issue 217 - March 1991
Confessions of a botanist
Martha Crouch was leading a research team in plant molecular
biology until she realized she was being manipulated by a myth.
She reveals why she blew the whistle on agribusiness.
When I was young and working at a nature centre in Michigan, I met many botanists. I thought them wonderful people: grown women and men crawling around on their hands and knees in the forest, ecstatic over finding some little liver-coloured orchid. Or in their greenhouses, planting terrariums full of ferns to put beside their reading chairs to cheer a winter’s day. Botanists loved nature and got paid for pursuing a harmless hobby. That is what I thought. So I trained to become a botanist myself and for the last ten years I have been a professor of biology, leading a research team in the investigation of plant embryos and pollen development.
Although I still believe that most botanists are good-hearted, nature-loving people, I now realize that we scientists have been blinded by a myth of neutrality and purity which enables us to ignore the consequences of our work. Botanical research is vital to the spread of western agriculture, which is as disruptive to social and ecological systems as any human practice yet devised, including war. This realization caused me to quit research and seek other ways of acquiring and using knowledge.
Scientists like myself learn the myth of neutrality as research students. In plant science, the story handed down goes something like this:
We design and execute experiments because we are curious about the world. The Government gives us money through science foundations to research plant science because it is concerned to ensure society can feed its growing population. Plant scientists need not worry about possible applications of their research because these are likely to be in agriculture. If better plants are produced they will yield more and more people will be fed.
Teaching scientists to believe this story ensures they have no interest in analyzing the role of research in society. If science is pure and neutral, and scientists work for love not money, what is there to worry about?
But I found the myth hard to rationalize. It seemed unlikely that the US Government was really concerned about poverty and hunger given its past record, or that it was far-sighted enough to invest in research with a low probability of pay-off.
And I realized too that new high-yielding plants do not necessarily solve world hunger, as the results of the Green Revolution show. They may increase agricultural output, but they also bump up costs because they need more fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Only rich farmers can afford the new technology. They grow more crops for export – like cotton, soybeans and oil palm – and as their plantations expand, poor people are driven from the countryside to live in city slums. This pattern has recurred throughout the Third World and even in the US.
The real winners from the higher-yielding, uniform plant varieties, are the multinational corporations that supply the inputs Monsanto, Ciba-Geigy, Dupont; Atlantic Richfield, Unilever, for example. Bankers also profit by loaning big money to Third World countries to build the roads, dams and processing plants necessary to maintain cash crop economies: debt repayment has created a net flow of money from the impoverished South to the banks of the North. Contrary to the scientists’ myth, the fruits of scientific knowledge benefit the well-off, not the poor who really need help.
When I realized all this, I started considering the kinds of research my colleagues and I were doing. Did we really choose what was most interesting or were our imaginations manipulated by the needs of agribusiness?
In biology there is a heavy bias towards funding the most reductionist areas: much more is spent on the study of molecules and cells than on ecology, for example. Research likely to be useful for biotechnology receives a disproportionate amount of money – and thus talent – for it is most likely to generate results that can be patented, or which require special expertize to develop, thus generating profits. Ecological principles are no less useful for the farmer wishing to control pests, or to conserve water. But their application is less likely to result in tangible money-spinning products, like seeds, chemicals or machines.
Most scientists are unaware that their research interests are shaped directly by funding, and indirectly by status and other rewards. Or that their subject areas are determined ultimately by the needs of agribusiness. I myself was fully participating in the agenda of agribusiness without realizing it: I consulted for big companies where members of the biotechnology team at two big companies, Monsanto and Dupont, were sitting on grant panels at the National Science Foundation, helping to decide how public money was spent. I published results as fast as my lab could generate them without considering the consequences. My closest colleagues were spread equally between academic and industry labs, doing indistinguishable kinds of research. And I did not question any of this.
But when I realized how the myth of plant science operates, I had to stop and do something else. In April 1990 I wrote an essay describing the destructive effects of my own research – helping to produce more uniform oil plants which would ultimately undercut Third World economies – which stimulated many scientists to write to me about their own similar concerns. Today I am working to change agriculture back towards a decentralized, non-export system of local food production. Until food is removed from the realm of global commodities, new knowledge about plants will always be used against nature and against the poor.
Martha Crouch is associate professor at Indiana University in the US, and lectures in the biology of food.