Building ‘Connectivity’ with Stakeholders:
The Corporate Discourse on Biotechnology


Submitted to:

4th International Conference on Organizational Discourse:
Word-views, Work-views and World-views

26-28 July 2000, King’s College
University of London, U.K.



Submitted by:

Joyce Miller, Doctoral Candidate
Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC)

University of Lausanne





Joyce Miller
Avenue du Leman 45
CH-1005 Lausanne
Tel/Fax  +41 (21) 728.5003




Building ‘Connectivity’ with Stakeholders:
The Corporate Discourse on Biotechnology

The past two decades have witnessed growing public concern about the impact of industrial activities on human health and the environment. The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, (later dubbed the Earth Summit) focused world attention on issues related to biodiversity, deforestation, pollution, global warming, poverty, the depletion of natural resources, and the need for a new era of environmentally-sound economic development “to ensure that [humanity] meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland, 1987:8) – a now widely-embraced definition of sustainable development.

John Barry points to the growing sensitivity to risk on the part of Western publics due to the experience of one ‘scare’ or ‘risk’ after another, citing the cases of “mad cow” disease in the UK[1], the outbreak of E Coli food poisoning, and the dramatic rise of environmental-related illnesses, like childhood asthma, linked to the increase in car pollution (1999:153). German scholar Ulrich Beck (1992) likens the current era to the advent of a ‘risk society’ wherein ecological and other risks outweigh the benefits of further economic growth associated with the industrial model. In the industrial model, society was organised around the production and distribution of wealth, income, and employment, and science and technology were seen as positive forces for social progress. In ‘risk society’, “this equation of scientific and technological advancement and social progress is broken. Risk society describes a modern sense of fear, distrust, and unease about scientific and technological developments….this distrust is not confined to science and technology, but can also be seen in the erosion of ‘trust’ in dominant social and political institutions, such as industry and government” (Barry, 1999:155).

Emergence of the Stakeholder Model of the Firm

In conjunction with the public’s growing concern about the potential risks of industrial activity on human health and the environment, there has been a broadening vision of a company’s roles and responsibilities beyond the simple function of profit maximisation, and with this, growing acceptance of the stakeholder model of the firm popularised by Freeman (1984).

The conventional model of the firm is fashioned on an ‘input-output’ perspective where, according to Donaldson and Preston (see Figure 1), investors, employees, and suppliers contribute inputs for which they expect to receive appropriate compensation. The ‘black box’ of the firm transforms their inputs into outputs for the benefit of customers. In contrast, they assert, “stakeholder analysts argue that all persons or groups with legitimate interests participating in an enterprise do so to obtain benefits and that there is no prima facie priority of one set of interests and benefits over another” (1995:68).


Source: Donaldson and Preston, 1995

The idea that companies have stakeholders has now become commonplace, in both the academic literature and business practice. Companies are becoming aware of the ability and power of stakeholders “to influence opinion about the legitimacy of a business or activity, and that stakeholders’ attitudes and opinions would threaten their well being, licence to operate and hence survival e.g., in terms of restrictions on sources of raw materials or methods of operations” (Grafé-Buckens and Hinton, 1998:125). Starik et al (1996) point out that stakeholder involvement has now become a vital part of corporate environmental management and the strategic planning process.

Definitions of who exactly is a stakeholder to the firm abound. The often-cited definition from Freeman’s seminal work suggests that stakeholders include “any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of an organisation’s purpose” (1984:52). Freeman further put forward the criteria of co-operativeness and competitiveness as ways to distinguish stakeholders, thereby categorising them into ‘generic’ and ‘specific’ groups. Noting that such a broad definition leaves the field of possible stakeholders open to include virtually anyone, Carroll asserted that stakeholders are “individuals or groups with which business interacts who have a ‘stake’, or vested interest, in the firm” (1993:22). A more narrow definition put forward by Clarkson (1994) conceives of stakeholders as voluntary or involuntary risk-bearers who have invested something of value in the firm.

