Guest Article by Juan Cortés: Biohacking and the Future of Colombian Agriculture
In this article, I would like to discuss two cases of biological modifications made from contemporary technologies that marked the future of agriculture in Colombia at the end of the 20th century, both related to Fusarium Oxysporum, an ascomycete fungus that is now very common in Latin America. This scenario also makes it possible to establish the need for a change of paradigm in the face of the singularity of the definition of industrial technologies related to agriculture and genetic modifications, providing plural visions of technology that include those of peasants and indigenous peoples in order to open up a range of possibilities for the future of agriculture in Latin America. This plural approach also frames the field of experimentation carried out by biohackers who understand, in art and non-conventional pedagogical practices, a possibility of tracing alternative routes of meaning and subversions to contemporary industrial, agricultural technology. This article is part of an investigation in collaboration with Atractor Estudio, Santiago Arcila and Diego Moreno.
Two fundamental debates concerning rurality and agriculture took place in Colombia, mainly in academic, industrial, and political circles, during the last decade of the 20th century. On the one hand, we find the entry of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the national scenario and its correlated threat to Colombia’s biodiversity and food sovereignty. On the other hand, there were serious concerns about the abuse of genetically modified biological weapons, deployed in the search for alternatives to glyphosate (roundup herbicide) in the war against coca crops throughout the country. Both problems cannot be properly understood without the appearance of two varieties of the fungus Fusarium oxysporum (Fusarium oxysporum SP4 and Fusarium oxysporum Erythroxylum) in multiple regions. The former is the cause of Tropical Race 4 (TR4), a disease affecting genetically modified banana crops best known as Cavendish; the latter, also known as “green agent,” is a mutant strain promoted during the 2000s by the US government as a biological weapon in the “War on Drugs” in Latin America. These two species are now deeply rooted in Colombia’s ecological and political history. Despite the widespread presence of native Fusarium species in local soil and vegetation, the introduction of these two “alien fungus” has triggered the devastation of cloned banana crops, soil degradation, and the decline of local biodiversity. Spreading through private and public budgets, thriving among monoculture breeding grounds, these xeno-fungus have infected Colombia’s economic, political, and agricultural systems.
From Transgenic Botany to Plant Politics
Colombia has been recognized as one of the most biologically diverse countries of the world thanks to its incredible variety of climates and soils. It is estimated that it possesses 10 percent of the planet’s biodiversity and countless endemic species of flora and fauna. From the indigenous chagras and the diverse orchards of the hillside peasant economy to coffee forests and even the varied supply of flowers in the agro-industry of the highlands, Colombia is a living manifestation of crop abundance. However, Colombia’s agriculture and rurality have been the very kernel of the inner conflict. After several decades of violence, the war has left an open wound in the country’s fields and historical memory.
One of the most tragic events in this history is the one concerning the relationship between banana plantations and agro-industrial production. During the first part of the 20th century, the Banana Plantation Massacre— a massacre of United Fruit Company workers that occurred between December 5 and 6, 1928 in the town of Ciénaga near Santa Marta, Colombia—initiates what will become invariant in Colombia politics: foreign multinationals associated with the local government and its armies (military and later paramilitary) fighting a war against the peasants, indigenous groups, their territory, and the native soil (understood as the complexity of biotic and abiotic agents that compose it).
Among the less explored repercussions of this violence, one finds the relationship between agro-industrial production and the agents that are part and coexist in the soil. During the years of the Banana Plantation Massacre, the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita Brands International) decided to extend its production from Central America to Latin America. The company sought to satisfy the demand for the Gros-Michel banana, a predominant variety until the 1950s that was highly appreciated for its flavor and endurance (an important feature for exporting). This variety no longer exists today, becoming virtually extinct globally in just two decades by the Fusarium SP1 fungus. The mere logic of monocultures (vast plots of land producing a single kind of fruit which upsets the natural balance of soils) increases the risks of devastation whenever a new pathogen infects a field. In a polyculture of organic fruits (such as the indigenous chagras) the genetic variation and diversity prevent plagues from massively spreading throughout the whole territory.
The brilliant solution by the biggest agriculture companies was to bring to Latin America a new genetically modified strain of bananas (named Cavendish) that were supposed to be resistant to the fungus; the strain is composed of varieties patented by the most prominent banana-producing groups on the planet. Genetic modification, hybridization, and manipulation at the genomic level means that these plants can no longer reproduce sexually; instead, they get propagated as identical clones, resulting in a tremendous loss of genetic diversity. The decline in diversity—combined with a globalized marketplace—opened the way to Fusarium once again. Fusarium oxysporum SP4 spread through monocultures, threatening fruit production worldwide.
