Fields of Zombies


Claire Pentecost

We begin with the seed. In this case a very particular cache of seeds banked in a remote and barren location: Svalbard, Norway, 620 miles from the North Pole. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault functions as a back-up depository to a network of official seedbanks worldwide. Boasting dual blast proof doors with motion sensors, two airlocks, and walls of steel reinforced concrete one meter thick, the so-called “Doomsday” seed vault is advertised as a kind of insurance “against both incremental and catastrophic loss of crop diversity held in genebanks around the world.”

In the history of agriculture, seeds represent a kind of knowledge. I’m interested in the Doomsday seed vault as a model of knowledge, the idea that if you lock up the world’s library on a given subject and consign its administration to a few powerful people, it will be safe, it will ultimately be available to the people who know best how to use it. Technically owned by the Norwegian government, Doomsday is administered by NordGen, the regional seedbank of the Nordic Countries, and an advisory council called the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Major donors to the Global Crop Diversity include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Dupont subsidiary Pioneer Hi-Bred—the 2nd largest seed company in the world, Syngenta Corporation—the 3rd largest seed company, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and several governments.

There are no permanent staff persons on-site at Doomsday as it is monitored by electronic surveillance. Indeed, one of the curious things about Svalbard is how far it is from the people who might actually use the material in the vault. It presents an idea of knowledge as an object that can be secured without people. What is implied about who is going to use that material and how? Remember that CGIAR and the Rockefeller Foundation were responsible for the Green Revolution, which brought industrial monoculture to the third world making it dependent on expensive seeds and chemical inputs from the first world. Both parties are presently collaborating with the Gates Foundation to bring a new green revolution to Africa and all three are strong advocates of biotechnology as a solution to world hunger.

Halfway across the globe, we have a counter-model of knowledge: Navdanya, a program of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE). It’s basically a seed-savers cooperative and exchange system in India started by scientist and environmental activist Vandana Shiva. In this system, the seeds can be borrowed by any farmer who then consents to use them by planting and then returning a portion of seeds saved from the harvest to the collective so that other farmers can continue to cultivate them. This model follows a different logic of knowledge distribution and conservation, in which the knowledge is distributed in a system of reciprocity and kept in active practice and development. It proposes that the best security for plant diversity is a widely distributed practice of actually using, planting, developing and exchanging the seeds freely. The development and exchange of genetic plant material in the form of seeds is perhaps the longest running open-source knowledge network in human history. Navdanya is only one, well-publicized example, as we have literally countless official and unofficial seed savers’ exchanges operating in the world, practicing open-source cultivation and simultaneously providing security of food, genetic material along with working knowledge of the materials.

Given the continued robustness of this system, what are the threats to the global genetic diversity? According to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, these threats include natural disasters, poor management and lack of infrastructure, and war (such as the reckless occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, which allowed their national seed banks to be destroyed).

But there are other threats to crop, seed and genetic diversity that the Svalbard webpage doesn’t mention. The most pressing threat to the flourishing of agricultural biodiversity supported by farmer-driven, open source seed research is the monocultural industrial agriculture system, long dominated by patented hybrid seeds and increasingly dominated by the makers and marketers of genetically modified organisms or GMO crops. It’s important to understand the extent to which GMOs are designed to consolidate monocultural industrial agriculture and what that system does to the kind of food security provided by having a large and diverse population of small farmers practicing agricultural knowledge and research on the ground.

Interestingly, there are no plans to store GMO seeds in the doomsday seed vault. They represent some of the most assiduously protected kinds of knowledge ever produced. Though widely distributed, they are maintained in another kind of vault, one constructed through legal and policing systems.

On February 20, 2009, The New York Times published an article by Andrew Pollack. The occasion for this article was a statement submitted to the EPA by 26 corn-insect specialists on the impossibility of conducting independent research on GMO crops. “The problem, the scientists say, is that farmers and other buyers of genetically engineered seeds have to sign an agreement meant to ensure that growers honor company patent rights and environmental regulations. But the agreements also prohibit growing the crops for research purposes.”