Mitchell et al observe that narrow definitions are based on a stakeholder’s direct relevance to the firm’s core economic interests, whereas broader definitions are “based on the empirical reality that companies can indeed be vitally affected by, or they can vitally affect, almost anyone” (1997:857). Consequently, they argue that a theory of stakeholder identification is needed that can reliably separate stakeholders from non-stakeholders, and they further contend that a theory of stakeholder salience is needed to explain to whom and to what managers actually pay attention. Following a review of agency, behavioural, ecological, institutional, resource dependence, and transaction cost theories of the firm—Mitchell et al have put forward a model wherein stakeholders can be identified “based on their possession of power, legitimacy, and urgency in relationship to the firm”, and that it is “the firm’s managers who determine which stakeholders are salient and therefore will receive management attention” (1997:871). Accordingly, their typology sets out eight categories of stakeholders that fall into the main classes of: ‘latent stakeholders’, ‘expectant stakeholders’, ‘definitive stakeholders’, and ‘non-stakeholders or potential stakeholders’. They maintain that stakeholders can also move between classes – manifested by a change in their attributes of power, legitimacy, and/or urgency. Therefore, their salience in the eyes of a firm’s managers would also change. Mitchell et al assert that “latent stakeholders can increase their salience to managers and move into the ‘expectant stakeholder’ category by acquiring just one of the missing attributes. If the stakeholder is particularly clever, for example, at coalition building, political action, or social construction of reality, that stakeholder can move into the ‘definitive stakeholder’ category (characterised by high salience to managers), starting from any position—latent, expectant, or potential”. (1997:879; italics are my emphasis):

Harrison and St. John (1996:48) maintain that organisations do not engage in the stakeholder approach to management simply because this is what other organisations are doing, but are motivated to do so because of instrumental and/or normative reasons (see Figure 2).

Figure 2
Justifications for Stakeholder Management

Instrumental Perspective (“We should do it because it will pay off in the end”)

Enhanced ability to predict/control the external environment

Higher percentage of successful new product/service introductions

Higher levels of operating efficiency

Fewer accidents of damaging moves by stakeholders (i.e. boycotts, strikes, bad press)

Less conflict with stakeholders resulting in fewer legal suits

More favorable legislation/regulation

More reasonable contracts

Higher entry barriers leading to more favorable competitive environment

Higher levels of trusts

Higher levels of profitability?

Greater organizational flexibility

Normative Perspective (“We should do it because it is the right thing to do”)

Moral and philosophical basis for recognition of stakeholder interests

Increased media power and heightened interest in corporations

Statutes that allow board of director consideration of a broader group of stakeholders

Source: Harrison and St. John, 1996

Connecting with Stakeholders in a Highly-Contested Field

In response to stakeholder demands and pressure for improved environmental performance, companies have made varying efforts to ‘green’ their enterprises, publicly report on their policies and achievements, and incorporate the environmental concerns of stakeholders. Companies have undertaken varied initiatives to integrate stakeholders with the aim of realising benefits, which according to Heugens et al (2000) are related to ‘buffering’, ‘co-optation’, ‘mutual learning’, and ‘meta-problem solving’.

Life Sciences[2] companies were among the early pioneers in this domain. In 1991, Monsanto became the first Fortune 500 company to publish a fully-fledged annual corporate environmental report (CER). In 1995, the company formed seven sustainability teams of external advisors to guide its efforts, and in 1996 convened a roundtable discussion among leading environmental thinkers on sustainable business opportunities. A first-mover in embracing the life sciences banner, Monsanto’s strengthening of businesses in this sector has been emulated by other chemical powerhouses, including Bayer, DuPont, Hoechst, Novartis, and Rhône Poulenc, to name but a few. According to EuropaBio[3], total life science sales for all companies using biotech techniques to develop products and services in agriculture, healthcare, and food processing reached 2.7 billion ecus in Europe in 1997, compared to nearly 16 billion ecus in the US.