All the efforts made by the government and private sector to curb the proliferation of the fungus and the subsequent banana cavendish pandemic have been insufficient. Far from attacking the systemic origin of the problem (monocultures framed by relentless capitalism and fruits’ lack of genetic diversity/biodiversity) businesses and governments have focused their attention on developing new genetic hybridization and creating Fusarium-resistant varieties. The situation and its treatment demand a new approach to the relationships between the fruit, the fungus, the soil, the pollinators, the growers, and other non-genetically modified plants that inhabit the territory.
This complex network of actors and conditions involves natural, cultural, artificial, social, economic, and technological modes of existence. This scenario provides the perfect conditions for the emergence of ecosystemic pathologies, such as Fusarium in bananas (many of which are now being secretly bred and grown). Dr. Michael Marder, Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, said that we should understand contemporary political movements in terms of plant movements. In his essay “On the Vegetal Movements of Politics”1, Marder emphasizes plants’ features—such as anarchic growth, hylomorphism, modularity, mutability, and decentralization—to suggest a different way to understand the situation of contemporary protests and political movements that are based on resistance, adaptations, oppositions, cooperation, and coexistence. Today more than ever, it is crucial to comprehend movements like biohacking, incorporated into the growing crisis of monotechnology, in order to find, in their experimentation, a subversive seed for new ways of thinking about technology and science.
However, this potential depends on an ideological break with the vision of scientific, technological, and economic progress as understood in recent decades. During the 1990s, the discussion on the admission of GMOs in Colombia was mediated by two particular visions of development. The first saw the admission of GMOs as an opportunity for the development of agriculture and industrialization. The second posed a cautious view; it considered this technology as the advance of a paradigm that endangered the sustainability and biodiversity of the region since the development model behind it was a stranger to the ecosystem. In his 1995 article “Debate Sostenible”, Tomas Leon Sicard examines the arrival of the first transgenic crops into the country. He contrasts this event with the development experienced at the time of high Andean Alley Farming, a project of the local peasantry that had demonstrated an enormous aptitude for mass feeding through associations and polyculture of up to 10 different species in the same place. The local farmers managed to collect around 3325 varieties of quinoa, 131 of amaranth (Amaranthus sp), 33 of tarwi, 129 of Prunus Capuli, and several dozen Andean roots such as the white carrot (Arracacia xanthorrhiza), jicama or Chicama (Polymnia sonchifolia), and miso or taso (Mirabilis expansa).
Facing the imminent colonization of large agro-industrial emporiums, Leon predicted one of the consequences of the situation: the peasant would be replaced by the agro-industrial producer, who frames his role in a technified ecosystem where one (or a few companies) become fundamental for each stage of development of the local crop. Each seed patent is accompanied by a portfolio of products that guarantees the “optimal and efficient” development of the crop. This logic, which was supported by the requirements of the contemporary industrial economy and patent laws for genetically modified seeds, threatened constitutional rights such as food sovereignty as well as land tenure, as large landowners and foreign companies related to the industry seized peasant land.
In addition to technification and genetic modification in the hands of a few groups with private interests, it is crucial to highlight the role of speculative economics in the development and progression of this predatory logic in order to understand a phenomenon like Fusarium. A good example can be found in the 2016 merger of Mayer and Monsanto and how it marked a crucial moment for global food production. Both of these companies benefited greatly from the merger. Bayer controlled the majority of technified seed production on a global scale while Monsanto dominated the market for pesticides. Thanks to their joint forces, they built a monopoly that would be difficult to consolidate for any other company such as Syngenta, Corteva (a product of the merger between Dow Chemical and Dupont), and ChemChina to achieve2. The future of food production has ever since been in the hands of fewer than a dozen conglomerates with shared interests such as short-term results, (which in all cases puts efficiency before sustainability) and the flouting of international treaties and environmental legislation. This scenario would not be possible if it weren’t for the powerful corporate lobbying forces in all the countries where these companies operate and the disregard and exploitation of local production and communities.
Since a fundamental part of the development of these companies takes place in the stock market, speculation and financial games are of particular interest. To what extent is the mutability of organic agents played out in the fields of market speculation? How deep are the ties between life, the stability of the agents that constitute the soil, and the deregulation of volatile contemporary markets? How to understand sustainability of the agricultural system amidst the relentless growth logic of late capitalism?
