- Resistance Is Fertile: Canadian Struggles on the BioCommons by Wilhelm Peekhaus
The “new” biotechnologies, including genetic engineering, have been a matter of public controversy since the early 1980s. No aspect of this debate has been more contentious than the commercialization of genetically engineered (ge) crops. Canada and the United States were early adopters of this technology, which transformed the production of key crops such as canola, soy, and maize.
In Resistance Is Fertile, Wilhelm Peekhaus provides a wide-ranging assessment of social and political struggles over agricultural biotechnology in Canada. The analysis is developed through a critical, Marxist framework that places the development of science and technology in the wider context of capitalist social relations. Peekhaus argues that corporate control over the new biotechnologies is a form of primitive accumulation, the process whereby people are separated from the social wealth, knowledge, and tools needed for their survival and well-being. In the case of biotechnology, capital is appropriating the very building blocks of life, including genes, seeds, and biological organisms. These technologies provide “capital a new suite of tools to plumb the depths of biological existence at the genetic level in search of new sources of capital accumulation” (68). The privatization and monopolization of genetic resources have sparked a countermovement, the Bio-Commons, which seeks to carve out an alternative set [End Page 88] of institutions that protect the building blocks of life as a common heritage and resource.
Peekhaus documents and analyzes the social actors on each side of this rather polarized debate. On the one hand, life sciences corporations and the Canadian state have been strong proponents of biotechnology development. The author traces the history of biotechnology policy in Canada, showing how successive governments have implemented industry-friendly regulatory processes and promoted biotechnology as an engine of innovation and economic activity. As for the resistance to corporate biotechnology, the scholar focuses on groups—such as the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, the National Farmers’ Union, Greenpeace, and the etc Group—who have led struggles for greater industry transparency and responsibility. Within the work, the empirical material consists of interviews with leaders of these organizations as well as detailed treatments of several of the sector’s hot-button issues. Here, Peekhaus critically examines the commercial practices of biotech seed companies, conflicts over the introduction of particular ge varieties, legal battles over patented genes, and civil society criticism of Canada’s regulatory system for ge foods.
The author also tackles controversies over the environmental and health safety of ge crops. These are a highly contentious debate, particularly when it comes to the evidence around the health effects of consuming ge foods. Peekhaus describes at some length studies that have linked the consumption of ge plants to toxic effects in animals. Yet he downplays the fact that these studies have been criticized by scientific peers on methodological grounds. At best, we can say that the scientific evidence is contested. A better strategy for the book might have been to develop a sociology of science analysis of these controversies, asking how and to what effect such questions become politicized by actors with different agendas and interests. Indeed, the book is sometimes too one-sided in its analysis, tending to reduce the complexities of the debate to a Manichean struggle between capital and its opponents. In doing so, it glosses over the ambivalent positions of some of the key actors such as biotechnology scientists, who are not motivated by purely capitalist motives, and farmers, who have adopted ge crops on a large scale but face complicated trade-offs in using these technologies.
University of Regina