I have been studying agrofood systems since my masters thesis where my research asked questions around coffee argofood systems. My dissertation research was on questions of governance, social movements, and ecological risks around debates about agricultural biotechnology. Three commodity systems I studied were transgenic salmon, rice, and maize and they were such interesting and complicated commodity systems I continue to be interested in this research.

Containing ecological risks & transgenic fish in North America

Co-authors, researchers: Dennis Takahashi Kelso, Anna Zivian

This project looks at the scalar politics of governing transgenic salmon. AquaBounty Technologies has developed a transgenic salmon that could bring the environmental benefits of shorter residence time and higher feed conversion ratios. Because the AquaAdvantage salmon exhibits faster growth rates, it poses potential ecological risks if fish escape from marine net pens including competitive and sexual interactions with wild fish.

Many states have exerted authority to regualte transgenic fish at the state level. States with endangered or threatened runs of salmon have reacted by regulating the introduction of transgenic salmon through prohibition, permitting requirements or moratoriums. At the federal level, much of the ecological risk discussion focuses on either requiring the fish be grown on land or on what percent of the fish in marine net pens should be required to be tripliod (fish that carry three sets of chromosones and are therefore sterile). This form of biological containment would lower the risks presented by transgenic salmon, but effects the profitability of fish eggs. The grow out of transgenic salmon on land further lowers the risk potential even more, but is more costly in terms of energy use. The question is, how safe is safe enough? In all regions studied, the aquaculture industry has distanced itself from transgenic salmon for concerns about consumer backlashes toward farmed salmon.

Transgenic Salmon Selected research questions

What are the contours of the sustainability and ecological risk debates regarding transgenic salmon?

How do different actors define the problem of genetic pollution?

Who benefits and who is taking risks with regard to transgenic salmon and how does this affect regualtory outcomes?

How have governments in overlapping juridictions reponded to the ecological risks of transgenic salmon?

What has made activist efforts to slow the introduction of transgenic salmon possible?


The perception of environmental and social risks from genetically engineered organisms (GEOs) has made it one of the most controversial emerging technologies today. Unlike their conventional analogs, there is greater regulatory attention to the social and environmental dimensions of GEOs. Unquestionably, social mobilization, scientific uncertainty, and consumer resistance all considerably shape the trajectory of this technology. The types of commodities that are adopted by farmers and the form in which they reach consumers are profoundly shaped by politics – industry, activist, government agency, and consumer. Likewise, the politics of GEOs is shaped by the kinds of commodities brought in the research pipeline and the places where they are introduced. Activists more readily target some commodities than others, while some commodities have broader support for adoption. My research helps situate the controversy over GEOs in the larger political and cultural processes that shape the kinds of GEOs introduced into particular places. I focus on how power asymmetries between social actors and institutions, as well as their values and institutional commitments, explain why social resistance to GEOs is different in distinct places, at different scales, and through different commodities.

My thesis argues that social movements have effectively used ecological risk and food biosafety arguments as surrogates to attend to the wider social and environmental implications of technological change, concerns that fall outside the scope of regulatory governance. My findings suggest that “safety as a surrogate” arguments are differentially effective across different commodities systems and spatial scales of governance based on the power asymmetries between different sets of actors. In commodities where economic interests (loss of markets, stigmatization of products) support the interests of activists there is greater regulation and less adoption. In more ubiquitous commodities like animal feed and processed foods, there are less regulations and more extensive adoption. One common theme in all cases is the increasing power of downstream commodity handlers and retailers is shaping the power relations in GEO governance and adoption.

Since the late 1960s new technologies have received greater scrutiny from the public. Alongside an increased skepticism toward the political institutions of democracy, science and technology are increasingly viewed by the public as harbingers of environmental harm and social inequality. Several factors including a reflection on the social implications of technological change in agriculture, food safety, and the increasing control of the food system by multinational corporations have engendered controversy over technological change in farming and food production. The critics of industrial agriculture are vocal about the social (e.g., differential access to high yield cultivars, control of the research trajectory by private institutions, patenting) and environmental (e.g., pesticides, soil loss, genetic erosion) dimensions of many of new technologies. Yet activist's mobilizations find broad policy support for governance only in some jurisdictions and commodities.