The Soil as a Metamorphic Zone
In agrology, a soil type that is a direct product of human activity is called an anthrosoil. Although the term is not necessarily used to describe misused soils, it can describe problematic relationships and mutations over time that characterize soil horizons that can no longer be classified under any other parameter.The complexity of the relational links mentioned in the previous section must be understood in global terms. Soil is a prominent actor that allows us to understand the tectonic force that the agro-industrial system and the biological modifications and political agents in which it is currently contextualized are a tectonic force for the land.
In his book Suelos de Colombia 3,’ my father, agronomist Abdón Cortés, proposes a new paradigm for understanding soil in Latin America. “Analysing soil in the social-economic dimension is to establish direct soil-human, soil-land tenure, soil-illiteracy, soil-human health, soil-availability of economic resources, etc. relationships, which are often forgotten or vaguely treated in agrological studies. In the past, the soil scientist concentrated most of his attention on understanding the interactions occurring between soil and plants or in the soil-water-air phase but has neglected, at least in part, to analyze the impact of social and economic aspects on soil productivity and soil conservation.”
This multidimensional analysis underscores the importance of undoing the difference between scientific and political ecology. To study the soil and its relationship with human activity introduces the environmental dimension into the knowledge and analysis process. In its most straightforward conception, this is the relationship and interdependence between two inextricably linked universes: the social and the natural. One of the scientist’s most decisive personal conclusions underlining the importance of this study was inscribed in the soil maps of Colombia. My father was commissioned several times by the Colombian government to carry out investigations and analyses of the soil situation in the country. During his travels, he came to a particular conclusion: there is and has been a direct relationship between violence and soil erosion. On the one hand, violence, displacement, fumigations, lack of education, and poor management lead to soil erosion, and thus to the loss of soil fertility. On the other hand, soil that lacked the resources to be fertile became settlements of human violence on all scales. This is partly due to the poor distribution of land due to forced displacement and unequal organizations imposed through colonial logic and structural violence throughout history.
Since the links as mentioned above between the social/natural are indissoluble, genetic modifications and productive human activity are causal for the mutability of the soil and the movement of the earth. Human action affects the common background of the existences in which it unfolds and is continuously affected by this background: the individual and her associated environment are a single organism. In the as-yet-unpublished text Cartography and Earth, the philosopher Santiago Arcila states that Humanity is constituted as a level of tectonic stratification of nature. Deleuze and Guattari had already studied this phenomenon when they spoke of the three great strata: the physical-chemical, the organic and the allagamatic (psychic-collective). Today’s most significant movements are framed by the ideologies of production, growth, and speculation of the current economic system. Even the particular relations between earth and psyche make up the sensitive paths in which all beings participate as products and producers of flows. It is the image that corresponds to the Jungian archetype of anima mundi, in its most polyphonic and “chaotic” dimension, or on an ontological level to something similar to Deleuze and Guattari’s Chaosmos. Genetic modifications, the logic of banana production, and fusarium are framed in this metamorphic zone of retroactivity.
Soil is not the abiotic environment of plants because it is filled with billions of small animals and microorganisms; the soil is the sum of all its parts and its context, and although it is not, in essence, an organism that can multiply, it is considered a living system on the planet. The genetic modifications resulting from industry and economic activity linked to the production of transgenic plants are part of an already deep conflict in Colombia, that of agriculture and violence. Another face of this conflict is cocaine production and the war on drugs, where foreign interests, local political mafias, and the lack of opportunities in agriculture paved the way for the appearance of Fusarium Oxysporum Erythroxylum.
Fusarium Oxysporum, Visualisation Courtesy of: Juan Cortés.
In 1998, the US Congress approved a $23 million package to intensify the research and genetic modifications needed to make Fusarium Oxysporum Erythroxylum, a solution to end coca cultivation in Colombia. In an August 1999 letter to President Clinton, two Republican congressional leaders—Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Dennis Hastert—called for “the prompt deployment of mycoherbicides in FARC and ELN controlled areas.” An internal State Department “request for action” confirmed a willingness to provide $400,000 for a pilot phase of the project, “however, we urge the UNDCP to solicit funds from other governments to avoid the perception that this is a US government-only initiative.” 4
The Clinton administration’s actions were part of Plan Colombia, a US-Colombia economic and military package to support the war on drugs and the guerrillas during Andrés Pastrana’s term in office. The use of Fusarium became a new alternative to one of the most profitable deals between the two governments: the use of glyphosate (roundup herbicide) for crop spraying which was problematic enough without the introduction of the biological agent. The announcement of such a plan put the United Nations (UN) as a mediator in the strategy. The UN had already overseen a complex plan to spray marijuana crops with biological agents in Mexico in the 1970s.
