April 21st, 2006


Against over-ownership, monoculture and monopoly

I happened to be walking with a friend along Houston Street last night. We were at a bit of a loose end, having pored over film sections without finding any film we really wanted to see. We passed a community centre-type place covered with posters of bicycles -- a bicycle activism centre of some sort. They had a table spread with free whole foods, so we went in. After a couple of minutes a film started. It was The Future of Food, a Canadian documentary about gen-tech in the agri-business. You can see the trailer here.

The film made very forcefully some points I feel rather strongly about, stuff about patents, monoculture and monopoly.

97% of the seeds and grains used by farmers in 1900 have become extinct, replaced by one or two super-grains owned by mega-corporations. These "super-grains" are the product of the Green Revolution of the 1960s, the industrialization of world agriculture. In this "revolution", what used to be a vibrantly diverse production, a pluralism of growing styles with a huge variety of seeds, was replaced by a monoculture controlled by a few corporations. The "right to be wrong" was eroded, replaced by the "one right answer" owned by "the one right company".

Now, the one right answer obviously has a lot to recommend it. Thanks to the Green Revolution, millions around the world have been fed. But it's meant that crops are more vulnerable to blight, because they're now all the same breed. When famines, blights or diseases hit, they're worse than ever before. They hit everyone, because everyone is using the same seed.

This consolidation and concentration of power, and attendant elimination of diversity, was vastly increased when the Green Revolution morphed into the Gene Revolution. Seeds and grains which were owned by nobody can now be owned by whoever patents them first. This tends to mean gen-tech companies like Monsanto.

Monsanto owns the patents for pesticides and plants alike. It's a package; farmers are obliged to buy them together. In fact, some Monsanto varieties of canola (rape seed) are actually patented as pesticides, not as plants. You can't buy one without the other. What's more, Monsanto (shades of Microsoft here, or the RIAA persecuting music fans, or Canadian police forcing indigenous people off their own land) is sueing individual farmers whose fields of non-Monsanto canola have accidentally become mixed with Monsanto gen-tech seed. When the wind blows Monsanto seeds into your fields (seeds which may ghoulishly mix the genes of a tomato plant with the genes of a flounder), you're suddenly infringing their copyrights.

The decision of the Canadian Supreme Court to allow plants to become private property (the EU passed similar measures in 1998, allowing plants to be private property as long as the terms of 1992's Convention on Biodiversity were adhered to) opens up the possibility of all sorts of persecution of farmers by big corporations who own, increasingly, everything, even life itself.

The spurious over-extension of property rights, in the form of patents and copyright, has become one of the evils of our time, along with consolidation of power in the hands of small numbers of people. The result is monoculture, as these people attempt to make everyone use their products, persecuting and bullying those who don't. Autonomy and the "right to be wrong", the right to have your own local or personal techniques, your own expertise, your own special seeds, full control over your own way of doing things -- all these things are threatened. But the threat is also to consumers, forced to test-consume weird genetic combinations dreamed up in labs, dependent on the "one right answer" staying right rather than suddenly succumbing to some massive global failure.

The bigger the monoculture, the harder it falls when the crop fails. No matter how right, "one right answer" is always wrong.