, Volume 22, Issue 3, pp 275-283

Ever Since Hightower: The Politics of Agricultural Research Activism in the Molecular Age

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Abstract

In 1973, Jim Hightower and his associates at the Agribusiness Accountability Project dropped a bombshell – Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times – on the land-grant college and agricultural science establishments. From the early 1970s until roughly 1990, Hightower-style criticism of and activism toward the public agricultural research system focused on a set of closely interrelated themes: the tendencies for the publicly supported research enterprise to be an unwarranted taxpayer subsidy of agribusiness, for agricultural research and extension to favor large farmers and be disadvantageous for family farmers, for public research to stress mechanization while ignoring the concerns and interests of farm workers, and for the research and extension establishment to ignore rural poverty and other rural social problems. By 1990, however, there had been a quite fundamental restructuring of the agricultural technology opposition movement – one that is not often well recognized. Two overarching changes had occurred. First, agricultural-technology activism had shifted from contesting land-grant/public research priorities and practices to contesting private agribusiness technological priorities and practices. Second, the relatively integrated, overarching Hightower-type opposition had undergone bifurcation into two quite distinct social movements: the agricultural sustainability/local food systems movement on one hand, and the anti-GM food/crop and anti-food-system-globalization movement on the other. In this paper I explore the causes and consequences of these restructurings of the agricultural research and technology opposition movement. Chief among the major factors involved was the fact that “Hightowerism'' involved an ineffectual representational politics. Hightowerist claims – especially the claim that land-grant research was detrimental to family farmers – generated little support among the groups it claimed to represent (particularly “small'' or “family'' farmers). The two successor movements, by contrast, have relatively clear and dependable constituents. Further, the progressive molecularization of agricultural research, which proved to be both an antecedent and consequence of corporate involvement in agricultural research in the US, has decisively changed the issues that are contested by technology activists. Since the age of Hightower, the agricultural technology activist movement has shifted its 1970s and early 1980s emphasis from contesting public sector/land-grant research priorities to contesting private sector activities, particularly genetic engineering, GM crops, and globalization of agricultural technologies and regulatory practices. Even the sustainability/localism wing of the new agricultural technology movement configuration has progressively backed away from contesting public research priorities. The efforts of the sustainable agricultural and localism movement have increasingly focused on quasi-private efforts such as community supported agriculture, green/“value-added'' labeling and marketing strategies, and community food security. Some implications of this increasingly bifurcated, agricultural technology, activist movement configuration in which there is decreased interest in land-grant/public research priorities are discussed.

Frederick H. Buttel was Professor and past Chair, Department of Rural Sociology, Professor of Environmental Studies, and Associate Director of the Program on Agricultural Technology Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison. In addition to having served as President of the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (19981999), he was President of the Rural Sociological Society (19901991) and the recipient of their Distinguished. Rural Sociologist Award (2004). In 2004, he received the University of Wisconsin's highest honor and was named The William H. Sewell Professor of Rural Sociology.