First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology (Science and Technology in Society)

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Curing genetic diseases remained in the realms of science fiction, but it appeared that producing human simple proteins could be good business. Insulin , one of the smaller, best characterized and understood proteins, had been used in treating type 1 diabetes for a half century. It had been extracted from animals in a chemically slightly different form from the human product. Yet, if one could produce synthetic human insulin , one could meet an existing demand with a product whose approval would be relatively easy to obtain from regulators.

In the period to , synthetic "human" insulin represented the aspirations for new products that could be made with the new biotechnology. Microbial production of synthetic human insulin was finally announced in September and was produced by a startup company, Genentech. The radical shift in the connotation of "genetic engineering" from an emphasis on the inherited characteristics of people to the commercial production of proteins and therapeutic drugs was nurtured by Joshua Lederberg.

His broad concerns since the s had been stimulated by enthusiasm for science and its potential medical benefits. Countering calls for strict regulation, he expressed a vision of potential utility. Against a belief that new techniques would entail unmentionable and uncontrollable consequences for humanity and the environment, a growing consensus on the economic value of recombinant DNA emerged.

With ancestral roots in industrial microbiology that date back centuries, the new biotechnology industry grew rapidly beginning in the mids. Each new scientific advance became a media event designed to capture investment confidence and public support. By the s, biotechnology characterized a nascent real industry, providing titles for emerging trade organizations such as the Biotechnology Industry Organization BIO. The main focus of attention after insulin were the potential profit makers in the pharmaceutical industry: human growth hormone and what promised to be a miraculous cure for viral diseases, interferon.

Cancer was a central target in the s because increasingly the disease was linked to viruses. The emergence of interferon and the possibility of curing cancer raised money in the community for research and increased the enthusiasm of an otherwise uncertain and tentative society. Moreover, to the s plight of cancer was added AIDS in the s, offering an enormous potential market for a successful therapy, and more immediately, a market for diagnostic tests based on monoclonal antibodies.

By the end of the s, however, more genetically engineered drugs would be approved. The — global financial crisis led to several changes in the way the biotechnology industry was financed and organized. First, it led to a decline in overall financial investment in the sector, globally; and second, in some countries like the UK it led to a shift from business strategies focused on going for an initial public offering IPO to seeking a trade sale instead.

Genetic engineering also reached the agricultural front as well. There was tremendous progress since the market introduction of the genetically engineered Flavr Savr tomato in Genetic engineering in biotechnology stimulated hopes for both therapeutic proteins, drugs and biological organisms themselves, such as seeds, pesticides, engineered yeasts, and modified human cells for treating genetic diseases.

From the perspective of its commercial promoters, scientific breakthroughs, industrial commitment, and official support were finally coming together, and biotechnology became a normal part of business. No longer were the proponents for the economic and technological significance of biotechnology the iconoclasts. The greatest growth has been in Latin America but all regions of the world have shown strong growth trends. By and into , though, a downturn in the fortunes of biotech emerged, at least in the United Kingdom, as the result of declining investment in the face of failure of biotech pipelines to deliver and a consequent downturn in return on investment.

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  • First the Seed : The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology.
  • First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology.

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What is an author? Bouchard Ed. When worlds collide: Biotechnology meets organic farming in Hoffman v Monsanto. Journal of Environmental Law, 18 3 , — Gepts, Paul. Introduction of transgenic crops in centers of origin and domestication. Kinchy, D. Handelsman Eds. Gieryn, Thomas. Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-sciences: Strains and interests in professional ideologies of scientists. American Sociological Review, 48 6 , — Cultural boundaries of science: Credibility on the line.

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Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. Biotechnology regulation in Canada: A matter of public confidence. Statistics Canada. Census of agriculture. The EU-U. In addition, the EU continues to ban the importation of products from genetically engineered crop varieties which it has not itself approved e. In the case of BST, the implications are becoming relatively clear. Because the WTO formally embraced the Codex Alimentarius Commission as the arbiter of scientific risk assessments of agrofood technologies, it is clearly of immense significance that Codex Alimentarius Commission in August ruled in favor of the EU Moratorium on BST on the grounds of adverse veterinary effects, and in so doing corroborated a ruling by Health Canada which banned BST in Canada.