Contracts restricting buyers are not the only problem for these scientists. As the article relates, the scientists who wrote the complaint to the EPA withheld their names for fear of being blacklisted by the corporations against whom the complaint is lodged.

“Dr. Shields of Cornell said financing for agricultural research had gradually shifted from the public sector to the private sector. That makes many scientists at universities dependent on financing or technical cooperation from the big seed companies.” Independent science has long been one of the casualties of corporate intellectual patents and the privatization of our university system.

But the larger part of our agricultural heritage is the outcome of science in the field, practiced by farmers. Like the scientists, farmers who buy GMO seeds sign contracts agreeing they will not even save the seed from one harvest to the next, much less exchange them or practice the kind of open source knowledge development and sharing that has informed agricultural practice for millennia. The knowledge and skill that was once securely distributed in the heads and hands of millions of farmers worldwide, is rapidly being transferred to vaults controlled by a few private interests.

Despite all this protection from independent research, a shoddy kind of science is being practiced via GMOs in the field in large, uncontrolled and sketchily documented experiments. Despite the efforts of the seed companies to obscure it, the evidence of the effects of the GMO system is mounting. Take the case of Argentina. Up until the 1980’s Argentina’s agriculture system was dominated by small family farms growing a wide variety of crops, with small-scale animal husbandry in the same locations so that animal manure was used as fertilizer. The productivity of Argentina’s farmers contributed to one of the highest standards of living in Latin America, feeding the country with a diverse diet and producing surpluses for export. The ravaging of Argentina’s economy by a U.S. backed military dictatorship and other corrupt regimes, years of IMF austerity plans, structural adjustment, privatization, liberalization and fire sales to foreign investors is a long sad tale, but it made the country particularly ripe for the promises of the latest imported cure-all: GMO agriculture for export cash. Between 1997 and 2003 more than half of Argentina’s arable land was converted to Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready transgenic soy. Roundup Ready crops are engineered to resist Monsanto’s blockbuster glyphosate-based herbicide, RoundUp. They are designed to be part of a system that relies on expensive petroleum based inputs of pesticide, herbicide and artificial fertilizers and the labor-cutting machinery that makes it turn a profit. Since the capital intensive outlay to run such a system is very expensive, it results in larger, fewer farms and the inevitable concentration of wealth in the hands of a much smaller proportion of large corporate landholders. Since the introduction of GMO soy monoculture in Argentina, upwards of 200,000 peasants and small farmers have been driven off the land and into the poverty cycle of large cities and unemployment.

The environmental and health hazards have been monumental. Initially captured by the promise of requiring less herbicide than conventional agriculture, over time farmers use much more due to the naturally evolving resistance in the weeds repeatedly doused with the same herbicide. Glyphosate usage in Argentina skyrocketed from 13.9 million liters in 1997 to 150 million in 2003. What we have learned from such intensive use is that RoundUp destroys the beneficial microbes that break down organic matter and nourish the soil to produce nutritious food. Meanwhile the spread of resistant weeds and unwanted GMO soy is so pernicious that, in an effort to control it, farmers are using other, even more virulent herbicides like atrazine, paraquat, metsulfaron and clopyralid, marketed by other multinational chemical companies like Dow, Dupont and Syngenta. In this mammoth uncontrolled experiment, we have also learned that large dosages of glyphosate produce birth defects in humans and livestock, skin, respiratory and neurological diseases in people unlucky enough to live in the vicinity.

Where is all this soy going? To the confined animal feeding operations mostly in the north, to provide meat for the increasingly unhealthy people of richer nations. In Argentina itself, hunger has risen over 13% in the period that saw the rise of transgenic monoculture.

