Theory & Science (2007)

ISSN: 1527-5558

The Monopolization of Biodiversity: Terminator Bioscience and the Criminalization of the Harvest

Brian Wolf
Department of Sociology
University of Idaho


This theoretical work explores the interrelationship between science and industry by looking at a specific process of genetic modification and how it is related to a specific form of social organization: monopoly capitalism. A great deal of controversy and dissent has been generated in recent years as several agribusiness giants have pioneered a way to end a seed’s ability to reproduce itself. This so-called scientific advance has been dubbed “terminator” technology. This work links the science behind terminator technology with the requirements of the monopoly capitalist system and its quest to commodify and control all aspects of nature. This is a synthesization of two theoretical works pertaining to a critique of the monopoly capitalist system and dialectical biology. It highlights the unsustainable problems with seed technology and the dangers of having living organisms’ biological codes monopolized by a few centralized industries. Additionally it underscores the importance of macro sociological theory in understanding the threats posed to the environment through the criminalization of the harvest.


Since the dawn of modern civilization humans have sustained themselves and the harvest by preserving seeds for sowing in subsequent seasons. Agriculture The symbiosis and co-evolution of humans and our crops form the cornerstone of modern civilization. The Aztecs, ancient Chinese, as well as dozens of other civilizations along the Fertile Crescent engaged in a process of selective breeding of preferred seed stock to produce crops with the most desirable phenotypes (Diamond, 1999). The process of cross-pollination and hybridization of seeds continues through current epoch, becoming increasingly sophisticated through the application of science and technology. Today, science can alter the actual genetic makeup of a plant species. Along with these advances, multinational corporations who claim control over this technology (and subsequently, the plant’s DNA) have been seeking ways to protect this technology as intellectual property (Herring, 2007; Yoon, 2006; Clement, 2004). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the nearly commonsensical practice of seed saving is rapidly becoming criminalized and if a handful of agricultural giants have their way, staple grains of the human diet will be genetically rendered sterile and unable to reproduce themselves. A recent biotechnological process of genetic manipulation called “terminator” prevents plant seeds from reproducing and giving the patent holder complete control and intellectual domain over the seed’s DNA. Proponents of this technology, through their global trade group, the International Seed Federation, laud this technology, indicating that it incentivizes the development of new and more efficient plant hybrids (ISF Press Release, 2003). Critics call the monopolization of seed DNA and the criminalization of replanting crop seeds a theft and an aberration of nature. Physicist and environmental activist, Vandana Shiva has linked the practice of criminalizing and claiming intellectual property on nature and seed DNA to the social relationships engendered under colonialism and dubbed the practice a form of neo-imperialism.

A half-century after the Bengal famine [where, under British colonial rule, most of the food grown was exported for trade and for the UK, instead of feeding hungry local people], a new and clever system has been put in place which is once again making the theft of the harvest a right and the keeping of harvest a crime. Hidden behind complex free-trade treaties are innovative ways to steal nature's harvest, the harvest of the seed, and the harvest of nutrition (2000).

Since the genesis of capitalism and the enclosure of feudal and aboriginal lands for food production, the melding of science and industry has resulted in spectacular advances in agricultural production alongside potentially disastrous consequences to the environment (Foster, 1999). While there is nothing new in the relationship between technology and nature, this article explores how the manipulation of a plant’s genetic makeup and ability to reproduce is irreversibly unnatural and fundamentally disastrous. The forced expropriation of food is also not a new endeavor. The structural relationships fostered under colonial and imperial modes of production have seen indigenous people starve while they export cash and staple crops to the core of the world-system.

The complex set of social relationships that underlie science and society are difficult to grasp to the causal observer. Large agricultural firms such as Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland and ConAgra are some of the largest employers of botanists, chemists and other life scientists. Much of their research centers on engineering or facilitating the increase in larger quantities of food while using less physical labor. On the surface this seems to be a necessary and noble endeavor aimed at averting Malthus’ classical yet flawed claim that the earth’s bounty could only support a half-billion people (Preston, 1999). The global population is clearly expanding in terms of absolute numbers (as well as waistlines). Couple this with fewer people working on farms and the results lead to more people working in factories and labs manufacturing the next great gizmo. To enforce the message that investments in science is for purely benevolent means, many of the agricultural firms public relations literature contains discourses discussing that they are working hard to meet the caloric needs of a growing world.1 This image construction seems aimed at preemptively averting criticisms of their scientific practices and easing the publics mind about the safety of their food. Beneath this veneer lies a much more complex set of relationships that reveals ecologically unsustainable ambitions. To fully grasp the logic and reasoning behind an otherwise illogical and unsustainable development, we must examine the material relationships that are behind this technology.

