Reinterpreting biotechnology development in less developed countries: the political dimension
This section relates the rather abstract theories of technology to more concrete studies of (bio)technologies in the context of development studies. Several authors have described elements of agricultural technologies that are problematic for groups of farmers in developing countries (Goodman, et al. 1987, Kloppenburg 1988, Pretty 2002, Ruivenkamp 1989), and have thus illustrated the need for a reconstruction of biotechnologies for LDCs. Their analyses move beyond identifying straightforward technical problems, but rather stress the political nature of modern biotechnologies and their power to redefine social roles internationally.
Goodman and colleagues have discussed processes of ‘substitution’ and ‘appropriation’ as part of an industrializing agricultural system. Substitution refers to the process in which (bio)chemical substances replace agricultural products as raw materials for the food processing industry. As a result, farm products are being reduced to ‘semi-manufactured industrial goods’ that can in time themselves be replaced by synthetic industrial products. Appropriation refers to the gradual take-over of the controllable biological activities from farming practice by external institutions, especially by industry. These activities may include the production of seed, the breeding and selection of new crop varieties, managing the fertility of the soil, and pest management.
These processes are part of a development in which farmers increasingly lose control over aspects of the farming practice and are being reduced to ‘workers in the open air’ for a distant food processing industry. Researchers are argued to increasingly exercise remote management of farming practices, via the distribution of knowledge-intensive farming inputs such as seeds, fertilizer and biocides, which render the farmer dependent on external scientific or technological knowledge (Ruivenkamp 2003b).
Ruivenkamp has argued that these processes are taking place against a background of three main disconnection processes that are taking place in agricultural development in general (Ruivenkamp 1989, 2003a, 2003b, 2005). First a disconnection of the agricultural production and the natural environment has been widely described and criticized for its perceived unsustainability. Secondly, a disconnection process between agricultural products and food products is present, since many food products have become a mixture of chemical ingredients (protein, lipids, carbohydrates, vitamins, and additives) of which the original agricultural source is no longer visible, nor relevant. Of course, this process precisely allows the process of substitution as described above and elaborated by Goodman et al. Thirdly, partly as a result of the previous disconnection process, agricultural production becomes disconnected from food chains altogether, since the chemical compounds that constitute the agricultural products become ingredients for not only a food processing industry, but also for a chemical industry, or for the production of biofuels. These latter two disconnection processes are important constitutive elements of globalising food chains, in which a final type of disconnection process is salient: the disconnection of local production from local processing and consumption. Instead of dealing with local markets, farmers increasingly produce for very distant markets and therefore become vulnerable to international market fluctuations, trade barriers, and international competition with producers in entirely different parts of the world. These processes are problematic for their associated loss of control of local farmers over their own livelihoods, and autonomy.
This analysis of disconnection processes has on the one hand led to pleas for a reconnection of ‘people, land and nature’ in order to achieve sustainable agricultural production (Pretty 2002), as well as to visions of multi-local agro-food networks which introduce new ways of thinking about producer/consumer relations (Manzini 2005). Alternatively, rather than reconnecting what has been increasingly separated in processes of economic globalization, active attempts to re-establish a certain level of autonomy and control in the hand of local communities, as part of internationalized food networks may be taken as a way forward.