One of the curious things about the case of Argentina is that Monsanto marketed its RoundUp Ready system there without having obtained a protection for its patent. This meant that early adaptors to the technology paid no royalty fees and did not sign the usual contract forbidding them to save, share, exchange or sell the seed produced in the harvest. Was this a bad calculation on Monsanto’s part? Or a ruse to have the seed spread rapidly to the entire southern cone? Brazil, which initially outlawed GMO technology, finally threw in the towel and legalized it in 2005. By then, so much transgenic seed had crossed the border from its neighbor that this other agricultural giant decided it was better to legalize and try to regulate it than try to enforce laws against it. Whatever Monsanto’s original plan, by 2004 they stopped selling the seeds to Argentinian farmers and pressured their government into creating a “Technology Compensation Fund” by imposing an extra tax when they sold their soy to the multinational grain exporters.

What’s so striking about this case is that even without initial patent protection, the introduction of transgenic seeds was used to transform a system into industrial monoculture, effectively eradicating small farmers and the practices that safeguard genetic diversity and distribution. Along with agricultural biodiversity, subsistence agriculture, food security, nutrition and autonomy all go down the tubes.

These risks are real.

But there is another risk growing here and that is to the credibility of science itself. In the words of sociologist Ulrich Beck, “the sciences’ monopoly on rationality is broken.” In his 1984 book “Risk Society” Beck describes what he calls a second or “reflexive” modernity, which applies to affluent, industrialized, “post-scarcity” economies. In this phase society becomes more significantly characterized by the risks posed by industrialization than by its achievements. Beck elucidates several distinguishing features of risk society:

  • The risks are invisible and difficult to analyze by conventional scientific methods of singly located cause and effect;
  • The risks extend in space so that national or any constructed boundaries do not contain them; they extend in time so that no one knows exactly when or how they will actually jeopardize health and well being;
  • New players arise whose very business is risk, exploiting it as another frontier for profit.
  • Expertise loses credibility, compromised by exaggerated claims that rarely turn out to be as advertised or have produced security and wealth for only a privileged few, compromised also by their own internal contradictions and increasingly by the mounting evidence of complicity with predatory commercial interests.
  • Society becomes most critically organized around risk positions; individuals and groups are defined by degrees of vulnerability to various threats.
  • Knowledge becomes a key factor: the more you know about the dangers, the better equipped you are to avoid them, provided of course, that you have the means.

In the 1980’s Beck was particularly concerned with nuclear war, nuclear waste and environmental toxins. To those dangers we can now add climate change and the global economic crisis. Unfortunately, still mired in false controversies, overwhelming scale and incalculable futurity, on the level of perception climate change persists—misleadingly—in the realm of invisible, vague threats. But the financial breakdown is all too present. Because it is undeniably upon us, transforming daily life into an unrelenting episode of high anxiety, the global financial crisis is particularly illustrative. At its core is a collapse of risk evaluation, a case of colossal risk profiteering and mismanagement. Expertise, through ineptitude or corruption, is seen to have masked a failure to estimate the risks involved for all of us. What we have is a legitimation crisis for the entire neoliberal system and ideology.

Beck reminds us that simultaneous to the growing centrality of risk, we have developed the technologies for unprecedented reflexivity. More than ever, we have the tools for populations to educate themselves widely and deeply on the nature of our risks and on the authorities we may have once trusted to protect us. We have the tools to develop, share and enhance knowledge about the state of our world and our options. As authority breaks down, more of us realize that what we need is simply not going to be provided for us by experts. We embark on a path of massive collective self-education.

