Political Ecology of GMOs

A Middlebury blog

Deconstructing Narratives of Food Security

Scott Gilman

Positionality Statement:

I was born and have spent most of my life in an upper-middle class suburb of Rochester, NY. I am a sophomore environmental studies-geography joint major at Middlebury College in Middlebury, VT.  My interest in food is largely academic, as I have no personal experience with working on a farm in the Global North or the Global South.  I am, however, a proponent of local food and attempt to buy most of my produce from farmer’s markets near my home.


In this essay, I examine the opposing narratives of food security and food sovereignty in the global debate over the role of GMOs, especially in the Global South. I take an approach informed by political ecology to deconstruct the power relations behind the dominant narrative of food security.  I argue that Biotechnology firms such as Syngenta and Monsanto construe food security as a function of increased production, ignoring the equally fundamental factor of social control over the food distribution paradigm, as a tool to expand the market for GMO seeds in the Global South.  I further argue that the discursive methods of humanitarian organizations such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and international institutions such as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) prove useful for the expansion of agribusiness.  Finally, I examine how food sovereignty opposes the dominant food security narrative and empowers the farmers who suffer as a result of the neo-liberal food paradigm that the food security narrative perpetuates.

The evolution of food security

At the World Food Conference of 1974, members of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO) defined food security in 1974 as “the availability at all times of adequate world food supplies of basic foodstuffs to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption and to offset fluctuations in production and prices” (quoted in Patel 2009, 664).   The Conference convened in the context of a sharp increase in world food prices (Maxwell 1996, 156).  This first definition of food security looks at the global scale and considers the ability of global food supply to meet global food demand at a stable price.  After this conference, academics and policymakers examined food security on the national scale as well, seeing national food security as minimizing the need to import food (Maxwell 1996, 157).  For example, in 1980 Reutlinger and Knapp defined food security as “A condition in which the probability of a country’s citizens falling below a minimal level of food consumption is low” (quoted in Maxwell 1996, 169). The Indian government pursued a policy of agricultural self-sufficiency to further economic development, as did many African governments (Seshia and Scoones 2003; Maxwell 1996, 156). When defined and analyzed on a global or national scale, food security is a product of the quantity of food produced.

Beginning in the 1980s, social scientists began to examine food security on the household and individual scales.   Looking at the individual scale requires analysis not only of the scientific factors of food production, but the social factors of food distribution.  Economist Amartya Sen used the term “food entitlement” to describe the issues of individual access to food and social control over systems of food production which explain why hunger and famine persists in highly agriculturally productive nations (Maxwell 1996, 157).  Anthropologists such as Sol Katz, Rebecca Huss-Ashmore, and William Torry applied the theory of access to and social control over food to famine relief efforts in Africa and elsewhere (Brown 2008).  By 1996, the FAO moved towards recognizing the equally important social aspects of food security by defining it as “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (quoted in Patel 2009, 665).

Opposing food security narratives: the case of the Green Revolution in India

Food security encompasses a large domain – all aspects of the food system, from production to distribution, on every scale, from the individual to the global.  Simon Maxwell (1996, 155) describes food security as “[a] forest floor [which] is crawling with different species and the air… bright with the flash of multi-colored wings.”   The case of the Green Revolution in India demonstrates how different nuanced conceptions of food security – that is, definitions which emphasize one scale or aspect of the food system – leads to vastly different conclusions on the appropriate means to reach food security.

In the decades following India’s independence, Indian leaders focused on achieving food security at the national scale – that is, maximize domestic food production to minimize India’s reliance on food imports (Seshia and Scoones 2003, 3).   M.S. Swaminathan, director of the Indian Center for Agricultural Research in 1964, blamed India’s food insecurity on “the technical backwardness of our agriculture,” and believed “[the adoption of science and technology is] crucial to the success of agricultural plans and the growth of the national economy as a whole….” (quoted in Seshia and Scoones 2003, 13). The Indian government initiated the Green Revolution in India through promoting the use of irrigation, more chemical inputs, and high-yielding seed varieties in agriculture (Shiva 1993).  This program succeeded in increasing agricultural productivity, so India’s political leaders regarded it as a success (Seshia and Scoones 2003).

