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Agribusiness, Biotechnology and War

Agribusiness, Biotechnology and War
By Brian Tokar

Virtually all of the new, technology-based industries of the past
century have been products of wartime. World War I ushered in the
widespread use of mechanization and the beginnings of aviation. World
War II brought us nuclear power, modern rocketry and cybernetics. The
corporate giants of the automobile, chemical and electronics industries
all made massive fortunes profiting from war and helping fuel the 20th
centurys unending arms race.

While some may view the growth of these industries as social benefits
emerging from warfarejust as we were instructed during the 1960s and
seventies that we should be grateful for the space program because it
brought us Tefloncritics of technology advance a more skeptical view.
Technologies are rarely neutral tools that can be applied equally to
socially useful or destructive ends. Technologies are embedded in their
particular social matrix. The priorities that shape the design and
implementation of a given technology will significantly determine what
ends it may or may not be used to advance. Therefore technologies
designed to advance wartime agendas may become the means by which those
agendas are entrenched in other social domains.

The case is most compelling where technologies have been developed to
advance very specific capitalist priorities. Since the 19th century, for
example, new technologies have been introduced into manufacturing in
order to minimize the need for highly skilledand often well
organizedworkers. In one instance, Cyrus McCormicks son introduced
pneumatic molding machines at exorbitant cost into the plant that
manufactured his fathers famous reapers, even though this innovation
increased production costs and decreased the quality of iron castings.
The goal was to facilitate replacing unionized iron workers with
unskilled, unorganized labor.

This pattern continued throughout the 20th century. Historian David
Noble has documented in detail how design choices governing new
semiautomated machine tool technologies after World War II were made to
both repress labor militancy and advance Cold War military agendas. This
was the beginning of the permanent war economy in the U.S., and also the
period when military norms of command and control became most firmly
entrenched in industrial production, transforming industrial design
practices for at least a generation. In agriculture, hybrid seeds were
introduced to farmers on a large scale in the 1930s, and a rapid
increase in crop yields soon followed. But other innovations in plant
breeding and cultivation were equally available at the time that may
have offered even greater benefits for farmers; the alternatives,
however, were far less amenable to creating commercial monopolies in
marketable seeds.

When we examine how our food is grown today, it becomes clear that most
of the chemical tools taken for granted by modern agribusiness are
products of warfare. Is this merely an indirect consequence of the
tragic history of the 20th century, or does it suggest that the
currently dismal state of our soils, fresh water supplies and rural
economies is an outgrowth of agribusiness emergence from wartime in some
important ways? Virtually all of the leading companies that brought us
chemical fertilizers and pesticides made their greatest fortunes during
wartime. How can this help us understand the ever-deteriorating quality
of mass produced food? And what does it tell us about the new
technologies of genetic manipulation that every one of these companies
posits as the centerpiece of the current generation of crop improvement

Since last September, such questions have become even more urgent. The
U.S. government is seeking to spend billions of dollars over the coming
years on so-called biological defense, and is looking to the
biotechnology industry to provide the tools to defend populations from
biological attack. At the same time, the U.S. military is seeking vastly
expanded offensive biowarfare capabilities. Senior researchers, such as
Mark Wheelis of the University of California and the staff of the
international Sunshine Project, have documented how new developments in
genomics, proteonomics and other biotechnology applications vastly
increase the capacity for identifying new toxic biochemical agents.
Indeed many of the techniques that are supposed to help pharmaceutical
researchers identify therapeutically useful compounds may prove far more
useful for developing new chemical warfare agents.

The handful of companies that over the past decade have used
biotechnology in an attempt to radically reshape food production have
their roots in wartime, have profited tremendously from war throughout
their histories, and have long collaborated with military establishments
to make the world a more dangerous place. Clearly these companies are
not going to make responsible decisions about our food and our health,
much less protect us from bioterrorism. Indeed, an examination of these
companies histories suggests that the genetic engineering of food may
indeed be nothing less than an extension of their wartime agendas.