Here it is theorized that the seemingly unnatural development and application of terminator seed science is the necessary result of a late stage of capitalism termed “monopoly capitalism.” The scientific advances enabling terminator seed technology are best understood utilizing a contemporary Marxist perspective that examines the interrelationship between seed technology and monopoly capitalism. This ultimately unsustainable technology and unnecessary application of scientific knowledge is brought under new light when considered in relationship to the social processes that brought it into existence. To fully capture the criminalization of the harvest we must consider not only the intellectual efforts involved in creating an organism that lacks the ability to reproduce itself, but the structure of the global capitalist system it has emerged in.

Frankenstein’s Botanical Cousin

In monopoly capital’s quest for complete control over the world market, there has been a large amount of intellectual and material resources devoted to employing science and technology to commodify all food sources around the world (Foster, 1999). This has led to some disturbing technological developments in biotechnology and hybridization in “agricultural science.” These technologies threaten to disturb the primary interactions between humans and the environment in severely altering the planet’s ability to feed and sustain the human population. According to a press release issued by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a technology has been developed by Delta & Pine Land Company, a large commercial seed breeder, in corporation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that could potentially sterilize the seed produced by all crops, preventing the seed from being replanted (1998). More recently, the ability to control and police the modified organism has been brought into question (Herring, 2007). The technology of this terminator gene has profound implications for both food safety and the basic ecology of the global food supply.

The technology patent to market the terminator seed has since been bought by Monsanto, a transnational corporation bent on controlling the entire world’s seed markets. Dubbed by Monsanto as "the Terminator" and by others as "the neutron bomb of agriculture," this new technology has profound implications for agriculture and the environment. Moreover, it is directed at the world's poorest farmers and communities relying on a delicate balance between food production and ecological concerns (Hawthorne, 2003). This technology has been touted by the industry as the end to world hunger, but its lasting effects could easily spell just the opposite; ecologists and environmental activists have already foreseen the alarming potential for global famine and environmental destruction that this new technology poses as cross contamination could permanently sterilize unmodified crops (Mack, 2002). The development of a seed that produces only once is the ultimate sign of the madness that plagues the entire system of food allocation under the illogic of capitalism. The reason the Terminator seed is being produced is because agribusiness, under monopoly capitalism, needs to control the entire system of food distribution to maintain profits. The Terminator can provide the vehicle to these profits and an effective monopoly over the code of life.

Terminating the Environment

The invasion of biotechnology onto the farm spells lasting effects for food resource distribution and the environment. This technology has no real benefit to the consumer or the farmer and is unabashedly an instrument of appropriation by corporations as a method of control. This hybrid is produced only to prevent the germination of anything a farmer might grow in her field. This strips the productive, life giving quality from the earth and turns it over to a research lab. This product will mean much more than massive profits and high food prices. Besides violating the age-old techniques of farming, the engineered seed also poses immediate risks to the environment and entire ecosystem as well. It has already been shown that genetically altered seeds can spread its sterile pollen to other plant species also making them unable to reproduce or otherwise altering the genetic makeup of the species. Molecular biologists reviewing the technology are divided if there is a risk of the Terminator function escaping the genome of the crops into which it has been intentionally incorporated. Many biologists warn that there is a threat of the crops moving into surrounding open pollinated crops or wild, related plants in fields nearby (Shand and Mooney, 1998). There have already been dozens of instances of genetically modified foods creeping into the general food supply and threatening food safety. In the case of the Terminator seed, the means of this "infection" would be by way of pollen from Terminator altered plants. Given nature’s incredible adaptability, and the fact that this technology has never been tested on a large scale, the possibility that the Terminator may spread to surrounding food crops or to the natural environment is a real risk of potentially limitless proportions.

