Contested GM Worldviews (Podcast)
Landscapes Podcast episode 6 with Professor Andrew Flachs
An article in Scientific American bringing a science and technology studies lens to Genetically Modified Organisms, provoked louder than normal responses from the pro biotech crowd. What can we learn from the exchange? Dr Andrew Flachs, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Purdue University, studied the role of seeds on farmer livelihoods in rural India as part of his book, Cultivating Knowledge. We discuss the arguments of the article and its malcontents to try and reach a broader understanding of what this debate is really about.
Dr. Andrew Flachs personal website. On Twitter.
Cultivating Knowledge: Biotechnology, Sustainability, and the Human Cost of Cotton Capitalism in India, By Andrew Flachs.
How Biotech Crops Can Crash and Still Never Fail, by Aniket Aga and Maywa Montenegro de Wit, Scientific American.
Is Biotechnology Just New Colonialism? Talking Biotech Podcast, Dr. Kevin Folta.
'Woke' Scientific American Goes Anti-GMO, American Council on Science and Health, Cameron English.
Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Sandra Harding.
A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, Jason Moore and Raj Patel.
Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, Jason Moore
A. R. Vasavi’s work on the Green Revolution: Harbingers of Rain: Land and life in South Asia. Shadow Space: Suicides and the Predicament of Rural India.
Paul Robbins’ contributions to the Intended Consequences project.
Rock, J. (2019). “We are not starving:” challenging genetically modified seeds and development in Ghana. Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment, 41(1), 15-23.
Dowd-Uribe, B. (2014). Engineering yields and inequality? How institutions and agro-ecology shape Bt cotton outcomes in Burkina Faso. Geoforum, 53, 161-171.
Andrew Flachs and Paul Richards on the role of performance on agricultural systems.
Learning to Love G.M.O.s, by Jennifer Kahn, The New York Times
Montenegro de Wit, M., Kapuscinski, A. R., & Fitting, E. (2020). Democratizing CRISPR? Stories, practices, and politics of science and governance on the agricultural gene editing frontier. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene, 8.
Genetically Modified Democracy, by Aniket Aga.
Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resilience and the Black Freedom Movement
Researchers can restore the American chestnut through genetic engineering. But at what cost? The Counter
Lynas tweet example
Music: Kilkerrin by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue), Creative Commons license Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)
*The transcript has been edited lightly for comprehension and read-ability
In December of 2021, an article in Scientific American titled How Biotech Crops Can Crash—and Still Never Fail, laid out an argument critiquing the promotion of genetically modified seeds and associated crop biotechnologies. I would characterize the general contours of the GM debate as fairly siloed. Biotechnological approaches to problems in the agricultural and food sector, enjoy what Maywa Montenegro de Wit calls a “thick legitimacy” evidenced by their share of research funding, deployment in fields across the world, corporate backing, and entrepreneurial activity. Sceptics warn of how these tecno-fix approaches to problems in the landscape may entrench unequal power relations, evoke the hubris of human control over nature, and entrench a form of industrial agriculture that locks out alternatives, like agroecology. It surprised me, then when the article provoked somewhat of a backlash amongst some notable biotechnology proponents. While actors in this debate frequently make their case for how GM technologies could, should and really work in the world, direct engagement with each other’s arguments is more rare. What were the claims presented in the article that respondents found worth contesting? Amidst decades of GM critique, why did this article provoke a targeted response? I thought I’d seize on this opportunity .. to look at this brief overlap of claims and counter claims to try and understand the deeper drivers of contested worldviews around this issue. Dr. Andrew Flachs, the guest of this episodes, is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Purdue University. His book, Cultivating Knowledge: Biotechnology, Sustainability, and the Human Cost of Cotton Capitalism in India, explores how farmers come to plant GM cotton from an ethnographic perspective. His work, stemming from multiple years of field work in Southern India, has been regarded as uniquely balanced, avoiding the pitfalls of demagoguing GM technologies for their own sake nor grasping at a utopian promise of a greener, smarter, more profitable farming through technological diffusion. I asked him to review the relevant claims as the starting point for bringing forth an updated understanding the role crop biotechnology plays on landscapes and the relative stakes of the debate.
[00:02:16] Andrew Flachs: There is healthy debate on what constitutes a genetically modified organism, because there's a lot of politics and money around how we define some of these terms. In the way that we might casually throw out these words like genetically modified and looking at the dictionary definitions of some of those words, we could reasonably talk about any form of evolutionary process as being one of genetic modification. And this is something that is done at times by people who are promoting certain kinds of laboratory-based genetic modification, ag technologies. To say that all life is genetically modified all life changes as a function of the evolutionary process. That we've been doing this for a long time as human beings. I take some issue with that, because less important to me is that biological kinds of mechanism is the sociopolitical context under which plants and animals and human beings modify one another. For me, a genetically modified organism refers to a specific kind of context, that emerges through this combination of legal infrastructure and new laboratory tools and new kinds of markets in and around the 1980s,
[00:03:41] Adam Calo: So right away, , in a sense, it sounds like rejecting this argument from non distinction. So if the technology is not distinct from another technology that we say is good, then there is nothing to talk about.
[00:03:54] Andrew Flachs: Yeah, I think that's the right way to think about it because a lot of the initial resistance to GMOs of various kind came through fears around their novelty. A lot of which were overblown or inaccurate in some way, fears that these new technologies would be in some way harmful to human health. Fears that they would be more ecologically devastating simply because they're genetically modified. Fears that they would be in some way harmful or freakish or weird or unnatural in some way. And that's where a lot of this framing around we've always been modifying crops comes.
The issues are not those health or biological issues for me so much. Because far more important, there are issues of power and sociopolitical questions. The first major shift comes in the 1820s, thirties, forties, fifties, with the advent of new kinds of institutional crop breeding and a new way of controlling who does that evolutionary process ... no longer on farms by thousands, millions of small holder agriculture communities.
Now something controlled by state projects enmeshed with empire, through institutional crop breeding. And then in the 1930s, the reassessment of Gregor, Mendel's work idea of hybrid vigor and hybrid breeding and crops that would respond particularly well to particular sets of conditions. That's the biggest shift. GMO's, are really to my thinking, just another piece of that major shift that comes with crop breeding in its institutional way. And that story, by the way, isn't totally complete because of course there were all manner of community-based and non-profit seeking and in the public interest with democratic public, input and ownership in the crop breeding space.
But that's not really true with genetically modified organisms because of this legal infrastructure. They're incredibly expensive to develop. That means that a lot of private capital has to be invested or tax money and the main crops that we get out of them, and the main traits that we get out of genetic modification are things that accelerate monoculture agriculture around the world.
That's not to say that other models don't exist, that other crops don't exist, but far and away, there are essentially globally speaking for genetically modified crops that the world plants, and they are planted, almost exclusively in monocultures that are heavily propped up by labor practices by chemical inputs and by state subsidies for water and electricity around the world.
That would be corn maze, soya, cotton, and canola.
[00:06:33] Adam Calo: Perhaps folks who are more, skeptical of crop biotechnology associate these technologies with the form of agriculture that they appear to be always popping up with. If one of the technologies is present in this form of monoculture is also present, then we try to look at these together as a system, rather than just as a technology, as an individual seed or a patent for example.