In addition to the possibility for bringing increased economic growth, industry points to the potential of biotechnology for enhancing agricultural productivity, thereby contributing “to meeting future world food demand while preserving biodiversity, the sustainability of the world’s land and water resources, and improving standards of living” (Bamelis, 1999:53). Seeds endowed with genes from bacteria and other organisms can be resistant to insects and chemical weed killers, reducing the need for insecticides, herbicides, and erosion-promoting tilling. Friends of the Earth, one of many environmental groups opposed to genetically modified crops (GM crops), says that their fears are related to “cross-fertilisation with wild relatives, increased use of broad-spectrum total herbicides, toxicity of insect-resistant GM crops to beneficial insects, loss of biodiversity, [and] health risks of antibiotic-resistant marker genes” (Lacroix, 1999:52).

The Life Sciences sector is currently facing an enormous challenge in Europe to gain acceptance of biotechnology and particularly the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Articles in the popular press typically draw attention to the darker side of genetic manipulation, with headlines like: ‘All This Biotechnology is Scary’ (New York Times, 20 November 1998), ‘The Frankenstein Food Scare that Killed U.K. Biotech’ (National Post, 7 May 1999), ‘Genetically Modified Food: Alarmingly Out of Control’ (International Herald Tribune, 5 August 1999), ‘How Safe is Genetically Modified Food?’ (Business & Technology, 26 July 1999), and ‘Now It’s the Franken-Fish’ (Daily Mail, 29 July 1999). Golüke (2000:7) sums up the fears in the minds of citizens, asserting that “Terminator technology” and “Frankenfoods” assertions worry some consumers, while science fiction images of vast acres of embryos, hanging in artificial wombs like ripe tomatoes, waiting to be harvested for spare parts, arouse intense ethical disgust. Even some supporters of biotechnology point out that a number of people fear this new technology more than any other, with the possible exception of nuclear. This fear, like the resistance that has traditionally met the introduction of all new technology, is rooted in the basic human fear of the unknown. But for some people, biotechnology elicits four specific fears that go beyond the predictable human reaction to the new:

·         The unintended consequences are potentially disastrous, not just for one person, but for all humans, as well as for other species—and these consequences are irreversible.

·         We can’t make an individual decision about the use of biotechnology—someone, somewhere else is making it for us, taking the future of our health and maybe even our very survival, out of our hands.

·         Biotechnology is technically complicated, and most of us don’t understand these complications. We have a deep suspicion of a technical elite making important decisions for us because we suspect that while they are very smart, they may not have much heart or they may not share our values. They may be motivated more by scientific curiosity than by the common good. And if these technicians are located in companies, maybe they are motivated by something even worse—greed.

·         Biotechnology alters the building blocks of life itself. Are we smart enough to play God? Is there any evidence in recent history that we are ready for this responsibility? Are we moving too fast, without seriously considering the consequences?”

To date, public acceptance of GMOs tends to be restricted to healthcare (Milmo, 1999) and to the application of biotechnology to develop enzymes for a new generation of cleaning products "because the contribution of these new products to reduce the usage of chemicals, energy, and water is evident" (Verrips, 1999). Acceptance of genetically modified agricultural products, on the other hand, remains extremely low in Europe, on the heels of the BSE controversy and growing public concerns about the safety of the food supply. Responding to citizen concerns about safety, risk, and liability, in 1997, Austria and Luxembourg banned the import and cultivation of Novartis’ genetically modified maize, sparking fear throughout the industry of further offensives to curb the introduction of biotechnology, which would lay waste to mammoth corporate investments in R&D, product development, and marketing. In mid-1998, the French government announced a 2-year moratorium in advance of the revision of EU Directive 90/220, which concerns the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment. Other European Union member states have similarly justified putting on the brakes on the basis of the ‘precautionary principle’, calling for further research into the potential effects of biotechnology and risks to human health and the environment. In March 1999, two dozen influential consumer organisations in Britain called for a 5-year moratorium on commercial plantings of gene-altered crops, and top chefs called for segregation and labeling so that they could keep engineered ingredients out of their gourmet dishes. Following the lead of Sainsbury, the UK’s largest supermarket chain, major fast-food outlets McDonalds and Burger King promised the British public in April 1999 that they would eliminate genetically modified foods and ingredients from their product lines. These moves sounded alarm throughout the Life Sciences industry and its value chain. Dwarfing all previous efforts, in April 2000, seven major players banded together to bankroll a US$50 million advertising campaign to promote genetically modified crops. The campaign involved television spots, a new Web Site, a Call Centre to take public inquiries, and the enlistment of several personalities to ‘advocate their cause and argue their case in every available forum’. As a Monsanto spokesman put it, “The more people are exposed to information from a variety of sources, the more likely they are to embrace the technology…Our goal is to try to link people to information and data that’s based on sound science”.[4]

