Morality or Profit; a corporate response to a global crisis

The farming industry is witnessing a scientific revolution, a revolution with the capacity to manipulate individual grains, engineer crops and chemically protect fields. The revolution is genetic modification. GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) cover a range of treatment; from pesticide resistance through to mutating core genetic structures. If the genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that is not natural than the crop is GM.[1] Genetically modifying crops is a widely-debated issues with moral reasoning at the core of the argument. Global health and wellbeing is the artillery used by both parties. Projects such as golden rice, a vitamin A enriched grain, elevates agribusinesses ethos to great heights. The production of a “super-grain” that reduces vitamin A deficiency is truly a worthy feat. Yet this humanitarian image is a veil that covers the true ethos of agribusinesses. The debate needs to look beyond the moral concerns and question the political endeavours of the industry.

The potential of GM crops is astounding and has the capacity to drastically improve health and wellbeing upon a global level if the technology was shared and not protected by large corporations. The agriculture industry has become engulfed by capitalism; the industry is led by profit and is business driven. Due to intellectual property rights corporations are able to apply patent rights to seeds and obtain ownership of crops. The capacity of ownership is what draws the GM debate out of the moral and into the political, it becomes a question of power. Under the pretence of ending world hunger, agribusinesses can hide, promote and protect their ideals behind a guise of moral decency.[2] Linguistically morality is treacherous and the encompassing terminology is often emotive which further detracts from the true nature of the debate. To question the accountability of the agribusinesses; moral reasoning will not suffice. Disperse the smokescreen and go beyond morality; question the true motifs, and question the motifs of power.

Once beyond the moral debate and in search of the true motifs, a dark presence emerges; the master puppeteer that is pulling the strings of the agribusinesses. Capitalism has taken the reigns of agriculture and is galloping towards great profit. Once beyond the humanitarian mirage, the contorted face of the capitalist beast emerges, foaming at the mouth and on a direct course to the gates of profit and the realms of capital. The mirage is the great defence, the armed shield for the true motifs. The Agribusiness industry is booming, profits and corporate values are rapidly increasing. Syngenta, an international agribusiness, recently sold for close to thirty-seven billion pounds.[3] The pesticide industry currently has an annual market value of forty-one billion a year, and its turnover is rising.[4] These are not small industries, great capital is being made from investments pumped into these companies. It is the business ran corporations that dictate the direction of the agribusinesses, regardless of any intentions the research team has for the development of any GM technologies.[5] In order to identify the political nature of the agribusinesses an outline of the capitalist, more precisely postmodern capitalist, structures need to be outlined.

The very nature of postmodern capitalism is destructive and cannot correlate with sustainability, the two entities are in fact opposed to one another. What sustains capitalism is consumerism. A structure that bases its existence on consumption can only head in one direction; destruction. Mark Fisher in his poignant work Capitalist Realism draws attention to the relationship between capitalism and eco-disaster marking it as neither coincidental or accidental. He writes that due to capitalism’s need to maintain a constantly expanding market and the fetish it has for growth, the very nature of capitalism is opposed to sustainability.[6] Aspects of capitalism can have “green” and sustainably ideals, but structure of capitalism as a whole is destructive; the “green” factions of capitalism are only prolonging the inevitable end that will undoubtable occur. Therefore, by the very nature of capitalism, humanitarian needs are not compatible. The way in which agribusinesses have developed GM crops is as a product, a consumer product. Research and development favour those products that attain higher returns. The main focus of agribusinesses is the development of pesticide treatment that coincides with the protection of commodity products such as soy and palm oil.[7] To increase further capital gains, agribusinesses tailor their development plans for US farmers, creating genetically modified crops which are most relevant for their conditions.[8] The condensing of technological advancement within the West maintains the domination of global trade and retains capital for the already wealthy. The potential of increased GDP within developing countries is being squashed by increased production in the West.[9] If morality was the driving force of the agribusinesses than surely aims to provide technologically advanced crops for developing countries would be a key focus. If this was established than developing countries would have an edge on the market and therefore ultimately increase their GDP. Agribusinesses have both the tools and finances to focus their development and patents for developing countries so that certain crops become more prevalent in the East. If this occurred than developing countries have the opportunity to dominate the market with a certain crop and therefore be able to control the supply and demand within the global market. Ultimately this would increase the country’s GDP. But of course, this is not profitable for the organisations, therefore not a desirable aim.