[00:06:56] Andrew Flachs: Yeah, that would be my hope. I wish that we would spend more time thinking about that because it would move us toward what I see as the real thing we should be worried about, which is plantations and the kinds of organization of life and death that they entail. And the kinds of things that we're modifying for, which are traits that allow monocultures to persist in spite of their ecological absurdity and in many ways their economic instability. Because they can only exist within a market that would not reward the kinds of diversification that promotes stability, but would reward the kind of single minded export driven moves that, only exist if capital and yields are the main things that must be pursued at all costs. So we're looking at herbicide tolerance and pest resistance in the form of BT genes being the main things that crops are modified for, which are really main problems of industrial agriculture.
[00:07:54] Adam Calo: So this wish of focusing beyond the technology, it doesn't seem to be coming true. I feel like the focus has been overly on the technologies themselves and in the debate. But in your own work, you seem to have been trying to make this wish come true by looking at the role of some of these technologies, but more looking at it from a holistic perspective. Learning about how farmers engage with these technologies and how their knowledge is shaped by these technologies or co-constructed by these technologies. .
[00:08:25] Andrew Flachs: That for me was the biggest thrust there, was to use seeds as a kind of a metaphor or synecdoche, for the larger social and ecological systems in which farmers live. That was something that I took up in work from 2012 to 2018 in South India, looking at certified organic farming and farmers who were planting genetically modified cotton seeds, which is the only approved genetically modified crop in India. I was working in Telangana in South India.
And a lot of what I ended up finding were the ways in which ... it wasn't so much a big difference between these seeds, but the larger context of how farmers were asked to grow and what kinds of things were rewarded within that and what that daily act and practice and performance of agriculture look like in both spaces. Thinking about agriculture, not simply as an economic decision, not simply as an agricultural decision, but as this larger element of social life connected to all kinds of things, whether that be global markets or just the quest to a good life as a member of a small town.
[00:09:37] Adam Calo: Yeah. So there's, so many different priorities that we could consider. And you use a frame of wellbeing. But often the conversation in these debates is around yields, you know, or performance. And I really appreciate that about your writing, where you try and draw that balance.
At some points you talk about how GM cotton, particularly around the bullworm resistance, appears to be leading to increased incomes and less pesticide use, a tapering of the trend of farmer suicides in the region.
So more general wellbeing and economic prosperity, but then you also suggest that there's a downside, writing:
"yet these benefits are complicated by the unintended consequences of a complex rural world. That biotechnology has never been equipped to fix. Suicides persist, hitting hardest the poorest farmers and those least connected to regular irrigation or electricity. While farmers spray for bollworms that only a fraction of pre GM levels, spraying for other kinds of insects has climbed since 2008. In fact, farmers now spray greater quantities of pesticides and cotton than they did before the introduction of pesticide reducing GM seeds."
So what is it that biotechnology fixes, and what is it that you argue cannot be fixed by biotechnology?
[00:10:47] Andrew Flachs: Yeah, it's a great question. Because I think it forces us to look historically. Biotechnology, because of the traits that are commercialized and because of the traits that farmers actually grow, they fix very particular problems within the larger flawed system of commercial monocropping, plantation-based in some ways industrial agriculture. The issue that I would take is if we think of that fix, which is a good thing for that particular problem ... you know, Bollworm sprays are very toxic. Reducing them is a good thing. Farmers income should be higher, increasing them as a good thing. The reduction of sprays on this land and in this landscape, especially toxic bollworm sprays, which are more persistent and are deadlier to humans and other living things, that's a good thing. But it doesn't fix a larger issue of precarity in a rural landscape. And so I think the focus on this kind of particular technical fix of this one element ignores everything else.
Part of this is in how GM crops and then as well one of their alternatives, which is certified organic agriculture, come to India in the first place. You have liberalization in India in the 1990s, liberalization of the economy, which exposes farmers to markets in new ways, allows for new kinds of chemical inputs on the farm hadn't been around in the same way as previously. And so some people do well as often happens in liberalization, inequality increases as often happens in liberalization. And at the end of the nineties, there's this of wave of farmer suicides before organic ag is introduced in 2002 before GM crops are introduced in 2002 to a larger public. So unrelated. This larger symptom or precarity for farmer suicides and rising rural inequality . Because of that narrative of agrarian crisis, pegged to farm issues, which was itself in the cotton sector -- which sprayed a lot of pesticides in the 1990s.
Almost half of all the pesticides spread and India were sprayed in the cotton sector.-- This idea of crisis becomes really fixated on this one particular hinge of pest attacks. Organic's solution is we're going to diversify the farms and have a different kind of production and we're not going to spray.
That's how we deal with this issue of pesticide overuse. The genetically modified solution is to make cotton less pesticide intensive. Both of them well-meaning solutions in this case to a key problem, both of them seeing the problem as technical. Pests are bad. Pesticides are persistent, which causes all kinds of other environmental and health consequences.
So let's fix the pesticide problem, without thinking about the larger impacts of legacy Green Revolution land reform policies, land consolidation, new modes of aspiration, and thinking about wellbeing rural and urban India. So the whole problem became one of pest attacks and biotech was able to fix that for a particular time, through this reduction of bullworm sprays, which is terrific, but ending the conversation there and thinking that that is the end of all precarity or all of the problems that we would want to solve in agriculture generally leaves us open to what happens next, which is an over-reliance on these seeds and expansion of monocultural technologies. A new niche for sucking pests, which doesn't really have very much to do with BT cotton so much as simply an acceleration of the evolutionary pressures that were there. I mean, everyone who worked on GM technology warned that this would happen. This is something we've seen time and time again with any new pest control technology. Certainly it's not the product of GM crops in and of themselves. This is a larger symptom of how these crops are grown. Until we look at that, you're not going to solve these larger issues. If we think about poverty as being one of these main issues and precarity, especially having to do with suicides, which persists, which hit the poorest farmers, which hit rain fed farmers who don't have this kind of connection, that's not an issue that's really going to be solved by any kind of seed per se. We need debt relief. We need some kind of socialized medical system, so that farmers in India, as with farmers where I live in the United States, are not sent into catastrophic debt spirals by a medical emergency. Fixing those kinds of things would go way further than thinking about the problem of rural inequality or rural wellbeing as simply something that could be fixed by a new seed.
[00:15:36] Adam Calo: I guess it might have to immediately jump into putting on the hat of maybe one of the counter-arguments that we'll we'll get into later. And this is something you write about, about this pursuit of good yields, but if you're worried about inequality, why not introduce technologies that increase yields. Don't these technologies increase yields and therefore have the ability to generate these other benefits?
[00:15:56] Andrew Flachs: No technology increases yields in and of themselves. Some of these technologies might increase yields under the right kinds of conditions with the right kinds of care. If we focus purely on this on this issue of yield, we lose some sight of the macroeconomic problem, which is that, in the cotton sector in particular, with this larger production of cotton, the world has had a global cotton glut for a number of years now. The world does not need more cotton.
