VIPIRG reviews

Farmageddon: Food and the culture of biotechnology

By Brewster Kneen. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 1999.

Review by Terry Wolfwood – Member of VIPIRG coordinating collective
August 2004

The introduction to this book sets the tone and content of this enquiry into the scientific, economic and social context of a new and powerful means of trying to control nature. I like it, not just because it is well written and clear in explanation, but because Kneen, a sheep farmer in BC, asks all the questions I ask about the new “life sciences” as Monsanto calls them, and then he proceeds to answer them.

He starts with the older, accepted technology of artificial insemination of cattle. Why did this become widely used? Kneen says that farm consolidation, fewer small farms, was the problem; rather than visit a neighbour's bull, when some of your neighbours have lost their farm to the bank, you get semen in a sanitary and efficient test tube. Then science followed with new milk substitutes, embryo transplants, drug additives and genetically modified organisms. These technologies spread to other animals, including humans.

Kneen says, “The profound technological developments that have transformed the normal life of a chick, or a cow, are little different from those that have transformed the gestation of a human infant…There is little reason for the corporate interests behind all this to distinguish a uterus with two legs from one with four legs.”

This book about the manipulation of our food, both plant and animal, explains the history and process of genetic engineering better than any other I have read. And even as Kneen explain things, he constantly puts the question...why? For instance, remember when population control (particularly for others) was all the rage? But that did not sell much product and instead those famous “life sciences” corporations came up with a new problem. How to feed the starving masses – profitably? Building on the new industrialized agriculture, that already produces vast surpluses, the corporations decided that genetically modified food crops (using the seeds and necessary pesticides they make) would save the world. How altruistic of them!

Kneen is also very personal, and brings the results of biotechnology home. He interviews a dairy farmer in Nova Scotia who wonders aloud about his cows, he worries about the effect of growth hormone on their well being and the stress of increased milk production on their health. Who ever cares about the cows in all this? Not Monsanto, that's for sure.

There are many definitions of biotechnolgy, few are as simplistic as our government's Ministry of Agriculture and Agra-Food Canada which says it is “the applied use of living organisms, or their parts, to produce new products”. The so-called life science industries dress it up and call it, “the integrated application of biochemistry, microbiology and process technology with the objective of turning to technical use the potential of microorganisms and cell and tissue cultures as well as parts thereof”. It all sounds pretty benign and useful, something like selective plant and animal breeding as it often compared to.

But biotechnology is new – barely a few decades old – and is an invasion of nature and the environment by laboratory technology whereby genetic material from one species is removed and implanted in another. Something that never happens in nature. Biotechology is inherently violent and Kneen quotes German ecofeminist, Maria Mies, who says, “…without separating the research objects by force from their symbiotic context and isolating them in the laboratory, without dissecting them...into ever smaller bits and pieces, ...the new scientists cannot gain knowledge. They cannot, it seems, understand nature and natural phenomena if they leave them intact within their given environment.”

Kneen says that not only is genetic engineering a violent technology and a test tube science prematurely applied to food production, but it is a technology of death. Not only because herbicides originate from the Agent Orange developed for use to scorch the earth during the Vietnam war, but because of the corporate disregard for the effects on the ecology of their products. A broad range of plants is killed by common herbicides like Roundup. Genetic modification of one plant spreads pollen that fertilizes other plants and passes on the GM DNA to them. Genetically modified plants do not only kill specific insects, they kill many insects, as Bt modified corn kills Monarch butterflies. No research is carried out on the effects of GM on the complex web of life in the soil and atmosphere of a particular crop or application. The Terminator Plant with its sterile pollen makes reproduction impossible of not only the treated plants but of any the pollen drifts to. And Kneen makes it clear we just don't know the widespread or future effects of GM plants, some of which are already proving to change and fail within a few years. Other affected varieties die off as well and many weeds develop resistance to herbicides; industry responds with new technologies and increased chemical use.

Most of the food produced in the world is grown by subsistence farmers who have developed and save seeds that grow well in their particular micro-environment. They don't need commercial seeds or pesticides. So commercial agriculture funds the planting of their own seeds that need their own chemicals; monoculture increases and small farmers are driven off the land. Monoculture heralds the death of biodiversity as well as society based on self-sufficiency & – they don't need agribiz.

FARMAGEDDON provides specific chapters on different foods of importance – milk, canola, tomato, potato as well as very understandable explanations of how genetic manipulation is performed. Kneen ends the book with important information about “Growing resistance.” He says, “The first and most obvious step in resistance is always at the level of personal conscience.”

He gives examples of citizens from India to UK destroying GM crops. We can reject commercial seeds, grow and exchange our own, support local, organic farmers. We can use the strategy of demanding shops stop selling GM products, with theatrical actions as well as boycotts. He says we must replace the centralized command economy of the corporate world with a variety of decentralized democratic economies. We can use this book with Kneen's documented knowledge and empowering strategies to reclaim our right to a healthy agriculture and environment.