Soybeans are a crucial crop for the global economy. They are used as fodder and biofuel, for human consumption and within the food and pharmaceutical industry. Argentina as the world’s third largest transgenic soy grower plays a key role in the global soy value chain and only soybeans with transgenic technology are used since transgenic soybeans are less labour-intensive. Here, where soy is grown on more than half of the arable land, transgenic soy is a significant pillar of the country’s development model. Several conflicts are emerging around soy cultivation in Argentina. On the one hand, there are conflicts concerning the distribution of wealth generated by soy cultivation via national export taxes as well as via license fees (royalties) to be paid to the seed companies for the use of transgenic soy seeds. Then, on the other hand, there are several conflicts arising from health issues of the population as well as environmental problems as a result of soy cultivation. I focus on the conflict between farmers, the state and the seed companies about royalties on transgenic soy seeds. My point is, that in this particular context the role of the plant characteristics of soy is evident: Looking at a soybean it is impossible to discern if this particular soybean is a seed or a harvested soybean. It is also not clearly visible if transgenic technology is active in the soybean making the plant resistant to different herbicides and enabling it to produce an insecticide. Now, what do these plant characteristics have to do with environmental conflicts?
Environmental conflict research conceives conflicts as struggles between social, economic, and political actors about nature such as conflicts about the distribution of and access to resources which are social conflicts at their core. From this point of view, nature does not have an effect on the course of the conflict. Therefore, the conflict over royalties on transgenic soy seeds is mostly seen as a typical conflict of resource distribution that is linked to intellectual property rights: Royalty payment to seed companies would reduce the profit share of both farmers and the state, which secures its share by levying export taxes. The research at hand also takes a look at the power play between conflicting actors within the social sphere. Seed companies pressure the Argentine state and the farmers to comply with their interpretation of intellectual property rights and royalty payment using their market dominance for example by withholding new transgenic seeds. The farmers individually reject the push of seed companies finding ways to circumvent royalty payment on a daily basis, e.g. by trading seeds illegally with other farmers. The farmers’ associations bring the refusal to pay into the public debate and the political realm. The Argentine government takes up the claims of seed companies to reform the legal framework, but in the national congress the bills come to nothing. Concerning the conflicts at hand, the majority of research focuses only on these societal aspects leaving out the role of natural elements. Interestingly, the conflicting actors take into account the plant characteristics of soy for their actions, but do not perceive them as an active part of the conflict.
The active role of plant characteristics
Although they have an influence on the emergence and evolution of the conflict over royalties, the plant characteristics of soy are currently largely ignored in environmental conflict research. Other than non-transgenic plants, transgenic soy is subject to two conflicting legal regimes. These give room for legal interpretation and conflict: the seed law that refers to UPOV 1978 (International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants), and the patent law, which refers to the TRIPS agreement (WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights).
The two laws provide different levels of control for the seed breeders: The seed law allows to reserve seeds and sow them on the farmer’s own plantation (farmers’ privilege), however not to sell them, while the patent law does not include this farmers’ privilege. Soy farmers advocate for the priority of the seed law over the patent law to avoid royalty payment on harvested soybeans, while seed companies aim to expand royalty payments from seeds to harvested crops and therefore advocate for the priority of the patent law and a restriction of the seed law. While it is true that the seed law has priority in practise, the legal uncertainty between the seed law and the patent law sparked the conflict between farmers, state and seed companies.
The transgenic technology active in soybeans is hard to monitor. Since it is invisible, seed and grain monitoring by the state either require DNA laboratory tests or in some cases just tests carried out with a special kit and some equipment outside the laboratory. Therefore, it is easy for farmers to illegally trade the harvested soybeans. However, if the transgenic technology is monitored properly, the monitoring can show the used plant variety and transgenic technology. In addition, the company that developed it can be identified. To build up monitoring, the state has to cooperate with the seed companies that developed the transgenic technologies.
The system of royalty payment in Argentina introduces a legal distinction between soy seeds and harvested soybeans that does not exist biologically. Minor changes in the DNA could occur under certain circumstances, but they most likely cannot be detected by the state with the given monitoring system. Therefore, the Argentine state does not know, if it is a seed or a harvested soybean. Therefore, in the process of seed and grain monitoring by the Argentine state, it was necessary to find another way to make this legal difference visible in practice. The state entities (Federal Administration of Public Revenues, National Office to Control Agricultural Commerce, National Seed Institute) have “solved” the issue by attaching this information to the soybeans using official documents such as a mandatory affidavit on the origin of the used soy seeds and a freight bill, which are required from all actors of the soybean value chain. State entities search for irregularities in the documents and then do on-site controls. Obviously, this monitoring system is easy to circumvent. Soy farmers reserve their seeds and trade them illegally with other farmers in order to avoid royalty payment. This so-called “white bag trade” is then reinforcing the conflict with seed companies.
Towards social-ecological conflict analysis
I have demonstrated that elements of nature, such as plants, play an active role in conflicts and require an analysis that goes beyond the societal sphere. So the question arises if in that case we are still talking about environmental conflict research that focuses just on the societal sphere.
Bringing natural elements as active entities into the analysis requires taking a close look at the web of interrelations between natural elements and societal actors which is the research focus of Social Ecology. Taking nature-society relations as a web of interrelations between the sphere of nature and the sphere of society, I position the conflict about royalties within this web. So, the conflict actually arises out of these interrelations, and in the course of the conflict, the interrelations in turn change.
Therefore, I propose to broaden the field of environmental conflict research and introduce the new term social-ecological conflict analysis. Social-ecological conflict analysis enables a more comprehensive analysis and can show that for example conflicts about different crops evolve differently. This broader analysis can offer a better insight into conflict transformation. In the present case of conflicts regarding transgenic soy in Argentina, the legal distinction between soy seeds and harvested soy seeds should be reconsidered and alternative, clear-cut legal categories should be discussed that take plant characteristics into account. Some authors have already entered this extended field of research but without a systematic approach to the topic. In the future, the following aspects still need to be elaborated on: the definition of social-ecological conflicts, the role that elements of nature play in these conflicts, and the methods for analysing social-ecological conflicts.
Rauchecker, Markus (2021): Transgenic soy as a political crop and a resistance crop in Argentina – The struggle around control and rent appropriation between the state, seed corporations and soy farmers. Geoforum, Article in Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2021.09.002
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