Cotton prices can get you a great windfall, but they don't always. In one economic study, out of the university of Hyderabad, in Telangana where I I've done a lot of this work, found that farmers get a great and a bumper yield that really works out of cotton really only one out of every four years, for a given household. Which means that in the other three years, you can be in a lot of trouble. If we see everything as tied to this question of producing more, if that's the only way that we can imagine, you know, getting out of this, we're leaving out three out of four households in a given year.
What I'm saying is that doesn't really solve this underlying problem of debt relief of diversified agriculture of different ways to live well. If this is the only thing that we can do to live well, that is awfully convenient for people who make a living, selling seeds and inputs. The main thing that GM crops, at least in this Indian context where I work ,have been so successful at is not in necessarily reducing suicide, per se, because they weren't tied to suicide in the first place. It's not been in keeping young people engaged in farming and making farming a valuable thing to do. It's been in circling all of these efforts into promoting the vertical integration of yields, fertilizers and pesticides. So these crops are really really great at getting farmers to invest more in their agriculture.
And there's sometimes terrific at getting great yields, but that doesn't solve all of these other problems. And there are lots of other great solutions that we could think through.
[00:18:09] Adam Calo: This seems to be exemplified from one of the characters, early in your book. You talk about one of the farmers who just appears unlucky. It's kind of like a slot machine, whether or not, when you take on these seeds, you fall into further precarity or you get a bumper crop.
It seems like you're making a stronger argument. That these GM crops are embedded in a certain agricultural form that leads to pesticide applications, the involvement of certain forms of labor, further technological investment, which also brings on other risks.
[00:18:39] Andrew Flachs: For me, it goes around this question of what are the problems that we're trying to solve? What is the point of the farming system? If the point of agriculture is to invest more and to double down on capital growth and to try to buy more products and make farmers into integrated
consumers that can hopefully, and sometimes do, manifest this into greater yields, then terrific.
We don't need to change anything. If the purpose of agriculture is to sustain vibrant rural communities or to attract young people or to sequester carbon or to do any of these other things that we're now starting to talk about and think about, then this is not the solution there.
And that's a question of these larger social systems in which these seeds live. Really, the main way to be successful, in what is the normal cotton landscape, 95% of, the cotton landscape across India, is to be this petty commodity producer. Is to be this minor capitalist and to invest and to try to get that really great yield. And that is certainly something that works well for some people, it's one particular vision of success, and most people do not achieve that. And the main benefit of that is in propping up the agrochemical industry in promoting more fertilizer production, more chemical production, and of course, the further production of these genetically modified seeds.
[00:20:11] Adam Calo: I feel like this is one of the key underlying drivers of this debate, is about who gets to define the terms of their development ... agricultural development. Perhaps some of these technologies haven't been embedded rationale of what form of development should occur.
[00:20:27] Andrew Flachs: I think that's quite accurate. The vision for success, both existentially within how farmers talk about this and-- both positively and negatively-- as well as within the larger mission of India and the agricultural plan that comes from the federal government and through state governments, is in many cases to get people out of agriculture. To consolidate farms, to grow more yields, to gain more capital. And that I think is something that has profound negative consequences in certain cases, as we've seen here in the United States, where there is a dramatic reduction of farmers over the last century, to the point that there are now dramatic rural inequalities over land ownership and dramatic externalized costs to the rest of the American public, through things like water pollution and land degradation.
[00:21:25] Adam Calo: One of the reasons I really wanted to have you on for this episode is you really bring in anthropological and a deep well-researched perspective to the GM debate. And the motivation for this episode comes when a piece published in scientific American by Aniket Aga and Maywa Montenegro de Wit titled, How Biotech Crops Can Crash and Still Never Fail in December of 2021, really provoked a lot of rebuttal and it provided a unique chance to see, what normally are kind of independent silos of thinking on crop biotechnology come together for a brief moment.
In the Scientific American piece, the authors are really arguing in the backdrop of this contested United Nations Food Systems Summit, in which they analyze how the promotion of biotechnology appears problematic to them based on the evidence of its spotty success. They write:
"As governments now debate the way forward from the summit, it is critical to recognize that a narrow focus on technology to address the complex structural problems of farming and food, has an astonishingly poor track record."
This is the first major argument... is that if you look at the evidence of GM crops, that they're not delivering on their own promises., so why do we see a promotion of them as a solution to the problems in the agricultural sector?
[00:22:49] Andrew Flachs: I mean, they're delivering on certain aspects of their promises, which are to move people out of rural areas and into urban areas where hopefully there is higher wage work, which doesn't always happen. Which is not the way that development necessarily proceeded in India, for example, to get back to some of my work, although it is a lot of the way that development proceeded in Europe and in the United States. And they are succeeding in promoting further capitalization and consolidation of land, which again is one kind of success. It's just not the benchmark that I, or Aniket and Maywa are really looking at here.
We see this kind of pattern a lot in agriculture and food. Part of it is that most of the GM crops that we grow are not functionally edible by themselves. The corn that is grown, that is genetically modified, is by and large used for food processing, starches and sugars, or as animal feed, the soya that's grown is by and large use for oils or for hog feed. Canola that is grown is of course in an oil and the cotton that is grown is fiber and then seed oil and seed cake as well. So these aren't typically speaking the crops that are going out there and feeding the world. A lot of that other work is done by so-called specialty or orphan crops in the agricultural community. The problems that are being solved by these genetic modifications are ones of capitalization or ones of keeping the monoculture going without changing other aspects of agriculture, like labor, like the way that crops are diversified.
That we might be invested in. Things that might have a more effective record if the point of agriculture was to feed people directly. We don't really eat that many GM crops even here in the United States, where we have comparatively lax regulation and openness to eating genetically modified organisms. We eat these crops through highly processed foods, as oils, starches, and sugars, or through the meats that we eat perhaps somewhat indirectly. Those probably are not the crops or the food products that we want to be feeding the world for it to be nourished and thrived. We want to think about other kinds of diversification. So that is, to me, the main disjuncture between this hope that this new technology could be really effective in feeding the world and the actuality of what we eat and how we grow and where we get that food.
Same is true in the US. We see crops ... yields of maize, really take off in this period from, this 20 year period from 95 to 2015. Steady linear increase of corn yields, which is good if you're making your money by selling corn on the global marketplace. Food insecurity in the United States, during that entire period is consistent in and around 10%. And so another clear signal here in the comparatively wealthy United States, overall food production is not really solving a problem that is fundamentally one of inequality and access and security.
[00:26:07] Adam Calo: But do you think that the proponents of these crop technologies have that vision of development in which we're going to increase yields to reduce the cost of food overall? And so that you can have a highly sustainably intensified rural sector, in order to feed a more productive cohort of urban wage earners. Is that part of the argumentation there that's just unsaid? Or is that something that only environmental social scientists really think about?
[00:26:36] Andrew Flachs: I think there's kind of an unquestioned assumption from a particular brand of liberal economics in the 20th century that says that all increases in all yields are good for everyone full stop. And what's left out of that discussion, are these larger questions around inequality and the damages that inequality does to a larger social system. And what's left out of that is some of the reality of agricultural markets domestically and globally. If the main argument and the main thrust was to grow more food that more people would eat, then we wouldn't grow what we grow.