The reason why I have identified the controlling force of the agribusinesses as postmodern is to echo the works of Fredric Jameson and his Postmodernism and Consumer Society. Jameson writes that classical capitalism has died. The competitive nature which promoted the individual and the small business owner is no more. The heyday that elevated the bourgeoisie as the hegemonic social class has passed. Today is the day of corporate capitalism; postmodern capitalism. Great businesses and chain stores have destroyed individuality and business itself has become bureaucratic in nature.[10] To draw this notion of postmodernism alongside the agribusiness, small farms and local entrepreneurs are no longer desirable to work with. Great firms that can turnover large quantities of stock and generate high income are the firms that agribusinesses with postmodern capitalist ideals, are marketed at. This is far removed from the grass-root Third World farmer that sells limited stock at small markets. Due to the postmodern capitalist ideals driving the agribusinesses the mirage of humanitarian work can be identified for what it is; a mirage. The benefits of genetically modified crops cannot achieve their potential as there is great constraints in place from the corporate run businesses. The maximisation of profits is the goal of agribusinesses and the smokescreen of humanitarian aid becomes armour for the corporations. By critiquing capitalism as the structure of agribusinesses it soon becomes apparent that the value of aid is not in their interest. The fact that GM crops can significantly impact developing countries makes the armour that much stronger, yet due to the underlying nature of the projects, the profit driven corporation; the promoted ethos is in fact benign.

To go beyond the moral arguments for the use of GM crops, a deconstruction of the argument needs to occur. Before looking at the context of these arguments I will look at the linguistic tools available when engaging in a moral argument. By using Ludwig Wittgenstein’s argument put forward in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that language can only contain physical matters, things that can be pictured. When trying to engage in a discourse of absolute matters, metaphysical entities language fails. Morality is an absolute matter that cannot be visualised. A moral action can be determined, yet morality as an entity cannot. With the way in which morality cannot be depicted, debating the subject is a subjective matter and has no pre-set requirements. But what is even more disconcerting is the emotive engagement and the language available in moral debates. Within the GM debate, both parties are guilty of using language as a tool to elicit emotive responses. To illustrate; minister Owen Paterson has been reported decreeing those who oppose GM crops as ‘wicked’.[11] To define someone as “wicked” in the context of a debate brings nothing contextual to the argument, yet is merely a case of ad hominin as it is a hollow attack on the opposing party. Of course, this is not the first-time news reporters are used as tool to spread propagating messages. Yet as a predominant source of information for most, such messages that are projected as “news” are a powerful tool.

The other issue of moral language is that it must be addressed. For instance, in the case of agribusinesses, the claim to be a cure to world hunger and a way to improve global well-being is put forward. By debating the moral argument, those who oppose these claims must bring forward evidence why they believe the argument is invalid. The one putting GM to question needs to supply evidence; statistics and nutritional values, impacts of such agricultural methods, social and economic impacts, availability of resources; the list of arguments is extensive, yet can always be met with counter claims. The moral argument is fought with speculation, there is no substantial evidence from either party. By continuing the battle of moral reasoning is to fight for subjectivity, the debate will continually cycle between hypothetical outcomes on both part. The debate needs to look beyond moral reasoning. The problems with genetic modification is only a moral concern because of the underlying true motifs, the motifs of profit. By debating moral decency the arguments against will always fail because the potential of GM is so great. A potential that in the current structure is unachievable.

