The maturing of capitalist agriculture: farmer as proletarian.

Lewontin, R.C. "The maturing of capitalist agriculture: farmer as proletarian.Monthly Review 50.n3 (July-August 1998): 72(13). Expanded Academic ASAP. Thomson Gale. Univ of California Santa Cruz (CDL). 7 July 2006 


Capitalism occurred in agriculture as a result of the flowering of input industries and output processors. It has succeeded in widening the sphere of input commodity production and it has made possible vertical integration and the proletarianization of the farmer.

Full Text:COPYRIGHT 1998 Monthly Review Foundation, Inc.

We are all familiar with the classical story of how capitalism came to dominate industrial production and how capitalist relations of production swallowed up the individual artisanal producer. We recognize the power that the capitalist mode has to infiltrate and finally transform other forms of the organization of production and exchange. We sometimes think that the power of that transformation is so great that all of the significant action already occurred in the past, at least in Europe and North America, and was essentially over by the end of the nineteenth century. In the society we inhabit, it is a fait accompli, whose dynamic we can only understand by reconstructing the past because it is not happening around us. On second thought we realize that the transition was still in progress until very recently in a few skilled domains like medical care and entertainment, where individual artisans were able to ply their trade throughout most of this century, but these fossils of early capitalist relations seem exceptional because of their requirement of special talents or of necessary skills acquired by long training. But the view that the transition to mature capitalism is essentially over except at the margins of the main body of commodity production is clearly wrong, because it ignores an immense sector of basic essential commodity production, agriculture, which is still in the throes of the transition.

The penetration of capital into agriculture has been a long process of a different form than the classical case of industrial production usually exemplified by cloth weaving in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Indeed, on the surface agriculture would seem to have been resistant to capital. After all, despite a 72 percent drop in the number of of individual farm enterprises in the United States from 6.7 million in 1930, there are still about 1.8 million independent farm producers today. This means that even though only 6 percent of these establishments account for 60 percent of the total value of farm production, there are over 100,000 separate enterprises producing more than half of all the value of the output. In the industrial manufacturing sector the four largest enterprises account for an average of 40 percent of value produced, and even in a highly differentiated product like clothing the top four companies produce over 15 percent of the value.

There has also been a major increase in the proportion of farmland that is leased to farmers who also own their own land. Roughly 55 percent of farmland is now operated by owner-renters who are for the most part small producers. Finally, despite the conventional wisdom that corporate farming is taking over, the proportion of farms and farmland operated by managers representing absentee owners has remained about 1 percent since the beginning of the century. Thus if we are to look for evidence of the capitalist transformation of agriculture, we will not find it in the classical industrial model. We do not find a concentration of more and more productive capacity in the hands of a very small number of farmers, employing a large wage labor force carrying out its tasks under close supervision and according to a tightly controlled schedule. There are, of course, some examples of a factory-like labor process in farming, especially in the harvesting of fruits and fresh vegetables, and these are often pointed to as evidence of a capitalist transformation to factory farming. However, the vast majority of farm enterprises do not employ a large labor force, but more typically have one or two hired laborers, usually for only part of the year.

In analyzing the process of the capitalist transformation of agriculture we must distinguish between farming and the agrifood system. Farming is the physical process of turning inputs like seed, feed, water, fertilizer, and pesticides into primary products like wheat, potatoes, and cattle on a specific site, the farm, using soil, labor, and machinery. The failure of classical capitalist concentration in farming arises from both financial and physical features of farm production. First, the ownership of farmland is unattractive to capital because it cannot be depreciated, and investment in farmland has very low liquidity as a consequence of the thin farm real estate market. Second, the labor process on very large farms is hard to control because farming operations are spatially extensive. Third, economies of scale are hard to achieve beyond what has already been realized by medium-scale enterprises. Fourth, risks from external natural events like weather, new diseases, and pests are hard to control. Finally, the cycle of reproduction of capital cannot be shortened because it is linked to an annual growth cycle in plants, or a fixed reproductive cycle in large animals. An important exception to this constraint has been in poultry, where there has been considerable success in shortening the reproductive cycle, and this has had important ramifications for the development of capitalist farming as we will see. For all of these reasons we do not expect to see, and have not seen, the wholesale direct takeover of farm ownership by large corporate enterprises employing large, well-controlled labor forces.