[00:27:15] Adam Calo: So that seems to lead into one of the other core arguments of the Scientific American piece in which they attempt to equate GM crops to the type of Green Revolution technologies, linking that to a form of what they call colonial capitalist agriculture. And that's in itself fairly divisive because you hear a sense that the Green Revolution was a triumph of science and technology. But from this critique, it's clearly a driver of global inequity, colonialism and a lot of the social and environmental decline that we see as a part of the agricultural system.
[00:27:53] Andrew Flachs: I think that that particular thrust is drawn from probably people that development economists that are promoting this particular vision of agricultural development, are not really reading and engaging with so much, which is probably a lot the work of, Jason Moore, and a lot the work of people like, the late Sidney Mintz, the anthropologist. The reason that I began this discussion talking about crop breeding and domestication is because I like, Aniket and Maywa, these as embedded within these larger trajectories. I can see why people who are promoting biotech crops as a kind of development would take issue with this because of course, lots of aspects are different now than they were through that historical trajectory.
And that's the part that they want to focus on. They want to look at the ways in which, for example, in India, biotech companies, are largely domestic. This is not necessarily an imposition of multinational corporations from the outside. A lot of these are aggressive domestic partnerships that have much better access to the kinds of local germplasm that will be necessary to breed effective crops with or without genetically modified elements to them. And a lot of the landscape around consolidation is different than it would have been under the colonial plantation regime.
That being said, it is part of that larger trajectory. We have plantations that emerge as this particular kind of imperial agricultural landscape during the colonial era. Jason Moore does a great job explaining this process in his book, Capitalism and the Web of Life, where we get what he calls it, a kind of a 'cheapening' of land and life and food and energy. He later he goes on to write a book with Raj Patel called The History of the World in Seven Cheap Things where he lays out more of this argument.
And for him, cheapness is this kind of violent quality where we are devaluing and externalizing costs to a future generation. And the plantation is an exemplar of that in an agricultural space, because we're cheapening the labor that is required to harvest and process and make this food in the interest of making it cheap for a larger public. And we're cheapening the environment itself, seeing it as a resource be consumed and leveraged in the mode of financial capitalism, rather than something, to be stable and a continuing kind of resource . Sidney Mintz adds to this kind of discussion, the ways in which industrial capitalism comes out of that plantation model. A particular model of the diversification of labor and the division of tasks, because that labor is undervalued. In Mintz's plantation cases around the world, this combination of enslavement and sharecropping and migrant labor in the current world, as a way of devaluing labor by under paying it and by making that livelihood precarity.
In the Green Revolution form, we see all kinds of investment that goes to strengthen that particular model of agriculture, where we've got monocultures, where we've got expert driven modes, where we've got overproduction of key crops that can then be sold on a global market. For lots of different kinds of reasons. Less Imperial than before, according to some histories. Certainly something that helps to produce more grain in India and to ship that around and sell it to more and different kinds of people, which raised incomes in important ways.
A lot of the legacy of the Green Revolution becomes complicated when we look at who benefited most from these qualities. And this is something taken up, I think most eloquently by people like A.R. Vasavi in her analysis of Green Revolution infrastructure, and the ways that that lays the groundwork for, effectively new kinds of landlords, or to continue a certain mode of landlordism, move to the city, be wealthy, and then set up a kind of anxiety of influence, for a newer generation in the nineties when Indian economy liberalizes . So, people hoping for the same kinds of agricultural gains as they saw, formerly wealthy people in rural areas get during the Green Revolution, but then lacking the economic protections that allowed those gains to go forward in most contexts.
[00:32:24] Adam Calo: So if you have this plantation model and you want to keep the general logic of it going, the only way as a race to the bottom in terms of devaluing labor and increasing the efficiency of your technologies. But that gets to one of the other core arguments in the Scientific American piece.
If the evidence is on their side, that the ability for GM crops to alleviate poverty and malnutrition is spotty at best, but that then funding and policies continue to support them anyway, especially over alternatives, they appear to argue that the reason these technologies get preferenced is because they align with this colonial capitalist agricultural model rather than they're, you know, a good idea to pursue.
I wonder if I was a crop biotechnologists hearing this, I say, you know, I don't want to pursue a colonial capitalist agriculture. I'm not benefiting from this, you know, I'm just developing these technologies and they're going out there into the world where people want them.
[00:33:19] Andrew Flachs: I'm sympathetic to the crop biotechnologists who are working on these things, because it's a valuable thing to understand the mechanisms of life and to identify problems and think of your way to solve them. This kind of engineering mindset can be extraordinarily valuable in seeing a problem, fixing it and moving forward. The problems for me are when that stops. If that's the full extent of our imagination, that this particular solution to a particular problem like bollworm attacks is the only reform we could ever imagine in Indian agriculture, for example, or if these solutions are really commitments to not changing anything, not changing power as it stands in any way as might be the case, say with, herbicide resistant technologies in the GM world. Herbicide resistant technology in particular, the purpose of it is that you can spray indiscriminately. And that is really only valuable if labor is incredibly expensive and difficult or undervalued, that drudgerous difficult work of weeding is something that is either, not supported by a larger community or is made to be so expensive that a landowner wouldn't be able to actually do that work. The work of herbicides are really valuable only if we're really invested in monocultures, like only growing one kind of thing and selling that out. And so I would just encourage those who are hoping for these kinds of great solutions and trying to work on their pieces of the problem to work on that particular solution, but not to lose sight of the larger issues of what problems you're trying to solve.
[00:35:06] Adam Calo: And I think then I'll touch on one of the closing arguments, and then we'll move on to some of the rebuttals that we were able to read about, or at least a sample of them. The authors of the Scientific American piece seemed to argue that when you preference biotechnology, this locks out other alternatives, like agroecology for example, which is, definitely their preferred alternative. But I feel like many GM proponents would suggest that that's not true, that we're just doing a 'both and' type of approach. You know, you can have some crop biotechnology here and you could have some crop diversification. How do you feel about this argument that when you implement this type of intervention, you're locking out some of the other alternatives that we know about in the agrarian reform ideologies.
[00:35:52] Andrew Flachs: There are certain particular instances where it's over strong and Aniket and Maywa are overstating the case there. And the one that comes to mind most strongly for me is this example of integrated pest management which pairs really really well with BT technology. If the goal of that kind of farming is to reduce pesticide exposure and spray, which is a noble good thing that we should all be invested in as people who eat stuff and live on earth. That's a pretty niche example where this kind of thing works. Some of this regulatory, blame can be laid on the green movement with organic agriculture, if we want to call it blame. If we're big proponents of genetically modified crops in less input intensive environments. Because to be certified organic first in United States, and then globally, it's mutually exclusive with genetically modified crops.
So some of that is a regulatory issue. There is no point really in growing a GMO under organic conditions, if you want it to sell it that way, because you would never be allowed to do so. And that's a regulatory, that's a legal issue, not an agronomic issue. But to the larger sense of these things can and should be integrated with agroecology ... I'm an anthropologist, I'm an ethnographer. I talk to people who were doing stuff kind of as they are. So, I am waiting to see that happen on any kind of scale in any way that these crops are actually planted and managed by the various stakeholders who live there. Yes, it might work well in a test plot or in a greenhouse. In actual fields people don't really grow these crops in the kinds of agroecological conditions that the authors of the Scientific American article are promoting there. So, okay, they can be, let's do the both and ... but we're not. And we haven't been on a global scale. So, I'm just kind of waiting to see there's nothing to look at. There's nothing to evaluate.
