and government insisted that labeling would be too difficult and would unnecessarily damage the GE industry since the public would make “uninformed” purchasing decisions (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 2002). Also in 2001 the Royal Society of Canada, among the country’s preeminent scientific institutions, released its scientific review of food biotechnology, indicating that the technology was not free of potential environmental and health consequences.

The poverty of public debate around the question of GE foods in Canada was striking.  In my own experience, trying to engage other scientists in conversations about the technology at the time was frustrating because I would commonly receive the response that since there was nothing proved wrong with the science, negative public attitudes toward biotechnology were irrational and ignorant of this fact. As I searched for information regarding public perceptions of biotechnology I began to realize that this was the dominant framing of negative public responses to the technology (see Knezevic, 2006). According to this logic, the organic farmers of Saskatchewan were irrational and perhaps even anti-biotechnology to challenge the leading biotechnology multinational in the courts.

I found myself unsatisfied with this understanding of the situation, in part because previous rulings had highlighted the courts’ reticence in addressing the issue of responsibility for the accidental spread of genetically engineered seed. In 1998, Monsanto brought another Prairie farmer, Percy Schmeiser, to court for growing Roundup Ready canola without having paid for the technology (see Sudduth, 2002). Unlike the thousands of farmers who each year settle out of court with Monsanto, Schmeiser decided to fight back, arguing that the seed had actually contaminated his property and he had unwittingly repopulated his fields with it by saving seed, a traditional farming practice. The Supreme Court treated the case as a clear-cut patent ruling and decided that whether by intent or by accident, genetically engineered canola was grown without requisite contract and that the seed and resultant crop were the property of Monsanto as the patent-holder (Sudduth, 2002). Given this precedent, it seemed unlikely that the organic farmers of Saskatchewan would win their lawsuit.  Knowing they would certainly be aware of their meager chances for success in the courts, I began to wonder at the broader significance of these events.

I moved to Saskatchewan and began getting to know farmers and food policy activists in order to gain their perspectives on agricultural biotechnology generally and the lawsuit in particular. I was surprised by what they told me. Not one of the 20 people I interviewed talked about the lawsuit in merely strategic or technical terms. Instead there was an ongoing insistence on linking the specific issues being faced in the lawsuit with broader questions of social and political justice and with larger societal objectives.  Doug Bone, an organic farmer, put it this way:

It’s maybe tilting at windmills to a certain extent. These companies have very deep pockets and organic farmers don’t so we likely won’t win. I think it’s a fight that has to be fought whether we win or lose. If we lose then we’ll have the satisfaction that at least we tried. And I also think this is just one little fight that organic farmers are involved in—I think worldwide there is a growing movement of people, not just farmers but the general public, that is rising up to take control of their lives back from the corporate agenda. Our class action lawsuit here is just a part of a growing movement that combines all sorts of related issues: social, political, economic…I think globally there are all kinds of groups and causes that are related and can take inspiration from this.

Surprisingly, not one of the farmers I interviewed spoke against the science of biotechnology per se. Almost half of those I interviewed had studied in the natural sciences and they were all very comfortable talking about specific issues within the language of science as they arose in conversation, such as the current status of scientific testing on the environmental and health effects of GM organisms.  Yet science is irrelevant to understanding what is at the root of their dissent, which is instead cultural and social.

Those involved in the lawsuit see themselves as standing up against not the technology, but the foundations on which the corporate enterprise behind biotechnology rests. To these farmers, agricultural biotechnology in its current structure as a for-profit big business furthers the corporate ownership of land, genetic and other resources that has historically undermined people’s and community’s rights to define their own food production and consumption practices. In essence, the fight is about food sovereignty [3]:

I’m extremely negative about the whole cultural endeavour of biotechnology because I think it’s concentrated, and it’s more of the control over nature and people to extract a profit for a very small number. And I think it’s completely the wrong view of ourselves within the web of life…it’s completely the wrong view in terms of other values around culturally appropriate food, nutritious food, healthy and safe food, food for everybody…values that are undermined by this technology [Nettie Wiebe].