It is interesting to dwell on the draft project because the risks mentioned several problematic scenarios that did not stop the project from moving forward although those risks were being assessed. “The political sensitivity of the project area may result in an adverse reaction from neighboring countries, the general public, and environmental and political pressure groups, particularly in relation to the issue that, once released, the pathogen may transform or mutate and become pathogenic to, among other things, desirable plant species”. “The United States Government, in the form of the United States Department of Agriculture, owns all intellectual property rights with respect to the EN-4 isolate of Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. Erythroxylum” 5.
At the end of 1999, the Colombian scientific community and several international media outlets strongly opposed experimentation with the strain in Colombia, which put pressure on the Colombian government to refuse to sign the treaties. However, on 17 July 2000, journalist Gonzalo Guillén of the Miami New Herald reported that 5 kilometers north of the city of Lago Agrio in Ecuador (Colombia’s neighboring country), US scientists were conducting experiments on the Ecuadorian Amazonian forest with the fungus Fusarium Oxysporum.
Guillén’s investigation contained allegations by the representative of the governor of the Department of Putumayo in Colombia, who claimed that the fungus had already been used at the end of 1999 and on at least two other occasions in 2000. The mayor of Puerto Guzmán confirmed these allegations, as well as the US ambassador to Colombia, Anne Peterson, who later retracted her statements. Several peasant communities also witnessed strange fumigations and consequent damage to their health at the time. These testimonies gave rise to lawsuits against the state. Although the technology with which the complaints were filed did not allow the particular strain to be established, it was possible to prove that the fungus was present on the roots of the plants as well as on the leaves, indicating, according to the lawsuit, a high probability of being the product of fumigations.
Overlaying the map of the displacement of these two strains of Fusarium with the hotspots of violence in Colombian territory gives a clue to the complex and vast relational links that connect the land with the violence in the region. Both strains of the fungus are currently present in large parts of the national territory. Their mutations are progressing at the speed of the mediocre plans of national and international governments to eradicate crops, which are also subject to genetic modifications and mutations, often by local communities, who through hybridization and experimentation have developed mutations of the coca plant resistant to glyphosate and the pesticides that poison their land.
The current global pandemic has made clear the intertwining relationship between nature and society. From now on, it is impossible to continue to assume any kind of opposition or exclusion between what we might call the outside world (“wild nature”) and the inside world (the sphere of the human). In the current context, the pandemic did not burst onto the global political and economic horizon as a singularity or an unprecedented event, but as a patent experience of the influence of technified agribusiness in the transformation of soils, plants, animals, forms of production, and consumption habits.
Precisely now that we have achieved a new level of understanding of the principles of biology and are, from the field of biohacking, actively redesigning biological devices and systems, we must question the future of relations with plant life, even more so when the technified development of agriculture is in the hands of only a few companies at the global level. In the words of Michael Marder, “the loss of plant biodiversity worldwide and the spread of monocultures contravene the diversity and dispersal favored by plants themselves. Anesthetic attitude to plant life is vital as an alternative to these impositions”.
For more than a decade, artist and educator Hamilton Mestizo has been developing projects related to biohacking, contextualized in community pedagogical practices. His project Algas Verdes is a research initiative on technologies for cultivating microalgae at home, developing and experimenting with the prototyping of photobioreactors that can be used as an everyday object and be part of the architecture in cities. The studies of microalgae from citizen science and DIYbio (do-it-yourself biology) look for possible solutions from home biotechnology that can address environmental problems and the supply of energy resources in the near future.
Hamilton continues: “Microalgae are found in all bodies of water, rivers, lakes, seas, etc., as well as in soil and diverse ecosystems around the globe, adapted to even extreme conditions. In addition to their importance for the biosphere, they are attractive for science and industry as their biomass is a rich energy source. As they can carry out biochemical processes, communities can use them in biotechnology to obtain substances and products of pharmaceutical interest, animal and human food, wastewater purification, fertilizers, electricity production, biofuels, etc.”6 The project has had three versions to date and has evolved in interdisciplinary laboratories in Colombia and Spain. One of the most exciting characteristics of Mestizo’s work is its interest in involving the community in its artistic practice and experimentation.
