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Food for the Few

Food for the Few
Neoliberal Globalism and Biotechnology in Latin America

The first empirically based, interdisciplinary assessment of the socioeconomic and political impact of agricultural biotechnology in Latin America.

July 2008
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335 pages | 6 x 9 | 2 maps, 2 figures, 14 tables |

Recent decades have seen tremendous changes in Latin America's agricultural sector, resulting from a broad program of liberalization instigated under pressure from the United States, the IMF, and the World Bank. Tariffs have been lifted, agricultural markets have been opened and privatized, land reform policies have been restricted or eliminated, and the perspective has shifted radically toward exportation rather than toward the goal of feeding local citizens. Examining the impact of these transformations, the contributors to Food for the Few: Neoliberal Globalism and Biotechnology in Latin America paint a somber portrait, describing local peasant farmers who have been made responsible for protecting impossibly vast areas of biodiversity, or are forced to specialize in one genetically modified crop, or who become low-wage workers within a capitalized farm complex. Using dozens of examples such as these, the deleterious consequences are surveyed from the perspectives of experts in diverse fields, including anthropology, economics, geography, political science, and sociology.

From Kathy McAfee's "Exporting Crop Biotechnology: The Myth of Molecular Miracles," to Liz Fitting's "Importing Corn, Exporting Labor: The Neoliberal Corn Regime, GMOs, and the Erosion of Mexican Biodiversity," Food for the Few balances disturbing findings with hopeful assessments of emerging grassroots alternatives. Surveying not only the Latin American conditions that led to bankruptcy for countless farmers but also the North's practices, such as the heavy subsidies implemented to protect North American farmers, these essays represent a comprehensive, keenly informed response to a pivotal global crisis.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Neoliberal Globalism and the Biotechnology Revolution: Economic and Historical Context (Gerardo Otero)
  • Chapter 2. Latin American Agriculture, Food, and Biotechnology: Temperate Dietary Pattern Adoption and Unsustainability (Gerardo Otero and Gabriela Pechlaner)
  • Chapter 3. Exporting Crop Biotechnology: The Myth of Molecular Miracles (Kathy McAfee)
  • Chapter 4. Biosafety Regulation and Global Governance: The Problem of Absentee Expertise in Latin America (Kees Jansen and Esther Roquas)
  • Chapter 5. Unnatural Growth: The Political Economy of Biotechnology in Mexico (Manuel Poitras)
  • Chapter 6. Importing Corn, Exporting Labor: The Neoliberal Corn Regime, GMOs, and the Erosion of Mexican Biodiversity (Elizabeth Fitting)
  • Chapter 7. Political Economy of Agricultural Biotechnology in North America: The Case of rBST in La Laguna, Mexico (Gerardo Otero, Manuel Poitras, and Gabriela Pechlaner)
  • Chapter 8. Genetically Modified Soybeans and the Crisis of Argentina's Agriculture Model (Miguel Teubal)
  • Chapter 9. Brazilian Biotechnology Governance: Consensus and Conflict over Genetically Modified Crops (Wendy E. Jepson, Christian Brannstrom, and Renato Stancato de Souza)
  • Chapter 10. Brazilian Farmers at a Crossroads: Biotech Industrialization of Agriculture or New Alternatives for Family Farmers? (Shuji Hisano and Simone Altoé)
  • Chapter 11. Social Movements and Techno-Democracy: Reclaiming the Genetic Commons (Manuel Poitras)
  • Chapter 12. Conclusion: Food for the Few? (Gerardo Otero and Gabriela Pechlaner)
  • About the Contributors
  • Index

Gerardo Otero is Professor of Sociology and Latin American Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.


Latin America's agriculture has been one of the economic sectors most negatively affected by the neoliberal reform set off in the 1980s. In most countries, a broad program of agricultural liberalization was launched under pressure from the United States and suprastate organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Economic liberalization generally included the unilateral lifting of protectionist policies, the opening of agricultural markets by lowering or eliminating tariffs and quotas, the privatization and/or dismantling of government corporations for rural credit, infrastructure, commercialization, and technical assistance, the end or even reversal of land reform policies, and the radicalization or reorientation of food policies focused on the internal market toward an export-based agricultural economy. These extensive reforms had profound, often negative, consequences for the agricultural sectors of Latin American countries and for a high proportion of agricultural producers. Impacts have been compounded by the fact that reforms in Latin America were not accompanied by a corresponding liberalization of agricultural trade and production in advanced capitalist countries, which continue to heavily subsidize and protect their farm sectors with billions of dollars, thus placing Latin American producers at a competitive disadvantage. "Neoliberal globalism" is what we call the ideology driving this set of reforms, both to describe their content and to highlight the fact that such policies can be changed with a different outlook.


