Decoding Genetically Modified (GM) Crops: The Global Politics of Agriculture and Biotechnology

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Genetically modified (GM) or transgenic crops are the subject of fierce, transnational controversies. Nearly every aspect of them is contested – from their role in “feeding the world” to their impacts on yield, environment, political economy of farm and food, regulatory and policy-making institutions, and peoples’ notions of choice and ethics. A widely prevalent perspective on these controversies holds that scientific questions of safety/ecological impact surrounding GM crops are *relatively* settled; politics inheres in the political economic arrangements through which they are introduced in different societies. Contractual and pricing agreements that bind farmers from freely cultivating and exchanging seeds (e.g. Monsanto Canada Inc v. Schmeiser), intellectual property rights and patents over seeds (e.g. biopiracy), whether we ought to genetically modify at all (e.g. Jeremy Rifkin’s playing God thesis), and labeling rules lie on the terrain of politics. On the terrain of science, there is an overwhelming consensus on safety and efficacy, as 107 Nobel Laureates have recently declared.
This course considers the questions surrounding GM crops, not by seeing these as stand-alone issues, but rather, by locating GM crops in the inter-related transformations of agriculture and agricultural sciences in the long 20th century. It suggests that the anxieties and excitement associated with GM crops cannot be grasped outside of the story of how capital has sought to seize agriculture, and the progressive commodification of science in the service of capital. Tracing the historical roots of GM crops and their regulation, in the political, legal and scientific shifts of the last century will allow us to critically assess where they fit in contemporary debates on agriculture. This will help us discern their salience and significance not as self-standing questions, but as the proverbial tips of much larger techno-political icebergs. Thus the course aims to demonstrate that political choice and practical happenstance are intertwined with science at the heart of regulatory and policy-making structures for GM crops, starting with the fact that some countries have regulatory structures for GM crops (and not for conventionally or mutagenetically bred crops – these terms will be clarified in the course).
Thus, the course refuses a careless separation between the science and politics of GM crops; indeed, the separation is precisely what needs to be explained. Drawing on anthropology, history of science, science & technology studies, and political economy, the course will demonstrate how the GM debates are co-produced through inter-related shifts in law, politics, and science. Ultimately it invites the question: Where do GM crops fit in the landscape of the burning issues faced by the average farmer, if at all?


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Terms Offered

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