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   Vol.65/No.33            August 27, 2001 
 
 
Communism and Labor's Transformation of Nature
Working people need to distinguish science from its uses by capital
Monopolists use technological advances, including Genetically Modified Organisms, to squeeze more profits from farmers
 
Below is the third in a four-part series the Militant is running on "Communism and Labor's Transformation of Nature." The series was occasioned by a letter to the editor from Karl Butts, a farmer from Florida, commenting on an article in our July 2 issue, "Cubans celebrate 40th anniversary of farmers organization." That article, Butts said, provided a good summary of what Cuban farmers have accomplished over the past four decades as result of the socialist revolution and land reform in that country. But he was concerned that a sentence in the closing paragraph could be read to imply that communists lend credence to the concept that organic agriculture is "superior to other approaches" and even that "Cuba generally chooses not to use chemicals in agricultural production."

The first two parts of this series clarified that the anti-science prejudices of concern to Butts have nothing in common with the views of the communist workers movement. The series has reviewed Marx and Engels's materialist explanation of the relationship between human labor and nature, as well as recent discussions of the communist approach to science and human progress at national and international gatherings of the Socialist Workers Party. Last week's installment closed with remarks on these matters by one of the outstanding revolutionary leaders of the past half century, Thomas Sankara, president of the 198387 popular revolutionary government in the West African country of Burkina Faso.
 

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BY STEVE CLARK  
(Third of four parts)

The latest focus of middle-class hysteria in face of the progress of science and technology is the campaign against foods that have been cultivated from seeds that have undergone a transplant of a strand of genetic material, DNA, from a different plant species--so-called transgenic organisms, or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

Humanity, of course, has been modifying the genetic makeup of plants and animals ever since the dawn of agriculture and domestication. Otherwise there would be none of the cattle, pigs, horses, cats, and dogs we're familiar with today, nor the varieties of wheat, corn, vegetables, and other produce we use for food, fiber, and additives.

Those modifications, however, were the result of selective crossbreeding to produce new and wanted varieties and traits. GMOs involve the actual transfer of genes from one species to another.

There was no outcry against this scientific procedure (and largely still isn't) when it was first applied to the production of insulin--needed for the treatment of diabetics--in greater quantities and of higher quality than the previous procedure of extracting insulin from the pancreas of pigs and cows. There was little or no outcry in response to the development of a "biotech" vaccine to treat hepatitis B, as well as numerous other medicines over the past two decades.  
 
Progress? Or 'Frankenfoods'?
With the application of genetic engineering to agriculture over the past six years, however, there has been a growing uproar from various bourgeois environmentalist groups and middle-class protest organizations.

Since the manufacture of GMOs is dominated by giant U.S. agribusiness, and such seeds are most widely sown in U.S. fields, the issue has also become a political football in the intensifying inter-imperialist competition for markets between Wall Street and Washington and its rivals in Europe and Asia. The United Kingdom's Prince Charles has become among the most prominent anti-GMO spokespeople in Europe. In a widely published speech in May 2000, His Royal Highness called for a rediscovery of "the essential unity and order of the living and spiritual world--as in the case of organic agriculture," as well as for the improvement of "traditional systems of agriculture, which have stood the all-important test of time."

(It's fitting to recall that the late Princess Diana helped spearhead another international bourgeois campaign, this one in support of an international treaty against the use of land mines. The Cuban government has refused to sign the pact, correctly pointing out that--in face of the aggressive and much more massively armed imperialist governments that are pressing the treaty--land mines are "the weapons of the poor.")

Banners and posters demanding "Stop Franken-foods!" have become a staple among the melange of protectionist, nationalist, and anticapitalist slogans raised by a spectrum of bourgeois and middle-class reformers, trade union officials, and anarchists and other petty-bourgeois radicals outside meetings of imperialist associations such as the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, and the "G-8" governments. Their cry has been heard from Seattle to Prague, Melbourne, and Quebec; from Washington, D.C., to Davos, Gothen-burg, and Genoa.

The main use so far of genetically modified seeds in farming is to increase crop resistance to insects and weed-killing herbicides. The GMO seeds produce higher yields with less need for costly and toxic pesticides, less need for tillage that can increase soil erosion, and greater tolerance to drought. Seeds are also being developed that may produce rice and other grains with enriched nutritional value.

Since the first planting for the market of genetically modified crops in the mid-1990s, GMO seeds have become available for corn, cotton, squash, potatoes, canola, soybeans, and sugar beets. More than a fifth of all corn in the United States is now grown in this manner, and the planting of other GMO seeds is higher. There has been a 20-fold increase worldwide in acreage planted with genetically modified seeds, almost all in the United States, Canada, and Argentina.  
 
No evidence of harm
Despite the near-hysterical pitch of the campaigns against "genetic pollution," there is not a single documented case of a human being anywhere in the world being harmed by food or medicine produced in this way. Nor is there a single example of dreaded armies of "superweeds" vanquishing fields and wetlands. By their very origins, in fact, genetically modified plants are very dependent on human care and cultivation; on their own, they are poorly adapted to nature "red in tooth and claw."

The nostrums advanced by various bourgeois and middle class proponents of "organic" agriculture are not neutral in their effects on the conditions and prospects for liberation of working people, either those in the oppressed nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America or those in the imperialist countries.

Major environmentalist organizations, for example, waged a successful effort against the unquestionably toxic pesticide DDT, resulting in a welcome halt to its use throughout the imperialist world.

