Brazil and Argentina are the second and the third largest producers respectively of genetically modified (GM) crops. The ten-year lag between the conversion of the majority of soy fields to GM soy in Argentina (1999) and Brazil (2009) relates to differences in social mobilization. By examining explanations for these different paths, the research addresses the conditions in which challengers from social movements changed the official pro-GMO policy and the conditions that prevented it happening. This situates the research in a wider problematic of the conditions for social participation in the trajectory of agrarian change. The research enquires not only into the role of national political contexts but also contextualizes these in relation to global agrarian capitalism. The theoretical framework establishes a dialogue between political economy and political sociology, mediated by a focus on social movements’ theory. It includes structural and actor-centred explanations, material and cultural dimensions, and a dialogue between social movement research and peasant studies. The analytical factors were placed in relation to one another in order to explain paths of social disputes over GMOs, classified in two ideal types of outcomes: a situation of hegemony or of controversy.
The study draws on methods of macro-analytical qualitative comparisons, adopting a research design of “most similar, different outcomes” while adding a time dimension to explain changes in the trajectories. The main data consists of 28 in-depth interviews with key activists during the years 2012 and 2013. The core of the empirical work is the reconstruction of almost two decades of social mobilization over GM crops. Based on that, the research provides key explanations for each outcome by identifying three main analytical factors: organizational bases and networks, contentious meanings, and structure of political opportunities. These are articulated in an explanatory model: early social mobilization – with mobilizing structures and contentious meanings – is a necessary condition to participate in the shaping of policy; but it is not sufficient as it depends on a third condition, namely, a favourable structure of political opportunities. The latter is influenced, in turn, by the national political economy and the structural location of these countries in global commodity chains (GCCs). Activists in producer nodes face harder challenges as commodities are important sources of private and state revenues. The agrarian poor bear the global socio-environmental burden of GCCs, resulting in their social mobilization if mobilizing structures and meanings are given. Finally, the perception that the locus of decision-making lies in national politics facilitates mobilization, while the perception that politics is manly determined by global market dynamics is demobilizing.
The thesis argues that the transformation of Argentina and Brazil into top world producers of GM crops cannot be explained by biotechnology performance but by political struggles, in which social movements and the rural poor were silenced, ignored, or demobilized by a network of actors in favour of GMOs. The argument highlights the relevance of studying political struggles over GMOs at least for two reasons, one empirical and one theoretical. Firstly, unravelling the complex history of the domination of GMOs in two countries that are propagated as breadbaskets of the world is informative to the wider global debate on agrarian futures and food security. Secondly, the issue of GMOs is also illustrative of contemporary challenges of how social mobilization and rights claims can counter systemic imperatives of global capitalism and political interests.