Activist-scholar Vandana Shiva (1993), however, emphasizes individual-scale food security and the social factors of food access and distribution. She notes that the Green Revolution increased dependency on corporate sellers of agricultural inputs, reduced biodiversity in Indian food crops, and displaced small-scale peasant farmers, undermining the poorest Indian farmers’ control over the food supply (Shiva 1993).  Thus, while the Green Revolution increased national-scale food security, it decreased individual-scale food security.  This demonstrates the power of different definitions of food security in determining the means to achieve it.

Biotech firms’ use of food security

Biotechnology firms utilize this power by construing food security as an issue primarily of production to sustain their “pro-poor” technology narrative, enhancing their public image and providing a moral justification for opening biotech markets in the Global South (Scoones 2002).  Syngenta, for example, has its own “Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture” dedicated to “improving the livelihood of smallholder farmers” (Syngenta 2012).  Syngenta nods to the complex nature of food security by acknowledging that it is a function of “food availability, food access, and food use”; however, by looking at national measures of food security instead of grounded knowledge, the Foundation portrays production as the primary determinant of food security.  It claims that “[i]f on-farm productivity … can be made to grow, then with functional and advantageous links to markets, incomes derived from agricultural activities should rise, and rural employment and food entitlements should grow. The food security of the rural poor, and the food supplies in urban areas, in consequence, should both improve” (Syngenta 2012).

Monsanto defines food security as “a lack of access by all members of a household to enough food for an active, healthy life,” which is consistent with the USDA’s definition. Monsanto’s discourse on food security centers largely on production. Monsanto technology strategist Dr. David Fischhoff claimed in an NPR interview that rapidly increasing population combined with stresses from climate change make biotechnology an integral part of feeding the world in the future (Flatow 2010). Monsanto portrays its current and forthcoming “improved seeds,” such as soybeans with omega acids, insect-resistant soybeans, and drought-tolerant corn as the solution to the central Malthusian problem; as its website states: “To feed everyone, we’ll need to double the amount of food we currently produce” (Monsanto 2013).  However, Monsanto also uses “distribution” and “access” as a keyword: not as in reforming flawed systems of food distribution to improve popular access to proper nutrition, but access to “the best agronomic practices and technologies, including more advanced seeds”—that is, Monsanto’s products (Monsanto 2013).  Thus, Monsanto attempts to use both components of food security rhetoric, production and distribution, to justify its expanding role in the Global South.  This vilifies attempts at the international, national, regional, and individual scale to resist or delay Monsanto’s market penetration, taking agency out of the hands of farmers, governments, and civil society in the Global South.

Humanitarian organizations, international institutions, and food security discourse

The case of AGRA demonstrates how humanitarian organizations’ discourse on food security reinforces the discursive methods of biotech firms.   For example, the Gates Foundation, which has notable financial ties to Monsanto, funds the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an organization which uses its tremendous financial resources in part to develop a more GMO-friendly regulatory environment in Africa; AGRA lists one of its goals as countering “policy, institutional, and regulatory bottlenecks [that] hamper the adoption of technologies” to encourage the use of “improved seed,” the same term Monsanto uses to describe its GMO products, by African farmers (O’Hagan and Heim 2010; AGRA 2103).  Monsanto also lends its intellectual capital in the form of patents and scientists to not-for-profit organizations which develop “humanitarian” GMO crops. David Fischhoff admitted that one such humanitarian crop, “BioCassava Plus”, is primarily a tool for opening up markets for GMO seeds in West Africa that in the long run will prove highly profitable for Monsanto (Flatow 2010).