The agrifood system, however, is not simply farming. It includes the farm operation, but also the production, transportation, and marketing of the inputs to farming, as well as the transportation, processing, and marketing of the farm outputs. While farming is a physically essential step in the entire chain of agricultural production, the provision of farm inputs and the transformation of farm outputs into consumer commodities have come to dominate the economy of agriculture. Farming itself now accounts for only about 10 percent of the value added in the agrifood system, with 25 percent of the food dollar paying for farm inputs and the remaining 65 percent gained by transportation, processing, and marketing that converts farm products into consumer commodities. At the beginning of the century the value added on the farm was around 40 percent of the total food dollar, and many of the inputs were produced directly on the farm in the form of seed, draught animals, feed for the animals, manure and green manure for fertilizer, and family labor. For the most part these inputs are now purchased in the form of commercial seed, tractors, fuel, refined or synthesized chemical fertilizers, and machinery and manufactured chemical substitutes for labor. Thus, it is the production of farm inputs and the transformation of farm outputs that have provided an opportunity for industrial capital to capture profits in the agricultural sector.

Like any other industrial processes, the production of farm machinery, chemicals, and seeds, and the turning of threshed wheat into a box of breakfast cereal at the supermarket checkout counter are completely controlled by capital and its demands. The problem for capital, however, has been that sitting in the middle of the transformation of petroleum into potato chips is an essential step, farming, in the hands of two million petty producers. They cannot be dispensed with, they own certain essential means of production whose ownership cannot be concentrated (land in particular), and, while they are economically rational, they consume their surplus rather than turning it into capital. Agriculture is unique among all the sectors of capitalist production by possessing at its productive center an essential process organized around large numbers of independent petty producers. It is as if the spinning of yarn, the weaving of cloth, and the sewing of garments were in the hands of a few large capital enterprises (as they are), but the dyeing and finishing of the raw woven material were unavoidably the exclusive province of hundreds of thousands of home producers who bought the unfinished cloth and sold their product to clothing factories.

Farm producers have historically been in possession of two powers that stood in the way of the development of capital in agriculture. First, farmers could make choices about the physical process of farm production, including what was grown and how much, and what inputs were to be used. These choices, of course, were always constrained, partly because of local conditions of climate and soil, and partly because of the local nature of markets for farm products. Second, farmers were themselves traditionally potential competitors with the commercial providers of inputs, because they could choose to produce seed, traction power, and fertilizer themselves. The problem for industrial capital, then, has been to wrest control of the choices from the farmers, forcing them into a farming process that uses a package of inputs of maximum value to the producers of those inputs, and tailoring the nature of farm products to match the demands of a few major purchasers of farm outputs who have the power to determine the price paid. Whatever production risks remain are, of course, retained by the farmer. As the farmer loses any power to choose the actual nature and tempo of the production process in which he or she is engaged, while at the same time losing any ability to sell the product in an open market, the farmer becomes a mere operative in a determined chain whose product is alienated from the producer. That is, the farmer becomes proletarianized. It is of little import that the farmer retains legal title to the land and buildings and so, in some literal sense, is the owner of some of the means of production. There is no alternative economic use for these means. The essence of proletarianization is in the loss of control over one's labor process and the alienation of the product of that labor.

How has this transformation of farming been accomplished? In the first stages, in the century between the invention of reaping machines and the end of the Second World War, innovations in farming directly addressed that problem of the availability, cost, and control of farm labor through mechanization. No farmer could resist the arrival of the tractor, nor could one be home built. After the Second World War, refined and synthetic chemical treatments became the chief purchased inputs in the form of fertilizer, insecticides, and labor-saving herbicides. Again, these purchased inputs could not be resisted because of the large increase in yields and the reduction in labor. Herbicides, in particular, also reduced the requirement for tillage machinery, insecticides reduced the uncertainty of a successful crop, hormone sprays allowed for a close control of ripening time in fruit crops, and antibiotics prevented animal diseases. Once again there could be no competition between these industrial products and self-produced farm inputs.