The Terminator seed works by genetically altering the composition of a hybrid seed and stopping its ability to produce a new generation. Hybrid plant varieties are genetically manipulated to produce inferior second generation seed, while the Terminator "switches on and then off" the plant's reproductive processes (Monsanto, 1998). The proponents of terminator technology, mainly agribusiness monopolies such as Monsanto and ConAgra, insist that it will protect their investment in engineered traits that will help feed the poor and hungry as well as great potential for profit. They claim the traits engineered into the new seeds will increase the quality and yield of crops, resulting in more food per acre in a world where arable land is at a premium. New traits will also give crops protection against weeds, they say. The seed industry regularly works in concert with pesticide and herbicide companies to develop plant hybrids that are resistant to chemicals so that they can be liberally applied over farmers’ fields without killing them. The seed industry also points out that no one is forcing farmers to buy their seeds. Despite these proponents claims to be serving everyone’s best interests, this technology is aimed at privatizing nature and commodifying one of the last metaphorical commons; the ability for seeds to pollinate themselves, free of charge.

The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism in Agriculture

Classical economists prefer the reductionistic models of the free market that portray the capitalist economy as one that thrives under competition. Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, in their book Monopoly Capital (1966), have shown this to be just another myth of the marketplace. In this landmark work they show that the capitalist economy, to deal with the contradictions of the market, has led to greater centralization and concentration of capital. This then results in a few non-competing and monopolistic firms in all major industrial sectors of the economy. Under monopoly capitalism firms compete not on price, but on more trivial things such as brand identification, advertising, and product differentiation (Magdoff, et. al., 4). This process has occurred later in agriculture than in other industrial sectors (ibid). In recent years concentration in agribusiness has accelerated at an incredible rate. When Monsanto’s Terminator seed is placed on the global market, conditions will be set that will mandate that only one or two firms will control the seeding of the entire world’s food supply.

The terminator seed not only violates the fundamental principles of ecology, but thousands of years of farming principles. The logic and needs of capitalism run counter to ecological sustainability in every direction and is an integument on the rational production of food. Karl Marx was perceptive in noting competitive capitalist production concentration of “the historical motive power of society” while “disturb[ing] the metabolic interaction between man and earth” (Capital, 637). It is easy to characterize the producers of this technology as mad-scientists and purveyors of some Frankensteinian creation. Unfortunately this is an all too necessary creation needed to support monopoly capitalism and transnational corporations profit motives. Monopoly capitalism refers to the stage in capitalism where all industries are controlled by a few producers acting in concert to maximize profits through cornered markets.

While Marx is correct in describing capitalism’s ability to pervert and destroy nature’s remarkable ability to reproduce itself, an even more pervasive capitalism has invaded agricultural production in recent years. Baran and Sweezy have termed this monopoly capitalism where a few producers control entire markets and gain enormous returns on technological investments:

We must recognize that competition, which was the predominate form of market relations in the nineteenth century Britain, has ceased to occupy that position, not only in Britain but everywhere else in the capitalist world. Today the typical economic unit in the capitalist world is not the small firm producing a negligible fraction of a homogeneous output for an anonymous market but a large-scale enterprise producing a significant share of the output of an industry, or even several industries, and able to control its prices, the volume of its production, and the types and amount of investments. The typical economic unit in other words, has the attributes which were once thought to be possessed only by monopolies (Monopoly Capital, 6).

While this view characterized industrial sectors in the postwar period, Heffernan notes that monopoly capitalism has only now begun to assimilate agriculture (59). Until recently, farming under capitalism operated under the tenets of competitive capitalism where farmers operated independently and competed on price. In the 1980s, a nationwide glut of agricultural goods on the market forced prices to fall rapidly. Farms began failing and huge agribusiness firms began gobbling up most farming assets. With the usurpation and concentration of farming assets into the hands of monopolistic corporations, the downward pressure on retail prices for food reversed. Since the glut, a few monopolistic firms have come to dominate the nation’s food production and stand to gain a sizable share of the world market. With the domestic market locked up, agribusiness has set its sights on the periphery and emerging economies, and one or two corporations stand to dominate the international seed market. The Terminator seed is an excellent vehicle to accelerate this transformation.

Monopoly capitalism in other industrial sectors depends on “planned obsolescence” to make sure that people buy the same product in different packaging every few years. Just like computer operating systems or cars, these products are purposely built to expire or become obsolete every few years. The Terminator seed would be useless after just one use. The Terminator seed enables companies to develop patents on seeds of the world’s staple crops and then force farmers to buy again, new, each year. Corporations distrust the uncertainty of the free market so the Terminator will ensure a large return on investment in biotechnologies because we all need to eat.

