Book review of Pablo Lapegna’s Soybeans and Power



In Soybeans and Power, Pablo Lapegna offers a thorough and challenging analysis of the contested terrain of Genetically Modified (GM) crops in Argentina. Drawing upon long-term ethnographic fieldwork in the province of Formosa, in the North East of that country, he addresses key issues regarding the new landscapes produced by the expansion of GM crops by examining its impacts on local communities. One could ask: what’s new to find here? In fact, as this book suggests, a lot. The book’s contribution is not only critical to debates that are ‘often rendered in black and white’, as pointed out by Wendy Wolford in the back cover, but also to perspectives that often take for granted the outcomes and impacts of GM agriculture and of social mobilization against its spread.

As in other parts of the world, GM soy’s expansion in Argentina has had dramatic flip-sides: land conflicts, exclusion, violence against peasant and indigenous communities, deforestation, soil fertility and nutrients depletion, water pollution, agro-chemical exposure, diseases and losses in production for self-consumption. Socio-ecological and environmental impacts spread unevenly throughout the country, reflecting the unequal and variegated geographies of the so-called soy boom. Likewise, conflicts and contestations arose, making visible the impacts of Argentina’s green-gold ticket to economic growth following the 2001 socio-economic and political crisis. Peasant mobilizations widened and strengthened, creating political networks that involved sub-national and national alliances, within which competing framings of alternative agricultural systems confronted the hegemonic model and triggered debates on alternative systems of food production. The 2008 conflict between Cristina Fernandez’s national administration and agribusiness actors over export taxes on specific commodities resulted in a new conjuncture which offered social movements opportunities to promote their demands, while at the same time posed new risks and challenges to them. The succeeding demobilization of peasant movements and the fading of contentious collective actions has been approached by many scholars, to a large extent, in terms of co-optation of movements’ leaders. This notion harks back to different perspectives on social movements’ political reactions, ranging from those assuming a top-down logic in political processes and the functioning of power structures to those that bring subordinate actors’ alliances with governments (local or national) and influential spokesmen under the realm of clientelism.

In an important departure, Soybeans and Power develops a nuanced reading of the contested politics of GM crops, speaking to and critiquing contributions rooted in food regime perspectives and social movement theories. It is also an alternative reading insofar as it unearths significant issues regarding the changing forms of political mobilization.

This ethnographic research traverses and integrates different scales: the ‘local’ (national and sub-national) and the global. But here, local scales are not mere reflections of corporate world-spanning forces; rather, they are assessed through the ways in which peasants, movements’ leaders, public officials, agro-chemical companies and soybean producers enact these connections. For example, globally promoted agriculture projects are locally appropriated and this appropriation involves crucial intersections between different scales and dynamics within the somewhat standardized notion of the ‘local’. Therefore, the analysis foregrounds that the resources needed to organize collective action, negotiate with public officers or demand legal actions vary significantly from national to sub-national (province and municipality) scales.

Soybeans and Power also makes vital contributions to readings on political reactions that concentrate majorly on contentious actions. (i.e. road blocks, occupation of governmental buildings, collective lawsuits etc.). Here, Lapegna pays special attention to the question of demobilization and accommodation. This allows him to eschew romantic portrayals in which resistance has a clear, progressive and straightforward agenda. The analysis of negotiations, collaborations, alliances between social movements, public officials and state institutions and their connection to demobilization is particularly telling of how people deal with constraints and opportunities.

Discussing the limits of ‘co-optation’ arguments, the author highlights the paradoxes that social movements face. These paradoxes can only be grasped if the situated and concrete difficulties to sustain confrontation as well as the dual pressures emerging from institutional recognition are considered. However, far from adopting a patronizing and compassionate narrative that assumes that peasants’ material poverty extends to cognitive constraints, the author explores how peasants and movements’ leaders ‘read’, make sense of and weigh situations in each moment. As proposed by the author, demobilization is ‘an active process, an achievement involving the agency of subordinate actors’ (p. 117). It needs to be understood in the context of the multiple relationships that make possible institutional recognition (rural policies addressed to peasants and poor rural population) but also of the reciprocities these relationships convey between authorities and social movements as well as within the latter.

Related to this analysis of demobilization, another contribution of Soybeans and Power is the integration of patronage politics and its mediating role in state-social movements relationships. Unlike other approaches to patronage which consider it as opposed to collective action, the author acknowledges the fact that social movements are seen as networks that help different types of resources ‘go down’ to communities. He understands that this is part of the relational field in which the leaders of peasants and social movements leaders.

Finally, much of the work on resistance to GM crops and agro-chemical exposure does not fully address how this resistance is built. The narratives that frame peasants’ opposition to agro-chemicals is taken for granted, while putting forward a somewhat biased view of GM technologies rooted within the Green Revolution. Through a contextualized analysis, Lapegna avoids the risk of ‘essentializing’ peasants’ relationship with land and nature. People were enraged because public officials denied that pesticide spraying had caused health problems and production losses, awarding them to the peasants’ way of life (‘they think we are dirty’ said many of the interviewees) and limited knowledge of modern technologies. But, significantly, as Lapegna highlights, opposition was mainly directed to agro-chemicals used in soy production. As this crop expanded, soy growers increasingly disputed peasants’ lands, whilst cotton prices failed to guarantee their reproduction unlike in the past.

In short, Pablo Lapegna’s Soybeans and Power is a cutting-edge contribution to social movements theories and to agrarian studies, which brings out skillfully ‘the political and analytic value of exploring the ambiguities, tensions, and contradictions created by contestation and power relationships’ (p. 172).

[This is an abridged version. Read the full review here.]

Carla Gras is Senior Researcher, National Council of Scientific and Technological Research and University of San Martin, Argentina.