International institutions such as the FAO perpetuate the production-centered narrative, further contributing to biotech firms’ profitable notion of food security.  The FAO’s promotional video of World Food Day 2011 reveals the assumption that increasing production is the way to achieve food security. It opens with: “Lack of adequate investment in agriculture…is the main single cause of the problems we face today” (UN FAO 2011a). The video goes on to give the example of a Pakistani farmer who benefitted from “improved seeds,” and then notes that more investment should be focused on increasing production on small farms (UN FAO 2011a).  Its policy recommendations to food-insecure countries state that increasing agricultural inputs such as pesticides is the key to improving food access for the poor (UN FAO 2011b,  31).  The FAO concludes its “Declaration of the High-Level Conference on World Food Security” with a promise to “use all means to … stimulate food production….We commit to eliminating hunger and to securing food for all today and tomorrow” (High-Level Conference 2008).  The FAO’s discursive methods and policy recommendations further the production-centered, neo-liberal agricultural regime which proves useful for the expansion of agribusiness.

Food sovereignty

Food sovereignty in a sense is a dynamic and active “political ecology of GMOs” in the Global South: by constantly challenging the powerful actors which perpetuate the current food paradigm and valuing voices of the marginalized, food sovereignty promises a socio-culturally contextualized food security which empowers those who suffer from hunger and poverty under the current food production and distribution system. It is beyond the scope of this paper to evaluate whether achieving food sovereignty for small-scale farmers will solve the world’s hunger problems. However, by forcing world leaders to listen to a critical alternative narrative, food sovereignty organizations have the power to move us closer to that goal.

Cereal Production Per Capita by Region (kg), 1961-2006

Figure 1. This collage compares visuals representing the dominant food security narratives and food sovereignty.  The graphs from Syngenta (top-left) and Monsanto (bottom-left) were used in documents authored by the companies to explain and defend the production-centered conception of food security which proves useful for selling their GMO products and developing new markets. Monsanto and Syngenta’s visuals rely on internationally aggregated data which abstracts food production while ignoring the social aspects of the food production and food distribution system.   Syngenta’s graph gives the impression of food insecurity as an objectively production-based problem.  Monsanto’s graph gives the impression of an objective, causal relationship between developments in agricultural technology and population growth.  It suggests that implementing GMOs and other Monsanto products will be necessary to accommodate for projected population increases.  Syngenta’s visual is based off of data from FAO while Monsanto’s is based off of United Nations data, which further illustrates the similarities between Syngenta and Monsanto’s marketing strategies and policies of international institutions.

The graphs contrast sharply to the photographs which the National Family Farms Coalition (NFFC), a member of La Via Campesina, uses to illustrate food sovereignty.  This visual relies on qualitative, grounded knowledge through photographs of concrete manifestations of the food sovereignty paradigm.  It depicts systems of production (small farm plots) and distribution (farmer’s markets) under localized control.  It also draws attention to the diversity of nutritious food crops in different socio-cultural contexts which the paradigm of food sovereignty allows for.

Sources: Top-left: Syngenta 2012; Bottom-left: Monsanto 2013; right: National Family Farm Coalition and Grassroots International. 2008. “Food Sovereignty.” Accessed 5 May 2013 from  <http://www.nffc.net/Farmers%20Worldwide/page-farmersworldwide.htm>.


Annotated Bibliography

Forum for Food Sovereignty. 2007. “Declaration of Nyéléni.” Nyéléni.org. Accessed 5 May         2013 from <http://www.nyeleni.org/spip.php?article290>.

This is the text of the Nyéléni Declaration of 2007, which represents the collaborative efforts of several international peasants’ organizations to define food sovereignty and come up with appropriate policy goals for food sovereignty.  It is a useful guide for those wishing to investigate the origins of food sovereignty and its recommendations on GMOs and other aspects of the neo-liberal food production paradigm.

Maxwell, S. 1996. “Food security: a post-modern perspective.” Food Policy 21 (2): 155-170.

Simon Maxwell traces the development of scholarship on food security since the 1970s.  He also shows the policy implications of different strains of though on food security.

Patel, R. 2009. “Grassroots Voices: Food sovereignty.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 36            (3):663-706.

Economist Raj Patel looks critically at the scientific origins of food security and the subsequent incorporation of social variables into accounting for food security.  He contextualizes different views on food security.  Finally, he demonstrates why the concept of food sovereignty is a necessary antithesis to food security rhetoric advanced by international institutions such as the FAO.