Farmers defined the effects of biotechnology within discussions around the integrity of the daily experience of farmers and rural communities. Many farmers see the application of GE technology to agriculture as an apogee of the corporatization and industrialization of farming, which have made “terminal” the livelihoods of many small family farmers in Canada. As one retired conventional farmer remarked, “For many of us farming is a terminal enterprise and it’s sad, because farming is a wonderful life…but under these circumstances it’s painful to try and stay in year after year” [Marc Loiselle]. Many of the conventional farmers I spoke with detailed the rising costs of farm inputs and they were palpably helpless against the power of the multinational corporations on whom they depend for things like chemicals and machinery. According to one cattle producer:

The NFU [National Farmers Union] have graphs that show grain prices slowly working their way up and fertilizer prices tracking them perfectly. And this opportunistic profiteering is what’s forcing farmers to leave the land, corporations have just squeezed us so hard that everyone’s leaving…well… they’re forced out…[Arnold Taylor].

Others detailed the loss in public and cooperative structures like local grain elevators and the old, hard fought-for Canadian Wheat Board, as private interests have encroached on once-common institutions. Many farmers talked about the growing number of corporate farms and their relationship to the erosion of rural communities and social cohesion among farmers. Those farmers directly involved with the lawsuit envisioned their action as addressing these issues of sovereignty: a fight on behalf of farmers everywhere to be able to continue farming, and in the manner of their choosing. Wally Satzewich, an organic urban gardener and a strong proponent of community food security initiatives:

If we don’t stand up now we’ll be serfs on the land—these large companies will own everything. If it’s not the chemical companies, it’s the seed companies.  I think there’s a real element of greed that rises to the surface when decisions concerning agriculture are left up to biotechnology corporations…this is leading to more of a corporate controlled food system instead of one where people have real choices. And at some point not only are organic farmers going to suffer but also farmers of all kinds, and consumers too.

I asked those involved with the lawsuit why they would go so far as to bring these issues to court. If their grievances were not strictly technical but more cultural and social, why air them through the highly technical legal system? The answers were straightforward and consistent: because nobody would listen to their cultural and social concerns about agricultural biotechnology. They had tried letter-writing campaigns to provincial and even federal politicians, public forums, creative public gatherings and protests. The National Farmers Union had even staged a popular boycott of Roundup herbicide in the prairies. Yet they were repeatedly dismissed, not only by the multinationals who arguably have a “corporate social responsibility” but, even more alarmingly, they were ignored and rendered functionally silent in the expected channels of representation in a democratic system: the mainstream media and government. As one farm policy expert put it:

We’ve done everything we can to get the government to listen to our difficulties with GM technology. That’s one of the big problems: that the Canadian government can’t see the proper description that we lay in front of them, that this technology, and the corporations who own it, threatens the livelihoods of many farmers. They can’t see that, and I don’t mean can’t as in unable but I mean can’t.  So, it is really hard to get people to look at the real problems–they label us backwards or anti-science. They might be o.k. to look at a drought. That’s non-controversial, it’s an act of god. But it is really hard to hold their nose to looking at the real-life impacts of a technology that they are heavily invested  in [Darrin Qualman].

The close association between government and industry in the very development of biotechnology undeniably influences policy discussions about the technology and its development. But the failure of legitimate political channels to be open to cultural and social critiques of the technology is also a consequence of a long-standing cultural bias toward a technologized approach to farming. The food policy expert whom is quoted above, Darrin Qualman, is among many others in describing how, because of the dominant framing of biotechnology, there is just no room within the orthodox communication channels of a democratic system for non-technical assessments [4]. And so a group of organic farmers in Saskatchewan felt it necessary to create a public spectacle of Monsanto—a beacon of the corporatization of agriculture—using the courts, in the hopes of garnering as much media attention and public sympathy as Percy Schmeiser did.  As long-time organic farmer Jim Robbins put it:

Although very few people are ever able to challenge [Monsanto], least of all farmers who are labeled as not educated about the science and discounted, there’s another picture where it looks different. We’re at the point now where there’s a whole other way of thinking—and this is the optimistic me—where consumers are getting suspicious of the dominant model and what kinds of foodstuffs they get out of it, to farmers who are starting to look more carefully at their options and pushing for better options than the productivist model of agriculture. And it’s handy to have a label for the thing standing in the way of all this positive change: Monsanto. But Monsanto of course represents a whole range of interests: corporate interests, a way of seeing the world as resources to be exploited, a way of looking at people as exploitable, a way of seeing living organisms as manipulable and exploitable. Monsanto really represents a way of seeing and organizing the political domain such that fewer actors get to determine what life, the environment, and economy will be like without any reference to the citizenry and their democratic rights. This lawsuit is in many ways shorthand for these two opposing and competing ways of making sense of the world.