War By Other Means?
In 1998, as debates were heating up across Europe around the unlabeled
imports of genetically engineered soybeans and corn from the United
States, the editors of The Economist magazine in London published an
impassioned defense of the biotech agenda in agriculture. Agriculture,
The Economist editors wrote, is war by other means. Indeed, from its
origins, chemical agriculture has been a form of warfareit is a war
against the soil, against our reserves of fresh water, and against all
the microbes and insects that are necessary for the growing of healthy
food. Since the earliest origins of modern industrial agriculture,
agribusiness has been at war against all life on earth, including
ourselves. An examination of the origins of todays agrochemical
technologiesand the companies that first advanced themcan reveal a great
deal about where we may be heading.

The story begins with nitrogen. Since ancient times, people have been
aware of the importance of nitrate salts for maintaining soil fertility.
The traditional source of supplemental nitrogen was saltpeter, a form of
potassium nitrate that was found in soil scrapings alongside roads and
old buildings. Later, it was harvested from large deposits of seabird
guano, particularly in South America. The Chinese discovered in the 12th
century that saltpeter, when combined with sulfur and a carbon source,
can also have tremendous explosive capability, and used it to
manufacture the first gunpowder.

During World War I, two German scientists named Haber and Bosch
discovered an efficient means for the large-scale chemical synthesis of
ammonia and its various nitrate derivatives. The BASF companynow the
worlds fourth largest manufacturer of agricultural
chemicalscommercialized this process in 1913, and their products played
a central role in the orgy of mass destruction that soon followed. Huge
excesses of nitrogenous compounds that accumulated during World War I
provided the basis for the beginnings of the mass production of
synthetic nitrate fertilizers.

The DuPont Chemical Companynow the sole owner of the worlds largest seed
company, Pioneer HiBredwas the largest manufacturer of gunpowder in the
U.S. during the early 19th century. During the first World War, DuPont
supplied 1.5 billion pounds of explosives to the Allied military forces,
according to the companys official history. During the same period, the
German dye-maker Hoechst which merged with the French chemical company
Rhone Poulenc in 1999 to form the biotech giant Aventisaltered several
of its formulas to facilitate the manufacture of explosives and mustard
gas. Decades later, DuPont and Hoechst would share the distinction of
being the manufacturers of most of the ozone-destroying
chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that are responsible for the hole in the
earths protective ozone layer.

World War I also saw the rise of Monsanto as a major player. Founded in
1901 to bring the production of the artificial sweetener saccharine into
the United States, Monsanto increased its profits 100 fold during the
World War, from $80,000 to well over $9 million per year. Monsanto
supplied the chemical precursors for many high explosives. They
manufactured phenol, which is a precursor of TNT (trinitrotoluene), and
was also used as a battlefield antiseptic. They also made the nitric
acid used to nitrify the phenol-derived toluene, as well as sulfuric
acid, various precursors for the production of poison gas, and additives
to strengthen rubber (and later synthetic rubber) for many military

New Synthetic Pesticides
In addition to chemical fertilizer production, todays food biotech
giants have their origins in the production of chemical pesticides,
perhaps the most ecologically damaging factor in todays industrial
agriculture. In the 19th century, agricultural pest control was an
eclectic enterprise, utilizing a wide variety of soaps, herbal
preparations, and hand-removal of insects. Late in the century,
botanical herbicides such as pyrethrum and rotenone began to be imported
from sources halfway around the world. Entomologists began studying the
life cycles and ecological interactions of insects, seeking to develop
more sophisticated biological controls.