Stakeholder pressure on industry to disclose information about the risks associated with the use of biotechnology and GMOs, especially, are on the rise. The consequent development and use of discursive strategies by companies grounded in the authority of science and linked to sustainable development and feeding the world’s hungry are increasingly evident. Hajer defines such discourses as “a specific ensemble of ideas, concepts, and categorisations that are produced, reproduced, and transformed in a particular set of practices and through which meaning is given to physical and social realities” (1995:44). In this process, the actors become entangled in webs of meaning. As Davies and Harré explain, “Once having taken up a particular position as one’s own, a person inevitably sees the world from the vantage point of that position and in terms of the particular images, metaphors, story lines and concepts” (1990:46).

Discourses are not necessarily coherent nor comprehensive. Story lines therefore function to create and maintain discursive order and to unify the bewildering variety of separate discursive components. As Hajer explains, “Story-lines play a key role in the positioning of subjects and structures. Political change may well take place through the emergence of new story-lines that re-order understandings. Finding the appropriate story-line becomes an important form of agency” (1997:56).

Discourses are aimed at producing and sustaining meaning, which are connected to wider relations of power. According to Mumby and Clair, “power is generally exercised not coercively, but subtly and routinely. The most effective use of power occurs when those with power are able to get those who have less power to interpret the world from the former’s point of view” (1997:44). For Hajer, who also draws upon the thinking of philosopher-historian Michel Foucault, “Discourses imply prohibitions since they make it impossible to raise certain questions or argue certain cases; they imply exclusionary systems because they only authorize certain people to participate in a discourse; they come with discursive forms of internal discipline through which a discursive order is maintained; and finally there are also certain rules regarding the conditions under which a discourse can be drawn upon” (1997:49).

Discourse analysis, then, can be used to investigate how a “particular framing of the discussion makes certain elements appear as fixed or appropriate while other elements appear problematic. One can endeavour to show whether definitions ‘homogenize a problem, that is to say make the problem understandable within a reified perception of the wider problem field, or whether definitions suggest a ‘heterogenization’ that requires an opening up of established discursive categories.” (Hajer, 1997:54). Moreover for Hajer, it is interesting to observe “how seemingly technical positions conceal normative commitments, yet more interesting still is to find out which categories exactly fulfilled this role, and which institutional arrangements allowed them to fulfil that role” (1997:55).

One Corporation’s Discourse about Biotechnology

This paper argues that the corporate discourse that frames biotechnology “excludes other ways of considering the issue, promotes the authority of some people as experts, and reduces the legitimacy of contributions from others” (Bailey and Yearly, 2000:2). Furthermore, these “frames in turn are intellectually constraining in that they delimit the universe of scientific inquiry, political discourse, and possible policy options” (Jasanoff, 1999:140).

In the Life Sciences sector, enormous resources are now being committed to preserve relations with stakeholders who are wary about biotechnology and perceived risks in relation to the food supply. Having launched an ill-advised US$1.6 million communications campaign[5] in 1998 to alter the perceptions of a European public grossly opposed to GMOs in foodstuffs, Monsanto continues to be mired in controversy. Numerous environmental pressure groups, like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and Corporate Europe Observatory, to name only a few, have launched vigorous campaigns to block the company’s marketing of genetically modified products in Europe. In the US, Monsanto’s strategies and activities in this area have been less scrutinised.