This interest in education led him to be part of two significant projects. The first was developing the Biocrea space, a project for experimentation, research, and prototyping in biology and biotechnology, art, and design. Founded in 2018 in Medialab Prado, it started an “open space for creative biology”, proposing lines of work (ecology, genetics, biomaterials, biosensors, cybernetics, alternative energies, education, food, among others) that communities can carry out in a public laboratory under the philosophy of DIYbio, citizen science, biohacking, and bio-art.
The second is El Exploratorio, a fundamental place in Colombia in which it participated during the years 2016-2017, planning and designing the program and activities of the time. El Exploratorio is a space coordinated by Camilo Cantor, the public experimentation workshop of Parque Explora, a scenario for participation, training, and the development of citizen capacities based on technical and technological appropriation. The space has Biolab, a place open to the community and adapted to topics associated with biology and biotechnology. With machines and low-cost and open-source instruments (made in El Exploratorio itself), the space has as its mission the replication of these instruments in other disciplines and the pedagogical and functional exploration of the possibilities of these devices.
Over the years, El Exploratorio has become a place of convergence for the community of Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city. In addition to experimenting with machines, it also has a kitchen where experimental events are held; topics range from the future of agriculture to local food production, always from a critical stance. In 2016, the laboratory of creation and construction of creative cuisine presented the project “sol de noite” by the artist Ingrid Cuestas. The kitchen is one of the most transversal spaces in society. The laboratory began by building the pirate kitchen, a folding structure that had space for 16 individuals to cook simultaneously. The culinary area was set up to make full use of all of the food in order to avoid waste, one of the most problematic characteristics of the contemporary food industry.
Perhaps a critical approach to addressing the need to unleash the power of new technologies that emerge in biohacking has to do with understanding growth, economics, diversity, and temporality from the perspective of plant lives. Technologies are framed by ideas of the systems to which they belong: speed, efficiency, rapidity, and profit are at the heart of ideologies of progress. In contrast, decentralized, decelerated growth systems and plant policies favor diversity as a fundamental principle of survival. Reversing the impositions that technified production models have exerted on plant life opens up a vast field of complex relationships between plants and the territory they shape and are shaped by.
The project Trans/plant, particularly the performance May the Chlorophyll be With/in You by artist Quimera Rosa, invites us to think about a non-anthropocentric ecology. During the performance, the artist is given an intravenous transfusion of chlorophyll. “The performance highlights the need to move from essence-based identities to relationship-based identities. It is conceived as a collective ritual that crystallizes the process before and after. Through the fears, fantasies, and judgments it generates, an intravenous system opens up the debate about the identity system. The process of self-experimentation is not individual, as the people accompanying the one receiving the intravenous drip transition with her”. In addition to the sharpness with which the artist refers to the need for a change in identity construction, the performance also points to the difficulty in obtaining a pure chlorophyll molecule, like getting testosterone in the pharmaceutical or biomedical industry or the legal and health systems. All life is patented7.
Studies in the last two years have shown that high fertility (a product of soil biodiversity in biotic terms) is one of the few ways out of Fusarium. From this perspective, what is at stake in the artistic/pedagogical quest contextualized in this kind of contemporary political and biological phenomena is the possibility of other dissident futures that subvert the nanotechnological/monodiverse avalanche of contemporary industry. This need for biodiversity is also an urgent call for the decentralization of knowledge and the coming together as communities around the issues we face and will face in the future. It also requires being open to the perspectives of indigenous and peasant communities, in the case of Latin America. For only with such a plurality of visions will we be able to confront the loss of diversity that threatens us today.
1 Michael Marder, “Resist Like a Plant! On the Vegetal Life of Political Movements”.Peace Studies Journal, Vol. 5, Issue 1, January 2012
2 Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation: 9782330124076: Asselin, Mathieu. 2018
3 Abdón Cortés Lombana. Suelos colombianos. Una mirada desde la Academia – Bogotá: Fundación. Universidad de Bogotá Jorge Tadeo Lozano 2002.
4 As it appears on https://www.tni.org/en/article/fungus-versus-coca#4a
5 UNDCP: Colombia and the micro herbicide program. A. Beers – Arlacchi Telecon May 10 1999. (FOIA Document Number:1999STATE091579.)
6 Taken from https://librepensante.org/algas-verdes/