In the 1860s, various byproducts of the chemical dye industry were found
to have insecticidal properties. With exotic-sounding names like Paris
green and London purple, these substances became increasingly popular.
Their common ingredient was arsenic; arsenic-based compounds were
popular during the Victorian era as pigments for candles and wallpaper,
as cosmetics and patent medicines; only later were the lethal properties
of various arsenic derivatives more widely recognized. Lead arsenate was
overwhelmingly the most popular insecticide throughout the early 20th
century; it often killed plants, bees and livestock as readily as it
killed insects. Still its popularity remained uncontested for several
decades. There was considerable opposition in Europe to the import of
food from North America that had been sprayed with lead arsenate, but
these concerns were widely dismissed by the founding fathers of American

In the 1930s, chemists working for the German company Bayer discovered
the highly poisonous properties of organophosphate compounds. By then,
Bayer had already merged with BASF, Hoechst and other companies to form
the huge chemical conglomerate I.G. Farben; today Bayer is poised to
become the worlds largest manufacturer of herbicides and pesticidesand a
leading source of genetically engineered seed varietieswith its recent
takeover of the biotech giant Aventis CropScience. (Aventis is the
company responsible for the Starlink variety of insecticidal GE corn,
which was never approved for human consumption and thus forced the
recall of some 300 name-brand processed food products during 2000-01.)
As all of German industry became absorbed into the growing Nazi war
machine, Bayers organophosphate compounds were developed simultaneously
as agricultural pesticides and as nerve gases for military use.

Some 2000 new organophosphate compounds were discovered, including such
notorious chemical warfare agents as sarin, soman and tabun gases, all
of which are still manufactured today. Later organophosphate pesticides
included the livestock spray phosmet, which some researchers have
associated with the emergence of mad cow disease, as well as malathion,
parathion, diazanon, dursban and lorsban; the latter three of these have
finally begun to be phased out during the past two years.
Organophosphates still represent 40 percent of todays insecticide
market, and are associated with some 20,000 cases of acute poisoning
every year. Organophosphates severely interfere with normal nervous
system function, impeding the breakdown and recycling of acetylcholine,
one of the main carriers of excitatory nerve impulses; its uncontrolled
accumulation at the site of nerve synapses can force the nervous systems
of both insects and humans into a virtually uncontrollable state of

DDT: The Ultimate Weapon
Another new development in pesticide technology emerged from
corporate-military collaboration during World War II, and this was to
have even more dramatic long-term consequences. In the 1930s, scientists
at the Swiss J. R. Geigy Company were searching for new compounds to
disinfect seeds and prevent moths from feeding on wool. Geigy later
merged with Ciba to form Ciba-Geigy, with Sandoz to form Novartis, and
then merged its agribusiness division with the British Imperial Chemical
Industries offshoot Zeneca to form the agrochemical and biotechnology
giant Syngenta in 2001. These researchers key discovery was that DDT,
which was first synthesized by an academic scientist in 1874, could
accomplish both of their desired ends and more.

Still, there was only limited interest in DDT until World War II, when
the U.S. Army faced two nearly incapacitating pest problems. Soldiers in
southern Europe were facing widespread outbreaks of typhus from exposure
to lice, and their counterparts in the south Pacific faced potential
epidemics of malaria. The pyrethrum-based powders that were most often
used had to be reapplied in a stringent and systematic manner every
week, which was seen as far too inconvenient for battlefield conditions.
Also, Japan had by then become the leading supplier of pyrethrum. So the
Army looked to Geigys new product as the answer, and soon, 2 million
pounds of DDT were being produced every month.

Throughout the 1940s, scientists discovered the usefulness of DDT for
combating a wide variety of agricultural pests quickly and with
long-lasting effect. A variety of household and public health uses were
implemented as well. DDT was used against potato beetles and other crop
pests, but also against flies, mosquitoes, bedbugs, scabies, dog flies,
Dutch elm fungus, and also to combat malaria, typhus, yellow fever,
dengue fever and a wide variety of forest pests. It was the ultimate
killer, the atom bomb of insecticides. Monsanto began manufacturing DDT
in 1944, along with some 15 other companies. DDT became the most widely
applied chemical in human history, and its commercial success led to a
massive increase in the production and use of chemical insecticides of
all types. Revenues from insecticide production in the U.S. rose from
$10 million in 1940 to $100 million in 1950 to over $1 billion today.