The traditional American farm runs on the principle of self-sufficiency. During harvest, farmers preserved seeds to save for the next year’s crop. Seed companies have been working hard to prevent farmers around the world from saving their own seed from plants originally grown with seed bought from these companies. Once monopoly capitalism fully takes hold, the seed producers will have the muscle to stop this practice. They are also trying to find ways to encourage farmers around the world—in the U.S., Europe and especially the huge markets represented by farmers in South America, Mexico and Asia — to switch to genetically engineered, proprietary seed instead of relying on the eons old practice of saving their own locally produced and conventionally bred seed. If they can produce and offer their "improved" seed cheaply enough to convince even poorer farmers from developing countries to switch, they will have captured much of the global market. The Terminator will ensure that this market—these farmers and the communities and countries they feed—will be completely dependent on the company to continue to eat. Once Monsanto annihilates any competitors in the market they will be free to raise prices on their seed at will.

If the current trend continues, an ever smaller number of larger corporations such as Monsanto will be producing more of the world's seeds. This control will give them enormous power to control prices, to dictate farmers' seed choices, to affect agricultural practices and to control the world's food supply. If profit driven seed companies find they can make more money from terminator seeds than traditional ones, what would stop them from simply discontinuing the production of cheaper, viable seeds? Once a corporation has a monopoly, or a few corporations act as monopolies, they can ensure that no alternatives to what they offer will exist in the market.

The Science of Capitalist Agriculture

Biotechnology is touted on Wall Street as the latest industry generating an incredibly high return on investment. Biotech firms have re-crafted nature to fit the needs of profit and they are doing it at an incredible rate. Middendorf, et. al., note that biotechnology under capitalism only recognizes the need for profits and not human need for food, or its effect on the environment (87). The infusion of scientific technology into agriculture has been around since the genesis of industrial capitalism. Soil science and agricultural technologies came about with the demands of capitalist agriculture for the increased productivity of soil (Foster and Magdoff, 33). Research laboratories came about with the concurrent rise of monopoly capitalism. With the infusion of principles of monopoly capitalism into the global system of agriculture, laboratories have begun making synthetics at an even more alarming rate. The primary goal of these laboratories is not to advance the interests of science, but to turn scientific knowledge into the production of capital. As Foster states:

These scientific laboratories provided a whole range of synthetic products, based on the development of new molecular arrangements, out of the essentially limitless number of those theoretically possible. This resulted in new forms of matter, many of which were created with commercial purposes in mind — from a new way of coloring fabric to a new way of killing bacteria. Unfortunately, this progress in physics and chemistry was not accompanied by an equally rapid expansion in the knowledge of how such substances might affect the environment (Foster, 1994:110).

With the Terminator seed, science has taken something fragile and part of the natural life cycle, and turned it into something alien to the soil in which it grows. In science’s attempt to mimic nature, perfect it, and profit from its bounty, science has unleashed a biological monster on the farmers’ field.

Levins and Lewontin examine in their important, yet controversial, work “The Dialectical Biologist,” the interrelationship between biology and human action (1985). Arguing that the work of scientists is inherently political, they reject reductionistic and hierarchical portrayals of nature and argue that nature is a coevolutionary, dialectical process:

An organism does not compute itself from its DNA. The organism is the consequence of a historical process that goes on from the moment of conception until the moment of death; at every moment gene, environment, chance, and the organism as a whole are all participating...Natural selection is not a consequence of how well the organism solves a set of fixed problems posed by the environment; on the contrary, the environment and the organism actively codetermine each other. (89)

In other words, one cannot adequately theorize a scientific advancement without understanding the impact of the advance on the environment, nor can one understand biology without understanding the material basis that fostered the advancement’s origins. The manipulation of the basic reproductive abilities of a plant’s genetics is reflective of an intrusion into nature’s by powerful relationships engendered under a monopoly capitalist system.

The chief consequence of technological innovation to increase on-farm productivity has been to make on-farm productivity less and less important in determining agricultural value (Levins and Lewontin, 213). Agribusiness needs to have large value-added commodities purchased as inputs to production and reduce the amount of value added on the farm. Pressures on farmers to reduce labor costs are compounded by losing control of the productive process of the land and what crop species to grow.