The analysis of the growing role of capital inputs cannot be made, however, if a central feature of the productive process is lost sight of: the concrete use of all these inputs is to produce living organisms. The steps of mechanization and the use of chemicals were not possible in isolation from the nature of the organisms being produced. Unlike in other sectors of production, in agriculture living organisms are at the nexus of all input streams and are the primary sources of all output transformations. But living organisms are mortal, so their production requires their reproduction. That is, every cycle of farm production begins with seeds or immature animals to which value is added by on-the-farm operations, so seed (or the "seed" animal) is the central input into farming. The control of the biological nature of these seed organisms is a critical element in the control of the entire process of agricultural production, which puts the provider of this input in a unique position to valorize other inputs. For example, while a dramatic drop in the price of nitrogen fertilizer at the end of the Second World War made it economically possible for farmers to use this input in large quantifies, for this input to be useful it was necessary to breed plants, corn hybrids in particular, that could, in fact, turn a massive nitrogen application into crop yield. The successful mechanization of tomato harvesting was only possible by a close cooperation of the machine designers with plant breeders. The breeders completely remade the biology of the tomato plant, turning a loosely branched plant that flowers and sets easily bruised fruit continuously over the growing season into a short, stout, Christmas tree-like plant whose tough fruits all ripen at about the same time.

The consequence of the central position of seed input in the production process is that seed companies are potentially in an extraordinarily powerful position to appropriate a large fraction of the surplus in agriculture. There is a barrier to this realization however. The seed of a desirable variety, when planted by the farmer, produces plants that themselves produce yet more seed of the variety. Thus the seed company has provided the farmer with a free good, the genetic information contained in the seed, that is reproduced by the farmer over and over again in the very act of farming. Some way must be found to prevent the farmer from reproducing the seed for next year's crop. The historical answer to this problem was the development of the inbred/hybrid method of breeding, using hybrid crosses between inbred lines, which makes it possible to sell seed that will produce hybrid plants, but which themselves do not reproduce hybrids. Because the second generation would not be true hybrids and thus would lose yield and be more variable, the farmer must go back to the seed company every year to buy new seed. As a result of the immense profits made by seed companies selling hybrid maize seed, the method was spread into other organisms such as tomatoes and chickens. Moreover major commercial hybrid seed and chicken breeders like Dekalb, Funk, and Northrup-King were at one time acquired by pharmaceutical and chemical companies like Ciba-Geigy, Monsanto, and Dow, although subsequently there have been divestments and realignments. Only the largest hybrid seed company, Pioneer Hy-Bred, remained obdurately independent until, in 1997, 20 percent of its equity and two seats on its board were purchased by DuPont.

Generally, the ability of commercial seed companies to control seed inputs by the inbred/hybrid method was severely limited. First, the method cannot be made economically workable in many important crops like soybeans and wheat, or in large animals. Second, while the inbred/hybrid method was successful for general yield increase, large numbers of important specific characters such as resistance to particular diseases, or resistance to herbicides, or increases in oil content in oil seeds, do not show hybrid vigor, but must be introduced by other breeding methods. Third, there are characteristics that would be desirable to introduce into an agronomically important species, but which are present in other organisms that cannot breed with the species under cultivation. The most famous example was the desire to make corn plants able to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, as legumes are able to do, by making their roots hospitable to nitrogen-fixing bacteria. While this would reduce the market for nitrogenous fertilizers, it would place the provision of nitrogen in the hands of seed companies!