[00:37:50] Adam Calo: I wonder if this just reveals, how you come down on this debate is just a matter of your epistemological training? You write in your book how you take a decidedly political ecological view of GM. So trying to denature this question and think about issues of power and land tenure, deep history.
And I'm wondering if you just are trained in these methods and you take that view of any technology, you're going to be generally a little bit more skeptical. Or am I wrong? Where's the political ecologists out there who are really excited about the transformative potential of these technologies.
[00:38:24] Andrew Flachs: There are certain modes where this particular technology could be a great means of democracy and radical potential. They just, aren't just now. For most of the crops that we grow, especially in agriculture, because agriculture globally speaking is particularly consolidated and unequal with respect to the power of who owns what and who gets to make decisions and who is invited to model that particular vision of what development means that we've been talking about this whole time. Someone who might be at least vaguely optimistic about GM in general, if not necessarily GM in agriculture, because of these discussions around democratizing it, or even socializing the technology and using it as a tool for sovereignty, might be Paul Robbins, at the university of Wisconsin at the Nelson center,
[00:39:17] Adam Calo: No small fry in terms of political ecology.
[00:39:19] Andrew Flachs: No small fry. Yeah, who is decidedly focused on this issue of what are the problems that we're trying to solve? And let's look at that political issue of who's got power where and when? I think he makes a number of good points with the work that he's doing there. But there again, for me as the political ecologists, as someone who is grounded in ethnography, which puts a lot of emphasis around what people's daily experiences are and that's a good way to understand a sense of reality, versus say the idealized conditions of a field trial, where we can control variables. I think the devil there is in these kinds of details. These aren't things to say the technology would work if only these people would do it correctly. The technology is moving in different directions because of how people are using it in everyday life. That for me is by far the most relevant factor in which to analyze it.
[00:40:12] Adam Calo: Let's segue into, what you might call a rebuttal to the Scientific American piece and for this drawing on a relatively small sample. But I think it'd be interesting to try and pull out some of the core arguments. I'm drawing on a podcast from Kevin Folta, who's at the University of Florida has long been working in the horticultural sciences and his guest, Cameron English, who is of the American Council of Science and Health. And I'm drawing on their conversation and a blog that Cameron English wrote in response to the Scientific American piece.
The first kind of rebuttal argument that they pose is that this argument from what they call post-colonialism, they suggest that when you argue from this position, a type of GM intervention is under this umbrella of Western ways of knowing and therefore it's wrong. In that, the kind of evidence that they work with, Folta and English, which is hypothesis testing, claims about yields improvements, biophysical measurements of plant stress.
They suggest that there is an unfair hyper-skepticism of objective reality. That since they own the objective truth of their evidence of how these interventions do, that the critics of GM have to resort to this post-clinical critique, which rejects Western science. How do you feel about English's primer on post-colonial thinking and do you think that is a fair way of characterizing the GM debate?
[00:41:39] Andrew Flachs: No. I would take a very kind of nerdy anthropological disagreement with his characterization of post-colonialism. Because what he describes to me sounds a lot more like these discussions of postmodernism. Which is a debate well had in graduate school, social theory classes. But we can take on his definition here. And so what I think that he's talking about are some of these ... a bad faith reading of a particular level of critique, which would not accept anything coming out of I guess he used the term Western ways of knowing, I suppose, and call all of that bad.
For me, and my response thinking through that, it's far more simple, which is that the crop scientists have got a great way of knowing in the world through field trials, through greenhouse trials, through controlled hypothesis testing. And that is quite valuable under certain conditions. As an ethnographer, my conditions are oftentimes quite different because they embrace confounds. If you're an ethnographer confounds in a hypothesis testing and an experiment that's real life, that is what you're there to study. You are there to understand how things don't always go to plan.
That for me is the far more relevant issue. So we've got a technology that can work well under certain conditions, which is really great if we can make those conditions possible. If where and when we can't, other stuff happens. And so that's the main thing that I want to be of curious about and looking at. I don't think that these are necessarily geographically tied in the ways that English and Folta, seem to have been phrasing it. And maybe that's not really what they meant there.
For me, this is a question of, well, how do things actually work within a local context? That's by far the most relevant question here. It gets back to something I was saying before, you know, this reaction of if the technology doesn't work, blame the people. I don't see that as a very productive way of thinking about development because it ignores daily practice, which is presumably the thing that we're most interested in.
[00:43:59] Adam Calo: So we have this problem of these totally different languages in worldviews looking at the same issue. But perhaps a more simple rebuttal that comes out, which stems from this ... English says:
"I think my biggest problem with this argument such as it is, is that producing more food means you can feed more people. That's just objectively true. I don't know how else to say it."
I feel like that quote ... it reveals the main theory of change of development. That could be their underlying these technologies. That increased yields addresses hunger. But as we were talking before, how do you feel the weight of evidence is regarding that claim?
Because shouldn't we be choosing the technologies, either the material or the social or political ones, that feed more people?
[00:44:42] Andrew Flachs: Yes. We should be producing technologies, material, or sociopolitical that feed more people. That is an excellent point upon which hopefully everyone thinking about these things can agree. That framing there, that producing more food means you can feed more people. That's just objectively true, reads very Malthusian. Thomas Robert Malthus the colonial preacher turned demographer and then professor at the Imperial college for the British empire, who would go on to train managers of the British Imperial project that would have influence with Ireland and India. Malthus' big theory of change was that of course, population grows exponentially and food production grows linearly.
And the way that you produce more food is that, you have more land under the plow and that eventually there'll be this inescapable trap. There there's nothing we can do about it and the poorest or in his view, laziest and most morally decrepit amongst us will then starve. So it's a kind of a naturalizing of social inequality as inevitable. As something that we shouldn't do very much about. And its linked to this idea of producing more food to feed more people.
'Producing more food means we can feed more people' falls I think flat, when we look at what we're producing, especially with GM crops. We don't globally grow GM food. So I don't understand that argument. Now we can produce crops that we sell for food, obviously, which is great. But that is a system change and a theory of development that does not want to consider a more diversified and more cooperative kind of economy that would lean more heavily into different modes of production and different ownership over those production. And I think that's where, that a lot of these breaks are going to come between those who are invested in a particular kind of agricultural economics or a particular kind of knowing through field trials and those who are invested in these more social theories of change.
[00:46:47] Adam Calo: Yeah. This really reveals why the contested science over who feeds who is such an important issue, because if there was ever a consensus then it would outline some types of technologies or strategies in the agricultural sector we should continue and those that we shouldn't.
If you believe that increased production is the key way of reducing food insecurity, then you really hear this argument coming through. In the podcast Folta says:
"Governments creating food solutions for people because we care for them and we want to have food security. It's the anti GMO folks, the anti-technology folks that disrespect indigenous people's desire for food security. The women that want to feed their children that don't want to walk 10 kilometers to go to get water or food or whatever."