The biotechnology revolution of the 1990s, which has inundated the countryside of some countries and supermarkets around the world with transgenic crops and other new products, was superimposed on the reforms brought about under the impetus of neoliberal globalism. From their beginnings at the laboratory stage in the 1980s, agricultural biotechnologies generally and genetic engineering in particular were described as potent tools for sustainable development and for ending famine, food insecurity, and malnutrition. It is well known that such problems are disproportionately concentrated in developing countries, which also happen to have large proportions of their population engaged in agriculture. Because of modern agriculture's technological bias, however—focused mostly on enhancing the productivity of large, specialized, capital-intensive farms—most developing-country peasants and small-family farmers have been rendered "inefficient." Millions have become excluded as producers by the new agricultural policies and technologies. All too often peasants and farmers have been transformed into wage workers for the capitalized farms, and countless have enlarged the ranks of the unemployed. Many of these people have participated in the growing trends toward international migration, separating family members for extended periods of time or permanently from their communities.


Yet, for millennia, peasant farmers have been directly responsible for preserving vast amounts of plant biological diversity. In fact, given the vagaries of nature, developing countries possess the largest plant biological diversity on earth, as well as the largest problems of soil depletion and environmental degradation. Input-intensive, capitalized farmers cannot preserve biological diversity, as modern agriculture has a clear bias toward monocropping based on modern plant varieties. Ironically, plant breeders producing these modern varieties depend on the availability of plant genetic diversity offered and preserved by small peasants. If the latter become extinct, so will the raw materials for further plant breeding. Adding agricultural biotechnology to this scenario, combined with the policies associated with neoliberal globalism, can only exacerbate the trends of social polarization and environmental degradation.


The first wave of studies about socioeconomic and environmental impacts of agricultural biotechnologies in the 1980s and 1990s used a prospective approach, because the products at stake were still in a laboratory stage; only a few medical applications entered the market in the 1980s. By the turn of the twenty-first century, however, a multiplicity of agricultural biotechnologies has been implemented on farms around the world, with the highest concentration in the Americas, North and South.


This book offers the general and specialized public a solid collection of empirically based studies written by social scientists. Represented disciplines among contributors are anthropology, economics, geography, political science, and sociology. Yet each chapter adopts an interdisciplinary perspective about the concrete socioeconomic and environmental impacts of agricultural biotechnologies in Latin America. These studies capture both the central issues that have come about with the application of agricultural biotechnology, and emerging alternatives for a sustainable agriculture.


In the general chapters on Latin America (1-4), the authors provide the theoretical and historical background to locate biotechnology in the context of modern agriculture and neoliberal globalism, the experience of the Green Revolution, the issues associated with global governance of biosafety, and the perils for smaller countries of relying on "absentee expertise" for shaping local legislation. A variety of national experiences (Chaps. 5-10) are then addressed, from widespread adoption of transgenic crops in countries such as Argentina, or somewhat restricted adoption as in Mexico, to the creation of a zone free of genetically modified organisms in Brazil that was ultimately bulldozed by neoliberal policies in 2004. Social-movements and bottom-up perspectives, as well as a research agenda for future research, are offered in the last two chapters.


Rather than being journalistic accounts, or predominantly normative or prospective in orientation, the chapters in this book are based on empirical evidence and emphasize interdisciplinary socioeconomic analysis. Most of our findings are rather somber. Yet there are also signs of emerging alternatives. We thus hope that our modest contribution to understanding such trends and alternatives will help activists and policy makers to transform this somber reality in a socially and environmentally sustainable direction.



“A unique and important contribution to our understanding of agrarian development, the linked roles of state and the private sector in the diffusion of technology, neoliberal globalization, hopes for alternative futures, and the sociology of knowledge. . . . Fred Buttel would have been pleased with the innovative and careful scholarship of the book.”
Scott Whiteford, Director, Center for Latin American Studies, University of Arizona


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