From IWU Magazine, Summer 2012 edition
In a farm field along I-74 in McLean County, Munro sees both answers and unresolved
questions to the challenge of alleviating global hunger. (Photo by Marc Featherly)
A Growing Concern
Though it holds promise to help alleviate world hunger, agricultural biotechnology
has been rejected by millions who might benefit from it. Is there a way to bridge
Story by WILLIAM MUNRO,
PROFESSOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE
Over the past 10 years or so, a great deal of my life’s journey has been spent on
Interstate 74, which links Indianapolis and Peoria, skirting Bloomington on the south.
My daily commute goes along that road, between Urbana and Bloomington, 56 miles door
No one I know has ever, at least within my hearing, called the landscape along it
profound or majestic (though in truth there are few things more majestic than a black
funnel cloud bearing down on your rearview mirror as you race helter-skelter across
the prairie). Still, if you spend enough time on I-74, you realize that it is indeed
a profound landscape. It is a landscape on which we have inscribed our modernity with
a particular confidence and comprehensiveness. Even though it is sometimes green and
sometimes brown, it is, of course, an industrial landscape. And I say that not simply
because it produces a wide range of industrial goods — from ink to packing peanuts
to biofuels — but because it has been reshaped according to, and for the purposes
of, the systematic application of science and technology. Along I-74, this application
is clearly seen, from the hulking grandeur of 16-row combines that harvest crops to
the prodigious, packed power of genetically modified seeds from which those crops
It is a disciplined landscape, in which the unruly has been contained and the unexpected
has been pushed to the margins. It is also a productivist landscape — that is to say,
its value is measured in its capacity to produce as much as possible of the commodity
crops that are planted upon it. And it is a simplified landscape, whittled down to
two crops: soy and corn, corn and soy. It is, in essence, a spare and uncluttered
It is also a high modernist landscape, sculpted to embody the particular modern rationality
in which we write our will onto the world. It shows us, with its clean lines and sculpted
precision, what good farming — highly productive farming — should look like.
For me, there are two images from the landscape of I-74 that stay with me as I journey
back and forth, and remind me on a daily basis of the limits of our ability to engineer
our world according to our will. One image is the Illinois horizon — it is not very
noticeable; it consists simply of a flat line. But driving along one day it suddenly
struck me, with a stark visual clarity, how that flat line bifurcates our world. Below
the flat line, everything that you see is mapped, measured and managed on an inch-by-inch
basis. Above the line, nature is doing what it wants — remember that black funnel
A billboard posted along the agriculturally rich I-74 corridor in Central Illinois
was designed to raise awareness of the growing problem of hunger in America.
The second image depicts a billboard. Standing in the middle of a ploughed field of
the world’s most productive soil, the sign proclaims, without irony, “Hunger takes
this route, too.” It highlights the difficulty that we seem to have in organizing
our society to solve the most fundamental challenge of human life: feeding ourselves.
And of course that challenge is writ large today as the threat of global hunger looms.
Inevitably, the landscape along I-74 contains an answer to this threat: agricultural
biotechnology, the technology that makes possible the genetically modified seeds that
drive its grandeur. When discussing modern agricultural biotechnology, one refers
mainly to techniques made possible by Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen’s 1973 invention
of a technique to cut and splice strands of DNA from one organism to another, effectively
crossing the species barrier. Gene-splicing created the possibility of “editing” the
genetic structure of organisms in such a way as to express desired genetic traits
for social, economic or political purposes.
These new, extremely powerful biotechnologies encompass what some have called the
Second Industrial Revolution and are potentially applicable to many of the grand social
and humanitarian challenges of the day, including global hunger. It is not surprising
that this new transgenic science caught the imaginations of cellular and molecular
biologists as well as policymakers and entrepreneurs.
What followed in the 1970s and 1980s was an explosion of complex scientific-industrial
projects, especially in the biomedical sector (such as stem-cell research) and in
the agricultural sector — notably seed research. In the latter case, the object was
to insert genes into crop seeds in order to select for specific desired genetic traits.
To date, the main application has been to genetically engineer seeds for herbicide
resistance and pest resistance — seeds widely used by U.S. farmers since the mid-1990s.
A second generation of transgenic agriculture research is now emerging, which is focused
on disease resistance, drought resistance and enhanced nutrition.
This research emerges at a critical time. In 2009, the Food and Agriculture Organization
estimated that close to 1 billion people on the planet are chronically undernourished.
The vast majority of those people live off the land in rural areas of Asia and the
Pacific and in sub-Saharan Africa.
Over the past five years, a concerted international effort in humanitarian science
has lumbered into action to attack this global food and economic crisis. This includes
a $150 million initiative funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda
Gates Foundation to launch the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. The group,
which targets its programs to small-scale farmers, has been careful to say that genetically
modified (GM) seeds are only part of the solution. Nonetheless, promotion of the use
of GM technology has caused suspicion across the continent — Zambia, Tanzania and
Zimbabwe are among the African nations banning the use of such seeds.