The limitations on what changes could be made to agronomic species that would be profitable to seed companies and their chemical company partners or owners meant that the penetration of capital into agriculture had reached its apparent limits in the 1970s. The introduction of major new forms of mechanization into farm production had come to an end, partly because of the dramatic change in the cost of fuel and partly because a steady supply of immigrant labor that could be deported smiled progress in agricultural labor organizing. The growing public consciousness of the polluting effects of fertilizers and pesticides and the development of OSHA regulations to protect farm workers against the deleterious effects of insecticide and herbicide sprays discouraged radical changes in the uses of chemicals or even continued growth in the use of older materials. In addition, these fertilizers and pesticides were being used at very high rates, probably higher than could be economically justified by the farmer. There was, for example, no growth in fertilizers after 1975 or in synthetic pesticide application rates beginning in about 1980. Any further possibility for input providers and output purchasers to increase their appropriation of the surplus in agriculture depended on 1) making some radical changes in the biology of agronomic species, and 2) guaranteeing that such changed biological systems would remain within their ownership and control. Moreover, that appropriation could be greatly increased by a greater consolidation of both input and post-farm production sectors (purchasing, processing, and distribution), to provide near monopoly control. Enter biotechnology.

Biotechnology and the Control of Properly

The claim is being made here that the purpose of the commercial use of biotechnology is to extend the control of capital over agricultural production. To accomplish this purpose biotechnological innovation should meet three criteria. First, the time and cost of its development must be within the limits set by capital investments in research. Thus, the attempt to introduce nitrogen fixation into non-leguminous plants has been largely abandoned by Agricetus, Agrigenetica, Biotechnica, and other biotechnology enterprises after spending over $75 million on the problem over more than ten years, despite the evidence that it ought to be possible, and despite the immense profits that could be made if it were successful. Second, the development must not provoke a significant challenge from politically effective forces concerned with health and environmental issues. All biotechnological innovations have been challenged on the basis of environmental and health risks, and this contributed significantly to the demise of at least one early biotech project. An important impetus for introducing biotechnology is that the resistance to yet further applications of fertilizer and pesticides was impeding further increase in the appropriation of the surplus in agriculture by input producers. Third, ownership and control of the product of biotechnology must not pass into the hands of the farmer but must remain with the commercial provider of the input.

The requirement that the biotechnological innovator maintain ownership and control over the altered variety creates a contradiction. As previously discussed, the farmer acquires a free good, the genetic information contained in the seed, when he or she purchases a new variety, and the breeder loses its ownership. The property rights protection offered by the inbred/hybrid method is limited to a few organisms and a few agronomic characteristics, and biotechnology has been introduced in precisely those instances where the inbred/hybrid method does not apply. How, then, can breeders appropriate a greater share of the surplus when they are giving away the critical material, the genes? The answer has been provided by a combination of legal and biological weapons in the hands of the breeders. These weapons are legal rights granted to breeders by the Plant Variety Protection Act and subsequent court decisions, in combination with the use of standard DNA "fingerprinting" that allows an unambiguous determination of the source of farm products. It is now standard that a farmer who wishes to purchase a bioengineered seed must sign a contract with the seed producer giving away all property rights in the next generation of seed produced by the crop. Not only does the farmer undertake not to sell seed from the crop to other farmers ("brown bagging"), but more revolutionary, the farmer is prohibited from using the next generation of seed to produce next year's crop on his or her own farm. All farmers who buy seed of Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans, or that company's seed potatoes for a special variety that makes "light" potato chips with low oil retention, must, by the terms of the contract, return to Monsanto in the next season if they wish to continue production of those varieties. (Monsanto is the producer of Roundup, a potent herbicide that kills all plants including soybeans. "Roundup Ready" soybeans, produced by genetic engineering, can be grown in fields heavily treated with Roundup without killing them and, presumably, without materially affecting their yield.) The enforcement of such a contract depends on the ability of Monsanto to identify a crop, and this can easily be done from a single plant or even a single seed because the DNA of the engineered variety contains certain characteristic sequences, placed there deliberately by the genetic engineers, that are unique to the variety. The assay of crops for such labeled sequences is called "genome control" by the biotechnology laboratories of seed producers, and a considerable laboratory effort has been put into developing these detection techniques. Nevertheless some brown bagging and replanting has been taking place. In reaction, Monsanto has placed full-page advertisements in magazines read by farmers, threatening and cajoling:

When a farmer saves and replants Monsanto patented biotech seed, he understands that what he is doing is wrong. And that, even if he did not sign an agreement at the time he acquired the seed [that is, replanted or bought "brown bag" seed from a neighbor], he is committing an act of piracy.... Furthermore, seed piracy could cost a farmer hundreds of dollars per acre in cash settlements and legal fees, plus multiple years of on-farm and business records inspection.