I situate my dissertation work in political ecology because recent conversations have bridged scholarship in social movement theory, environmental studies, critical human geography, and science studies. This body of scholarship takes seriously the embeddedness of science and technological change in human institutions and how those institutions are often subordinated to relationships of power. If nothing else, drawing on the notion of political ecology is shorthand for underscoring disclaimers that the social sciences seek to avoid: the bifurcation of politics and science, the distinction between facts and values, the divide between culture and nature, and the scientization of environmental problems. Instead political ecology highlights the ways that environmental problems are contested and framed, focusing on the ways that values, knowledge, and discourse co-articulate material and symbolic relationships. This reminds us that since scientific knowledge production and technological trajectories are the outcomes of decisions made by social actors, we can point to places where institutional reforms can give civil society a greater say in the production of new technoscientific knowledge and tools. The central critique of modern technoscience is that decisions are predominantly made behind closed doors in an undemocratic and increasingly private manner. The central questions that emerge from this approach to studying technological change are questions about who benefits, who takes risks, and how struggles over these outcomes are shaped by power relationships.

The central question in my fieldwork is “what explains social resistance to genetically engineered organisms?” This inquiry has several elements. First, why are some groups opposed to GEOs? An anti-genetic engineering social movement has mobilized against several grievances, including questions about corporate control of the food system, privatization of university research, patenting on life forms and processes, biopiracy, and ecological risks. Yet it is not clear what actors true interests in the debate actually are. The synergistic effects of having so many issues tied to one set of commodities makes the resistance to GE a particularly interesting case because actors have different agendas and often use other issues as surrogates for their own. This sets the stage for an analysis of not only the motivations for opposition, but also the strategies.

The second part of the question asks how GEOs are opposed. Anti-GE grievances have been mobilized against a broad spectrum of commodities, links in the commodity chain, and at different spatial scales of governance. But it was apparent early in my own research that some commodities and industries were more easily targeted than others. Similarly, because power asymmetries shape access and influence at different scales and places, anti-GE activists targeted different arenas for engagement including attempts at creating GE-free zones, shaping subnational regulation, and influencing both federal and international containment policy. Controversies over the social and environmental dimensions of GEOs are profoundly bound up in other political projects (i.e., changing trade regimes, agro-food system restructuring, declining public research funds). GEOs are thus caught in the crosshairs of multiple actors’ targets, including actors outside of the anti-GE activist network. This profoundly shapes the efficacy of anti-GE activism, and helps to explain why activism has been more successful in some places, scales, and commodities than others.

An explanation for the ways civil society groups choose and strategize about targets comes from social movement theory, one body of scholarship that my research is heavily indebted to. Social movement theory (SMT) looks to describe how civil society groups successfully seek out their grievances through collective action directed at the state and the economy. While much of the early SMT work was functionalist in its treatment of social movements as collective action, more recent thought scholarship has brought in questions about identity and culture to the explanatory fore. This is particularly important when clarifying what it means to be an anti-GE activist. Much of the meaning of anti-GE activism would be lost were it not for an organized and influential sustainable agriculture movement critiquing the industrial food system and offering an alternative paradigm.

My dissertation research is also theoretically grounded in human geography because much of the politics of GEOs is a discursive struggle over the use of space, the appropriate scale of regulation, and the consequences of GEOs to particular places. In geography space is the socially produced realm where interactions that constitute social and material relationships occur through action and meaning. Objects are arranged in space, for example people, firms, states, and non-human nature. The ability to modify these spatial arrangements through action and meaning requires successfully navigating relationships of power. Those with political power can transform particular dimensions of spatial interaction to serve particular ends, for example, creating property rights or regulating the practices of firms. As Lefebvre (1990) and other geographers suggest, all politics is at its roots spatial, and spatial practices are inherently political.