Scientists use biotechnology to improve banana plants, an important food source throughout
If we are to understand the implications of this new humanitarian science — and why
it has been met with suspicion and even hostility by millions who may potentially
benefit from it— we must first appreciate the ways the transgenic science involved
is part of what the Obama administration and others have described as game-changing
Transgenic technologies enable us to import genes from spinach into pigs, from fish
into tomatoes, from jellyfish into rabbits, and even to contemplate altering the human
genome in order to produce enhanced human beings. As a consequence, these technologies
hold profound questions about how we as a society decide or negotiate the risks, the
ethics, and even the ontological implications of their development and deployment.
The inevitable rise of such questions also demonstrates that there is an ineluctable
relationship between science and citizenship, and we cannot think about these technologies
without taking into account how they are to be governed. In this sense, these are
game-changing technologies because they change the terms of democracy. What it adds
up to, I think, is a serious disjuncture between the humanitarian science on the one
hand, and the forms of deliberation, participation and accountability that we associate
with democracy on the other.
This brings us to the second way in which transgenic technologies are game changers.
They are what I would like to call “distancing” technologies. By concentrating attention
on the molecular structure of the seed and seeking essential solutions in the manipulation
of that structure, they place control of the future at a greater distance from those
whose futures are at stake.
The best way to capture what I mean here is to cite a 2002 report from a task force
of the U.S. Department of Agriculture: “The fundamental life sciences upon which so
much of the future depends are now more esoteric and further removed from the day-to-day
experience of lay people,” this report states. “Thus, while traditional agricultural
sciences are still necessary and important, the old methods of decision-making do
not work well with the new sciences involving genetics, cell and molecular biology
and proteomics. … This question becomes particularly complicated when you put it in
the context of a global economy, global regimes of expertise, increasingly global
networks of knowledge and vast humanitarian needs. The lay person, even if exceptionally
intelligent, can no longer judge the value of specific lines of research. Only scientists
in similar or related fields can know whether the science is or is not likely to yield
any useful answers.”
In short, this science draws agricultural knowledge and expertise away from the local
ecology, away from the farm, away from the farmer, away from farming communities and
consumers, and packs it very intimately into the seed. And the knowledge in the seed
is portable; whoever controls the seed can take that power wherever they like. In
effect what the science does is take knowledge out of the landscape and take the landscape
out of knowledge.
What are the implications of these game changes for addressing the grand humanitarian
challenges of our time, such as global hunger? The broadest implication, I think,
is that — much like the landscape of I-74 — the precision, power and sense of possibility
that the technology conveys captures our cognitive imagination and pushes us toward
particular technical definitions of, and solutions to, the problem.
To a problem such as malnutrition, the solution offered — such as enhancing the nutritional
value of the seed — is universal. Place, space and locality (the landscape, if you
will) fade from the picture as well. The logic of the humanitarian enterprise pushes
both policymakers and scientists to define beneficiaries of humanitarian science as
repositories of nutritional need rather than as human agents. They fall into mass
categories such as “the global hungry,” or “malnourished,” or the “rural poor,” or,
most particularly, “resource-poor farmers.” Contextual issues of local culture, local
ways of knowing and local knowledges are washed out of the equation.
Here then, we encounter the paradox of “game-changing” humanitarian science. As our
humanitarianism draws closer the connections between humans across space and resources,
our science threatens to extend the distance between them. How do we resolve this
paradox to address the challenges of global hunger? Or should we?
I began my career as a social scientist and liberal arts scholar in South Africa.
Under the dark and very long shadow of apartheid, it was a time when the popular insurrection
was gaining momentum and the authoritarian regime was beginning to show cracks. Under
these circumstances, I became interested, both intellectually and politically, in
the possibilities of democracy in South Africa — an interest that led to my later
doctoral research in Zimbabwe, as a comparative case of African political change.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a woman harvests lettuce. While the nation
is rich in natural resources, the majority of the population is undernourished.
In most African countries, the bulk of the population lives on the land, and so if
one is interested in the politics of democracy and citizenship, it makes sense to
look closely at rural communities. In Zimbabwe, I tried to understand the ways in
which ruling authorities and rural communities have negotiated the terms of rule and
citizenship, focusing on the meanings of “community” and “conservation.” In later
research, I focused again on South Africa. As the nation was moving into a phase of
democratic transition, I spent a few years working with small-scale sugar farmers
and timber growers to find out whether local farmers’ organizations might provide
a vehicle for rural communities to expand their democratic participation.
