14 May 2013, 11:15am
rant:
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  • Monsanto GM – Imagine a boot stamping on a human face. Forever

    Many people have an issue with genetically modified organisms from a gut feeling and philosophical point of view. I used to take that line, but I don’t any more – the good people of the United States have been willing guinea pigs for the GM experiment over the last 20 years and it’s been in general not hazardous to human health 1

    But I am opposed from an economic point of view, and this story of Monsanto suing a farmer in the United States is why. It reminds me of a quote late on in Orwell’s 1984

    But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

    Much of what is wrong in industrial agriculture is the desperately overleveraged capital structure of farming in the West. Farming owes so much money to banks to raise the cash for the complex web of seeds, chemicals, machinery that they can’t take any risks and have to maximise production, purely to pay off the debt incurred.

    Now on the face of it, it’s an open-and-shut case. Monsanto patented their seed. Farmer Bowman buys a load of soybean seed from a bunch of guys selling it as feed, and then he goes and plants it as a late crop. Since 90% of soybeans in the US are GM roundup-ready, this is largely second-generation GM. Bowman doesn’t have any alternatives not encumbered by Monsanto’s patents. And so Bowman has Monsanto’s heavies roll up demanding protection money lawyers appear threatening to sue the shit out of him. Which they do.

    One of the most convincing proofs that there is no God is that at Monsanto’s headquarters the sign doesn’t get to look like this

    what about the 4.5 billion years of R&D before you, Monsanto?

    what about the 4.5 billion years of R&D before you, Monsanto?

    The problem I have with GM is that it means evil shits get to own most of our food supply. These guys put it well, though I don’t personally subscribe to the Monsanto makes Indian farmers commit suicide theory 2. Monsanto should be indicted for its own patent and legalistic evilness 😉

    Control over seed is the first link in the food chain because seed is the source of life. When a corporation controls seed, it controls life, especially the life of farmers.

    Now if I have a problem with some company, say Sky TV for example, or Rupert Murdoch in general, then guess what? I don’t have to buy their products! Giving up eating, however, isn’t really an option.

    However, Monsanto’s express aim in life is to seize the means of production through legalistic shit like patenting the very stuff of life, and then extracting protection money. They do that by creating an unsustainable business model that gives a sugar rush of profits at the beginning, which is the hook to get farmers dependent on a highly leveraged business model. Borrow the money to buy our seed, and you can drench it in Roundup (made by Monsanto, funnily enough), and make enough profit to pay us back. Rinse, repeat, recycle. But don’t you dare plant that seed, else we will sue the living crap out of you.

    In itself that was not so bad. What is bad is that as soon as there is any Monsanto GM in, say a cross between Monsanto crop and a neighbouring farmer’s crop, then Monsanto assert their rights over that other farmer’s crop, and say his seeds contain Monsanto patented information, Monsanto therefore forbid him planting his seed or want their payment. That’s the bit I have a problem with. Basically, if Monsanto want to take that line, fair enough. Let society then make a stipulation on Monsanto in return, to prevent the company stamping all over the rights of third-parties to mind their own business. Something like

    Okay, Monsanto, you want to assert patent rights over descendant crops that may have been contaminated. Fine. In that case, we attach the following license conditions to you being able to sell your GM seeds to farmers , to the effect of. “All GM crops must be plated under condtions of biosecurity, in negatively pressured double-skinned polytunnels that are sealed against the egress of your damn precious stuff, so it doesn’t pollute the environment or infringe the rights of other people not to use Monsanto products”

    Patent law is fine when it comes to human constructs and inventions. You don’t normally leave a television set or an iPad in a room and come back a year later to find they’ve introduced iPad technology into the light switches, the wallpaper shows eulogies of Steve Jobs and doorknobs speak to you like Siri, while the gravel in the drive can tune itself to BBC1. However the whole point of Life is to reproduce and spread genetic material, and it’s been doing that for three and a half billion years. Self replicating structures are inherently incompatible with the exclusive rights of patent law, and it’s high time that humanity in general took the fight to Monsanto and educated the piss-taking bastards that their abuse of the patent system needs to stop. There may be a case for GM technology, but the case for it is to be done in national research facilities or universities 3. Oh and the patent system needs to be updated to include the fact that Life has over three billion years of prior art and therefore no living forms whatsoever may be patented. I assume that Monsanto has already tried to patent the wheel, but didn’t manage to get that one through.

    Unfortunately in the UK we are about to lose the GM battle, because:

    We had a pro-GM lobbyist Caroline Spelman as an Environment minister before she was sacked.