Stepping away from the linguist structures of moral arguments, I will look at the context of the GM debate. The greatest claim for the use of GMO’s is that they are acting as a response to world hunger. Humanitarian projects such as golden rice has demonstrated the efficiency and scale that GM crops can achieve. Golden rice is a genetically engineered crop that is rich in beta-carotene, resulting in a vitamin A enriched grain. With vitamin A deficiency at such high levels in developing countries, an enriched grain is a worthy feat. The problems with the success of creating an enriched grain, is that is promoted and pushed as a cure. Which it is not. Genetically modifying crops maybe a step in the right direction, but it is far from a cure, there are many factors to consider which is why the project fails. The project is business driven, with an aim to maximise profit. The golden rice project has promoted a monoculture of carbohydrate rich crops that is deficient in essential micronutrients. Farmers are reducing their scope of crops to one product which ultimately leaves humans with a diet that is lacking vital nutrients and the diversity that is needed.[12] If the ethos of these projects was for aid, then the product of an enriched grain would not be promoted as a cure, yet diverse farming would. Golden rice is a worthy replacement for regular grain, yet it is not worthy as a singular sustenance.

The problem with the moral debate surrounding GM products is that the products are fundamentally worthy. It is very difficult to dispute a product that statistically is enriched with a vitamin that millions are lacking. In a 1994 report the World Health Organisation reported that around two hundred and fifty million suffer from VAD (Vitamin A Deficiency).[13] With such a high proportion of the population lacking in vitamin A, a super grain enriched with the vitamin is unquestionably a beneficial product. With such an admirable product it leaves the corporations rather protected. The moral integrity of why this product was created is entirely subjective and speculative reasoning can defend the cause easily. By restraining the debate within moral reasoning, advocates maintain the high ground as they have this noble product. A product that has the potential to improve global well-being. The moral armour of agribusinesses is thick, yet there are blemishes, weak spots. By looking beyond the morality the true structures become exposed. It is the patents and ownership that expose the agribusinesses. It is this domination of power and control that leads the investigation to why these businesses are not humanitarian at the core. If they had global welfare in their interest they would give the patent rights to the developing countries, yet by giving the rights away their control would be lost.

A claim could be put forward is that the golden rice project is an extravagant marketing plan. By creating an enriched grain farmers would chose the patented product that can only be brought from the corporations. Perhaps a sceptical outlook on the ethos of these corporations, yet a claim that can be brought forward. Due to intellectual property rights, corporations can patent seed technology, currently Monsanto, an agrochemical company, owns more than 400 separate plant technology patents.[14] To illustrate the extent of ownership of plant technology, Monsanto owns ninety percent of soy crops in the US.[15] Cross pollination of genetically modified soy and organic soy is common and can occur naturally by animals, wind or waterways. Yet in any case an organic farmer is found to have Monsanto engineers soy, they are liable to patent infringement. There was a patent infringement case that went to court in 2003 for a second cycle seed. A seed that was not directly modified, yet one which was reproduced from an engineered plant.[16] Through the ability to patent seeds, agribusinesses are patenting life. Randall Amster takes this further and claims that agribusinesses are in fact patenting death.  He states that with agribusinesses exerting this much control over the food supply it forces individuals to pay corporations to grow and consume food. Therefore, agribusinesses are determining who eats, therefore controlling who lives and dies. To take this notion of control further there is a great deal of technology implemented so that seeds do not propagate themselves, forcing farmers to return to the corporations to replant their fields.[17] With this insight into the extent of patent rights in the US over a single product, the implications of converting entire countries from diverse farming onto a monoculture grain no longer seems so “golden”.