It only takes a few widely publicized legal judgments to keep the rest in line.

But the story of property rights has yet one more chapter. The inbred/hybrid method only applies to a few organisms, and the contract system requires threats, monitoring, and litigation to make it work. It is biotechnology that has now perfected the solution to ownership in seed crops. It was announced on March 3, 1998 that a patent had been granted for a genetic manipulation that would allow plants to set seed and therefore make a crop, but which would render those seeds unable to germinate. Thus, at one blow, the problem of capitalist seed production, first addressed by the invention of the inbred/hybrid method at the beginning of this century, has been solved for all seed crops. As the inventors point out, there is still development to be carried out before this bit of biotechnology becomes a commercial reality, but there seems no bar to its transfer to any crop. And who are the inventors and owners of this patent? They are the Delta and Pine Land Company, a leading breeder and producer of cotton seed and soybean seed, and the Agricultural Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture. Yet there is no suggestion that this development will be of any benefit to farmers or consumers. We could hardly ask for a more blatant case of state support of private property interests to the exclusion of any public benefit.

The use of the contract to enforce breeders' property rights allows us to make some predictions about the limitations of genetic engineering. At the present time the hormone BST, which causes dairy cows to direct more of their metabolism to milk production, is produced commercially by Monsanto in fermenters using genetically altered bacteria. But cattle normally produce their own BST, and there is no reason that the regulatory DNA that controls production of this protein in cows could not be altered to increase the amount. This would then make the purchase and administration of commercial BGH unnecessary. We can predict, however, that this is unlikely. First, dairy herds have always been largely self-reproducing on small- to medium-sized enterprises, and there are no major commercial dairy herd breeders equivalent to major seed companies. Second, enforcement would be very difficult. It is easy for a representative of Monsanto to "acquire" a single potato or a few seeds from any farmer's field, or from a local elevator. It is considerably more intrusive to take the blood or tissue sample from a farmer's dairy herd that would be needed for "genome control." Moreover, since dairy herds are not all reproduced at one time but have overlapping generations, it would be impossible to say, except after a number of years, whether a cow was one of the originally purchased stock, or an offspring.

Production Contracts, Biotechnology, and the Control of Farming

If the only effect of biotechnology and the contract system of guaranteeing property rights were to extend the domain of manufactured inputs into farming, nothing very revolutionary would have occurred. Farmers for a long time have been the purchasers of manufactured inputs. The major structural changes that are occurring in agriculture arise from a vertical integration of farm production in such a way that the purchasers of farm outputs take control of the entire production process. This vertical integration is made possible by 1) a technical linking of the inputs and outputs, 2) the dual function of a single capital enterprise as both the monopsonist (near monopoly) purchaser of outputs and the provider of critical inputs, and 3) a contract mechanism that links farmer into the loop of inputs and outputs. The use of such contracts predates biotechnology. Wherever the purchaser of farm outputs is also the processor of those outputs for the market, the possibility of vertical integration has existed. Contract farming has been a common feature of vegetable production for canning. Tomato canneries in Ohio were built in a location central to the farms, the canning company provided the seed and chemical inputs and collected the ripe tomatoes. The farmer provided the land and labor. But the system has evolved greatly since the first canning contracts. The critical role played by biotechnology has been in the material linking of inputs and outputs. In order to guarantee an efficient integrated system of production, the biological inputs into the chain of production, the organisms being raised, are engineered to fit the package of other inputs, the mechanics of the farming process, and the qualifies that the final output is to have for the market. While some of these aims can be accomplished by conventional methods of breeding organisms, many of the needed qualifies, such as specific disease resistance or qualitative changes in the composition of the organism, are best produced by biotechnological manipulations. Moreover various cloning and cell culture techniques make it possible to reduplicate large numbers of input organisms with desired heritable qualifies, no matter how those qualities were originally produced.