Scholars working in Science and Technology Studies (STS) have cited the growing worldwide debate around the risks, benefits and social consequences of biotechnology that began in the late 1990s as exemplary of the need for greater dialogue between science and the public and for increased participation in decision-making about science and technology (Jasanoff, 2003). Interestingly, STS researchers have surveyed public disputes of biotechnology in the UK and the USA and they have shown that, similar to farmers in Saskatchewan, Canada, people in these areas of the world are interpreting genetic science and technologies in the context of wider understandings of the nature of corporate technological development (see Kerr et al., 1998). An in depth-survey coming from Lancaster University showed that the UK public was not simply anti-science in its intense opposition to GM foods, but the public was concerned about specific characteristics of the GM food industry (Grove-White et al., 2000). Also similar to findings highlighted in this paper, surveys conducted in Britain have found that among those most critical of specific applications of GM science are groups that have considerable scientific knowledge (Evans and Durant, 1995). Such work is key to informing current thinking about the way in which the public responds to science and as such policies on science and technology. In particular, studies like this are pivotal in counteracting the prevailing “deficit” model—the argument that if the public knew more about the science they wouldn’t be opposed to it. Interventions like those of the Saskatchewan farmers are undoubtedly contributing to the growing awareness among those of political authority that we need to supplement the narrow preoccupation with measuring the costs and benefits of innovation within the logic of scientific and economic evaluation with greater attentiveness to the broader politics and social justice of science and technology if science and politics don’t want to suffer a serious legitimacy crisis.

The organic farmers of Saskatchewan also represent the hope of renewed democratic participation among civil society around issues not only facing agricultural communities but also larger social justice concerns. In her essay, Opinionated Natures: Toward a Green Public Culture (2002), Catriona Sandilands situates herself among political commentators like Jurgen Habermas who lament a declining public sphere—a space where citizens engage one another in issues of common concern (Habermas, 1989). Sandilands agrees with thinkers like Habermas and Jeffrey Isaac (1998) who describe some new social movements as “oases in the desert,” or islands of invigorated political engagement in what is otherwise a generally politically frustrated society for whom the energies of democracy seem depleted. These thinkers agree that many new social movements, in dealing with specific problems (like GE canola contamination of Canadian organic fields) cultivate broad and sometimes international networks of organizing and information-sharing around issues of class, gender, and race, and thereby bring public awareness and participation to issues of wide political importance.

Sandilands suggests, however, that in order to transform a local movement into a more widely shared public or common interest, deliberative participation is insufficient (Sandilands, 2002).  Drawing on Hannah Arendt’s political philosophy, Sandilands insists that an approach which makes it possible for individuals’ opinions about issues to be debated and refined in public—in essence a performative politics—is essential for invigorating a truly public culture. Unfortunately, and this is Sandilands’s main point, many movements (in her case, environmental movements) are hamstrung in their ability to generate such a public debate because of an appeal to discourses of scientific “truths” in their contestations. Sandilands reminds us that, for Arendt, political persuasion begins with forms of knowledge that are qualitatively different from scientific “truths”; performative politics is about the realm of opinions. Sandilands also reminds us that Arendt understood the claim to truth as dangerous to the formation of public opinion because it overrode the specificity of an issue as it might be meaningful to each person, its subjectivity (Arendt, 1958). The more that the “truth” about the quality of food, for example, or its context of production, is understood to lie beyond individual sense-perception and everyday experience to instead lie in the realm of, say, chemical make-up, the less a commonality and therefore a constitutive public discussion is possible.