CEO Robert Shapiro’s address to the State of the World Forum in San Francisco, California (28 October 1998) encapsulates the main elements of one corporation’s discourse around biotechnology. Its performative aim is to “exclude other ways of considering the issue” and “delimit the universe of scientific inquiry, political discourse, and possible policy options” (Jasanoff) in the face of intense and growing public resistance. My purpose in subjecting Shapiro’s remarks to discourse analysis is to examine how certain arguments, themes, and subjects are hinged together, and how contradictions and alternative positions are neutralised, thereby helping to uncover the overall construction of meaning and the political effects of that construction.

At the outset of his speech, Shapiro associates biotechnology with information technology (which once met with fear “like the introduction of all new technology”, Golüke). This discursive strategy aims to suggest that biotechnology should be embraced as a similarly inevitable and pervasive force in modern society:

…biotechnology is a subset of information technology. It does not deal with information that’s encoded electronically in silicon. It deals with information that’s encoded chemically in living cells…It’s information that tells cells what proteins to make, when to make them, and how to make them. And, therefore, it’s information that defines what living organisms do and what they are.

The association with information technology is reinforced at several subsequent points:

…The trick is going to be to multiply value to people to enable them to lead better lives, without multiplying stuff…three families of technology hold the promise of being able to do that. One is information technology. The substitution of information for stuff is one potentially winning strategy for creating more value, while at the same time not putting impermissible burdens on underlying natural systems. The second is biotechnology, for the same reasons, and the third is nanotechnology, the emerging science of radical miniaturization.

Echoing the dominant discourse of industry, Shapiro positions biotechnology as an opportunity to feed the world’s hungry and burgeoning population:

..the application of that understanding creates wholly new, wholly unprecedented hope for addressing some of the most difficult and intractable problems that have confronted humanity over the generations and that remain part of the human condition. Issues like how to feed people without damaging and, indeed, destroying land and forests and water.

Omitted from this equation is the fact that hunger has long been understood as much more of a problem of distribution and political inequalities than failings in agricultural productivity. Moreover, Shapiro contends that biotechnology can provide functional nutritional benefits; for instance, warding off blindness:

…we’re working on a project in which you put in a gene that creates pro-vitamin A, beta-carotene in, for example, oil seed crops like canola. The oil gets used for cooking, and vitamin A is part of that process. It’s simply a more efficient and, I would submit a more natural delivery system. It certainly is more effective and lower cost for everyone involved.

By asserting that genetic manipulation, which alters the building blocks of life itself is an efficient “natural” system to deliver nutrition, this discourse intends to dispel notions of biotechnology as ‘alien’, ‘unnatural’, and ‘dangerous’. The ‘science fiction images’ in the popular imagination of biotechnology and genetic cloning that arouse intense ethical disgust are not addressed. Indeed, the whole problem of biotechnology and very real public fears about the unintended (and potentially irreversible) consequences for humans and other species are swept aside. Rather, biotechnology is framed as a solution, providing a vital life force—a natural resource to be exploited for the betterment of the human condition.

Shapiro further supports his categorisation of biotechnology as “natural” by likening this to other human interventions in animal husbandry, agriculture, and medicine, which are widely seen to have laid the foundation for the evolution of modern society:

…like information technology, it [biotechnology] is new and it is potentially very large in its impacts. Second, it is seen as unnatural. How, almost all agriculture and almost all medicine, as it exists in the world today, would be hard to justify as natural. Almost everything we grow, everything we eat is the root result of human intervention, human breeding and so on. But this is unnatural in a different sort of way from the kinds of breeding programs that have characterized humanity for ten thousand years.