Because farmers are a small, although essential part, of the production of foods, the conditions of their part of production are set by the monopolistic providers and buyers of farm inputs and outputs. The agricultural research establishment, by serving the proximate demands of farmers, is in fact a research establishment captured by capital. The farmers are only the messengers of the messages written in corporate headquarters (Levins and Lewontin, 215-16).

Why would such a product be developed when it seemingly violates the fundamental logic of farming itself, especially when Third World hunger is a rampant problem? The answer lies in the logic of global agribusiness under monopoly capitalism. The development of biotechnologies, such as the Terminator seed, increases market concentration. Investment money will flow where a profit can be made. The Terminator offers a new way to capture and corner agriculture primary goods markets. When a firm is the first to develop or steal a patent for a new technology they capture a substantial portion of the market and often have a monopoly on it (Middendorf, et. al, 87). If agribusiness can lock up markets for staple foods grown in the third world, capitalists can receive and incredibly high rate of return on research investment, regardless if the technology provides for any genuine human need.

The reason these unnecessary technologies are being developed is because of the requirements of monopoly capital. Monopoly capitalism depends on massive technical change, which requires a lot of money to be directed at research and development of products. Another disturbing relationship in the political economy of agriculture is that these technologies are developed at massive public expense and then turned over to private enterprise. The USDA developed the Terminator seed as corporate welfare to the seed industry. This, however, is not the only way agribusiness has stolen nature from the general public. Many of their proprietary seeds are no more than genetically altered versions of older, reliable, conventionally bred strains that have been in the public domain for many, many years. Most crops are genetic products of thousands of years of selective breeding by indigenous peoples. Change a gene to give a seed resistance to some new strain of disease, the logic goes, and the seed no longer belongs to the people to grow and save as they like, but rather is the property of the seed company.

In the past several years the world community has been outraged as some multinational seed companies have brazenly tried to claim ownership of whole species of food plants based on the logic that they had altered a gene in a member of that species and, hence, now owned its whole genome. Of course it is frustrating to capitalists to produce and market something that naturally exists and reproduces on its own. To control this practice, agribusiness has generally had the law on its side. Corporations have used plant patents, gene licensing agreements, intellectual property laws, investigations and lawsuits against farm families to keep their monopoly. These firms claim that farms infringe on a seed company’s monopoly on seed varieties and use these tactics in order protect their interests. The new Terminator technology could render even these modern, legal measures of control obsolete. It is potentially so powerful, so effective and so flawless in its applicability that its corporate owners and licensees will literally have complete biological control over the food crops in which it is applied.


What has been presented is a theoretical framework to contextualize the development of an ultimately unsustainable scientific advance. Science, despite claims to “value freedom,” has long been used for endeavors other than strictly altruistic ones. The development of Terminator technology is not only a misuse of scientific talent; it is ecologically irresponsible and socially barbaric. Yet in the context of the monopoly capitalist system, as framed by Baran and Sweezy, it appears to be quite logical. In the convolution between agriculture and the capitalist economy scientific advances tend to be entwined with the needs of the capitalist mode of production it developed under. As the system of food production, distribution and consumption continues to be monopolized by a few oligopolistic firms, harvests will continue to be criminalized and technologies, such as the one detailed here, will become more commonplace.

The Terminator seed is reflective of how the technology of monopoly capitalism is making it more difficult for anything natural to survive on the planet, including humans. The development of the Terminator seed is about subjugating the world’s farmers and creating a loss of freedom for everyone else. We have seen how the technical application of science onto the planets productive nature threatens to destroy that very productive capacity. The Terminator technology has blurred the line between genius and insanity. It is one more example of how the global system of capitalist agriculture is overrunning basic tenets of sustainability and common sense for the imperative of profit maximization. Marx believed that capitalism sowed the seeds of its own destruction. The Terminator seed could not be a more appropriate metaphor. The global system of capitalism cannot continue on this downward spiral much longer. The world must soon recognize that we can sustain ourselves without altering the genetic makeup of nature. If we do not, famine, war and complete environmental apocalypse loom in the distance.

End Notes

1. For examples see, naen/about/philosophy.asp.


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