To characterize the delimitation of political spaces, geographers have drawn on the notion of scale, which refers to the level of spatial representation or organization: global, national, regional, local, community, household, body, and genome. While scale often implies a hierarchical ordering of space, geographers have shown that it is socially produced, having less to do with biophysical features that are ontologically preordained. Scale is also by no means a static concept. It is constantly reorganized and reproduced, as actors engage with the political processes of rescaling. Like space, the chosen scale of representation and organization is inherently political. For this reason the politics of scale reveals where favorable power asymmetries between different collectives of actors exist. Some actors have more influence in local government, in their households, or over their bodies, while others find more receptive audiences at the state, national, or even global scales.

It is pursuant to these power asymmetries that actors strategically “jump scale” to arenas more favorable to their interests. Sometimes these scales already exist. Other times they must be produced. The successful production or reproduction of scale can be used to empower or contain. For example, proponents of neoliberal economic policies rescale authority to the global scale where multinational corporations can transcend the autonomy of national interests and harmonize the rules of investment through the jurisdiction of global trade agreements. In contrast rescaling to the local means devolving authority to the local where place-based interests trump state, national, and global jurisdictions.

Yet, very little could be learned by analyzing the politics of scale without distinguishing characteristics about place. There is not much explanatory power inherent in the scale of social organization or representation per se, particularly as scale bounds space differentially into smaller units. The difference that place makes can often explain how similar processes can have different outcomes. Each place constitutes a different constellation of social experiences, values, and knowledge, with different relationships to nature and culture, producing different political persuasions and ideas about environmental governance.

The data for my dissertation comes from an exhaustive literature review and supported with electronic contributions in online activist discussion groups, media representations of the controversy, and anti-GE campaign materials. I conducted participant observation at twelve activist, industry, and government meetings. I also conducted over 50 semi-structured interviews with activists, regulatory officials, industry representatives and scientists involved in the GEO controversy. I asked interviewees how they situated themselves in the controversy over GEOs. If they expressed reservations to the use of the GEOs or the regulatory approaches used to contain them, I asked them how they defined the problems and what their strategies to overcome the problems were. I used a snowball sampling methodology, which was repeated until no new contacts or information emerged.

The first chapter outlines concerns voiced by anti-GE activism over the past thirty years. These concerns are first raised with initial r-DNA experiments in the early 1970s, but carry through many significant institutional developments in the early 1980s, and the initial releases of GEOs into the environment in the mid-1980s. Throughout this period anti-GE activists used many different strategies to question who was benefiting from these new technologies and who was taking risks. The different strategies employed by anti-GE activists included lawsuits push for stricter regulatory oversight and campaigns that target the consumer. But these strategies have been met with varied and uneven success. The chapter sets up the major themes from my dissertation, which elaborates a response to the question there is social resistance to GEOs in some commodities, at particular scales, and in distinct places.

The second chapter examines in depth one particular strategy of making anti-GE activism local. Anti-GE activists used the idea of making GE-free zones in reaction to perceived regulatory failures at the state and national level. Drawing on case studies from GE-free zone campaigns in California, I explain why anti-GE activists pursued this strategy and the varying degrees of success it met in implementation. In this chapter I introduce the concepts of place, space, and scale in an effort to elaborate on the effectiveness of anti-GE activist’s discourse and their opponent’s counter discourse.

The third chapter examines a different regulatory approach set forth by the California rice industry. This strategy to regulate the introduction of transgenic rice was used to regulate potential risks to export markets from genetic pollution. Through rice certification regulation, the California rice industry can develop strict handling and containment protocols to ensure that non-GE rice is not adulterated with GE rice. Since similar regulations do not exist in other commodities, my inquiry focuses on why the rice industry was able to develop such strict regulation. I find that the way the industry is organized, volatility of export markets because of changing global trade relationships, and the self-pollinating nature of crop itself, all make such strict containment regulation possible, and explains why similar containment policies are not developed in other commodities.