Shiva, V. 1993. “6: Pepsico for Peace: The ecological and political risks of the biotechnology        revolution.” The Violence of the Green Revolution. Zed Books: New Jersey.

Activist-scholar effectively analyzes the devastating social effects of the Green Revolution within the context of 20th century India.  By offering an alternative to the narrative of productivity and progress which India’s leaders use to describe the Green Revolution, she contributes greatly to studying agriculture in the Global South from a perspective informed by political ecology.  Her analysis of the Green Revolution helps to contextualize current debates over the role of biotechnology in agriculture in the Global South.

Flatow, I. Interview with G. Stone, D. Fischhoff, R. Sayre, and D. Gurian-Sherman. 2010. “Can   Biotech Crops Feed the Developing World?” Interview with Ira Flatow. Talk of the           Nation. NPR, 12 March 2010. Accessed 5 May 2013 from       <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124618560>.

In this radio interview with Ira Flatow, four leading experts on GMOs with diverse backgrounds discuss the role of GMOs in the Global South: anthropologist Glenn Stone, lead technology strategist at Monsanto David Fischhoff, director of BioCassava Plus (a humanitarian organization developing a humanitarian GMO cassava strain) Richard Sayre, and a scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, Doug Guiran-Sherman.  The four of them thoroughly discuss both the technical and social aspects of implementing GMOs in the Global South.

 Full list of the Political Ecology of GMOs annotated sources from all papers

Works Cited

Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. 2013. “Policy and Partnerships.” AGRA: Growing Africa’s Agriculture. Accessed 5 May 2013 from < http://www.agra.org/AGRA/en/what-   we-do/policy/>.

Brown, A. 2008. “Food Security from a Practitioner Perspective.” Anthropology News 49: 7.

Flatow, I. Interview with G. Stone, D. Fischhoff, R. Sayre, and D. Gurian-Sherman. 2010. “Can   Biotech Crops Feed the Developing World?” Interview with Ira Flatow. Talk of the           Nation. NPR, 12 March 2010. Accessed 5 May 2013 from <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124618560>.

Forum for Food Sovereignty. 2007. “Declaration of Nyéléni.” Nyéléni.org. Accessed 5 May  2013 from <http://www.nyeleni.org/spip.php?article290>.

High-Level Conference on World Food Security. 2008. “Declaration of the High-Level Conference on World Food Security: The Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy.” Accessed 5 May 2013 from             <http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/foodclimate/HLCdocs/declaration-E.pdf>.

Maxwell, S. 1996. “Food security: a post-modern perspective.” Food Policy 21 (2): 155-170.

Monsanto Company. 2013. “ Growing Populations, Growing Challenges.”  Improving Agriculture. Accessed 5 May 2013 from <http://www.monsanto.com/improvingagriculture/>.

O’Hagan, M. and K. Heim. 2010. “Gates Foundation ties with Monsanto under fire from activists.” Seattle Times. Accessed 10 June 2013 from            <http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2012751169_gatesmonsanto29m.html>.

Patel, R. 2009. “Grassroots Voices: Food sovereignty.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 36 (3):663-706.

Seshia, S. and I. Scoones. 2003. “Tracing Policy Connections: the politics of knowledge in the Green Revolution and biotechnology eras in India.” IDS Working Paper 188, Sussex.

Shiva, V. 1993. “6: Pepsico for Peace: The ecological and political risks of the biotechnology revolution.” The Violence of the Green Revolution. Zed Books: New Jersey.

Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture. 2012. “Food security.” Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture: Improving the livelihood of smallholder farmers. Accessed 5    May 2013 from <http://www.syngentafoundation.org/index.cfm?pageID=369>.

United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. 2011. “FAO’s Initiative on Soaring Food Prices: Guide for Policy and Programmatic Actions at Country Level to Address High Food Prices.” Accessed 5 May 2013 from    <http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/ISFP/revisedISFP_guide_web.pdf>.

United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. 2011. “World Food Day 2011 Video.” Accessed 5 May 2013 from <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZBTjY_PR5I>.

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