The Codex ruling has undermined the expected action by the U. Because the U. Investments in plant biotechnology are many fold those in BST and related recombinant animal hormone products. Agricultural biotechnology will be decisively crippled if resistance to GMO crop varieties - particularly to GMO varieties of all types, rather than to particular products such as BST or BT corn with specific liabilities - escalates.

To some extent, EU and Japanese ambivalence toward GMOs has already contributed to what is effectively a circumscription of the powers of WTO by having exposed the ways in which WTO as presently constituted has significant weaknesses in its enforcement powers. More generally, though, it is by no means clear that the global community is prepared for a new round of WTO which would involve either significant strengthening of WTO's enforcement powers or an expanded role for intellectual property protections of biotechnology products.

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The upcoming round will be particularly instructive as to whether EU resistance to GMO food imports reflects a more fundamental ambivalence toward the WTO. The EU is, on one hand, a free trade area, and the existence of the EU is a recognition that trade at least among relative equals can be a good thing.

On the other hand, the EU departs from all the other global trading regimes by having a democratic mechanism the European Parliament , by having most of the world's social-democracies as its members, and by having such a homogenous set of member states. The fact that the EU has a democratic aspect and its member-states are a relatively homogenous lot in which social-democratic practices remain largely intact has had much to do with the EU's cautious posture toward biotechnology and WTO trade rules.

In addition, the EU nations are not as highly advantaged as is the U. The EU is also not an agrarian-export-oriented economic zone in a position to benefit from the agricultural trade liberalization provisions of the Uruguay Round. The critical long-term issue is whether GMO and agricultural politics might play some role in catalyzing the major European nation-states to be willing to support the roll-back of some of the current provisions of WTO, especially of provisions that relate to GMOs and possibly provisions relating to commodity programs and domestic agricultural protection.

It should be stressed, however, that most firms in the agricultural crop biotechnology industry are already beginning to look beyond the first generation of biotechnology products such as Bt and HR crops. The major players in the industry are now actively exploring the possibility that the economic rents that can be appropriated from "quality-trait" GMO varieties may be greater than those possible from input-trait varieties.

Not only are the biotechnology industry leaders strongly committed to value-enhanced crops, but they are also expressing this interest through developing vertical integration arrangements through joint ventures with large multinational processing firms e. The reasons for the growing corporate attention to value-enhanced crops are four-fold: 1 The rents to be appropriated from value-enhanced crops are estimated to be as large or perhaps larger than those available from the first generation of crop variety products.

High oleic soybeans which contain less saturated fat and are more stable under high temperatures are near commercialization. Soybeans with improved animal nutrition higher protein content and more balanced amino acid content are also near commercialization. Improved food-quality soybeans better taste, better digestibility are now in production; 25, acres of these varieties were produced in New varieties of canola have been bred for superior oil qualities for several years; high lauric acid canola varieties have been grown in Canada since High lauric acid canola makes the crop much more valuable for producing soaps and detergents.

High-oil corn, which is more valuable than commodity corn as livestock feed, has been developed through conventional breeding, though GMO versions are under development. In addition, lip service is increasingly being paid to "nutraceuticals" and "functional foods," though these product areas are not as well developed as those just described see Riley and Hoffman, As is apparent in the case of several of the preceding examples e.

How will prices of crop varieties be determined and rents be appropriated? How will handling, processing, distribution, and trade in grains and other products be undertaken? That is, relatively generic inputs e. Crop handling and marketing channels have evolved in tandem. Crop handling and marketing based on large-scale national and global distribution of homogeneous products involve intermingling grains and other agriculturally produced raw materials in storage, transportation, processing, and marketing facilities along virtually the entire length of the commodity chain.

