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May 20, 2020 | Nora Haenn

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written By: NORA HAENN  | See Related COLLOQUIUM (4/21/2020) and GES COVID-19 RESOURCES page

*Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author as an individual and should not be taken as a reflection of the views of the whole of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center or NC State University.

COVID-19 and genetically modified plants and animals come from different sources and have different effects.

But as both travel along global routes, our experiences of COVID-19 offer researchers of GM a chance to better understand people’s reactions to a technology that often seems both mysterious and beyond local control.

Globalization is the proliferation of cross-border flows, including the movement of people, ideas, and goods. Current thinking on globalization emphasizes that while it promises pervasive and unhindered flows, on closer inspection, globalization courses along well-defined localized, channels. Globalization both transcends and depends upon local settings.

One well-known analogy here is Bruno Latour’s description of globalization as akin to a train system. Like railroads, global paths have definition and shape. Global paths are a network of tracks, stations, and rail cars all constructed by real people with specific destinations and timetables in mind. People participating in a rail system have different pieces of information and different understandings of what it’s all about. Passengers, conductors, station masters, engineers, employees at company headquarters, and people living in communities where trains pass through – all these groups experience rail travel differently. Few, however, would speak of these experiences in the abstract. Instead, as Latour famously noted, rail travel “is local at all points.”

Right now, we’re all passengers on the COVID-19 train. When it comes to GM, researchers and policy-makers tend to feel more like conductors or engineers. Some of us actually are engineers! As passengers, however, we’re getting a different view of the landscape.
We’re seeing that when people ride trains, they bring to their journeys personalities, histories, and experiences. People create meaning from their journeys. Yet passengers cannot move about as we please. We must ride the tracks available to us.

COVID-19 is also giving us a feel for what it means that few passengers have a view of the entire rail system or where the trains ultimately lead. Train tracks, after all, always disappear into the distance. And although Latour does not mention this aspect of travel, anyone who has been on a train knows they offer different accommodations, including first-class and second-class offerings. Some passengers hitch rides on boxcars. Regardless of the destination, some people’s travels are more comfortable than others.

All of this is to say, that while some parts of globalization are visible at the local level, other parts are invisible and beyond people’s immediate control. This is something we talk about all the time at the Genetic Engineering and Society Center. The center’s weekly colloquium, the research carried out at the center, and other aspects of the academy’s workaday world seeks to bring the invisible into view. But as COVID-19 has shown us, there’s an important consequence for the way globalization is both local at all points and persistently invisible in its entirety.

Globalization can change our daily rhythms and the way we relate to our family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Globalization can reach deep into our most personal relationships. As a localized thing, globalization is always personal for the people involved; globalization does not have an impersonal side.

Instead, the counterpoint to a personalized globalization is a concealed, out-of-reach globalization. When globalization operates out of sight, it seems to happen of its own accord, like this virus that moves among us seemingly of its own agency. Globalization’s concealed quality makes it disorienting to the people caught in its currents. To make sense of the changes taking place around them, people in globalized settings develop personalized explanations.

What that means will be different according to the place and context, as people already have ways of transforming impersonal forces into personalized phenomena. In the US, we’ve seen a rise in xenophobia associated with COVID-19. In rural Mexico, where I conduct much of my research, I would be unsurprised if COVID-19 weren’t caught up in witchcraft accusations which are themselves expressions of interpersonal tensions. In the United States, our social scientists have been quick to show how social inequality affects who gets sick and who gets healthcare. We can imagine COVID-19 becoming personalized within families, where people have access to different resources based on age, gender, and other criteria.

For the larger GES community, I hope COVID-19 will be a moment of reflection regarding our own actions within global structures and the movement GM plants and animals along global paths. What is it like to be on the receiving end of a concealed, out-of-reach globalization? What is it like to be the object of an initiative that seeks to alter one’s life in ways the recipient has only partial control?

An important difference between COVID-19 and GM research is that the latter means to hold out hope for better lives. But COVID reminds us such hopes are not without unexpected and personal consequences. Some elements of globalization really do offer liberation from old constraints. Other elements can threaten our closest connections. Whether in the area of global health, global food production, or any of the other strands that tie together far-flung people and places, can we take advantage of globalization’s possibilities while also protecting ourselves, our loved ones, and the social fabric?

Dr. Nora Haenn is a Professor at NC State University, where she teaches in the Anthropology and International Studies programs and is affiliated faculty with the Genetic Engineering and Society Center, the Southeast Climate Science Center, and the Global Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WaSH) Cluster. She can be reached at

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