Plant and animal breeders have long mixed and matched genetic material to create species of fruit, vegetable, cattle, and so on through processes of cross-pollination and cross-fertilisation. As Claude Martin, Director General of the highly-respected environmental organisation World Wide Fund for Nature notes, “what is unique about today’s genetically modified foods is that we can move across species barriers, so that in order to achieve the results we want we can take genes from, say, a fish, and place them in a tomato. That may sound far-fetched—but the gene that protects a flounder from extreme cold, for examples, has been introduced into the makeup of tomato plants so that they will continue to flourish in adverse weather. That may help ensure ready supplies of tomatoes. But the critical question is, what effect might the foreign gene have on the people who eat them? The same applies to genetically modified crops such as soya, corn, rape, and potatoes”[6].

The performative effect of grounding biotechnology in nature -- portraying this technology and its effects as natural phenomena --  is aimed at both legitimising its use and silencing such dissenting voices.

Shapiro persuasively pleads the case for biotechnology in achieving the environmental Holy Grail of “sustainable agriculture”, seen to be especially critical for developing countries. Cobbling together the right story-line is a key source of agency for Monsanto and other players who have made mammoth investments to commercialise this technology and reap the profits:

…if the only model for development is the recapitulation of the industrial revolution, with all its horrific waste and pollution, there simply is no way that development can occur without doing permanent, irreversible damage to the systems on which life depend.

…[existing technologies] are simply not sustainable. They lead to destructive subsistence, destructive development, and destructive affluence. Today, there is no such thing as sustainable agriculture. There is no such thing as sustainable industry. There is no such thing today as sustainable development. And the reasons for that are that we do not have, today, the underlying technologies that could support those concepts.

…The notions of creating higher yields, drought resistance, ability to grow crops in saline and mineralised soils are going to be critically important in a world in which you are going to have to feed more people and you’re not going to be able to find more land to do it…biotechnology is scale neutral. It does not require you to have a large farm in order to justify the economics of it, the way, for example, tractors are not scale neutral. Tractors favour large farming. Seed, which is where biotechnology is delivered, is scale neutral. It works as well, and at the same cost, for small farmers as it does for large farmers.

Shapiro cleverly sets up a binary choice: a world without biotechnology (which would lead to a deterioration in development, affluence, and availability of food) or a world with biotechnology (which presumably solves those issues). According to this juxtaposition, those forces opposing biotechnology must be in favour of a second industrial revolution ‘with all its horrific waste and pollution’.

In this presentation of the technology, Shapiro fails to mention Monsanto’s effort to control the market for genetically modified agriculture with policies that require farmers to ‘license’ its seeds instead of buying them outright, and the legal suits that have consequently been launched against farmers alleging seed piracy for saving seeds to plant for the next year’s harvest—a traditional method used by smallscale farmers in developing countries to sustain their livelihoods. Nor does he mention the negotiations at the time to acquire Delta and Pine Land, owner of the lucrative ‘Terminator’ technology, which makes crops sterile so that seeds can not be saved from year to year—a bonanza for seed dealers, a potential disaster for Third World farmers.[7] Nor does he mention the strategic importance of biotechnology in extending sales of Monsanto’s best-selling herbicide Roundup. As Cadot (2000:2) explains, “Roundup was a broad-spectrum herbicide, which could be sprayed only before sowing (since it would otherwise kill the crop itself). Seeds modified to be resistant to Roundup could allow farmers to spray Roundup not only before sowing, but also after. Thus, a marketing strategy involving joint sales of Roundup-resistant seeds (so-called ‘Roundup-Ready’) priced at a relatively high level in order to recoup the investment in R&D, and Roundup itself priced relatively low so as to undercut the competition, could extend the useful life of the herbicide well beyond its patent’s expiration” (in the year 2000, when tough price competition was anticipated).