Today, most crop commodities remain handled in the most Fordist of ways -- huge railroad or barge convoys, big ships, and large-scale processing in huge factories. In order for high-value crops to become commercially viable, however, handling and marketing channels almost always need to be substantially restructured because the high-value product has to be segregated along the entire commodity chain. The current marketing structure, however, has a great deal of institutional and infrastructural flexibility which makes it very difficult and expensive to segregate high-value materials.

Probably the most significant implication of high value crops, though, can be revealed through the observation that ADM and Cargill appear to be putting into place arrangements for vertical integration of production and marketing of value-enhanced GMO crops with Novartis and Monsanto, respectively. Cargill, for example, has begun to orient its seed division to establishing contractual integration.

Cargill provides bins for handling value-added soybeans and helps its seed customers to find markets.

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There is every indication is that Cargill itself tends to become the first handler of high-value crops in order to capture as much of the economic rents as possible. Monsanto is a joint venture partner with Cargill and provides much of the genetics used in Cargill's value-added soybean varieties. The significance of value-enhanced GMO varieties in catalyzing vertical integration in crop agriculture is two-fold.

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On one hand, it has heretofore been the case that field crop commodities -- corn, soybeans, wheat, and so on -- have been among the major vestiges of family farming in North America and elsewhere Mann, ; Friedmann, The family-farming character of field crop production has persisted due to the fact that there have been social and technical barriers to corporate appropriation of the process of producing field crops see also Goodman et al.

Over the past three or four decades, however, contractual integration has become the most significant lever for extending corporate intervention in the agricultural production process, and as a result contractual integration has become the most powerful motor of structural change in U. This has particularly been the case in the livestock sectors, which have witnessed startling increases in vertical integration, scale of production, and "industrialization" over the past two to three decades Jackson-Smith and Buttel, ; Welsh, ; Thu and Durrenberger, Much of the reason for rapid industrialization of U.

Processors tend to find it more convenient to work with a few large farmers than with a large number of small farmers. Contractual integration involving large production units also tends to create the conditions that make possible a race-to-the-bottom cost competitiveness Welsh, , as has recently been the case in U.

Thus, while the second generation of agricultural biotechnology products may have more to offer to the consumer and be more environmentally benign than the first generation of input-trait products, the development of value-enhanced crops seems likely to accelerate the industrialization of farming and the decline of family farming. Many of the comments in the paper have implied the vulnerability of the biotechnology industry to social resistance and other challenges.

While there is an element of truth to this notion of vulnerability, it should be noted as well that it is exceedingly unlikely that social resistance will precipitate the demise of the agricultural biotechnology industry or of public biotechnology research. Another important reason is that biomedical applications of biotechnology have very little opposition, and will continue to propel forward investments in the biotechnology industry as a whole. A related reason for suspecting that anti-biotechnology forces will have difficulty prevailing is the support that this technology tends to enjoy across quite broad quarters of the scientific community.

Even agricultural scientists of progressive persuasions tend believe that the tools of genetic engineering and molecular genetics will ultimately lead to positive outcomes in the realms of food and agriculture, and accordingly they are reluctant to lend their voices to opposition to agricultural biotechnology. I doubt that this will be the case. Even so, intellectual property protection is chaotic and unpredictable, and intellectual property protection of genes, plant parts, and varieties generates its own opposition. Hybridization was once a very effective means of protecting trade secrets such as the ancestry of hybrids and as a vehicle for creating a seed market by preventing farmers from saving their own seeds.

Hybridization technology was also accessible to relatively small seed companies. But since molecular methods can be employed to identify genes, understand biological mechanisms, and reproduce biological materials, hybridization has decreased utility for protecting intellectual property. Biotechnology firms are now obliged to allocate substantial resources to acquiring, protecting, and contesting patents and to preventing farmers from saving seeds. Increasingly, the resources needed to protect genes and varieties through the patent system require resources beyond the reach of small seed companies.