There is of course a functional element to the actions of the organic farmers of Saskatchewan: they are defending private interests (the local organic canola market) through litigation. But they are also, and perhaps primarily, exemplary of the kind of performative politics that Sandilands sees as opening up dialogue on social issues beyond the truth-claims of science; in this case, bringing evaluations of agricultural biotechnology beyond the realm of scientific reasoning into discussions about the technology’s threat to the sovereignty of all farmers and consumers. The performative dimensions of the activities of the organic farmers of Saskatchewan not only build on the objectives of stopping the contamination of GE canola and widening the public sphere of debate around food and biotechnology, they also challenge the foundational legitimacy of scientific and economic logic as the only modes of making sense of and discussing the technology.

In conclusion, the organic farmers of Saskatchewan involved in the lawsuit against Monsanto are anti-biotechnology only if we define technology in the way they do: not simply a tool but as a set of knowledge practices that stand to significantly change social relationships, our culture. Ursula Franklin has written about the danger of what she calls “prescriptive technologies” that are designed by scientific experts to perform a specific function but which when applied reorganize social relationships according to the logic of the technology, displacing other types of social logic like compassion or community obligation (Franklin, 1990). I began this essay by presenting biotechnology as an extension of the industrialization of agriculture, which illustrates it as a prescriptive technological intervention. World War II saw considerable advances in chemicals and machinery which called for application in the post-war period. New chemicals became fertilizers and were made into food additives that allowed for longer product shelf-lives. New machinery made the individual packaging and shipment of agricultural goods commercially viable. These new goods in turn needed consumers who were at first reticent of chemical additives and increased costs. This in turn inspired the intense marketing of industrially processed food—from T.V. dinners to “Betty Crocker” products—geared toward women, promising a liberating and exciting addition to their lives (see Davis and Schneider, 2007). Discussions of the cultural implications of technology were circumscribed within these limited discourses of liberation from work for farmers and housewives alike, while discussions of the social implications of the spread of these technologies within larger structures and social organization were marginalized to the early organics and ecology movements. Looking back on the social history of these technologies we can now see that the real story was nothing less than the restructuring of food and farming. There is little reason to expect that the new technological approach and logic of agricultural biotechnology won’t have similarly vast consequences, thus making it a collective responsibility to reflect on what exactly it is we talk about when we talk about biotechnology.


[1] My title takes inspiration from the American writer Raymond Carver’s famous 1981 collection of short stories under the title, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. While love is clearly ineffable, there is tacit agreement that we all define biotechnology (and technology in general) in the same way(s) yet my paper’s main problematic is that there is actually a disconnect between the dominant technological regime and the way those most affected by biotechnology evaluate its implications.

[2] Industry often refers to biotechnology as any technique using living organisms to make products, such as improving plant or animals through traditional breeding. In this paper, I am referring to modern biotechnology, which is the industrial use of recombinant DNA, or the modification of genes or their transferring between species.

[3]“Food sovereignty” was originally coined at the 1996 World Food Summit to refer to an approach that claims the right of peoples to define their own food production and consumption ways in contrast to having food decisions determined by international market forces.

[4]In a recent personal communication, Darrin Qualman also pointed out another divide in technological evaluations: the government measurements of the effects of biotechnology can’t account for the real experience of the farmers because the total effect cannot be predicted by looking at the parts.  Each agricultural technology, evaluated individually, is shown to improve farmers’ bottom lines but the sum total of all these revenue- and net-income-increasing technologies is to reduce net income to zero (where it has been for Canadian farmers for decades). While the individual technologies can be shown to be financially beneficial, the totality of the high-input industrialized farming system is ruinous.

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Author biography: Kelly Bronson is a PhD candidate at York University in her fourth year of study. A converted scientist with a BSc.H. in environmental biology from Queen’s University, who now explores the social and cultural implications of technoscientific innovations. Her MA thesis investigated the legal battle between organic farmers in Saskatchewan versus Monsanto over the contamination of organic fields by the company’s GE canola. In her current work she explores the history of government science on E.coli 0157:H7 in Canada, and official discourses of food-related risk represented therein. A co-editor of the 2007 text, Interdisciplinary Perspectives in Food Studies, and a dedicated food sovereignty activist with the Canadian Association for For Studies and the Toronto Food Policy Council.

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