The fourth chapter looks at activist’s role in the state-level regulation of ecological risk. This chapter focuses on regulatory and legislative bans on transgenic Salmonids in California, Washington, Oregon and Maine. The regulation of transgenic fish is ostensibly the jurisdiction of the Federal government. Yet four states where the possibility of their introduction into net-pen aquaculture exists have banned transgenic fish in reaction to a proposal at the FDA to approve a transgenic salmon variety engineered with a growth hormone to help it grow six to eight times faster. The central question is what prompted the states move so quickly to regulate something that is customarily the purview of the national scale. Our analysis suggests that as the discourse of the firm advancing the petition changed from growing transgenic salmon in land based aquaculture facilities to sterile female fish in net pens, state interests were enrolled, as they are accountable for issues regarding public waterways. As the discourse changed, public officials came to view transgenic salmon differently, ultimately shaping the efficacy of social resistance.

In the fifth chapter I compare two cases where effectiveness of national moratoria on GEOs to prevent genetic contamination in sites of crop genetic diversity differs. My analysis show that the effectiveness of these moratoria depends on the ability of rural producers to enroll the state in their project to resist neoliberal agro-food restructuring, which often means that their interests do not collide with the dominant economic orthodoxy held by the political elite. In Mexico, many rural livelihoods are dependent on the production of maize, but macro-economic policy increasingly encourages imports of cheap, often transgenic maize from the US to boost export of pork and processed food. Since the passage of NAFTA in 1994, the interests of rural maize producers have increasingly been marginalized from mainstream economic policy. In contrast, Japanese rural rice producers are still powerful actors in Japan’s political system, despite having liberalized the rice trade at the conclusion of the Uruguay Round in 1994. With the help of a strong lobby acting on behalf of food safety concerns, rural producers helped initiate a moratorium on planting transgenic rice. While Mexico has a similar moratorium in place, it is less effective because of the flood of cheap imports of corn from the US demonstrating how agro-food system restructuring shapes the permeability of national borders. Japan on the other hand, was also required to increase its imports, but has found ways to re-export that rice as food aid or sometimes reject that rice on the grounds of food safety. This is important as social mobilization against transgenic commodities can often leverage trade concerns as surrogates for their agenda against GEOs. This research emphasizes how social resistance is a precarious achievement, rather than an outcome of the unitary intent of social movements.

The sixth chapter re-examines GE-free zone campaigns in California to understand anti-GE activist’s motivations, strategies, and tactics. These county-level efforts to restrict the introduction of genetically engineered (GE) organisms through local bans, regulations, or ordinances have met varying degrees of success in different counties, relying on place-specific discursive strategies. However even where GE-free zones are established their implications are unclear. Drawing on themes from governmentality, I explore whether this strategy compromises the goals of activists by reinscribing neoliberal political rationalities. Anti-agbiotech activists have a long history of opposing the central institutions and socio-economic ideologies of neoliberalism.  Yet the success of neoliberalism rests on both its institutions and its political rationalities. Re-inscribing neoliberal political rationalities could run counter to anti-agbiotech activist goals. After discussing the respective histories of neoliberalism and agricultural biotechnology, their synergies and contradictions, I review early attempts at creating zones of exclusion. Then I evaluate the motivations for the GE-free zone strategy and its efficacy. This strategy could prompt the state or Federal government to make regulation more comprehensive.  Or, the strategy could shift political authority to a more remote and less accountable juridical scale, compromising activists’ ability to makes future policy interventions. It is not clear what effect these strategies will have on the public perception of agbiotech, which today is largely in activist’s favor. Finally, I explore the potential for GE-free zone strategies to reproduce neoliberal political rationalities focusing on concerns about devolution, market-led regulation, and consumer sovereignty.