GMOs: the roots of fascism?
The global consolidation of transnational corporations seeking to control agrarian production by way of genetically modified seeds - known
Bolivian land politics and policy 87 colloquially as GMOs (genetically modified organisms) - is worrisome. Six companies have merged to form three giants - Bayer/Mon-santo and Dow/DuPont (of the USA), and ChemChina/Syngenta (of China). While these corporations market GMOs as improved seeds necessary for human survival, GMOs are not just seeds, they are a socio-technological and economic apparatus that relies on dangerous chemical inputs and which by virtue of GMOs’ material dependence on specific legal and political arrangements of power, tends to deepen economic and political inequalities. GMO seeds are programmed to be treated with toxic herbicides like glyphosate and others, chemicals sold and controlled by the seed companies themselves (Colque 2020). The same companies, through local subsidiaries, buy the products (soy in the case of Bolivia) and export them, exercising control over virtually the entire chain of supply, production, and commercialization. This involves chemical subordination and dependence, economic domination, and the expatriation of profits which accrue to those who control the rights to seeds, chemicals, and outputs.
The history of GMO expansion in Bolivia dates to 1998, when Monsanto, the global agribusiness giant, began pressuring Bolivia to allow the introduction of its GMO soy called “RR.” (or RR1). RR was resistant to glyphosate, a weed-killer also manufactured by Monsanto, as Roundup, a chemical identified by the World Health Organization as a probable carcinogen (IARC 2016). Because of opposition from environmental organizations and others, Monsanto failed to introduce it into Bolivia legally. But RR soy entered the country illegally and its use spread, creating a de facto and growing dependence. Finally, under immense pressure from big agro-industry, RR soy was finally made legal during the tumultuous period of the Carlos Mesa government that followed the massive uprisings of 2003 and the ouster of the neoliberal President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. When vice-president Mesa took over, he found himself pressured by the eastern Bolivian agrarian elite and was vying for their support. In his last days as President, a ministerial resolution was signed that approved RR1 soy. When Mesa resigned and Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé became president in April of 2005, that resolution was raised to the level of a supreme decree. GMO soy had arrived (Molina 2020).
GMO soy gradually displaced conventional soy entirely. Yet as weeds became resistant to glyphosate, it became clear that RR was no miracle seed. Outputs began dropping after a few years (based on figures by Gonzalo Colque in Fundación Tierra 2020). In addition, the soy industry hoped to expand into the drier lands of the Chiqui-tano forest. The transnational firms with a presence in Bolivia are now pushing two new GMO soy varieties: HB4 and Intacta. HB4, with a gene from sunflowers, is supposedly drought resistant and has genes to protect against both glyphosates, and a new herbicide called glufosinate (glufosinato de amonio). Glufosinate has already been banned in France for its toxic risks. Intacta is supposedly resistant to both glyphosate and certain insects and both are said to be more productive than RR (Molina 2020). Yet during the early years of the MAS government, characterized by environmentalist rhetoric in defense of the Pachamama, or Mother Earth, there were no more openings to GMO soy. Yet as the more progressive period of agrarian reform gave way to the conciliatory turn to the agro-industrial elite (and gas revenues started declining), the MAS began to make moves aimed at expanding the agricultural frontier in the east. In part, the argument was that this would aim to increase biofuel production. The idea was to replace imported diesel fuel, a key input for the agro-industrial sector itself that had long been subsidized by the state. Biodiesel produced from soy and ethanol produced from sugar were seen as an answer to fossil fuel dependency that would also encourage more agricultural production. Yet RR soy was no longer productive and the big farmers wanted the new seeds. Again, using a supreme decree (see Table 4.1),
Table 4.1 Major legal actions affecting land use in Bolivia, 2005 2020
Evo Morales and the MAS (2012-2019) the opening to the agro-industrial elite
Jeanine Añez Interim Government (2019-2020) state capture by the agro-industrial elite
October 23, 2020 GMO corn
Inauguration of Luis Arce, Return of the MAS government (Nov. 8, 2020- ?)
Sources: CEDIB (2020); Villalobos (2020); Molina (2020).
the government of Evo Morales moved to accelerate approval of HB4 and Intacta, just a few months before the chaotic November 2019 elections. Nonetheless, the 2009 Constitution states in one article that the “production, importation, and commercialization of [GMOs] will be regulated by law,” suggesting that a presidential decree was insufficient to make such a change. And, somewhat contradictorily, another article in the Constitution “prohibits the importation, production, and commercialization of [GMOs] and toxic elements that damage health and the environment” (cited in Molina 2020). Reflecting the conflicted negotiations between the social movements and agribusinesses that marked the writing of the constitution, from either perspective Morales’s pro-GMO decree is unconstitutional. These contradictions are also reflected in Bolivia’s 2011 Law 144 on the “Communitarian and Agroindustrial Productive Revolution” (see Table 4.1). The law both prohibited GMO seeds that threatened Bolivia’s natural biodiversity but also called for procedures for the import and sale of other GMO products. With the TIPNIS conflict and this contradictory approach, the turn toward the agro-industrial elite continued. By late 2019, Evo Morales himself had been ousted and was in exile in Argentina. I return to GMOs and the coup government that followed below.
The paradox of all of this in the Bolivian case is that large-scale agro-industry in eastern Bolivia is, economically speaking, unprofitable and nonsensical, working against human welfare and nature. Once GMO soy expands, given its dependence on toxic herbicides like glyphosate, other crops can no longer grow in the same region, not to mention the risks for human health and the contamination of soil and water. Soy from Bolivia is shipped to Peru and Colombia, and returned as finished products (oil and processed foods). Despite the marketing tactics of the multinationals, it does not contribute to food security or food sovereignty. Nor does large-scale agriculture employ much labor. The wider process of soy expansion and mechanization actually tends to reduce the need for labor, displacing smaller farmers and creating surplus populations who have little alternative but to migrate to the city (McKay and Colque 2016; McKay 2018).
This exclusionary push combines with the domination of those smaller or medium-size farmers who remain as providers of soy to the buyers. Smaller landholders who participate in the soy industry are invariably trapped in debt relations that force their continued dependence on seeds and chemical inputs. It is for this reason that the agro-industrial elite is often able to mobilize some smaller growers to support their push for GMOs (and likely partially explains the MAS overtures to this sector as well). Yet the system tends to keep smaller growers trapped in debt and moves wealth upwards. The model tends to exacerbate land inequality by concentrating larger and larger landholdings into fewer hands. The agro-industrial sector pays very little in the way of taxes, a fraction of what other businesses are required to pay on their profits. The industry also relies on government subsidies on diesel fuel (and the government is also subsidizing biofuel production), and government-subsidized loans, often forgiven when crops fail or prices drop. Finally, and despite those who argue that GMOs are crucial for food security or food sovereignty, most of Bolivia’s food production comes from smaller farmers, not from the big agro-industry,
Bolivian land politics and policy 91 much less from GMO soy. As Gonzalo Colque argues (Fundación Tierra 2020:50), despite the fact that the entire apparatus of GMO soy is virtually unprofitable and contributes very little to the public good (actually costing the state in subsidies and bailouts), the attachment of economic interests - purveyors of chemicals, seeds, machinery, and the like - creates a network of powerful interests that defend its survival and expansion. By extension, since all of this entails a specific legal regime (laws, decrees, regulations), its expansion requires deep penetration of the state by the interests of multinational firms and their local partners, among them large landowners and business chambers. It is this convergence of anti-democratic power aimed at solidifying monopoly control - and its association with other arch-conservative ideological strands in eastern Bolivia - that have led some researchers to refer to GMOs as the expression of fascist power (Colque 2020).