No comparable energy or resources, however, are now being devoted to campaigning against various imperialist governments and agencies that are refusing to fund the use of DDT in some 25 semicolonial countries where--applied in relatively small quantities--it is the most effective way to control mosquitoes that spread malaria. That disease kills more than 1 million people annually worldwide, most of them children, and recurs for a lifetime in those who are "cured."  
 
Capitalism fouls things up
As with all creations of human labor, the products of science and technology are put to use by the capitalist exploiters to maximize individual profits, not to meet social needs. Without the mobilization of labor and its allies to fight for increasingly improved conditions, the employers, their governments, and their political parties act with utter disregard for the consequences to human health, safety, and the natural environment.

Because "individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of immediate profits," wrote Engels in "The Place of Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man," only "the most immediate results can be taken into account in the first place. As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers." (Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, p. 238.)

This is true whether that commodity is a Ford Explorer, Odwalla organic apple juice, a lump of A.T. Massey coal, a Boeing 757, a genetically modified soybean, or a hybrid ear of corn selectively crossbred a century or more ago.

In all these cases, the health and safety of workers, farmers, and the broader public alike are sacrificed on the altar of profits and "inspection" and "regulation" by agencies of a government that represents the class interests of big capital.  
 
The 'seed police'
The biggest social issue raised by the half-decade-long advent of GMO seeds is the one least often pointed to either in the big business press or by various bourgeois and middle-class opponents of these methods. That is the way this innovation is used by giant capitalist monopolies such as Monsanto, Pioneer, Dow, and others to intensify the exploitation of working farmers.

In face of competition from capitalist farmers, small producers cannot afford to forego new methods and technologies that reduce their hours (and burdens) of labor and decrease materials costs. A working farmer who wants to continue tilling the land or raising livestock does not have the option of relying on horses rather than tractors, of not using a modern harvester or combine, of doing without fertilizer and pesticides, or of sowing seed with low yields.

That's why more and more U.S. farmers are using genetically modified seed. But they pay a substantial social price in doing so. In order to purchase the seed, they must enter into a binding agreement with the monopoly provider that they will not use the seed produced by the crop to sow their next planting and will not sell that seed to other farmers. The farmer is contractually bound to return to the company the next year to buy more patented seed.

Giant corporations such as Monsanto send inspectors--the "seed police"--to take clippings from farmers' crops to enforce these contracts. Monsanto has placed ads in farm journals warning that anyone who violates these terms is "committing an act of piracy [that] could cost a farmer hundreds of dollars per acre in cash settlements and legal fees, plus multiple years of on-farm and business records inspection."

By 1998 Monsanto announced it had already filed 475 "seed piracy" suits nationwide, and was actively pursuing 250 more based on some 1,800 "leads" in 20 U.S. states. The company had won judgments in the United States ranging from $10,000 to $35,000, driving already deeply indebted farmers closer to insolvency and bank foreclosure on their land.

In Canada, as of mid-1999 Monsanto had settled eight such cases out of court and was pursuing others. The grain giant won a lawsuit against a canola farmer in Saskatchewan whose crop was found to have plants grown from seed blown by the wind from a neighboring field.

The agribusiness monopolists are also patenting plants whose seeds are unable to germinate--a harvest of mules!  
 
Laws of the market system
But genetically modified seeds are nothing special in this regard, either. They are simply one of myriad ways working farmers are squeezed between the rising costs of inputs they must purchase from the owners of one set of giant capitalist corporations, and the downward pressure on the prices they receive for their grain, livestock, milk, and other produce from these same monopolies or others.

This is another consequence of the laws of the market system that are fostering the spread of so-called "contract farming," which ties farmers who produce hogs, poultry, cattle, and a variety of vegetables to giant corporations that dictate every aspect of their procedures and to whom they are bound to sell their output at set prices.

In short, the spread of GMO seeds is one of many factors that is accelerating capital's relentless proletarianization of layer after layer of working farmers--in North America and worldwide.

But it is no more in the interests of working farmers and their allies in the ranks of labor to oppose advances in the science of agriculture than it was for workers in the early 19th century to oppose the introduction of the power loom and other machinery. "If machinery is the most powerful means of raising the productivity of la-bour, i.e. of shortening the working time needed to produce a commodity," Marx wrote in Capital, "it is also, as a repository of capital, the most powerful means of lengthening the working day beyond all natural limits in those industries first directly seized on by it." (Capital, vol. 1, p. 526.)

Not only did these new "labor-saving" devices enable capitalists to extend the hours of labor, intensify speedup, and throw employed workers onto the streets, Marx pointed out, but factory work, "at the same time, does away with the many-sided play of the muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and intellectual activity. Even the lightening of the labour becomes an instrument of torture, since the machine does not free the workers from the work, but rather deprives the work itself of all content." (Capital, vol. 1, p. 548.)

That's why during the opening years of the 1800s, Marx said, some workers organized what became known as the Luddite movement and stormed through workshops destroying the newly introduced machines.

"It took both time and experience before the workers learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital," Marx wrote, "and therefore to transfer their attacks from the material instruments of production to the form of society which utilizes those instruments." (Capital, vol. 1, pp. 554555)

To be continued next week
 
 
Other articles in this series:
Beneath organic farming hype is hostility to science alien to interests of workers, farmers
 
Capitalist agriculture is the art of robbing the soil and the worker
 
Other related article:
Working-class fight for peace and a livable environment
 
 
 
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