To maintain control over the market and to protect the moral face of agribusinesses, a catacomb of legislation to delve through before being able to get near a genetically modified grain is in place. Independent research groups do not have the opportunity to conduct their research on genetically modified crops, and if they do, often their work is discredited. Dr Carmen the director of the Institute of Health and Environment explains the hurdles that must be jumped in order to test GM crops. To purchase a GM seed it must come from a licensed seed dealer and a technology licensing agreement needs to be signed stating that research will not be conducted on the seed.[18] Research centres are closed off to any independent research therefore no incriminating evidence can procure regarding the validity of their products. Moral integrity is further protected as the product cannot be tested, agribusinesses therefore are producing an unquestionable moral product. With this protected ethos of moral decency, agribusinesses are able to trade and dominate both developing markets and western markets with a product that is profit driven.

The agribusinesses are fortified behind the impenetrable armour of morality. This armour is multifunctional, not only does it protect it serves as a smokescreen that allows the true nature of the postmodern capitalist agribusiness to function. Yet what is most beneficial for the industry is that a humanitarian image is an effective marketing tool. By promoting businesses under the pretence of care it draws a level of trust from the western consumer. The consumer of the commodity product. Chemical enhancement inherently elicits negative appeal. If the target market recognises these agribusinesses as companies that are drastically improving wellbeing on a global scale, then the preconceived negative attitude to the products diminish. In order to really question the ethos of the agroindustry, one needs to look beyond the moral integrity and uncover the true political nature. The agribusiness is not moral but profit driven.




Damian Carrington, UN experts denounce ‘myth’ pesticides are necessary to feed the world

Randall Amster, Patenting Death

Matt McGrath, GM ‘golden rice’ opponents wicked, says minister Owen Paterson

Dr Vandana Shiva, Golden Rice: Myth, not Miracle

Sakiko Fakuda-Parr, The gene revolution: GM crops and unequal development (London: Earthscan 2007)

The organic & non-GMO report, Scientist: GM food safety testing is “woefully inadequate

World Health Organisation, Global Prevalence of Vitamin A Deficiency (WHO/NUT/95.3 1993)

Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism and Consumer Society

Pest Control News, Syngenta sold to Chinachem

Bcc Reseach, Global Market for Pesticides to Reach $65.3 Billion in 2017$65.3-billion-2017

Food Ethics Council, Engineering nutrition: GM crops for global justice? (The sixth report published by the FEC 2003)

Mark Fisher, Capitalism Realism: is there no alternative? (Winchester: o-books 2009)

World Health Organisation Food, Genetically Modified

Syngenta, The Good Growth Plan

[1] World Health Organisation Food, Genetically Modified [02/05/2017]

[2] Syngenta, The Good Growth Plan [02/05/2017]

[3] Pest Control News, Syngenta sold to Chinachem [accessed 02/05/2017]

[4] Bcc Reseach, Global Market for Pesticides to Reach $65.3 Billion in 2017$65.3-billion-2017 [accessed 02/05/2017]

[5] Food Ethics Council, Engineering nutrition: GM crops for global justice? (The sixth report published by the FEC 2003) 19

[6] Mark Fisher, Capitalism Realism: is there no alternative? (Winchester: o-books 2009) 18

[7] Damian Carrington, UN experts denounce ‘myth’ pesticides are necessary to feed the world [accessed 05/05/2017]

[8] Sakiko Fakuda-Parr, The gene revolution: GM crops and unequal development (London: Earthscan 2007) 6

[9] Ibid. 7

[10] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism and Consumer Society

[11] Matt McGrath, GM ‘golden rice’ opponents wicked, says minister Owen Paterson [accessed 07/05/2017]

[12] Dr Vandana Shiva, Golden Rice: Myth, not Miracle [accessed 07/05/2017]

[13] World Health Organisation, Global Prevalence of Vitamin A Deficiency (WHO/NUT/95.3 1993) p4

[14] Randall Amster, Patenting Death [accessed 09/10/2017]

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] The organic & non-GMO report, Scientist: GM food safety testing is “woefully inadequate [accessed 09/10/2017]

Morality or Profit; a corporate response to a global crisis

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