Genetically modified organisms in agriculture have become objects of contention, crystallizing some of today’s major political and social controversies. As human-made objects that are alive and have agency, they invite the anthropologist to follow their trajectories and to analyze the power relationships and political economies of meaning in which they are inscribed. Taking as a point of departure Hans Jonas’s principle of responsibility for the unknown effects of technological developments, this article questions why a culture of urgency is attached to GMOs in spite of the unpredictable consequences that may arise when they are set free into the environment. As naturally reproducing objects that have intellectual property rights attached to them they raise issues of political governance and of economic power and control. They provoke not only repertoires of contention but also silences that speak about the link between technology and policy in con- temporary societies.
GMOs—Global objects of contention
Patented seeds at dispute in Canada's courts
Patents on objects that have agency such as seeds pose new challenges for governance, raising fundamental questions of control and responsibility. In May 2004 the Supreme Court of Canada found the farmer Percy Schmeiser guilty of infringing the Monsanto patent on genetically modified canola, because he reseeded part of his canola harvest although he knew or ought to have known that it contained seeds of GM canola plants that had blown into his field. In May 2005, a group of organic farmers tried a legal procedure to get certification as a class against two biotechnology corporations Bayer CropScience and Monsanto for polluting their fields with GM canola. At stake are questions on the type of ownership that can be claimed over plants—and whether ownership can be claimed over a plant at the same time that liability for its reproduction is denied. The two court cases I discuss allow us to more closely see how genetically modified canola plants have become objects of contention among Western Canadian farmers, how they transformed the farmers’ daily work and relations between neighbors, and how they increased farmers’ dependency on agro-biotech corporations.
Seeds—Grown, governed, and contested, or the ontic in political anthropology
Seeds are simultaneously a meaningful part of the daily life of many people involved in agriculture and instruments for national and international policy making. This thematic section explores the sensorial connections between people and plants, the relationships of power that impact and frame them, and the reflections and contestations that they are a part of. In the midst of Western societies and among scientists and farmers, different ontologies and different perceptions of being and coevolving with others in the world coexist, as we will show by looking at human-seed relationships. Local and global legacies create powerful differences between seeds, while various forms of international governance simultaneously push seeds toward homogenization and agriculture toward industrialization while claiming to preserve diversity. Intellectual property rights over seeds and seed regulations have become powerful tools of multinational seed corporations for appropriating large parts of farmers' incomes and controlling the food chain, while it is the sensorial and emotional connections between humans and plants that provide the drive to resist them.
Biosocial networks of confiscation and destruction in Canada
While farmers set up conditions for the development of plants, the seeds they help grow into plants determine conditions for the farmers. Modern plants not only have agronomic characteristics but also intellectual property rights, phytosanitary regulations, and classifications attached to them. Interacting with their seeds creates fields of property and power, situations of possibility and impossibility, in which farmers and breeders operate. The biosocial networks from which seeds emerge are animated by bureaucratic measures, property relations, and research and cultivation practices that I will explore in action. Seeds not only become what they are in multifarious networks of natural, cultural, and political agencies, but their emergence and coevolution with humans is ruptured through deregistration, persecution, confiscation, and destruction of proprietary seeds. This article will take the reader from the fields of farmers in Saskatchewan to seed breeders in Saskatoon and ultimately to public meetings organized by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Ottawa.