    To be replaced with Owen Paterson, who says people who don’t like GM are humbugs, and if we don’t have GM in Europe WE WILL ALL STARVE. Yeah, right.

    Presumably Monsanto and its ilk have bought enough of David Cameron’s guys to get their way. Everybody has their price 😉

    Part of the problem is that Monsanto does deliver real value for their customers in the beginning, just as a drug dealer does. All the wins are at the beginning, when you switch a diverse but sort of sustainable agricultural model to a closely controlled monoculture aided by broad spectrum herbicides. Yield goes up, what’s not to like? The problem, just like with narcotics, is that to take the wins, you get locked in. To afford Monsanto’s seed prices every year, because you aren’t allowed to save and replant, you have to borrow. And to service the debt, you need the higher yields, to earn the money to pay the debts, so you then end up in debt-slavery. This is not unique to Monsanto, it is the problem for a lot of modern farms, in that they are extremely capital-intensive, thus so highly leveraged that the financial structure of farming becomes brittle and non-resilient. You coin it in the good times, then use the money to consolidate more and more holdings into huge farms with dearer machinery, becoming more and more leveraged in the process.  So when a bad year comes, like last year’s endless summer of rain in the UK, you get financially slaughtered and need to borrow even more money. Which leads to short-termism, which is a bad thing in farming, because you no longer look after the land, using the soil as a growth substrate and fertilising artificially, rather than working with the natural carbon and nitrogen cycles. GM seeds break another natural cycle, though seed saving has long gone from Western agriculture and horticulture.

    Even in the 1960s the majoriy of corn and sugar beet were F1 hybrids, ie purchased anew each season. The unique thing Monsanto brings to the mix is they are using the expensive process of GM to get themselves to sole supplier position with a dead hand on competitive alternatives. It is the rent-seeking nature of a monopolist that makes the company so dangerous, when combines with monopoly control of the essentials of life.

    Shame about the absence of that fiery hand writing on the wall. It would make terrific TV, and would be a really stylish launch for the Second Coming 😉

    Notes:

    1. It has indirectly been very bad for some Americans’ health, by making it cheap to raise industrial beef on feedlots and by putting high-fructose corn syrup into all sorts of low-grade foods. However, Americans have the choice whether to eat these or not, this is a social and business problem that has been facilitated by GM but not caused by it.
    2. Even in India I don’t believe cotton is the first link in the food chain, unless they’ve found a way of reprocessing it into something edible
    3. Companies welcome too – some firms make a profit on open-source material and it would be unwise to prohibit the private sector just because one example became evil. But if you even think of patenting Life then we will bulldoze your buildings, take every red cent in your accounts and debar every member of the Board from running a company ever again. Because you have shown yourself to be greedy bastards who want to control our food supply, and steal the work of over three billion years of painstaking research and development that has claimed countless lives on planet Earth. They didn’t all die for your monopolistic profits.
    14 May 2013, 12:57pm
    by BeatTheSeasons

    reply

    Great rant. Hope the Monsanto heavies don’t end up at your door too.

    Aren’t patents only valid for 20 years? In which case we’d all be free to sow their seeds after the patents had expired without fear of reprisals.

    Another thing I was wondering is whether rising food prices might actually mean we adopt more sustainable practices in order to increase yields. Because agri-business seeks to maximise profits, and that isn’t necessarily the same thing as producing the most food.

    For example, I can harvest an enormous quantity of climbing beans by picking them every day over a 3-4 month period. Enough green veg for a whole family from barely one square meter of land. And no chemicals.

    Whereas crops sometimes rot in the ground in Britain because it would cost more to harvest them than the market price.

    So if food becomes more economically valuable, perhaps profitability and productivity might converge, and farmers might go back to producing greater quantities in a more sustainable way?

    The way they get round the patents is to slightly change things every year. To be fair to them they probably have to do that anyway as pests adapt. I guess if you had 20-year old GM seeds in a bonded store and could break some of them out and plant them in a certifiable way then you would be okay. However, I guess only Monsanto could verify that these weren’t more recent varieties, so good luck with that πŸ˜‰

    Rising food prices might change things. At the moment industrial agriculture in the West is designed to maximise ROI, not maximise return on land area multiplied by time. Anthough we produce more than in the past, I believe we are quite inefficient in terms of land area x time compared to small scale farming because that’s not what we optimise. As a result you get odd situations like harvests left unharvested.