So you can see a really emotional tug there about ... Folta really wanting to address the terrible perils of precarity and food insecurity. And he feels like he has a tool, an idea that can work, but it's not being allowed by these critiques.
[00:47:50] Andrew Flachs: Work to produce what though this context? And, and under what conditions? Wouldn't, you know, a better bus system or socialized medicine solve a lot of these issues as well? It's a desire for food security. Another alternative could be—a far less expensive one—could be to produce more and different kinds of diversified food. In fact have government buying programs that work in that. Something that actually was successful in the Philippines in anti- hunger campaigns around more diversified diets, including buying from farmer co-ops. And in India with these new millet programs based around encouraging farmers and providing a new market for farmers to grow a diversified set of millet crops that would then be integrated the midday meal program. An incredibly effective social program in India, to provide a lot of kids with great nutritious nourishing food.
My concern with this framing is always that if these are the problems that we're trying to solve, why is this the most expedient way to get there? It's less, you know, this inherent critique of GM crops themselves, than of this, determined commitment to a certain vision of inequality and a certain vision of only growing things in this particular way that frankly produces things that are quite detrimental to a lot of people's long-term health. Genetically modified corn soybean and canola ... none of these are health superfoods that are making eaters stomachs better. Most of these technologies are then fed to animals in industrialized confined, settings that are extremely damaging to local waterways and earth ways and perpetuate these abuses of labor. And then produce a food product that is by and large, quite unhealthy for a lot of the people that eat it in that particular form of confined animal feeding operations. The hinges that I would push back on that kind of argument is to think about what it is we're really growing and why and where those things go in reality? And if we are trying to solve these real problems that they identify, which are great things to look at and think through. What are the best kinds of solutions, let alone, I think the implicit element there of who gets to be in the room to make these kinds of decisions. And this is something that Maywa Montenegro de Wit has talked about a fair amount in thinking about the democratizing potential of newer GM technologies like CRISPR CAS-9.
[00:50:34] Adam Calo: You see Folta and English, bring up examples of some of these niche technologies, you know, reducing banana wilts or the papaya that they talk about. Holding up these as, you know, not all of these technologies are the same thing. And I, I tend to agree with that.
[00:50:48] Andrew Flachs: It's a great point. And, they are absolutely correct in making that point. Yep.
[00:50:52] Adam Calo: ,But I think the broader, more tricky question that I had when kind of looking at the back and forth was, what's really a question as you talked about is representation. So who has the authority of representing interests of small holder farmers, for example. For Folta and English, this argument came up again and again, in the podcast and in the blog, which is , farmers from the global south want these technologies. They're willing to break the law to get them.
There are scientists from the global south who are studying this technologies and to promote their use. So when a Western scientists talks about decolonization and is challenging the utilization of these technologies, that's actually an imposition of, you know, colonialism on, on small holder farmers, even though they, hold that position that, you know, GM tech is doing that. Regardless of who's right, how do you deal with this question of trying to represent the interests of others? And in this case, it's small holder farmers who, especially from your work reveals, have been historically marginalized.
[00:51:53] Andrew Flachs: Yeah, can the sub-altern speak? Is a key question in, what anthropologists would call post-colonial literature. In thinking about these narratives and the power relations of who gets to speak for whom? And to my thinking, the best answer is that farmers can and should speak for themselves.
They are diverse heterogeneous, they face different kinds of issues as a function of their geography, ecological conditions, sociodemographic questions like ethnicity, race, caste gender, class. With such a diverse set of interests and needs, farmers should speak for themselves. I can, you know, relay stories that I have heard. But I am speaking from my own kind of position as a particular kind of analyst as are any of these other scientists.
I think probably, Aniket Aga would, have some disagreements with being called, um, you know, purely a Western scientists.
I also, shouldn't be speaking on behalf of any of those people . And there are groups that are talking about these things. Whether it is interest groups, mostly from an economic growth and development angle that are lobbying for new GM crops and moratoriums to be lifted, for commercial planting in, in places like India. And there are also lots of farmer groups who are mobilizing against this through India's, in particular, vibrant NGO sector. But also across lots of other contexts. And I'm thinking here of the work of Joeva Rock, looking at mobilization against certain kinds of GMOs, in various contexts in Africa. As well as Brian Dowd-Uribe.
This issue of what are the colonial implications there? If the decolonization is something that is not a metaphor and that different folks are invested in. Than that begins with democratic inclusion in all stages of any kind of research and development. And it also frankly, begins with discussions around land sovereignty and land reform. So, if and when groups are mobilizing for these kinds of technologies, then one of the big questions, if we're interested in colonial reparations of various kinds, or of decolonizing more broadly, one of those initial questions seemed to be how does this particular technology enforce or erode the sovereignty of the group in question that is speaking and claim to choose it. And that's not something that we see often because of the levels of expertise that are required, both for the technical side of the engineering of these organisms and laboratories, and also in the kinds policy spaces where people are at.
And the one final reaction I guess I have to this, is framing all this around choices for me a misleading kind of discussion, because choice implies a full spectrum of beautiful rainbow of options. Which is very much not the case in a lot of these questions of consumer commodification. In the context of BT cotton seeds in India, for example, in 2002, there were three approved seeds and farmers chose between them and could do relatively small scale sorts of trials and make, what an economist would call an informed choice. They could look through these kinds of things. Now there's over 1400 different seed brands-- an impossible array from which to choose and to make any kind of informed decision about that. And so farmers choose in practice, in the spaces where I work-- Telangana-- farmers ultimately often end up choosing these seeds based on the same kinds of logic that I use when I'm choosing mustard at the grocery store. I heard that this brand was good from somebody else. I like the picture on it. The person there in the aisle recommended it to me. None of which are this kind of depth of agroecological knowledge that we might be used to seeing in farmer seed decisions, the seed being path dependent decision that you can't really take back and it sets in motion the whole rest of the season. That for me, is less of a informed consumer choice more of a hopeful consumer decision where all of that power and information symmetry is taken off the farm and put into these places where farmers are and other stakeholders not having direct input.
So I don't see it as a choice. I see it as this kind of drawing on the work of the anthropologist, Paul Richards, this kind of agricultural performance. Say I'm a good consumer. I am trying to do, what's been framed as the right thing to do here, which is the maximize these yields. I'm choosing the seed that everybody else is choosing this year. And that's a really great logic to, again, intensify the capitalization of agriculture in these spaces. It's not a great logic for agroecological security.
[00:57:00] Adam Calo: This is just such another key epistemological chasm between these two sides as it were. Because when I guess someone like you or me hears " they want this" or "choice", that's just such a red flag. Because we think in the terms of constrained choices and structural forces. On the other hand, looking at choice in a world of rational actors is kind of the key way to design economies.
If you're more of like, um, you know, macro economics ...
[00:57:25] Andrew Flachs: absolutely.
[00:57:26] Adam Calo: I wonder if going back to that question of who speaks for who, you see a little bit more willingness, a positionality from, Aga and Montenegro de Wit, where since they are taking this post-colonial stance, they therefore have these certain values. Where I feel like those values are a little bit more implicit in some of the purely technological views, from the, you know, horticultural scientists or at least from Fulta and English.