Shapiro concludes his remarks with a call for having faith in industry to act wisely, despite mankind’s mixed historical record in this regard:

Certainly, humanity’s record for using technology wisely, sensitive to its potential effects on society, on people, on environment is, at best, mixed and hardly encouraging. These are public questions. These are not questions that ought to be decided simply by the private sector. These are questions that people and their institutions have to debate, discuss, and strike an appropriate balance between hope and concern, between the promise of the technology and the risks associated with it. We have not yet identified, yet alone cloned, the gene for wisdom, and some scepticism about our ability to manage powerful new technologies is appropriate. It avoids the sin of hubris and helps us operate within our limitations as humans. But it is not beyond our best potentials to use these technologies wisely.

Shapiro portrays Monsanto as being open to discussion and states that biotechnology is a public question over which society’s institutions need to ‘debate, discuss, and strike an appropriate balance’. Yet the company’s actions in nevertheless pushing biotechnology forward into the food chain begs the sincerity of his statements. No credence is given to the public’s deep suspicion of a “technical elite (who may not share our values) making important decisions for us” (Golüke) nor are assurances provided that corporate greed will not corrupt the wise development of biotechnology for socially-useful purposes. Afterall, there is much for companies like Monsanto to gain in commercialising such technologies and controlling the intellectual property related to biotechnology applications.

Prospects for Creating New Discursive Space

Taken as a microcosm for the corporate discourse around biotechnology, Shapiro’s remarks reflect the use of discursive strategies that have become an important mechanism to deal with potential threats, boycotts, and pressures from now highly-organised stakeholders who contend that biotechnology is ‘dangerous’, ‘out of control’, ‘immoral’, and ‘irresponsible’. Industry has responded to these claims with its own discourse, which says that biotechnology is ‘science’, it’s ‘safe’, ‘everything is under control’, ‘don’t worry’. Yet, in a world where science and technology are developing faster and faster, in a context where the population is becoming more reflexive, critical, and more informed—the respect for the authority of science is breaking down.

The competing claims surrounding biotechnology reflect a fierce struggle for meaning. Mumby and Clair assert that competing interests get resolved through the control of symbolic and discursive resources. They contend that “as with economic resources, symbolic resources are not distributed equally amongst the various competing organisational groups. Those organisational groups with more economic power are generally able to wield more power through various discursive and symbolic means. The ongoing control of economic resources may well depend on how well a particular interest group is able to shape social reality” (1997:182).

Accordingly, can we therefore expect industry to dig in even further with its discursive strategies, committing even more resources towards shaping the social reality around biotechnology? Furthermore, is engagement and dialogue with stakeholders aimed at opening up more discursive space, or is this a process merely being used instrumentally to gain stakeholder acceptance of the corporate discourse around biotechnology?







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[1]   Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a bizarre brain disease that began killing cattle in the UK in 1986, was subsequently linked to a human form of 'mad cow' disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The UK government’s inept handling of the episode led to a trade ban on British beef exports in 1998, punitive duties and retaliatory measures by major trading partners, and a severe loss of public confidence in the safety of the food supply in Europe.

[2]   The Life Sciences label refers to the convergence of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and biotechnology. Biotechnology can be described as “the application of scientific and engineering principles to processes involved in the manipulation of biological agents to provide goods and services” (Ravetz and Brown, 1989:79).

[3]   Based in Brussels, the European Association for BioIndustries represents 45 multinational corporate members and 14 national associations (including some 600 small- and medium-sized enterprises) and is one of the industry’s most active lobbying bodies in Europe.

[4]   ‘Biotech Companies Gear Up a $50 Million Ad Campaign’, International Herald Tribune, 5 April 2000

[5]   A preliminary ruling in March 1999 by Britain’s official Advertising Standards Authority alleged that the Monsanto advertising campaign sought to deceive the public by expressing opinions as accepted fact and making scientific claims that were “wrong” and “misleading”.

[6]   ‘Genetically Modified Food: Alarmingly Out of Control’, International Herald Tribune, 5 August 1999

[7]   ‘Greenwashed; Monsanto Pushes Roundup Ready Soybean Past Legal, Political Barriers Worldwide’, The Nation, 19 October 1998. Bowing to public pressure, in October 1999, the company agreed to abandon the commercialization of technologies that would render seeds sterile.