Review – Amalia Leguizamón. Seeds of Power: Environmental Injustice and Genetically Modified Soybeans in Argentina. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020.

“Actors who wield power at the higher levels of politics and the economy–heads of government alongside agribusiness executives and entrepreneurs–promote the GM soy model on the promise of ecological modernization for sustainable development: that is, the promise of technological innovation for economic growth and social well-being in an environmentally sustainable manner. These powerful actors have tailored what is otherwise a broad and abstract promise to fit the Argentine context: Argentina’s historical dependence on a gendered and racialized political economy of Pampas agro-extractivism. Moreover, they have used Argentina’s cultural myths of national identity to legitimate the unequal and unjust dimensions and consequences of soybean extractivism.”

Amalia Leguizamón

In Seeds of Power, Amalia Leguizamón lays out the rationale and historical roots of the GM soy model in Argentina to explore the lack of popular response to an arguably hazardous agricultural practice, from the perspective of both health and property rights. On the one hand, she details the historical confrontation between “civilization” and “the desert,” arguing that the GM soy model allows at long last for a reconciliation of the “oxymoron of an urban country that has historically turned its back on the countryside, yet embraced dependency on agricultural exports.” On the other, she underscores the country’s self-perception as the European nation of the Latin American continent–the First World of the Third World, so to speak–and the ways in which the GM soy model plays into that national conceit, thereby presenting itself in a flattering light that deflects the criticisms that otherwise might come its way.

The author begins her argument in the 19th century, confronting two foundational myths of the Argentine people. First, the so-called Generation of ’37, a group of intellectuals which included, among others, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and Juan Bautista Alberdi, who laid the intellectual foundations of a European-style modernism which split the Argentine territory into two, opposing ecosystems: the urban, civilized world of the Argentine littoral (mainly the port of Buenos Aires), and the desert, barbaric regions of the nation’s interior. Added to the second myth, that of the “granary of the world,” GM soy (and the agro-export economic model in general) becomes in many ways a social mandate, very similar to Manifest Destiny in the United States: once tamed, the wilderness is transformed into “a factory of commercial crops,” which can then be delivered, fresh from the fields of the world’s breadbox, to hungry people around the world.

The use of GM soy in Argentina was legalized in 1996, under Carlos Menem, and is the latest in a series of agricultural technologies adopted eagerly by that nation. The “granary of the world” myth comes into play here as well: beginning with the Green Revolution in the 1950s and ’60s, the progressive agriculturalization of the Pampas (entailing a switch from livestock to commercial crop production) reflected the national self-perception as a cutting-edge provider of sustenance in a time of global shortage. The downside of this switch, for Leguizamón, is its extractivist bent, which emphasizes that which may be gotten out of the soil while to a large extent ignoring the need to put anything back into it.

To Leguizamón, one of the key detrimental aspects of the GM soy model is its tendency to divorce land use from land ownership. She outlines the geographical distance between those who farm the land and the land they farm: the technologization of agricultural activities leads to the technocratization of the agricultural workforce. The technicians who “manage” the land neither own it nor live in its vicinity, and therefore their stake in the enterprise is purely financial and immediate. There is no incentive to invest in sustainability because the future is entirely in the now, calculated in dollars and cents. On the other hand, those who do own the land, leased for production by large agribusinesses, have very little say over the way their land is used, since to voice concerns would be to chase away their only source of income.

The author also addresses the gendered and racialized aspects of access to and participation in the benefits of the GM soy economy, showing that while women are often the more aware of the ills of the system, they are also the least likely to be acknowledged as legitimate critics, even while they lead the charge against it. She speaks with representatives of two anti-GMO movements, both led by women: the Grupo de Madres de Barrio Ituzaingó Anexo and the Asamblea Malvinas Lucha por la Vida. While both have won key legal battles over spraying and factory runoff, they have done so while being subjected to gender-based harassment and criticism, in spite of the fact that they have become self-taught experts in the science and medical implications of the GM soy model.