    There are some technological approaches in the offing that may improve the harvesting process, for instance robotic weeding has soemthing to offer in terms of reducing pesticide impacts. I don’t know if these could be adapted to harvesting on a daily basis – we do that at The Oak Tree. It vastly improves the quality of the harvest because it shortens the field to fork time and a knowledgeable horticululturalist knows when the best stage is in any crop.

    However, it may not be a good match to the modern palate because many Britons have lost the ability to cook, and are so used to the bland taste of supermarket veg that looks good but tastes of nothing in particular that they may recoil from strong food πŸ˜‰

    Industrial processes and distribution tend to favour batch processing for cost reasons, but fingers crossed for improvements in that πŸ˜‰

    Ermine- forgive my ignorance. Does that mean if there are 2 fields, one planted with GM seed and the other not and they cross pollinate from insects, wind etc -that the product seed of the non GM field is ‘owned’ by Monsanto?
    Have I misunderstood?

    @Romany Yes, if you plant it. No if you do anything else with it. Or so Monsanto can argue.

    The soybeans Bowman planted were intended for consumption, not planting. The very concept that a corporation has the right to tell you what you may or may not do with a seed disturbs me. Say the farmer next to me plants Monsato something, say beans which we do save seed for. Effectively this says we can’t save our seed, even if we didn’t buy it from Monsanto, because it will contain Monsanto intellectual property. At the moment they wouldn’t do that, because they don’t need the bad publicity in the UK. But that seems to be what they want, and have in the US.

    This AP study from 2009 shows where Monsanto is going with this.

    With Monsanto’s patented genes being inserted into roughly 95 percent of all soybeans and 80 percent of all corn grown in the U.S., the company also is using its wide reach to control the ability of new biotech firms to get wide distribution for their products

    Soybeans and corn are a staple of the US food supply, and Monsanto has virtual monopoly control. Nobody else is going to compete there. At least Microsoft had Apple πŸ˜‰

    Actually I got great hope for that recent development on the wheat side. Have a look at this article for example. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-22498274

    Ermine, about changing things slightly every year. I recalled a court case in India that could have potential impacts on Monsanto. If they reject patent based on a slight change to drug. Surely they could apply the same principle to GM seeds in India. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-21998950

    @Joe The Cambridge work looks good, and it’s nice to see that old-skool techniques still have their place πŸ™‚

    India is very different from the UK if this WSJ article is to be believed only 15% of seed is bought in, with the remainder being farm-saved. They’ve got both more to lose and more to gain from GM. As the WSJ says

    “Second, he cites the need for strong competition policies, because “companies will use their scientific advantage to increase their share of their market.”

    The other problem closer to home is that India seems to have more chutzpah in taking on some of these ‘intellecutal property issues’. Intellectual property seems to turn into rent-seeking very easily. We don’t seem to have found a solution to the problem of regulatory capture by big firms. The United States original duration of copyright and patents for 14 years seems about right to me – if anything it should drift down in term with the faster pace of innovation nowadays. What has happened is terms have been increased, in the US to 20 years for patents and 120 for copyright. In the UK patents seem to have always been for 20 years; I’d argue this is far too long in modern times, 10 years is about the right balance between public good and incetive to invent IMO.

    Most of the problems with GM are legal and financial, not technological. It’s the rent-seeking that is the issue. Some is necessary to recoup the R&D, but 20 years?

    Speak of the devil… (Warning: Guardian link!)
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/15/us-eu-trade-deal-monsanto-crops

    I wonder what situation we would be if we were not part of Europe? While we may complain about EU farming laws, at least we don’t have the US ones.

    It’s interesting to know that EU eggs would be illegal in the US and vice versa. I think our laws are much more sensible – I hadn’t really been aware of stuff like this, but it appears EU egg law has been carefully thought through! (Not that it is perfect…)

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/nadiaarumugam/2012/10/25/why-american-eggs-would-be-illegal-in-a-british-supermarket-and-vice-versa/

    As for GM itself, as long as we can keep corporate greed from ruining it, I feel there is amazing potential to make everyone’s lives better, far beyond the tentative profit-seeking steps we currently have. I mean Normal Borlaug level change here!

    We do need to be damn careful though.

    > As for GM itself, as long as we can keep corporate greed from ruining it

    That seems the fundamental problem – it’s a tragedy that this has been used to facilitate using more herbicides, making the GM crops last-man-standing. Humanity has done a rather better job over the last few thousand years selecting for what we do want (cf Joe’s Cambridge guys above only recently). I don’t see why GM fundamentally has to be used to increase chemical sales, we could in theory use it to get more of what we do want. The Golden Rice project is one example, though it seems polluted by corporate interests and the $10,000 profit limit on free licensing looks like a Trojan horse to me. We need an open source equivalent here, particularly where the research is EU public funded.