The commercial success of DDT also led to a dramatic shift in the
chemical industrys approach to pest control, a shift in attitude that
still plagues us today, and was in many ways a direct outgrowth of its
wartime origins. DDT truly was seen as an ultimate weapon, capable of
permanently eliminating various pest species. Professor John H. Perkins
of Evergreen State College in Washington, who has studied the history of
entomology in agriculture, writes, DDT and the other new chemicals
elicited proposals for a concept of control seldom considered in prewar
times: permanent control by eradication of a pest species. . . The power
of the new chemicals to evoke quests for final solutions became an
important part of entomology that lives with it to the present day.

The irony of Prof. Perkins invocation of the Nazis genocidal final
solution is clearly intended here. But unlike the Nazi genocide, these
cannot be dismissed as the crimes of an outlaw totalitarian regime. This
quest for permanent eradication of pests became the norm in agribusiness
practice, and continues to this very day. With the increasing use of
DDT, basic research in entomology came to a near standstill, as
scientific expertise was diverted from studies of the life cycles and
ecological relationships of insects toward maximizing the effectiveness
of new chemicals. Farmers were informed that time-tested methods of
biological and mechanical pest control, including crop rotation and
other means of controlling habitat, were archaic and simply needed to be
replaced by the new, more scientific chemical approach.

Of course people soon discovered a vast array of problems with DDT.
While its acute toxicity to mammals is comparatively low, especially as
compared with organophosphate insecticides, DDT accumulates in fatty
tissues and in milk. It contributes to the degeneration of the liver and
kidneys and is a potent disrupter of the central nervous system.
Researchers soon discovered that university campuses that were
experimenting with DDT were losing their entire population of songbirds.
DDT caused a catastrophic thinning of eggshells, and was found to be a
potent carcinogen. In 1972, the U.S. Congress banned the use of DDT in
domestic agricultureit is still manufactured for exportand further bans
on related organochlorine pesticides such as aldrin, dieldrin, chlordane
and heptachlor soon followed.

The tremendous public outcry around the toxic effects of DDT and other
pesticides during the 1960s and early 70s was a crucial factor in the
decision by Monsanto and other agrochemical giants to begin shifting
their research efforts toward the brand new technology of gene
manipulation. The first successful splicing of foreign (transgenic) DNA
into the chromosomes of a living cell was demonstrated in 1973. By the
late 1980s, Monsanto, Ciba-Geigy (now Syngenta and Novartis) and others
were heavily invested in the genetic engineering of basic food crops.
While the companies insist that GE crops are a safer alternative to
pesticides, most independent evidence suggests that this is far from the
case. In the words of agronomist and agricultural policy consultant
Charles Benbrook, Both herbicide tolerant and Bt-transgenic varieties
entail novel mechanisms to enhance the ability of farmers to more fully
rely on pesticides. Pesticide production, pesticide use, and pesticide
profits continue to increase as genetically engineered varieties of
soybeans, corn, canola and cotton are planted in ever larger acreages in
the United States and Canada.

Herbicides and Warfare
Of course, the agrochemical giants close involvement with the military
continued throughout the remainder of the 20th century. Monsantos
research director Charles Thomas, along with DuPont scientists,
supervised the purification of plutonium and polonium for the
development of the first atomic bomb, and the two companies operated the
Pentagons nuclear weapons laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee during the

Also during the 1950s, Monsanto discovered that a byproduct of its
chlorinated pesticide production was causing severe skin rashes, joint
pain and nervous disorders in its production workers. This mysterious
substance turned out to be dioxin, and the U.S. Army Chemical Corps
immediately became interested in its potential usefulness as a chemical
warfare agent. The herbicide "Agent Orange," which was used by U.S.
military forces to obliterate the dense jungles of Vietnam during the
1960s was a mixture of the herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. Seven different
chemical companies supplied Agent Orange to the U.S. military, but
Monsanto's formulation had as much as 1000 times the concentration of

