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Revolution from the aisle? Anti-biotechnology activism and the politics of agrifood restructuring

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(Thesis) Ph.D.
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Genetic engineering as scientific practice and a package of social relations has deeply marked the global political economy. Yet, the future of agricultural applications is uncertain. In the United States, the global leader in GE production, the industry’s dominance is challenged by a growing opposition movement intent on slowing commercial introductions, increasing regulation and shifting decision-making power from biotechnology corporations to citizens. Geographers and agrifood scholars herald this movement as a critical point of resistance to the forces of political economic change. Indeed, to the extent that activists question corporate power, neoliberalization and agricultural industrialization they can play a crucial role in determining social, economic and environmental relations within and outside the food system. However, at present, there has been little assessment of the significance of contemporary tactics, strategies and practices. This project offers the first systematic examination of the movement in California, a centre of research and development and grassroots activism. Using case studies of GE Free Sonoma and the Non-GMO Project, I document the history, effect and potential of organized campaigns and the everyday practices of rank-and-file volunteers. I argue that although the movement developed as a way to oppose the environmental and social injustices of neoliberalization, it also reproduces problematic social and economic cleavages and neoliberal rationalities. In the first section, I trace the development of California’s GE Free movement and the implications of GE Free Sonoma’s campaign discourse. I then explore the unorganized tactics of the group’s volunteers through the concept of everyday resistance. The discussion pays particular attention to the complexity and increasing use of consumer and market-focused activism. I argue that “voting with your dollar” can be a neoliberal conceit or a possible route to alternative economies. Activism simply needs to step out of the supermarket aisle. The second section continues this examination of market tactics and assesses the consequences of the Non-GMO Project’s proposed Non-GMO certification. After reviewing the group’s history, I discuss the economic, regulatory and biological obstacles to negative labelling. Ultimately, this study is intended as both a critical challenge to activism and a resource to strengthen radical agrifood politics.
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