Saturday, January 14, 2012

Genetically licensed crops interfering with farming practices, stealing and privatizing our cultural heritage and threatening food safety

A dream about genetically modified livestock just woke me, and the events in the dream was so haunting I had to come to the computer at 3AM to write.  In the dream some farmers were talking about whether the genetics license agreement under which they bought their pigs would allow them to breed pigs they'd bought, and then sell the pigs they'd bred.  Breeding livestock is a normal every-day occurrence for farmers and to think they'd not be allowed to do this thing they do every day smacks of scary centralized control scenarios.  Its a way of asserting centralized corporatized control over the food we are allowed to eat.  And, perhaps the scariest part of genetically modified organisms is not the potential for a messed up food system that gives us bogus food to eat, but the system of corporatized control over the food system that interferes with traditional farming practices from eons which built whole societies.

In the past whole cultures were born upon the ability of farmers to domesticate wild plants and animals through breeding to create useful genetic modifications leading to the modern crops we grow and eat today.  For example the modern dairy cow that's so completely placid and easily led around, I can't imagine such a creature could have formed organically in nature, and has to have been the result of eons of selective breeding producing useful genetic modifications to support the plant or animal being useful to farmers.  Corn or Potato's or Tomato's, both widely grown and used around the world, are the result of selective breeding to produce useful genetic modifications.

Clearly modern biology says that when you selectively breed plants and animals you're producing genetic modifications.  In some cases the selective breeding is in a laboratory and perhaps is bringing genes from other species or something.  In some cases companies like Monsanto create species in the laboratory to be resistant to horrendous poisons so that farmers can spray the poisons on crops to kill weeds.  The side effect is that weeds naturally select to become resistant to the poisons (a.k.a. superweeds) and there's an ever-escalating battle going on with tougher poisons and genetic modifications to resist the poisons.  In some ways the artificial genetic modifications like this are bad for both the quality of the food (what effect is there on us due to the screwed up genetic content of our food), and the side effect of the poisons being poured upon the land.

The other case of selective breeding is the traditional farming techniques of cross fertilization leading to the modern plant and animal species grown at farms around the world.  By our modern understanding of biology this sort of natural selective breeding also creates genetic modifications. 

There's a bit of disingenuousity in the crowd fighting genetically modified organisms when it's obvious that traditional farming practices also create genetic modifications.  Perhaps there needs to be more specificity between artificial selective breeding or artificial genetic modification, and natural selective breeding, but I suppose that sometimes it'll be hard to draw a sharp distinction.

Unfortunately traditional farming techniques are under attack or already destroyed because of farmers being forced into dependence on buying genetically modified seeds from massive agrigiants.  Seeds coming from agrigiants come with licenses not unlike the license that comes with proprietary software.  The licenses force the farmers to abandon a wide variety of traditional farming techniques such as seed saving, cross breeding, and so on.

One wonders if there will come a day when FDA regulations prevent farmers from selling on the open market foods that aren't grown under license from an agrigiant.  This could happen if the agrigiants work with the FDA to prove their seeds meet certain criteria, and that other seeds not matching the criteria cannot be trusted.  In other words the FDA might develop a policy framework of forcing farmers to only grow seeds that can be trusted to be safe, and any seed from an unknown source (such as the seed variety developed by their grandfather that works excellently on THEIR land) is strictly verboten.
  • Agronomic Field Crop Seed Certification from the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association talks about "seed certification is to preserve the genetic identity and purity of field crop seed varieties".  They draw a distinction between commercial seed where it's plainly obvious where the seed came from, and other sorts of certified seed where the origin is verified by a certification agency.  
  • Great seed robbery is a piece by Vandana Shiva talking about efforts by agrigiant seed companies to "privatize our rich and diverse genetic origins".  She names off several agrigiants who are working on gathering control over seed varieties often starting with traditional seed varieties, and then adding genetic modifications.  The seed companies are cross licensing among each other the genetic traits they've developed, in a way that Vandana Shiva describes as "The giant seed corporations are not competing with each other. They are competing with peasants and farmers over the control of the seed supply. And, in effect, monopolies over seed are being established through mergers and cross-licensing arrangements."
  • Monsanto's corporate history page lists cross licensing agreements with several fellow agrigiants
  • Seed Quality Testing and Certification: Resources Useful in Organic Seed Production - is a list of organizations and information for the U.S. audience
  • - Extensive information on genetically modified organisms

If we get back to our farmers growing pigs and wondering about the genetics license agreement ... it's such a normal scene for farmers to take part in, isn't it?  To breed pigs with each other?  Or cows or whatever?  This sort of scene is what converted our ancestors from hunter-gatherers to farmers.   The oddity of having a "genetic license agreement" attached to a plant or animal is what interferes with the farmers doing this thing they've been doing for millennia.  Namely, through natural genetic modifications (a.k.a. selective breeding) developing strains of plants and animals that are useful and particularly useful in local conditions. 

It puts our food system at risk because of monocropping.  If a disease were to develop which targeted the monocrop, it could do severe damage to food production. 

Another danger is that the seeds are primarily designed by the agrigiants to be non-reproducing.  This turns seeds from a renewable resource (where you get new seeds every time you grow a crop) into a non-renewable resource putting farmers into a dependence arrangement with the agrigiants.

It's a way of recreating serfdom without forcing people into actual slavery.  The agrigiants upon whom the farmers are dependent for seeds could set any price they want for the seeds, and in broad terms the agrigiants have taken a controlling position over food prices and food quality.  They've stolen this position away from the people who developed the food system over millennia, the farmers.

The agrigiants have a big vision for the future of genetically modified organisms that goes way beyond food.  They could start concocting plants and animals that are in effect biochemical laboratories for producing anything. 

In March 2011 a coalition of family farmers, consumers and other critics of corporate agriculture held a town meeting to protest what they see as unfair consolidation of the nation's food system into the hands of a few multinationals. They contend that global biotech seed leader Monsanto controls the U.S. commercial seed market using unfair, and in some cases illegal, practices. They argue that Monsanto, which develops, licenses and markets genetically altered corn, soybeans and other crops, manipulates the seed market by buying up independent seed companies, patenting seed products, and then spiking prices. The group hopes to re-establish farmer rights to save seed from their harvested crops and replant it.