Part of the gender/racial divide, but not exclusive to it, is the concept of latent conflict, the objections to GM soy that are felt rather than voiced–or if they are spoken, it is only in private and at a whisper. It is a matter of gender in that it is often mothers and other female care providers who notice at close range the adverse effects of GM agriculture on their own children and other neighborhood residents. It is a gendered situation in that the relative social position of these women vis-à-vis their husbands/other men relegates their form of knowing–affective and embodied as opposed to scientific–to a lower level of reasoning.

While the argument from gender is no doubt correct, its formulation in some ways reveals the author’s own bias. This is especially true in the case of Mariana, a female agronomist, a scientist whose agreement with the way things are being done is automatically consigned to an unconscious acquiescence to a male way of thinking: Mariana is, categorically, “a masculinized subject” whose professional scientific opinion has, unbeknownst to her, been coopted by a masculine perception of GM soy that prevents her from forming a perspective of her own. The idea that this might be a legitimate point of view, arrived at on the basis of education and on-the-job experience, doesn’t seem to enter the equation.

This is an interesting standpoint when juxtaposed with the sections on women’s reasoning from intuition, and the author’s protests that arguments springing from that reasoning should be given more weight in the debate over GM soy. Ostensibly, Leguizamón seeks to underline and enhance the agency of women within this conversation, but in the case of Mariana, she is quite openly taking it away. This is not to say that Mariana’s opinion isn’t in some measure affected by her interactions with male colleagues, and Argentina’s labor market is by any measure blatantly sexist (and ageist). However, the author’s analysis in this case is slightly one-dimensional and skewed toward assumptions on the author’s part as to the agency of her female interlocutors.

There is a sort of conspiracy of silence surrounding the issue of GM soy, the domain of those the author refers to as “in between,” those who neither benefit the most from these agricultural processes (politicians, agribusiness companies) or suffer the most from the damage they may cause (the poor). Gender continues to be an issue insofar as many of those who participate are middle-class women whose social position depends entirely on their spouses. However, “in-betweenness” is a broader condition: anyone who benefits financially or socially from GM soy, from small-town shop owners to the technicians hired by agribusinesses to run their operations, may be included. These people are caught in a wider net of dependency that keeps them from speaking out: the threat of long-term harm–especially in ways that are imperceptible in the moment, such as chronic disease that develops slowly over time–is not as frightening as the threat of immediate loss of livelihood.

Leguizamón insists that the “in between” are not dupes; rather, they are consciously involved in what the author calls “synergies of power,” partnerships between policy makers and agribusiness owners that shift models of accumulation in favor of a relatively limited number of privileged players, while at the same time creating just enough collateral well-being for those below to give the impression of co-participation. It is the definition of trickle-down economics. The “in between,” for the author, are actually the engine that runs these “synergies of power”–the small landowners who lease out their property to agribusinesses, the technicians who work for those businesses, and so on. The problem is that the collateral benefits generally stop here; this intermediate level is impermeable, and anyone below it–namely the poor–will likely see only the harmful effects of the system. This is where the injustice named in the book’s subtitle creeps in: for the “in between,” participation in the system is a choice, however assymetrical, based on cost-benefit analysis, conscious or otherwise, whereas for the lower classes, it is simply a reality imposed from above, from which they have little or no freedom to abstain.

The use of GM soy and other crops is a complicated issue, as is any conversation having to do with the Argentine economy and the people who manage it. Here again, Leguizamón’s argument is a bit too one-sided. She does a very good job of demonstrating the harm that may arise from too great a focus on this particular agricultural practice but, having shown what not to do, a vacuum remains in terms of what should be done instead. In a country where finding an economic model that works long-term, even a little bit, has been historically difficult, this is not enough. A necessary evil may be evil, but it is still necessary, and to the pragmatists among us, that is often more than enough.

©2021 – Vance Woods

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