If you work with small-scale commodity producers in rural Africa, you realize very
quickly that their lives and livelihoods are ruled as much by international commodity
markets as they are by local politics. And so I began to study and to teach about
the dynamics of the international food economy. In both Zimbabwe and South Africa,
I observed how the imposition of particular cognitive schemes upon local communities
and ecologies not only generates anger and resistance but can undermine the resilience
of local environments. Continuing my research on agrarian change in the United States,
the focus has shifted — from the science of politics to the politics of science. But
at the heart of the enterprise remains the relationship between democracy, poverty
and agrarian power.
This relationship has grown ever more unsettled with the emergence of biotechnology
and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Recently, I joined with Rachel Schurman
of the University of Minnesota to study the social and political movements spawned
by the emergence of GMOs. The result was our 2010 book, Fighting for the Future of Food: Activists versus Agribusiness in the Struggle over
In our book, Rachel and I document how and why the debate over agricultural biotechnology
became both deeply polarized and deeply polarizing. Specifically, we looked at how
the governance and distribution of this technology led to an anti-biotech movement
launched by social activists — one which successfully shaped public perceptions of
GMOs as potentially harmful “Frankenfoods.” This debate led to a hardening of oppositional
cognitive and moral positions regarding genetically modified organisms: pro- versus
anti-; good versus bad.
This is an unproductive standoff at a time of great human need. The question is not
whether this is a good or bad technology but how we should understand it (as indeed
we should understand all game-changing technologies) as part of a larger human ecology
— an ecology that must, by its very nature, take account of different ways of knowing.
And this requires what I am simply going to call an ecological imagination.
But in calling for an ecological imagination, I am not just insisting that we should
take the ecology into account when we constitute our world cognitively. Rather, I
am referring to a way of constituting our world cognitively. Ecological thinking is
relational thinking; it requires acts of imagination that go beyond our own journey.
It is thinking that takes us out of the center of our own narratives and metaphors
through which we traditionally appropriate the world. It asks us, in other words,
to de-center our cognitive imagination, and to recognize ourselves as embedded interactively
in landscapes in which there are numerous other agents.
Of course, this is by no means a novel argument. But we need to apply it to the particularities
of the present. We live in a time in which game-changing technologies and the management
of knowledge play a central role in the way we organize society. Even in a time of
great humanitarian need, the game-changing technologies that we valorize make ecological
thinking a very difficult task. It requires at least two qualities. One is a willingness
to take seriously other ways of knowing, other ways of being in the world and other
ethical traditions — that is, knowledges embedded in particular human landscapes and
ecologies. The other requirement is empathy — simply the recognition that there may
be times when we need to de-privilege perspectives that we hold dear because others,
more resonant with those other local ways of being in the world, are more salient
at that particular time.
If we are to think empathically and ecologically, we cannot be contained by the bounds
of our consciousness. We must continually question the categories that constitute
If there is one lesson from the paradox of humanitarian science, it is that this requires
hard work. It also requires us to revisit those staples of democratic theory: languages
of deliberation, forms of participation and modes of accountability. We must constantly
reinterpret our landscapes, whether they be a small-scale sugar farm in rural South
Africa or the expansive corn and soybean fields along I-74. This, as it turns out,
is extraordinarily difficult — we are lulled by the clean linear aesthetic of our
agrarian landscape even as the Illinois skyline emphasizes the limit of its reach;
but it is essential. It is sometimes fun. And it is ultimately profoundly fulfilling.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
In 2012, Munro was presented the Kemp Award, the University's highest teaching honor.
According to Associate Provost Frank Boyd, William Munro is “known for his immediately
recognizable sense of humor, his formidable intellect and a modesty that attempts
to hide his impressive academic pedigree.” Munro is the 2012 winner of the University’s
top teaching honor: the Kemp Foundation Award for Teaching Excellence. The award was
presented at the annual Honors Convocation on April 15. Munro’s keynote address, “I-74,
Humanitarian Science and the Ecological Imagination,” was adapted for this article.
Joining IWU’s faculty in 2000, Munro holds a doctorate in political science from Yale
University and bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Cambridge University. He also
earned a bachelor’s degree with honors from Natal University in South Africa in 1981.
He is an honorary research professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa
and a research scholar at the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois
Prolific in his research, Munro has spoken at conferences across the nation and abroad
and is the author of numerous articles and two books. For his most recent book, Fighting for the Future of Food: Activists versus Agribusiness in the Struggle over
Biotechnology, he and co-author Rachel Schurman of the University of Minnesota won the American
Political Science Association’s Lynton Keith Caldwell Prize in 2011. The prize is
given for the best book in environmental politics published in the past three years.
A former director of IWU’s International Studies Program (ISP), Munro teaches courses
in international and African politics, conflict areas in the global south, development
theory and social movements. He also serves as chair for the Technos Award Selection
Committee; is a member of ISP’s African Studies, Development, and Diplomatic Studies
teams; and is faculty coordinator of the John and Erma Stutzman Peace Fellows Program.
To visit the iwu political science department website, click here.