Brave New Crops

Anthropology 3322; Environmental Studies 3322; IAS 3322

Coverage and Perspective 

Late in the 20th century, scientists began to directly manipulate life forms at the genetic level.  This development may be on par with the Industrial Revolution in terms of the breadth and complexity of its implications and effects.  This course examines a range of these issues.  But genetic modification (mainly of crops -- animals are a different kettle of fish that we only discuss briefly) is just our starting point; it isn't a course just on genetic modification or agriculture, any more than a course on the Industrial Revolution would just be about factory design.  Topics will include biocolonialism; industry-academy relationships; ethics in academic research; causes of suicides by farmers; patenting of life forms; the WTO and politics of intellectual property control; new developments in biology; the manipulation of public debates; new differences between countries such as US and England; the implications of overpopulation and the causes of hunger; the politics of regulating the environment; and the contested criteria of "quality" in food and agriculture.
Our intent is not to defend or attack biotechnology, but rather to understand it and use it as a lens to see how the world works. We will consider arguments on both sides, and move well beyond the polarized debate to reach a more informed perspective.  All students, even those with strong convictions on these topics, will be pushed to be open minded and to give serious consideration to opposing perspectives -- to look for merit in the strongest arguments, rather than looking for flaws in the weakest arguments.
We are going to discuss most of the hot-button controversies and talking points in the world of biotech but not for the usual reasons. Biotech supporters like to call their opponents Luddites, to equate genetic modification with crop domestication, and to claim that Africans starved because they rejected American grain aid. Opponents charge the biotech industry with stealing control from farmers with Terminator seeds, of contaminating farmer crop varieties, and leading Indian farmers to suicide. These charges are usually intended to incite passions but it can be highly instructive to take them as serious questions. What were the Luddites really doing, and how are they like or unlike anti-biotech activists? How is genetic modification like or unlike past processes of altering the ploants we live on? Do transgenes really flow into wild plant communities or farmers' fields, and what actual effects could this have, anyway? How could a seed technology cause suicide?
This course is based in the anthropology department but it ignores disciplinary boundaries, delving into such fields as molecular biology, sociology of science, agronomy, intellectual property law, archaeology, ecology, economics, and media studies. With such a broad mandate it is essential to hear from a range of experts, and we will have an interesting set of guest speakers, including important contributions from Washington University's biology department.