The question is: how we are going to confront the terrors now breaking through the long running, lopsided fantasy of progress through technology? How will we understand and respond to the risks that can no longer be ignored? I have highlighted two models of the risk of biodiversity devastation, designating them as the “Doomsday Vault model” and the “Navdanya model.” The doomsday vault consolidates old arrangements—the management of risk by select authorities whose interests have proven to be self-preservation. It doesn’t acknowledge monocultural industrial agriculture as a threat but rather presumes it as a given. It doesn’t acknowledge the question of who is going to activate the knowledge inherent in a seedbank because it presumes the condition of zombies in the field, humans emptied of volition, following remote instructions from labs, markets and legal teams. The Navdanya model cannot be actualized by zombies. It presumes that knowledge AND its materials will thrive when it is exercised by populations invested fully in agency and responsibility. This is a model that presents a different tuning to the risks involved in its deployment, a tuning shared by the people who must bear the responsibility for that knowledge and also the consequences of choices we make about it.

How do we as artists fit into this scenario? The practice of art can also be seen as a model of knowledge production, conservation and distribution. Artists are particularly well suited to a practice of public amateurism, a kind of experimental and experiential learning in an affective sphere of open exchange. Most are able to garner some scale of a public, they generally have access to cognitive resources, their work is open to scrutiny and they are accorded the freedom to experiment. Scientists’ freedom is increasingly constrained by a dependence on large market players and the rules they enforce through both funding and legal imbalances.

The freedom of artists is primarily limited by self-constraint, by careerist accommodationism to the vault constructed by the major legitimizing institutions of museums, commercial galleries, mainstream art magazines and ultimately the art market. Let’s call it the Boomsday Vault model: millions of artists betting on the control of their individual careers in the hands of a market oriented validation authority. But it’s not the only model. Just as vernacular seed exchanges are not waiting for the catastrophe that will send us begging to the doomsday bosses, alternative systems of artistic validation are flourishing. They are building a living, open core where artists leverage their symbolic power in tune with growing social movements.

Art by itself is not going to change fundamental social conditions, not only because that takes broad social movements, but also because, when detached from collective social demand for change, the critical power of art is so easily turned to the service of masking the contradiction between inequitable arrangements of power and the rhetoric of liberal democracies. Almost a century of both internal and external critique– from the Dadaists to the Situationists, from Marcuse to Gramsci, and on and on, should have taught us something by now: that art repeatedly forfeits the power to leverage its critical play toward real social change, serving instead as an aestheticized zombie in the latest field of capitalist exploitation and inequality. The world capitalist system that has brought us to the brink of meltdown is currently undergoing the gravest legitimation crisis of our lifetime and we have to ask ourselves how our agency will fare in that crisis. As the art market rises and falls with capitalism’s fortunes, so, inversely, does the credibility of art as an autonomous practice.

Artists’ desire to cross over disciplinary boundaries like those guarding the sciences is an expression of a desire to be part of something larger than art. If we want to do more than supply diverse novelties to the Doomsday Vault, we need to couple our efforts to those of collective movements to change the conditions of our existence.

The proposition that sophisticated modern finance was able to transfer risk to those best able to manage it has failed. The paradigm is, instead, that risk has been transferred to those least able to understand it. As Mr. Volcker remarked during a speech last April: “Simply stated, the bright new financial system – for all its talented participants, for all its rich rewards – has failed the test of the marketplace.”

This text was produced in conjunction with AgriArt: Companion Planting for Social and Biological Systems, an exhibition curated by Mark Cooley and Ryan Griffis at George Mason University, April 21 – May 15, 2009.

Claire Pentecost

Claire Pentecost is Assistant Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she teaches photography, drawing, critical theory and interdisciplinary seminars. She also has extensive experience as a visiting artist and lecturer in many other schools and institutions. She has exhibited her photographs and sculptural installations in the U.S., Europe and South America. Her background is in painting but she engages a variety of media to interrogate the imaginative and institutional structures that mediate our relations with the natural world. Her most recent work investigates the corporate control of almost every facet of our food system. She has worked as an Exhibits Specialist for the Bronx Zoo and for three years was co-organizer/curator of Four Walls, a non-profit forum for artist-initiated projects in Brooklyn. In addition to her work in the visual arts, she has published fiction and art criticism and produced interviews and reviews for radio.