[00:57:54] Andrew Flachs: Yeah, I think that's probably reasonable in the ways that all of our trainings, influence how we then go out and see the world and the kinds of solutions that we then look at. With whatever fairness is due to these particular speakers, but also to the larger field of laboratory-based science or trial-based science, those are often valuable ways of knowing and they can tell us really important helpful things. From my vantage point here, all that I would be asking for to continue to look and see how these technologies perform under the conditions that you're most interested in looking at and what really happens there. And again, and again, we come back to this question of we need these crops to feed the world. Why is it that they're not budging food security? Why is it these crops aren't by and large main food crops. If that's the thing that we're really trying to solve? That for me should be a flag that we're not focusing on the right problems here.
[00:58:55] Adam Calo: I felt like the worldview that is embedded with maybe, perhaps being a proponent of these technologies did come out at one point where English says in the podcast:
" What they described as colonialism, I think, is more properly described as trade. Everyone in the United States, there are probably hundreds, maybe thousands of products that you use and consume every day that were engineered in other countries that were physically put together in other countries. And that's just what our global economy is. And it enables a standard of living that was unheard of 200 years ago."
[00:59:26] Andrew Flachs: A standard of living for some, right? Who is the who's the we that we're talking about there? And this is the main point that Jason Moore brings up in this whole idea of cheapness. My cheap stuff because of the global accident of where I was born, rests on the cheapening of someone else's labor and natural resources in that environment, whether it's the lithium in my electronics here that we're using to talk. Or the electricity that's coming from me in Indiana, largely from coal, within my own rural periphery in this case, Southern Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania.
[01:00:07] Adam Calo: So I may agree with your critique, but it does seem like this logic of how a global unregulated market economy brings prosperity to all eventually. That a market for a thing justifies the thing has to be driving the underwriting of kind of a global diffusion of technology in general, where it doesn't matter where it's developed and where it goes, but if there is a market for a thing that means is there is a desire for it to improve someone's lives. One of the things that you write in your book is that it's not about the GM seeds themselves, but rather the market in which these seeds are distributed, that causes the most egregious problems for the farmer knowledge. I guess if we don't have a debate about political economy, it almost makes the argue debate about GM rather a minor one.
[01:00:52] Andrew Flachs: For me, I'm never going to be able to disentangle these two questions, because all agriculture is social and economic and embedded within this larger system. I'm getting flashbacks to, macro economics, where I think basically every day, my instructor would say this line of everybody benefits from trade. That's the inherent assumption of trade. The magical thinking that goes around a statement like "everybody always benefits from trade" is this question of externalities or confounds in the hypothesis or the model, that we just don't talk about or don't think about whether they're environmental, or social, or longterm in some other way and difficult to quantify. If you are an ethnographer, again and that's, that epistemological question, but that's the stuff that I study. All of these other things that are daily life that is left out of these broad brush assumptions around everybody say benefits from trade or this idea that, a market for thing would justify the thing. Whose perspective is privileged here is very important , but also the larger landscape of what are the costs that we're really accounting for in our model? Become incredibly important when we talk about the justification for what's happening or the standards of living that we might be able to enjoy.
[01:02:18] Adam Calo: The point of the stakes of the rebuttal argument was highest just to touch on it and then maybe we'll move on to, you know, where to go from here, was when Folta and English link a kind of a science and technology studies approach ...a critique of science as a driver of erosion and trust in science.
And of course their grab on a key example, which is, you know, in all of our lives today, which is "you don't see these kind of post-colonial scholars or these critical science and technology studies scholars, lamenting about diffusion of vaccines across the world." Do you ever find yourselves uncomfortably, critical of science and do you think there is a link between kind of critiquing expertise, critiquing power relations of scientists, and then the ability for science to be an organizing force of good?
[01:03:11] Andrew Flachs: Yeah, I absolutely hope so because I do hope that science as a lowercase "s" science, I suppose, to the STS listeners, would be a force for good in the world, in the normative sense of a way of knowing and thinking about how to solve problems that are important to people based in local kinds of conditions. For me, I don't see a huge conflict here. I think it is possible be critical of institutions and ways of knowing, that point us to particular solutions. Clearly, that's the main thing that we've been talking about, while still also believing that there are helpful ways to put these things into conversation. And in my perspective is very much informed by the work of people like Sandra Harding, the feminist scholar of science and technology, and this idea of standpoint theory, where the basic concept is that within a social system, there are people who have power and there are people who have more and less of it. And your position as being marginalized and that social system gives you a very particular perspective. And that perspective can be enormously helpful towards things like solving problems. And yet that perspective is not often brought in the spaces where power is mobilized to create different kinds of scientific solutions or ask questions. And so there's a fundamental disjuncture there between people who are having problems that ought to be solved and people who are designing those kinds of solutions. So this is a kind of an argument for democratizing various aspects of the scientific process. And then being open within that scientific process to lots of different kinds of inputs and lots of different kinds perspectives who would take it on.
If to take, you know, an absurd hypothetical, that would have been true, let's say maybe 150 years ago. In most spaces of development and scientific inquiry, everyone working there would have been male in most of the Imperial projects anyway. And they would have been of European descent, through the North American and European Imperial projects. All of those spaces were done by by men and by men of European descent.
So what is lost there? What kinds of problems do we get? And we see one version of solution, and one version of world otherwise in the outstanding history of people, like Monica white in her book, Freedom Farmers, discussing the exemplary science of what came to be the historically black college and university system. Working from this perspective of marginalization, of solving problems of marginalized people in a United States context and having this incredible flourishing of outstanding scientific discovery. People like Booker T. Washington, people like WEB Du Bois, people like Washington Carver, and the outstanding work that they were able to do in these spaces. For me, democratizing science and being open these critiques of science and questioning who sets the agenda. This should not be in conflict and need not be in conflict with doing inquiry well. For me, that is doing inquiry well.
[01:06:37] Adam Calo: So it was this debate, just really a debate about philosophy of science dressed up as a contest over the utility of crop biotechnology? Mark Lynas, who has long been a voice of, well used to be an-anti GMO voice. And then became proponent of especially with these niche uses, he wrote in a tweet after the article was published:
"anti-science Luddism, isn't always a right wing phenomenon. This is what it looks like on the far left, lots of woke rhetoric and empty phrases, which add up to the same stop science message and published in scientific American too."
Why do you think that the arguments that Montenegro and Aga wrote in the Scientific American piece broke through to this pro GM side this time around?
Was it publication in Scientific American, which kind of touched a nerve of who gets to claim authoritative science and through what methods?
[01:07:26] Andrew Flachs: Yeah. I think that must've been a big piece of this because of course Aga and Montenegro de wit have been writing this stuff for years. And they've been talking about these issues a lot in nuanced and productive ways. So I must imagine that the venue of Scientific American, was especially egregious to those who claim that science was one thing and it was what they say it is. To me that speaks to a kind of fragility that is counter to a lot of the mission of what I think of as science, which is inquiry about the world around us and how it works. To do that right, you kind of have to always be integrating new perspectives and checking your assumptions and making sure that your initial implicit parameters were correct in the first place. Otherwise you don't get to arrive at the system of adaptive and useful knowledge.