    As the Nature article on GM concluded, it’s the devil’s own job to get any sense out of the GM pros and cons. The boosterism of my first golden rice link is countered by these guys. Again, what they’re primarily grouching about are the financial and legal issues, and this acting as a Trojan horse for corporate interests. It isn’t particularly that GM will kill us all or turn us into grey goo. It just seems to be a easily misused technology in the hands of big companies.

    Having manage to take the time to read the links. (Though I’m not an expert in this field so my views shouldn’t carry much weight):

    – I think that the GM is actually being used to enable the usage of less damaging herbicides and more soil friendly practices. This doesn’t seem a bad thing. Clearly they still need to be sensible and take care to avoid getting super-weeds, but that’s nothing new.
    – The Golden Rice Project sounds excellent to me, though I share your concerns and simply can’t give the benefit of the doubt to any corporation. There must be immense potential for many similar tweaks
    – GMOs came out pretty well from the nature article – it’s not like there are no problems with non-GM crops!
    – The GRAIN article is more than 10 years old, when perhaps it was sensible to be cautious, but even so, I found it biased and reactionary. I’m pretty sure the Golden Rice guys aren’t claiming it to be a silver bullet and their point that there are many things that could also be done to help poor farmers, but it isn’t an either-or.

    Much as I dislike the insidious nature of mega-corporations and how they want to control everyone, I often feel that many in the NGO world are rather simple and naive, even if their intentions are definitely good. Many 3rd world farming techniques are extremely poor, and the idea that they are somehow more in harmony with nature and that makes them wise is not sound. Improved farming doesn’t just mean GM, fertilisers and weed-killers, but water and soil management too. We simply can’t all farm organically and still eat meat either.

    I suppose as ever, it is a balancing act requiring careful thought, co-operation and sensible lawmaking. If only politicians weren’t clueless numpties…

    Soil science is a complex subject and I’m not an expert though I’ve seen more of the results on the ground than most PF writers. Agreed GM reduces the need for some herbicides.

    However, industrial farming trends to simplistic thinking which leads people astray by prioritising the short term over the long term at times.

    The GM crops allowed growers to rely almost entirely on glyphosate, which is less toxic than many other chemicals and kills a broad range of weeds without ploughing. Farmers planted them year after year without rotating crop types or varying chemicals to deter resistance.

    They were both mad and lazy if they didn’t rotate crop types, and asking for resistant weeds to develop. Rotating crops reduces the depletion of specific plant requirements – okay industrial agriculture assumes it puts all of that from fertilisers, but then they effectively are making a research lab to produce specific weeds by selecting generations of the strongest ones year on year.

    The patenting issue is a serious power problem. If humanity decides collectively that it is going to rely on GM for a large percentage of food production in a way that precludes other approaches, we could do with more competition and antitrust regulation. After all, F1 hybrids don’t breed true so they aren’t farm saved and have to be bought each year, but we have effective competition on a national and international scale with seed suppliers. So we don’t have the same monopolistic control-freakery and legalistic crap.

    The soil microbiology is a serious issue with industrial agriculture and it’s compounded by massive herbicide usages. The mineral content of our fruit and veg has fallen dramatically since the 1970s, I ranted on that earlier this year with a link to the source. Plants appear to rely on symbiotic root micro-organisms from the soil to take up trace minerals, the more than 30% drop in Na, Mg, Ca, Cu and Zn between 1978 and 1991 shows that there are effects from the assumptions made in industrial agriculture (there’s a paper by Anne-Marie Mayer, (1997) “Historical changes in the mineral content of fruits and vegetables”, British Food Journal, Vol. 99 Iss: 6, pp.207 – 211″ which builds upon the UK Goverment analyses of McCance and Widdowson from pre-industrial agriculture times, where the difference is even more marked)

    We can probably sort this out, but as you say, it’s not going to be easy…

    Hi Ermine a link you might find interesting.
    He talks about the rise of Agro-business and the decline of small family farms.

    http://hat4uk.wordpress.com/2013/05/18/saturday-essay-what-else-are-they-manipulating/

    […] it concentrates power in the patent owners’ hands, and these patent owners have already shown bad faith in many ways, through suing American farmers like Bowman. The problem with GM isn’t that it’s going […]

    […] any more. It’s the lack of regulation and control of the monopolistic barstewards like Monsanto who scare me. GM would probably be okay if it were open-source and unencumbered with […]

     

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