An example of the nature of contract farming is in the production of broilers (chickens raised as meat) where the system is especially entrenched. A major supplier of chickens to supermarkets and fast food restaurants is Tyson Farms of South Carolina. Tyson chickens are produced, not by Tyson "Farms," but by small farmers, owning about 100 acres, producing an average of 250,000 chickens per year, with a gross income of about $65,000 and a net of around $12,000.

This production is under a four-year contract with Tyson (or other similar regional firms), a contract that makes Tyson the sole provider of the chicks to be raised, the feed, and veterinary services. The company is also the sole determiner of the number, frequency, and type of chicks provided. Tyson then collects the mature birds after seven weeks, at a date and time of their own determination, providing the scales on which the birds are weighed and the trucks to take them away. The farmer provides the labor, the buildings in which the chicks are raised, and the land on which the buildings stand. The detailed control of inputs and farming practices are entirely in the hands of Tyson. So, "The Producer (farmer) warrants that he will not use or allowed to be used ... any feed, medication, herbicides, pesticides, rodenticides, insecticides or any other items except as supplied or approved in writing by the Company." Moreover, the farmer must adhere to the Company's "Broiler Growing Guide" and a failure to do so puts the farmer into "Intensified Management" status under the direct supervision of the Company's "Broiler Management and Technical Advisor."

The chicken farmer has ceased to be an independent artisan, buying materials, transforming them by his or her labor, and selling the product on a market. The contract farmer buys nothing, sells nothing, nor makes any decisions about the physical process of transformation. The farmer does own some of the means of production, land and buildings, but has no control over the labor process or over the alienated product. The farmer has then become the typical "putting out" worker characteristic of the first stages of capitalist production in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. What the farmer has gained is a more stable source of income, at the price of becoming an operative in an assembly line. The change in the farmer's position from an independent producer, selling in a market with many buyers, into a proletarian without options, is reflected in the nature of the recommendation in the 1998 report of the National Commission on Small Farms, that

Congress should amend the AFPA [Agricultural Fair Practices Act] to provide the USDA with administrative enforcement and civil penalty authority that will, in turn, enable growers to to organize associations and bargain collectively without fear of discrimination or reprisal. (emphasis added)

The combination of biotechnological manipulation and contract farming also can have a catastrophic effect on third world economies. Much of the import of agricultural products from the Third World consists in qualitatively unique materials like coffee, flavorings, essences, and food oils with special properties. Moreover, the production of these materials is at a low technological level with high labor inputs, in countries with unstable political and economic regimes. As a result, the price and availability of, say, palm oil from the Philippines are unstable. These characteristics make such agricultural products prime targets for gene transfer into domestic species which will then be grown as specialty crops under contract to processors. Calgene has engineered a high lauric acid canola (rape seed) strain for oils that are used for soaps, shampoos, cosmetics and food products that formerly required imported palm oils. These special canola strains are now produced in the Midwest under contract, displacing Philippine production on which a large fraction of the rural population depends economically. And the genes for the biosynthesis of caffeine have been successfully transferred to soybeans. If the essential oil genes for coffee flavor can also be transferred, then Central and South America and Africa will lose their market for beans destined for powdered coffee.

It would be a mistake to think that agriculture has followed the classical picture of the spread of capitalism. Unlike in industrial production, the first step in the capture of agriculture by capital was the immense flowering of input industries and output processors, who appropriated the surplus in agriculture by selling the petty entrepreneurial farmer what he needed, and buying what he produced. No parallel exists in the industrial sphere. It is only with the saturation of that possibility of appropriation that wholly new techniques have come into play. By concentrating on the central material link in farm production, the living organism, which at the same time was the most resistant to capitalization, biotechnology has accomplished two steps in the penetration of capital. First it widened the sphere of input commodity production by including a wide array of organisms that had previously escaped. Second, and more profound, it is making vertical integration possible with the accompanying proletarianization of the farmer. It is this second stage that is the capitalist agriculture of the future, because the physical nature of farm production, inevitably tied to the land, is such as to maintain its unique organization as a productive process.

R.C. Lewontin holds the Alexander Agassiz Chair in Zoology at Harvard University. He is the author of Biology as Ideology and The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change and is the co-author of Not in Our Genes and The Dialectical Biologist.

Thomson Gale Document Number:A21031834