[01:08:19] Adam Calo: I'm wondering what, to do about this though? What's the way forward into bringing a more useful middle ground? Because people like Sandra Harding don't really leave a lot of room for the more positivist view to continue being at the top of the funding heap.
[01:08:35] Andrew Flachs: What I like about Harding is that she claims it as her own. I mean, she claims that she is doing the best science. So I really liked that framing. In my understanding of that concept is thay it's not particularly confrontational. It's saying let's get everybody in here and think about what the problems are that we're looking at? What are we missing in our models and in our conditions that allow us to test the hypothesis when we get out into the real world, if that's of interest to us and to, you know, for me, I'm quite empirical and positivist in some ways.
A lot of my knowledge comes from people's direct experiences. Isn't that relevant data? I certainly think it is. All of these parts are different lenses and different opportunities to ask whose voices, whose designing the work, and whose interest, where the benefits of these work go? What are the implicit assumptions that undergird the kinds of work that we're doing here? For me, it's inclusive. And I would hope that we could get to that point.
[01:09:37] Adam Calo: I'd like to end by returning some insights from your work. I found it compelling that in some of your writing you discuss the ways different social structures shape how the use of GM seeds play out in the lives of farmers. What you wrote about is this is
"a burgeoning farming, farming cooperative can blunt some of the predator elements of the commercial GMC seed industry."
I've spoken to many GM critics, throughout my career and they say of course GM seeds could be a more emancipatory process, but they would need to be embedded in a radically different socio-economic system. And Mark Lynas, who we just brought up, who appeared as a major character in this New York Times piece, Learning to Love GMO's by Jennifer Kahn,
"In people's minds, it's genetic engineering equals monoculture equals the broken food system, but it doesn't have to be that way."
And I feel like we may have fallen into that trope a little bit that he says, cause we've, we've kind of equated it-
[01:10:27] Andrew Flachs: Only because that's the empirical record the moment.
[01:10:31] Adam Calo: in order for it not to be that way, as Lynas says, what needs to happen?
[01:10:35] Andrew Flachs: There are some models of this. In situations where early on i in the Indian context and in contexts like Australia and in the US, some ... a significant minority of GM crops, GM cotton, BT resistant, bollworm resistant cotton is grown as part of an integrated pest management system. Then you see much greater sustained benefits and different kinds of biodiversity. So there even keeping genetically modified cotton within that agroecology, we've got something quite different and variable as a function of the kinds of farming that we're doing there. So an agroecological, or at least a more diversified agricultural setting integrated pest management that demands certain elements of agrobiodiversity. That's one model.
Another model is one scene that I talk about in the book of these agricultural co-ops that take out the most difficult element of agricultural decision-making around seeds, which is that choice overload, that brand confusion, that consumerist mindset. They do a lot of research and they're a trusted institution that local farmers can work with. Another element of that would probably be forms of sovereignty and direct democratic engagement of the sorts that we were talking about with respect to who gets to make decisions and speak and and create solutions as regards to GMOs.
One that I am often quite supportive of as a GM solution or at least hopeful about, has to do with the resurrection of the American Chestnut. This beautiful tree in Eastern north America and the use of genetically modified technologies to make this tree and this technology publicly available as a public good as something that could be effectively planted. A big question in there is, am I land grant, or land theft university, representative the best person to speak on these issues? What other stakeholders might not always be in the room? And the counter took this up, speaking to BJ McManama, who was an organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Health Network, which is a nonprofit focused on environmental justice for indigenous people. That's a stakeholder that absolutely should be in the room and should have a say in how this technology is used. Far more important than me as, as you know, an anthropological interested party, but someone who certainly should be at the table in discussions of this with the forest service, with contemporary landowners, with geneticists who are working on this project, with people who live in this area as well. That for me, is a more democratized vision of where and how GM crops might extend and how they might support sovereignty. The use of this developed by an indigenous or non-indigenous local community to then advance their goals of sovereignty is for me quite different than the use of it in a vertically integrated global agribusiness context, where the point of this technology to double down on capitalizing farms.
[01:13:53] Adam Calo: So something I've come across, is that after Brexit, the UK has a little bit more freedom in designing its agricultural policy. And one of the questions is to look again at whether or not to liberalize the use of GM. If you could design this type of democratizing process to lead to the outcomes you might suggest, what should they consider or how they design and prioritize goals for liberalizing, the new use of GM crops.
[01:14:23] Andrew Flachs: If the goal is to make it truly democratic, than who are implementing and designing and thinking about these technologies and policies must all be at the table. So it cannot be only farmers' groups. It must also be environmental groups-- and hopefully those two groups aren't always opposed. It must be people with consumer perspectives, urban consumer perspectives, as well as rural consumer perspectives. It must be people across class, gender and racial backgrounds. It must be people who have all kinds of investments within these areas. And there are mechanisms in place within that decision-making to flatten out the power differentials that have led to development, such as we see it today, where so much of that decision-making is being driven by one particular ideology or one particular group at the expense of the concerns of others.
And even to the demonization the concerns of others. That's the kinds of democracy that we should be invested in if we're invested in a more democratic and equal world.
[01:15:39] Adam Calo: You write:
"What is a farm, if not a public stage. "
My take on what you're getting at is that, why people decide to do things and thus why farmers decide to do things, is an inherently social endeavor that clearly defies simple explanations, like if it benefits me personally, I do it. And thus, when an overly simple technological fix appears it inherently is only designed to consider one slice of the world of a farmer, guaranteeing some latent dangers. In your words, why is a farm, a public stage? And why is that framing towards decision-making in the agricultural sector useful for how to negotiate this GM debate?
[01:16:16] Andrew Flachs: I like that metaphor a lot because I think it speaks to ... It centers that social aspect of decision-making. We were talking about the epistemological weight of this rational actor kind of question. In a lot of these decisions that this ... this fundamental assumption that we're all making great choices all the time. And those choices benefit us in these particular ways, which are not complicated. And for an anthropologist that is ill supported by the weight of data that we have. We are making decisions constantly for all kinds of reasons. Some of which might be great. Some which might not be some of which seem rational to us in the moment, but not might not seem rational to other people the other side of some kind of question. A lot of them are embroiled in this question around, that Jason Moore question, of what is cheap when, where, and to whom? Because something that is cheap to me might be rational to get it. Even if that rationality, causes some discomfort or misery or exploitation for somebody else for whom that decision seems a whole lot less rational. Taking out that language of choice and embracing this language of performance allows us to see all of that social stuff that is so important to me, that holistic picture of why it is that we do the things that we do and what sorts of opportunities and difficulties that presents to us. That really allows us to get beyond that choice issue, in really productive ways.
And for us to focus indeed on that empirical question, what is it that people are actually doing here? And if that explanation is not particularly simple, or if it's confoundingly connected to all kinds of other things, then good. That's life.
[01:18:09] Adam Calo: I think that's a great place to end. Professor Andrew Flachs, thank you so much for your time and an incredibly well-researched and charitable facilitation of this important issue.
[01:18:21] Andrew Flachs: Hey, thanks for having me on. Great to talk with you.