Dioxins toxic and carcinogenic effects are still experienced on a daily
basis by people in Vietnam, but it was a group of U.S. Vietnam War
veterans who brought suit against the companies that were responsible
for their own terrifying symptoms of Agent Orange exposure. When a $180
million legal settlement was reached in 1984 between the seven chemical
companies and the veterans, the judge ordered Monsanto to pay 45.5
percent of the total, more than Dow Chemical, which was by far the
leading supplier of Agent Orange by volume. Dow, of course, became most
notorious during the Vietnam War for its production of napalm, the
gasoline-based incendiary that set vast expanses of land ablaze, along
with entire villages and hundreds of thousands of innocent victims.
Today, Dow is also a leading player in biotech agriculture, having
purchased the early biotech innovator Mycogen, as well as Cargills
entire U.S. seed division.

The 1980s and 90s saw a rapid expansion in Monsantos herbicide
production, in close parallel to its development of genetically
engineered crop varieties. In the past decade, the contribution of
Roundup-family herbicides to Monsantos operating revenue has increased
from one sixth to nearly two-thirds of the total. Roundup plays a
central role in the U.S. drug war via its widespread use to eradicate
coca and poppy plants in Colombia and other countries. Colombian
agronomists have uncovered the use of a new additive that increases
herbicide exposures to more than 100 times Monsantos recommended dosage
in more typical agricultural applications. Along with coca and poppies,
U.S. aerial spraying of tons of Roundup over the Colombian countryside
has led to the destruction of local subsistence crops such as manioc,
bananas, palms, sugarcane and corn, as well as the poisoning of creeks,
rivers and lakes and the destruction of indigenous fish populations.

Of all of Monsanto, DuPont and Dows agricultural products, genetically
engineered food crops might appear to be the least tainted with
immediate wartime origins. But this technology emerged from a period
when the future of chemical agriculture appeared very much in doubt.
With the rapid expansion of the agrochemical industry during the
post-World War II era, these companies and their European counterparts
established a profound degree of control over agricultural practices.
Agrochemical companies set the agenda for changing farm practices, came
to dominate agricultural policymaking and the information available to
farmers, and later forged strategic alliances with the emerging global
grain trading companies, such as Cargill, ConAgra and Archer Daniels

As public pressure and the weight of scientific evidence curtailed the
use of DDT and many other chlorinated pesticides in the 1970s,
executives and corporate scientists saw the potential for limitless
advancesand ever-expanding marketing potentialin the incorporation of
technological advances into the genetics of seeds. During the 1990s,
Monsanto alone spent nearly $8 billion acquiring leading commercial seed
suppliers such as DeKalb, Asgrow and Holdens, along with shares in seed
companies in Brazil, India and other countries; DuPont and others
quickly followed suit. Only the expanding worldwide resistance to the
genetic engineering of food has curtailed these companies ability to
continue introducing new GE crops, including herbicide-tolerant
varieties of wheat and rice.

Since the historic shutdown of the WTO meetings in Seattle in 1999,
activists have been aware that genetic engineering is a central means by
which global capitalism is consolidating its control over our food and
our healthcare. Biotechnology has helped drive unprecedented corporate
concentration in both the agribusiness and pharmaceutical sectors. The
WTOs intellectual property regimes have forced countries to alter their
legal systems to allow the patenting of life forms. The U.S. government
continues to use the threat of WTO sanctions to pressure European, Latin
American and Asian countries to accept GMOs, while the World Bank offers
aid to promote acceptance of genetically engineered agriculture
throughout the global South.

Today it is clear that opposing genetic engineering is also a key to
countering the capitalist war against nature. As the world braces itself
for a second year of the Bush administrations interminable war on
terror, and as scientific evidence increasingly affirms the ecological
hazards of genetic engineering, it is imperative that critics and
activists redouble efforts to counter these inherently uncertain and
destructive technologies.

Brian Tokar is the editor of Redesigning Life? The Worldwide Challenge
to Genetic Engineering, and the director of the Institute for Social
Ecologys Biotechnology Project. For up-to-date information on resistance
to genetic engineering, see

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